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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Artificial Intelligence, Jeopardy, and the inane reporting of the New York Times

I usually write about education in this column. But, yesterday, the New York Times ran a front page article on Artificial Intelligence. They ran it because there is an upcoming competition between an IBM computer and the champions of the Jeopardy TV show. It is being billed as a man against machine competition to see if people are smarter than computers or vice versa.

Whenever there is nonsense to print these days, the Times seems to be right on it. The time claims that:

machines (have begun) to “understand” human language. Rapid progress in natural language processing is beginning to lead to a new wave of automation that promises to transform areas of the economy that have until now been untouched by technological change.”

Long before I worked on education I was a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence. My specialty was Natural Language Processing. I worried about how computers could possibly understand language in the same way that humans understand language. I came to the conclusion that while this was a daunting task, it was probably not an impossible one. But, in order to make computers understand language they would need dynamic memories and they would need to be able to learn (because what you hear and read changes what you know). They would also need goals (because we understand in terms of what we care about) and plans, because we learn in order to help us do something better. I began to work on learning and memory, and understanding how planning works. And, while there has been much progress in AI in those areas, we are still far from having very intelligent machines that can do such things very well.

Not according to the New York Times, of course. There headline was


A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans

Gee, will computers suddenly take over? I have been asked this question by every reporter and TV person who ever interviewed me about AI. The nonsense behind this question is too long to discuss her. But here is what the Times said:

“Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.”

All this because a computer will try to play Jeopardy.

Computers have been getting by for decades now on key word search. Google has made key word search an art form. The “Paris Hilton” problem is not a problem for people however. In spoken English, the hotel is pronounced with an emphasis on Paris (as opposed to London.) But, people don’t really need that spoken cue so much because context tells you what is being talked about. We see or read about Paris Hilton. We make a reservation at the Paris Hilton. “The food is bad at the Paris Hilton” is not a confusing sentence. It is only confusing to a computer that doesn't know what you are talking about and processes only key words. In other words, the Times is discussing ideas about how to use statistics to make a best guess about what the words might mean. And then, seeing that a program might be good at this, the Times then predicts the takeover of mankind by smart computers.

The New York Times used to be a great newspaper. I have subscribed for over 40 years. But these days much of what they have to say is nonsense. When Bryant Gumbel asked me on the Today Show, many years ago, whether computers would soon take over, I attributed his question to the need for sensational junk on morning TV. The MacNeill Lehrer Report on PBS asked sensible questions. Redes in Spain asked sensible questions. But, alas the Times doesn’t care that the average reader is going to draw conclusions about a computer’s ability to understand that simply aren’t true. And I don’t think they give a damn.


Anonymous said...

Easy on the NYT! Granted they did overly simply the current state-of-the-art for "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence." But then again, the NYT would have had to print a tomb to adequately compare contrast neural network and ontology approaches.

In fairness to the Times, we have been talking about various forms of artificial intelligence for more than 50 years. The adoption of machine learning has been incremental -- not disruptive. The Watson project is nothing more than a showcase of what IBM believes is the best approach. This is fantastic news -- because it brings awareness to what AI can do.

Yes, parlor tricks can be irritating to seasoned experts. But the common value of the NYT article and Watson project is to get the public thinking about AI technology. This is a preamble to more widespread adoption, and thus, greater innovation in the field.

Silvia said...

I found your blog because I just watched REDES. A different video from REDES about videogames was on a friend´s blog, and from there I kept watching the Crisis in Education documentary where you appeared.
I have much to read in your blog, but so far I´m really enjoying and learning much from your thoughts.
Who would have thought a few years ago that after watching a video from Spanish tv on youtube, I will be able to type the name of one of the persons interviewed, find his blog, and be able to drop a comment!

I agree in your criticism that what is taught and how is taught in schools are obsolete, however, I need to read more on your ideas about focusing learning on USE, or teaching students mainly what they will be doing for work, or for a living.
Yes this is fine when you are teaching skills, as the example you gave of the cooking class, but I am not so sure that will ever encompass all that education should be.
There is still a value on History, even Algebra, but I believe it is never been TAUGHT correctly, or should I say learned appropriately, because lectures or dominating and externally trying to push knowledge is a waste, as it is history if understood as a mere recollection of facts, versus being learned through living books specially biographies, for example.

I homeschool inspired much by Charlotte Mason (I don´t know if you have heard about her), and I agree when she defended that teaching a trade to adolescents(or basing education exclusively on trade instruction) is a mistake in the sense that they too, as every person, deserve to be presented with a feast of ideas, with the authors that will talk to you through books, with the connections you will make, and the beauty in art, music, with poetry, with nature, relationships, in other words, teaching to a trade will be reductionist.
To give you an example. There are lots of us, moms, who teach at home, and yes, I would have liked more learning of things such as cooking, caring for babies, sewing, etc, things I have learned at a later age moved by need or my own desire, but there is plenty time for that and also for LEARNING as we still do. Many of us read philosophy, classics, books on different topics, have taught ourselves design, photography, etc. I guess my point is that there is a place for "old subjects", but definitely not under the obsolete educational system we have in western countries. And the trash man or the sales person doesn´t have to be deprived of Shakespeare, Dickens, Caravaggio, Mozart, learning cooking, photography, nutrition, or whatever aspect of learning he desires to enjoy and acquire.

Thanks, and I will definitely, as time permits, come back to read more from you.