Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tools that Think for Us

Section - A  — Big Data and Algorithms

In March of 2016 a computer named Alpha Go, took another big step towards showing that our new tools are capable of solving more complex problems. It beat the world’s best GO player at that ancient game which has almost an infinite number of moves. This was more difficult than just combing through tons of data like Deep Blue did when it beat the worlds’ best chess player, Gary Kasparov, in 1997, or when Watson beat Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings at Jeopardy in 2011. In this contest, Alpha Go beat Lee Se Dol four matches to one.  It showed that a software program developed at Google could learn from experience and improve its own performance.  
The program was designed to improve itself based upon it’s successes and failures, even in very complex circumstances. That’s what smart humans do, but the machine’s approach was very different.  Another major difference between the machine and human competitors, is that the machine was unaffected by fatigue or psychological pressure.  Lee Se Dol emphasized that difference in his post-match interview. "It is different, there's no doubt. First of all, its not human. It took time for me to get used to its playing style," Lee said."It's not shaken up psychologically and stays focused right until the end," he said.  
It seems that one of the reasons that Lee is such a great champion is his ability to read his opponent and to push a person to his limits. People react when they feel they have made a mistake or if they think they are beginning to lose (see: Trump).  That was not true with Alpha Go.  Observers felt the machine made a strategic error early in the last match, but that didn’t upset it  — it was unaware of it really, since it is not really “aware” of anything, and it never gets “upset.”  As play continued it was able to make the necessary corrections.  
Besides the obvious advantage of computing power, it is this  lack of emotion that is the major difference between people and our machines and tools.  Machines have no prejudices or biases; they just look at the data.  And the data is another big difference.  The start of the new millennium was the time that the term “Big Data began to gain a lot of traction.  People in many fields were realizing that the amount of information that was being produced, and the amount of different factors that computers could collect and analyze, was way beyond what any human mind could keep up with, or make sense out of.  
“Big Data” is now the term for how machines do that job for us.  Big Data is the answer to the problems of being overwhelmed by the five “Vs” of information: Volume, Variety, Velocity, Variability and Veracity.  What many people don’t realize is how pervasive the use of Big Data has already become in our lives, and it will play a much greater role in the future.   It is what every retailer uses to follow what we have looked at, what we bought and then determine what they can sell us next.  It is what every political party uses to see who we may vote for, and how they can try to change our mind.  It is how sports teams decide what players deserve a lot of money.  It is what your insurance company uses to decide how much risk there is in your life. It is what doctors are using to help with diagnoses and treatment.
For several years now I have been trying to persuade my colleagues who do psychotherapy to take advantage of the capabilities of Big Data to improve their diagnostic skills and clinical interventions.  The overwhelming response I’ve received has been that would be one of the most counter-productive and anti-clinical actions anyone could take.  It would remove the element of therapy that is most important to making it work, the “human” element.
I strongly agree with that.  Because what  the “human” element really means is to make a decision based upon intuition, and emotion.  A person’s intuition comes from his or her own experience and that experience is very limited compared to all the data that is complied by a super-computer.  Likewise an emotional decision, which is a major element in almost all human decisions, is very biased as it is based upon that person’s immediate, protective needs, or short-term desires. This is true, even for therapist (imagine that).

Big Data takes the huge volume of data that is feed into it.  Sorts through it all with great speed (velocity). It finds regular, reoccurring patters in the Variety of the data, and can check on the Veracity of those patterns.  It does this with no pre-conceived ideas ( If it had a mind it would be an open mind, but of course, it doesn’t have a mind), and it does it all much faster and more accurately than any person can.
Big Data can find early indications of depression in ways that no clinician can.  In fact it can detect signs of depression even earlier than the person who is becoming depressed. There are examples of machines showing that when a person’s activities show minor changes, that it could either be a good sign or a bad sign.  If a man has been going to Home Depot, or Auto Zone almost every weekend for five years, and then he stops going, it may indicate that he has found a girlfriend who he values more, or he is getting depressed and no longer cares about his home or car as much as he always had.
There are many such patterns that Big Data already has about all of us.  We all have generated data that gets fed into huge data bases that are kept by retail companies, credit card companies, governments, political parties, and who knows who else.  It is not hard to track what we buy, how we spend our disposable income, what books and movies we watch, how much we exercise, what kinds of foods we eat, who we spend time with, and what vices we enjoy.  From all that it is easy to generate what we are about to do next. “People who listen to David Bowie also like David Bryne” is one of the more innocuous examples. If anyone could access the data you have voluntarily complied on you phone they would know much more about you, and be able to make more accurate predictions about how you will behave than you probably could for yourself.
But the main advantage / disadvantage of Big Data is that it doesn’t care. It shows things that are counter-intuitive, or that people don’t want to accept, for example that children who are raised with two parents of the same sex grow up to be heterosexual at the same rate as children of children raised by heterosexual parents, or that Republicans have the same general IQ level as Democrats, or that it’s better to have LeBron on your team than Stephan Curry.
These computer tools we have created will only get better at what they do. As we can see from the GO game, they will improve by correcting their own mistakes. Many more of our decisions will be guided by computer algorithms. This will be true for large scale decisions such as finance, city planning, health care, and elections, as well as individual decisions, such as our choices in music, restaurants, schools, or job fitness. 

