Tag Archives: school

#434772 Traditional Higher Education Is Losing ...

Should you go to graduate school? If so, why? If not, what are your alternatives? Millions of young adults across the globe—and their parents and mentors—find themselves asking these questions every year.

Earlier this month, I explored how exponential technologies are rising to meet the needs of the rapidly changing workforce.

In this blog, I’ll dive into a highly effective way to build the business acumen and skills needed to make the most significant impact in these exponential times.

To start, let’s dive into the value of graduate school versus apprenticeship—especially during this time of extraordinarily rapid growth, and the micro-diversification of careers.

The True Value of an MBA
All graduate schools are not created equal.

For complex technical trades like medicine, engineering, and law, formal graduate-level training provides a critical foundation for safe, ethical practice (until these trades are fully augmented by artificial intelligence and automation…).

For the purposes of today’s blog, let’s focus on the value of a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree, compared to acquiring your business acumen through various forms of apprenticeship.

The Waning of Business Degrees
Ironically, business schools are facing a tough business problem. The rapid rate of technological change, a booming job market, and the digitization of education are chipping away at the traditional graduate-level business program.

The data speaks for itself.

The Decline of Graduate School Admissions
Enrollment in two-year, full-time MBA programs in the US fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2016.

While in previous years, top business schools (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton) were safe from the decrease in applications, this year, they also felt the waning interest in MBA programs.

Harvard Business School: 4.5 percent decrease in applications, the school’s biggest drop since 2005.
Wharton: 6.7 percent decrease in applications.
Stanford Graduate School: 4.6 percent decrease in applications.

Another signal of change began unfolding over the past week. You may have read news headlines about an emerging college admissions scam, which implicates highly selective US universities, sports coaches, parents, and students in a conspiracy to game the undergraduate admissions process.

Already, students are filing multibillion-dollar civil lawsuits arguing that the scheme has devalued their degrees or denied them a fair admissions opportunity.

MBA Graduates in the Workforce
To meet today’s business needs, startups and massive companies alike are increasingly hiring technologists, developers, and engineers in place of the MBA graduates they may have preferentially hired in the past.

While 85 percent of US employers expect to hire MBA graduates this year (a decrease from 91 percent in 2017), 52 percent of employers worldwide expect to hire graduates with a master’s in data analytics (an increase from 35 percent last year).

We’re also seeing the waning of MBA degree holders at the CEO level.

For decades, an MBA was the hallmark of upward mobility towards the C-suite of top companies.

But as exponential technologies permeate not only products but every part of the supply chain—from manufacturing and shipping to sales, marketing and customer service—that trend is changing by necessity.

Looking at the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs in 2018 list, more CEOs on the list held engineering degrees than MBAs (34 held engineering degrees, while 32 held MBAs).

There’s much more to leading innovative companies than an advanced business degree.

How Are Schools Responding?
With disruption to the advanced business education system already here, some business schools are applying notes from their own innovation classes to brace for change.

Over the past half-decade, we’ve seen schools with smaller MBA programs shut their doors in favor of advanced degrees with more specialization. This directly responds to market demand for skills in data science, supply chain, and manufacturing.

Some degrees resemble the precise skills training of technical trades. Others are very much in line with the apprenticeship models we’ll explore next.

Regardless, this new specialization strategy is working and attracting more new students. Over the past decade (2006 to 2016), enrollment in specialized graduate business programs doubled.

Higher education is also seeing a preference shift toward for-profit trade schools, like coding boot camps. This shift is one of several forces pushing universities to adopt skill-specific advanced degrees.

But some schools are slow to adapt, raising the question: how and when will these legacy programs be disrupted? A survey of over 170 business school deans around the world showed that many programs are operating at a loss.

But if these schools are world-class business institutions, as advertised, why do they keep the doors open even while they lose money? The surveyed deans revealed an important insight: they keep the degree program open because of the program’s prestige.

Why Go to Business School?
Shorthand Credibility, Cognitive Biases, and Prestige
Regardless of what knowledge a person takes away from graduate school, attending one of the world’s most rigorous and elite programs gives grads external validation.

