Special Edition #2: What the hell is a "neural net"?

Welcome to Special Edition #2!

Just a reminder: while the content of these Special Editions may not have a direct influence on whether an asteroid is going to land squarely on your Mazda, they will concern our shared humanity and, usually, I think, probably, how we can best plan for a future where we DO survive the Great Filter, or at the very least, the next fifty years.

Our second Special Edition concerns the much-fabled "machine learning", and more specifically, "neural nets".

Why's it important you understand what people are talking about when they say the word "neural net"? Because neural nets are already well on their way to underpinning of all of your predictive computing. Your photos, your posts, your news, your porn...you name it, there's layers of GPU power trying to find a pattern of signals through the noise.

In this case, there's only one article to read, because it's that good, and because most other shit is super technical and I know you're not gonna read those, so why even bother?

So, anyways. Neural nets. Here's some vital quotes from the article, and then the piece itself, which you should definitely read, because Terminator.


"The simplest description of a neural network is that it’s a machine that makes classifications or predictions based on its ability to discover patterns in data. With one layer, you could find only simple patterns; with more than one, you could look for patterns of patterns. Take the case of image recognition, which tends to rely on a contraption called a “convolutional neural net.”


The first layer of the network learns to identify the very basic visual trope of an “edge,” meaning a nothing (an off-pixel) followed by a something (an on-pixel) or vice versa. Each successive layer of the network looks for a pattern in the previous layer. A pattern of edges might be a circle or a rectangle. A pattern of circles or rectangles might be a face. And so on. This more or less parallels the way information is put together in increasingly abstract ways as it travels from the photoreceptors in the retina back and up through the visual cortex. At each conceptual step, detail that isn’t immediately relevant is thrown away. If several edges and circles come together to make a face, you don’t care exactly where the face is found in the visual field; you just care that it’s a face.


They...at least in theory, learn the way we do. With life experience, depending on a particular person’s trials and errors, the synaptic connections among pairs of neurons get stronger or weaker. An artificial neural network could do something similar, by gradually altering, on a guided trial-and-error basis, the numerical relationships among artificial neurons. It wouldn’t need to be preprogrammed with fixed rules. It would, instead, rewire itself to reflect patterns in the data it absorbed.


This attitude toward artificial intelligence was evolutionary rather than creationist. If you wanted a flexible mechanism, you wanted one that could adapt to its environment. If you wanted something that could adapt, you didn’t want to begin with the indoctrination of the rules of chess. You wanted to begin with very basic abilities — sensory perception and motor control — in the hope that advanced skills would emerge organically. Humans don’t learn to understand language by memorizing dictionaries and grammar books, so why should we possibly expect our computers to do so?


An average brain has something on the order of 100 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, which means that the number of synapses is between 100 trillion and 1,000 trillion. For a simple artificial neural network of the sort proposed in the 1940s, the attempt to even try to replicate this was unimaginable. We’re still far from the construction of a network of that size, but Google Brain’s investment allowed for the creation of artificial neural networks comparable to the brains of mice.


A lot of our ambient fears about A.I. rest on the idea that they’re just vacuuming up knowledge like a sociopathic prodigy in a library, and that an artificial intelligence constructed to make paper clips might someday decide to treat humans like ants or lettuce. This just isn’t how they work. All they’re doing is shuffling information around in search of commonalities — basic patterns, at first, and then more complex ones — and for the moment, at least, the greatest danger is that the information we’re feeding them is biased in the first place."


The Great AI Awakening - NYTimes