Do we want this kind of guidance?  Will we accept it and use it?  Will we even be aware of how much we are being influenced?  How many of these algorithms are made for our best interest, or are the there to promote someone’s profits?

Coming Next:  Section B: But We Are Human

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tools 2: Tools That Do Our Work

Anyone who is working at a job in any scientific field is aware of how new technological tools have increased their ability to explore almost any question, and to do so a thousand times faster than anyone could thirty years ago.  Genetic studies that would have needed thirty years to observe twins to grow-up can now be done in a matter of hours by looking at their DNA.  The availability of techniques such as CRISP-R are dramatically changing the way people are attacking genetic diseases.
The Super-Collider is another widely-publicized research tool that is allowing cosmologists to answers questions about the formation of our universe. We are beginning to get answers to questions that had previously been based only on faith.
Watson computers are not only playing chess and Jeopardy, they are being used as a “clinical decision support system.” This machine can process four terabytes of information in the a tiny fraction of the time that it takes your doctor to stare at the ceiling and try to recall what he knows.
Advances in brain science have are being done using improved FMRI machines as well as PET scans and variations of electronic brain stimulators.
The list of fields that have been totally changed since the start of the new millennium is endless.  It goes from the examination of ancient scrolls to the exploration of asteroids. No one who does any kind of research or scientific inquiry today does it in the same manner that their predecessors did as little as twenty years ago.  If they are they are wasting time.

Of course, it isn’t just science, technology has now disrupted almost every job in every field: farming, journalism, law, music, art, even waiting on tables and doing dishes. Delivery services such as UPS now not only monitor their trucks and packages, they can monitor how fast each driver is driving, and how many packages they deliver in an hour.  Almost every job, from analytics to zeppelin construction, has their own specifically designed software packages to guide the workers.  The trend is that the software and hardware is quickly replacing most of the workers, and doing a better job.

Increasingly, unpleasant jobs are being done by bots and robots. Assembly lines, which are full of repetitive tasks, such as those that build cars, sort medicines, and fill soda bottles were one of the first adaptations of using machines to replace workers.  Machines don’t  get tired, don’t take breaks and remain accurate.  Robots go into burning buildings,  Robots disarm bombs.  Robots clean-up hazardous waste. Robots go into battle,  Drones observe, track and can kill enemy combatants, (and sometimes their families).

Robots are being designed to take over more tasks. It has become clear that any job that pays under twenty dollars an hour can probably be performed better by a robot.  That includes the cooks at McDonalds and home health aids.  There are studies the show that many elderly and somewhat demented people respond very well to being guided, reminded, and talked to by robots. There are also robots that can take a person’s blood pressure and monitor other important bodily functions.  They can do this while the persons sits at home. Many people do this for themselves with small devices such as Fitbits or other health apps, of which there are now thousands. Once any doctor, insurance company or therapists gains access to the information on your cell-phone they will know much more about you than you know about yourself.
A self-driving car, which is right on the horizon, is a specialized robot.  In fact, they are here, just waiting for the laws to catch-up.  Eventually, these will be easier, safer, more fuel efficient, more time efficient, and cost less.  Self-driving cars will probably eliminate traffic jams, as they will be in touch with each other, know alternate routes, and not be subjected to the random actions of individual drivers. They will put hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

All of these things are just the most obvious kinds of technologies that will all almost certainly become part of our lives in the not very distant future, probably within twenty years.  They will alter the kinds of skills that will be necessary for people to successfully run their lives. There will be a need for physical exercise, but that will  be in the service of keeping your body healthy or for athletic pursuits.  The need to use human muscle power to do manual labor will be greatly diminished.  
This will change the nature of human bodies and, since we know there is a strong mind/body connection, that will change people’s thoughts and emotions..  For me, as a psychologist, I have no way of predicting if people will feel more relaxed, capable and able to enjoy themselves, or if these changes will result in more obesity and sickness. Will we develop an awareness that our lives are so much more dependent upon different kinds of machines, or will this just happen, drop by drop, until many of us think differently, solve problems differently, and slowly change into a different form of our species?

