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Pay for Performance, Mathematics Edition November 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I’ve always been suspicious of standardized tests that conclude that US students were average or worse in mathematics than others.  My primary issue is that it is very likely that many more US students took these types of comparison tests than in other countries, and while the mean tended to be average, the standard deviation was larger than average, meaning that many did much more poorly, but many also did much better.  The popular press tends to find fault with anything that reeks of US influence, and neglects to mention such a basic measure for better comparison.

There is a study that offers a different but related conclusion, however.  It claims that US students are competitively capable, but only when sufficiently motivated.  How do you motivate them?  Well, by paying them, of course.  When students are financially rewarded, their math results are significantly elevated.

This means that US students aren’t (necessarily) stupid, or undereducated, just unmotivated.  It’s an intriguing  proposition, one that I think deserves more study.

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Are Engineering and Ethics Orthogonal Concepts? November 18, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Technology and Culture.
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Let me explain through example.  Facebook has a “fake news” problem.  Users sign up for a free account, then post, well, just about anything.  If it violates Facebook’s rules, the platform generally relies on users to report, although Facebook also has teams of editors and is increasingly using machine learning techniques to try to (emphasis on try) be proactive about flagging content.

(Developing machine learning algorithms is a capital expense, after all, while employing people is an operational one.  But I digress.)

But something can be clearly false while not violating Facebook guidelines.  Facebook is in the very early stages of attempting to authenticate the veracity of news (it will take many years, if it can be done at all), but it almost certainly won’t remove that content.  It will be flagged as possibly false, but still available for those who want to consume it.

It used to be that we as a society confined our fake news to outlets such as The Globe or the National Inquirer, tabloid papers typically sold at check-out lines at supermarkets.  Content was mostly about entertainment personalities, and consumption was limited to those that bothered to purchase it.

Now, however, anyone can be a publisher*.  And can publish anything.  Even at reputable news sources, copy editors and fact checkers have gone the way of the dodo bird.

It gets worse.  Now entire companies exist to write and publish fake news and outrageous views online.  Thanks to Google’s ad placement strategy, the more successful ones may actually get paid by Google to do so.

By orthogonal, I don’t mean contradictory.  At the fundamental level, orthogonal means “at right angles to.”  Variables that are orthogonal are statistically independent, in that changes in one don’t at all affect the other.

So let’s translate that to my point here.  Facebook, Google, and the others don’t see this as a societal problem, which is difficult and messy.  Rather they see it entirely as an engineering problem, solvable with the appropriate application of high technology.

At best, it’s both.  At worst, it is entirely a societal problem, to be solved with an appropriate (and messy) application of understanding, negotiation, and compromise.  That’s not Silicon Valley’s strong suit.

So they try to address it with their strength, rather than acknowledging that their societal skills as they exist today are inadequate to the immense task.  I would be happy to wait, if Silicon Valley showed any inclination to acknowledge this and try to develop those skills, but all I hear is crickets chirping.

These are very smart people, certainly smarter than me.  One can hope that age and wisdom will help them recognize and overcome their blind spots.  One can hope, can’t one?

*(Disclaimer:  I mostly publish my opinions on my blog.  When I use a fact, I try to verify it.  However, as I don’t make any money from this blog, I may occasionally cite something I believe to be a fact, but is actually wrong.  I apologize.)

Facebook, Fake News and Accounts, and Where Do We Go From Here? October 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Those of you who read me know that I am no fan of Facebook, for a wide variety of reasons.  I am not a member, and will never be one, even though it may hurt me professionally.  In short, I believe that Mark Zuckerberg is a megalomaniac who fancies Facebook as a modern religion, and himself as god, or at least the living prophet.

And regrettably, he may be right.  Because Facebook is far more than the “personal-ad-in-your-face” that I thought when I presented past objections.  Over the past 10 months, it has become pretty clear that Facebook is allowing itself to be used for purposes of influencing elections and sowing strife, sometimes violently.

The fact of the matter is that Zuckerberg and Facebook worship at the altar of the dollar, and everything else be damned.

Worse, from a technology standpoint, Facebook treats its probably-fatal flaws as mere software bugs, an inconvenience that it may fix if they rise up too far in the priority queue.

Still worse, the public-facing response is “We can’t be expected to police everything that happens on our site, can we?”

Well, yes, you can.  It is not “We can fix this,” or “We don’t think this is a problem.”  It is “You are at fault.”

In an earlier era of media (like, 10 years ago), publishers used to examine and vet every single advertisement.  Today it’s too hard?  That’s what Zuckerberg says.  That is the ultimate cop-out.  And that sick attitude is a side effect of worshiping at the altar of the dollar.

On Facebook, we are hearing louder echoes of our own voices.  Not different opinions.  And Facebook will not change that, because it will hurt their revenue.  And that is wrong in the most fundamental way.

So where do we go from here?  I would like to argue for people to stop using Facebook completely, but I know that’s not going to happen.  Maybe we should just be using Facebook to keep in touch with friends, as was originally intended.  We really don’t have ten thousand friends; I have about 900 connections on LinkedIn, and probably don’t even remember half of them.  And I don’t read news from them.

Can we possibly cool the addiction that millions of people seem to have to Facebook?  I don’t know, but for the sake of our future I think we need to try.

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.

The Human In the Loop September 19, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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A couple of years ago, I did a presentation entitled “Famous Software Failures”.  It described six events in history where poor quality or untested software caused significant damage, monetary loss, or death.

