Zagreb Cohousing FAIL

Winter view from Zagreb Cohousing

“Can’t believe we are moving out,” echoed in my head. I was sitting on the doorsteps of a large, modern house. The view was spectacular, but I had got used to it. Only the back room, gym and sauna didn’t have a view ‒ but I didn’t really mind. Maybe other people did? Not enough people had joined and we needed to leave.

It all started in 2010, when a Wikipedia article caught my eye. It was about the bizarre and hugely popular Danish trend of cohousing communities. This is the gist: typically, between 10 and 40 families join forces to purchase an empty plot of land. They build private houses that are a bit smaller than usual, but they also build a large common house, with a communal dining room, playroom, laundry, workshop, movie room, guest rooms etc. Common dinner is a killer feature. Instead of shopping, cooking and washing dishes every day, residents do it only few times a month. On other days, they eat in the common house (or take the food home), because somebody else is scheduled in the kitchen. Your kid is bored? Go to the shared playroom or playground. Need to run somewhere for an hour? Ask a neighbour to look after your kid. Need company to watch a football match? There is a large screen and a bar in the common house. Trying to save money? Cohousings get volume discounts and free delivery because they are buying in bulk. The group dinners mean that you actually get to know your neighbours. All of that sounds perfect to families ‒ for a reason. The cohousing movement started with a 1964 article titled “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents”.

It all seemed a bit too utopian for me. Croatia is a long way away from Scandinavian social experiments, and the whole idea went stealth for two years. Until I went to San Francisco in 2012.

Cohousing in the States is often about ideology, not convenience. Many of the projects there are ecological, religious or hippie-like communes. Not my cup of tea. However, Americans are also fond of cohousing’s smaller brother, coliving. Instead of building houses, a group of people just rent one and share the rooms. They are more than merely flatmates, because they organise and share activities. Whatever interest you can imagine, there is a house for that. Startup house, social entrepreneurs house, yoga house. Most of them recruit members publicly; others rely on wild rumours as the only advertising channel. For example, an invitation-only startup house in San Francisco accepts only entrepreneurs who have already sold their first company. Which is quite boring compared to a pick-up artists house or a clitoral stimulation house. The latter is not a joke. I met a guy who lived in an orgasmic meditation house (read about OM houses and 1080 Folsom Street). Imagine that, every morning female residents line up for a clit massage. Guys do the stroking for twenty minutes, everybody says thank you, and then they go off to work. California.

I didn’t have the pleasure of living in an OM house, but I spent two winters in the Slovenian Startup House and Embassy SF. I was sceptical at first, thinking I was too old to be in roommate arrangements. But although there were no naked women laying around, I really enjoyed the experience. The cleaning lady would come once a week; we had common meals and shared food. Embassy SF even had a sauna, coworking space, 3D printers, bowling alley, automated food delivery and shared cars. I was sharing an enormous residence with interesting people for the price of a small Airbnb room. Impressed by my San Francisco experience, I decided to create a similar thing in Croatia ‒ a simple house for young working people, nothing niche.

An opportunity soon arose. My new startup needed an office space. I decided to upgrade my flat. Rent for each was around €400 per month, so the total was €800. For just a bit more I could get an entire house. Within a month I had found the perfect place: 250 sqm, completely new, with 5 bedrooms, a view, gym, sauna and a backyard ‒ all for a mere €1200 per month. Outside rush hour, it was an 18-minute drive to the city centre. To test an idea before putting down a deposit, I created an “MVP”. I posted an ad and copied agency pictures, as though I already had a house. I named it “Zagreb Cohousing” and declared it was for “young professionals (24-44) with a steady income”. Six people applied. Perfect! I started negotiating with a landlord. She stared blankly while I explained cohousing and told her that I wanted to sub-let the rooms. Two meetings later and after doubling my deposit, she agreed. After signing the contract I felt enormously happy. Every room was screaming with unrealised potential. Not for long, I thought.

It started superbly. I found my first roommate in one day. Jure, who had responded to the “fake” ad, was enthusiastic and moved into the large room two days before I did. He had a job in nearby Slovenia but was drawn to Zagreb’s bigger city vibe. Every weekend, his girlfriend and friends would come over for a barbecue. We joked that his ensuite bathroom was so large that people could live in it ‒ because they often did. If he put a mattress on the heated floor, two extra people could sleep over. They would often make extra food and leave it with a cute post-it note.

