Yesterday was kinda strange. I just posted about how I came across a rather disturbing article about a study of potentially serious glitches in computer stock trading. Coincidentally, my wife and I had been invited to an investment seminar yesterday too. I’ve been to a number of these over the years, but this was the first one since the boondoggle of 2008. I was struck by how this program was just like all the earlier ones. It was business-as-usual with explanations of stocks vs. bonds, the ups and downs of the stock market, risk vs. growth, etc., etc. They talked about the Greek debt problem, but what seemed curiously missing was any indication that the “Great Recession” has any lessons for us investors. It was just a hiccup in the ideology that these things work themselves out eventually. Since about 2/3 of the people in the room were over retirement age, I’m not sure that old song made much of an impression. We don’t have as much “eventually” as we used to.
The article on the future of trading with it potentially run-amuk computer systems and the “nothing new” attitude of the investment firm left me with the feeling that I think a lot of people have developed: We don’t know what’s really going on. The investment agent doesn’t know much more than I do. My paranoia says there’s a relatively small number of big-time financial manipulators out there who know much, much more that we little people do because it’s their whole life. And even they get caught in their own snares.
My wife and I have a friend who’s smart, an ex-FBI agent, and an avid horse race fan. We went to a track once with him, and by the time we got back I had learned that there is a lot going on behind the scenes of any horse race betters don’t know about that can affect the outcome. So, if you go to the track with $100 or $500 dollars to play with, you ought to consider it entertainment that you can afford to spend. Have a few drinks, get excited when the horses run, but don’t bet the rent; you don’t have a chance.
In an earlier post I linked to a report from the UK about a forecast that the in the near future human traders will be replaced by automated systems. Yesterday I ran across a Wired Magazine about another study recently posted to arXiv that complements that earlier report by studying the possibility that high-speed computer trading may lead to sudden, unexpected fluctuations in our money machine that traders don’t understand and can’t react fast enough to do anything about. It has already happened. You may remember that on May 6, 2010, amid all the other financial problems of that year, the stock market suddenly lost 600 points in six minutes. This was the fastest, deepest drop in history. Nobody knew why and it tool a lengthy investigation to conclude it was one automated trade that triggered a cascade of automated sell-offs. It earned the newly-coined term “flash crash.”
This new study titled “Financial black swans driven by ultrafast machine ecology,” basically “black swans” happen a lot. A black swan is an event that is extreme, rare and unexpected. The consequences can be severe. But the researchers looked at trading data for events that were either significant drops or significant spikes in prices that happened in less than one second (less that .65 seconds, to be exact). That’s faster than a human being can perceive and react. (Like what, hit the PANIC button?)
The researchers analyzed 18,520 drops or spikes that happened in less than second between 2006 and 2011. Yes, these events are no longer rare. They happen all the time in computerized trading, and the volume of computer trading is growing every day. “Black swan” no longer really applies to these glitches. Nobody understands what’s going on in the global financial trading system well enough to understand what’s not a problem and what is. We may get a really ugly lesson when one of these events doesn’t self-correct and instead creates another huge flash-crash, and we are thrown into a financial crisis with all it’s attendant misery.
Do you know where your money is tonight?
As I mentioned before, I signed up for the 160,000-student online Introduction Artificial Intelligence by Stanford illuminati Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. I audited by watching all the videos and doing the little online quizzes. Others did all the homework, took the tests, and wrote code to go with the lessons. Waaay beyond my ancient math skills. One thing I learned is that AI is all about probabilities and algorithms to calculate them for anything in the world you can measure.
Why I bring this up again is that I see where MIT—which has had a lot of packaged courseware online free to the world for a long time—just launched a new program called MITx. MITx is online courses where video lessons, quizzes, material and grading all done automatically. It’s free, worldwide and anybody can sign up. The first class is Circuits and Electronics and it starts March 5.
Is it a coincidence that MIT came out with a competing free online system? I think not. Sanford and MIT are arguably the top two engineering schools in the country. They are in heated competition of have the best “brand” for engineering and innovation. So, bang!, just like that, here’s MIT with outreach worldwide for the leadership title. It harks back to the way Stanford and MIT competed in the 2007 DARA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles. Stanford’s AI team under Thrun kicked MIT’s butt.
But there’s another reason to set up these courses. In December last year, not long after the AI course was over, I saw on YouTube a discussion session between Sebastian Thrun and some people at a Singularity University seminar. In the session Thrun said something that hit me between the eyes. He said after the final exam they had ranked all the students that completed the course and found something like 2,000 students that had nearly perfect scores. Over 200 had perfect scores; not one of them was a Stanford engineering student. Most were not in the United States. (Don’t quote me on the exact numbers. I’ve looked high and low on YouTube and can’t find the video I saw to double-check. No luck.)
