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

The Cross Walk


It was a bright new day in an unfamiliar country. Fresh off the boat – just a day into the United States, I stepped out with the toddler in tow for a walk around the neighborhood. There was a huge park right in front of our house, surrounded by roads and cars whizzing past. The sights and smells were new – as we were beginning to get accustomed to life in a new country. We didn’t know how long we are going to live here, nor realized what it will take us to blend into life in this habitat. All that we knew was that we are here… and let the adventure begin…

So coming back to the story –  I am taking the girl out for a walk. She is 14 months old and I am using a stroller to move her around. Both of us are soaking in the new world we are in – me being particularly overprotective and motherly about it. At that time I had moved to the country without a job – so both mother and daughter had plenty of time to kill during the day. It was lunchtime, and with the help of Google maps and some fuzzy toddler translation, we zoomed down on a local restaurant to have our lunch in.. The trek began and everything was hunky dory until we reached an obstacle that we have to cross to reach the other end – a road!

Now normally, you wouldn’t consider crossing a road a huge hurdle, right? You will say – Ah, just wait for the light to turn green, and you can cross. Yay!!.  I thought so too.. waited for the light to turn green and some pedestrian sign to show up – but it never did. The light did turn from red to green, but the cars continued to zip past.  I waited and waited.. then we got a bit uncomfortable. At this point, I am getting more and more worried – How on Earth do people cross the road in California ??

As all humans do in situations like this ( to not look foolish )  – we observe around us and try to copy what everyone else up to. And that generally helps you get to the answer to your question.  So I patiently prevail and bide my time…

The light turns green again. I see this lady in high heels hurry up and stand right next to me. The traffic is a bit slow… she furtively glances on both sides of the road and then quickly sprints across it when no car is in sight.   I’m half in a mind to follow her, my muscles tense for a split second..but I stop.  My instincts tell me that something is wrong –  That most certainly doesn’t seem to be the right way to cross the road in a civilized country! So I dig my heels to prevent myself from dashing behind her. The kid is fidgeting in the stroller — and I’m still hanging around.

A minute passes by and this dude comes along – casual jeans and hoodie, half whistling under the breath. He presses a button on the lamp post beside the street and disappears into his phone. I am observing him very carefully ( and pretending not to) – by the looks of it  – he definitely seems to be on to something. And lo and behold.. a blinking white man ( the pedestrian sign ) started flickering on the other side of the street. Today, it is a very familiar sight for me, but at that time it seemed like a sign from the heavens! A blinking pedestrian sign accompanied by an intermittent beep emanating from the lamp post across the street – and I know that we have been saved. Hallelujah… Now we can cross the road!

As I look back to this day – this was not a life-changing moment. It was a run of the mill experience – my first learning out of the innumerable discoveries to follow.

But it taught me a very significant lesson – To listen to and trust my Instincts. 

I mean – it is a marvelous thing – how the brain makes snap decisions – trustworthy/not trustworthy, good/not good, Safe/not safe… The instinct of recognizing dangers and steering yourselves into safety has been bored into our heads so immaculately over millions of years and is certainly something that the human mind can neither explain nor ignore!

 

Image credits: Unsplash.com

 

Posted in Personal Stories

The Non-Fiction Reader


radu-marcusu-498248-unsplash.jpg

It is a few months since I have been stuck in this persona of a non-fiction reader.

And this turn of events surprises me because there was a time in my life when I thrived on fiction. I would read almost a book every day – and get consumed by the ebbs and flows of all the action in those pages. In my teens, it was the Nancy Drews and Agatha Christies. The twenties started with the intensity of Ayn Rand – followed by Booker prize nominees and winners – Aravind Adiga, Amitav Ghosh,  Emma Donoghue, you name it. The only non-fiction books that sneaked into my reading list were celebrity publications. One that I distinctly remember is Shashi Tharoor’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ – that one was like a workout for my vocabulary!

And then later, as screenwriters ran out of creative ammunition and the trend of books screenwritten into movies took over – The Twilight Series, Vampire Diaries,  Game of Game of Thrones, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had always read the stories cover to cover before anyone had even heard of them on TV or Netflix.  Boy, was I ahead of the game!

But then, one fine day – the rush stopped.

It is hard to pinpoint what caused this, but there was this long phase when I didn’t do much fiction reading and the switch flipped.  I think that with time – you are more aware of your factual ignorance, and a lot of non-fiction reading I began with was to bridge that gap. Some of them – like ‘Homo Sapiens’ helped me understand my own roots.

