Monday, 28 October 2013

Weekend Review: Machine Learning and its Possibilities

Because I have now started clinical rotations for this academic year, the number of posts I can write will consequently be curtailed and even haphazard in frequency. I thank my readers for their support in making this project worth the effort. Please continue to visit and you can keep track by bookmarking or using your favourite RSS application.

While going through my weekend net readings, I was simply delighted by this very engaging article from the Verge that features the cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allen's thoughts on machine learning and its potential for impacting our lives. But to really truly understand the nature of what exactly we're dealing with here, I wish to touch on a couple of other articles that serve to augment Paul Allen's thoughts.

 Machine learning has much to do with the famous English mathematician, Alan Turing. His 1950 seminal paper titled 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence' is still cited today. In this BBC news feature from earlier this month, I discovered to my surprise (surprise because I am, of course, NOT a learned computer scientist, only a humble knowledge harvester/doctor) that Turing had tried to refute the some of the claims put forth by an equally famous predecessor, Ada Lovelace, regarded by some history's first computer programmer. It appears Ms. Lovelace was of the opinion that computing machines can never give us surprising insights. They can only put forth what we expect them to. While this seems straightforward to many of us, it didn't ring true to Mr. Turing. He proposed that if the computational power of computers continue to increase with time, what's to stop them from becoming as sophisticated as the human brain and (like the aforementioned organ) come up with some surprising ideas of their own.

Even today, it is argued that even Google's autocomplete function can sometimes suggest insightful queries that we, the searchers, might never have thought to ask. All this brings us back to Paul Allen; although the man is a supporter of artificial intelligence development and has a good number of institutions under his name which are doing just that, he denies the idea that computers will soon (as in less than a century from now) match or even outstrip the computing power of their creators' brains, the so called 'Singularity event'. He offers several points to support his rather surprising stance.

In good academic fashion, Ray Kurzweil, the originator of the term 'Singularity', offers a response to Paul's refutation, citing several counter points and also the possibility that his opponent may have misunderstood the crux of the problem. It is not my job to determine who is right and who is wrong. I'll leave that to you to decide. But what is agreed upon is that computers are indeed getting more powerful everyday. We are promised opportunities (like intelligent space probes that will explore the galaxy for us) and threats (like autonomous drones that will decide for themselves whether to kill or not). As a result, the future seems more murky and wonderful than ever before.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Celebrating Ada Lovelace

Many people might know Charles Babbage, the designer of the famed differential and analytical engines (common examples of the first mechanical computers that could have worked if they actually had been built). But have you ever heard of a woman named Ada Lovelace?
Portrait of Ada Lovelace (Commons)

Ada Lovelace is an important historical figure in the early days of computing in two fundamental ways; first, she was the first person to write and describe what could simply be called a program (a set of instructions telling the computer what to do) that could be run through Babbage's analytical engine (in this case it was an algorithm that computes a set of rational numbers called 'Bernoulli numbers').

While this proves her prowess as a mathematician, her truest (and undisputed) contribution came in the form of a leap of thought while observing Babbage's engines. While Babbage (being a number geek) was only interested in his engines being nothing but proficient handlers of big numbers, Lovelace thought beyond this; she envisioned a computing devices which processed, say, sounds of varying characteristics. This was gigantic leap of thought because that allows you to invent something like a music note processing system. Outstanding!

Today, this exemplary act of feminine ingenuity and scholarship is celebrated on every year in mid-October in the form of Ada Lovelace day which celebrates women's contributions to the advancement of human knowledge. I only discovered this today through Google plus's hashtag trends (#AdaLovelaceDay). This is quite an important event and I encourage you to talk about it amongst your social media peers, family and friends. Its important that when we engage in knowledge harvesting, EVERYONE participates. That way we bring in important different ways in looking at a problem(s) and finding solutions to them. Oh, and while you're doing that, spare a minute to think of at least one famous female scientist. If you can, keep searching for more. If you can't, now's the time to take a plunge into discovery!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Unreasonable Unknown

Is such a voyage unreasonable?
Artist's depiction of the Voyager spacecraft.
In late August 2012, after 35 years of travelling through space, NASA's veteran spacecraft Voyager 1 opened a new chapter in our species' long story of exploration by crossing and consequently mapping what is believed to mark the end of the sun's sphere of magnetic influence; the heliopause for the first time.

