Pseudo-anonymous forums

After using the stack-exchange(SE) forums for several years, it’s clear that pseudo-anonymous user profiles are synonymous with lousy user experience. Depending on the stack exchange this manifests itself in different ways but I believe the underlying reasons are the same. 

Consider these two questions:
1. Why don’t hexapods gallop?
2. Rigorous derivation of isoperimetric inequality from ideal gas equation?

In the first case you have a pseudo-anonymous user on the Physics SE with a lot of reputation who tries to reformat the question. He basically says that the question has nothing to do with physics. Eventually, I demonstrate that his claim is baseless and other users on the physics stack exchange support my arguments. A different user with less confidence might have responded differently however.

In the second case, we have a clear question on the Math Overflow that gets a clear answer from an identifiable person. Now, if you check the top users on the MathOverflow you’ll realise that almost every user is identifiable. In fact, among the top 20 users the number of identifiable users among these forums stands at 95% and 75% for the MathOverflow and Physics Stack Exchanges respectively. I believe that the fraction of pseudo-anonymous users is an important indicator of the overall forum experience. 

Pseudo-anonymity is not merely a different type of user setting. It leads to fundamentally different forum interactions for systemic reasons:

1. Users are less inhibited because they won’t be identified. 
2. Users feel less pressure to share good content because any social benefits won’t affect their actual person. 

Due to this reward system, pseudo-anonymous users tend to behave like idiots if they can get away with it and they won’t try as hard to share great content. If you’re Terrence Tao on the MathOverflow the situation is very different. In general, I suspect that the reason for the greater fraction of identifiable MathOverflow users is that they are actually proud of what they share. 

While it’s not clear how the Physics Stack Exchange can incentivise users to use their real names I think they can simply require it. I have no doubt that this would improve the user experience. 


Where education failed

Today there’s more innovation in educating computers than educating High school students in Europe and the USA. Some have even gone as far as warning that the recent progress in machine learning might lead to smarter-than-human computers in the near future[1].

First, I’d like to make it clear that the AI fears are unfounded. The state of the art in machine learning includes software that can learn patterns from large amounts of data however there are no machine learning systems that are good at deducing non-trivial patterns from small amounts of data. More importantly, the state of the art in machine learning software is terrible at learning new concepts. We might have robot truck drivers on the horizon but there won’t be any creative robot scientists or entrepreneurs anytime soon.

While there’s no real AI risk to humans there’s a really serious problem with the lack of innovation in High school education. In fact, the growing risk of severe long-term unemployment in these regions isn’t due to the arrival of super-human robots which won’t happen anytime soon, it’s due to a complacent education system that hasn’t taken into account significant changes in the modern job market.

Here’s what the actual job market looks like:
1) It is global which means that locals aren’t guaranteed a job in their own country as their forebears were.
2) Any uncreative task that can be automated will be automated.
3) Due to the previous points organizations are much more fluid and the notion of a job for life has all but disappeared.

Many business people anticipated these important changes but somehow High school education hasn’t changed accordingly. In fact, there is little sign of any effort to make the necessary changes. While there is serious discussion today about how we must increase social safety nets, some even going as far as arguing for universal basic income, the best that can be done to safeguard the future is to make significant changes to the current secondary education system.

Right now High School in the USA and Europe is exam-focused and strives to produce obedient children that stick to the curriculum. Moreover, this system breeds a zero-sum mindset where students compete for the best grades and then compete for the ‘best’ internships at big companies. However, all the points I mentioned indicate that we need to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset from an early age. In the modern world, job security is almost nonexistent so the education system should encourage people to build things from a young age.

This is a cultural problem in the same way that the absence of women in mathematics is a cultural problem. Women aren’t naturally bad at mathematics anymore than humans are destined for uncreative jobs in a big company. For these reasons, I believe we can do something about this. 

Here are the changes I would recommend:
1) Students will be assessed using bi-weekly examinations instead of massive exams at the end of the year.
2) At the end of each semester all students will participate in hackathons for fun, fame and credit. These will focus around software, engineering or robotics that can result in products of commercial value.
3) I expect companies of all kinds to participate in the process of changing the education system.

These recommendations don’t have to be followed literally but important changes must be made. At present the closest thing that resembles the school I imagine is Xavier Niel’s Ecole 42 which forms software engineers and digital entrepreneurs by encouraging them to work on interesting software projects of gradually increasing levels of difficulty.

Some might complain that these changes might be expensive but I’d like to argue that large-scale unemployment will be even more expensive and this is actually a good investment. In fact, the belief that people below a certain age can only be net-consumers is an outdated idea. The creative potential of adolescents has so far been underestimated in terms of its ability to contribute to human progress and economic growth.

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that there are no robots taking away the creative opportunities that we are capable of creating for ourselves. However, the future won’t build itself on its own.

[1] There’s a long list of intellectuals for this one: Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking among others. It really stuns me how much discussion about the potential of robotics and AI is dominated by unreasonable fear-mongering.