Young Innovators

It was such a pleasure and a privilege,  to be part of #ymic (Young Minds Innovation Challenge) conducted by KCG and Enchanter.

Their energy was clearly in evidence in the exhibit hall.  The students were pitching to every one interested in listening and their enthusiasm was infectious.  One of my roles as a judge (along with two others) was to walk around and talk to these young innovators. It was probably two of the most enjoyable days I spent.

Some of them (mostly the school students) were bold and eager. Some of them (mostly college students) were shy. Some were super confident. They had this look – “we are going to change the world”. A kid from Chettinad Vidyashram, was telling me about his product Algenol. He is actually going to US to present his project.

Moms rock.  I saw one patient mom sitting next to her son, handing him things to show to visitors, getting him lunch during the break and encouraging him. She was there both the days of the event, untiring and always smiling. She was proud of her son and she had good reason to.

I think families make such a big difference. I am sure behind every one of these young innovators is a family member – a mom, a dad or a grand parent giving them encouragement and support.

The unsung heroes were the teachers. Those who were present –  from DAV, Chennai Public School were there throughout the event – dedicated, tireless, helping and guiding their students. These students were well organized with their models, their posters and were extremely articulate.

“Sir we added blue tooth support overnight”, said the 7th grader from Chennai Public School. They were demonstrating an Ironing Robot (to press clothes). These kids were amazing. They start their robotics training pretty early (at 4th grade) with Lego Mindstorms. All the kids I met were either 7th or 8th graders. One of the youngest programmer I have met from that school programs in “Embedded C’ and won programming competitions. 

The organizer of the event – Gautam is an innovator, himself. He is also a budding entrepreneur. He is a student from KCG College of Technology and worked on an innovation cell project funded by Department of Science and Technology. People like him are a source of inspiration for many of us who run these innovation programs.

We had to pick a few winners and give them awards. However, I feel that every one the participants, the parents who encouraged them, and the teachers and institutions that helped them are all winners. We just need to find a way to help them all.

 

 

 

Inspired by A Bot

Can you fall in love with a bot? I know that you can certainly be fascinated by one. I was, when I first encountered AliceBot, several years ago. But here is a fascinating story shared on AIZone (a forum to discuss AI bots) by Richard Wallace

On the Online Origins of the Film
The initial idea came from an article I saw online which talked about a site where you could instant message with artificial intelligence. I think it was called Alicebot. I went to it and said, “How are you?” It said, “How are you?” And I said “Not so good, I’m tired,” and it said, “That’s too bad.” So we had this little exchange and I got this buzz, thinking, “Wow I’m actually talking to this thing!” And then it quickly devolved; you could tell it was just parroting things that it had heard before and wasn’t actually intelligent. I didn’t really think about it for a long time, and then I thought about a man in a relationship with an entity like that and the idea of what would happen if you used that as a way to write a love story.

I have been showing Alicebot to students for a couple of years now.  There are two instances of projects (less romantic than the one described above) inspired by Alicebot.

One was about a student doing his Masters in Computer Science. He was referred to me by one of my friends and I suggested that he look at an AI Bot for his project. He implemented a small Python app using AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language) and built a help application for Sugar CRM.

One of the most gratifying things that happened about 6 months ago was how two students at KCG Innovation Cell, got inspired by Alicebot to rethink their user interface to helpdesk app they were building. They were inspired enough to go and learn a new programming language (Python) and a bit of AIML. I think they will get more time to work this semester and I hope they persist, and share their experience.

Lots of activity in the AI bot space. The best way to keep track is to subscribe and follow discussions at AI Zone.  There is a new version of AIML in the works –  AIML2  and now there is ChatScript. I see quite a few opportunities to make interactions with computers more interesting for both adults and kids. Hopefully I will get to work on a couple of projects, soon.

From a paper on writing a Chatbot

ChatScript is a scripting language and engine for responding to meaning. It has been used to write chatbots which carry on an entertaining conversation. Even a chatbot that pretends to be a patient to help train doctors on diagnostic interviews.

But chat isn’t its only use. ChatScript has planning capability, and could be used to allow a robot to carry out plans it synthesizes in response to verbal instruction. We have also used ChatScript to determine the intent of an Amazon product search and either better reorder search results from Amazon or to perform a more successful replacement search if Amazon’s search breaks down. And ChatScript has been used to provide natural language mapping into appropriate SQL queries on the Dun and BradStreet business database.

