Economics writer Tim Harford studies complex systems — and finds a surprising link among the successful ones: they were built through trial and error. In this sparkling talk from TEDGlobal 2011, he asks us to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes.
Abstract: “Human learning is a complex phenomenon requiring flexibility to adapt existing brain function and precision in selecting new neurophysiological activities to drive desired behavior. These two attributes—flexibility and selection—must operate over multiple temporal scales as performance of a skill changes from being slow and challenging to being fast and automatic. Such selective adaptability is naturally provided by modular structure, which plays a critical role in evolution, development, and optimal network function. Using functional connectivity measurements of brain activity acquired from initial training through mastery of a simple motor skill, we investigate the role of modularity in human learning by identifying dynamic changes of modular organization spanning multiple temporal scales. Our results indicate that flexibility, which we measure by the allegiance of nodes to modules, in one experimental session predicts the relative amount of learning in a future session. We also develop a general statistical framework for the identification of modular architectures in evolving systems, which is broadly applicable to disciplines where network adaptability is crucial to the understanding of system performance.”
From the abstract: “In coming to understand the world—in learning concepts, acquiring language, and grasping causal relations—our minds make inferences that appear to go far beyond the data available. How do we do it? This review describes recent approaches to reverse-engineering human learning and cognitive development and, in parallel, engineering more humanlike machine learning systems. Computational models that perform probabilistic inference over hierarchies of flexibly structured representations can address some of the deepest questions about the nature and origins of human thought: How does abstract knowledge guide learning and reasoning from sparse data? What forms does our knowledge take, across different domains and tasks? And how is that abstract knowledge itself acquired?”