The State of Emergent Mind

In 2014 I worked on a side project called Emergent Mind to learn more about AI, artificial life and related topics. The result was 10 interactive JavaScript visualizations ranging from Boids to neural networks.

I really enjoyed working on it and received a lot of great feedback, but I had to put it on hold after the arrival of my son last fall. I’d say the projects took about 10 hours each on average so they weren’t that time consuming, but with a newborn, a fulltime job and other obligations and interests I had to put it on the backburner for a while.

I’ve been weighing in my mind whether or not to resume work on it.

Here’s my thought process:

The Pros

  • AI and especially artificial life are fascinating to me. The fact that we are all here now is a testament to the incredible power of emergence and evolution. If I won the lottery and never had to work again, I’d probably spend a good chunk of my time working on projects to explore these areas.
  • AI is playing a larger and ever-increasing importance in our lives. I think we’re going to see an explosion of AI-enabled products and services over the coming decades… hopefully in a good way. Devoting time to learning it now will position me well to play a part in that future.
  • My impression is that AI researchers don’t tend to work on products and product people don’t tend to work on AI so there are probably a lot of opportunies at the intersection of the two.

The Cons

  • It’s hard. These 10 projects barely scratched the surface. My backpropagation post is at about the limit of my current math skills. I might (and that’s a big might) be able to teach myself, but flipping through PDFs of machine learning texts like The Elements of Statistical Learning is pretty daunting. I could go back to school, maybe get a masters in machine learning, but that brings me to the next point…
  • There are huge opportunity costs. Every hour I spend learning and working on AI projects is one less hour I get to spend learning about growth, JavaScript, spending time with my wife and son, relaxing, etc. Given a choice between going from an intermediate JavaScript developer to an expert with a few months of work and going from a beginner at AI to an expert in 5-10 years of work it’s hard to justify the latter.
  • No one can say for sure how AI will play out, but the possibilities have a lot of smart people very concerned. Read this WaitButWhy post for a great introduction and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom if you want to learn more.
  • I love building products, but just don’t have many practical applications in mind for this type of work. The state of the art machine learning work seems largely applied to things like computer vision (boring to me), self-driving cars (interesting, but hard to work on from my home office), increasing the accuracy of various prediction techniques (somewhat interesting to me, but still no product in mind) and virtual assistants (interesting, but seems hard to compete with Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc). It might just be a lack of imagination, but I can’t think of many products at the intersection of web app development and AI that excite me. If I were to build something it would probably wind up being a product like The Grid, though calling that AI seems more like a marketing move than actual AI (what is actual AI though?).

So, for now anyway, I think Emergent Mind will continue to stay on the backburner. Maybe one day I’ll pick it up again. We’ll see.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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