 

A Resource for Machine Learning

Metacademy is a community-driven, open-source platform for experts to collaboratively construct a web of knowledge. Right now, Metacademy focuses on machine learning and probabilistic AI, because that’s what the current contributors are experts in. But eventually, Metacademy will cover a much wider breadth of knowledge, e.g. mathematics, engineering, music, medicine, computer science…

Current focus is on machine learning and probabilistic AI.

Metacademy could not exist without a large amount of high quality learning resources, so the true credit goes to these experts. Nevertheless, Roger Grosse and Colorado Reed built this site and organized roughly 350 machine learning and probabilistic AI concepts that comprise the intellectual seed that will allow Metacademy to flourish into a globally accessible and understandable learning experience.

You can find more about the concepts related to the topic of Machines Learning in this Concept List

Learning Programming In a Classroom vs. Interning

The difference between learning in a classroom vs. interning:

In the classroom, you’re given projects that are meant to test what you already learned, rather than send you on an excursion to find out what’s possible. Further, you don’t usually have to form a meaningful discussion out of describing the technical details of your project with people who aren’t programmers. When your academic experience of programming is one of being the carpenter that sits behind the scenes and quietly builds projects to predefined specifications, suddenly being given the command of an entire ship and being asked to lead an expedition to a new place is both exciting and daunting.

Here are some strong reasons to intern at startups and community efforts like Learning Games Network. 

  1. You are sent on small expeditions where you need to learn things by yourself. Good organizations give you broad specifications and enable you to explore.
  2. You are allowed to fail and learn from failures. You can try different methods and different approaches.
  3. You get guidance when you need it but good organizations give you time to learn at your pace and figure it out for yourself.
  4. You get to watch and learn from experts and peers. Some times, you learn things that you may not even know that you need to know.
  5. The best part of internship – you learn how to learn, one of the most empowering skills you can get at an early stage of your life.

Family Engineering

A few days ago, our daughter-in-law shared a couple of videos. It had our grand daughter (barely 2 years old) showing a screw driver to our son and when asked what it was, replied “scoo diver”.  And she knew where to use it, as well. I watched those videos more than a dozen times. Every time I see something like this, I am amazed at how quickly children pick up stuff.  Right from age one she had fascination for wires, plugs.

I read once that Seymour Papert learned Math, playing with gears  in his younger days. The things kids play with influence their thoughts and perhaps their interests, later in life.

This essay was published as the foreword to Seymour Papert’s book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, 1980).

Before I was two years old I had developed an intense involvement with automobiles. The names of car parts made up a very substantial portion of my vocabulary: I was particularly proud of knowing about the parts of the transmission system, the gearbox, and most especially the differential. It was, of course, many years later before I understood how gears work; but once I did, playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular objects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first “erector set” project was a crude gear system.

How can we help children learn things by encouraging them to play with things  like automobiles, gears and tools?

There seems to be an answer  – Family Engineering.

Family Engineering invites educators, engineers, university science and engineering students, community youth leaders, and parents to inspire the next generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers with exciting, hands-on activities and events for elementary-aged children and adults.

Please take a few minutes to look at an Opener Activity and read up on  how to get involved with Family Engineering.

On Mathematics

From the book What is Mathematics? A few interesting snippets from the Foreword and Introduction:

The teaching of mathematics has sometimes degenerated into empty drill in problem solving, which may develop formal ability but does not lead to real understanding or to greater intellectual independence.

Formal mathematics is like spelling and grammar—a matter of the correct application of local rules. Meaningful mathematics is like journalism—it tells an interesting story. Unlike some journalism, the story has to be true. The best mathematics is like literature—it brings a story to life before your eyes and involves you in it, intellectually and emotionally.

when I was about to be married, my father challenged my wife-to-be to read What Is Mathematics. She did not get far, but she was accepted into the family nonetheless.

Mathematics links the abstract world of mental concepts to the real world of physical things without being located completely in either.

So what do you need to get a great deal of pleasure and insight from the book? According to Ian Stuart:

You do need a modest attention span, an interest in mathematics for its own sake, and enough background not to feel out of your depth. High-school algebra, basic calculus, and trigonometric functions are enough, although a bit of Euclidean geometry helps.