There will be a continued deterioration in many skills that were very basic to human adaptation.  I suspect that people will lose the sense of where they are in the world, how to get from place to place, how to traverse difficult terrain, and how to find your way home on your own.  All of these will probably become competitive sports, but most people won’t bother to learn those skills.
I am just one or two generations away from the time when people had to grow their own food. Many also hunted, fished and trapped for protein, or else they raised and slaughtered animals themselves.  My generation saw the rise of supermarkets, shopping malls, and strip malls, all with huge parking lots. I learned how to drive when i was sixteen and that gave me the freedom to live on my own, go anywhere I wanted, see friends easily and get myself to work.
The next generation who comes into the developed world will probably not have to shop, cook, or drive.  They will probably not even have to keep track of what they need, as all they will have to do is ask the descendant of Amazon’s Echo to make sure that they have all their supplies of food, milk, bread, wine and wafers.  Most of the usual supplies will be on a regular delivery schedule and be put on the shelves, or into the refrigerator.  Many of our meals will be specifically designed for us and come completely prepared and placed directly on the table by a friendly robot. All of these things are very possible, but only for those who can afford them.

The effects of all of these work saving tools are two-fold.  They make life physically easier for people, both at work and at home.  There will be no need to carry heavy parts and tools, to use a hammer or saw, or drive or fly hundreds of miles.  No need to vacuum the floor, walk up and down the isles of supermarkets, or clean-up after grandpa.  It will all be done by robots and the Internet of Things.
Another positive effect will be to eliminate human error.  Self-driving cars will be safer and more efficient than human drivers.  They will not be affected by bad moods, loud music, texting, traffic, or road rage.  That will be true for trucks and planes also. Already, computers tally bills more accurately, make change, keep track of who is buying what, give out rewards, and keep records, with no mistakes.  They are unaffected by fatigue, repetitive actions, ADHD, the urge to steal, or flirting with customers. They are vulnerable to hacking.
The unintended effects of these technological advances will take place in our brains.  It will be more pronounced in the brains of the children who will be raised surrounded by all of theses robots, interconnectedness and embedded artificial intelligence.  What skills will they need besides coding, wanting, and fending off social media attacks?
Other questions revolve around the unresolved issues regarding if machines are doing all the work, what will people do? If people aren’t working, how can they afford these devices?  Will we just play games or will we learn to get along with each other?  
Or, will our primitive urges still be the most powerful and we still divide into tribes and use all of these new tools to destroy each other?

What is clear, especially clear at this moment, is that our so called leaders are pretty clueless and unprepared for what is coming.  Most politician don’t understand the technology and have trouble using email.  They all, from your town council member to the President of the U.S. are talking about creating better jobs when they should be thinking about how people will live if one third of them work, or if everyone works fifteen hours a week. What about security?  What about privacy? What about generating enough power for all of these machines without ruining the planet?  
These are just the most obvious of the questions that need to be confronted starting now.  I haven’t heard a word about any of them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fancy Tools - 1


This will come as no surprise to any of you but I am writing these words on a laptop computer.  I am sitting at my desk at home but I could be in my office at work, or in a local coffee shop, or in a hotel lobbying Boston, or a hotel lobby in Mumbai, or the airport in Timbuktu.  Most of the world is not at all surprised by this, but my twenty year-old self would have been writing with a pencil in a spiral notebook, misspelling twenty percent of the words.
In a few paragraphs I will cite some research done by Dr. Dietrich Stout, of Emory University, who is a neuro- anthropologist, a profession that did not exist ten years ago.  I first read about his research in a magazine, but when I wanted to learn more I just clicked on a search engine and I was connected to 364,00 references to him in .53 seconds.  I’m sure that none of this is surprising to any of you, but again, when I was in college, way back when the world was colder, the Celtics were champion every year and Bill Russell was paid $100,001 for the season, I may still have received a magazine describing Dr. Stouts’s work.  But to learn more I would have had to go to the library and search through the stacks and hope to find the right anthropological journal among the hundreds of journals in the library.  Now of course, here are thousands of journals, and almost all of them are accessible in .53 seconds, right here where I am sitting.
Clearly, my computer is a tool, a complex, electronic tool that is connected to a power source. One of the distinctive behaviors that have differentiated humans from other species is our ability to make tools.  We are not the only species that can do this, but we have certainly taken this concept further by far than the crow who uses a stick or the orangutan that uses a rock.  Birds can fly, but we have built planes.  Whales can live under water for hours, people can stay under water for months. As far as we know there is no other species that uses calculus. 
We have reached the level of tool development at which tools are totally interwoven into every aspect of our lives. It has become impossible for us to live the lives we do without them.  We live in homes that are heated and cooled.  We move from place to place in cars, boats, trains and planes.  We use tractors to plant our food and huge harvesters to bring in in from the field. There are refrigerated trucks and planes that ship the food all over the world. We have drugs to kill harmful bacteria, and drugs to keep our hearts beating and drugs to relieve pain. Yes, there may be some people who try to live their lives “off the grid,” but it is impossible for them not to be affected by those whose lives are lived on the grid, even if it is just the negative effects of climate change and pollution.
This brings us to Dr. Stout’s work. He has been studying what happens to people’s brains when they learn to use tools.  He is starting at the beginning.  He is watching what happens to the  brains of people when they learn to make and use the first tools that humanoids made 500,000 years ago, which was before our species, homo sapien, emerged. He has been teaching himself and many students how to make stone axes. He is using more sophisticated tools to watch the changes that occur in their brains as they learn. First he used FDG-PET,  fluorodeoxyglucose positron-emission tomography, then he used an MRI , magnetic resonance imaging, to explore how learning to make tools improved the brains of our ancestors. 
Dr. Stout and his colleagues have been able to show that learning a new skill, a skill that is difficult to learn and takes a great deal of practice, will produce changes in the brains of people of any age. These are the kinds of changes that once they are learned, give the person an adaptive advantage.  The people who learned to make and use axes had a better chance of surviving than people who didn’t.  These people also learned to show others whom they associated with, their tribe, how to make tools, and that gave the whole tribe an advantage, and so their society changed, along with their brains.
That is what is happening today.  We are all learning to use new tools, and new tools are being invented and created at a much faster pace than they were 500,000 years ago. Obviously, the rate of change is much faster.  We will not wait another few thousand years to turn an axe into a spear, or a car into a driverless car.
The speed of creation of new tools has been greatly amplified because we now build tools to build tools.  In order to build new planes we first write software programs to write software to design the programs to build the planes. We have already built the computers to run the software. Our lives have become so involved with our tools that the most important skill a person needs to live well and prosper is to be able to control the tools.  However, in many ways, it now often seems as if our tools have such a strong impact on our lives that they control us.
Our tools, especially the electronic ones, have greatly accelerated the speed of change, and this will continue to accelerate due to the changes it creates.  The electronic tools we create help us make those tools faster, help us aggregate more data, which helps us find more patterns and create new algorithms, which shows us more options.. These options are communicated at an increasing speed to everyone and anyone who will make use of that information to create new tools.

