Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

As of yesterday evening sometime, my twitter feed has lit up with claims that a computer has passed the Turing test for the first time. These claims have their roots in this press release from Reading University.

The details of the test and how it was carried out are thin on the ground. We do know from Reading’s press release that one of the judges was an actor and that in 33% of cases, the computer could not be distinguished from a human.

I have a couple of key questions.

  1. What language did the humans interact with the bot in? This is important because the bot is defined as a 13 year old boy from the Ukraine. If the interaction was in English then for me, all bets are off.
  2. Where is the peer reviewed paper?

The Turing Test is, in many respects, iconic. If someone claims to pass it, a press release is going to be nowhere near adequate to support that claim. We need to know a lot more about the system concerned, how it works and how it operates.



One of the joys of being back at university is the unexpected bits of inspiration that pop up. Today was one of those days when…well…

NaoThis is Nao.

Nao came in to visit today, with one of the PhD students who is doing some research on robot-human interaction. I’ve never seen anything quite like him/her (decision to be made really).

I mean, how can you not love something like this:

IMG_1589_cropNao can dance, can walk, can talk and can interact with you. He/she plays this sports game where he/she mimes the sport and you guess.

Nao gets to know you. “Look at my eyes until they turn green”. And they do.

It is fair to say that every single student who met Nao was utterly entranced by him. I would love a Nao of my every own. Nao has five thousand brothers and sisters dotted around the world. Surely there could be one for me?

Here is Nao dancing:

And Gangam style thanks to the University of Canterbury

This is the promo video from Nao’s parents, Aldebaran Robotics.

Here’s what I would do if I wanted to get more people into information technology, computer science and related cutting edge technology. I would acquire a couple of these robots, and I would hand them over to school outreach programs. And I would send them into primary schools and junior cycle secondary and I would say “Look at what you can do if you study work on maths and related.”

This is the stuff of dreams and inspiration. We’re behind the game, I think, if we’re putting iPads into school. If we put Nao into schools, we are putting the future into schools.

Very few schools have the funds to fund a robot like this. It is something that needs to be done at a national level, or possibly by the universities.

Great scientists don’t need maths, apparently.

Seriously. This from a professor emeritus in Harvard.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case.

An outlier, in other words.

I have problems with this piece, not least because in discussions about mathematical ability most people are not so worried about the lack of access to seriously high level mathematics, but the basic stuff that a) makes it easier to survive modern life without being ripped off and b) makes it easier to find higher paying jobs. But this guy is talking about the higher level stuff required to support leaps forward in science, not the every day sort of stuff.

Extreme cases are not generally applicable and if he is such a great scientist, regardless of what his field of study, he should be aware of this.


How college is going

Being back at university studying mathematics more or less for the hell of it is actually quite an interesting experience. The whole independent study thing is hard from time to time, but what’s hardest about it is you have to do actual rent paying work around it and somehow, study is more fun on occasion. I’m just done with a block looking at iteration and matrices which was quite interesting, and also, with a stats block dealing with time series. The thing about time series – in one respect – is that they get used a lot on a very superficial by a lot of people…but in depth, there’s kind of a lot more, particularly in terms of predictive modelling.

I scored very, very well on both assignments linked to these modules and am about to move into calculus (again) and multivariates between the maths and the stats.

What people can’t quite get to grips with is that I’m actually doing this. Why, if you already have a degree and a couple of postgrads, and a job, would you go back and so something like maths. Maths is hard.

And it’s not like I need to.

This leads me to wonder about people’s motivation sometimes. When I look around, the people whose opinion I have, over the years, tended to value most, think that going back to college is a terrific thing, and that it’s awesome that I’m doing it. The ones who question the sanity of it, I have noticed, tend to be slightly more negative in their outlook about most of their daily life, and in particular, about the impact that decisions outside their control have on their lives. On balance, I wonder how many people assert control over their lives and how many just coast.

I was looking at maths courses for 2-3 years before I eventually signed up to the Open University. Dublin really only has one part time option which is the DIT and at the time I eventually rejected it, I was pretty sure it wasn’t right for me. The Open University while requiring a lot of independent time with the books, has proven to be more helpful. At the time which I started the course, there were some reorganisations going on at work, and quite a lot of people were suggesting that I, maybe, wait and see.

I have come to the conclusion that sometimes, “wait and see” is a corrosive piece of advice. If, for example, I had waited and seen a year in 2011, the changes in funding for OU courses would have made it financially out of the question. Sometimes, you really need to identify the right decision for yourself regardless of what other people think.

I scored 94 in the last maths assignment. It’s probably the highest mark I have gotten in anything since I was about 17 years old and I knew that the max I’d be scored from was 97 anyway. So I’m really, really pleased with this.

I don’t think waiting and seeing would have been the right thing to do. I’m very, very glad I did this even if it means I spend a lot of time curled up with numbers and symbols.


Where do you want to volunteer today.

