Posted in All things Data, Personal Stories

What Humans can Learn from Machines


In my job, I work closely with all things Data. And the magical words you’d hear most likely after that is Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. We work with clients to help them use Machine Learning – gleaning insights from their data to gain a sustainable advantage in their business.

In other words, we help them discover what they do not know yet with the Data they already have. And that’s made possible with programming and building algorithms that can learn from the past to predict the future.  

The concept of teaching algorithms to learn from the past and replicating the future is a powerful one – and a lot of it has roots in observation of human behavior.

Look back at the history of how the various branches of Machine learning and AI evolved. Most of the thinking that contributed to this discipline was around making machines intelligent by mimicking inner workings of a human brain. Dig a little deeper and you would find branches like Neural networks & Reinforcement learning – entire paradigms of Machine learning inspired off human thinking processes.

After having worked in this industry quite a bit, and getting familiar with the inner workings of these algorithms, an insight that struck me was how much of the reverse is true.

Of course, many types of Algorithms have been taught to learn based on how Humans think and learn. However, there is a also lot that we Humans can learn from how algorithms get trained , tested and then and perform in the Real World.

Here are some examples:

You learn from what you Observe: Any machine learning algorithm you develop has this computationally intensive phase called the learning phase. You train the algorithm with a certain set of inputs and outputs – the machine picks up the patterns in the data to build a model of the world. Now, when you give it a new set of data to make a prediction – it generates an output based on the representation of the world that it has built.  Isn’t this how real life works?  Oftentimes we lament on our lack of ability to respond favorably to unexpected scenarios.  The reality is – you always learn from what you observe.

Generalizations from scant Data leads to Overfitting – Developing your life’s principles from scant data gives you an inaccurate representation of reality.  When models learn from too little data, then they fall into the peril of Overfitting. What that means is – they perform very well in test scenarios i.e. the environment where they have learnt, but fail miserably in the real world. In real life too, when you develop very strong viewpoints based on little data – it is quite certain that you might be wrong.  One observation of that in the workplace is how every person’s world view gets skewed by what they have seen in their previous roles and organizations – with learnings that might not be completely transferable. Hence, if you have a limited perspective and a new world before you – anticipate that you might be wrong. Look for new data that challenges your established beliefs, and that would help you be aware of the biases you have.

Exposing yourself to new Data enriches you to the next level: When a model does not give us good results – there are usually two ways of improving the accuracy. Either you feed the model new data – which is called ‘feature engineering’, or try a new way of looking at the data which is ‘Algorithm selection’.  Considering that you’ve done your homework right in the first place, in my experience – ‘Feature engineering’ (almost) always trumps ‘Algorithm selection’. The more relevant data you expose an algorithm to, the better it learns.  And the reason that happens is that more and varied data helps the algorithm develop an understanding of a wide variety of scenarios. In real life, the advice you hear is – get out of your comfort zone.  So, while the advice is to go ahead and do something that challenges you, what we are really saying is that expose yourself to a situation that you have not dealt with before.  More data helps you develop a worldview that is diverse and captures the intricacies that enable superior decision making. 

You need many models to map the complexity of the world: With one viewpoint, your understanding of reality is most likely biased. So, don’t depend too much on the opinions of those who are very similar to you. Research, ask questions – seek out diverse viewpoints. Pursue varied opinions because you achieve wisdom through a multiplicity of lenses. Otherwise, if all you know to use is a hammer – everything seems to look like a nail. Taking the parallel from machine learning, we observe that various models perform differently in different data dimensions, and a combination of models usually gives us superior results. So, the learning here is that if you want get a more accurate understanding of reality – think of multiple approaches for solving a problem. “Get a toolbox, not a hammer.”

The world is not Binary: One of my key instincts after years of management experience was to obsessively simplify messaging – get to the heart of the problem and find simple solutions. What I have realized over time is – the world is complex, and working with data and algorithms has helped me appreciate and embrace that complexity. For example, when we build machine learning models – say propensity to upgrade a product, there is usually no single data point that is overwhelmingly predictive of the outcome, but a combination of scores of signals or features that can accurately predict how a customer would behave. Similarly, machine learning also reveals that there can be hundreds of micro-segments in your data – customers with their own unique needs, wants and aspirations, which can be addressed uniquely. The world is not binary, even though we have strong instincts to view it so — ‘We are losing our jobs because immigrants are coming in and taking them’, ‘Equal pay for equal work will solve all women’s problems’. Binary answers are usually not accurate – and can sometimes be downright dangerous.

“Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise.”

In summary – as researchers and practitioners, we have built AI and Machine Learning systems by replicating the learning processes of human neurons and building patterns in the data that is fed to them. Unknowingly, we might have created a mirror image of real Life in these self-learning systems.  

One which powerful, dynamic and feeds not just from Human learnings, but also informs Humans on how to Learn!

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Good Morning


The view from my window is an ordinary one. Right outside, there are wiry branches of this tree which has lost all its leaves. I do not remember if the leaves were lost in fall or this tree has been stricken like this most of its life. 

I look beyond these dry branches and at first sight , there is darkness and the sky is silhouetted with varying shades of black and dark blue.  You can see an outline of the Cupertino hills far away, dotted with tiny specks of lights – like fireflies. 

Except that they are houses with real people .  Million dollar houses nestled in the slopes and carpeted by dense woods and popular trails. And as I observe closely, I can see thousands of them – or perhaps those are streetlights. It is hard to tell. 

The Silicon Valley is a valley in the true sense. Take any major freeway or expressway, and you would be able to view hills hugging the horizon. Like this one from my window, where the summits  manifest themselves even in complete nightfall.

But in a few minutes, everything would change.

The sun would rise, and then darkness would be transformed with light. Shades of black and dusk blue would suddenly morph into a multitude of colors.  The light would reveal endless details in the landscape before me – like nuggets of surprises to color an ordinary day.  I have been looking at this view for many months, but every time there is a new detail which emerges, 

Like somewhere between me and mountains ranges before me where there is a house which has two very tall palm trees in it. They stand out and  next to each other like an Eleven. Is it a sign ? Or like the moments when the sun strikes the houses nestled on the hills, and they sparkle back!. Figment of my imagination ? Or solar panels striking the sun’s rays at an angle ?

Every night, the world outside dies and awakens in the morning with these brilliant details. 

My spot on the couch by the window connects me to two different lenses of the world.

As the light fills in and wakes up the world outside me, I can hear stirring sounds from the rooms inside. A trickle of water in the sink.. the faint hum of the microwave singing with morning coffee..the pitter patter of little feet ..  tiny fingers that tug at your hair with sleepy good mornings .. The warmth of love enveloping as my dear ones wake up , and embrace a new day

This is the moment my reverie is broken. There is work to be done, to do lists to be completed. Moments of reflection transform into “military moments” – as I began planning my day ahead , identifying and attacking hurdles, problem solving, 

Like I said –  yet another ordinary day ahead.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

The Lone Cypress


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It was a cloudy Saturday morning, with the overcast skies threatening to rain any moment. Rain and cold is not a very reassuring combination, hence we decided that a drive through the California waterfront in the protected confines of our car would be a good way to spend the 2nd day on our trip to Monterey.

So after a hearty breakfast , we packed into our six seater and started on the 17 mile drive from Carmel-at-Sea. The 17 mile drive snakes through a picture postcard vignette of the West Coast.  You can drive through the Del Monte forest, glassy green golf courses, and breathtaking views of the Pacific ocean kissing precariously perched rocks on the coastline.

Along the drive we stopped to observe landmarks of tourist interest.  Bird rock was a boulder with a mysterious attraction to birds – you could see a swathe of them swooning in and enveloping it on the foaming ocean. Ghost trees were a collection of dried out trees which have been smitten by some kind of affliction and stand out as stark reminders of their glorious past.

And among all these sights we came across this legendary landmark on Pebble Beach, the Lone Cypress tree.

So when you get down and stand at the farthest corner of land, you see this single Cypress tree standing out on a shelf separated from the mainland. Strong gusts of wind brush your face, reminding you of the harsh conditions here. A tour guide standing next to us in the crowd  observes that this tree is more than 250 years old.

We are transfixed in this powerful moment, and the symbolism of what we see.

You can see the silhouette of the Cypress leaves across the endless backdrop of brilliant blue beyond.  If you peer closer, you would be able to see a faint curvature of the earth as the ocean engulfs you on all three sides. It feels like you’ve reached a cliff – go beyond into the ocean and you’d fall off the edge of the earth.

And amongst all this is the Lone Cypress that stands out starkly,  almost with an invitation which says – “Look at me, I am still here!” . Like a Howard Roark laughing at the edge of a cliff.

What you do not see is that a few hundred years ago – a bird that plucked the cypress seed and innocently dropped it out on the rock. You do not see a tiny seedling emerging out, unaware of the  glory it would be destined to – just by refusing to give up.

