Hey, Alexa. Explain Your Algorithms.

AI Cover

Lately I seem to reading a lot about artificial intelligence. Between all the self-driving car projects and many, many predictions about robots coming for our jobs (and our children), the topic is rather hard to avoid. The topic is interesting but also somewhat scary since we’re talking about creating machines that attempt to replicate, and even improve upon, the human decision making process.

One of the better assessments of why we need to be cautious about allowing artificially-intelligent systems to take over from human judgement comes from MIT’s Technology Review, whose Senior Editor for AI says “no one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do”.

If a person makes a decision, it’s possible (theoretically) to learn how they arrived at that choice by simply asking them. Of course it’s not as easy with children, but most adults are able to offer some kind of logical process explaining their actions. Even if that process is flawed and they arrive at the wrong conclusion.

It’s not so easy with machines.

There’s already an argument that being able to interrogate an AI system about how it reached its conclusions is a fundamental legal right. Starting in the summer of 2018, the European Union may require that companies be able to give users an explanation for decisions that automated systems reach. This might be impossible, even for systems that seem relatively simple on the surface, such as the apps and websites that use deep learning to serve ads or recommend songs. The computers that run those services have programmed themselves, and they have done it in ways we cannot understand. Even the engineers who build these apps cannot fully explain their behavior.

We’ve never before built machines that operate in ways their creators don’t understand. How well can we expect to communicate—and get along with—intelligent machines that could be unpredictable and inscrutable?

However, far below the level of television-ready robots and whatever Elon Musk is up to now, AI is a topic that educators should probably be watching.

More and more edtech companies are developing (and your school administrators are buying) “personalized” learning systems that include complex algorithms. These applications may fall short of being intelligent but will still collect huge amounts of data from students and then make “decisions” about the course of their educational life. 

It’s unlikely the salespeople can offer any clear explanation of how the systems work. Even the engineers who wrote the software may not have a good understanding of the whole package. Or know if there are errors in the code that could result in incorrect results.

And it’s not like you can ask the computer to explain itself.


The image is the logo from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, a somewhat mediocre example of the genre. And a movie would have been far different if Stanley Kubrick had lived to direct it.

The Saving Is An Illusion

First frame of Non-Sequetur comic

Please excuse me while I rant.

Part of my crankiness this morning is due to the abrupt shift forward of the clock, a misguided and arrogant attempt by our lawmakers to “save” time. Time, of course, is a very human invention. Daylight Saving Time is a very stupid, human invention.

It’s time to dump it.

I’ve seen a number of posts on Twitter and elsewhere claiming that this month is the 100th anniversary of the national application of this concept. It’s true that the Standard Time Act, the bill which made Daylight Saving Time the law everywhere in the country, was passed in March 1918.1

It was also repealed the following year because DST was universally hated.

The idea was brought back nationally during World War II, but was applied inconsistently during other periods. Which is why the transportation industry lobbied for a permanent national law.

However, instead of doing the sensible thing, telling everyone to cut out the practice altogether and let nature do it’s thing with regard to sunrise and sunset, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966.

Anyway, I’ve ranted about this several times in the past and you can read those entries for more reasons why this concept needs to die. A few years ago the Washington Post also published 5 Myths About Daylight Saving Time, which includes this little additional bit of nomenclature stupidity to add to the mix.

Guess what time we’re on for eight months of the year? Daylight saving time. In what universe is something that happens for only one-third of the time the “standard”? Even before the 2007 change, DST ran for seven months out of 12.

In fact, some opponents of DST aren’t against daylight saving time per se: They think it should be adopted as the year-round standard time. Because it basically already is.

So, there’s the solution. Next November, just leave the damn clocks where they are and forget the whole illusion of “saving” time. I don’t care whether you choose to call it “permanent daylight saving time”, which sounds stupid, or “standard” time, which it would be.

After one cycle, most people will just call it normal. Just like nature intended.

Thank you for indulging my sleep deprived rant.

Oh, and one more thing: the term is Daylight Saving, not savingS. At least get that part right.


The cartoon is the first panel from the Sunday edition of Wiley Miller’s wonderful Non Sequitur. The rest of his story makes about as much sense as any justification for DST I’ve heard. The Sunday Fox Trot take on DST is also amusing. I think using a part of the comic in this context would be considered Fair Use.

1. Wikipedia, as you might expect, has a very complete telling of Daylight Saving Time’s history in the US and the general controversy surrounding the concept.

