Nobel Peace Prize

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The award statement is:

The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.

The first part of this statement — that nuclear weapons have “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” — is obvious and should be universally agreed upon.

Unfortunately, while the second part about creating a treaty-based prohibition sounds great in theory, it would not work in practice. So long as rogue states such as North Korea continue to develop their own nuclear programs, the United States needs to maintain its own stockpile of such weapons. The Wall Street Journal editorial board got it correct when they described the award as the Nobel Alternate Reality prize, and I honestly think they weren’t harsh enough on the Nobel Committee.

This award reminded me about when President Obama was once considering adopting a “No Nuclear First” policy. While I generally supported President Obama, this would have been a mistake. Fortunately, his own administration shot down the idea. Now the next step is to convince politicians such as Senator Dianne Feinstein to steer away from these ideas.

Harvey Weinstein

As most of us know, Harvey Weinstein systematically assaulted women throughout much of his famed career, and is rightfully being scorned and disgraced. Good riddance.

My first reaction was, wow. How did Weinstein get away with his behavior over all these years? I certainly hope that other men who have done these things face similar consequences and avoid getting away scot-free by paying their way out.

By the way, the fact that Weinstein was a prominent supporter of Democratic causes is, in my opinion, irrelevant. There are plenty of bad men in all political parties. I don’t need to name them — we know who they are. Let’s condemn them and, if they’ve donated money to politicians, to encourage those politicians to redirect that money to organizations that combat sexual assault.

Now the uncomfortable question I face is: are there Harvey Weinsteins in (academic) computer science? I hope not. From my experience, I have never noticed any man (or woman, for that matter) exhibit the kind of behavior as Weinstein. At least that counts for something.

Lastly, I certainly hope I have never been like Weinstein. One of the things I’ve learned from reading Weinstein-like stories is to avoid touching people. I am not much of a “touching” person. One handshake when I meet new people is enough for me! Sure, if other men or women want to hug me, fine, go ahead. I just won’t initiate the hugging, sorry. I am constantly worried that I’ll commit a micro-aggression.

The NBA and NFL

NBA rookie Lonzo Ball has a huge target on him due to his outspoken Dad, LaVar ball. LaVar has made a few comments that remind me of Weinstein, particular with his criticism of female basketball referees. To be clear, LaVar Ball doesn’t seem remotely as bad as Weinstein, but at least I see the resemblence, if you get what I mean. And I am, quite frankly, annoyed at all the attention he gets.

The good news is that at least he’s there as a Dad and seems extremely supportive of his children. I got a poignant reminder about this from reading this article from The Undefeated about how Scott Brooks wished he had a father. I can certainly see how someone like him would view the situation differently.

In the NFL, Houston Texans owner Robert McNair made an ill-advised comment about calling NFL players “inmates”. Ouch. That was a mistake, and I’m happy he showed remorse and seems to regret his actions. If NFL players protest over these comments, well I can’t blame them. If they want to kneel for the flag, for instance, that’s their First Amendment right to do so and I will support them.

On the same token, the NFL players have America’s attention. Great. Now the next and exponentially harder step is to figure out what to do with that attention. Kneeling for the flag won’t work forever, but I don’t know how else the players should proceed so that their messages and goals have a high probability of seeing reality.

Quantum Computing

There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the race to create a quantum computer. Even though I have very little intuition on how quantum computers work, the author makes a reasonably compelling case for this to be our next “Manhattan Project”. I would, however, like to raise two points.

First, I reserve the right to dismiss this race as ill-informed if Scott Aaronson says so on his blog. (Professor Aaronson, I am waiting …)

Second, why not consider another project that is also crucial for the United States (and the planet, for that matter)? That would be Energy Independence, or the The Green Revolution, as proposed by authors such as Thomas L. Friedman. Rather than rely on Middle Eastern countries (and indirectly, radical Islam) for our oil, we can instead develop our own. Or even better, we can focus on renewable energy.

I am under no illusions that this will be hard to achieve, both for political reasons and because people don’t like to be pressured to do things that lower their standard of living. For example, I still use my car regularly even though I know that public transportation would be better for the environment.

The good news is that with more people living in cities, it will be easier for the country to use less energy, and that’s why I still have hope. For additional details, I recommend reading Climate of Hope, which was published just a few months ago.

Dynamic Routing Through Capsules

OK, this isn’t really news that will capture the minds of the general public, but it’s certainly taking the AI-world by storm. Researchers Sara Sabour, Nicholas Frosst, and Geoffrey Hinton finally posted a long-awaited preprint, Dynamic Routing Through Capsules. There is substantial interest in this paper because Hinton has long been brainstorming alternatives to backpropagation for training neural networks. He has also been thinking about dramatically different neural network designs rather than making incremental changes to fully connected or convolutional nets. This is despite how he, perhaps more than anyone else, has been responsible for bringing their good-ness out in the open, revolutionizing the field of AI and, indeed, the world.

I wish I had the time to read the paper and write a detailed read-through blog post, but alas, it came on arXiv the night before I had an interview.

At this point, I think any top-tier conference paper with Hinton’s name attached to it is worth reading. I’m already on-record as saying that I predict Geoffrey Hinton to win the next Turing Award, so I expect that his papers will have extremely high research contribution.

Surgical and Home Robotics

Lastly but certainly not least, consider checking out some recent research from the Berkeley AUTOLAB, of which I’m a member. The Berkeley AI Research blog recently featured back-to-back posts about imitation learning algorithms with applications to surgical robotics and home robotics, respectively. Recall that I serve on the BAIR Blog editorial board, and in particular, I was in charge for formatting and then pushing these posts live. I hope these two posts are informative to the lay reader interested in AI.