What you do not observe is the furious storm that almost ripped this cypress tree away from its roots.  Lashed by a hurricane and stricken by lightning flashes, the tree has been downed once but was never out.

You also cannot see the thin transparent wires that hold it upright now.

In one picture  you observe individualism. heroism and empathy entwined together.

This is indeed a powerful moment for us!

Posted in Personal Stories

On Lists


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I have been making lists a long time now. 

Grocery lists, invitation lists , travel to-do lists, tasks-of-the-day lists. I summon lists when I have a problem to solve and am not sure where to start off at.  Any new assignment comes my way and I begin making lists. 

What started off as a harmless way of staying organized, has now become my chosen warfare for attacking problems. And thinking. And writing. Even when I am writing my journal and the words flow into long sentences and paragraphs, jumbled thoughts flowing out as they arrive. Then after a few paragraphs there is a surge of anxiety. I have to stop. 

  • Break it up into paragraphs
  • Make logical sections
  • Put the key points in bullets

Thinking in bullets, is what I call it .  Which is wonderful if you want to make a point, but can be a handicap when you want to share your thoughts and emotions, articulate a story. Is there a right brain part of you which decimates as the left brain becomes more powerful ? 

My worries exacerbated when I observed my writing style. As I braced myself to sit down to write, there was a ruthlessly drilled habit ingrained in my head.

  • List ideas 
  • Organize them in logical groups
  • Build connections and make a story
  • Sort according to the order in which you want to convey your message
  • Bullet them for clarity of reading

It was this management consulting routine that had been honed over hours spent painstakingly on presentations, many of which were mercilessly ripped apart in reviews with my managers – “You made this long list of recommendations – but what exactly is the story ?”.  I always wondered, what can they see that I am not able to see?! 

More practice, list-making and exacting reviews made me realize what I was missing. And also that my fears were unfounded. The  link between list making, consulting techniques and creative writing, is after-all – the Story!

Take this piece of writing for example:

A quiet room. Sheafs of magazines stacked at the corner of the sofa.. Pillow under the crook of my arm. Two broken pencils, crumbs of wooden shavings,  Off-white lighting throwing long shadows in the living room. The cat purring the corner.. This is a lifeless list, but what is the message here. Is it boredom ? is it loneliness ? As writers that’s the story we are trying hard to convey. 

A list is a medium to lay out all the facts and data points out there. 

A Story is the heart of message – what is it that you are REALLY trying to say? And oftentimes it is the hardest part of writing, because you aren’t really sure of what you are trying to say in the beginning. But if you are lucky, or think hard enough, or keep going at it –  you would stumble on the right answer. The Aha moment of your writing. 

You suddenly realize –  Yes, this is what I want to say!

 

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Observations on Fall


I look out into the vast stretch of green outside my patio. The colors are a dark pastel green, accentuated with tiny patches of yellow and orange creeping in . And with every gust of wind that whooshes through the trees, there is a swirl of leaves that sweep down.  Yes, Fall is here.

Slowly and steadily, these yellow patches would spread and the entire expanse would get transformed. The leaves would fall, winter would tumble in , and the woods would turn into ghosts of their past selves.  All the life that had burgeoned over this summer would be destroyed. 

I remember my snow-covered backyard from last year , with a background of bare naked spidery trees. The charm of a white winter eventually turned into a realization of the true meaning of the phrase “winter in coming”.

On especially cold days, I would watch as the water that flowed out of the air conditioning pipes snaked out on one end and congealed into ice at the other end, making me feel fortunate that I was now on the warmer side of the patio door.  One of the most frequent phrases I heard were – ‘when summer arrives”. As if all eyes were pinned on the opportunities that the warmth of summer would bring.

Slowly, the earth revolved and the season changed. Summer shone on us with its full glory, and what a resplendent glory it was! 

The destruction of winter had breathed a will to prosper even in the tiniest of shrubs. The greenery that rose from the ashes had something special about it .. a hunger of its own. I have never seen leaves so alive, and trees so lush in any other season.  It was almost as if the trees have suddenly discovered their power and are burgeoning to  grow out and vanquish everything that had stopped them before.

This incessant, inevitable cycle of nature reminded me of the important role of destruction in creating a better version of life.

The path to evolution is paved with destruction.

What has made you successful in your past might not lead you to victory in your future. You have to destroy your beliefs and learnings to pick up new ones.