It was really more about system failures in general, or the interaction between hardware and software.  And ultimately is was about learning from these failures to help prevent future ones.

I mention this because the protagonist in one of these failures passed earlier this year.  Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet military officer who declined to report a launch of five ICBMs from the United States, as reported by their defense systems.  Believing that a real American offensive would involve many more missiles, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov refused to acknowledge the threat as legitimate and contended to his superiors that it was a false alarm (he was reprimanded for his actions, incidentally, and permitted to retire at his then-current rank).  The false alarm had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota.

There is also a novel by Daniel Suarez, entitled Kill Decision, that postulates the rise of autonomous military drones that are empowered to make a decision on an attack without human input and intervention.  Suarez, an outstanding thriller writer, writes graphically and in detail of weapons and battles that we are convinced must be right around the next technology bend, or even here today.

As we move into a world where critical decisions have to be made instantaneously, we cannot underestimate the value of the human in the loop.  Whether the decision is made with a focus on logic (“They wouldn’t launch just five missiles”) or emotion (“I will not be remembered for starting a war”), it puts any decision in a larger and far more real context than a collection of anonymous algorithms.

The human can certainly be wrong, of course.  And no one person should be responsible for a decision that can cause the death of millions of people.  And we may find ourselves outmaneuvered by an adversary who relies successfully on instantaneous, autonomous decisions (as almost happened in Kill Decision).

As algorithms and intelligent systems become faster and better, human decisions aren’t necessarily needed or even desirable in a growing number of split-second situations.  But while they may be pushed to the edges, human decisions should not be pushed entirely off the page.

 

Are We Wrong About the Future of Digital Life? September 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Digital life offers the promise of no friction in our lives; that is, no difficulty in doing anything ordinary, such as shopping, meeting people, or traveling.  There is no impediment in our lives.  I have written about the idea of friction before, thinking that at least some friction is necessary for us to grow and develop as human beings.

Further, science fiction author Frank Herbert had some very definite ideas about friction, now over 50 years ago.  He invented a protagonist named Jorg X. McKie, who worked for the Bureau of Sabotage as a saboteur.  At some indeterminate time in the future, galactic government became so efficient that laws were conceived in the morning, passed in the afternoon, and effective in the evening.  McKie’s charter was to toss a monkey wrench into the workings of government, to slow it down so that people would be able to consider the impact of their rash decisions.

But let’s fast forward (or fast backward) to Bodega, the Silicon Valley startup that is trying to remove friction from convenience store stops.  Rather than visit a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop, patrons can pick up their goods at the gym, in their apartment building, or anywhere that is willing to accept a cabinet.  Customers use their app to unlock it, and their purchases are automatically recorded and charged.

It turns out that people are objecting.  Loudly.  It turns out that the bodega (a Hispanic term for the tiny shops) is more than just a convenience.  It is where neighborhood residents go to find out what is happening with other people, and to find out what is going on in general.  In an era where we are trying to remove interpersonal interaction, some of us also seem to be trying to restore it.

My point is that maybe we want to see our neighbors, or at least hear about them.  And the bodega turns out to be an ideal clearing house, so to speak.  I’ve seen something similar in northern Spain, where the tiny pinxtos shops serve pinxtos in the morning until the late afternoon, then transition into bars for the evening.  We visit one such place every morning when we are in Bilbao.  They don’t speak any English, and my Spanish is limited (and no Basque), but there is a certain community.

That is encouraging.  Certainly there is some friction in actually having a conversation, but there is also a great deal of value in obtaining information in this manner.  We establish a connection, but we also don’t know what we’re going to hear from visit to visit.

I wonder if there is any way that the company Bodega can replicate such an experience.  Perhaps not, and that is one strong reason why we will continue to rely on talking to other people.

More About Friction and Life September 5, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Apparently the next wave of getting friction out of our lives is to text people we are visiting, rather than ringing a doorbell (paywall).  It seems that doorbells disturb people (okay, in particular young people).  In some cases apparently seriously.

I’m ambivalent about this.  As one generation passes on to the next, customs change, and it is entirely likely that texting to let someone know you are outside of their door will become the new normal.  On the surface, it may not be a bad thing.

But there’s always a but.  It turns out that texting someone is an excuse for not seeing someone physically.  And there are plenty of places where I go that I may not know the phone number of the person inside.

But more about friction in general.  Friction is the difference between us as individuals gliding through life unimpeded, or having some roadblocks that prevent us from doing some of what we would like.  None of us like friction.  All of us need it.

Whatever else I may doubt, I am certain that friction is an essential part of a rich and fulfilling life.

If you are afraid of something, then there is good reason to face it.

First, friction teaches us patience and tolerance.  It teaches how to wait for what we decide is important in life.

Second, it teaches us what is important in our lives.  We don’t know what is important unless we have to work for it.

Third, it teaches us that we may have to change our needs and goals, based on the feedback we get in life.

Many of the Silicon Valley startups today are primarily about getting rid of friction in our lives.  Uber (especially), Blue Apron, really just about any phone app-based startup is about making our daily existence easier.

You heard it here first, folks.  Easier is good, but we also need to work, even for the daily chores that seem like they should be easier.  We may have to call for a cab, or look up a menu and pick up a meal.  Over the course of our lives, we learn many life lessons from experiences like that.

Do me a favor this week.  Try the doorbell.