The lobby became the work space for my startup. A cleaning lady would come weekly. “Cleaning” doesn’t do her justice, because she also did the ironing, changed the bed sheets and cooked one or two meals for us ‒ all for €25 a week. We felt like the Rockefellers.

We started organising parties and potluck dinners. A girl whom I had been seeing previously called me up and said, “I hear you have a sauna. When can I try it out?” Life was great.

But there was a problem. The house was half empty. I put more effort into marketing and created a website and a Facebook page. I was featured in the local newspaper. The more people contacted me, the more obvious it became that my initial MVP test was wrong. I hadn’t investigated the target market. For a start I was surprised that most of the applicants were heavily into an alternative lifestyle. That wouldn’t have been a problem, but our house didn’t have anything to offer them. Do you have an organic garden? Are you vegetarians? How far is the house by bicycle? I organise monthly energy healing classes ‒ does that count as a steady income? They were disappointed to hear the landlord didn’t want a garden planted, that we ate meat, and that the house was a one-hour bike ride from the city centre. Their biggest disappointment was the price of €160 per month for a modest room.

I knew Croatia has a high rate of unemployment and that many people don’t have cars, but surely there were three people in the capital city who wanted to pay a little extra for a nicer lifestyle? But how to find them? Since the price was about the same, I placed an ad in classifieds for single-room apartments. The next day, I got a call. “We’ve deleted your ad,” the moderator said, “because it belongs to the rooms-for-rent section.” After I did exactly that, I started laughing. The photo of our house was squeezed between pictures of small rooms with ʼ80s furniture and for half the price. Then I realised that that small money is still enough for some old lady to pay her monthly bills, and I stopped laughing.

There was another problem. A few of the application emails were enthusiastic, especially from girls. They loved the concept and wanted to visit. The next email was less eager and, by the last one, they had changed their mind. I realised later that between the first and the last emails they had had talks with friends and family. Some people asked me straight out if we were a sect or a hippie/free love commune. One real estate agent called our landlord and claimed that we would destroy the house. Nobody had heard of Danish cohousing, but everybody watched Hollywood movies. Somehow, I became a cohousing/coliving evangelist in Croatia. I did a few interviews and even appeared on national TV.

After New Year, Jure decided to move back to Slovenia. He was replaced by two others: Andreja, a very active girl who worked as a medical researcher, and Vlatko, a calm guy who translated French comics for a living. Same as Jure, they were a great fit; on evenings when we stayed in, we would always hang out in the winter garden. My brother moved in for a few months and converted a small room to a tricopter factory. Great, but we still needed two more permanent residents to consider it a success.

As the end of our first year in the house approached, I realised it was probably not going to happen. At the end of August, five people applied, all wanting the €160 room that was already taken. When I told them we had a €180 room available, they all said the extra €20 was more than they could afford. A few people came for a drink but decided they didn’t like the furniture or the location. Residents aside, I didn’t need an office anymore. My cofounder became a dad and started working from home, and our marketing guy decided to work from the Canary Islands. At one point I started looking for houses closer to the city centre, but they were double the price or simply in a bad condition. Running out of options and with two rooms still empty, I decided not to extend the lease.

Price wasn’t the main reason. Sometimes you need to quit in order to move on to new things. Andreja, Vlatko and I found a large three-bedroom flat nearby. It also has a large living room, a balcony and a view. Funnily enough, the price per room is the same. Nice places always cost money. We still have our cleaning lady, but that is it from shared economy. No work space, gym or garden. Large dinners, grocery delivery and car sharing don’t make sense with only three people.

I learned many things in the past year and the key takeaway is that most people are unwilling to pay extra for a shared housing arrangement. A flatmate situation is a typical tragedy of the commons; everybody values only their own property (private room) and sees little value in the public property (shared rooms). More than once people complained the price was too high for a room in the suburbs. Yes, it was ‒ but the price was for a house, not just for a room. In every sense, we felt like the house was ours and we made use of the shared spaces when we wanted. Having nice flatmates at the same time was an advantage. But people would disagree, and not just in Croatia. For example, a new trend in UK is rent-to-rent. Property investors rent houses and convert living and dining rooms into extra bedrooms. That way they rent out a three-bedroom house as five individual rooms and make a nice profit. Beautiful ‒ the total antipode of the cohousing/coliving concept. You sleep in a dining room, and the only way to socialise with flatmates is in the queue for the bathroom.

