Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet in Conversation with Steve Toy

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet speaks to Memrise CEO, Steve Toy on what inspired him to become involved in adult literacy and ultimately to become CEO of one of the leading language learning apps. Hear how the memorisation techniques used by Grand Master of Memory and Memrise Co-Founder, Ed Cooke were put to use in building the app, and learn about the science and technology behind the company’s unique pedagogic approach to language learning - "Immerse, Learn and Communicate".

Watch their conversation below and stay tuned for future EdTechX Stories to be released very soon! 


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Short weekly interactions with CEOs, founders, investors, and innovators, shaping and making the future of education and work.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet in Conversation with Steve Toy

Steve Toy Hi. I'm Steve Toy, and I was born a little while ago back in 67 in Manhattan, in New York, United States. I currently live in London here where I'm serving as the CEO of Memrise, and I'm here to talk about AI and how it can be used to impact language learning.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Steve Toy, welcome to EdTechX stories. Before we talk about Memrise, your business, let me start with a personal question. How did you end up in that position? Is there a defining someone or a defining moment in your life that led you to be an EdTech CEO?

Steve Toy I think it's an amalgamation of many things, but probably the one thing that is most significant is way back when I was first starting my professional career and looking to give back in some way, shape, or form my community time. I was trying to figure out what it was I was going to do to give back. And I ran across a woman named Taylor Willingham who was running a program in Silicon Valley called the Reading Program, which was a program that helped adults who, for whatever reason, didn't know how to read, helped them become literate. And in her case, as to why what she did was so important, she made the modern day argument that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach him to fish, you feed him for life. And literacy is the modern day equivalent of fishing. You can't do anything unless you know how to read. And that really kind of spoke to me. And I have been involved with adult literacy ever since, starting with tutoring somebody myself to being on the boards of some of the biggest literacy programs out there. And that's probably the biggest significant event that led me to EdTech.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, very good. Thank you for this. Tell us a little bit more about Memrise and the origin of the company. It is a fascinating story of one of the co-founders, Ed Cooke, who was a Grand Master of Memory, I think?

Steve Toy Indeed he was, yes. Ed Cooke was a Grand Master of memory, and not only did he win many contests, including one of the biggest in the United States, he then helped teach Joshua Foer, New York Times columnist, how to win at memory contests. And he won the event the following year and wrote the book Moonwalking with Einstein. And Ed and Ben put those techniques to work at Memrise for all kinds of memorization challenges, but eventually settled on language and formed an app that became the best app of 2017 in the Google world and has been growing ever since. And we are now leapfrogging to the next stage of our development here, which is pretty exciting.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet And just for our audience, to be a Grand Master of memory, you have to prove that you can memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour, memorise the order of ten decks of cards in an hour, and memorise the order of one deck of cards in under two minutes. So it's quite a feat. What's the science and the technology behind Memrise? Can you tell us why Memrise is different and unique compared to other digital learning language platforms?

Steve Toy Yeah, absolutely. I think the easiest way to understand what we do is to relate it to something that we all kind of know deep in our bones, which is the best way to learn a language is to go in country and speak the language. And the reason that that's the best way is because you're learning words, but then you're immersed in hearing those words in real life at different speeds, at different times, in different contexts, and then you're forced to say those words if you want to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich. And we just boil that down to 'Learn. Immerse. Communicate'. Memrise, historically, as well as Duolingo, Babbel and Busuu and all the others. We've had the learn part down pretty well, but Memrise has always been pursuing the immerse and communicate legs of the pedagogic stool. And we have done exactly that by getting an overwhelming amount of immersive content from the world into our app and using technologies like GPT-3 to make conversations comfortable and effective as a way of practicing a language.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet So tell us a little bit about GPT-3 and also the two big topics in EdTech, I guess these days are social learning and Eduverse or education in the Metaverse. And I wanted to understand where Memrise fits in all this.

Steve Toy Yeah. So on the GPT-3 side of things, which, as you know and most know, is a large language model that has been trained on virtually all the content of the internet and can therefore construct things to say on almost any topic by predicting what the next logical word will be. We are using it to allow conversations that we sort of channel into different what we call missions. For example, if you're learning French and you're getting ready to go to Paris and you know that every day you're going to want to get a cup of coffee, we can say, go practice getting a cup of coffee in Paris. And you'll walk into a store and GPT-3 will play the part of the barista and say, how are you doing? And what can I get you? Are you okay? Are you right? How are you doing today? All kinds of ways you can be greeted, and your job is to go through that conversation, which is different every time, and walk out with a cup of coffee. And so that is what is possible by large language models like GPT-3 and what we have now put into our product and gives us the communicate leg of the 'Learn. Immerse. Communicate' pedagogic stool.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet And all this is AI powered?

