Advances in artificial intelligence: deep learning

If you want to keep up with advances in artificial intelligence, the New York Times has an essential article on a recent step forward called deep learning.

There is a rule of thumb for following how AI is progressing: keep track of what Geoffrey Hinton is doing.

Much of the current science of artificial neural networks and machine learning stems from his work or work he has done with collaborators.

The New York Times piece riffs on the fact that Hinton and his team just won a competition to design software to help find molecules that are most likely to be good candidates for new drugs.

Hinton’s team entered late, their software didn’t include a big detailed database of prior knowledge, and they easily won by applying deep learning methods.

To understand the advance you need to know a little about how modern AI works.

Most uses abstract statistical representations. For example, a face recognition system will not use human-familiar concepts like ‘mouth’, ‘nose’ and ‘eyes’ but statistical properties derived from the image that may bear no relation to how we talk about faces.

The innovation of deep learning is that it not only arranges these properties into hierarchies – with properties and sub-properties – but it works out how many levels of hierarchy best fit the data.

If you’re a machine learning aficionado Hinton described how they won the competition in a recent interview but he also puts all his scientific papers online if you want the bare metal of the science.

Either way, while the NYT piece doesn’t go into how the new approach works, it nicely captures it’s implications for how AI is being applied.

And as many net applications now rely on communication with the cloud – think Siri or Google Maps – advances in artificial intelligence very quickly have an impact on our day-to-day tools.

Link to NYT on deep learning AI (via @hpashler)

Where is your mind?

My BBC Future column from a few days ago. The original is here. I’m donating the fee from this article to Wikipedia. Read the column and it should be obvious why. Perhaps you should too:


We like to think our intelligence is self-made; it happens inside our heads, the product of our inner thoughts alone. But the rise of Google, Wikipedia and other online tools has made many people question the impact of these technologies on our brains. Is typing in the search term, “Who has played James Bond in the movies?” the same as knowing that the answer is Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (… plus David Niven in Casino Royale)? Can we say we know the answer to this question when what we actually know is how to rapidly access the information?

I’ve written before about whether or not the internet is rewiring our brains, but here the question is about how we seek to define intelligence itself. And the answer appears to be an intriguing one. Because when you look at the evidence from psychological studies, it suggests that much of our intelligence comes from how we coordinate ourselves with other people and our environment.

An influential theory among psychologists is that we’re cognitive misers. This is the idea that we are reluctant to do mental work unless we have to, we try to avoid thinking things though fully when a short cut is available. If you’ve ever voted for the political candidate with the most honest smile, or chosen a restaurant based on how many people are already sitting in there, then you’ve been a cognitive miser. The theory explains why we’d much rather type a zipcode into a sat-nav device or Google Maps than memorise and recall the location of a venue – it’s so much easier to do so.

Research shows that people don’t tend to rely on their memories for things they can easily access. Things like the world in front of our eyes, for example, can be changed quite radically without people noticing. Experiments have shown that buildings can somehow disappear from pictures we’re looking at, or the people we’re talking to can be switched with someone else, and often we won’t notice – a phenomenon called “change blindness”. This isn’t as an example of human stupidity – far from it, in fact – this is an example of mental efficiency. The mind relies on the world as a better record than memory, and usually that’s a good assumption.

As a result, philosophers have suggested that the mind is designed to spread itself out over the environment. So much so that, they suggest, the thinking is really happening in the environment as much as it is happening in our brains. The philosopher Andy Clark called humans “natural born cyborgs“, beings with minds that naturally incorporate new tools, ideas and abilities. From Clark’s perspective, the route to a solution is not the issue – having the right tools really does mean you know the answers, just as much as already knowing the answer.

Society wins

A memory study by Daniel Wegner of Harvard University provides a neat example of this effect. Couples were asked to come into the lab to take a memorisation test. Half the couples were kept together, and half were reassigned to pair up with someone they didn’t know. Both groups then studied a list of words in silence, and were then tested individually. The pairs that were made up of a couple in a relationship could remember more items, both overall and as individuals.

