Comment: Could robots make us better humans?

This is one of his arguments for listening to AI-generated music, studying how computers do maths and…gazing at digitally produced paintings: to understand how advanced machines work at the deepest level, in order to make sure we know everything about the technology that is now built into our lives.

Harris, J. (2019). Could robots make us better humans? The Guardian.

Putting aside the heading that conflates “robots” with “AI” there are several insightful points worth noting in this Guardian interview with Oxford-based mathematician and musician, Marcus du Sautoy. I think it’ll be easiest if I just work through the article and highlight them in the order that they appear.

1. “My PhD students seem to have to spend three years just getting to the point where they understand what’s being asked of them…”: It’s getting increasingly difficult to make advances in a variety of research domains. The low-hanging fruit has been picked and it subsequently takes longer and longer to get to the forefront of knowledge in any particular area. At some point, making progress in any scientific endeavor is going to require so much expertise that no single human being will be able to contribute much to the overall problem.

2. “I have found myself wondering, with the onslaught of new developments in AI, if the job of mathematician will still be available to humans in decades to come. Mathematics is a subject of numbers and logic. Isn’t that what computers do best?”: On top of this, we also need to contend with the idea that advances in AI seem to indicate that some of these systems are able to develop innovations in what we might consider to be deeply human pursuits. Whether we call this creativity or something else, it’s clear that AI-based systems are providing earlier insights into problems that we may have eventually arrived at ourselves, albeit at some distant point in the future.

3. “I think human laziness is a really important part of finding good, new ways to do things…”: Even in domains of knowledge that seem to be dominated by computation, there is hope in the idea that working together, we may be able to develop new solutions to complex problems. Human beings often look for shortcuts when faced with inefficiency or boredom, something that AI-based systems are unlikely to do because they can simply brute force their way through the problem. Perhaps a combination of a human desire to take the path of least resistance, combined with the massive computational resources that an AI could bring to bear, would result in a solution that’s beyond the capacity of either working in isolation.

4. “Whenever I talk about maths and music, people get very angry because they think I’m trying to take the emotion out of it…”: Du Sautoy suggests that what we’re responding to in creative works of art isn’t an innately emotional thing. Rather, there’s a mathematical structure that we recognise first, and the emotion comes later. If that’s true, then there really is nothing in the way of AI-based systems not only creating beautiful art (they already do that) but of creating art that moves us.

5. “We often behave too like machines. We get stuck. I’m probably stuck in my ways of thinking about mathematical problems”: If it’s true that AI-based systems may open us up to new ways of thinking about problems, we may find that working in collaboration with them makes us – perhaps counterintuitively – more human. If we keep asking what it is that makes us human, and let machines take on the tasks that don’t fit into that model, it may provide space for us to expand and develop those things that we believe make us unique. Rather than competing on computation and reason, what if we left those things to machines, and looked instead to find other ways of valuing human capacity?

Comment: Nvidia AI Turns Doodles Into Realistic Landscapes

Nvidia has shown that AI can use a simple representation of a landscape to render a photorealistic vista that doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world… It has just three tools: a paint bucket, a pen, and a paintbrush. After selecting your tool, you click on a material type at the bottom of the screen. Material types include things like tree, river, hill, mountain, rock, and sky. The organization of materials in the sketch tells the software what each part of the doodle is supposed to represent, and it generates a realistic version of it in real time.

Whitwam, R. (2019). Nvidia AI Turns Doodles Into Realistic Landscapes. Extreme Tech.

You may be tempted think of this as substitution, where the algorithm looks at the shape you draw, notes the “material” it represents (e.g. a mountain) and then matches it to an image of that thing that already exists. But that’s not what’s happening here. The AI is creating a completely new version of what you’ve specified, based on what it knows that thing to look like.

So when you say that this shape is a mountain, it has a general concept of “mountain”, which it uses to create something new. If it were a simple substitution, the algorithm would need you to draw a shape that corresponds to an existing feature of the world. I suppose you could argue that this isn’t real creativity but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that it’s not moving in that direction. The problem (IMO) with every argument saying that AI is not creative, is that these things only ever get better. It may not conform to the definition of creativity that you’re using today, but tomorrow it will.

Can Machines Be Creative? Meet 9 AI ‘Artists’

Humans, however, make art for its own sake, as a form of personal expression. And as computer engineers attempt to imbue artificial intelligence (AI) with humanlike capabilities and behaviors, a question arises: Can AI create art?

Source: Can Machines Be Creative? Meet 9 AI ‘Artists’

The traditional rhetoric around AI-based systems is that they’re getting better at the kinds of computational tasks that we find difficult, but that the realm of creative expression will always be reserved for human beings. You could argue that the examples of creativity in this post are simply combinations of what human beings have already produced, but then again, isn’t creativity just a recombination of existing ideas?

“I offer this to you”

Last week I shared a post that followed from a comment made by a colleague share some ideas on research. She began her presentation saying “I offer this to you…”, which I thought was a wonderful way of sharing her thoughts. Here are the notes I took during the session.

