ProjectBlog: The human inside our machine

Blog: The human inside our machine

Why I’m Studying Data Science

By Sherry Yang

Outside my dad’s childhood home in Ningdu, Jiangxi Province, China in 2015.


My cousin strikes the match and it sets off the hiss of the firecracker. BOOM, CRACKLE, SPAK, POW! The air fills with the haze of smoke like the air fills with dust as we roll away. In the driver’s seat, my uncle tells me that in Ningdu city center, it was like 200 years had passed in the span of less than 50. What you saw in the village, compare that to what you see in the city. That’s how much progress has taken place, he says. We pick up speed in the car, and the rice fields blend together into the afternoon. The sky is overcast and I can almost taste the precipitation about to fall. The cicadas outside buzz to say, we’re hot and we like it! I think, wow I was at home. I was at a home that had a history of my family from before I existed as family.

A rice field near my dad’s childhood home.

My dad grew up in Ningdu, in Jiangxi, a rural province in southeastern China that serves as a major source of agriculture for the country. Here in the 1930’s Mao Zedong organized his first peasant government, developed guerrilla war tactics in the mountains, and eventually went on to force Chaing Kai-Shek to what is now Tiawan. Decades later, he sent the entire nation into the communist revolution. Publicly the people were building a utopia. Privately they were starving and being silenced. Depending on who you’re talking to, you can’t really say that.

A view of Ningdu and its surrounding fields from the mountainside.

On this day, I’m in the car with my uncle, riding away from my dad’s childhood home. We pass by all these rice fields and orange groves and lotus blossoms. We travel over a long bridge covering a wide, shallow river. My uncle says when he was growing up, they would take the sampan to cross because there was no bridge. I close my eyes and see the village houses with their dirt walls and wood burning stoves being demolished to make way for new buildings. Always a supporter of progress, I cringe at my next thought. I want to preserve it all. I never wanted that home I saw to change.

There’s very little on Wikipedia about Ningdu. My short time there in 2015 gave me the idea to write about the city and its people. My conversation with my uncle made me want to capture the change that had taken place — all ‘200-years-in-50’ of it. Since talking to him I’ve always wanted to tell a data-driven story, to model not just the economic changes of the past but one that understands the people in Ningdu and the city’s future.

Ningdu city center from a hotel window in 2015.


The funny thing about home is that we each have to grapple with a home of fondest memory, idealization, or dream. This image is often fixed in our mind throughout our life. We have to allow it to coexist with the ever changing places we call home. In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, we see the fight for home not a thing of the past but the foundation of our present lives. As the first black investigator of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth dares to go undercover in the 1970’s to expose criminal activity within the Ku Klux Klan. He has a vision of what home should be, and it is not what he sees. The current political landscape in the United States is like silly putty, pulled apart to the last strands, for this very reason.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) comes face to face with the shooting range targets used by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The world changes, and humans react. Rural areas pull apart from urban centers, new technology grows a labor force divide as much as it creates new markets. Some of us try to anticipate this change, others try to prevent it. The thing is, home has to change. When we try and preserve a time period to do with what we want, we fail.

To cope we do many things. One way is through creating science fiction. The stories leave us wondering if it will be long before our imagined world becomes our real one. The sci-fi movie Transcendence asks, would you want to let your neural network survive knowing it would evolve into something different than you are today? My dear friend Kelsey, who is growing artificial neurons, says we are a long way from downloading our brain. So maybe we don’t have to decide just yet. However, the decisions we make will matter and the free market may not be the only guardrail we need.

There is a darkness that science fiction often trends towards because there is real possible danger in new technology. Our stories capture fear quite well. We talk about the difference between humans and machines decreasing every day. However, I think our business world needs the understanding of what exactly fills that distance between human and machine. We need people who can see the divide between humans and the AI we imagine not with the lens of absolute fear or with that of unwavering glee, but with empathy.

Westworld questions if the ability to be destroyed is what makes something real.

The human inside the machine.

This time last year I was finishing up a project on the new clinical research competitive landscape. I was looking for a way to talk about connections between data using skills beyond excel and well, reading. I started to teach myself SQL and dig into what data science meant. To me, studying data science gives you access to a tool set that can be applied to understand change and evolution in real time.

These days I’m studying data science at the Flatiron School in Seattle. I want to build products that enable more people to discover information in a way that enriches their lives. A core concept I am passionate about is connecting people with well-being and access to resources. I like making people feel heard and included. I am interested in the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are, the way we interact with our environment, and in human development.

I’m also studying data science because I don’t want to fear my vulnerabilities so much. In this pursuit, I have to ask myself every day what I do not know, but must not define my world by what I cannot do. I must always be molting, always learning, always a beginner. The more I know, the less I know.

Every day we’ll know less relative to the exponentially increasing amount of information out there. While that matters for us, it matters way less for machines. Our machines can give us understanding about the universe without having to understand anything themselves at all. However, there is still a human needed inside our machines to ask why. When I walk into a room of people I think about how to create commonality, and how to make everyone feel like they are an individual. The machine doesn’t know why that would be important yet.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) asks if those who are on earth can understand him from Mars in The Martian.

In its March 2019 issue, Wired discusses how voice recognition products will be the go-to for half of the internet searches we make by 2020. However, Alexa only gives us one answer for each question and cannot succinctly describe to us how to learn multiple perspectives or learn more about a topic. I believe moving out of this one-shot answer world can be commercially desirable and will require human perspective.

Maybe someday a bot will look down at its cereal and say, hey there’s a human in my machine. I hope the thought will make it smile.

Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium

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