Sunday, February 19, 2017

Educating Our Children for Tomorrow instead of Yesterday

“For every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”
H.L. Mencken. 1880-1956.

“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”
Excerpt of letter from Robert Darwin to his son, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Mark Twain. 1835-1910.

I can't help but think that many of the problems that afflict us today are caused by poor educational systems around the world. Today's schools most often educate through memorization: rote learning of formulas, algorithms, theorems, facts, and dates in every field from mathematics to science and history. It seems, as educators and as parents, we expect the children to follow the same model that we did two or three decades ago. It's odd, in retrospect, that the educational model that was first created by the British empire during the industrial revolution is still the norm in the vast majority of schools around the globe. At best, it's been “streamlined” through the introduction of multiple choice tests and standardized national tests.

Little do we realize that this same model that made a lot of sense when we needed armies of factory workers (later armies of engineers) no longer makes sense in tomorrow’s world. Hell, it doesn't even make sense in today's world. What we need now are not specialists in any given field (we have plenty of those) but rather generalists and polymaths who are comfortable jumping between multiple disciplines and connecting the dots. The only way to educate our children for such a future is to teach them how to think independently and be inquisitive about the world around them.

It's the lucky few who go through an educational system that asks them to actually think for themselves instead of cramming their heads with formulas that they will likely never use throughout the rest of their lives. Even luckier are those scarce few who find amazing teachers that bring subjects to life - instead of clubbing them to death with the hammer of standardized tests. The vast majority of children go through what basically amounts to hours and hours of memorization often without understanding (let alone internalizing) the subject at hand.

The emphasis on memorization means the student narrowly follows the rules to get to the desired result, like a laboratory rat solving a maze in return for a piece of cheese, but fails to truly understand the principles at play behind the formulas and, in turn, fails to apply them in slightly different settings where they may apply just as well. The goal of their study is to get to the end result (A, B, C, Or D: None of the above). The question of why and how come A or B or C often does not enter their consciousness.

Educators such as Maria Montessori (1870-1952) evangelized a vastly different approach to education in the past century, emphasizing self-guided exploration over rote memorization of facts. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Julia Child are just a few of the famous and successful graduates of the Montessori system. Unfortunately, most children today don't enjoy such an education.

I was horrified when I saw this video of some girls in an Indian village “computing” for their teacher:

Watch as they mimic the action of an abacus with their fingers in order to solve the math problems. How many months did they spend perfecting this skill - and, why exactly, is the teacher happy about that? Shouldn't their brains be put to a more useful activity in this day and age? As I watched their teacher proudly show off their skill and egg them on with harder problems, I couldn't help but wonder if they also make the “carriage return” motion from old manual typewriters when they type on the computer!

The British empire was made successful in part by the educational system it created and propagated around the world - not just to their colonies but also to most of the rest of the globe. The so-called “ragged schools” were created to prepare destitute children in inner cities for work in factories during the industrial revolution. The American empire has, by comparison, failed miserably when it comes to education by continuing to prepare students for yesterday's world instead of tomorrow's. We need a revolution in our educational system if we ever want to succeed in the long run. It will take decades, it will be hard work, to undo what we have created. But nothing less than the future of our children depends on it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!

“There are no inherent barriers to our being able to reverse engineer the operating principles of human intelligence and replicate these capabilities in the more powerful computational substrates that will become available in the decades ahead. The human brain is a complex hierarchy of complex systems, but it does not represent a level of complexity beyond what we are already capable of handling.”
Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

“The big feature of human-level intelligence is not what it does when it works but what it does when it’s stuck.”
Marvin Minsky. 1927-2016.

“But they are useless. They can only give you answers.”
Pablo Picasso, on computers.

“Future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”
Timbuk 3.

A colleague recently sent me a link to an article and video of a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence with Elon Musk. It's a long video but worth your while if you’re interested in AI and the future of technology and, by extension, the future of humanity. If you are only interested in Musk’s thoughts, reading the article is sufficient since it includes most of his comments. If, however, you want to hear some of the other panelists such as the brilliant Ray Kurzweil and Sam Harris, you’ll have to watch the video.

I have seen a lot of Elon Musk quotes on the web but had never actually listened to him beyond a few sound bites. He points out that we are already cyborgs, by some simplistic definition of the word.

“By far you have more power, more capability, than the President of the United States had 30 years ago. If you have an Internet link you have an oracle of wisdom, you can communicate to millions of people, you can communicate to the rest of Earth instantly. I mean, these are magical powers that didn’t exist, not that long ago. So everyone is already superhuman, and a cyborg,” says Musk [at 33:56].

