Data = not enough


The exponential growth in information is sometimes seen as a cure-all, as computers were in the 1970s. Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, wrote in 2008 that the sheer volume of data would obviate the need for theory, and even the scientific method.

This is an emphatically pro-science and pro-technology book, and I think of it as a very optimistic one. But it argues that these views are badly mistaken. The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them.

Data-driven predictions can succeed—and they can fail. It is when we deny our role in the process that the odds of failure rise. Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves.

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

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In defence of ideas in a world of data

One result of our current economic and technological preoccupations is that we are blind to all possible alternative approaches to a problem. Our approach is not flexible, it is not supple enough to cope with all the contours of complexity which are innate to the world. Thus generally there are two approaches, whereby if we encounter a difficulty we will attempt to address it either via (i) speed or (ii) quantity. The first is where things such as computers and automation come in. Nominally they are here to make the execution of a task quicker, and they are almost always successful at this. The second is a corollary of the first, in that being able to do something faster (i.e., compute) allows us to do more of an action. So the rise in computing power leads in some sense to considering all problems in terms of the raw inputs for computing – data.

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Iamus and algorithmic art: a response

Rick Searle of the ever excellent Utopia or Dystopia (go, subscribe!) wrote a comment to my previous post, and I found my reply getting too long to justify it merely being a comment, so I am placing it here instead. The text of the comment is as follows:

I am curious as to your thoughts on this:

Yesterday, in honor of the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, an orchestra in Europe performed a piece of music that had been entirely created by an AI:

They actually live streamed the performance and I took the chance to listen to it. I am not a great classical music fan, but the piece seemed haunting and beautiful, and the more I reflected on it- a little creepy.

Here was this beautiful piece of art produced by an algorithm completely empty of any emotional life that was nevertheless able to have an emotional effect on me.

It struck me that the one of the questions we have to address when creating these things is not what will the world be like if we create machines that are like humans, but what will the world be like the intelligent machines we create are not like humans at all, and at the same time better, potentially incredibly better, than humans in those very things that we have up to now used to define ourselves? Continue reading

Individuality is unnecessary for intelligence

Computers + artificial intelligence + robotics will not lead us where techno-ideology prays it will. We will not have an android like Data, who will be able to do all the things that we can, only better. To manage to do all that we can, such a technological entity would need to be as versatile, robust, and massively parallel as we are. This might be achieved via incredible inefficiency, or via some form of biological route. The former disqualifies itself from the running, if we are to require that this is to be a project undertaken on a large scale, to augment our reality via an alternative, artificial intelligent life-form of our own making which would be an addition to our existence. The latter is basically growing another, harder, better, faster, stronger version of ourselves, and falls under trans-/post-humanism.

The alternative is to allow technology to do what it does best: allow tools to be excellent at what it is that they are for. This gives specificity, where all the energy and computation is given focus. Let these tools do these tasks amazingly well and without distraction, and then we have a start. Admittedly, this sounds like the Adam Smith view of technology as mass-produced, mono-function widgets. Smart-phones seem to be a counter-example to my throw-back to the industrial revolution. Continue reading

Applying methods of data science to philosophy

[Firstly, I will admit that this post is part of the problem it diagnoses.] Recently watching Hans Rosling‘s rather fun “The Joy of Stats”, I encountered Microsoft Research‘s Head of Computational Science, Stephen Emmott, discussing how advances in statistics and computation are leading the way towards a new model of science. Where previously, he says, science worked according to experiment and hypothesis, our new ability to process vast amounts of data as never before is in fact opoening up new realms of study, allowing us to make new proposals and even to ask entirely new kinds of questions. We have changed the words, and now we are playing around with the syntax and grammar. (Link to Dr. Nico Sommerdijk of Eindhoven University of Technology discussing the same matter here) Continue reading