Still, I feel positive. The experience of living in the house was great; the only part I didn’t like was organising it. I met many, many people from all over the world excited about that kind of lifestyle. As I was leaving for the last time, I paused and looked back at what had been our home for one year. Maybe some other time, some other place.

 

Would you like to live in a world where coliving and cohousing are normal? You can help, just share this with your friends.

I was kicked out from TEDx event for saying water-fuelled car is a scam

I got a lifetime ban from biggest TEDx in my Country. Why?

Because I publicly said this “inventor” is a scammer:

241510Ivan Jakobović with his “water-powered car”.
Because gas is so expensive, he modified his car to run on water.

energetski-lanser-slavonski-brodIvan Jakobović and his “orgonic launcher”.
It fires “orgon” into air and cleans the air above the city.

Amusing? I was also laughing until this one:

4527869645_a68eccaa96_b4528502284_6291b18863_bIvan Jakobović demonstrating his “ozonic exhaust” on TEDxZagreb stage.
Mounted on a normal car, “ozonic exhaust” converts 45% of CO2 to oxygen (ozone).

You see, I don’t like TED. I absolutely adore TED. TEDx are independently organized but follow the same rules as big TED. No pseudoscience.

Before I saw speaker list I was really happy to go. I purchased my ticket ($20) right from the invite e-mail. Only later when I checked speakers bios on the event page I noticed: “Ivan Jakobović – inventor of the water engine”. I got absolutely furious.

On Facebook event page I commented on announcement:

Great, I purchased the ticket. But I don’t like this one:
Ivan Jakobović – inventor of the water engine
He is a charlatan who uses TEDx for own promotion, here is the list of similar ‘inventors’:
Wikipedia: water-fuelled cars
Wikipedia: List of water fuel inventions 
(C.Frazer patented one in 1918!)
Mythbusters Free Energy “Busted”

Enough said. Why would I list arguments when Wikipedia and Mythbusters had done such a great job?

Some guy commented that it is not against TED spirit or TEDx rules. I researched some more and replied with this:

TEDx rules explicitly forbid such themes, this is from TEDx blog (search for “Free energy” section). Because of pseudoscience TEDxWestHollywood lost its license.

Black on white, Chris Anderson and his team were smart enough to anticipate this situation and provide detailed guidelines. Before going to sleep, I also sent above links to Karlo (event organizer), as I was not sure if he was reading FB comments.

Next morning I received Karlo’s reply:

Ivan Jakobović will not talk about water engine, but about his inventions. There are many water engines but Ivan’s water engine is patented and that means something. He is a serious inventor with more than 70 patents, too serious to brag about something he didn’t do.

Notice that second link I sent to Karlo listed bogus patents on water engines. But at least we were having a normal discussion over e-mail, so I decided to research the patents.

Google Patents (USA and EU): 0 patents
Croatian patent office: 1 patent
PATENTSCOPE: 0 patents

So, I was wrong, Ivan Jakobović is an inventor. He has one patent in Croatia, for moonshine distiller. That explains some things. Notice that patent application is hand drawn.

Before writing back to Karlo, I decided to check FB. It was mayhem. On two separate threads, people were either liking my post or calling me a Nazi. More than 50 replies, and one of them was directly from Ivan Jakobović! And then I got a call from Karlo.

“How could you write that? You are ruining our event!”, he shouted.

“I gave arguments why I think he is a scammer. Event is in two weeks, you can just remove him from speaker list.”, I replied.

But I had a feeling that will not happen. Nobody was reading Wikipedia links, organizers were only seeing that I am calling “their” speaker a scammer. My explanations that I don’t have anything against Karlo or against TEDx content team were vain – they already took it as ad hominem. I asked Karlo if he ever checked speakers for TEDx event, I vividly remember his voice:

Ivan Jakobović achieved more in his life than you ever will.
I was at his place and I saw water engine working with my own eyes!
And because of publicly criticising him, I have no option that to remove YOU from the event!