What happened, according to Wegner, was that the couples in a relationship had a good understanding of their partners. Because of this they would tacitly divide up the work between them, so that, say, one partner would remember words to do with technology, assuming the other would remember the words to do with sports. In this way, each partner could concentrate on their strengths, and so individually they outperformed people in couples where no mental division of labour was possible. Just as you rely on a search engine for answers, so you can rely on people you deal with regularly to think about certain things, developing a shared system for committing items to memory and bringing them out again, what Wegner called “transactive memory”.

Having minds that work this way is one of the great strengths of the human species. Rather than being forced to rely on our own resources for everything, we can share our knowledge and so pool our understanding. Technology keeps track of things for individuals so we don’t have to, while large systems of knowledge serve the needs of society as a whole. I don’t know how a computer works, or how to grow broccoli, but that knowledge is out there and I get to benefit. And the internet provides even more potential to share this knowledge. Wikipedia is one of the best examples – an evolving store of the world’s knowledge for which everyone can benefit from. I use Wikipedia every day, aware of all the caveats of doing so, because it supports me in all the thinking I do for things like this column.

So as well as having a physical environment – like the rooms or buildings we live or work in – we also have a mental environment. Which means that when I ask you where your mind is, you shouldn’t point toward the centre of your forehead. As research on areas like transactive memory shows, our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull.

ENDNOTE: Wikipedia is an unparalleled democratisation of knowledge, a
wonderful sharing of human intelligence that’s free to anyone to view. I’m
donating the fee for this article to help support Wikipedia’s work. If you feel you can help out please follow this link:

The relative consuming disease

The Global Mail has an amazing story about how the last treks to find cases of kuru – a cannabalism-related brain disease – have been completed.

Kuru was passed on by eating the brains of dead relatives – a long finished tradition of the Fore people in Papua New Guinea – and it infected new people through contact with prions.

Prions are misfolded proteins that cause other proteins to take on the infectious misfolding. In the case of kuru it lead to shaking, paralysis, outbursts of laughing and a host of other neurological symptoms as the brain slowly degenerated.

No-one knew prions existed or could exist before kuru. But as the article makes clear, this ‘obscure disease’ of a remote tribe revolutionised our understanding of proteins and how infections could take place.

But the story is how it was discovered is more than just lab tests and the article is a brilliant retelling of the research.

Michael Alpers has been working on the research project since the 60s and recalls some of the episodes:

After each death, he says, “I would go and talk to the family again, and say, ‘Okay?’. They had participated in cutting up bodies in the past — so that was not an unusual activity for them. We had to clear a few people — particularly the women who were wailing. But some of the women stayed. The ones involved put on masks to protect the tissue and I had gloves.

“The father, or a close relative, would hold the head, and I would take the top of the skull off with a bone handsaw. It would take maybe 20 minutes… like cutting an avocado. I would go to particular parts of the brain… take out small cubes. My assistant would hold out the bottle that was relevant, take the lid off, and I’d pop it in.

“Then I’d take the whole brain out and put it in a bucket full of formalin and cotton wool so it wouldn’t be deformed, and put the lid on. All our samples would go into an insulated box. Then I put the skull cap back on, and sewed up. Then we said goodbye… gave everyone a hug, and took off. I did this five times. It was enough.”

It’s a wonderfully written, informative piece. A long and compelling read.

Link to article ‘The Last Laughing Death’ (via @mslopatto)

Sex taboos: a brief and incomplete tour

Cultures around the world have restrictions or prohibitions on when sex is allowed which turn out to be quite amazing in their diversity.

This is a fascinating section on the wide world of sex taboos from the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender:

In some societies, sexual activity is prohibited during certain times of day. The Cuna of Panama approve of sexual relations only at night in accordance with the laws of God. The Semang of Malaysia believe that sex during the day will cause thunderstorms and deadly lightening, leading to drowning of not only the offending couple but also of other innocent people. And the West African Bambara believe that a couple who engage in sex during the day will have an albino child.

Sometimes, sex is prohibited in certain places. The Mende of West Africa forbid sexual intercourse in the bush, while the Semang condemn sex with camp boundaries for fear that the supernatural will become angry. Among the Bambara, engaging in sexual relations out of doors will lead to the failure of crops.

