Tuesday, August 16, 2011

a big deal: stanford ai course

The NYTimes covered the viral spread of the stanford ai course, and I am over the moon about it. In addition to thinking Sebastian Thrun is one of the coolest people of all time (self-driving cars would easily be the biggest quality of life improvement possible for first world countries), I think the idea of free instruction is the biggest opportunity for human advancement available today. I'm not using hyperbole when I say that the stanford ai course is a watershed comparable to the Gutenberg bible. The ai course is the proverbial butterfly's wing.

For the last several centuries, the cost to access and distribute information has fallen due to major disruptions: printing presses, cheaper physical delivery, the internet.

But the ai course isn't about content distribution or access. Stanford is offering instruction, based on the gold standard of peer comparison and competition, for free. As of this writing, they have 74,000 registered students. That instant community will collaborate to choose which questions to pose to the professors, and all students will all be ranked against one another. It is an unprecedented increase in the number of people trained in a specific field, and if you believe in humanity, you have to be excited.

I remember learning about the diffusion of solids in a solvent. There are two kinds of dynamics that drive the absorption of a solid into a fluid: chemical and thermodynamic. In the chemically driven process, molecules of the solid have a tendency to separate into the fluid. The lower the saturation of the solid in the fluid, the more likely a molecule is to drift off without being replaced by another molecule bumping into the solid. What's fascinating to me is that this effect is entirely local - if the saturation is higher around the solid mass, molecules are more likely to be replaced and to net zero change. If you had to rely on the chemical process alone to dissolve sugar in your coffee, it would take days to sweeten your favorite beverage.

The thermodynamic effect is convection. Differences in temperature drive fluids to circulate, because the changes in temperature cause changes in density, which in turn cause cooler fluids to fall through warmer fluids. The result is pretty dramatic mixing. The convection driven mixing of your coffee guarantees that the local saturation is always pretty low around your sugar cubes. Fresh, unsweetened, coffee is always swirling by your cubical simple carbohydrate. The mixing drives the time to dissolve down to a manageable minute or so, which is good if you want hot coffee.

Up until now, the world has relied on the diffusion of information in almost all fields. Advanced topics like ai need to be explored, then understood, then standardized, and then instructed before it can be truly common human knowledge. The stanford ai course is information convection. The incredibly broad distribution guarantees that many people who have never been exposed to AI will be taught. By teaching, rather than passively informing, the ai course could enable those new students to teach others. It is hard to imagine a more effective means of advancing ai.

It is exactly this information convection that I want to harness in my next venture - I want to give away tools, processes, and instruction to anyone interested in my kind of problem. I want to teach people how to explore a specific field, and I want them to apply their findings directly and immediately. I hope it has a fraction of the impact that the ai course will have.

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