Exactly what happened next:

  1. TEDxMaksimir team deleted negative comments from their FB page.
  2. They removed speaker bios from event page, and posted names of the talks instead (no mention of “water engine”).
  3. They refunded $20 back to my credit card and posted the following announcement:

Mr Zeljko just got a phone call he will be refunded entrance fee.. ..We need to protect speaker reputation.. ..Ivan Jakobović will speak about his rich experience as an inventor.. ..one of the inventions Mr Zeljko is criticizing (ozonic exhaust) was already presented by Ivan on our first TEDx event in 2010.. ..that invention was sold and is successfully produced in Canada.. ..Thank you Mr Ivan Jakobović for sharing your rich experience with us and for honoring us again.. Karlo Matić, TEDxMaksimir license holder

There it is, public support from TEDx for Ivan. Mentioning Canada success of ozonic exhaust is funny, because Ivan Jakobović with all his profitable international inventions was working as technician at high school for agriculture. Don’t worry, he is not teaching, because he never finished college. Don’t get me wrong, many great inventors didn’t have formal education. But I am surprised a man with such credentials wasn’t checked before speaking engagement.

And exactly tomorrow, on Sep 20th 2013, Ivan Jakobović will deliver his second TEDx talk titled “Innovations. Motivations. Complications”.

If you think that is kind of unfair, please share this.

Longest Vulgar Palindrome

As you probably know, a palindrome reads the same backwards as it does forwards. Computers can generate really long palindromes but they are completely meaningless. For example, this is the current computer record holder (105,302 characters).

To create a meaningful one you need to ditch the dictionary and use your creativity. A long time favourite is:

“A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!” (32 characters)

For those with dirtier minds, the question arises – what would the longest meaningful vulgar palindrome be? I abused the Google and the longest I fund was:

“A slut nixes sex in Tulsa.” (26 characters)

Not bad, huh? It is only 6 characters shorter than the Panama favourite.

But, it gets better – if we change the language.

In Croatian (same in Serbian) there is a really nice one:

“Mišu pita Dara: ‘Da ti pušim?’” (30 characters)

It translates to “Dara asks Mišo: do you want a blowjob?” First time I heard it, I couldn’t stop laughing. It is funny because it is completely natural; that is the exact phrase Dara would ask Mišo. Contrast that to the Panama and Tulsa examples and they seem a bit stretched.

So I asked Google for more fun in Serbo-Croatian. To my surprise, I found an even longer one:

“U Bejrutu Arapi kipara u tur jebu.” (34 characters)

That one translates to “In Beirut Arabs f**k sculptor in the bum.” Less natural, less fun, but this is the new vulgar record holder! And it is 2 characters longer that the English Panama favourite.

How can that be? English has 19x more native speakers!

Is this because of the language? Maybe Serbo-Croatian is more “melodic” in terms of profanities?

Or it is because of the culture? Which brings the question:

WHAT KIND OF SICK PEOPLE INVENT VULGAR PALINDROMES ANYWAY?!

People who like both crosswords and swear words? Do they sit down with a pen and paper and try to match reverted “slut” and “sex” with other words? Instead of sudoku, they relax by finding names that start with reverted “blowjob”? That is a some fun creative process, and it seems that thousands of man-hours went into it :D

 

Worst CAPTCHA Ever

By definition, CAPTCHA should be easy to read by humans but hard to read by machines. Apparently, they don’t agree with that at D&B:

CaptureDNBCaptcha

They put CAPTCHA in a plain HTML text, and then put an ugly background below so it can’t be read by humans.
I knew corporate developers can be of lower quality, but this is hilarious :)

 

UPDATE: Many people got offended, but I stick to my personal opinion: many corporations have recruitment practices that reject good programmers and attract bad ones. Good programmers don’t want to work in an environment where meetings require a tie, the development process is waterfall and the only way to increase your salary is to become a manager. But most of all, the screening of programmers should be done by technical department and not by corporate HR. And that is not hard, here you can create programming tests for Java and C# and send them to your candidates in less than 5 min.

Delhi Taxi Scam

I thought I was an experienced traveler. But my first night in India proved me completely wrong.