Sex taboos can also apply to certain activities. Often, sex prohibitions are associated with war or economic pursuit. The Ganda of Uganda forbid sexual intercourse the night before battle if the fighting is likely to be protracted. The Lepcha prohibit sex for three months after a bear trap has been set. If the taboo is broken, no animals will be caught. The Cuna of Panama outlaw sexual intercourse during a turtle hunt, the Yapese of Oceania prohibit sex during a fishing excursion, and among the Ganda of Uganda sex is forbidden while the wood for making canoes is being processed.

Ganda women may not engage in sexual intercourse while they are mourning the dead and Kwoma men are prohibited from engaging in sexual activity after a cult ceremony has been held. The Jivaro of Ecuador refrain from engaging in sex after someone has died, after planting narcotics, when preparing a feast or after an enemy has been killed.

Of course, while these may seem exotic, our own social practices regarding sex probably seem equally as unusual to outsiders.

Imagine Jivaro anthropologists, watching Nicki Minaj videos, slapping themselves, shouting “you won’t believe what the people of North America have to do to have sex!”


Link to section from the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender.

The road to ‘war on terror’ torture

An obscure paper called The Spokesman Review has an excellent article charting the role of psychologists in developing America’s ‘war on terror’ enhanced interrogation programme – widely condemned as torture.

The piece is fascinating because it outlines the competing tensions between those who championed the controversial physical interrogation techniques – created by reverse engineering the SERE resistance training – and those who preferred the rapport building methods.

It turns out that the division fell along inter-agency lines. The CIA used the harsh approach, the FBI relationship-based interrogation.

As is now well-known, the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were developed by two formed Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

The article finishes with a curious snippet of information “Jessen remains [in Spokane] and was recently made the bishop of his ward in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.

That, my friend, is a novel in the making.

Link to Spokesman Review on ‘war on terror’ torture.

Letter from the mental states of America

Alistair Cooke presented the longest running radio show in history. The BBC’s Letter from America was a weekly report, where Cooke reflected on life and news in the United States. It ran for just shy of 58 years.

Despite the massive ‘psychologisation’ of society during the years Cooke was broadcasting, from 1946 to 2004 no less, Cooke rarely addressed matters of the mind and brain directly.

However, he did occasionally touch on these issues and the shows are well worth listening to.

As the BBC has just put almost the complete Letter from America archives online so I’ve collected some of the highlights.

Link: George Gallup (1901-1984) – 9 November 1984
Link: TV Violence – 13 April 1986
Link: Narcotics, interdiction and Colombian drug lords – 08 September 1989
Link: American public schools – 03 January 1992
Link: Aphasia and studying the human brain – 15 October 1993
Link: Timothy Leary (1920 -1996) – 7 June 1996
Link: New York: How are you Doing? – 3 May 2002

I’ve linked to the transcripts, but listen to the linked audio if you have the chance. Cooke had a distinctive voice and a calm style that underscored his often insightful commentary.

Link to Letter from America archives.

A vision of Oliver Sacks

New York Magazine has a wonderful in-depth profile of Oliver Sacks illustrated with a simple but sublime photo portrait of the gracefully ageing neurologist.

Sacks has become much discussed in recent weeks due to the release of his new book Hallucinations.

There has been much coverage, but perhaps some of the best coverage has been Will Self’s review and an interview on NPR.

However, the profile in New York Magazine stands alone – both for its careful portraiture and brilliant writing. Highly recommended.

Link to Oliver Sacks profile.

Work for free!

South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust are taking the piss. They’re advertising for a full-time, one year assistant psychologist post that is completely unpaid.

These jobs usually pay about £20,000-24,000 in London but despite this offer being completely exploitative they could easily fill the post for free.

The reason is because assistant psychologist jobs are one of the key steps to get on to training as a clinical psychologist which is a massively popular career in the UK.

This is partly because psychology itself became a hot topic and universities realised about 15 years ago that the subject was a money spinner, meaning many undergraduate courses regularly have about 200 students a year on them.

This put additional pressure on clinical psychology training places, which for the last decade have had about 20 applications for each place on the course.