With over 55 percent of MBA applicants applying to just 6 percent of graduate business schools, we have a clear cognitive bias toward the perceived elite status of certain universities.

To the outside world, thanks to the power of cognitive biases, an advanced degree is credibility shorthand for your capabilities.

Simply passing through a top school’s filtration system means that you had some level of abilities and merits.

And startup success statistics tend to back up that perceived enhanced capability. Let’s take, for example, universities with the most startup unicorn founders (see the figure below).

When you consider the 320+ unicorn startups around the world today, these numbers become even more impressive. Stanford’s 18 unicorn companies account for over 5 percent of global unicorns, and Harvard is responsible for producing just under 5 percent.

Combined, just these two universities (out of over 5,000 in the US, and thousands more around the world) account for 1 in 10 of the billion-dollar private companies in the world.

By the numbers, the prestigious reputation of these elite business programs has a firm basis in current innovation success.

While prestige may be inherent to the degree earned by graduates from these business programs, the credibility boost from holding one of these degrees is not a guaranteed path to success in the business world.

For example, you might expect that the Harvard School of Business or Stanford Graduate School of Business would come out on top when tallying up the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs.

It turns out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison leads the business school pack with 14 CEOs to Harvard’s 12. Beyond prestige, the success these elite business programs see translates directly into cultivating unmatched networks and relationships.

Relationships
Graduate schools—particularly at the upper echelon—are excellent at attracting sharp students.

At an elite business school, if you meet just five to ten people with extraordinary skill sets, personalities, ideas, or networks, then you have returned your $200,000 education investment.

It’s no coincidence that some 40 percent of Silicon Valley venture capitalists are alumni of either Harvard or Stanford.

From future investors to advisors, friends, and potential business partners, relationships are critical to an entrepreneur’s success.

Apprenticeships
As we saw above, graduate business degree programs are melting away in the current wave of exponential change.

With an increasing $1.5 trillion in student debt, there must be a more impactful alternative to attending graduate school for those starting their careers.

When I think about the most important skills I use today as an entrepreneur, writer, and strategic thinker, they didn’t come from my decade of graduate school at Harvard or MIT… they came from my experiences building real technologies and companies, and working with mentors.

Apprenticeship comes in a variety of forms; here, I’ll cover three top-of-mind approaches:

Real-world business acumen via startup accelerators
A direct apprenticeship model
The 6 D’s of mentorship

Startup Accelerators and Business Practicum
Let’s contrast the shrinking interest in MBA programs with applications to a relatively new model of business education: startup accelerators.

Startup accelerators are short-term (typically three to six months), cohort-based programs focusing on providing startup founders with the resources (capital, mentorship, relationships, and education) needed to refine their entrepreneurial acumen.

While graduate business programs have been condensing, startup accelerators are alive, well, and expanding rapidly.

In the 10 years from 2005 (when Paul Graham founded Y Combinator) through 2015, the number of startup accelerators in the US increased by more than tenfold.

The increase in startup accelerator activity hints at a larger trend: our best and brightest business minds are opting to invest their time and efforts in obtaining hands-on experience, creating tangible value for themselves and others, rather than diving into the theory often taught in business school classrooms.

The “Strike Force” Model
The Strike Force is my elite team of young entrepreneurs who work directly with me across all of my companies, travel by my side, sit in on every meeting with me, and help build businesses that change the world.

Previous Strike Force members have gone on to launch successful companies, including Bold Capital Partners, my $250 million venture capital firm.

Strike Force is an apprenticeship for the next generation of exponential entrepreneurs.

To paraphrase my good friend Tony Robbins: If you want to short-circuit the video game, find someone who’s been there and done that and is now doing something you want to one day do.

Every year, over 500,000 apprentices in the US follow this precise template. These apprentices are learning a craft they wish to master, under the mentorship of experts (skilled metal workers, bricklayers, medical technicians, electricians, and more) who have already achieved the desired result.

What if we more readily applied this model to young adults with aspirations of creating massive value through the vehicles of entrepreneurship and innovation?

For the established entrepreneur: How can you bring young entrepreneurs into your organization to create more value for your company, while also passing on your ethos and lessons learned to the next generation?

