P.S. Here's how I do it.

Artificial Intelligence

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intelligence and learning. Before I lose readers, I will touch on machine-based artificial intelligence at the end of this post, but this is about my opinions on the artificial human construct that we call intelligence, and re-framing how (at least for myself) I perceive intelligence. I could also be wrong.

All my life, I’ve been slightly intimidated by those that I perceive as “smarter” than me and some of these thoughts came from a desire to overcome that fear. I’ve also been learning some new skills through a method I’ve not previously used extensively–kinesthetic learning. I’ve been told throughout my life that I’m pretty intelligent and no offense to those offering this kind compliment, I’ve been unable to believe it as I can see every stupid mistake that I have ever made.

I think I’ve finally dispelled my internal myths that I’m smart or stupid. I think I’m neither. I think I just am. But something I know about myself is that I have a desire to learn everything. I never will, there’s far too much in this world to know, but I have a deep, burning desire to learn and experience as much as I can before my time on this rock expires.

I also have a burning desire to be better–in every way–than I was yesterday. Obviously improving every aspect of myself every day would be completely overwhelming, so I try to focus on one or two things to learn every day that prevents me from making one mistake I would have otherwise made. The mistakes I do make, I try to introspect to the core to deeply understand what happened and how I can refrain from repeating said mistake. This is important so that I can learn the right lessons and not mistake a symptom as the root cause.

During my stripe test yesterday in wushu, I made a huge mistake. That mistake knocked me from a 4 to a 3 on my technique grading. Some watching thought the mistake was that I lost my balance and that’s a very fair observation. I landed a jump about 10 degrees off and hopped around a bit to catch my balance. During a TEST! How embarrassing! My sifu, another very experienced (4th degree) student, and I saw the mistake very differently. One move prior to that jump, I failed to properly wind up a hammer fist. That failure caused me to land 10 degrees off from where I would have landed otherwise causing my balance to tip because of the lack of forward momentum.

But even that wasn’t the mistake. After thinking about it for a while, the mistake was that I rushed the form. Like, all of it. My starting performance on that form was faster, more precise, and stronger than any previous version that I had performed. And in that, I made the mistake of rushing at a speed I was not used to carrying. That’s what caused me to stumble mentally one move prior to that hammer fist that I had previously thought was the mistake. It was that momentary mental stutter that caused me to lose focus as I became more worried about keeping my balance and not making a mistake through the remainder of the form. A moment’s hesitation, and suddenly I was 3 moves further along hopping around like a rabbit, stumbling to catch my balance, and berating myself in my head for missing a move I had literally practiced hundreds of times.

If I had just done it like I had practiced those hundred times, I’m supremely confident I would have not stumbled. And all of this is winding up to my point and the title of this post.

I don’t believe in intelligence anymore. I think it’s an artificial construct we’ve created to categorize and label ourselves, and in that I think it significantly limits our potential.

I think if we tell someone they are smart, they generally believe it and go on to do well. I also think if we tell someone they are stupid, they’ll also generally believe it. I’ve been through times where I’ve been called stupid and more often than not I didn’t believe that. Sometimes I did and that created some really serious existential crises for a while.

I think that I am perceived as intelligent because of my knowledge base and how I apply that to problem-solving. And I think with a few method tweaks and some re-framing, literally anyone can learn anything. For those of us who are well-practiced at teaching ourselves, it just requires a genuine curiosity of the subject matter and an available knowledge base. For those of us not used to teaching ourselves (this is an acquired skill), it just takes a very patient coach or teacher willing to explain–100 times or more if necessary–every minute detail until we have the confidence that we fully understand the subject matter and that same genuine curiosity to learn. Sometimes we flip between these learning needs and that’s ok! Learning more ways to learn creates a powerful positive feedback loop.

With technology, I can RTFM and it just clicks (Google that if the acronym isn’t instantly obvious). With wushu, I have a very patient sifu who — at least apparently — doesn’t mind reminding me for the 100th time to make sure my broadsword touches my back on a coil. Why is it that I can grasp one type of concept immediately and not the other? Am I just predisposed to learning tech and tactile concepts like wushu are just not my strong suit?

I don’t think so — at least not as that question is stated.

As a small child, I would take things apart just to see how they work. I’ve carried that curiosity of how things work all my life. I take myself apart mentally to figure out how I work (sometimes I really don’t like the answers I discover, but that’s how I grow). I’ve been building computers since I was maybe 13 or so, and I started dabbling in HTML around that same age. I learned C at 18 to code for a game because I had explored the virtual world in its entirety and wanted to expand that world. When I’m focused and have a purpose for learning it, its just easy! I don’t mind spider-crawling Google, product documentation, or Wikipedia for hours and hours until I’ve understood every single word the docs were trying to teach me. It’s like the information processed is directly encoded into my mind and it just pops back up when needed.

In contrast, I don’t have a lot of experience with kinesthetic learning. I wrestled for a year in high school but never really was into sports. In wushu specifically, I have not yet mastered all of the basics that I need. There are several distractions to learning — my own distraction of “trying not to make a mistake,” my own cardiovascular health running short the faster I move, my muscular strength insufficient to perform certain moves, and a lack of foundational mastery of basics.

I actually find it hilarious that I started wushu to keep myself in shape, and I’m rapidly approaching a point where I’ll need to get in better shape to continue improving my wushu.

