Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Important Lesson I Plan on Teaching My Children

In elementary school, most subjects weren't too difficult for me.  I could blast through reading, social studies, and science with no problems.  But math was another matter.  It didn't come easily.  This led me to the conclusion that I wasn't good at math because I wasn't a "math person."  Throughout my primary school years and into my middle and high school years, I struggled with mathematics.  In high school, I wanted to get a good GPA to make college scholarships more available.  This meant avoiding as much math as possible.  Of course, this didn't help me on the SAT and ACT, considering I had no clue what a cosign or tan were (I still don't).

My frustration tolerance level was low.  At the earliest signs of difficulty, I would give up.  I made it through algebra I, geometry, and algebra II.  That was the end of my mathematics education.  Although I enjoyed science, the mathematics portion was very challenging for me.  This also meant my career opportunities were limited.  I wouldn't be attending medical school or majoring in physics.  Since my natural strengths were in the humanities, I ended up going to a liberal arts school and receiving a bachelor of arts degree.

With age, my patience in dealing with frustration has increased.  Now that I am within a few years of forty, I don't feel like my self-esteem and self-worth are tied to my grades or my failures.  I don't feel the need to prove anything to anyone.  I no longer worry about seeking the approval of older authority figures.  This has been very freeing.  I feel more comfortable taking intellectual risks and failing.  I don't mind being more playful in my approach to solving problems.  This is enormously freeing.  It allows me to actually have fun solving problems instead of seeing them as existential threats or indicators that I am unintelligent.  If I would have known this as a child and later as an adolescent, my life might have been very different.

The concern I have is that the current educational system does little to encourage the playful and creative approach to problem solving that people need to be successful in life.  By awarding grades, it encourages perfectionistic children to avoid risk and avoid challenges.  It discourages the kind of intellectual risk taking and playfulness in problem solving that is so vital to life and living in a new, constantly changing, technological society.

It murders the natural curiosity of young learners.  If I had the money, I would send my children to Montessori school.  I worry about their futures.  I really worry about all the standardized tests that children are expected to take.  Memorizing facts and filling in bubbles on forms is not the sort of education that builds a love of learning or encourages creativity.  In a world filled with smartphones that can access all of the world's knowledge and compute equations with little difficulty, I don't see the point in memorizing facts.  I would rather my children learn how to do research on the computer and then use this information to synthesize it and solve difficult problems.  The future is going to require them to work with computers, not calculate basic math in their heads or memorize a list of historical dates.

As a child, I assumed that you were naturally good at some things and not good at others.  Some people were born lucky, others were not.  No sense in trying to improve the things you weren't good at.  I didn't have the notion that with deliberate practice and extreme effort, one could achieve great things.  I didn't see Michael Jordan practicing for hours.  I believed talent was innate.  If I had had a different view of human nature--one that led me to believe that talent was the result of hard work, and that the brain was like a muscle that needed strengthening to really improve, this would have done me an enormous amount of good.  Had I possessed more grit and a different philosophy, things might have been very different for me.

I want my children to learn the lessons I failed to learn until middle age.  If I were independently wealthy, I would quit my law job and dedicate 100% of my time individually tutoring my children based on the classics, active learning projects like learning how to prepare microscope slides, conducting experiments, writing letters, programming computers, and visiting museums.  My wife was home schooled and learned to love learning for its own sake.  To this day, she spends hours each day reading up on her various interests.  Our home is like a college seminar as we watch TED talks and graduate school lectures on Youtube.

I hope my children learn that you can do far more than you might think.  80% of success is just having the courage to try.  Most people give up before they get started.  "That is for experts," and "I don't know how to do that" are the famous last words of someone about to get his wallet drained by a professional widget installer.

"Try goddamnit."

 I wish I knew this years ago.  Better late than never.  Maybe by tackling tough projects together, my children will learn that few problems are so large that persistence, planning, and practice cannot solve them.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

How Privacy May Kill

Like many people, I was horrified when the Snowden leaks revealed the massive NSA spying apparatus that was invading the privacy of millions of Americans.  I was disturbed at how the government was using its power to abuse the privacy rights of average Americans without respecting the Constitution.

Privacy is important.  Without it, we are not free to be ourselves and feel comfortable in our own skin.  We risk being falsely charged with crimes we didn't commit.  It promotes an unfair power relationship between those in charge and the governed.  There's a reason why the Stasi existed--to suppress people.

However, privacy also has its limits.  This is especially true as new medical technologies become available.  IBM's Watson, the computer which was able to understand natural human language and beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! has now gone to medical school.  Watson is able to read over 4 million medical journal articles and process entire libraries of medical records and data in a matter of seconds.  Using this information, Watson is able to diagnose diseases and suggest medical treatments with varying levels of confidence based upon percentages. Working with a doctor, Watson can suggest treatments that might otherwise be beyond the ability of a doctor to put together.  Studies have shown that the average doctor is so busy he or she only has the time to read about five medical journal articles per month in his or her chosen field.  The demands of economics require these doctors to see a massive number of patients to be able to sustain his or her medical practice.  This does not lend them time for additional research.

