Deep Learning brainstorming at a Lucknow (India) school

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I recently got opportunity to give talks at two very different places in India. One is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, one of elite technical institutes in India with stellar alumni. I spoke on Computer Vision, Machine Learning and Deep Learning, highlighting how my own career has been intertwined with progress in these fields. As expected, audience was highly learned and technically strong. I have now signed up with IIT Kanpur’s Machine Learning Special Interest Group and am happy to see the group is very active and versed with the latest developments.

This post is however about my experience at a very different place. I was invited to talk at St. Anjani’s Public School in suburb of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. Students at St. Anjani’s School come from modest backgrounds in this North Indian belt where people are still struggling hard to make ends meet.

When I arrived on the campus, I was greeted by the school manager and the school principal and they took me to one of their class rooms where I spoke on Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Data Science in an interactive format assisted by a power-point presentation. It was a great experience for me as the audience consisted of 10th and 11th grade students.

I was highly impressed by the questions asked by students. How do Internet Search Engines work? What are the conditions in which Artificial Intelligence cannot be used? What steps can students take to learn more about Data Science, Deep Learning and AI? How can one succeed in entrepreneurship in the IT sector?

Students came up with ideas for applications where data science and machine learning can be used which were at par with those being considered and funded in Silicon Valley. Here were some of children’s suggestions: smart home, ensuring safety of children using robotic babysitters, applications of deep learning in health care, smart governance, remote medicine, and educational apps.

I came back with the following observations:

  • There are smart children everywhere, including the poorest areas of the world. And, all these children harbor in their hearts desire to learn about the cutting edge in sciences and technology.
  • Success depends on opportunities. Not everyone gets opportunities and resources to succeed.

Next day in Indian newspapers, I read articles about the latest trends in technology. As the technology juggernaut of data science, deep learning and AI marches forward in Silicon Valleys of the world, I paused to ask if deserving children around the world will all have opportunities and resources to participate in this effort or if they will get held back because of unfortunate circumstances not in their control. I am very much part of Silicon Valleys of the world, and it is my hope that some of the aspiring students I met will make informed decisions in future when they have to choose their college majors and careers. That also made me reflect on corporate social responsibility programs and how I can be a part of such an initiative to ensure scholarships for these deserving children who will design our future world.

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Concept of Web Search Engines explained using Snakes and Ladders game

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Recently we were playing a homemade Snakes and Ladders game. While I was being ruthlessly swallowed by giant snakes, it struck me that I could explain my children’s usual queries on how web search engines work using the same game.

I have created an educational video for children to inspire them to study mathematics because it is everywhere – Snakes and Ladders as well as cutting edge technologies inside Web Search Engines.

 

On Bringing Excitement and Fun to Computer Science Education

In engineering departments around the world, at present emphasis is on imparting technical and analytical skills to students so that they become good engineers and scientists. Furthermore, if professors want to gain recognition and have tenure, there is no choice for them but to pursue a highly specialized research area.

And in this rush to create engineers and to do highly specialized research, one loses big picture!

What is the big picture? Big picture is that of intellectual pursuit for sake of joy and of an education system which should create well-rounded complete human beings rather than just engineers. Students graduating from technical institutes should have the option of becoming entrepreneurs, social leaders, teachers, artists, writers, and not just engineers. Research should demolish interdisciplinary boundaries and should offer new alternatives to super-specialization career path.

In Science, Order and Creativity, David Bohm and F. David Peat argue how science has lost its wholeness by getting fragmented into narrow disciplines. They call for renewed emphasis on ideas rather than formulae and on understanding of the whole rather than mechanics of parts, and for playfulness in science and in life. According to David Bohm, the division of science and art is temporary. Just as art consists not simply of works of art but of an attitude, the artistic spirit, so does science consist not in the accumulation of knowledge but in the creation of fresh modes of perception.

In an address to faculty and students of IIT Kanpur, India, in 2009, Professor Yash Pal emphasised the importance of joy in academic work, of abolishing boundaries between disciplines and of unconventional way of thinking and working.

Now let us focus on Computer Science which is the title of this article. There are some challenges specific to Computer Science.

First, Computer Science as taught in Universities seems to have lost some of its identity. Other disciplines such as Bioinformatics, Biological Sciences, Mathematics, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, have their own computer related courses in which they teach applications of computer technology to their respective fields. Some Computer Science Departments gradually have become service departments teaching programming to students majoring in other fields.