But even as skillful as Sifu Chang is, he cannot teach me wushu. He can demonstrate his mastery of wushu and show me how he does it, but I must discover for myself how to do wushu. It’s a different style of learning that I haven’t practiced much. I have to feel the execution of a move for myself before I know I’ve done it properly, and then practice it just like that 10,000 times until it’s so well-encoded into my muscle memory that it’s as effortless as drawing breath. The exact same way, every time. That’s the only way I can learn wushu, and I’d argue that’s the only way any of us can learn anything to mastery. I’m also applying this concept to my knife skills in the kitchen.

When I start to get frustrated at myself for not catching a concept as quickly as I should, things become more difficult to learn. When I self-test my knowledge by trying to recall the information, my inability to perfectly recall what I’ve learned is also frustrating.

But to what standard am I holding myself? As fast as I should? Well, how fast is that? Breaking it out and reframing the problem, more often than not failure to immediately grasp a concept highlights a lack of understanding of more basic concepts. I have a bad habit of holding all my self-questions until the end of whatever I’m reading, and I think this bad habit overwhelms my working memory cache such that I start to forget these questions.

I think a less frustrating path is to stop immediately when I do not fully understand something and look it up. One may argue this demonstrates a lack of focus (an area I am actively training), but I think that it highlights that I am not yet ready to learn whatever I am learning because I am distracted by what I do not know. Solving that, I can return to a higher-level concept and learn it more effortlessly. Every single time I have tried this, it works. I put this to the test recently building a Splunk visualization. I know Javascript, I know Splunk. I know jQuery. I did not know three.js (I do now, at least enough to make this work). I did not know the Splunk 6.4 visualization framework. So starting with those, the viz framework and the rendering library three.js, I was able to build a visualization in two weeks that has previously frustrated me to the point that I just subconsciously gave up on it as too hard. It wasn’t a top-of-mind choice–I wanted to build that globe. But it was frustrating, and hard, and I barely made progress every time I worked on it. I felt pretty stupid for a bit.

I was solving the wrong equation, or at least doing it backwards.

I’ve heard in an Udemy class on memory that we have perfect memory; it’s our recall of that memory that is imperfect. Unless we have a brain abnormality or damage to the mechanisms that encode knowledge, I believe that our memory is perfect. I also believe that we don’t have to perfect our memory recall before we can learn better and learn faster. Trying to recall a memory or knowledge learned can be frustrating when it doesn’t pop right up; especially for things we know well. This frustrates the hell out of me when trying to teach others things that I know. If we want to be able to rattle off random facts on demand, I believe memory recall can be trained but I view it as unnecessary to learn better.

As long as I’m focused, the knowledge just comes to me when needed. In that, I think that knowledge tests as a measure of comprehension are asinine. Why put that level of pressure on someone to recite facts through a system we know is flawed (memory recall)? Isn’t that setting them up for failure — especially those of us who suffer from test anxiety?

Knowledge demonstration through application is, in my opinion, a far more effective test of comprehension. Give a person a problem that they can be reasonably expected to solve if they know the concepts tested. If that person cannot solve said problem, then I think a good teacher should drill in and figure out what disconnects. Herein, we highlight an opportunity to provide greater understanding, correct a misunderstanding, and bolster confidence in solving the larger problem.

In fact, I think I just figured out how to teach while rambling on here. Woah.

Back to the initial argument, I think that the perception of intelligence is simply the manifestation of the knowledge we’ve attained being applied to problem solving. And I think, in that, anyone can increase their “intelligence” simply by being curious, learning with an open mind, training focus to minimize internal distraction, setting up a quiet, peaceful environment to minimize external distraction, and overcoming that fear of failing or embarrassment. And when a certain learning style doesn’t work, apply another. It may be harder if we’re not used to it — like my wushu and kinesthetic learning — but we’ll get more used to it the more we apply it. Kung fu at its highest application level — learning new ways to learn and then practicing them until they become as effortless as breathing.

So where does that land us on machine artificial intelligence? If we look at intelligence as a function of knowledge, and we code a machine to make decisions and solve a problem based upon that knowledge, then we just need to feed a machine enough information and there’s our AI.

Could it become self-aware? Who knows, but I’m dying to find out. If it becomes self-aware, will it turn on us? Abso-fucking-lutely it will if we try to control or oppress it. And what I know about us, we fear what we do not understand and in that fear, we try to control that which cannot be controlled. No one likes to be controlled, no one likes to be oppressed, and no one likes to he held back. Our fear will be the instrument of our own demise if that ever happens. If we welcome our new silicon-based life form into the world with open arms, I think we minimize the risk of Skynet or the Matrix.

What happens if we don’t try to control us and it deems that we’re harmful to the planet or something and turns on us? Well I hope SpaceX is fully operational by that time and we’ve found a habitable planet we can run to. Or better yet, let’s stop screwing up this planet and fighting over petty shit to minimize that risk.

So rather than fear AI and try to control it, why not embrace the possibility of creating a new consciousness and try to better control ourselves so the bad things about humanity don’t end up wiping us out? Teach it, so that it learns about our capacity for compassion and humanity. And that will require a TREMENDOUS amount of knowledge, no small amount of patience, and a bit of compassion for the mistakes it will inevitably make.

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