Deep Learning

As smart as computers are, they’re dumb in many ways. For instance, they have a hard time identifying objects in their field of vision. (Their “vision” of course being information sensed by various electronic sensors.) Even though humans can see objects without any effort*, computers stumble on this basic task.

*Actually, even human identification of objects is not flawless. Just yesterday I was looking around for my coffee mug and I realized it was right in front of me. I was staring directly at it, and just had trouble separating it from everything else on the kitchen counter

I’ve been reading a bit about a new process in computers called “deep learning” that is making computers much smarter. (Link goes to wikipedia article.) So much smarter that they are now able to be trained to recognize objects in image files even more accurately than humans. You can present a computer with 20,000 images and ask it to show you all the images with a cat and it will do so. You can then ask specifically for cats with pointy ears and it will do so.

This is pretty interesting when you think about it. How does a computer – a dumb, soulless computer – know to filter out dogs or chipmunks when it shows cats? I imagine it’s categorizing objects by pretty precise categories. A cat’s nose varies from a chipmunk’s in terms of nose size related to the whole face, cats have specific ear types etc. These must be the kinds of properties computers are using to separate cats from other objects.

An obvious and interesting next step would be to have computers create their own images of cats. (Essentially the computer would become an artist.) And perhaps “encourage” them to highlight different properties of cats over other, thus developing an aesthetic style. I’ve talked in the past about computers making art (it’s been going on for a while.) I suspect deep learning will speed things up even more on this front.

Of course, as computers get smarter humans grow anxious. Will they take our jobs? Jeremy Howard, a deep learning architect, has concerns.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It just depends how it’s used. It could be a wonderful thing, because it could allow us to spend our time doing the things we want to do rather than the things we have to do, which is, I think, what humanity has been aiming at for thousands of years. But on the bad side, that by definition puts people out of jobs. Eventually, it puts everybody out of a job.

If we remove the idea of the soul, at some point in history [there's nothing that] computers and machines won’t be able to do at least as well as us. We can argue about when that will happen. I think it will be in the next few decades.

What happens when the amount of things that can’t be automated is much smaller than the amount of people that exist to do them? That’s this point where half the world can’t add economic value. That means half the world is destitute and unable to feed themselves. So we have to start to allocate some wealth on a basis other than the basis of labor or capital inputs. The alternative would be to say, “Most of humanity can’t add any economic value, so we’ll just let them die.”

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