For the young, driven millennial: How can you find your mentor and convince him or her to take you on as an apprentice? What value can you create for this person in exchange for their guidance and investment in your professional development?

The 6 D’s of Mentorship
In my last blog on education, I shared how mobile device and internet penetration will transform adult literacy and basic education. Mobile phones and connectivity already create extraordinary value for entrepreneurs and young professionals looking to take their business acumen and skill set to the next level.

For all of human history up until the last decade or so, if you wanted to learn from the best and brightest in business, leadership, or strategy, you either needed to search for a dated book that they wrote at the local library or bookstore, or you had to be lucky enough to meet that person for a live conversation.

Now you can access the mentorship of just about any thought leader on the planet, at any time, for free.

Thanks to the power of the internet, mentorship has digitized, demonetized, dematerialized, and democratized.

What do you want to learn about?

Investing? Leadership? Technology? Marketing? Project management?

You can access a near-infinite stream of cutting-edge tools, tactics, and lessons from thousands of top performers from nearly every field—instantaneously, and for free.

For example, every one of Warren Buffett’s letters to his Berkshire Hathaway investors over the past 40 years is available for free on a device that fits in your pocket.

The rise of audio—particularly podcasts and audiobooks—is another underestimated driving force away from traditional graduate business programs and toward apprenticeships.

Over 28 million podcast episodes are available for free. Once you identify the strong signals in the noise, you’re still left with thousands of hours of long-form podcast conversation from which to learn valuable lessons.

Whenever and wherever you want, you can learn from the world’s best. In the future, mentorship and apprenticeship will only become more personalized. Imagine accessing a high-fidelity, AI-powered avatar of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Arthur C. Clarke (one of my early mentors) to help guide you through your career.

Virtual mentorship and coaching are powerful education forces that are here to stay.

Bringing It All Together
The education system is rapidly changing. Traditional master’s programs for business are ebbing away in the tides of exponential technologies. Apprenticeship models are reemerging as an effective way to train tomorrow’s leaders.

In a future blog, I’ll revisit the concept of apprenticeships and other effective business school alternatives.

If you are a young, ambitious entrepreneur (or the parent of one), remember that you live in the most abundant time ever in human history to refine your craft.

Right now, you have access to world-class mentorship and cutting-edge best-practices—literally in the palm of your hand. What will you do with this extraordinary power?

Join Me
Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434701 3 Practical Solutions to Offset ...

In recent years, the media has sounded the alarm about mass job loss to automation and robotics—some studies predict that up to 50 percent of current jobs or tasks could be automated in coming decades. While this topic has received significant attention, much of the press focuses on potential problems without proposing realistic solutions or considering new opportunities.

The economic impacts of AI, robotics, and automation are complex topics that require a more comprehensive perspective to understand. Is universal basic income, for example, the answer? Many believe so, and there are a number of experiments in progress. But it’s only one strategy, and without a sustainable funding source, universal basic income may not be practical.

As automation continues to accelerate, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach to ease the transition. In short, we need to update broad socioeconomic strategies for a new century of rapid progress. How, then, do we plan practical solutions to support these new strategies?

Take history as a rough guide to the future. Looking back, technology revolutions have three themes in common.

First, past revolutions each produced profound benefits to productivity, increasing human welfare. Second, technological innovation and technology diffusion have accelerated over time, each iteration placing more strain on the human ability to adapt. And third, machines have gradually replaced more elements of human work, with human societies adapting by moving into new forms of work—from agriculture to manufacturing to service, for example.

Public and private solutions, therefore, need to be developed to address each of these three components of change. Let’s explore some practical solutions for each in turn.

Figure 1. Technology’s structural impacts in the 21st century. Refer to Appendix I for quantitative charts and technological examples corresponding to the numbers (1-22) in each slice.
Solution 1: Capture New Opportunities Through Aggressive Investment
The rapid emergence of new technology promises a bounty of opportunity for the twenty-first century’s economic winners. This technological arms race is shaping up to be a global affair, and the winners will be determined in part by who is able to build the future economy fastest and most effectively. Both the private and public sectors have a role to play in stimulating growth.