As the competition is intense, assistant psychologist jobs are like gold dust. The NHS Trust I work in regularly takes down adverts for these jobs after about 24 hours, at which point they may have received up to 500 applications.

So finding someone to do a £20,000 assistant psychology job for free should be fairly trivial.

You can also see an additional trend at work: while you need an approved doctorate to now qualify for the profession, many hope an MSc in the same subject area – which doesn’t actually do anything except extend your academic knowledge – will help their chances.

Universities are capitalising on this demand and lots of MSc courses have started popping up all over the country, all with ‘not quite clinical psychology’ names like “foundations of clinical psychology” and “clinical applications of psychology”.

I don’t doubt they’re excellent, but that’ll be another maybe 10 grand on top of your student debt.

The effect of all this is that the not-so-well-off are inadvertently filtered out of the profession and we increasingly lack diversity in an already overly-homogeneous profession.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure this unpaid assistant psychologist job is valuable work. But not exploiting young people should also be a priority.

Link to piss-taking job post (via @bengoldacre)

BBC Future Column: Why is it so hard to give good directions?

My BBC Future column from last week. Original here.

Psychologically speaking it is a tricky task, because our minds find it difficult to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet.

We’ve all been there – the directions sounded so clear when we were told them. Every step of the journey seemed obvious, we thought we had understood the directions perfectly. And yet here we are miles from anywhere, after dark, in a field arguing about whether we should have gone left or right at the last turn, whether we’re going to have to sleep here now, and exactly whose fault it is.

The truth is we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Psychologically speaking giving good directions is a particularly difficult task.

The reason we find it hard to give good directions is because of the “curse of knowledge”, a psychological quirk whereby, once we have learnt something, we find it hard to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet. We don’t just want people to walk a mile in our shoes, we assume they already know the route. Once we know the way to a place we don’t need directions, and descriptions like “its the left about halfway along” or “the one with the little red door” seem to make full and complete sense.

But if you’ve never been to a place before, you need more than a description of a place; you need an exact definition, or a precise formula for finding it. The curse of knowledge is the reason why, when I had to search for a friend’s tent in a field, their advice of “it’s the blue one” seemed perfectly sensible to them and was completely useless for me, as I stood there staring blankly at hundreds of blue tents.

This same quirk is why teaching is so difficult to do well. Once you are familiar with a topic it is very hard to understand what someone who isn’t familiar with it needs to know. The curse of knowledge isn’t a surprising flaw in our mental machinery – really it is just a side effect of our basic alienation from each other. We all have different thoughts and beliefs, and we have no special access to each other’s minds. A lot of the time we can fake understanding by mentally simulating what we’d want in someone else’s position. We have thoughts along the lines of “I’d like it if there was one bagel left in the morning” and therefore conclude “so I won’t eat all the bagels before my wife gets up in the morning”. This shortcut allows us to appear considerate, without doing any deep thought about what other people really know and want.

“OK, now what?”

This will only get you so far. Some occasions call for a proper understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Giving directions is one, but so is understanding myriad aspects of everyday conversation which involve feelings, jokes or suggestions. For illustration, consider the joke that some research has suggested may be the world’s funniest (although what exactly that means is another story):


Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”


The joke is funny because you can appreciate that the hunter had two possible interpretations of the operator’s instructions, and chose the wrong one. To appreciate the interpretations you need to have a feel for what the operator and the hunter know and desire (and to be surprised when the hunter’s desire to do anything to help isn’t over-ruled by a desire keep his friend alive).

To do this mental simulation you recruit what psychologists call your “Theory of Mind”, the ability think about others’ beliefs and desires. Our skill at Theory of Mind is one of the things that distinguish humans from all other species – only chimpanzees seem to have anything approaching a true understanding that others’ might believe different things from themselves. Us humans, on the other hand, seem primed from early infancy to practice thinking about how other humans view the world.

The fact that the curse of knowledge exists tells us how hard a problem it is to think about other people’s minds. Like many hard cognitive problems – such as seeing, for example – the human brain has evolved specialist mechanisms which are dedicate to solving it for us, so that we don’t normally have to expend conscious effort. Most of the time we get the joke, just as most of the time we simply open our eyes and see the world.