If they have not already, these tools have changed the way almost everyone on earth lives their lives.  Jobs have shifted all over the world because people who are in company headquarters in New York can know instantly what production is going on in China, how quickly the product can be shipped to Denmark, and how much money will be sent to the bank in London.  Money itself is only an electronic blip on a screen, and can move at almost the speed of light.
This kind of instant, world wide communication has changed how people meet, learn about each other, and in many cases mate and start families.  I have had several patients who have made friends with people thousands of miles apart, sometimes on other continents. Based on virtual communications they have decided they are in love and have left what they considered boring, unfulfilling lives to seek love and romance miles away.
Yes, several have been swindled and fooled and have returned broke and broken hearted.  But I have seen several people who have found what they had hoped for, or at least enough of it to begin new lives.  One woman left Massachusetts for Hawaii, another young woman had a young man come from Alabama, and another woman began a romance with a soldier who was in Iraq.  He came home wounded, had his leg amputated and a prothesis put one, and then they got married.
All of this would have been very difficult before 2005, when Facebook began, and helped the world to keep in touch.  There were dating sites earlier than that, Match began ten years earlier, but by 2005 a huge portions of the world was on the Internet.  In 2007 the first iPhone was sold. The world, and our brains, have been changing rapidly ever since.
If learning the skill to make a stone axe changes the shape and connectivity of a person’s brain, what does learning to write computer code do to the brains of young, or old, coders?  Is the shape of my eighteen month old my granddaughter’s brains altered as she learned to take my smart phone and push the right spots on the screen to find Elmo? If getting a ping on the corner of your field of vision every twenty seconds alerting you to some new bit of information, one of which may make you change the entire piece of work you’ve been doing for two weeks because this new piece of information says that three old pieces of information are now deemed questionable, what does that do to your brain? or blood pressure? your emotional stability?

The biggest impact of the rapid development of all of these electronic tools has been on our ability to expand our knowledge about who we are, how the world works , and even the universe that we live in.  Since the beginning of the new millennium more has been discovered and learned in every field of science than had been known in the previous four thousand years.  A research question that could never have been asked thirty years ago can now be answered in a week, sometimes in seconds.  So much of wha I learned in college and graduate school is now considered obsolete, or just plain wrong because so much of it was based on speculation, or the best possible guess, when now we have very clear data.  
It is often pointed out that the warehouse size computers that were used to guide the first moon landing did not have the computing power of an iPhone 5.  If we use all the tools we now have we could solve almost all of the world’s problems such as hunger, climate change, water distribution and disease.  The obstacles that remain are financial and political. We are still searching for tools to help interpersonal relationships, and then to get people to use them.

Many questions keep floating into my consciousness: Is this what we want? How can we choose? How can we adapt to these changes?  What skills will be necessary to live and prosper in this new world?  Who will possess those skills?  What about all the rest of the people?