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Let’s Have a Frank Discussion About Complexity December 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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And let’s start with the human memory.  “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.  The title is rhetorical, of course; there is nothing magical about the number seven.  But the paper and associated psychological studies explicitly define the ability of the human mind to process increasingly complex information.

The short answer is that the human mind is a wonderful mechanism for some types of processing.  We can very rapidly process a large amount of sensory inputs, and draw some very quick but not terribly accurate conclusions (Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking), we can’t handle an overwhelming amount of quantitative data and expect to make any sense out of it.

In discussing machine learning systems, I often say that we as humans have too much data to reliably process ourselves.  So we set (mostly artificial) boundaries that let us ignore a large amount of data, so that we can pay attention when the data clearly signify a change in the status quo.

The point is that I don’t think there is a way for humans to deal directly with a lot of complexity.  And if we employ systems to evaluate that complexity and present it in human-understandable concepts, we are necessarily losing information in the process.

This, I think, is a corollary of Joel Spolsky’s Law of Leaky Abstractions, which says that anytime you abstract away from what is really happening with hardware and software, you lose information.  In many cases, that information is fairly trivial, but in some cases, it is critically valuable.  If we miss it, it can cause a serious problem.

While Joel was describing abstraction in a technical sense, I think that his law applies beyond that.  Any time that you add layers in order to better understand a scenario, you out of necessity lose information.  We look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a measure of the stock market, for example, rather than minutely examine every stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

That’s not a bad thing.  Abstraction makes it possible for us to better comprehend the world around us.

But it also means that we are losing information.  Most times, that’s not a disaster.  Sometimes it can lead us to disastrously bad decisions.

So what is the answer?  Well, abstract, but doubt.  And verify.


Who Will Thrive in an AI World? November 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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Software engineers, of course, who understand both relevant programming languages and the math behind the algorithms.  That is significantly less than the universe of software engineers in general, but I don’t see even those math-deprived programmers having a big problem, at least in the short term.

Beyond that?  Are we all toast?

Well, no.  Today someone asked me how machine learning would affect health care jobs.  I thought to where health care was going with machine learning, and to my own experiences with health care.  “The survivors will be those who can understand what the algorithms tell them, but also talk with the patients those results affect.”

I have dealt with doctors (such as my current PCP, who could be a much better doctor if she simply trusted herself) who simply look at test results and parrot them back to you.  I had a doctor who I liked and trusted, who could not find cancer but insisted it was there, based on photographs (it was not).

These are not health care professionals who will thrive in an era of AI-assisted medical evaluation and diagnosis.  They simply parrot test results, without adding value or effectively communicating with the patient.

To be fair, our system has created this kind of doctor, who is afraid of using their expertise to express an independent opinion.  I had one who did employ his expertise, during my cancer scare.  He came into my room, and said, “Where is your nose drain?  How come you’re not choking?”  Then “I looked at your MRI from six years ago, and you had indications then.  Whatever this is, it probably isn’t cancer.”  It wasn’t.

Doctors have become afraid to use their expertise, because of the fear of lawsuits and other recriminations.  That is unfortunate, and of course not entirely their fault.  But this is just the kind of doctor who will not survive the machine learning revolution.

I think that general conclusion can be extended to other fields.  Those that become overly reliant on machine results, and decline to employ their own expertise, will ultimately be left behind.  Those who are willing to use those results, yet supplement them with their own expertise, and effectively explain it to their patients, will succeed.  We are still people, after all, and need to communicate with one another.

Bias and Truth and AI, Oh My October 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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I was just accepted to speak at the Toronto Machine Learning Summit next month, a circumstance that I never thought might happen.  I am not an academic researcher, after all, and while I have jumped back into machine learning after a hiatus of two decades, many more are fundamentally better at it than me.

The topic is Cognitive Bias in AI:  What Can Go Wrong?  It’s rather a follow-on from the presentations I’ve done on bias in software development and testing, but it doesn’t really fit into my usual conferences, so I attempted to cast my net into new waters.  For some reason, the Toronto folks said yes.

But it mostly means that I have to actually write the presentation.  And here is the rub:  We tend to believe that intelligent systems are always correct, and in those rare circumstances where they are not, it is simply the result of a software bug.

No.  A bug is a one-off error that can be corrected in code.  A bias is a systematic adjustment toward a predetermined conclusion that cannot be fixed with a code change.  At the very least the training data and machine learning architecture have to be re-thought.

And we have examples such as these:

If you’re not a white male, artificial intelligence’s use in healthcare could be dangerous.

When artificial intelligence judges a beauty contest, white people win.

But the fundamental question, as we pursue solutions across a wide range of applications, is:  Do we want human decisions, or do we want correct ones?  That’s not to say that all human decisions are incorrect, but only to point out that much of what we decide is colored by our bias.

I’m curious about what AI applications decide about this one.  Do we want to eliminate the bias, or do we want to reflect the values of the data we choose to use?  I hope the former, but the latter may win out, for a variety of reasons.

In the Clutch September 28, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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I wrote a little while back about how some people are able to recognize the importance of the right decision or action in a given situation, and respond in a positive fashion.  We often call that delivering in the clutch.  This is as opposed to machine intelligence, which at least right now is not equipped to understand and respond to anything regarding the importance of a particular event in a sequence.

The question is if these systems will ever be able to tell that a particular event has outsized importance, and if they can use this information to um, try harder.

I have no doubt that we will be able to come up with metrics that can inform a machine learning system of a particularly critical event or events.  Taking an example from Moneyball of an at-bat, we can incorporate the inning, score, number of hits, and so on.  In other problem domains, such as application monitoring, we may not yet be collecting the data that we need, but given a little thought and creativity, I’m sure we can do so.

But I have difficulty imagining that machine learning systems will be able to rise to the occasion.  There is simply no mechanism in computer programming for that to happen.  You don’t save your best algorithms for important events; you use them all the time.  For a long-running computation, it may be helpful to add to the server farm, so you can finish more quickly or process more data, but most learning systems won’t be able or equipped to do that.

But code is not intelligence.  Algorithms cannot feel a sense of urgency to perform at the highest level; they are already performing at the highest level of which they are capable.

To be fair, at some indeterminate point in the future, it may be possible for algorithms to detect the need for new code pathways, and call subroutines to make those pathways a reality (or ask for humans to program them).  They may recognize that a particular result is suboptimal, and “ask” for additional data to make it better.  But why would that happen only for critical events?  We would create our systems to do that for any event.

Today, we don’t live in the world of Asimov’s positronic brains and the Three Laws of Robotics.  It will be a while before science is at that point, if ever.

Is this where human achievement can perform better than an algorithm?  Possibly, if we have the requisite human expertise.  There are a number of well-known examples where humans have had to take over when machines failed, some successfully, some unsuccessfully.  But the human has to be there, and has to be equipped professionally and mentally to do so.  That is why I am a strong believer in the human in the loop.