Thursday, January 26, 2006

Machine & Infant Learning

My 7 month old daughter started talking just recently.

Okay, so we can't understand what she's saying, but she's got the cutest way of saying it! It sounds a bit like "gnab gnab blah", repeated over and over again. She's clearly processing our speech and working it into her neural pathways, trying to reproduce it.

The whole process of infant learning has been wonderfully fascinating to watch. They come into life with very little other than an amazing capacity to learn and integrate what they observe from their environment, and work their way upward from there. There's a field of AI that maintains that's the way we should teach computers to think, too, by building in the ability to learn, then putting them into an environment and teaching them how to solve a series of problems.

The main problem with that is our limited understanding of how infant learning actually takes place. The traditional view of an infant is that they're relatively stupid, and learn slowly. Having observed my daughter as she's gone from infant to baby stage, I can say with confidence that infants are incredibly smart and able to learn quickly.

There's been some research going on in this area. There's an article on ScienCentral News about research done in how quickly infants can learn, while others have done research showing that infants have complex emotional responses from the start (sorry, I've lost my link to that one).

What all this means for machine learning is that we can only scratch the surface of what's possible, since we don't understand the complexities of infant learning yet. Theoretically, if we understood infant learning completely, we could then model that in a computer to create a computer that could learn how to interact with its environment.

Anyone want to raise a baby computer?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Evolution of Intelligence

I'd read a science fiction story lately that talked about a possible cause for intelligence arising in early humans. The idea is that for thousands of years, humans went around with basically the same brain structure, but not really advancing in intelligence, until suddenly (at least in evolutionary terms), intelligence started advancing. The story talked about one possible cause that, like most science stories, isn't too likely, but undoubtedly there was some mechanism for intelligence to start advancing.

I've also been reading about brain development in infants, since we have a 7 month old daughter. It's been suggested that listening to classical music will help an infant's brain development, by stimulating neural connections and pathways that otherwise wouldn't form. The same could be said for any complex stimulus, such as complex patterns of colors, complex shapes, etc.

It struck me that the evolution of intelligence could have been caused by a sort of cultural bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is when you start out with a relatively simple technique that allows more complex techniques to be developed. So what if, way back in the dawn of prehistory, someone developed a slightly more complex form of music, or art, or mechanics, something just a cut above the natural tools they'd used before then.

Could that have stimulated neural development in their children, such that those children were then able to create something a bit more complex than their parents, and so on down the generations until we have the level of intelligence that we have today? It certainly seems plausible enough.

If that's true, then I have to wonder what the next advancement will be that will stimulate further neural complexity in our children. And will the children be exposed to it early enough to make a difference?

Such are the thoughts you have when you commute an hour to work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Geek Humor

Starting a new semester is always a bit like jumping off a cliff, hoping to sew together a parachute before you hit bottom. Each week you're writing lecture notes for the next week (or for the next day!), and trying to make sure that what you're asking students to do is actually possible.

Now and then, though, you get time to do some aimless wandering on the web, and I ran across this geeky holiday humor piece that computer programmers will enjoy.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Starting a New Year

My break between semesters is just about over, and a new year is starting.

The Christmas break is always a bit hard for me. I teach at two schools. At one school, spring classes start the first week of January, at the other they start the second week of January. So I basically have two weeks of Christmas break before I start back to the first school.

Into that two weeks I try to cram as much enjoyment of my family as possible. Amelia is just about 7 months old now, and this was her first Christmas. She loved tasting all her packages and, with a little help, tearing the paper off of them. Once she had the paper off, she tasted the presents inside the package. ;-)

In those two weeks, I also have to prepare for the coming semester. For classes I've taught before, that means updating the syllabus with new dates, fixing any problems in the lecture notes I found the previous semester, and generally improving the class as much as I can. For classes I haven't taught before, that means coming up with a syllabus from scratch, and at least the first two weeks' worth of lecture notes to start.

This year I decided to take the two weeks with no classes at all to just relax and enjoy family. Then, when my first school started back, I also started preparing for the second school. Which means that this week I've been running around like crazy trying to get everything ready.

Luckily, the class I'm teaching for the first school is an entirely online class. This means I don't have to lecture, and have only online office hours that I have to do at a certain time each week. Otherwise, I can fit in responding to questions however works best for me.

Unluckily, I'd rather spend time with my daughter than doing any of this, so it's been a challenge for me to make time for the class preparations with Amelia around. Especially since I know that next week I start back to full-time face-to-face classes, with about a little over an hour's commute one way to get there.

I can't complain too much, though, since I have both a beautiful daughter and a job I love. Now, if only there were more days in the week!