Prelude

It was 2007 and I took a very nonchalant approach to getting to India. I booked an airplane ticket but decided not to reserve any accommodation. I wanted a real backpacking experience, directly going to cheap hostels in search for a room that wasn’t too dirty. I was so relaxed that I started reading a guidebook (Lonely Planet India, 1232 pages and thicker than the Holy Bible) a mere three hours before the one o’clock night landing in New Delhi. I quickly found the section about Delhi and learned that:

  1. The arriving terminal has decent currency exchange.
  2. The best way to avoid overpaying a taxi is to use the Traffic Police Prepaid Taxi Booth.
  3. Most backpacker joints are located in the Paharganj area, and a taxi ride there was 210 Indian rupees.

I felt jolly good. The plane landed, I exchanged money and purchased a prepaid taxi slip. Although it was two o’clock in the morning, when I walked out of terminal with a slip in my hand, dozens of taxi drivers noticed me and started shouting:

“Taxi! Come here my friend! Best taxi!”

Best taxi?! They all looked the same; black english cabs like in the middle of Piccadilly Square. I showed the slip to the closest guy, he said “No problem, my friend!” and we jumped into his cab.

It turns out it wasn’t his cab — at the driver’s seat was a scary looking dark guy with a big turban. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, but my new “friend” with a big smiling face was there to act as translator. Nice.

My Translator Friend started to chit-chat, “Where are you from.. Croatia? Do you play cricket there?” I interrupted him when I noticed that some cars on our highway are going in the opposite direction. “Crazy people!” he said, “Some people don’t know how to drive here!” After five minutes we came to a road block – a big truck had overturned and was blocking all the lanes. Our quiet driver started mumbling, looked at the situation for a minute and then, without saying anything, just turned the car around! “Holy crap,” I screamed in my head, “we are driving on a 4-lane highway in the wrong direction!” Translator Friend awkwardly smiled and said, “Roadblock.. Heh.. Long Wait.” It seems that in India you can violate any traffic rule, as long as you use your car horn to warn other drivers of your violation.

I started to feel scared and I gripped the car seat.

The Scam

“Are you first time in India?” asked my Translator Friend.

“Yes, first time in India,” I replied.

I was so stupid! You never say to ANY taxi driver you are a first-timer, especially when you are on night shift with Translator Friend and Mister Turban.

“What is the name of your hotel?” he asked.

At that moment I could have saved the situation, but I messed up even more.

“I don’t know. I will check a few guest houses in..” I looked at my taxi slip, “..Paharganj area.”

His eyes sparkled.

“Can I see that again?” he took my slip and showed it to the driver and they exchanged a few sentences in what sounded like Punjabi. Then he turned back to me.

“Paharganj? Where is that? We don’t know that street.”

Here we go. I paused for a moment and realized I have a map of that area in the guidebook.

“No,” he was looking at my Lonely Planet, “I don’t recognize that part. Delhi is very large. Veeery large!”

After a short pause he continued.

“You know my friend, I know one very nice hotel. Great for you.”

Then I realized the scam. They would take me to a very expensive hotel, where they get the commission for bringing naive tourists.

“No, I don’t want to go to YOUR hotel, please take me to Paharganj!” I raised my voice.

It didn’t help. He looked at the map, talked to the driver, discussed it for five minutes with me but he insisted they don’t know how to get there.

“You know what,” he finally said, “we can go to nearby tourist agency and ask there, they will surely know.”

I agreed. We soon arrived in front of a tourist agency, with big, lighted street windows, full of people inside. It was now 2:30am — a strange hour for a tourist agency to operate. I grabbed my backpack and guidebook and went in. They showed us to an office with a free agent. The agent was sitting behind his desk, popped up a big smile and showed a chair in front of him. I sat down and explained the situation.

“I don’t know how to get there,” the agent said, “but I can call that guest house you wanted to visit and we will ask them.”

I agreed. He called the first place I had circled in the plane, from a phone inconveniently located behind his back.

“Can I have directions to your hotel? What, you are fully booked? Aha..”

Somehow I wasn’t surprised. I insisted that he phone the next guest house and that I do the talking. He gave me the handset but I was not sure the agent dialed the right number.

“I am sorry,” said a man on the other end of the line, “we are all fully booked. All guest houses here are fully booked. There is a big festival in New Delhi right now.”

I hung up the phone and started looking at other accommodation in the guidebook.

