Posts Tagged‘intelligence’

Praising Effort, Process is Better Than Praising Ability.

For much of my childhood people told me I was smart. Things that frustrated other kids, like maths, seemed to come easy to me and this led to many people praising my ability. I never felt particularly smart, I mean there were dozens of other kids who were far more talented than I was, but at that age it’s hard to deny the opinions of adults, especially the ones who raised you. This led to an unfortunate misconception that stayed with me until after I left university: the idea that my abilities were fixed and that anything I found hard or difficult was simply beyond my ability. It’s only been since then, some 8 years or so, that I learnt that any skill or problem is within my capability, should I be willing to put the effort in.

Child with learning difficulties

It’s a theme that will likely echo among many of my generation as we grew up with parents who were told that positive reinforcement was the way to make your child succeed in the world. It’s only now, after decades of positive reinforcement failing to produce the outcomes it decried, we’re beginning to realise the folly of our ways. Much of the criticism of our generation focuses on this aspect, that we’re too spoilt, too demanding when compared to previous generations. If there’s one good thing to come out of this however it’s that research has shown that the praising a child’s ability isn’t the way to go, you should praise them for the process they go through.

Indeed once I realised that things like skills, abilities and intelligence were primarily a function of the effort and process you went through to develop them I was suddenly greeted with a world of achievable goals rather than roadblocks. At the same time I grew to appreciate those at the peak of their abilities as I knew the amount of effort they had put in to develop those skills which allowed them to excel. Previously I would have simply dismissed them as being lucky, winning the genetic lottery that gave them all the tools they needed to excel in their field whilst I languished in the background.

It’s not a silver bullet however as the research shows the same issues with positive reinforcement arise if process praise is given too often. The nuances are also unknown at this point, like how often you should give praise and in what fashion, but these research does show that giving process praise in moderation has long lasting benefits. I’d be interested to see how well this translates into adults as well since my experience has been vastly positive once I made the link between effort and results. I can’t see it holding true for everyone, as most things don’t in this regard, but if it generally holds then I can definitely see a ton of benefits from it being implemented.

All That We Are is Contained in 5% of Our DNA.

I’ve always found it fascinating just how much commonality there is between us and many other life forms on earth. The explanation is quite simple: certain biological features are the most suited to the world that we live in and thus give the highest chance of survival and procreation. Still even with that fact in mind I still marvel at how much in common we have with even the most bizarre creatures and it gets even more intriguing when you go down to the DNA level. It’s been well known for a long time that we’re genetically very similar to primates to the tune of something like 95%.

One of my favorite astrophysicists (yes I have several)  Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a fascinating point about that small genetic difference (skip to 7:35, although the first point is amazing too):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDRXn96HrtY

All we are, all the stuff that differentiates us from the great apes is contained in that small difference of DNA. The idea then that another form of intelligent life could be that different from us again really is fascinatingly disturbing as from their point of view we’d be little above cattle to them. You’d hope though that past a certain level of intelligence you’d have some respect for any form of life (like many humans do) but our history has shown how even intelligent species can regard their own as beneath them.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll just go and work my way through this existential crisis I’m having.

Technological Solutions to Human Problems.

It would seem as more time passes the more we are in control of the restrictions that have been placed on us by our ancestors. Natural Selection did a pretty good job of giving us a foundation of a large brain relative to our body mass, giving us a leg up on cognitive functions. Yet the more we progress we also find ourselves stuck with problems that are intrinsically human and as such will probably not be solved technologically.

The Turing test is a simple example of one such problem. In essence the test seeks to develop a computer program “intelligent” enough to fool a human observer into thinking it’s human. At its heart this is a human problem, communication with another being at a meaningful level. If you’ve ever tried to talk with a chat bot as if it were human you’ll notice some characteristics after a short period of time:

  • Lack of memory: Most chat bots won’t remember the conversation you had with them past the last sentence. This can lead to some silly conversational loops since they’ll ask you to clarify points they appeared to understand not two sentences earlier.
  • Can’t be taught: A lot of chat bots are based on Natural Language Processing where they’re using algorithms based on grammatical constructs and the sentence structure. Whilst you can use this to form some sort of idea about what the other party is saying you can’t teach this dog any tricks once you’ve programmed it. I had a lovely conversation with the “winner” of last years Turing test about regolith. After teaching it what it was I then asked it to describe it back to me. Needless to say it couldn’t, and asked me what I was talking about.
  • Spout nonsensical gibberish: If you hit one of the mid points in some of the NLP algorithms you’ll notice that most chat bots come back with a question which takes part of your sentence and regurgitates it back at you. If you said something like “Well I do enjoy opera whilst knee deep in peanut butter” they will come back with something like “What makes it that you enjoy opera whilst knee deep in peanut butter?”. Forgive the awkward grammar and you might be able to pass that off as normal conversation, but no one talks like that normally.

No program has yet completed this test successfully, although there are many good candidates.

The old saying “when all you have is a hammer all your problems look like nails” is something that applies here. Using technology to solve our day to day problems and better our lives is the hammer, and our problems arising from the human condition can all look like nails. Whilst I believe that no problem is above being solved, given enough time and resources, there are some things about life that are just so intrinsically human that technology will struggle to overcome them. Sometimes it is easier to adapt ourselves to overcome such problems; akin to a kind of artificial evolution.

So, what’s the point of trying then? Well I can put it down to two reasons. The first being our insatiable desire to overcome any obstacle that is placed in front of us. Routinely in our past we humans have been faced with problems that appeared monumental. Just on 100 years ago international travel took many months across the sea and was frought with danger. Now you can walk up to almost any airport and choose a country and be there in less than a day.

Secondly, on a time scale that we experience evolution makes negligible changes to us. We are at the stage where we have evolved to a point that if we want to go any further mother nature’s course will take thousands of generations for us to get there. If the human species is to survive and thrive in this barren universe we have to learn to master the world we exist in and then continue the process throughout the solar system and beyond. This is the only way to ensure that our race can survive through catastrophic events such as the loss of the entire earth.

Overall, we seek to overcome our shortcomings due to our innate desire to thrive.