At the country level, several nations have created competitive strategies to promote research and development investments as automation technologies become more mature.

Germany and China have two of the most notable growth strategies. Germany’s Industrie 4.0 plan targets a 50 percent increase in manufacturing productivity via digital initiatives, while halving the resources required. China’s Made in China 2025 national strategy sets ambitious targets and provides subsidies for domestic innovation and production. It also includes building new concept cities, investing in robotics capabilities, and subsidizing high-tech acquisitions abroad to become the leader in certain high-tech industries. For China, specifically, tech innovation is driven partially by a fear that technology will disrupt social structures and government control.

Such opportunities are not limited to existing economic powers. Estonia’s progress after the breakup of the Soviet Union is a good case study in transitioning to a digital economy. The nation rapidly implemented capitalistic reforms and transformed itself into a technology-centric economy in preparation for a massive tech disruption. Internet access was declared a right in 2000, and the country’s classrooms were outfitted for a digital economy, with coding as a core educational requirement starting at kindergarten. Internet broadband speeds in Estonia are among the fastest in the world. Accordingly, the World Bank now ranks Estonia as a high-income country.

Solution 2: Address Increased Rate of Change With More Nimble Education Systems
Education and training are currently not set for the speed of change in the modern economy. Schools are still based on a one-time education model, with school providing the foundation for a single lifelong career. With content becoming obsolete faster and rapidly escalating costs, this system may be unsustainable in the future. To help workers more smoothly transition from one job into another, for example, we need to make education a more nimble, lifelong endeavor.

Primary and university education may still have a role in training foundational thinking and general education, but it will be necessary to curtail rising price of tuition and increase accessibility. Massive open online courses (MooCs) and open-enrollment platforms are early demonstrations of what the future of general education may look like: cheap, effective, and flexible.

Georgia Tech’s online Engineering Master’s program (a fraction of the cost of residential tuition) is an early example in making university education more broadly available. Similarly, nanodegrees or microcredentials provided by online education platforms such as Udacity and Coursera can be used for mid-career adjustments at low cost. AI itself may be deployed to supplement the learning process, with applications such as AI-enhanced tutorials or personalized content recommendations backed by machine learning. Recent developments in neuroscience research could optimize this experience by perfectly tailoring content and delivery to the learner’s brain to maximize retention.

Finally, companies looking for more customized skills may take a larger role in education, providing on-the-job training for specific capabilities. One potential model involves partnering with community colleges to create apprenticeship-style learning, where students work part-time in parallel with their education. Siemens has pioneered such a model in four states and is developing a playbook for other companies to do the same.

Solution 3: Enhance Social Safety Nets to Smooth Automation Impacts
If predicted job losses to automation come to fruition, modernizing existing social safety nets will increasingly become a priority. While the issue of safety nets can become quickly politicized, it is worth noting that each prior technological revolution has come with corresponding changes to the social contract (see below).

The evolving social contract (U.S. examples)
– 1842 | Right to strike
– 1924 | Abolish child labor
– 1935 | Right to unionize
– 1938 | 40-hour work week
– 1962, 1974 | Trade adjustment assistance
– 1964 | Pay discrimination prohibited
– 1970 | Health and safety laws
– 21st century | AI and automation adjustment assistance?

Figure 2. Labor laws have historically adjusted as technology and society progressed

Solutions like universal basic income (no-strings-attached monthly payout to all citizens) are appealing in concept, but somewhat difficult to implement as a first measure in countries such as the US or Japan that already have high debt. Additionally, universal basic income may create dis-incentives to stay in the labor force. A similar cautionary tale in program design was the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which was designed to protect industries and workers from import competition shocks from globalization, but is viewed as a missed opportunity due to insufficient coverage.

A near-term solution could come in the form of graduated wage insurance (compensation for those forced to take a lower-paying job), including health insurance subsidies to individuals directly impacted by automation, with incentives to return to the workforce quickly. Another topic to tackle is geographic mismatch between workers and jobs, which can be addressed by mobility assistance. Lastly, a training stipend can be issued to individuals as means to upskill.