Steve Toy Yes, absolutely. GBT-3 is a tool that is made by OpenAI. Their very advanced AI data scientists and programmers and engineers built the engine, and we decided what purpose we were going to apply the power of this engine to. In our case, practicing learning the language.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet And as the CEO of the company, when you think of Memrise2030, for example, what are you the most excited about? What's the trajectory?

Steve Toy I think one of the things that is most exciting is that heretofore we and every other education technology company needed to make content to help people learn a language or learn lots of things, because we need to have content that matches the language that people have learned. So naturally, courses, schools, and programs teach a syllabus. You're going to learn these words 1st, second, and third. And therefore we'll make video content that is understandable based on these words that you learned 1st, second, and third. And we've taken a different approach, saying, learn words in whatever order you want to, and we will go and examine the content that's out there in the world on YouTube and TikTok and Instagram. And when we know what words you've learned thus far, in whatever order, and we know that there's a video that has a good overlap of the words you know, with the video that is out in the world, we can surface that for you and say, you have a chance of understanding this content. It's almost like we can put people in Madrid or Paris or Rome and immerse them, but with one extra thing.

We can filter what they're immersed in by the words that they know. And that's, in academic terms, it's called comprehensible input. But it is super effective in helping people learn much more quickly because they're learning things they already know.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet How many users of the app, of Memrise, are there in the world right now?

Steve Toy 65 million at last count. Probably a little bit more than that, but 65 million we passed a few months ago. So we're growing quite nicely.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Well, congrats on this. Steve, I suppose you're a lifelong learner?

Steve Toy Yeah, indeed.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet What is the latest thing you've learned?

Steve Toy At the moment in Memrise, I'm doing both French and Spanish, and so that's what's happening in the app for lots of reasons, not the least of which I love both countries and really enjoy that. Plus, we're doing a lot of our early work on immerse and communicate in those languages. And then I am forever intrigued by all of the things that are being built in the AI space. All the APIs that big companies like Microsoft, IBM, Google are making and smaller companies are making in a field of areas. So I constantly stretch my Python skills to see what APIs I can bang on and send data up and what comes back. And so you can say, I'm learning all about all the AI APIs that exist in the world as fast as I can consume them.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, well, Steve, I'll tell you what, let's make an appointment. Let's do this interview in French in two years and see how you've done.

Steve Toy Sounds perfect.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet We're getting to the next part of the interview, which is the rapid fire questions. You don't have to think, you just have to answer by A or B. Okay. You ready?

Steve Toy I'm ready.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Learn or remember?

Steve Toy Learn.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Degree or skills?

Steve Toy Skills.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet State school or private school?

Steve Toy State school.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Teacher or technology?

Steve Toy Technology.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Remote work or every day in the office?

Steve Toy Every day in the office.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Profit or impact?

Steve Toy Impact.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Just a question. What is impact for you?

Steve Toy In our world, it is helping people acquire a language. In my adult literacy world, it is the number of people that we deliver from illiteracy.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Finally, one last question, which is not A or B. How do you say hello in Icelandic?

Steve Toy I should know this because I was in Iceland in May, and we're playing with that, but I'm afraid I don't know it right now.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet It's actually Halló.

Steve Toy There you go.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet If you had to nominate someone else, a CEO, founder, an investor who you think is changing education for good, who would that be and maybe we can invite them next time.

Steve Toy Yeah, I think that Rupert Hillier, who is a founder and CTO of Learnlight, is an impressive individual and he's doing fascinating things in the area of EdTech. And I think you'd enjoy talking to him.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay. We know of Rupert, so we'll contact him for sure. Finally, if you had one prediction to make for the industry, for the EdTech industry, what would that be?

Steve Toy I think it would be that the world's content will become more and more important in the learning journey. And creating content specifically for the learning journey will become less and less prevalent.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, so that means you invest today in content or you partner with content providers.

Steve Toy No, right now, today, we figure out how to take the content, almost infinite content that's out there in the world today, and connect it to users learning journey. Because some people are interested in football and some people are interested in cooking, and some people are interested in documentary, and nobody is all interested in the very same thing.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Very good. Steve Toy, thank you very much. It was a pleasure. This was Steve Toy for EdTechX Stories.

Steve Toy Thanks, Benjamin. Appreciate it.