Advances in DNA analysis and genomics allow the human genome to be sequenced for about $1,000.  Within a few years, this cost will be $100.  The human bacterial microbiome is also being sequenced.  By collecting this data on a mass scale, comparing the results with disease profiles, and then analyzing this data, Watson will be able to come up with new treatments for diseases that would be impossible for the average human to figure out unaided.  The problem is that current privacy regulations greatly reduce the ability of such scanning to take place.  Most of the reason for this is to protect consumers against unfair targeting by health insurers if they discover someone has an expensive disease.  The same goes for employers firing people for having expensive diseases.  These problems would be non-existent if we had a functioning health care system.  These are legislative issues, not technical ones.

Smartphones are becoming smarter and smarter.  The proliferation of self-monitoring devices permits data to be collected that formerly was impossible. This allows small changes in one's vital statistics to help indicate the early signs of disease.  "Prevention", as Benjamin Franklin once said, is "Worth a pound of cure."  Imagine this data being stored and analyzed in the cloud by Watson to find new patterns in disease pathology.  It would be a real paradigm shift away from what is done now.

Solving the problem of privacy should involve a program that redacts the personal information of patients while permitting medical data to be centrally stored on electronic servers and made accessible for big data analysis.  This will help preserve privacy while still permitting computer intelligence to help solve some of our most difficult medical problems like heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.  Technology is leverage.  Just as we cannot go 60 mph without an automobile, we won't be curing cancer without the assistance of artificial intelligence.  Overcoming problems is what humans do.  Tools exist for this purpose.  We owe it to humanity to solve these problems because we can.  Let's get to it.

Watson Treating Cancer Demo

Watson Goes to Medical School

The Quantified Self

Smartphone Medical Devices

Friday, May 2, 2014

Overcoming Problems Is What Humans Do

Without modern technology, we would be dying from unsanitary water, simple bacterial infections, and likely face mass food shortages.  Without the polio vaccine, millions of children would continue to be paralyzed each year.  My wife has Type 1 diabetes.  It is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the islet cells of the pancreas.  The body is unable to make insulin.  Without insulin, people can eat but the energy cannot be released to the cells.  Type 1 diabetics essentially starve to death.  The disease is incurable.  Watching one's diet and taking pills will never cure this disease.  Without artificial insulin, my wife would die within a few days.  The insulin diabetics now use is produced by bacteria.  It is a genetically engineered product.  She wears an insulin pump that delivers insulin to her system via a mini IV all the time.  There is nothing "natural" about her survival.  Yet thanks be to God because of science and technology, she is here.  She is thriving.  Thanks to the technology which allows her to test her blood sugars and keep them within the normal range, she can safely be pregnant.  Sixty years ago she would have been dead. 
As human beings, we use tools to solve problems.  We use understanding and learning to observe things, make adjustments, and test our theories.  Those that work are kept, those that do not pan out are discarded.  The process may be messy, but it is the best we've got.  Overcoming human problems is what humans are designed to do.  We have been doing this since the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire.  Yet it saddens me that in recent years there has been a war on science. 
When Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of the flatbed scanner was a child, the philosophy of his family was "There are problems in this world.  It is up to you, Ray, to find a solution.  You need to go find the answer and when you do, share the solution with others."  This personal sort of can-do attitude is what will help the human race make progress in the future.  Grit and persistence can go a long way when combined with rational planning and the scientific method.  My wife and I have twins on the way.  As they grow, I plan on teaching them this philosophy. 
Science can overcome many problems, but it is difficult to solve problems when people are too afraid of embracing risk.  Taking chances is required to succeed to solve life's most difficult problems.  Sometimes you have to take a moonshot to making things better.  Sometimes you have to try something even though you think there is a 99% chance it won't work out.  Why?  Because no one else will take that risk because they figure it is too crazy.  So no one ends up doing it.  That is part of the reason why we still are so dependent on gasoline vehicles.  It took someone as insane as Elon Musk to start Tesla and show that electric cars could be a real solution to gas vehicles.  And Tesla is succeeding. 
Look at Japan.  It is a very risk averse culture.  It is also highly conformist.  Japanese workers have tremendous work ethics and discipline.  But Japan doesn't innovate for shit.  That is part of the reason why the Japanese economy has been stagnant for so long.  Being entrepreneurial isn't part of their culture.  Compare this to Israel, which has a thriving economy despite its small size and lack of natural resources.  Israel is a world leader in the biotech industry. 
We can do far more than what we think.  But we have to be willing to try and fail.  Babies will keep trying to walk even after they stumble.  Eventually their brains make the right connections and they succeed.  Why should it be any different for us?  To grow, we must become young again.  We must be open to hearing new ideas, trying new skills, and attempting new solutions to persistent problems.  We must be willing to risk a fall here and there.  If we do fail, we must pick up and move on. 
The future is not going to stop for us.  If technology makes our jobs obsolete, we need to learn new skills, no matter how old we are.  If we stink at a particular skill, we must practice it for hours until we master it.  If not, we lose out on the treasures of the new things which await us.  Our quality of life will suffer.  Being adaptable and open to change is vitally important.