Policymakers can intervene to reverse recent historical trends that have shifted incomes from labor to capital owners. The balance could be shifted back to labor by placing higher taxes on capital—an example is the recently proposed “robot tax” where the taxation would be on the work rather than the individual executing it. That is, if a self-driving car performs the task that formerly was done by a human, the rideshare company will still pay the tax as if a human was driving.

Other solutions may involve distribution of work. Some countries, such as France and Sweden, have experimented with redistributing working hours. The idea is to cap weekly hours, with the goal of having more people employed and work more evenly spread. So far these programs have had mixed results, with lower unemployment but high costs to taxpayers, but are potential models that can continue to be tested.

We cannot stop growth, nor should we. With the roles in response to this evolution shifting, so should the social contract between the stakeholders. Government will continue to play a critical role as a stabilizing “thumb” in the invisible hand of capitalism, regulating and cushioning against extreme volatility, particularly in labor markets.

However, we already see business leaders taking on some of the role traditionally played by government—thinking about measures to remedy risks of climate change or economic proposals to combat unemployment—in part because of greater agility in adapting to change. Cross-disciplinary collaboration and creative solutions from all parties will be critical in crafting the future economy.

Note: The full paper this article is based on is available here.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434623 The Great Myth of the AI Skills Gap

One of the most contentious debates in technology is around the question of automation and jobs. At issue is whether advances in automation, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, will spell trouble for today’s workers. This debate is played out in the media daily, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue. In the past, however, automation has created jobs and increased real wages.

A widespread concern with the current scenario is that the workers most likely to be displaced by technology lack the skills needed to do the new jobs that same technology will create.

Let’s look at this concern in detail. Those who fear automation will hurt workers start by pointing out that there is a wide range of jobs, from low-pay, low-skill to high-pay, high-skill ones. This can be represented as follows:

They then point out that technology primarily creates high-paying jobs, like geneticists, as shown in the diagram below.

Meanwhile, technology destroys low-wage, low-skill jobs like those in fast food restaurants, as shown below:

Then, those who are worried about this dynamic often pose the question, “Do you really think a fast-food worker is going to become a geneticist?”

They worry that we are about to face a huge amount of systemic permanent unemployment, as the unskilled displaced workers are ill-equipped to do the jobs of tomorrow.

It is important to note that both sides of the debate are in agreement at this point. Unquestionably, technology destroys low-skilled, low-paying jobs while creating high-skilled, high-paying ones.

So, is that the end of the story? As a society are we destined to bifurcate into two groups, those who have training and earn high salaries in the new jobs, and those with less training who see their jobs vanishing to machines? Is this latter group forever locked out of economic plenty because they lack training?

No.

The question, “Can a fast food worker become a geneticist?” is where the error comes in. Fast food workers don’t become geneticists. What happens is that a college biology professor becomes a geneticist. Then a high-school biology teacher gets the college job. Then the substitute teacher gets hired on full-time to fill the high school teaching job. All the way down.

The question is not whether those in the lowest-skilled jobs can do the high-skilled work. Instead the question is, “Can everyone do a job just a little harder than the job they have today?” If so, and I believe very deeply that this is the case, then every time technology creates a new job “at the top,” everyone gets a promotion.

This isn’t just an academic theory—it’s 200 years of economic history in the west. For 200 years, with the exception of the Great Depression, unemployment in the US has been between 2 percent and 13 percent. Always. Europe’s range is a bit wider, but not much.

If I took 200 years of unemployment rates and graphed them, and asked you to find where the assembly line took over manufacturing, or where steam power rapidly replaced animal power, or the lightning-fast adoption of electricity by industry, you wouldn’t be able to find those spots. They aren’t even blips in the unemployment record.

You don’t even have to look back as far as the assembly line to see this happening. It has happened non-stop for 200 years. Every fifty years, we lose about half of all jobs, and this has been pretty steady since 1800.

How is it that for 200 years we have lost half of all jobs every half century, but never has this process caused unemployment? Not only has it not caused unemployment, but during that time, we have had full employment against the backdrop of rising wages.