Research is not linear, clean or tidy. Research is iterative. Research is private, personal, individual. It is about exploring a “personal trouble” that we ultimately make public. It is about something that ignites a passion within us, something that can sustain the research. If there is no passion, the process cannot be sustained.

“Teaching students” is different to “producing knowledge”

As teachers, we are often perceived to have the “answers” (or, this is something that we believe ourselves). When you come in with the answers, you close yourself off to the possibility that you may be wrong. When you have the answer, you are not open to new things. Not open to learning.

When conducting research, resist the temptation to create the title first. How can you have a title when you don’t yet know what the research will find?

Grey literature (media, reports, policy) is normative and not about the production of new knowledge. It belongs in the Background. Other people’s research belongs in the Literature review. Journals are where the debates take place. This may have been true in the past. Maybe now we can say that this is where formal debate takes place?

The canon is a key text that frames the literature review.

The method is the framework you will use to connect the different parts of the study.

“Paradigm”: How will your values influence your interpretation of the study?

How will you present your data in relation to the question? It is reasonable to change your question (within limits) after analysing and interpreting the results.

Think of the reference list as an “engagement with other authors”. Use the reference list as a way to conceptualise the conversation you’re having with other researchers.

Try to think of writing your research as a story – a structured narrative that has a plot, the unfolding of a story.

Come to the abstract at the end. Think of it as a “lifting out”. The ideas are there in the paper, waiting to be lifted out. The abstract is often written as a descriptive summary – which is acceptable – but is it ideal? How else could it be written?

The research process is not about meeting the bureaucratic needs of the system because this doesn’t allow for an organic evolution and growth.

The mind of the innocent – student poem

Sometimes a student submits something to me that is so different to what I usually get that I feel a need to share it. This is a contribution by one of our 4th year students, who has kindly agreed to have her work shared here.

The morning after loss is more than obvious
The sombre pierces echoes of the silence
Laid to rest: my buried innocence

Can’t digest the truth I’m told: no more tears as I sit down
The nightmare’s just beginning
The emotions in me die when sanity prevails
Daylight brings some hope but it doesn’t last at all
To heal the wounds time left for me

You can’t change what already happened
I guess that’s the burden I’ll have to live with
Nothing will ever compensate for what I’ve suffered
What’s left for you to offer?

Pain and suffering are blood brothers
Keeping each other away from the cure
Feeling perfect in the short run; dying further in the long term
Hiding from the truth I know, if I put on a facade they won’t know
How I really feel

A field of innocence contains broken flowers
I guess we’ll miss you
After 24 hours

Shameemah Hartley

Can curiosity survive formal education?

3004769-poster-1280-my-email-exchange-aaron-swartz-shows-original-thinkerI came across this interview with Aaron Swartz on the Fast Company site, where the following question was presented to Aaron:

“You did a lot of important things at a very young age, could you describe a few of them? And how do you see and would explain that? Talent, inspiration, curiosity, hard work? Is there something that you would think that other kids who would like to follow your steps should know?”

His response:

“When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that.”

I think this echoes a lot of what Ken Robinson said about how schools kill creativity, as well as Einstein’s quote: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education”. How can we work to create learning spaces that stimulate curiosity, instead of dulling it? How do we rekindle the curiosity that all children are born with, and which dies out as they progress through school? What would a curriculum look like, where curiosity was valued and encouraged? Where students could explore aspects of the programme that scratched a personal itch?

Posted to Diigo 06/21/2012

    • In an article in Creativity Research Journal, Jessica Dillon and Sandra Russ report that:

      “children’s use of imagination in play and their overall comfort and engagement with play activities actually increased over time. In addition, the results suggested that children today expressed less negative feelings in play. Finally, their capacity to express a wide range of positive emotions, to tell stories and to organize thoughts stayed consistent.”

      In addition, they find “that children who exhibit good play skills with imaginative and emotional play situations have shown better skills at coping, creativity and problem solving,” and “even with the lack of time to play, children, like some other forms of higher mammals, have a drive to play and always will find ways to do it.”

      The truth of these observations is one to which any parent of a pre-schooler can attest. Play is what children do, regardless of parental preferences. It is also a truth that is useful to remember whenever you find yourself amongst adults indulging in bemoaning sessions regarding the negative influence of videogames and other crimes of modernity on their children’s play.

Posted to Diigo 01/09/2012

    • Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of   exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially  intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children  in more creative play
    • Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them  constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for  bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition  and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice
    • The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything  America’s school reformers are trying to do
    • For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is  what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the   end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of  American high school
    • Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children   in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves.
    • Periodically, the Ministry   of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across   a range of different schools.
    • “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience  at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something   that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.
    • what   matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given   prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility
    • And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that   nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable
    • “Real winners do not compete.”
    • Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the  goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success   today, was never excellence. It was equity.
    • Education   has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers,   but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
    • this means that schools   should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the   basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health   care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance
    • Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from
    • Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-12-19