“Don’t worry,” the agent said, “I know one hotel that is still available even now when there is a festival.”

Suddenly, I felt a strong sense of deja vu; as if I had experienced this situation before. But when and where? How could I have a memory of this, when this is my first time in India? Then I remembered.

I flipped my Lonely Planet to the page I was reading on the plane, where there is the section about scams in New Delhi. While my Translator Friend and the agent thought I am searching for another guesthouse to call, I started reading. The guidebook described my very situation. Here is the photo:

Lonely Planet Delhi Taxi Scam

I couldn’t believe I was swindled by the oldest trick in the book within less than one hour in India! And I still had six weeks to go.

“Guys,” I said after calming down, “I will read you one section from my guidebook.”

By the time I was finished, they’ve stopped smiling. But that didn’t solve it. I threatened to call the tourist police, but they insisted they didn’t know where that part of town was! Then I noticed on the map that Paharganj area is close to New Delhi Railway Station. Carelessly perhaps, I demanded that they drive me there. Sudden flash of enlightenment crossed the face of my Translator Friend as he remembered where the city’s central train station might be.

Aftermath

The cab was quiet on our way to the train station. Halfway there, the taxi stopped.
“Don’t worry, driver will take you to the station.” Translator Friend reassured me, and left the car. It seemed that the night was still young and he needed to help other poor taxi drivers, who don’t speak English, to scam another round of tourists.

When the driver stopped at the station, I gave him my prepaid taxi slip. To stop cheating, local government implemented a system where taxis only get money when they come back with the slip. Mister Turban then opened his right palm and said his first words in English:

“Tip! Taxi tip!”

I couldn’t believe my ears! After playing games with me and after delivering me to the wrong location, this guy was demanding a tip!? I swore something in Croatian and slammed the car door.

With the backpack on my back and a small map in my hand I walked ten minutes to the guesthouse. Of course, there were rooms available. I was so tired I didn’t mind getting the smelly one.

 

Can you really think rationally?

HAL9000

We know that people are not rational. Humans have emotions and limited little brains. But, is it only a technological challenge that is preventing us to build a completely rational machine? I think it is not just a technological issue and that it is in the very nature of thinking that we need irrationality:

When a system achieves 100% rationality its output becomes practically useless.

Imagine a supercomputer so powerful that it would make a current TOP500 list look like a toys department. The supercomputer understands written language and has access to all of world knowledge. It can make deductions of unlimited depth from known facts. For any given question “Is X true?” it will give the definitive answer “it follows from Y which follows from Z and Q.” It may also say “I can’t conclude based on the known facts but please investigate S, I will know after that input”. Intelligence that is so advanced that it is never insecure and never makes errors is such a powerful image that it is exploited in a lot of science fiction. A nice example is “HAL 9000″, the spaceship computer from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. To put it in HAL’s own words: “The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

Is such a computer really possible? While reading a book Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach 1 I noticed that chapter after chapter different fields of AI are having the same issue: combinatorial explosion. A classic example is the game of chess. Chess programs are programmed to understand the facts (game rules) and state of the world (current situation on the board). Our supercomputer should be able to “solve the game”, or in other words, to play perfectly every move. However, in practice, strange thing happens. Every future move you need to plan multiplies number of game combinations. If you want to perfectly plan 50 moves ahead, you have to examine around 1046 combinations 2. Even a simple game of chess is unsolvable by contemporary supercomputers and will be for many years to come.

Of course, the real world has many orders of magnitude more rules than any board game. However, that is not the real problem. We can efficiently index and search any number of facts and data. Actually Google, Wolfram Alpha or Siri are already answering simple trivia questions. The problem is that if you try to do a valid reasoning over a database of facts, you also get the combinatorial explosion. Flight of a butterfly can cause the formation of a hurricane a few months after 3. And it is not only about weather. How many factors influence probability of a startup success or a presidential reelection? How many of those factors are chained, meaning that the outcome of one decision changes the decisions that can be made after that? The point I am trying to make is that if you have:

  1. a lot of decision options, and
  2. an outcome of one decision influences decisions that can be taken after that,

then you have the same combinatorial explosion like in the game of chess. Any real world planning activity or reasoning in a series of steps has potential for combinatorial explosion.

