On the Future of Machine Intelligence

This is a very thought-provoking read on the future of machine intelligence and how we will cope with its advancement. The author, Douglas Coupland, begins the narrative with some hypothetical apps that track data (geolocation, etc.) and then paints a dystopian view:

To summarise. Everyone, basically, wants access to and control over what you will become, both as a physical and metadata entity. We are also on our way to a world of concrete walls surrounding any number of niche beliefs. On our journey, we get to watch machine intelligence become profoundly more intelligent while, as a society, we get to watch one labour category after another be systematically burped out of the labour pool. (Doug’s Law: An app is only successful if it puts a lot of people out of work.)

The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

Do we at least want to have free access to anything on the internet? Well yes, of course. But it’s important to remember that once a freedom is removed from your internet menu, it will never come back. The political system only deletes online options — it does not add them. The amount of internet freedom we have right now is the most we’re ever going to get.

I found the notion of Artificial Intuition (as opposed to Artificial Intelligence) worth highlighting:

Artificial Intuition happens when a computer and its software look at data and analyse it using computation that mimics human intuition at the deepest levels: language, hierarchical thinking — even spiritual and religious thinking. The machines doing the thinking are deliberately designed to replicate human neural networks, and connected together form even larger artificial neural networks. It sounds scary . . . and maybe it is (or maybe it isn’t). But it’s happening now. In fact, it is accelerating at an astonishing clip, and it’s the true and definite and undeniable human future.

Worth reading in its entirety.

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Note: I usually don’t link to The Financial Times (because of its stringent paywall), but at the time of this post, the article is free to access.

On Learning Data Science

I’ve been learning more about data science in the last couple of months and recently stumbled upon a very good blog post from Dataquest on how to learn data science.

First, it’s important that there is some inherent motivation to learn data science:

Nobody ever talks about motivation in learning. Data science is a broad and fuzzy field, which makes it hard to learn. Really hard. Without motivation, you’ll end up stopping halfway through and believing you can’t do it, when the fault isn’t with you – it’s with the teaching.

You need something that will motivate you to keep learning, even when it’s midnight, formulas are starting to look blurry, and you’re wondering if this will be the night that neural networks finally make sense.

You need something that will make you find the linkages between statistics, linear algebra, and neural networks. Something that will prevent you from struggling with the “what do I learn next?” question.

My entry point to data science was predicting the stock market, although I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the first programs I coded to predict the stock market involved almost no statistics. But I knew they weren’t performing well, so I worked day and night to make them better.

There are good links throughout, including 100 data sets for statistics.

I like the suggestions on communicating your findings and/or your learning process:

Part of communicating insights is understanding the topic and theory well. Another part is understanding how to clearly organize your results. The final piece is being able to explain your analysis clearly.

It’s hard to get good at communicating complex concepts effectively, but here are some things you should try:

Start a blog. Post the results of your data analysis.

Try to teach your less tech-savvy friends and family about data science concepts. It’s amazing how much teaching can help you understand concepts…

More resources and links here.

On the Rise of Podcasts

In an excellent New York Times piece titled “Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion,” Farhad Manjoo explores the slow rise in the popularity of podcasts. They’ve been around for about a decade, but people listening to them appear to be in the minority. It’s only with the advent of last year’s hugely popular Serial that podcasts have gotten more attention (at least, based on my anecdotal evidence). Here are some facts:

Yet the overall audience for podcasts is growing very slowly. In February, Edison Research reported that 17 percent of Americans had listened to one podcast in the previous month. That is up just slightly from Edison’s 2012 survey, when 14 percent of Americans had done so. The business also has some problems, including a labor-intensive ad-buying process, a shortage of audio producers and the inability to accurately measure who is listening.

Here’s Manjoo on whether podcasting is gaining steam:

So don’t call podcasting a bubble or a bust. Instead, it is that rarest thing in the technology industry: a slow, steady and unrelentingly persistent digital tortoise that could eventually — but who really knows? — slay the analog behemoths in its path.

It appears that those who listen to podcasts really, really enjoy them and devote a significant amount of time to the medium:

The share of podcasts in Americans’ diet of audio programming grew by 18 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to Edison. People who listen to podcasts daily spend about two hours a day, on average, with podcasts, a larger share than for any other form of audio, Edison reported.

A profile of Mystery Show, which is one of the podcasts I just started listening to this week:

For instance, the premise of “Mystery Show,” Gimlet’s newest production, which began playing last month, sounds a bit like a stunt. On each episode, Starlee Kine, a longtime public radio personality, solves mysteries for people. But Ms. Kine does not investigate the kind of serious mysteries addressed by the producers of “Serial.” Instead her inquiries are the sort of ridiculously fun questions that no journalist would ever get paid to answer. Why, for example, was Britney Spears once seen carrying a book by a writer that no one ever reads?