However, due to the unknown nature of the region the spacecraft is surveying, it took the mission team almost a year since seeing the first suggestive signs of the crossing to study the data before they could confidently announce to the public that the humanity has now become an interstellar faring race. Undoubtedly, this is a remarkable achievement and event not just because we have proven that it is possible to send a craft to the distant reaches of our sun's domain but because it awakens that deep sense of the unknown inside all of us. Whenever we progress into unfamiliar territory, be it worlds, continents, life stages or situations, there is that deep, exotic feeling that one gets; a mixture of hope, awe and apprehension. We have reached the edge of what we know, now we venture into unchartered waters.

This drive to reach the edge of knowledge, for good or for ill, drove a lot humanity's doings; from the discovery of the New World by the Europeans to the exploration of the Inner Space under the seas to the venturing of humans and mechanic emissaries into space to our peering into the distances of the sky to fathom the heavenly domains. What we gain from doing all this is nothing short of meaningful progress. The very same progress that has allowed us to tame nature (somewhat) and allow us and our children to thrive and live more comfortably. As the famous playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw once put so eloquently, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man". The Voyager mission, itself an unreasonable mission, is truly a work of unreasonable people!

So, we are left with the question; do we owe our comfort today to the people who accepted things as the will of the universe/deities or to the people who went about asking seemingly unreasonable questions, and then ventured out to the edge of the known to find the answer? I believe the answer goes without saying.

Meanwhile, Voyager 1 will continue gathering data on this unexplored region of sun's domain (it can still be regarded as the being the sun's domain despite the crossing because the sun's gravitational influence extends farther outwards, up until the Oort cloud where the majority of our solar system's cometary bodies reside; Voyager has yet to leave that area of influence as illustrated below) until its radioisotope thermoelectric generator stops producing power somewhere in the mid 2020s. From then on, she continue drifting further from us, a silent emissary to the stars.

Learn more about Voyager 1 and her sister craft Voyager 2 here.
Where Voyager 1 is as of 2013. (NASA/JPL)

Friday, 11 October 2013

Will October 17 be the day?

Reading history can be quite fun if only for leisure. One of the most fascinating lessons that anyone can draw from reading history books is that there isn't a single national or state entity that will not go over the dreaded 'rise and fall' hill. In fact, I dare say, one could easily summarise human history as a sequence of civilisation 'bubbles' that eventually burst into exceedingly smaller bubbles or disappear into nothingness altogether.

We're all descendants of other, sometimes bigger, historical bubbles. The birth of these smaller bubbles however usually involves tumultuous changes that can sometimes result in human misery not excluding bloodshed. Isaac Asimov's wonderful Foundation series illustrates the process in a fictional setting beautifully while offering us a scenario of just how we might be able to shorten the periods of anarchy.

Without divulging too much of the plot for those who have not yet read the aforementioned series, one of the signs given by one of Asimov's characters that points to the story's primary state entity's fall is the lack of significant scientific progress in the realm. This could further be attributed to economic decline. Sounds familiar
The resignation of Romulus
Augustus to the Germanic soldier Odoacer
traditionally marks the end of the Western
Roman Empire. (Commons) 

Although it is obviously difficult to determine when nations officially go kaput (the Roman empire is thought to have declined over a period of four centuries though historians take the resignation of Romulus Augustus in September 4, 476 as the moment of the western empire's fall), what is easy to ascertain is when they do, things can go sour very quickly. Take the U.S. right now with its looming debt crisis; if they indeed fail to repay their debt by October 17 this year (a little more than a week from now), it will leave a lot of creditors hanging. And in this globalised world, the knock-on effect of an unprecedented event like a U.S. debt default will leave the entire world devastated. Not to mention the fact that default will make it more difficult for America to borrow more money in the future, stifling the country's already sluggish growth rate. 

Can this be defined as the beginning of America's end (if it hasn't begun already)? And what will happen to all of us in the meantime? I wish we had Hari Seldon's psychohistory to figure that one out! But if it happens, October 17 will most decidedly be the date that future historians will choose to mark the beginning of the end of the U.S.A. They might very well also scour the ancient archives for insightful analyses written during this time period and they might probably find this one and judge it either as useful speculations or prophetic writings, depending on what happens in the next few days.