To the extent that our laptops and smartphones connect us to the internet and give us instant access to a world of information, they make us a new type of being. Given recent advances in nanotechnology, computing, genetics, and neural networks - to mention just a few of the disciplines involved - it’s easy to see an ever accelerating rush towards a science fiction future in which we are plugged into The Matrix using a “high bandwidth interconnect to the cortex” (according to Musk), nanobots fighting disease in our bloodstream, our mental functions assisted and augmented with artificial intelligence. Science fiction stuff, to be sure, but more science and less fiction as we continue to make advances in every academic field imaginable.

Musk goes so far as to describe a future in which we bypass keyboards, mice, and even natural languages and instead develop technologies that allow us to directly plug computers into our spinal cord. As Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well said. Imagine explaining the Internet, Google Glass, and iPhone to a time traveler from the nineteenth century and you will see that Musk’s proposed future is not too far-fetched. The technology we already have at our disposal today - not just computers and the internet, but the advances in genetic engineering alone - should convince you that such a future is not only possible but also quite probable.

Bob Newhart has a hilarious comedy routine about a hypothetical phone conversation between a British aristocrat and Sir Walter Raleigh, laughing his head off in disbelief as the explorer tells him about his crazy discoveries, such as cigars and corn, in the Americas. I'd love to see him do a similar conversation between a 19th century citizen and a 21st century scientist: “Yeah, right. You can grow human ears on laboratory rats. Right. Contact lenses that measure your blood sugar level. Right. Pull the other one.”

I highly recommend reading “The Gene: An Intimate History”, by Siddhartha Mukherjee if you have the time. We have already deciphered much of our DNA. We can clone living beings, including humans. Remember Dolly the Sheep? We can edit our own DNA, re-writing much of our destiny, if we wish. Genetic scientists are doing a good job policing themselves as they grapple with the ethical implications of these recent advances. So far, we’ve mostly utilized these techniques to fight genetic diseases but rogue scientists (and rogue regimes) don't necessarily abide by those self-imposed bans.

I reminded my colleague that I'd actually blogged about this topic - clumsily, to be sure - last year. The whole topic of “The Singularity”, as popularized by Ray Kurzweil and others, is fascinating. Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near in 2005, describing a time in the very near future when we will not only augment our intelligence with that of machines but become one with them. I think more and more people see today that the first baby steps towards that vision have already materialized across several scientific disciplines in just the past few years. Despite what Hollywood says, I’m not worried about such an eventuality turning into a nightmare scenario like The Terminator movies with machines becoming our overlords. Rather, I think we will continue to stay one step ahead of computers and be in control at all times.

What Picasso said is so true. Computers only have the answers. They don't (yet) know how to ask questions. Humans are the only species capable of generating and maintaining thousands of "what if" scenarios simultaneously. Chimps have been shown to understand the concept of "lying" and "deceit". They'll readily lie about where they hid the banana. But humans are the only species capable of asking: "What if there are green men on Mars? What if a billion years ago huge animals roamed the earth? What if I genetically modify my own DNA? What if ..." I have yet to see a computer spontaneously ask a question and then set about to solve it. Until that day, we're still in control.

I stopped talking about the topic because I was afraid people might think I'd lost my marbles. It's good to see people like Elon Musk publicly discussing it. For those of you who are rolling your eyes in disbelief, stop worrying about the end stage of a world like The Matrix. Instead, just think about the incremental next few steps and you will see a path to such a “cyborg” future. Virtual and Augmented Reality. Natural Language Processing. Facial and gesture recognition. DNA cloning and editing. Bionic prosthetics that can be manipulated purely through brain waves. The list keeps going on and on. These technologies are taken for granted today and on the verge of broad adoption, the same technologies that would have been considered science fiction by most people even fifty years ago.

The question, in my opinion, is not whether we are going to enhance ourselves and our physical and mental capabilities through science. The question is which ones first and how quickly do we get there.

The future is bright, I'm sure of it. It may be hard to believe that in today's political climate but I believe it. That was the last message I sent to my colleague. Always be an optimist in the long run. Be a pessimist in the short term. Be a skeptic. Question everything. That is what science has taught us. But be an optimist long term. That’s what history has shown us. Trust in the uncanny ability of human beings to continue to pull hat tricks at the most improbable moments. Take a look back at the amazing scientific advances of the past couple of centuries and remember that they happened amid massive world wars, widespread famine, pandemics like the Spanish Influenza that killed tens of millions in a single shot, dictators and despots who plundered their own countries and killed their own citizens, natural disasters like the recent Tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people each, staggering poverty, etc.

