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Geek Girl Meetup: ‘The Magic of Machine Learning’

This week I went along to the popular London Geek Girl Meetup monthly breakfast which provided me with some delicious fruit, great company and an early morning dive into machine learning.

Geek Girl Meetup is a Swedish initiative, founded in 2008, which was set up to address the phenomenon of the short ladies’ toilet queue at tech conferences, through monthly events and an annual ‘unconference’. This breakfast meetup, ‘The Magic of Machine Learning’, was informal, inclusive and included 4 speakers – all speaking for only 5-10 minutes each – who merely scratched the surface of their subjects, but opened up my imagination and curiosity to the world of machine learning.

Machine learning is a branch of computer science which deals with the theory and application of computer systems that can learn from data, as oppose to human-engineered sets of rules. It’s truly incredible stuff which, with our understanding of the field increasing rapidly, is changing the way our technology performs. You know when Amazon recommends that book you’ve been thinking about buying, or how your email filters out that spam that you really didn’t want to read…that’s thanks to machine learning.

The meetup was hosted at the offices of Swiftkey, a London Start-up which has created a ‘mind reading’ keyboard app for Android (I really hope the iOS version is released soon, as I really love the idea of using a keyboard which can predict what I’m going to type based on my previous writing activity…)

Catalina Hellett – a language engineer at Swiftkey – opened the morning with an introduction to machine learning. For me, this was much needed as, despite knowing what machine learning is and being aware of its usage and predicted growth in today’s world, I didn’t have a clue when it came to the theory behind it all. Catalina broke everything down into a simple, though not dumbed-down, explanation including Hello Kitty references and digestible charts.

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We heard about 2 of the strands of machine learning (supervised and unsupervised – basically 2 different ways of setting up the learning in the first place), and the difficulties with classification (how do you explain sarcasm, for instance, to a machine? What are the rules you follow to classify speech as sarcastic…?) The intro was perfect in that it prompted further thought – it left questions unanswered which, for I’m sure a large number of the women attending, would have forced us to go find out more.

She was followed by Anna Alfut, UX Designer at Swiftkey, who put forward the strong case (through some beautiful slides!) that everything built needs to keep the user in mind. We went straight from the scientific theory to talking about an end product, reminding us that to make machine learning beneficial in a commercial sense, we must always go back to what purpose the product serves for the consumer.

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Chloe Hajnal-Cereb from EDITD gave us a quick-fire case study of how machine learning is employed in this fashion retail startup. It seems machine learning really does have the power to overhaul entire industries, which made it all the more valuable and intriguing to be focusing on the subject right now.

The final talk was from Mital Kinderkhedia of UCL, a machine learning research student embarking on her PHD. She spoke to us about a more complex level of machine learning called ‘Deep Learning’, which moves the topic closer to Artificial Intelligence. It uses a set of algorithms (as opposed to just one in particular, selected for the job at hand) to perform more complicated tasks such as recognising an image. At first I wondered how hard it could be for a computer to, for example, recognise a picture of a car, but what Mital explained is that the computer only sees pixels and colours and which coloured pixels are next to which other coloured pixels. A computer would have to be programmed on several layers – to recognise colour, to recognise a collection of coloured pixels forming a line, to recognise a line forming a circle, to recognise that a circle with lines inside is a wheel, to recognise that this particular type of wheel is a car wheel…the list goes on. I really do have a newfound respect for the face-recognition feature of my iPhone camera.

The breakfast ended with a room full of energised women (and a few men!) chatting machine learning, Artificial Intelligence, upcoming technology events, collaborative opportunities and the tasks for the day ahead (for a night owl like me, it already felt like lunch time…) It was an effortless morning full of inspiration and education – which was basically free as the £5 ticket paid for the food and coffee – so I will be looking out for the next Geek Girl Breakfast Meetup with much anticipation.

 

 

(I’ve also bought a ticket to their annual conference – this year it’s ‘Ubiquitous Technology’ – which you can find out more about here)

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Science Museum Lates

On Wednesday night I stood in a very long queue, full of interesting-looking young people, to get into the Science Museum. Once in, I stayed (with the vast majority of the other visitors) right up until it closed at 10pm.

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I can’t tell you how happy that makes me feel to write that.

