Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Society: The Great Machine

I think it's about time to explain the title of my blog: Um...Wait...What?

A little background...
I took a computer science class this last semester: Algorithm Analysis. Our professor helped us see the amazing beauty of algorithms. In some class slides, he briefly introduced us to Donald Knuth (Ka-NOOTH), a recipient of the ACM Turing award and author of The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP), who stated:
Science is knowledge which we understand so well that we can teach it to a computer; and if we don't fully understand something, it is an art to deal with it.
I think it's great to get to a point where we understand something so well that we can teach it to a computer. There are ethical questions, though.

Machine Learning (skip this section if you already know what this is or don't really care)
Machine learning and control is an area of computer science that involves teaching computers to be more like humans. You basically train a computer on a set of data--pictures, numbers, stock prices, protein folding structures, anything--and then you pass it some new data. The goal is that the computer will "learn" new patterns based on the training data and apply those patterns to the new data to predict the outcome. For example, you tag a face in a few pictures on facebook or iPhoto, and the machine learning algorithms apply those facial patterns to other pictures and ask you "do you want to tag [friend's name] in this photo?". That is teaching the computer to recognize your or a friend's face in photos.

Machine learning algorithms aren't the best algorithms for solving a problem, though. It turns out that they're often a last-ditch effort when you can't mathematically compute something without training data--like a face. Relatively often, they get it wrong. What happens when you give a computer a new face--one that was never in the training data? It can mis-name that face or fail to classify it at all.

So what?
And that's the issue: we teach computers to classify--to classify people, places, things, behaviors. In many applications, this classification is necessary and useful--tagging photos; predicting protein folding for development of new pharmaceutical drugs; and extracting names, dates, and locations from pictures of tomb stones are some examples--, but what about the classification of people? A system that goes through training data and then classifies people--and makes decisions or recommendations based on that classification--could be dangerous. I think of a scene (video below) in the movie "I, Robot", where the robots scan and analyze an emergency situation, calculating the chance of survival of several people, and then they rescue the person with the greatest chance of survival. But what if the robot was wrong?

(Video didn't load? See it here)

The Blog Title: Um...Wait...What?
The programmer has to think of this case: What should the computer do when it comes across something it hasn't seen before, when something doesn't match the patterns that it discovered in the training data? Should it stop classifying and ask? Should it make a best guess? In a way, the computer sees the new data and stops and asks "Um...Wait...What?".

Society: The Great Machine
That has been my experience with being gay. I grew up pretty hostile against gays--I'm still trying to figure out why. Society often paints a picture of gays: rainbow flags and speedos in pride parades. That is NOT me. I didn't identify myself as being attracted to the same gender for a long time because society trained me with that training data. I was new data coming along, and I didn't fit that pattern. So that was my reaction while coming to terms: Um...wait...what? What am I? Who am I? I'm definitely not the extroverted, flamboyant, outspoken, flag-waving, speedo-wearing dude that society presents with the label "gay". I do have feelings for guys, but I don't identify with THAT so what am I? It took me a little while to learn that gay doesn't mean sexual activity. The thing is, in many cases when somebody comes out as "gay", they choose to be sexually active with those attractions. But every definition I've looked up for "gay" and "homosexual" talks about same-gender attraction, mentioning nothing about sexual activity. Somehow society and cultures have been incorrectly trained, and when someone comes along and comes out as "gay" but chooses abstinence, the abstinence part is ignored and the "gay" classification makes people assume, judge, and react negatively. It's not entirely their fault, it's what they were trained on.

Now what?
(Video didn't load? See it here)

In "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (see video above), the grinch changed his attitude when he "thought of something he hadn't before...maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store...maybe Christmas perhaps means just a little bit more..."

I changed my attitude when I considered that maybe "gay" doesn't necessarily mean rainbow speedos--maybe there's something more to it--different dimensions that I'd never considered. (And even those who do sport the rainbow speedos are people and should be talked to and their feelings considered.)

It is my hope that society and cultures change their perception--that they consider that just maybe the stigmas, classifications, and years of one-sided training are wrong, that we are all humans with real feelings living on the same planet and that nobody can be boiled down into one statement or classification. I hope that the first impression that society has of someone is not "oh he must be [classification]" but rather "My training data could be wrong...I should get to know him more".

The saints faced a lot of persecution early on; the Lord's response:
Pray ye, therefore, that their ears may be opened unto your cries, that I may be merciful unto them...That wise men and rulers may hear and know that which they have never considered

Many treat topics like this as knowledge that is understood very well--a science. The truth is, we don't fully understand it, so the art is manifest as we learn how deal with it. Let us turn the way we view and interact with people from a science that can be taught to computers into an art as we seek the big picture.

That's all.
If you've made it this far in reading (I know it's long...sorry!), please leave a comment with an idea of how we can change society's training on the gay topic or any topic really--I'd like not to do one-sided blogging :)

Dan Bunker


  1. Yes, though I wondered how such random topics mentioned in the facebook post could be related, they turned out to be very much so and again, nicely written. As for your question, the most basic thing that comes to mind is to be an example to others in conversation/etc. If I challenge "society's training" as you call it, and clarify what being gay really means (or whatever the matter may be), then other's may have a broadened perspective and pass it on to others. It travels from there.

  2. It will be a wonderful day when we all accept each other and don't have any qualifiers. All we need to know is that we are children of God, period!

  3. Danny, the reality is that we live in a telestial world where even the best souls are influenced by both unintended and deliberate misinformation. Perhaps promiscuity, regardless of gender attraction, should be the starting point. Because as it exists now, it is most often the assumption that if attraction exists, sexual acts follow because the moral customs have changed. I think that gay perceptions are simply an extension of a larger issue. Although it will be people such as yourself who change perceptions if it does occur. I have heard several people express absolutely faith in you and your moral character and their beliefs have changed regarding gays because of your courage to speak truth. Perhaps that is the answer. We just need more Dan Bunkers in this world!

  4. Daniel,I think people tend to shy away from what they consider difficult subjects, such as gay orientation, until it is in front of them and must seriously consider it. I know I did until you presented to me the fact that you are gay. Immediately, knowing your character and your goodness, I realized that I need to open up my perception of what gay really entails. Sociology teaches that what we focus on, grows in our experience.It would be much more rewarding for society if we, instead of turning a blind eye to gay people, or any people that is persecuted for who they are, prayerfully considered their situation and seek to understand them. I love who you are Dan, and embrace your courage to change peoples' concepts concerning gays.Love you, Dad :)

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  8. How many people are actually like a random generalization of any type?