The good news is that your Theory of Mind isn’t completely automatic – you can use deliberate strategies to help you think about what other people know. A good one when writing is simply to force yourself to check every term to see if it is jargon – something you’ve learnt the meaning of but not all your readers will know. Another strategy is to tell people what they can ignore, as well as what they need to know. This works well with directions (and results in instructions like “keep going until you see the red door. There’s a pink door, but that’s not it”)

With a few tricks like this, and perhaps some general practice, we can turn the concept of reading other people’s minds – what some psychologists call “mind mindfulness” – into a habit, and so improve our Theory of Mind abilities. (Something that most of us remember struggling hard to do in adolescence.) Which is a good thing, since good theory of mind is what makes a considerate partner, friend or co-worker – and a good giver of directions.

Technophobia: a talk at the Royal Institution

I’m going to be talking about technophobia, media panics and how technology really affects the mind and brain, next Tuesday at the Royal Institution in London.

The talk will be a trip through the history of technology scares – from Ancient Greece to Facebook, a look at how the modern media deals with concerns about new communications tools, and a round-up of what we actually know about the impact of technology on ourselves.

The evening will be MC’ed by Dallas Campbell and I am told there will be musical accompaniment.

Relax, I won’t be singing. No technology on earth can withstand my terrible voice.

Link to more information and tickets.

Brain’s nothingness centre found

Collectively Unconscious has a satirical post entitled “Brain region found that does absolutely nothing”.

Neuroscientists at the University of Ingberg have found a brain region that does absolutely nothing. Their research, presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, showed that a small region of the cortex located near the posterior section of the cingulate gyrus responded to ‘not one of our 46 experimental manipulations’…

“Over the months that followed we tried everything we knew, with over 20 different participants. IQ tests, memory tasks, flashing lights, talking, listening, imagining juggling, but there was no response. Nothing. We got more desperate, so we tried pictures of faces, TMS, pictures of cats, pictures of sex, pictures of violence and even sexy violence, but nothing happened! Not even a decrease. No connectivity to anywhere else, not even a voodoo correlation. 46 voxels of wasted space. I know dead salmons that are more responsive.”

Clearly the problem here is a lack of imagination.

A recent (genuine) study simply ran the same experimental data from an fMRI scanning session through 6,912 different possible ways of conducting the analysis.

Suddenly, activity popped up all over the brain.

As Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge, because even though science strives to be an objective body of knowledge driven by a systematised method for accurately discovering causal relationships, in reality, it’s a bun fight”.

Pretty sure that was Einstein. Hang on, I’ll just check my stats. Yep, yes it was.

Link to satirical post on Collectively Unconscious.

A cultural understanding of autism

Nature has a fascinating article on the diagnosis of autism and how it clashes with cultures that have different forms of everyday social interaction and different standards for how children should behave.

In rural South Africa, young children may look at adults’ faces while having a conversation, but they don’t usually make direct eye contact because it is considered disrespectful. Yet a lack of eye contact is a hallmark of social deficits in people with autism, and as such it is something Western clinicians look for when diagnosing the disorder.

There are other examples of children’s behaviour – such as finger pointing to draw attention to something, or conversing with adults as if they are peers – that are commonplace in the West and included in tests of autism.

The ‘gold standard’ for diagnosing autism is a combination of the ADOS, a set of structured tasks to observe interaction with the person concerned, and the ADI, an interview with the caregiver to see how any difficulties have emerged over time.

As both were developed in London, they are based on Western / European model of social interaction. The risk is that other forms of cultural interaction can be wrongly interpreted as signs of impairment.

It’s worth saying that many cases of autism are unmistakeable as difficulties in social interaction can be quite marked.

However, as the concept of the autism spectrum has become more common, what can be variously and unsatisfactorily described as ‘high functioning’, ‘atypical’ or ‘mild’ autism, usually where difficulties are not immediately obvious, is where there is more room for cultural confusion.

The Nature article describes how various cultural tendencies eddy and flow around the concept of autism and how clinicians are now attempting to navigate the choppy waters of diagnosis.

Link to excellent Nature article on culture and autism.