Learning for Humans, Learning for Machines

Published
Aug 26, 2020
Reading time
2 min read
Learning for Humans, Learning for Machines

Dear friends,

I’ve been trying to teach my toddler the alphabet. Despite having some educational experience, when she mispronounces a vowel for the nth time, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing it wrong. I hope that Nova somehow will still grow up to be literate and consider my efforts to have been adequate.

Teachers have been instructing young people in languages for centuries, yet our methods strike me as remarkably uneven. I’ve tried many alphabet instruction software apps, a number of them featuring dancing animals and the like. But my favorite tools have turned out to be a word processor, which lets me type words against a plain white canvas for Nova to read, and letter-shaped stickers that I can rearrange on my kitchen wall.

I was struck by how often Nova, like a neural network, wound up in local minima. She learned to count out loud from one to five by uttering a sequence of sounds without understanding the concept of numbers, much like a recurrent neural network generates plausible text without understanding the meanings of the words it uses. I fed her the sequence of sounds, and she overfit to it. Watching her generalize (and sometimes fail to generalize) gave me fresh appreciation for the difficulty of learning from a small number of examples and how crafting a training dataset with care — curriculum learning? — can promote learning.

Amid the pandemic, schools worldwide find themselves in varying states of chaos, and many parents are juggling their children’s education with working from home. Many of us have insufficient time and energy to do both well. It can feel like a no-win situation.

My heart goes out to everyone who is caught in this bind. I think the best thing a parent can do is to keep loving your kids. As long as you do that, it will be more than enough. Educational apps can be great, and I hope the AI community will come up with better ones, but an attentive parent armed with a pack of post-its and a loving touch or smile is all a child really needs to learn the basics. Beyond the education you impart, the relationship you build will widen the channels of learning for a lifetime.

Keep learning!

Andrew

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