I discovered Science Museum Lates (monthly 18+ nights hosted by London Zoo, the Natural History Musuem and the Science Museum) a few weeks ago after Googling ‘science events London’*…and I must admit I was sceptical. Surely these nights are just another ploy to get young people drinking and spending their very little money, with ‘doing something different’ simply being the marketing bait to lure them in? Wouldn’t it just be another ‘London attraction’ for the tourists who want something ‘off the beaten track’, and it’d be horribly busy with millions of cameras in tow, right? And the science won’t be real science – it’ll just be the popular subjects dressed up in fake lab coats and lens-less black rimmed glasses: ‘geek chic’ if you will…?

Well I’m so very pleased to admit that I was wrong.

Thousands of us piled into the magnificent Science Museum eager to make the most of the packed programme of talks, interactive displays and demonstrations. Thousands of us surrounded the exhibits (normally crowded by school groups) taking in their majesty, brilliance and beautiful stories. We lined up outside the various lecture theatres and briefing rooms and hidden corners of the museum to hear experts and comedians talk about the theme of the month – the science of hedonism.

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Yes, we had a drink or two. Yes, there were DJs. Yes, the majority of the talks scratched the surface of their topic without delving into the complexity behind them. But my god, what a breath of fresh air!

I was overwhelmed by the number of visitors, the energy in the building, the array of topics on show, the lack of cynicism amongst the crowd and the fact that so many of the people who’d turned up looked just like me! (I’d foolishly expected a relatively low-key affair with very few 20-somethings…)

But what made me really excited and feel almost a sense of pride (GO SCIENCE), is that the people wanted to be there. They asked questions. They laughed at the nerd jokes. They looked happy and inspired and interested. Science was cool for the night, but because it was true and wonderful, not because it was a fad. There was no classroom hierarchy of cleverness, swattiness, geekiness… It was as if it wasn’t even (what most people think of as) science – it was just ‘amazing stuff’.

There was one presentation in particular where I felt this the most. Eighty of us were ushered into an intimate space in the ‘Science in the 18th Century’ section where we sat on the floor and on surrounding benches and were encouraged to gather in closer to the presenters – it felt more like a chat in a quirky bar than a talk in the Science Museum. The 30 minute slot was described thus: ‘Hooks are the foundation of hit singles, but what makes a good hook?’ and we were given an incredible insight into #HookedOnMusic – a citizen science experiment which sets out to discover what makes songs catchy. Comedian Helen Arney hosted the talk, providing us with plenty of laughs and stirring thoughts, joined by Ashley Burgoyne (the scientist behind the experiment) and Marieke Navin (from Manchester Science Festival – the producers). It was a privilege to hear about such an interesting endeavour, and the data and science and experimental background was fascinating, but what really got me was the audience. Predominantly young, people were laughing and nodding and engaging. Discussion was prompted. Questions, which there was no shortage of, were pondered. It was incredible to be in a setting where having a think, an open chat and an opinion on science was not only welcome, it was bloody trendy.

And anyone could pipe up – you didn’t have to be an expert on music or citizen science or data. It was as if someone had injected us all with a level of confidence, we were all experts and all our opinions counted. I felt like I was part of something – when I asked a question, I felt the kudos from the rest of the audience (which was so unlike the sneers I received when I wanted to find out more during physics classes at school…) The floor was just so open to our thoughts and suggestions, it really did feel like we were capable of shaping and building and puzzling over another project, just by sitting in that room and bouncing ideas off one another…

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And oh how I wish that’s how science was all of the time – delivered with energetic dialogue and plenty of infectious enthusiasm, but more importantly, open for all. These days, we know better than ever that collaboration is a powerful seed for new ideas, new thoughts, new discoveries – that session felt like a science incubator, like a start-up, like a group of people who wanted to do something, and what a buzz it gave me…

So thanks Science Museum Lates – you’ve given me a taste of something I want more of. It feels like the start of a journey into not only feeding my own love of science and technology, but of exploring the ways in which others can be convinced of its wonder, everyone can get involved in the current conversations and science could, without losing its integrity, be brought to the masses…as you certainly did a cracking job of it on Wednesday night.

 

*Yes, I googled ‘science events london’. What of it?!

For more info on #HookedOnMusic, take a look here