Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘China’

Chinese towels

Another thought about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos: Her billion-dollar medical-testing company based on secret and unproven technology in her twenties depended largely on a board of well-connected politicians and former politicians, notable for their lack of any relevant scientific expertise. But before she got to that point she needed to turn the heads of some scientists. According to the New Yorker, she caught the attention of dean of engineering Channing Robertson in her freshman year at Stanford:

One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in. At the end of the spring term, she told him that she planned to spend the summer working at the Genome Institute, in Singapore. He warned her that prospective students had to speak Mandarin.

 “I’m fluent in Mandarin,” she said.

“I’m thinking, What’s next? She’s already coming into the research group meetings at the end of her freshman year with my Ph.D. students. I find myself listening to her more than to them about the next experiments to be done and the progress that’s been made. I realized she’s different.”

Clearly scientific acumen was exceptional. But what is the role of Mandarin? (This is the second story in the article about how she impressed people with her knowledge of the language.) I am reminded of the famous passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value… More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have ”lost”.

Is speaking Mandarin (assuming you’re not yourself Chinese) the intellectual equivalent of having your towel? Is that what he means by “What’s next?” He’s thinking, I’m dean of the engineering school at Stanford, and I don’t speak Mandarin. She’s only 18 and she’s managed to learn to speak fluent Mandarin. She must know all kinds of things that I have no inkling of.

Is that the reason why the chic private schools in the UK all seem to be teaching Mandarin?

The last unbreakable code?

I noticed a brief article in The Guardian with the captivating headline “Can Google be taught poetry?”.

By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to “teach the database the metaphors” that humans associate with pictures, “and see what happens,” explains Corey Pressman from Neologic Labs, who are behind the project, along with Webvisions and Arizona State University….

The hope is that, with a big enough dataset, “we’ll be delighted to see we can teach the robots metaphors, that computers can be more like us, rather than the other way around,” says Pressman. “I’d like them to meet us more halfway.”

That sounds utopian, magnificent, turning away from the harsh and narrow-minded informaticism to grand humane concerns. And yet, it reminded me of a recent article in the New Yorker “Why Jihadists Write Poetry”:

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

Whatever the motives of Neologic Labs — and I’m guessing they have a pitch to investors that doesn’t rely upon the self-actualisation of smartphones, nor on the profits to be turned from improving the quality of poetry — can we doubt that sooner or later this technology is going to be applied to improving the quality of government surveillance, escaping the literal to follow human prey down into the warrens of metaphor and allusion. It will start with terrorists, but that’s not where it will stop.

Imagine, just to begin with, China equipping its internet with a cybernetic real-time censor that can’t be fooled by symbolic language or references to obscure rock lyrics, which the software will be more familiar with than any fan. Protest movements will be extinguished before people are even aware that they were ever part of a movement.

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