A.I.: What we can learn from the genius baby

This morning I was listening to a podcast episode of Crazy/Genius titled “Can Artificial Intelligence Be Smarter Than a Human Being?” A question I’m sure many of us have pondered. Artificial Intelligence, and more specifically the subset of Machine Learning, is becoming more and more ubiquitous across all business sectors. In many cases in both public perception and actual business practicality, not implementing A.I. in your startup is seen as a competitive disadvantage. But as we move toward a future in which A.I. might surround almost every aspect of our daily lives, a natural question to raise is “What’s the true purpose of A.I.?”

To backtrack, let’s distinguish Artificial Intelligence from Machine Learning. To simplify, Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) is the broader aspect of machines that can perform tasks that are characteristic of human intelligence. While this is rather general, it includes things like planning, understanding language, recognizing objects and sounds, learning, and problem solving. Machine learning (“ML”) is a subset, or branch, of AI – it is a way of achieving AI by allowing machines to process information and learn on their own. AI can be achieved without ML, but this would require building millions of lines of code with complex rules and decision-trees to perform tasks that would traditionally require human-level intelligence. With ML, you can teach the machine to learn & adjust over time as it processes data.

So where would ML be useful? The answer is virtually every. single. sector. Take the growing field of autonomous vehicles for example which today utilize a field of engineering called “computer vision” to process and analyze visual data on the road. Instead of providing massive amounts of data to these machines to distinguish between objects, we can teach them to learn and reliably adjust over time as they process data. Another example is in the same industry, but in the hardware manufacturing sector where generative design systems were used to create car parts that weighed less with the same flexibility and strength. The AI system mimicked biology to create parts using a honeycomb structure, that when zoomed down to the microscopic level, looks and functions similar to our own bone structure. Expanding even further, you could apply this same generative design process to experimental drugs using a simulator to work through various scenarios of how a drug might react in various conditions without risking a human life.

So AI has the ability to enrich our lives and processes in so many different ways, but can artificial intelligence be smarter than a human? At the moment the answer is yes and no. Let’s take the example of the Deep Blue chess computer developed by IBM that ultimately defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. In the dimension of chess-playing, Deep Blue is by definition “smarter” than Garry. However, you can’t interview the computer after the game ends. In this way, machine learning is like a genius baby – it absorbs everything, it does a few narrow things extremely well, but understands almost nothing.

Another example of an ML folly described in the podcast episode was one where researches decided to build a robot that could rearrange itself to cover some distance. The researchers expected the robot to ultimately rearrange itself to have legs, learn the mechanics of walking, and reach its destination by walking over. However the machine decided to stack itself vertically and fall forward. From our narrow human perspective, we would label the result as a “failure” by projecting our own biases onto the machine. But from the objective of the machine, the goal was achieved – it found the most efficient way to cover that distance.

The interesting fact is that biologists discovered that wheat uses this same strategy to propagate. At the end of each season, these tall stalks of wheat fall over and their seeds land slightly farther away from their origin. So what took wheat millions of years of mutation and evolution to learn, this ML system learned rapidly. In a research paper from March 2018 titled The Surprising Creativity of Digital Evolution, the concluding excerpt reads:

 

“Across a compendium of examples we have reviewed many ways in which digital evolution produces surprising and creative solutions. The diversity and abundance of these examples suggest that surprise in digital evolution is common, rather than a rare exception. For every story we received or heard, there are likely to be many others that have been already forgotten as researchers retire. The ubiquity of these anecdotes also means that creativity is not confined to evolution in nature, but appears to be a pervasive feature of evolutionary processes in general.

These anecdotes thus serve as evidence that evolution—whether biological or computational—is inherently creative, and should routinely be expected to surprise, delight, and even outwit us.

