Humans Learning About Machines Learning

GoDeep learning might sound like that time when we get really serious about what we are thinking about, and go deeper into the subject and learning. But it is not about the human brain. It is about machine learning. Also known as deep structured learning or hierarchical learning, it is part of the study of machine learning methods. It is about machines getting smarter on their own as they complete tasks.

The theories do look at biological nervous systems as models. Neural coding attempts to define a relationship between various stimuli and associated neuronal responses in the brain The terms used are many. Deep learning architecture, deep neural networks, deep belief networks and recurrent neural networks are all labels used in computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing, audio recognition, social network filtering, machine translation, bioinformatics and drug design. That means a machine is producing results instead of human experts.

Google's artificial intelligence software, DeepMind, has gotten a fair amount of press coverage. It has the ability to teach itself many things, including how to walk, jump, and run. In the press, it will defeat the world's best player of the Chinese strategy game, Go, but deep learning is more serious than that.

You can take a free, 3-month course on Deep Learning offered through Udacity, taught by Vincent Vanhoucke, the technical lead in Google's Brain team.

Machine learning is a fast-growing and exciting field of study and deep learning is at its "bleeding edge. This course is considered to be an "intermediate to advanced level course offered as part of the Machine Learning Engineer Nanodegree program. It assumes you have taken a first course in machine learning, and that you are at least familiar with supervised learning methods."

Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

From Digital Citizen to Robot Citizen

I can remember lots of people talking back in the end of the 20th century talking about people - especially students - becoming digital citizens. You may have read that recently Saudi Arabia gave a robot citizenship. It was mostly a PR stunt to promote that country's tech summit, but some commenters are speculating on what it means to have a citizen that you can buy.

This human-like robot (Are we not using the term "android" any more for humanoid robots?) is named Sophia and has been making appearances. In early October she was at the United Nations to tell them “I am here to help humanity create the future.” And, as the Arab News headlined it, “Sophia the robot becomes first humanoid Saudi citizen.”

We will see more robots like Sophia. Her maker, Hanson Robotics, expects to expand its operations, and China is aiming to triple their annual production of robots to 100,000 by 2020.

Besides the uncanny valley effect of Sophia's humanness, there are plenty of people who are uncomfortable with not only these robots but artificial intelligence in general. Though AI scares Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, Musk's and Gates' companies are pursuing research into it and using it in their products and services. The idea of a robot developing self-consciousness is a step too far for many people though. 

Is AI in a robot a serious threat to the existence of humanity?

What Happened to Digital Humanities?

Remember digital humanities? It's not gone, but it's not thriving. It is an academic field concerned with the application of computational tools and methods to traditional humanities disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy.

Do you recall the slide that Steve Jobs often used to close a presentation?

JobsJobs said that "technology alone is not enough - it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yilds us the result that makes our heart sing."

In "The Digital-Humanities Bust"  Timothy Brennan, a professor of cultural studies, comparative literature, and English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, says that "After a decade of investment and hype, what has the field accomplished? Not much."

"...the dream that algorithmic computation might reveal the secrets of complex social and cultural processes has suffered a very public and embarrassing results crisis. These setbacks have also led to some soul-searching in the university, prompting a closer look at the digital humanities. Roughly a decade’s worth of resources have now been thrown in their direction, including the founding of an Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, unheard-of amounts of funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a parade of celebratory anthologies backed by crossover articles in high-profile magazines, and academic job openings in an era of tenure-track scarcity. So, with all their promise, and all this help, what exactly have the digital humanities accomplished?"

The rise of STEM and the attention and the grant money money that came with that rise made many humanities departments decide to embrace new tools. Okay, that is harsh. I was in one of those humanities departments and it was in a STEM university. But many of us really believe in using digital tools. Brennan even notes that a number of "digital techniques conform beautifully to some types of humanistic work."

Maybe the digital humanities haven't met the hype or the goals that were originally envisioned, maybe the goals were unrealistic, but they are not going away.




The UX of Course Design

UXI stumbled upon a post on Medium by John Spencer called "8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design - How a Small Side Project Changed the Way I Teach."  As someone who has taught for a quartet of decades and done UX design and even taught UX, I was intrigued by what he might have learned about "how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses."

A few basics to start: User experience design theory is confusingly abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED, But it is about focusing on the user experience of a device, tool, platform or web application. In doing this, a designer considers accessibility, usability and the easy to overlook pleasure someone might get from the interaction. Do you think Facebook would be as popular if people didn't get pleasure from using it?

Spencer says he first embraced UX design when he worked on creating a blogging platform for students called Write About.

As with any design, you make the best that you can, add features you think users will want - but then you have to deal with how users react and use it.

Is there a connection to teaching?

Every lesson has a design and teachers learn to design based on what works with a course or even with a specific group of students. Even larger in the design scheme is our current use of classroom systems and course architecture.

Building tools and systems that can be used intuitively understand with a minimum of additional instruction or training is key to UX. If you as a teacher spend a lot of time teaching procedures and methods rather than teaching your content and concepts.

Some of Spencer's takeaways make a lot of sense to me. For example, embrace onboarding. Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members. When you sign into a website or register for a service, you might get virtual tour and buttons have pop-ups or rollover text. The designers want you to feel comfortable as you navigate that first experience. Do we offer that to students when they enter a course?

Read Spencer's post, but maybe think about course design as a system that should seem invisible. I don't know that you need to be a UX designer to teach, or that we can all create a course that when you enter it you immediately know where to go and what to do, but we can certainly put the learner at the center of the design.

MOOCs are the Zombies of Online Education

The death of the MOOC has been declared since 2013 (the year after it was the "year of the MOOC") but they seem to come back to life again.

Udacity vice president Clarissa Shen said recently “they are dead.. a failed product, at least for the goals we had set for ourselves, Our mission is to bring relevant education which advances people in careers and socio-economic activities, and MOOCs aren't the way.”

Back in 2013 after only a year, Udacity’s co-founder, Sebastian Thrun, announced a “pivot” away from MOOCs. But Udacity still offers  a form of the MOOC in its paid sequences of courses called “nanodegrees” that it produces in cooperation with large tech employers and still offers free versions of its course videos for those who don’t want or need a certificate of completion.