Given the poor performance of American students in science and math in many international standardized tests this wasn’t exactly earth-shaking. But what got me was that Stanford engineering and his team had a list of many of the best and brightest people in the world in math and programming! That is like being the only pro basketball scout in the country to have ever seen the top scoring college players in the country. What’s a list like that worth? To the Stanford engineering department? To recruiters at Google, Apple and other Silicon Valley tech firms? The AI course turned into a fantastic screening tool to find and potentially recruit the next generation of top engineers, scientists, and programmers. I can’t be the only person to think of that. The folks at MIT must have slapped their foreheads hearing that like I did.
The latest shoe to drop: Sebastian Thrun is leaving this job as tenured director of the Stanford AI program to join a startup called Udacity where he’ll be teaching an online worldwide course: CS373 Programming a Robotic Car. (Watch out! Next time I take my ‘99 Civic out for a spin I may be sitting in the back seat.)
Thrun as expressed interest in innovating in mass education, but is that the only reason to take a left turn in his career? I mean, he’s the rock-star of AI. I suspect that he and Stanford had some sort of parting of ways. Free mass education may not have been the University’s idea of how to conduct a 100+ year-old university.
Tipped off by a tweet I tracked down an article in the San Jose Mercury News about the Singularity University’s FutureMed 2012. According to the author, Chris O’Brien, the big topic at the confab was “big data”. Big data seems to be the “next big thing” buzz word of the moment as big database companies hawk their programs as earth movers that can plow through mountains of bits and find magical insights for enterprises of all kinds. That includes the medical industry.
Evidently they fretted a lot about what to do with all the data in biomedicine that they can’t figure out what to do with. For the past decade—following the decoding of the first human genome circa 2000—the stream of genetic data has been flowing faster and faster. Problem is they haven’t been able to find many of the practical applications that were promised for medicine. Tons of data (and tons of money) but so far few big answers. In fact, mostly what they’ve found is deeper layers of complexity in genomics that will require, naturally, more data.
Now another data tsunami is coming from cheap sensors that can be put on and in people to monitor (i.e., gather more data) that must have the answers in it…somewhere. As O’Brien notes, we always seem to be on the cusp of a revolution, but the real engagement hasn’t happened.
Nevertheless, the FutureMeders are eternally optimistic that technology is the answer. AI, sensors, displays and other gizmos will feed people with data that tells them how the ol’ body is functioning. But even that may not be enough to get results because of one nearly insurmountable problem: people, damned people.
The FutureMed conference was evidently rife with what I call the “engineering mentality”. The singularity, transhumanist, AI world has a deep antipathy for human foibles. People are so irrational, lazy, emotional, ignorant and contrary that they defeat the ingenious things the engineers come up with. I’ve seen presentations and articles by engineers proclaiming the potential glory of the things they’ve brilliantly put together who say there’s just one problem: “the human factor.” Human beings are so flawed they mess up every effort engineers make to improve the world. Advocates for self-driving cars, robots, and Watson-like AIs just know we’d soon arrive at techno-utopia but for “the human factor”.
In their minds the answer is taking people out of the loop. Human driving incompetence causes mayhem on the highways, so programmers like Sebastian Thrun want to make people just passengers. Human workers are quarrelsome, unreliable, demanding and expensive so Foxconn wants to replace them with 1,000,000 robots in their plants.
O’Brien summed up the engineering dilemma FutureMed presented with this closing statement:
It seems clear that machines, computers and software are capable of delivering a revolution in health care, a future that feels so possible and tantalizingly close. The barriers, for now, continue to be us hopelessly imperfect humans, and the flawed, inflexible systems we’ve built to deliver health care.
The whole damn universe...with a slider -
This is Flash graphic that zooms from the Planck length out to the observable universe. Head-spinning.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had dropped out of Facebook. I didn’t like all the drama and confusion of privacy and interface design, and, frankly, I don’t like Zuckerberg. Supposedly Facebook reproduces the college experience. Seems more like high school: who’s got the most friends and is most popular. I’m not a gregarious guy, and I don’t need that.
So I switched to Google+. Is that a better alternative? Maybe, maybe not. It’s got a more Twitter-like following process. I’m not looking to make friends or prattle away with the few I’ve got. My purpose is to follow people with the same interests. There are some really good people with various science and health issue’s I’m interested in.
Anyway it appears that a Facebook backlash is growing. Seems like Facebook is rushing to do that IPO before the opportunity window closes. There’s the “I’m not on facebook” site. Get a T-shirt with that phrase on it for $10.99. And there’s the @not_on_facebook Twitter feed. Naturally they’re following me now that I’ve tweeted about this. I may be quitting Twitter next.
Can I take $10.99 and get my own T-shirt printed that says “Proud facebook dropout”?
Taken with instagram
Taken with instagram
Reaching… (Taken with instagram)