 

As AI improves and becomes more ubiquitous, the best way forward in my mind is to augment AI with our lives to better enrich it. But for now, what we can all learn from these “genius babies” is to remove our subjective biases on what the “wrong” or “right” way to achieve a goal is, in order to foster unadulterated creativity. The most creative solutions can often be discovered through unconventional means, as evident through examples in biology and computation. At the moment, these genius babies are learning about the world with pure innocence and wonder, not tainted by the limitations of subjective biases that we tend to thrust on our lives as we grow older. Whether AI will overthrow the human-race like Elon predicts…I’ll save that thought for another time.  

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Standing Out

arnold

Today I was listening to a podcast interview of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the interviewer brought up an interesting topic. He said that from looking at Arnold’s photographs from his first bodybuilding competition (that he won) as a teenager, he could actually assume that Arnold won that competition without looking at any of the competitors’ bodies – just by looking at the confidence in young Arnold’s face. Arnold went on to explain that from an early age, he always had a clear vision that he was going to be a world champion in bodybuilding. So when he stepped on stage, he competed as if he was already the best.

What makes people like Arnold so special? There are many factors, for sure, but we can all agree that successful people in any field have this innate characteristic that makes them stand out from the crowd. Especially in the startup world, most investors always invest in people first, idea second. They look for certain qualities that make an entrepreneur an outlier – someone that can get things done and make something happen in this world. Someone that doesn’t necessarily have a gift, but they’ve cultivated certain qualities within them over time for an investor to think, “Wow, I want to join this person on this ride.”

I have a maxim that I wrote on a sticky note and have up on a wall in my room. It reads:

YOU HAVE TO BE CRAZY TO DO CRAZY.

crazy.jpg

Put in another way, if you want to do extraordinary things within your lifetime, you have to be willing to break away from the thought and actions patterns of the average. I was masterminding this morning on this topic with a close friend of mine, and he brought up a great point – when we think of these outliers that we admire and emulate (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama, Gandhi, etc. etc), it’s very natural to think that these figures are/were gifted with character traits that only the 1% have (i.e. the “I can never be like them” mindset). I thought about it for a moment, and I took the opposite point of view – it’s actually not as hard as we think to stand out.

It doesn’t take a lot to stand out and be “special” actually. The threshold is so low. Even in the classroom for example, raising your hand puts you in the top 50%. Going to office hours puts you in the top 10%. Researching what the professor worked on in the past and cares about puts you in the top 1%. By nature, most people in groups will conform to the actions of the majority. So it doesn’t take a whole lot to stand out.

So try a thought exercise: think about what it would take to stand out in a current situation in your life that could have a positive impact. What would it take to stand out in your company? To be noticed by that investor? To impress that girl?

There is always a third door

All highly successful people treat life, business, and success just like a nightclub. There are always three ways in.

There’s the First Door, where 99% of people wait in line, hoping to get in.

There’s the Second Door, where billionaires and royalty slip through.

But then there is always, always…the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you have to jump out of line, run down the alley, climb over the dumpster, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, and sneak through the kitchen. But there’s always a way in.

Whether it’s how Bill Gates sold his first piece of software, or how Steven Spielberg became the youngest director at a major studio in Hollywood — they all took the Third Door.

– Alex Banayan

Ray Dalio’s 5-Step Process to Success

I’m currently reading Ray Dalio’s new book, Principles, which outlines his principles that he’s followed throughout his life to create one of the most successful hedge funds in the world and within the top 100 wealthiest people in the world. He has a simple 5-step process that he says, “if you can do these 5 things well, you will almost certainly be successful.

  1. Have clear goals.
  2. Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals.
  3. Accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes.
  4. Design plans that will get you around them.
  5. Do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results

Maybe: What’s Good or What’s Bad?

While I was listening to a guided meditation this morning on controlling your emotions to not be so quick to judge what may be “good” or “bad,” I was told a Zen parable about an old farmer. Take a read below:

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

This short parable shows us how nothing in life is ever static, so we must avoid to be so quick to judge anything as good or bad. Learn to accept things as they are, for something that you may consider “bad fortune” today might be a blessing in disguise tomorrow.