We shall overcome. This, too, shall pass. Be an optimist. The alternative is not much fun any way.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Babel Fish: The App that Lets You Talk to Animals!

“The Babel Fish is a small, leech-like, yellow fish, and by putting this into one's ear one can instantly understand anything said in any language... The Babel fish has led to significant and profound consequences for the Universe… The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language."
Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk”
Pink Floyd. Keep Talking. The Division Bell.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008.

Prediction: Humans will soon implement animal voice and gesture recognition algorithms based on existing research enabling us to communicate with many intelligent species such as apes, dolphins, whales, and dogs. "Google Translate for Animals" may have been a clever April Fools joke a few years ago but everything we need to implement it is, in fact, available today. Such a tool would have significant scientific benefits in our understanding of the animals around us as well as opportunities for monetization. Today, we can automatically translate between dozens of human languages each containing millions of words and phrases. We can use pattern matching to distinguish minute facial and hand gestures in humans. It should be a cinch to teach a computer to recognize a few dozen simplistic phrases per species.

Scientists have already shown that many animal species possess rudimentary language skills and are capable of vocalizing dozens of specific words and phrases. Here, for example, is the sound-frequency analysis of prairie dog alarm calls, differentiated according to predator (Con Slobodchikoff). I’m sure you’ve also seen documentaries about chimps that use sign language and dogs that recognize over a thousand words.

We spend billions of dollars a year (in human brain power as well as computing cycles) searching for potentially non-existent extra-terrestrials, hoping that they have advanced civilizations, and trying to communicate with them using radio technology across thousands of light years. Our chances of success are (no pun intended) astronomically low. What if we take just a fraction of that money and spend it on attempts to communicate more effectively with real inhabitants of this planet instead of (or in addition) to searching for our imaginary friends in the night sky?

We already have the technology to digitally recognize nuanced verbal cues in dozens of human languages, we have the technology to recognize tiny and complex facial expressions and hand gestures of humans. Are you telling me we can't recognize a few hundred barks and grunts and gestures that these animals routinely use to communicate with each other? Their primitive language is too hard for us to recognize? Communicating. back should be relatively easy as well, by replaying pre-recorded sound bites.

Who'd pay for it, you ask. The monetization opportunities are almost endless. Imagine if your dog could actually tell you what she wants instead of barking incessantly. How much would you pay that? How much would your annoyed neighbor pay for the same privilege?

We could also offer specialized solutions and packaging for various vertical markets. Veterinarians can finally diagnose pet diseases without guesswork. Farmers can upgrade their barns to the 21st century. SeaWorld can finally offer equal employment opportunities to dolphins and killer whales. Zoos can attach loud speakers to animal cages and crank up the volume. The possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, television personalities like The Dog Whisperer would be out of a job.

An obvious, but perhaps unintentional consequence, is that we can also let the animals talk to each other. Not only can we have “Google translate Dog:English” but also “Google translate Dog:Pig”. Have hours of fun with the whole family the next time you visit a farm. Imagine the implications for world inter-species peace if we could air drop a few thousand iPhones in the African Sahara that simply run “Google translate Lion:Gazelle”.

So much for my feeble attempts at humor. But, really, I shouldn't have to come up with ridiculous business propositions to convince you that this is a worthwhile effort. Imagine the contributions to primate research, to environmental science, to veterinary science. Imagine how many more puppies would get adopted at the shelter if only you could hear them first hand. Scientists have already done most of the heavy lifting, identifying hundreds of very specific barks and gestures in several commonly studied species. All we have to do is write a “Google translate” language adapter.

To be clear, some of this work is already happening in research communities: "A computer science colleague of mine and I are using artificial intelligence techniques to keep a computer record of the call that the prairie dogs were making, analyze it with these AI techniques, and then spit back the answer to us, which potentially could be in English. So the prairie dogs could say something like 'thin brown coyote approaching quickly.' And then we could tell the computer something that we wanted to convey to the prairie dogs. And the computer could then synthesize the sounds and play it back to the prairie dogs."

So, I haven't totally lost my mind. But we do need commercial applications and a more concerted effort to move the work from the research arena to the real world.