How can wages rise while half of all jobs are constantly being destroyed? Simple. Because new technology always increases worker productivity. It creates new jobs, like web designer and programmer, while destroying low-wage backbreaking work. When this happens, everyone along the way gets a better job.

Our current situation isn’t any different than the past. The nature of technology has always been to create high-skilled jobs and increase worker productivity. This is good news for everyone.

People often ask me what their children should study to make sure they have a job in the future. I usually say it doesn’t really matter. If I knew everything I know now and went back to the mid 1980s, what could I have taken in high school to make me better prepared for today? There is only one class, and it wasn’t computer science. It was typing. Who would have guessed?

The great skill is to be able to learn new things, and luckily, we all have that. In fact, that is our singular ability as a species. What I do in my day-to-day job consists largely of skills I have learned as the years have passed. In my experience, if you ask people at all job levels,“Would you like a little more challenging job to make a little more money?” almost everyone says yes.

That’s all it has taken for us to collectively get here today, and that’s all we need going forward.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434611 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

AUTOMATION
The Rise of the Robot Reporter
Jaclyn Paiser | The New York Times
“In addition to covering company earnings for Bloomberg, robot reporters have been prolific producers of articles on minor league baseball for The Associated Press, high school football for The Washington Post and earthquakes for The Los Angeles Times.”

ROBOTICS
Penny-Sized Ionocraft Flies With No Moving Parts
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Electrohydrodynamic (EHD) thrusters, sometimes called ion thrusters, use a high strength electric field to generate a plasma of ionized air. …Magical, right? No moving parts, completely silent, and it flies!”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Making New Drugs With a Dose of Artificial Intelligence
Cade Metz | The New York Times
“…DeepMind won the [protein folding] competition by a sizable margin—it improved the prediction accuracy nearly twice as much as experts expected from the contest winner. DeepMind’s victory showed how the future of biochemical research will increasingly be driven by machines and the people who oversee those machines.”

COMPUTING
Nano-Switches Made Out of Graphene Could Make Our Devices Even Smaller
Emerging Technology From the arXiv | MIT Technology Review
“For the first time, physicists have built reliable, efficient graphene nanomachines that can be fabricated on silicon chips. They could lead to even greater miniaturization.”

BIOTECH
The Problem With Big DNA
Sarah Zhang | The Atlantic
“It took researchers days to search through thousands of genome sequences. Now it takes just a few seconds. …As sequencing becomes more common, the number of publicly available bacterial and viral genomes has doubled. At the rate this work is going, within a few years multiple millions of searchable pathogen genomes will be available—a library of DNA and disease, spread the world over.”

CRYPTOCURRENCY
Fire (and Lots of It): Berkeley Researcher on the Only Way to Fix Cryptocurrency
Dan Goodin | Ars Technica
“Weaver said, there’s no basis for the promises that cryptocurrencies’ decentralized structure and blockchain basis will fundamentally transform commerce or economics. That means the sky-high valuations spawned by those false promises are completely unjustified. …To support that conclusion, Weaver recited an oft-repeated list of supposed benefits of cryptocurrencies and explained why, after closer scrutiny, he believed them to be myths.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#434559 Can AI Tell the Difference Between a ...

Scarcely a day goes by without another headline about neural networks: some new task that deep learning algorithms can excel at, approaching or even surpassing human competence. As the application of this approach to computer vision has continued to improve, with algorithms capable of specialized recognition tasks like those found in medicine, the software is getting closer to widespread commercial use—for example, in self-driving cars. Our ability to recognize patterns is a huge part of human intelligence: if this can be done faster by machines, the consequences will be profound.

Yet, as ever with algorithms, there are deep concerns about their reliability, especially when we don’t know precisely how they work. State-of-the-art neural networks will confidently—and incorrectly—classify images that look like television static or abstract art as real-world objects like school-buses or armadillos. Specific algorithms could be targeted by “adversarial examples,” where adding an imperceptible amount of noise to an image can cause an algorithm to completely mistake one object for another. Machine learning experts enjoy constructing these images to trick advanced software, but if a self-driving car could be fooled by a few stickers, it might not be so fun for the passengers.

