I have sometimes been a bit ahead of my time, but perhaps never more so than my career in artificial intelligence. I was working in a “AI Alley” (Kendall Square, Cambridge Massachusetts) building expert systems 3 decades ago. The industry went through a boom but then a bust and largely retreated from being a darling of venture capitalists to being an esoteric branch of computer science academics. Until recently.
I’ve always been intrigued by visionaries who were years, if not decades or even centuries ahead of their time – Leonardo da Vinci, Antoni Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright. One of those individuals is Alan Turing whose birthday is today. A persecuted homosexual, you could say he was ahead of his time both in identity as well as intellect. Celebrated in the film the “Imitation Game” about the development of the war-changing “Enigma Machine”, he is largely considered the “father of intelligent systems”. His “Turing Test” remains the essential benchmark for artificial “intelligence”.
Like many innovations, people over-estimated the short-term possibilities of artificial intelligence and under estimated the long-term ones. While over blown claims of inflated business plans disappointed in the eighties, simple algorithms (the heart of AI) would nonetheless slowly come to automate so many aspects of daily living from the mundane to the complex. Now, instead of people dismissing AI, people are fearing it taking over the world.
Fortunately, experts like Stuart Russell have an answer for this dystopian possibility – embracing failure. While the entire ethos of computer engineering seems to be about making systems smarter and smarter, his TED lecture argues that the most powerful attribute might be ignorance. Programming ignorance into these advanced, intelligence systems to save the human race…
- “The second law is a law of humility, if you like. And this turns out to be really important to make robots safe. It says that the robot does not know what those human values are, so it has to maximize them, but it doesn’t know what they are. And that avoids this problem of single-minded pursuit of an objective. This uncertainty turns out to be crucial.”
It is particularly appropriate that he dubs this principle the “law of humility” as “humility” is the virtue of embracing failure.
The Atlantic’s piece “A Coral Reef Revival” combined a bit of failure serendipity with failure positive impact to provide marine biologist with new insights to helping the world’s ocean coral reefs facing their own Anthropocene mortality…
- “To see that it took three years to get the size of something we thought would be worthwhile doing something with, that’s what got me disappointed that I literally took it off the higher level of the aquarium and put it on the bottom of the aquarium thinking that this was no longer a process worth pursuing. And when I went to move that one, it broke. And I thought that was really going to stress and hurt that coral. The few little polyps left behind I a pile of little in a little calcium carbonate skeleton – I think my statement was ‘These things are toast’. They’re not going to make it. Two weeks later, I went to check on it and the piece that had the dime sized hole in it had completely grown back to the size that it was previously. And that size dime took two years to produce from a larvae. That was incredible. So much so that even though the tank that it came from was only a few steps away, I literally ran back to the other tank where the other 3 polyps were left behind. They had also grown back and multiplied to a dozen or more polyps and were also back to the size of a nickel or a dime.”
World Environment Day today comes on the heels of one of the biggest setbacks in eco-sustainability with the exit by Trump from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. A dramatic move in an increasing fraught issue. The controversy has inspired plenty of heated debate and viewpoints. But perhaps none so extreme as the New York Times piece a while back titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”. A wholehearted embrace of failure, it asserts that the only way to save humanity is to “kill” it (a bit of metaphor involved there)…
- Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence. The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear. If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”
The civilization is dead. Long live the civilisation.
It’s one thing when life gives you lemons, but what do you do when the ground literally opens up beneath you? Make it into a feature attraction.
A sink-hole hit the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, devouring eight of the vintage cars on display.
- “Since the headline-making incident, museum visitations have been up 59 percent, and revenue is up 65 percent, according to Christy Thomas, CFO for the museum. ‘If the interest in the exhibit wanes, or if down the road we decided that we don’t want the hole any longer there is always an option to put the room back how it was,’ said Thomas.”
Museum Day today. A chance for aficionados to embrace their failure appreciation. At the Museum of Failure in Sweden – “Sweden’s Museum of Failure: A spectacular catalogue of the world’s worst innovations”:
- “The Museum of Failure celebrates the absurd and hilarious wrong turns that companies have taken in their product development—from Colgate’s unappetizing beef lasagna, to Harley Davidson’s leathery-scented perfume, to Bic’s sexist “for Her” lady’s pen…In Helsingborg, Sweden, the museum seeks to de-stigmatize personal and professional failure.”
The main “galleries” will include…
- Brand Over-Extensions – eg. Harley-Davidson Eau de Toilette, Coffee-flavoured Coke
- Design – N-Gage phone that had to be dissembled to play games, Twitter Peek for looking at Tweets but didn’t show 140 characters.
- Symbolic – Not themselves failures but emblematic of a larger failure which doomed the company such as Blockbuster DVD and Kodak pursuit of photo printing.
What better adversary to the scourge of the deadly disease of cancer than another deadly disease…HIV.
“What we’ve learned how to do is train the immune system to recognise and kill tumor cells” describes Dr. Carl H. June of the University of Pennsylvania. And that tutor is the HIV virus. Genetically modified so as not to infect the patient with HIV. Not too far of a mental leap from basic immunization which injects people with the disease it wishes to make you immune to only this procedure is about a thousand times more complex.
And, it is the also failure of treatment that is actually enabling these breakthrough innovations. As such an approach is so risky, that at this stage they can’t be justified for use on any patients who might have a higher chance of better outcomes with other therapies available.
- “Patients that we are treating in this clinical trial are patients who have absolutely no other options left for them. These are patients who are unfortunately destined to die of their disease and in a fairly short amount of time.”
Fortunately, for all of us but especially patients like Emma showcased in the video, these radical approaches have worked advancing our knowledge of how to refine them and progress them taking us ever closer to a cure for cancer.
“With humor, the equation is ‘tragedy plus time equals comedy.” – Tig Notaro
Tig Notaro turned the worst day of her life into a historic classic of performance comedy.
Opening the line “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer” (The clip above features the jaw-dropping first three minutes of her now infamous set. You can purchase the entire performance on iTunes). She goes on to explain:
- I had this bacteria eating my digestive tract…Please bear with me. It’s so hard because right now in my life because right now when I have a show I don’t want to talk about how funny it is that a bee was taking the 405 freeway…because (everyone relax), my mother just died…Tragically too! She was 65, tripped, hit her head – died. A week after I got out of the hospital – ’m doing okay…So the timeline – I was in the hospital for a week with CDIF. Got out out. A week later my mother died. Then – I know it’s hilarious – then I went through a breakup. Right in the middle of it all. It’s tough times…you can’t stick around for that…All of it just turned into cancer.”
I’ve always said that there is a line to be drawn in embracing failure. There is failure and there is tragedy. I guess the difference is that the learning and dividends of “failures” outweigh the costs of the failures themselves. But with “tragedies”, the cost is so great, that no amount of growth can compensate for the loss. And yet, despite the extraordinary series of tragic events that Tig suffered, she still managed to turn it into one of the most inspired and inspiring comedic pieces in the history of stand-up.
This weekend starts off the “Race for Life” season where thousands of women face their own extreme physical challenges (especially with the introductions of “tough mudders” in the mix) to raise money to fight the scourge of cancer. As a friend of a recent cancer survivor, I am witness to the success this research is having to save lives. Especially to add “time” to the equation of those lives so more of that “tragedy” can become “comedy”.