And slowly my bookshelf filled up with the Ray Dalio, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Tim O’ Reilly and Malcolm Gladwells of the world. In fact – the last book I was hooked on to was  ‘The Society of Mind’ by Marvin Minsky  ( a friend of mine was appalled when I had tugged it along to a coffee shop – Seriously, this seems like a dense reading assignment you’d punish someone with, how can you read it for pleasure?!! )

Well honestly  – it was not an easy read. And even though the language was simple, I had to read it over, again and again, to connect the dots and get the message right.  Still, with my current frame of mind, it was easier for me to absorb than a work of fiction. Nowadays,  I pick up fiction books to read but it’s hard to follow along with the emotional threads and vagaries of a story.  I get exhausted and give up.

Surprising, isn’t it?

My guess is that after a while of practice –  facts and logic get hammered into your brain, and you almost start predicting what a logical argument will look like. There are, after all only a few ways in which you can get the logic right.  And somehow I observed that there is a lesser cognitive load in reading non-fiction- because is almost an extension of what I do in my day job.

Or… Perhaps I am going through a phase – you may say.

Whatever that is,  I would hate to lose that appreciation of fiction, poetry and intense emotions that a string of words can bring.  That’s what attracted me to the lure of reading in the first place!.

Those stories that can take you through a rollercoaster of thrill, happiness, hope, dismay, and laughter have burned timeless memories in my brain.  So many solitary, but memorable moments spent with a book – alone at times perhaps, but never lonely.

Which brings me back to the current state of things.

The long weekend is here –  I am struggling with Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’ .. nursing a cup of coffee.. and fervently hoping that my Fiction reading bug comes back!

 

 

Image credits: Unsplash.com

Posted in Personal Stories

Idea #8: Bird by Bird


Bird by Bird

So.. What do you do when you get stuck?

 Do you sit back and mourn your lack of action ..Think of inventive ways to over come your situation?. Or Just wait – thinking that this too shall pass!.

 We all have our own solutions to  dealing  with stuck moments. Some would slow down, blow off some steam.. or if you’re like me, you would go off to sleep!.

And then .. What do you do?

You DON’T give up!.

You come back to the table .. Pore over your shitty first drafts.. Move ahead bit by bit..

Because big changes don’t happen in a instant. Corporations are not successful overnight. Trust is not built in a day. It’s a gradual process. The only difference is that you notice it suddenly.. And people start talking about it suddenly..

In this age of instant gratification, it is easy to think that you will get results immediately. And also get frustrated when you don’t.

Like Alice in Wonderland, we cant wait to reap the benefits of our efforts – “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.” !!

But in real world, you have to take it step by step.. Bird by bird ..A metaphor used by  Anne Lamott. She narrates this beautiful story in her book:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Then again. What do you do when you get stuck?

You come back. Pick up all the fragments piece by piece. Slowly build it again – bird by bird!

Posted in Personal Stories

Idea #4: Procrastination is good for you!


Fine. I’ll admit it.

Since the last two days, I was struggling with the Idea for this week. There were a few possibilities knocking in my head, but they somehow didn’t fit in. Desperate in need for a bright shiny idea, I made fanciful preparations to lure and ensnare it.

You know the regular routine… Turn off the TV. Adjust the lighting. Fix the cushions. Fill the coffee cup. Buckle down to write.

But pushing hard seemed to have the opposite effect. Nothing worked!.

So realizing the futility of it all, I let it go. Picked up a book from my to-read shelf and began reading… It’s surprising that in these moments, Idea #4 struck me.  And ironic as it may sound, it said – Procrastination is good for you!

Well… how many times have you hated yourself for procrastinating? Fussed over details and feared that the sky will fall off if you don’t act soon enough. Lamented on a time atrophied in utter lack of effort.

But then, have you noticed how you get sudden bursts of fertile inspiration after long fallow stretches of inactivity? Or have discovered surprising answers to questions that had simmered in your subconscious, in periods of idleness and solitude.

We consider procrastination to be something evil. The thief of time. The killer of productivity. The scourge of creativity.

But is it really so awful?

Maybe not. It could be a time spent thinking over, sharpening the axe, strategizing! A time getting prepared for all the wonderful things that have been locked in some precious corner of your brain, and required some catalyst to bubble out. A time to witness epiphanies, and assimilate the Eureka moments. A time to realize who you really are, apart from the needy pushy ambitious self that you keep pumping up eternally. A time to wallow in the sweetness of solitude, and the shy answers it brings to your overbearing questions.

If you think of it the other way round, “Procrastination is not the problem. It is the solution. It is the universe’s way of saying stop, slow down, you move too fast”. It is nature’s way of revealing things that you would never have unearthed yourself.

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top”!

So the next time you procrastinate, don’t kill yourself with guilt. Look out for those subtle clues that might have evaded your conscious mind.

