Tuesday, October 24, 2017

My (Brief) Life Studying Artificial Intelligence

Tech’s biggest companies are placing huge bets on artificial intelligence, banking on things ranging from face-scanning smartphones and conversational coffee-table gadgets to computerized health care and autonomous vehicles. As they chase this future, they are doling out salaries that are startling even in an industry that has never been shy about lavishing a fortune on its top talent. Typical A.I. specialists, including both Ph.D.s fresh out of school and people with less education and just a few years of experience, can be paid from $300,000 to $500,000 a year or more in salary and company stock... NY Times, October 23, 2017

Tech Giants Are
Paying Huge Salaries
for Scarce A.I. Talent


This article caught my eye because in the late 80s I was studying A.I. at Brooklyn College and attended two A.I. national conferences where I rubbed elbows with people who are probably millionaire superstars in the field today.

In 1983 I became fascinated when I was given two Apple IIe computers for my 6th grade classroom. Ira Goldfine, my friend and former activist in the UFT took an adult ed course on the Apple at Brooklyn College and that experience led us into the Masters degree program at the College, which involved taking 15 preliminary credits and then the 30 credits for the MA, which we completed in 1987. We met up with Jim Scoma, another NYC teacher and became a trio for years working with each other on projects.

That included a study sabbatical (85-86 and a follow-up year without pay for the 86-87 school year.) When I returned to my school I became the computer specialist and worked to set up a computer program starting from ground zero. This accounts for my absence from union activities for almost a decade.

There were two fundamental tracks at Brooklyn College computer science --- one was business oriented and the other was theoretical, which included some fascinating courses in A.I. which included natural language processing (how your phone calls have a robot talking to you), expert systems, and a few other courses. I heard a lot about machine learning which is so hot now but there wasn't a course.

The most fascinating course I took was neural networks, taught by a teacher in the psychology department - which focused on a new paradigm of computer and biological science of with the idea of mimicking the human brain. Most computers ran with one central processing unity (CPU) which did all the work. The brain runs on billions of processors, each doing a little bit of the work. My instant understanding was that neural networks of a lot of small processors was an answer for the future -- the computers at that time were far from powerful enough. 

Robotics was just taking off with Japan leading the way. The College didn't offer a robotics course but when I got back to my school and developing my computer program in my elementary school, I discovered LEGO robotics and began to buy materials that would work with the Apple IIe computers -- you had to open them up and wire the controllers in. That was the beginning of my relationship to with the education community who were doing programming with the students. (I had 2-6th graders and had them doing the LOGO computer language -- that little turtle on the screen for those who remember.) I continueD that relationship when I retired in 2002 - and then was hired by Region 4 to help establish robotics programs in the schools over the next few years. And signed on as a volunteer with FIRST robotics which continues today.

In the 90s the A.I. field sort of crashed -- maybe the lack of small powerful computers was an issue. But a lot of research went on.

After I got my MA I was accepted into the Phd program and took 2 more courses before realizing it was too long a haul for a guy in his 40s and teaching full time. The last course I took was pattern recognition - the roots of artificial vision - which fascinated me until I realized I just didn't have the math background. The professor even offered my an opportunity to work with his team on artificial vision but I felt too inept in both the math and programming aspect.

The truth dawned on me around 1990 that I was not a very good programmer -- there are books on the art of programming and I didn't have a knack for that art.

Now you can't go a day without reading about A.I., the miracle of neural networks, and robots taking all the jobs.

I realized this morning after reading the Times article that even someone at my level could have worked in the field and managed pretty well -- and probably learned to be a better programmer, especially working in collaboration with others.

But going back to teaching after my 2 year break at the 20th year is not something I regret. I spent the rest of my time in the system teaching students and teachers how to use computers.

I spent another decade in my school before being hired by the district as a computer specialist for my last 4 years in the system where I worked more with teachers than students. Like after school classes where we told teachers about a new concept -- email - and actually helped them set up their first email accounts.

Here are a few more articles on A.I.

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