To move from one level to the next, you have to unlearn all that you’ve learnt and re-learn again!

Photo by Autumn Mott Rodeheaver on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Five Hacks to help you Read More


When life happens, there are a million distractions coming your way. Notifications on the phone, work goals, your child’s homework, that super critical mail which came in at the last minute when you were leaving office. There is always something urgent that is screaming for your attention.. And as expectations on how soon you should respond to messages and emails grow tremendously, there is this time crunch squeezing our lives into tinier and tinier moments. One of the side effects of that has been the inability to see the bigger picture,  relish a quiet moment, or even read long books. There was a time when I couldn’t break away from “the arc of unbroken concentration” which a good book could bring.

Today,  I feel perpetually lost in this trough of shallowness.

So how do you break out of this ? How do you dim this digital hum and  develop “the willpower to focus on a sustained argument”.

Here are some of hacks to read more:

Make goals: Goals help us stay consistent, and give a constant nudge to move on to the next step. So go ahead and make goals.Long term ones in terms of books per year, or even short ones like minutes read per day. Even if you have only 30 minutes you can spare in a day – every second of it is worth being spent on reading!

Borrow rather than Buy: Counterintuitive as it may seem, abundance is one of the biggest killers of motivation. “Ah, I bought this book and it is right there on my shelf. Why spend my time trying to focus and read it when I binge watch mindlessly on Netflix?”.  As our attention spans dwindle, it is easy to discard book-worthy moments for easier options.  There is a sense of scarcity that exists with borrowed books, a deadline by which they will expire and go away.  And that can help you read more.

Begin reading new books on a Thursday or Friday: This hack words for me, because if you have a busy week , then starting to read something while you are easing into a weekend is a good way to stay motivated and focused. Weekends are great for long reading stretches, if you have the willingness to be alone.  

Disconnect from technology: When reading a book on my mobile or tablet, every tiny notification costs you minutes of lost focus. So go for low tech – the most basic Kindle or hard copy book. Even on phones, Apple has this screen time feature that shuts off my phone at 10 pm every night, and those are the most peaceful moments of my day –  when I can pick up and read a book.

Share your insights and learnings: When you’ve read a book that you liked or enjoyed, talk about it to friends, your spouse, or even write down how you felt. Sharing what you’ve learnt will help you internalize it, and also motivate you towards finding the next book. 

Well.. Quite honestly, finding the next book always makes me anxious . When I’ve finished one, and am wondering which one is going to be my next – there is an expectant longing in air.

From this vast rich expanse, which one would I  choose ?

Curiously – “Some like to believe it’s the book that chooses the person.” !

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Learnings on the Highway


The black car zoomed through the darkness, interspersed with the glare of many others moving in perfect symphony across the dark highway. And I am driving inside it within my own perfect bubble. The music blares on the car audio, with a personally curated Spotify list algorithmically doling out songs for my pleasure. I am acutely focused, my mind in sync with the vibes on the road. The gray asphalt silhouettes against a dark blue and orange horizon. Night has fallen long ago, with rebellious shards of light appearing  to replace a sun long gone. I gaze at the dashboard and the traffic ahead, unconsciously looking out for the impatient lane changers who zip across lanes as they find an opening, trying to achieve a hypothetical advantage over others.

The car noiselessly glides ahead like it has a life of its own, the needle on the speedometer at a constant seventy. The entire world shrinks down to a tiny pinpoint of light ahead of me. 

In the dark confines of this shared space , there is a strange kinship that develops with all the motorists going my way. It is almost like we are some randomly distributed molecules who have been drawn by a strong magnetic force to move together in alignment towards a common destination. 

And in that moment, there is an epiphany in my mind. In today’s fast moving world, we blame so many of our problems and stresses on speed and pace at which things need to move. This is something that impacts our family, our work and friendships.  The general advice we give ourselves is to slow down. 

What I learned today from the highway is: 

Moving fast is not a problem – misalignment is. 

The highway is a perfect example of harmony – where everyone is moving at incredibly high speeds but yet there is perfect order because there are rules of the game which are followed by all travelers on the road.. Pass from the left.. Make way for newcomers entering on the right.. Stay on the left lane if you want to go faster than the rest..These elementary rules can make what seems like an impossibly dangerous commute become so simple and seamless. 

So next time you are harried with too many things moving too fast in your life – think of the Highway Analogy. Align your priorities or take the Exit.

What would you do to make Life go smooth !?

Photo by Jonas Von Werne on Unsplash