Second, interest in Computer Science is not great among high school students. And among girls, Computer Science is definitely not a popular field of study. It is considered a discipline which is boring and unattractive, reducing one to a programmer working in an impersonal cubicle with little human interaction. This does however contrast with situation in developing countries such as India, where students are more worried about employment and therefore Computer Science is considered appealing from the point of view of career prospects.

At the same time, it is widely accepted that there will be shortage of engineers in coming years in the USA. Therefore, it is imperative to improve interest of high school students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

Some departments have taken notice of the problem and have started offering more innovative curriculum. An example is College of Computing of Georgia Tech. A Computer Science undergraduate there has the option of selecting one of the following threads: modelling and simulation, devices, people, systems and architecture, theory, information internetworks, intelligence and media. Stanford University offers a degree in Symbolic Systems, in which students probe the meaning of intelligence, in natural and artificial symbolic systems.

To revitalize Computer Science and to make it attractive to kids in school, an effort should be made to communicate to them about importance of Computer Science and at the same time universities should take another look at their curriculum.

Computer Science holds a very special role in the world of intellect and of sciences, its technology having tremendous impact on society.

Why Computer Science is so special? Because it intertwines with mathematics – notions of computational universality, undecidability and intractability being great intellectual achievements of 20th century; it makes trains and cars run and planes fly; it makes robotic rovers roam the surface of planets; it makes internet – Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, are all household phrases; it makes Hollywood produce some finest movies with amazing special effects; it brings medical sciences closer to victory over diseases; it organizes huge amounts of data for people to make decisions about most pressing problems such as environment, energy, water, nutrition and shelter; it makes people talk to each other with their mobile phones; it provides tools to social and political scientists, economists and psychologists so that they can make models and simulate them for better understanding of their theories; and it gives new medium to artists, writers and poets for self-expression.

Computer Science pervades fabric of modern life everywhere and is cool! Can this message be communicated in school to high school children so that they feel excited about pursuing it as their major?

Perhaps we need courses which provide thought-provoking, stimulating look at Computer Science and how it intersects boundaries with Mathematics, Sciences, Arts and Humanities. Students should study how Computer Science and related technologies have had broad and deep impact, allowing them to see the discipline as an integral component of human endeavour to understand world and to make it a better place. This will bring excitement and fun to the field.

In such interdisciplinary approach to curriculum, one can have contributions from experts from other fields in building a holistic vision of the field by having them highlight how Computer Science helps them in their respective fields and by having them propose new cross-disciplinary ideas for productive and socially relevant research.

One recent example of multi-disciplinary nature of Computer Science is Deep Learning, which is an active research area in Machine Learning and which has biological motivations. Collaboration by biologists and computer scientists may lead to better understanding of how human brain works.

Can Computer Science rise up to a leadership role in intellectual pursuits of humankind and prove itself worthy of being a great science? It is hoped that it will play an instrumental role in propelling humankind to new levels of achievement. It is also hoped that this article will stimulate discussions in Computer Science departments as they design new curriculum.

Developing Mathematical Intuition in Children

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I sometimes try to convey mathematical concepts and results to children without going through proofs to varying degree of success. I have wondered if even the deepest mathematical concepts can be conveyed to anyone in an intuitive manner. I am intrigued by the notion of human intuition. What makes us understand and see things intuitively? When is it possible?

Consider the result that there are more reals than natural numbers but there are as many integers as natural numbers or odd numbers or even numbers or prime numbers. All are infinite but infinity comes in different sizes. Integers are referred to be countably infinite and reals as uncountably infinite. One can start by using analogy of matching girls with boys. Consider integers as girls and even numbers as boys and then each girl can indeed find a boy to marry and vice versa and therefore there are as many integers as even numbers.

But how to convey the idea behind the proof of the result that there are more real numbers than integers without first going through details of diagonalization? Assume here girls are real numbers and boys are integers. Each real number is an infinite sequence of digits. For example, the girl named Pi  is:

\pi = 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279\ldots

Therefore, one could say that any girl has an infinite description. Irrespective of how you marry them, one can create a new girl who is different from each married girl and is single. You build this new girl from other married girls as a composite, an infinite montage, but changing each piece. Therefore, she will be a totally new girl different from everyone else. One could continue such an intuitive and sketchy exposition by gradually becoming more precise and rigorous, slowly adding details, till the child sees the basic idea.

In my view, such an intuitive exposition should be then followed by actual proof and then a combination of both will make something click in a young mind and enable it to grasp this fundamental concept of degrees of infinity.