Here are my top five podcasts, which I enthusiastically recommend:

1) Design Matters with Debbie Millman
2) 99% Invisible
3) Exponent
4) Sleep With Me (to help you fall asleep–it works! Here’s one story.)
5) Radiolab

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What podcasts have you been listening to lately? Which ones are some of your favorite?

A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.

The 100-year-old Scientist’s Fight Against Trans Fat

Yesterday, the FDA announced that by 2018, the food industry must remove trans fat from all products. I welcomed the news.

Today, The Washington Post profiles the 100-year-old scientist who has been in the fight to ban trans fat from American diets for decades. His name is Fred Kummerow, and he first published his research warning about the dangers of artery-clogging trans fats in 1957.

In the 1990s, more and more studies had shown that trans fats were a key culprit in the rising rates of heart disease. The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest also petitioned the FDA in 1994 to require that the substance be listed on nutrition labels — a move that the agency put into place in 2006. In 2002, the Institute of Medicine found that there was “no safe level of trans fatty acids and people should eat as little of them as possible.” As the dangers of trans fat became clearer, public opinion also shifted, and food companies increasingly removed the substance from products, though it remained in a broad range of foods, from cake frostings to baked goods.

Four years after filing his petition and hearing nothing, Kummerow sued the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services in 2013, with the help of a California law firm. The suit asked a judge to compel the agency to respond to Kummerow’s petition and “to ban partially hydrogenated oils unless a complete administrative review finds new evidence for their safety.”

Incredible.

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Related: worth exploring is Kummerow’s book Cholesterol is Not the Culprit: A Guide to Preventing Heart Disease.

Sheryl Sandberg on Loving and Grieving for Her Late Husband

Dave Goldberg, the chief executive of SurveyMonkey and husband of Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, died suddenly last month. A month after his death, Sheryl Sandberg is still grieving. She has penned a profoundly beautiful, brave post on how she is coping and how her love for her late husband will endure:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.

I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep. She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s, and I understood that she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

I have learned some practical stuff that matters. Although we now know that Dave died immediately, I didn’t know that in the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was unbearably slow. I still hate every car that did not move to the side, every person who cared more about arriving at their destination a few minutes earlier than making room for us to pass. I have noticed this while driving in many countries and cities. Let’s all move out of the way. Someone’s parent or partner or child might depend on it.

I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning. In the last thirty days, I have heard from too many women who lost a spouse and then had multiple rugs pulled out from under them. Some lack support networks and struggle alone as they face emotional distress and financial insecurity. It seems so wrong to me that we abandon these women and their families when they are in greatest need.

I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children.

I have learned that resilience can be learned. Adam M. Grant taught me that three things are critical to resilience and that I can work on all three. Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word “sorry.” To tell myself over and over, This is not my fault. Permanence—remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness—this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.

For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, “It’s the elephant.” Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.

At the same time, there are moments when I can’t let people in. I went to Portfolio Night at school where kids show their parents around the classroom to look at their work hung on the walls. So many of the parents—all of whom have been so kind—tried to make eye contact or say something they thought would be comforting. I looked down the entire time so no one could catch my eye for fear of breaking down. I hope they understood.

I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.

I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.

I can’t even express the gratitude I feel to my family and friends who have done so much and reassured me that they will continue to be there. In the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me endless and empty, only their faces pull me out of the isolation and fear. My appreciation for them knows no bounds.

I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”

Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A. As Bono sang, “There is no end to grief . . . and there is no end to love.” I love you, Dave.

Thank you, Sheryl for your kindness to share your vulnerability and your wisdom with the rest of the world.

On Small Acts of Kindness in Life

David Brooks, in an April essay titled “The Moral Bucket List” published in The New York Times wrote about the characteristics of noble, wonderful people–I consider it one of the most important essay he has published in years:

I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.

If we wanted to be gimmicky, we could say these accomplishments amounted to a moral bucket list, the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life. Here, quickly, are some of them:

THE HUMILITY SHIFT We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

Continuing on a similar theme, David Brooks asked about one’s purpose in life, solicited some reader feedback, and published a selection of the responses. This particular response by Elizabeth Yong on the importance of kindness resonated with me:

Now my purpose is simply to be the person … who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis. I can give it to you today and again in a few days. … I can edit your letter. … I can listen to you complain about your co-worker. … I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot. I am not upset if you cry. I am no longer drowning, so I can help keep you afloat with a little boost. Not all of the time, but every once in a while, until you find other people to help or a different way to swim. It is no skin off my back; it is easy for me.”

This is what I want to be to my friends, and what I want of my friends as well.