Meta

Yesterday, I read a news item and tweeted it:

“American students lag behind most other nations in math skills: Only children from Italy and Spain performed worse” http://bit.ly/1ax7tht 
You keep hearing this often, not only about American students  but about other countries too. In India, when I talk to engineering students and ask how many of them are interested in Math, very few hands go up. What is going on? When I studied math over 50 years ago, it was not that hard. It was one of my favorite subjects. I had, of course, excellent Math teachers.
So what has changed? Are we teaching them poorly? Is the subject expanded to cover too much? Do we not provide them a context in which to learn?
I knew I had purchased a few books on Mathematics. I went searching my Kindle archives and found a couple of books . I decided to read a chapter every day, just to brush up. It was a subject I used to love but completely lost touch after graduating.
That is how this post is born. There will be more, as I progress through the book.

I Love The Way Twitter Points Me to…

Twitter is a great tool of information discovery if you learn to do some of the following:

  1. Follow the right people or topics
  2. Create lists focused on your topics of interest – one list for each topic
  3. Find a way to filter out noise (include duplicates)

Most of my reading material comes from following some of the most informed people around me.

I love the way that Twitter points me to interesting stuff and causes me to Google, think about and research things that I might otherwise have not. I read things that resonate with me and I am almost compelled to follow them up.

From Gurteen KnowledgeLog

 

LinkLog: Venn Diagrams and Higher Order Thinking

This is an amazing article worth reading.  I have taken the liberty to take a fragment and give you taste.  A couple of quotes from the article.

The classic Venn diagram, with three circles, was invented by the English philosopher and mathematician John Venn in 1881. His goal was to find symmetrical figures that were elegant and attractive, and he was never satisfied with his attempts to find figures for mapping four, five, and more sets. But a hundred years later, Anthony Edwards, a statistician, geneticist, and evolutionary biologist at Cambridge University, thought of a way to do it.

Here are some rules for using them.

Four rules for using Venn diagrams

To sum up, here are four rules for using Venn (and Venn-like) diagrams to encourage higher-order thinking in your classroom.

  1. Use diagrams for classification, not just comparison.
    By using circles to represent sets and placing the elements within them, you can classify large numbers of things rather than simply comparing two or three.
  2. Draw diagrams to meet your needs.
    Circles don’t have to be the same size, and they don’t have to overlap — you don’t even have to use circles! By drawing custom diagrams for each topic, you can correctly represent relationships among sets or characteristics.
  3. Draw the universal set.
    Draw and label the universal set — the set of everything you might be discussing. That keeps the discussion within reasonable bounds, and makes a place for everything in it.
  4. Scaffold students up to using progressively more complicated diagrams.
    If you work your way up slowly, students will learn to use graphic organizers not simply to keep track of knowledge they’ve already learned, but to push themselves to think about that knowledge in new ways and to learn more.

 

Building Abstractions – A Book Link

From Structure and Interpretations of Computer Programs – A Classic (now in Javascript)

The acts of the mind, wherein it exerts its power over simple ideas, are chiefly these three: 1. Combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made. 2. The second is bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together, and setting them by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them into one, by which it gets all its ideas of relations. 3. The third is separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence: this is called abstraction, and thus all its general ideas are made.
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding  (1690)
A fascinating description of  programs – abstract beings directed by a pattern of rules, manipulating other abstract things called data:
We are about to study the idea of a computational process. Computational processes are abstract beings that inhabit computers. As they evolve, processes manipulate other abstract things called data. The evolution of a process is directed by a pattern of rules called a program. People create programs to direct processes. In effect, we conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells.
A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer’s idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer’s spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esotericprogramming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform.
A computational process, in a correctly working computer, executes programs precisely and accurately. Thus, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, novice programmers must learn to understand and to anticipate the consequences of their conjuring. Even small errors (usually called bugs or glitches) in programs can have complex and unanticipated consequences.
I watched the original lectures (from MIT) a while ago and it was an amazing experience. Here is a Python version of this book.

Unless You Actively Flex Your Neurons…

“unless you actively flex your neurons, nothing much happens in your head. A reader has to be motivated, engaged, curious, and inspired to solve problems, draw conclusions, and generate new knowledge. And for that, you need challenges, exercises, and thought-provoking questions, and activities that involve both sides of the brain and multiple senses.”

From “Head First” series of books. I love the Intro section where they talk about using an informal style, touching emotions and other ways to engage learners. 

If you really want to learn, and you want to learn more quickly and more deeply, pay attention to how you pay attention. Think about how you think. Learn how you learn.

We can use some of these ideas to engage students in face to face interactions in class as well. Instead of delivering long lectures that put them in a listening (or sleeping) mode, it may be good to provoke them into thinking and kindle their curiosity to learn more.