What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

Why is This Stereotyping of People Acceptable?

Sorting Hat

Last week, the Pew Research Center decided to alter the definition of a Millennial. The all-powerful Pew declared that hence forth people born between 1981 and 1996 would now be called members of the millennial generation. Instead of whatever the period was one day earlier.

An economist and college professor calls this the “‘generation game’ — the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group”.

To see what’s wrong with the idea, take a look at American millennials. In seemingly endless essays in recent years, they’ve been derided as lazy and narcissistic or defended as creative and committed to social change. But these all sound like characteristics that the old have ascribed to the young since the dawn of time. Similar terms were applied to the “slacker” Generation X and before that, the baby boomers.

Yep. When I was in high school, the news media called us lazy and spoiled many, many times. When I was teaching high school, they called my Gen X students the exact same thing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised newspapers in 17th century London assigned the same faults to kids of that era.

So why do we accept and spread classification schemes that try to stuff millions of people into the same box? We are often reminded that it’s not fair to stereotype a whole group of people based on arbitrary characteristics. But what could be more arbitrary than the date of your birth?

As the writer reminds us, the practice is not only lazy, it also diverts attention from some real and damaging divisions.

Some may argue that the generation game, if intellectually vacuous, is basically harmless. But dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.

I certainly hope that the high school students from Parkland, Florida and other areas of the country – who carry the label “Gen Z” or “iGen” – can use their activism to draw attention to aspects of American society that are horribly wrong.

However, declaring that millions of kids who happen to have been born during one arbitrary period of history will “fix” our current mess, and blaming that mess on yet another group of people who happen to have been born during an earlier arbitrary period of history (those newly reclassified Millennials), is just dumb.


The sorting hat was far more discriminating in the classification of Hogwarts students than Pew is with generations. I know, that’s a stretch but I needed an image for this post that was at least tenuously related. :-)

Help The Children Lead, Instead of Telling Them Where to Go

From Alexandra Petri, one of the smartest, and often funniest, writers at the Washington Post, some (satirical) thoughts about the students now speaking up against the American love affair with guns.

Now, if you don’t want to hear from any more high schoolers traumatized by gun violence, then you either decide to try to create a world where high schoolers are not traumatized by gun violence, or decide to create a world where you do not have to listen to the high schoolers. It looks like we’re picking the latter!

We are not monsters. This burning shame that keeps us awake is their fault. If they were not there pointing the finger at us — We are being personally victimized! We are the real victims here! They have the audacity to point fingers at people for doing nothing! We haven’t done anything!

You can almost hear that coming out of the mouth of some “regressive”1 commentator on one of the talking heads channels in response to the raw and honest reaction coming from the children.

What these analysts and spokespeople seem to ignore is that the First Amendment doesn’t specify a minimum age and that the right to petition the government belongs to everyone, not just their friends with big bank accounts.

Anyway, I hope that the students from Parkland, now loudly speaking against our absurdly loose gun laws, continue to ignore those calls to shut up and sit down. Even more, I really hope that they, joined by protesting young people from all over the country, have started a movement that can affect major changes.

The adults of my generation have created many, many problems with our current government, and American society in general. Problems that are already severely impacting the lives of these kids beyond the almost-daily gun violence. From climate change to economic disparity and poverty to an increasingly unstable world, they need to be more than just aware. Students must be leaders in the work to the solutions.

But those solutions will not come easily. I agree with a post from a wise friend who writes that such a process will be “incredibly long” and will include many setbacks.

Sustaining the passion for the work is really hard, and you’ll need trusted friends and allies who will listen to you vent and strategize with you and privately call you on your mistakes and tell you when you need to go get some sleep. You will need those people, and I am sure you will be those people for each other as well.

Some of those “trusted friends and allies” must be their teachers.

However, instead of telling them to stay in the classroom, we must listen to our students, to both their concerns and ideas. We, as in all adults who support children, must help them learn how to use their authentic voices and to effectively direct the power of responsible civic engagement.

Guide them into adulthood, instead of always telling them what we think they need to know, what to say, and how to act.


Image is of an editorial cartoon by the wonderful Steve Benson, whose liberal-leaning work always seemed a little out of place at the conservative (but generally responsible) Arizona Republic newspaper (known online as AZCentral).

1. Since “progressive” is often used as an alternate for liberal on the political spectrum, I think we should use a far more accurate synonym for conservative, “regressive”.