These difficulties are hard to smooth out in large part because we don’t have a great intuition for how these neural networks “see” and “recognize” objects. The main insight analyzing a trained network itself can give us is a series of statistical weights, associating certain groups of points with certain objects: this can be very difficult to interpret.

Now, new research from UCLA, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, is testing neural networks to understand the limits of their vision and the differences between computer vision and human vision. Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, and Philip J. Kellman of UCLA, alongside Gennady Erlikhman of the University of Nevada, tested a deep convolutional neural network called VGG-19. This is state-of-the-art technology that is already outperforming humans on standardized tests like the ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge.

They found that, while humans tend to classify objects based on their overall (global) shape, deep neural networks are far more sensitive to the textures of objects, including local color gradients and the distribution of points on the object. This result helps explain why neural networks in image recognition make mistakes that no human ever would—and could allow for better designs in the future.

In the first experiment, a neural network was trained to sort images into 1 of 1,000 different categories. It was then presented with silhouettes of these images: all of the local information was lost, while only the outline of the object remained. Ordinarily, the trained neural net was capable of recognizing these objects, assigning more than 90% probability to the correct classification. Studying silhouettes, this dropped to 10%. While human observers could nearly always produce correct shape labels, the neural networks appeared almost insensitive to the overall shape of the images. On average, the correct object was ranked as the 209th most likely solution by the neural network, even though the overall shapes were an exact match.

A particularly striking example arose when they tried to get the neural networks to classify glass figurines of objects they could already recognize. While you or I might find it easy to identify a glass model of an otter or a polar bear, the neural network classified them as “oxygen mask” and “can opener” respectively. By presenting glass figurines, where the texture information that neural networks relied on for classifying objects is lost, the neural network was unable to recognize the objects by shape alone. The neural network was similarly hopeless at classifying objects based on drawings of their outline.

If you got one of these right, you’re better than state-of-the-art image recognition software. Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
When the neural network was explicitly trained to recognize object silhouettes—given no information in the training data aside from the object outlines—the researchers found that slight distortions or “ripples” to the contour of the image were again enough to fool the AI, while humans paid them no mind.

The fact that neural networks seem to be insensitive to the overall shape of an object—relying instead on statistical similarities between local distributions of points—suggests a further experiment. What if you scrambled the images so that the overall shape was lost but local features were preserved? It turns out that the neural networks are far better and faster at recognizing scrambled versions of objects than outlines, even when humans struggle. Students could classify only 37% of the scrambled objects, while the neural network succeeded 83% of the time.

Humans vastly outperform machines at classifying object (a) as a bear, while the machine learning algorithm has few problems classifying the bear in figure (b). Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
“This study shows these systems get the right answer in the images they were trained on without considering shape,” Kellman said. “For humans, overall shape is primary for object recognition, and identifying images by overall shape doesn’t seem to be in these deep learning systems at all.”

Naively, one might expect that—as the many layers of a neural network are modeled on connections between neurons in the brain and resemble the visual cortex specifically—the way computer vision operates must necessarily be similar to human vision. But this kind of research shows that, while the fundamental architecture might resemble that of the human brain, the resulting “mind” operates very differently.

Researchers can, increasingly, observe how the “neurons” in neural networks light up when exposed to stimuli and compare it to how biological systems respond to the same stimuli. Perhaps someday it might be possible to use these comparisons to understand how neural networks are “thinking” and how those responses differ from humans.

But, as yet, it takes a more experimental psychology to probe how neural networks and artificial intelligence algorithms perceive the world. The tests employed against the neural network are closer to how scientists might try to understand the senses of an animal or the developing brain of a young child rather than a piece of software.

By combining this experimental psychology with new neural network designs or error-correction techniques, it may be possible to make them even more reliable. Yet this research illustrates just how much we still don’t understand about the algorithms we’re creating and using: how they tick, how they make decisions, and how they’re different from us. As they play an ever-greater role in society, understanding the psychology of neural networks will be crucial if we want to use them wisely and effectively—and not end up missing the woods for the trees.

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Posted in Human Robots