I had a long conversation with someone about volunteering the other day, someone who has spent a good deal of working life outside Ireland. Specifically he was talking about volunteering time to help local schools with tech knowledge transfer and training. In addition to that, someone sent me this this morning via twitter and it got me thinking about how it can be done rather than the barriers that tend to block it. Obviously there are elements of that last one that are irrelevant to kids outside America because we’ve different ways of doing things but some of the general comments about approaching problems of this nature and how girls tend not to push themselves are not yet history.

I did, at some point during my college years volunteer to help students in disadvantaged areas with some tuition for state exams but I don’t know, given the change in legislation and the need for background vetting whether programs like this still exist. I also like a lot what James Whelton has done with CoderDojo, and things like the Mathsjam movement.

I’m also aware that there is a lot of concern about maths teaching in secondary schools, the perception of maths as hard, as somewhere we’re poorly performing and from past personal experience, the lack of support, sometimes, for girls doing maths. I had a great, great maths teacher at secondary school – I gather he’s a head teacher somewhere now. But he had one hell of a battle and argument to try and keep girls from dropping out of the higher level maths courses.

So I’m looking at the possibility of setting up maths clubs not unlike the coderdojo idea but with some mad cross between mathsjam for kids, purely on a voluntary basis, or possibly going out as a speaker to secondary schools and colleges be it under the auspices of some sort of future planning/careers talks (do we still even do these) or some sort of maths talks and I really, really need to know what I need to know what from a legal standpoint…


Leaving certificate maths.

I’m prone to complain about the streamlining and simplification of the maths syllabus here so having come across this blog post on aperiodical by Card Colm, I think it’s worth noting some of the points raised in it that just have not occurred to me.

Regardless, a system such as this ensures that one has some idea of what incoming university students know about mathematics.  Every single one of them has had 12 years of maths without a break.  It simply isn’t optional.

This is true, in my experience. Maths, of some description, is mandatory right up to the leaving certificate.

This is all in stark contrast to the situation in the USA, where I currently live and teach. There, there is essentially no guaranteed minimum level in mathematics that one can expect an incoming university student to have achieved. Some have not taken mathematics for several years before they show up at the gates of third level institutions.

I find this astonishing in many ways.

We complain quite a bit about maths coverage here and while I’d venture to say it’s been better in the past, I wonder, in truth, just how badly we are doing.

Viz, there is a debate going on in the UK regarding maths teaching up to the age of 18. Timothy Gowers has posted on this today and there is some interesting stuff there too. It’s also worth noting Christian Perfect’s comments on Card Colm piece above if you click through to Colm’s piece.

So the presents have started arriving from Open University

Twice in the last couple of weeks, I have missed package deliveries and had to re-arrange forwarding. Both were from the Open University.

Today’s one which was the third, and apparently final mailing for my first maths module, arrived today. It had books for every chapter, and the one that caught my interest – more than anything – was Block D. Block D concentrates on Chance/Probability and it’s what I remember most from 2o years ago.

Chance and probably is quite topical in the UK at the moment because a senior judge has recommended that Bayes theorem not be applied in expert statistical evidence in court cases. This has caused a lot of debate amongst statisticians and mathematicians (including the “he’s probably not qualified to make a call on that in his own right” line of reasoning.

One of the things which saddens me most about the generally low levels of numeracy in Ireland is that people aren’t equipped to have these debates; they’re not equipped to assess the likelihood of things happening based on prior data (like oh, house price crashes). While I’ve signed up for a degree in mathematics and statistics, Open University also does a degree in maths and maths teaching. Given a wider debate about the quality, and the level of qualification, of maths teachers here in Ireland, this is quite interesting.

For me, most of what this year consists of is modelling. I’m interested in this too because I have tangential interests in wave modelling and to a lesser extent, climate modelling. What’s great about all this is that it’s going to provide me with tools to do other things I am interested in beyond the day to day business of work and life. There’s a tiny undisciplined part of me which would really and truly like to hit on Part D before I do anything else because I remember probability from school and liking it very much (and scoring full marks in the probability question in my leaving certificate); but I recognise that some discipline is going to help me most through this.

There is always a lot to be said for learning something new, however, so this makes me quite happy.

So I’m back at college again.

I have spent a lot of the last three years trying to figure out what was the best way of getting myself back into a maths trip. I had looked at a possible part time degree in the Dublin Institute of Technology but the online documentation didn’t really attract me, so I waited another bit, searched another lot, and this year, I decided to sign up to start a degree in mathematics and statistics with the Open University.

I did my school leaving examination in Ireland in 1990 which is a frighteningly long time ago. I have been making noise about this for years but have delayed it for various practical reasons linked to normal life. This year, those considerations have not gone away and it doesn’t look like they were likely to in the short term so I decided that I wasn’t going to wait for things I can’t control to sort themselves out so that I could go off and do this. I expect to have forgotten a lot of this; and the revision notes are here beside me. I haven’t worked out how I am going to arrange all this from a practical point of view – I am surrounded by paper as it is.

I toyed with putting up a separate blog about this and how I was getting on, but in the end figured that the best thing to do was to put it onto this blog. So this is by way of a warning to note there will be bits of maths cropping up here.