On Learning…

I have learnt mostly everything I know about Quantum Computing in the past 7 years. In fact, I’m going to make a little confession: I have never taken a formal course on Quantum Computing, I am almost completely self-taught 🙂 And if there is one thing I’ve learnt, it is that to learn hard subjects on your own you need to learn how to learn. I’m pretty obsessed with learning. It is one of the things that defines me.

So, as I embark upon a new learning task, I start to wonder if there is anything I can ‘learn’ (hehe) from my previous experience. To be clear about my goal: I would like to formally learn more about the field of Artificial Intelligence.

So I thought I’d write down a few things that might help and hinder me in this task, and to try and extract just how comparable the two learning experiences might be.


1.) I know a lot more about learning now. I am fairly good at knowing where to get information, how to mine resources and when to give up and go onto something simpler first if you’re just not getting anywhere. So this will all help.

2.) I probably have about the same amount of time to do the learning for AI as I had for QC, in both cases the subjects are tangential to what I am/was doing at the time. Not central, but related.

3.) I am generally more focused than I was 7 years ago! I also pretty much don’t drink alcohol anymore, and I’m probably in better health overall, which will help towards the goal. So this is all positive.

4.) However I *am* older – perhaps I am losing some of my brain plasticity!

5.) I think the core conceptual framework of QC is more tightly knit, whereas with AI it is a bit more sprawling, however to counter this I’d say that the mechanics/mathematics of QC is probably more involved. I may be wrong here of course!

6.) It is easier to ‘start’ with AI, I think there are simple programs, simulations and experiments that you can work on DIY style to learn a lot (I know that I learn quite well that way)

7.) There is a crossover between QC and AI – which makes the learning more interesting, as you can apply one area of expertise to another and see if you can come up with anything interesting along the way.

8.) I am now much better at networking, talking to people and conferencing – and you learn a LOT through these techniques. It is so important to learn what has already been done so you don’t end up spending several years re-inventing the proverbial wheel…

9.) Technologies are accelerating. I can utilise the latest developments to help me learn a new topic. 7 years ago I wasn’t using Wikipedia, ArXiv, Google Books etc, etc…. and I can now start to organise my thoughts more intuitively using wikis and mindmaps. I have an almost constant connection to the internet at all times now – so not only do I have a much greater access to learning resources, but I also feel in a much more information-aware mindset.

10.) Black Swans – of course something crazy might happen, like, say (lets be optimistic here) we suddenly find we’ve gone through the Singularity… then I won’t have to worry quite so much about the learning anymore…

What will happen? Will it work? 7 years?

Let’s see…..

Life Logging – an urge to create a sparse but useful dataset?

I have a strange urge and desire to life-log, which I am unable to explain. Since I was very young, I have always kept a journal of some form or another. More recently I have moved to a digital journal format.

In my very young days, I would keep a diary because I was told to. Later, in high single-digit and early teen years I would keep a diary because it was somewhere I could write private thoughts, fulfilling the role of what some might have thought of as an ‘imaginary friend’ – I very much talked to my journal in a ‘dear diary’ style, as though it understood my concerns about the world.

My recent reasons for logging have generally been because I’m very busy, I’m enjoying life, and I’m doing a lot of things. I find it great to read back over my journal entries and relive the experiences. I especially like comparing the anticipation of an event with the memories of how it went and what I learnt from it. It really reinforces the idea of events which you may be nervous about never being as bad as you expect. It can be a really insightful thing to do.

Last weekend I spent a lot of time scanning old photographs into digital format. It’s amazing how each photograph opens up an entire set of memories, thoughts, and feelings. I’m also scanning my entire back archive of paper artwork (hundreds of a4 and a5 images). I like the idea of having all this stuff in a digital format such that it may eventually be tagged and have a proper semantic referencing system, when an appropriate framework for this kind of thing is developed.

However, I have a slightly more practical (and somewhat more controversial) reason for lifelogging, which I would like to explore in the next few years (or maybe decades).

Creating an upload from an extended lifelog

I like the idea of creating an AI that could take all this data and infer things from it. It could perhaps infer what kind of a person I was, and what kind of a person I am now. It might be a useful dataset for an AGI trying to understand human development, or developing itself.

An even more interesting idea is to create a virtual version of yourself by giving it access to all this information and a timeline. (You’d effectively be giving it memories).

