Confessions of a researchaholic

February 22, 2012

Artificial intelligence

When I was younger I preferred to stay away from people as much as possible, as most of them are not very interesting and it is much more rewarding for me to be alone thinking and reading.

When I get older, I realized that humans are intensively intriguing subjects for study. I started to spend a lot of time observing human behaviors and try guessing what they are thinking and predicting their actions.

This caused certain dilemma for me: on one hand I still want to be as far away as possible from people, but on the other hand, I want to be close enough with them for the purpose of studies and observations.
(The penalty and reward seem to go in tandem; crowd behavior is the most interesting, but also the most annoying to be part of.)

Fortunately, computer science comes into rescue. Far from the common stereotypes (of nerds locking in toilets), computer science, especially the most current and active subjects, are very human centric. One example is user interface, including design for better user experiences, as well as analysis and synthesis for deeper understanding and more advanced interactions.

A more recent example is social networking. Previously, most human daily activities simply dissipated into entropy. Now, with people spending more of their interactions through various social networking sites, we can record their activities in better quality and quantity.
Such data not only enables better computer technologies but more profoundly, more insights into human nature. (Facebook probably knows more about certain individuals than their mothers do.)

Two sci-fi series could provide inspirations for both directions.

Caprica is about how humans create Cylons, a cyber-genetic life form that eventually pushes humans near extinction in the main Battlestar Galactica series (which I found to be much less interesting).

Dollhouse is about how technologies can allow memories and personalities to be extracted from one individual and installed into another, essentially programming human brains.

Both offer insights into computer science and humanity, as well as highly enjoyable entertainments. Unfortunately, both got canceled prematurely due to low ratings, a confirmation of my childhood observation about how ordinary humans would react to deeper materials.

June 6, 2010

Take your time

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:20 pm
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When I was younger I always thought if I am smart enough I ought to be able to learn everything faster than normal (e.g. trying to pick up calculus at fifth grade but did not succeed until ninth). But as I grew older I gradually discovered that there are things that simply cannot and should not be accelerated. The universe moves at its own grace, and sometimes it is best to decipher its mystery simply by playing along.

Smart people can go faster, but intelligent people know when to take their time.

July 22, 2009

The randomness in life

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 10:43 am
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The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
by Leonard Mlodinow

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Thanks to the advances of probability theory and quantum physics, most people today would have no problem accepting the fact that the physical world we inhabit is subject to randomness and the future cannot be predicted deterministically. However, we tend to associate this randomness with the microscopic atomic world and under-estimate the role randomness plays in our macroscopic daily lives. In a nutshell, due to evolutionary reasons, human minds tend to rationalize events that are random, often trying to find patterns, rules, or causalities that really do not exist.

Two books render this point excellently; one by Taleb that I read a while ago, and another by Mlodinow that I just finished yesterday.

Mlodinow is a scientist turned writer, and thus his book is written in a popular science fashion, with plain English descriptions (no single equation is shown in the book) of the basic probability and statistical theories, their historical progressions, and anecdotes of peoples involved in their discoveries. Based on these scientific expositions, Mlodinow ventured into a few more philosophical suggestions, such as that life is more random than we intuit and thus we should not interpret too much rules or causalities, as well as the suggestion that the best strategy to overcome this randomness is the law of large numbers, i.e. keep trying and never give up easily.

Overall, this is a highly entertaining book, and I particularly enjoy the anecdotes of these scientists and mathematicians involved in the evolution of the probability and statistical theories. (It appears that their lives and discoveries are also subject to randomness.) I also concur with the moral lessons that Mlodinow suggested (anyone with enough experience in scientific publications, or more precisely, rejections, ought to be able to appreciate the meaning of the law of large numbers).

Taleb, on the other hand, is a philosopher turned trader (or the other way around; I cannot really tell). Thus, even though sharing a similar central theme with the book by Mlodinow, the one by Taleb is filled with stories and observations he made from his trading desk (or pit) interspersed with either philosophical statements or scientific statements made by a philosopher. The book is also highly entertaining but in a way different from Mlodinow’s; it is more sarcastic (in a good way) and the anecdotes are about the financial rather than the scientific world.

I highly recommend both books, and suggest reading them in succession for extra fun. (I read Taleb’s book so long ago that my memory for it already fades when writing this article.)

May 14, 2009

Creating versus Spotting

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 3:21 pm
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Out of pure coincidence, I read two different articles at roughly the same time yesterday, both related to the issue of creating versus spotting (or discovering):

In Mark Cuban’s blog entry on Success & Motivation, he said the key to recognizing a profitable business opportunity is knowing the industry. Everyone has ideas, but the hard part is doing homework knowing which idea would work in a business (or risk getting your butt kicked).

In the book Made to Stick by the Heath brothers, they argued that creativity is not necessary for sticky ideas. There are always more ideas out there than that can be created by the most creative single individual, and the hard part is about spotting the right ones.

So essentially what they are all saying is that creativity is either less important than most people think, or downright unnecessary. The positive interpretation of this point is that since spotting is about effort, whereas creating is about serendipity or some innate ability, hard working would pay off for not only everything else but also for finding good ideas. The negative interpretation, though, is that creativity might be an illusion, and human brains are just machines that could discover ideas and connecting dots.

This also reminds me of a related point that I read about a long time ago (I have forgotten the source) arguing that there is really no such thing as creativity in the human intelligence, as what we think as creations are essentially discoveries. This applies to science, art, religion, and everything else. So quantum physics, relativity, cubism, capitalism, and credit default swaps are all discovered rather than created.

Is there any single idea that can be formally proven to be a real creation rather than a mere discovery?

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