My brother-in-law had the last laugh when I told him about my latest (ahem) hare-brained idea. “Why don't you work on a Republican:Democrat translator instead?”, he asked. That, I’m afraid, would be an impossible task.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Through the (Rose Colored) Looking Glass: Adventures in Trumplandia

"An episode at Congress Hall in January 1798 symbolized the acrimonious mood. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a die-hard Republican, began to mock the aristocratic sympathies of Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut. When Griswold then taunted Lyon for alleged cowardice during the Revolution, Lyon spat right in his face. Griswold got a hickory cane and proceeded to thrash Lyon, who retaliated by taking up fire tongs and attacking Griswold. The two members of Congress ended up fighting on the floor like common ruffians."
      Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton.

“And it's true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”
U2. Sunday Bloody Sunday. War.

Az maast ke bar maast. [That which befalls us is caused by us.]
Persian proverb.

Who could have predicted that giving the White House to a game-show host with a disastrous business history and a glaring personality disorder would turn out so badly?”
Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

I admit to having mostly ignored politics for the past forty years or so as I buried myself in work. I’m sure many others out there have a similar story. I had just escaped a dictatorship turned theocracy and felt elated to be living in a democracy. Little did I know how fragile that democracy was. Little did I know that I would end up living in a kakistocracy (government by the worst) tumbling towards fascism, dreading the headlines every time I scan the news.

Little did I know that every morning I’d wake up feeling like I’d fallen through the looking glass just like Alice and landed in Trumplandia, a world where nothing makes sense, where we can't even seem to agree on what is fact and what is fiction, what is decent and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.

The problem with America is not that we don't know how to run a country, it's that most of us just took our eye off the ball. We’ve been too busy working, raising children, making ends meet, running on our little hamster wheels to pay attention to politics. Well, guess what. Az maast ke bar maast. Or, as Jimmy Buffett would say, “It’s our own damn fault.” We created this mess. I present, as evidence, what has to be the saddest chart of the 2016 elections:

We are all angry about the three million votes that were “stolen” through gerrymandering, we complain about the electoral process failing us, we worry about voter fraud. Guess what. There are over 200 million registered voters in the US but 90 million of us didn’t even bother to vote! We created Trump by ignoring our civic duties. We have noone to blame but ourselves. It’s our own damn fault.

If I may be allowed to don my rose colored glasses on for a minute, I’d argue that if there is one good thing that came out of this election, it is that many millions of people are now, finally, engaged. They realize how fragile our democracy is and why it’s important for all of us to engage on a regular basis going forward in order to avoid a repeat of what happened in this election. I did vote this time around but I admit to not having bothered to do so in the past. But voting is not enough. I have learned my lesson. Mea Culpa. I'm going to engage. The only way we can fix America is if we engage - not just once every four years, but every day.

Here's another piece of good news. Over the past few weeks, I've caught myself several dozen times questioning the authenticity of a “news” story I was reading online. I keep reminding myself that journalists are people, just like the rest of us, each with his or her own set of beliefs, prejudices, and hidden agendas. I find myself analyzing every sentence, asking whether what I’m reading is the author’s opinion or fact, whether enough evidence was presented to back the story. I often find myself googling the topic to find other sources to verify the veracity of the story. I hope and know others are doing the same. That's the only way to combat the “alternative facts” problem.

Those were the good news. Here's the bad news. Our country is so broken that we are at the edge of anarchy. We’re supposed to be busy leading the world and we can’t even agree on what the rules are. We're supposed to be solving world hunger and we can't even tie our shoelaces as a country. What Mr. Trump is doing (treating the presidency as if he is still a reality TV host) is beyond the pale and inexcusable. Here’s a man who has the time to obsess over his office decor but doesn’t bother to read the Execute Orders he signs, the same orders that impact the lives of millions of people. Here’s a man who throws tantrums on Twitter and still childishly brags about his Apprentice ratings, despite having been handed the biggest prize (and the biggest responsibility) on earth.

But let’s face it. Trump is not the problem. He is just a symptom of the disease. Our country, our democracy, was broken long before he came along. The real problem is that our elected representatives stopped representing us long ago - the minute they started being influenced by lobbyists. The only thing Trump has done is open our eyes to the ridiculous extremes that can lead to.

I do have to thank Mr. Trump for one thing. He has shown us what is possible in the political arena. Here we were sweating bullets over minor anomalies in our representatives’ backgrounds, trying to pick apart nuances of their strategies, all the while assuming that moral fiber and common sense were requirements for holding public office. Well, we know better now. Our government is broken. And the sooner we all get involved in fixing it, the better. It is, after all, supposed to be government of the people by the people.