One currently in vogue lifelogging technique is recording your entire set of experiences using an on-person video camera with built-in audio. However I feel that this method has its flaws. The stream obviously only records external input. You would ideally have a technique which also monitors streams such as internal reasoning, understanding, feelings and personal thoughts. Some of this could be automatically recorded using secondary effects, for example heart rate, hormone levels, blood sugar levels. But even those techniques just can’t capture that oh-so-elusive personal subjective experience.

Journal keeping is one way to do get around this problem, but you have to learn to write your journal in a very specific way. So something like “I listened to some music today” would be pretty information lean, whereas “I listened to song X today and it made me feel rather melancholy because it reminded me of the time when I first heard it, I was doing Y, and that inspired me to draw this piece of artwork Z. Now everytime I hear that piece of music I’m inspired to create more artwork”. In addition, I think that tagging stuff will be easier in text and image formats than in a video stream.

A dream diary can also contribute to the dataset, as it could give an AI more data about how the subjective experience during sleep can be different to normal.

In short, there’s no way to create an exhaustive dataset, but a sparse one may still be useful. I guess I’ll continue doing it as long as I find it fun.

Digital lab books

Should I digitise my lab books?

The answer to this is almost definitely yes. Other than it taking a long time, there aren’t really any disadvantages to doing so. It would mean I had access to all my experimental settings in digital form, and I would have a built in cross-reference of the plots that are currently stuck in the lab books and also on my hard drive with the experimental notes (I already save the copies of the plots with the date but then you have to go and get the lab book to look up the date and find what sample the data was from and the experimental settings for that date).

In addition, if I decide to go completely Open Notebook, I could put the digital versions online. Although I’d need a lot of server space for this – Rob, I’m looking at you 😉 It would also be cool to build the digital lab books into an Experimental Physics Wiki I’ve been meaning to get around to writing. I could easily navigate around previous experiments by tag too, rather than my current, somewhat prehistoric, method of ‘post-it notes’ stuck to various pages.

Having a digital backup would also put my mind somewhat to rest over the matter that if I lost my lab books I would be totally screwed. All my data analysis and experimental development information would all be lost, and you can’t plot the data without the precious settings which are meticulously noted down in the lab book everytime the experiment is run.

I’m also quite proud of my lab books as they are quite neat and pretty, and are often used to show students a ‘good example’ so it would be a shame to lose them.

So, I was trying to work out what method to use. At first I thought about scanning the books, but I think this will take too long. I have about 8 books with 100+ pages in each. I thought about photocpoying the pages (our photocopier has a function that allows you to e-mail the copy to yourself) but my current favourite is the idea of taking hi-res digital photographs of each page. If I could set up a little ‘photo-shoot’ with good lighting and camera tripod, and a stand for the books, I could probably get them done pretty fast.

I’ve also always wanted an excuse to buy a lectern. 😀 Like this one:



I’ve been looking into some options for life logging software recently. Evernote is one option.

However, I still have several reservations about using third party software for this task, similar to the objections raised here. I worry about loss of data, I worry about future-proofing, and I worry about privacy.

I’d like a system that had some kind of intuitive support for importing and exporting blog entries. I’d like a system that could export the lifelog as a database structured similarly to a filesystem, for example containing only .txt files and .jpeg files. Until I find such a system I think I’m going to try and make my own. I’m thinking of basing it on html and running it something like a wiki. My own ‘LifeWiki’.

I’ve had bad experiences with LiveJournal in the past, for example without a premium member subscription you can’t do any advanced searching, sorting or filtering of the entries. So one of the first things I’ll have to do do is to pull all my old LJ entries and get them into a much simpler LifeWiki thing.

Another good reason for taking this approach is that (unless I wish it otherwise) the data will all be stored on my personal space and I am wholly responsible for backing up. The data format will (at least in some way) be futureproofed. Again it’s up to me to convert the data into new formats, but if the system is kept simple this should not be a problem, and if I am used to managing the system I will be expecting to have to do this. I don’t like the idea of the format of all my data being at the whim of a third party.

Obviously the down side of this endeavour is that LifeWiki won’t have any of the advanced options, it won’t have graphic text recognition searching, it won’t natively support tagging (I’ll have to sort out my own system for that), and it might just end up getting too big to handle in this primitive way.

RedNotebook seems to be the kind of thing I might be looking for, but I’ll have to read more about this and other options. But I’ve always been good at organising things, so it might just be worth a stab at doing my own version for now.