Did it ignite a spark in you, the seed of the idea which had eluded you all this while? Or a key element in a new path which had always dodged you and deemed impossible. Or did it suddenly dawn that the thing you were pursuing relentlessly all this while wasn’t worth it at all??

Yes, that’s what creators call epiphany… the eureka moment which will creep up shyly to you when you are alone. When you sit down and let it go. When you filter all the noisy channels and focus.

I can hear you asking – Focus on what?

And my answer is – Nothing.

Posted in Personal Stories

Idea #3: Execution is everything!


When you think of Creativity, what are the thoughts that hit you first?

Well, you might consider it as the ability to come up with shiny, jaw dropping, awe inspiring ideas.

But in my experience, the hard part about Creativity is not about coming up with new ideas at all.

And that is the thought of this week . On their own, ideas are nothing. Execution is everything!

Really !??

Well, we get ideas all the time. In the shower.. while shaving, or brushing our teeth. But it’s the guy who walks out of the shower, dries off and buckles down to work is the one who makes the difference. Writes the bestseller.  Outshines in the workplace. Makes millions.

Okay, I agree that ideas are sexy.. fascinating.. alluring – they inspire confidence in us. But they are also a bunch of dangerous, reckless, wild things. They make us overestimate our ability to execute. And that can hit you very hard – as it happened to the 3 guys here.

In early 2003, a bunch of Harvard seniors stumbled on the idea of creating a dating site for the university. They engaged a freshman to program their site. Well, it turns out that the kid they hired was smarter than they had bargained for. He improved on their idea, built a cool website and launched it himself. The new site created a storm on the Internet, and that kid went on to become one of the world’s youngest billionaires.

You guessed it right. This is the story of Facebook.

The point is, can anyone deny Mark Zuckerberg the credit for Facebook’s success?.  He might not have owned the idea, but then, ideas are tied to reality only by execution. In the movie “The Social network”, Zuckerberg famously says – “ If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”.  Touché!

Friends. Fellows. Countrymen!

The path to success winds through mountains of pain, heartbreaks, heartburns and learning.. And there are so other many factors like vision, talent, analytical insights, passion and most importantly, luck.. An idea is just the beginning!..

That brings us to the next question. Why is understanding this life changing?

Because, if you have a brilliant idea, be sure that this not enough. Brace yourself; you have a long way to go.

And don’t be too upset if someone else stumbled on the same idea as yours.. Execution is everything.. baby!! 🙂

Posted in Personal Stories

Idea #2: Everything is a Remix!


How many hours have you spent agonizing to capture that elusive original Idea for your Research project?

Or struggled to create a novel character for your book..

Have you counted the restless nights you spent pondering to figure out the pioneering Business Model which will catapult your yet-to-be-born Startup to stardom?

Yeah, I’ve been there too!

All of us dream of creating the next big thing..  

And everyone (including me) is obsessed with the myth that remarkable creations always begin with an original never-before-conceptualized idea. That makes our lives hell, filling it up with painful things like disappointment, self-doubt and procrastination. 

So, Ladies and Gentlemen..we have an inspired Idea #2, coming to rescue all of mankind. 🙂

Yes.. Everything is a remix!

“Original” stories are found, not born. “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void, but out of chaos”.

Many times we get lost in search for the perfect original thing. And end up with nothing. And that is because there is no perfect original idea in this world. Ideas are like DNA; they combine and create greater stronger Ideas.. And the most successful ones are those which are tried and tested improved versions of previous successful ones.

Great stories are mash ups of awesome stories told before. High quality code is one built successfully on old code. Don’t believe me? Here is the reason:

“Old code has been used. It has been tested. Lots of bugs have been found, and they’ve been fixed. There’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t acquire bugs just by sitting around on your hard drive!”

Still not convinced?

All of us will agree that Apple as one of the most innovative companies of our times. And we also know that the Mac of the 1970s was inspired by the primitive GUI developed by Xerox Corporation.  In an interview, Steve Jobs himself confessed how the idea of the Mac germinated in his head after a visit to the Xerox facility. On the same note, he even quoted – “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”!  

The point is, he just saw what no-one else did. Everyone else saw a UI based computer. What Jobs saw was the awesome customer experience that it could create – a.k.a the jaw dropping, cult creating Macintosh PC.

And that’s the secret to breathtaking creations.

View ideas with different lenses. Have a different perspective –the same object inspires us in different ways.

Tinker. Remix. Restructure. Renovate.

And if you understand this truth, you will never fall short of ideas to create something – books, rain, thunder, clouds, conversations, dreams, the route to office, newspaper headlines, office gossip, chatter on the radio..

Anything can inspire you to create something great. You just have to tune in and find your Inspiration!