How do humans cope with that? Our brains use marvelous invention of generalization and intuition. Generalization allows us to simplify the outside world by presuming all instances of the same class have the same properties or behavior. Intuition allows us to feel something is right or wrong without really thinking about it. Generalization reduces the number of facts we need to remember. Intuition reduces the number of combinations, as we only explore paths that we feel are going in the right direction. Although that makes us much more efficient than computers, it is important to notice that:

Generalization and intuition are both completely irrational.

Generalization example: most of us have a generalization that life expectancy is better in the rich countries than in the poor countries. We all learned in the school that rich countries have better food options and better medical care. Did you know that life expectancy at birth is actually better in Costa Rica than in the USA 4, although Costa Rica GDP per capita is 4 times smaller? 5

Intuition example: people intuitively feel that heavier object will fall faster than lighter objects. It is so intuitive that nobody bothered to experiment for 19 centuries between Aristotle and Galileo Galilei. Of course, it is wrong, and interestingly most of undergraduates still fall for the same trick 6.

However, that irrationality enables us to avoid analysis paralysis. If you start your day thinking what can happen and how to react to that, you would never exit your house. “Do I need an umbrella or not? Will I need warmer clothes in the evening? Let’s check the weather forecast. No, lets check hourly forecast from two websites and compare, that is safer.” When you go out, are you sure you didn’t leave your iron on? You get the point. Usually, I just look through the window and if it seems like a nice sunny day I put the short pants on. Generalization (its sunny) and intuition (it is similar to yesterday). I get out, realize it is freaking cold, and feel like an idiot because I need to go back to change the clothes.

The same thing applies to any thinking process. Mathematicians try to prove theorems using strategies they “feel” are going to produce the solution. Engineers solve problems comparing to the similar problems in the past. That is called heuristic. To prove how heuristic is efficient, let’s explore the fascinating case of two chess systems.

First is the famous Deep Blue chess computer. Developed by IBM with a lot of fanfare and money, it was a big black box with 30 state-of-the-art processors and 480 special purpose chess chips. That monster was able to evaluate 200 million positions per second, which was enough to defeat Garry Kasparov in the historic 1997 7 match. That seemed really impressive. IBM was satisfied with media coverage but decided to pull the plug on further financing of such expensive machines.

Second is the Deep Fritz (don’t know why, but people in the chess community love the word “Deep”). Developed by two programmers, it is actually not a full computer. It is a downloadable program you can run on your home PC. It doesn’t require multiple processors or special purpose chess chips. However, in the November 2006 Deep Fritz defeated world champion Vladimir Kramnik with the score 4–2. Running on a PC that would today be your granny’s computer. Because Deep Fritz runs on a commodity hardware, it was able to analyze only 8 million positions per second – which is 25 times less than Deep Blue. It gets even better, Deep Blue prototype lost a direct match in 1995 from Deep Fritz running on a 90MhZ Pentium 8! Only after IBM seriously upgraded Deep Blue with hundreds of processors was it able to make the history and defeat the human grandmaster.

As a programmer I get angry with that course of history. If IBM gave half of that money to Deep Fritz team they would probably do the better job. But it would be a bad public relations to show some other programmers are better than IBM ones, wouldn’t it? The question is why was Deep Fritz better? Deep Fritz was better because of heuristics.

Chess programs reduce the number of paths needed to explore using evaluation function. That is a fast method of determining how good is the situation on the board. Very simple evaluation function is to sum relative values of all pieces. Most chess books say that your pawn is worth 1 point and queen is worth 9 points 9. What is the point of that scoring? Chess is not scrabble, you win by checkmate, not by points! And notice that evaluation is both:

  1. Irrational – you can have more points than your opponent who is going to checkmate you in the next move.
  2. Intuition based on experience – if it was really mathematically calculated then you would get a decimal and not integer numbers.

However, that heuristic enables one thing; you can quickly decide which moves can be discarded. If a series of moves would decrease your points much more than your opponent’s, then you ignore that path and focus on a more promising one. When modern chess program examines 20 moves in advance, that doesn’t mean all possible combinations of 20 moves. The computer can miss checkmate in 9 moves just because evaluation function cut the search of at that point.

I find it fascinating that the introduction of irrational prejudice in a system (hey little pawn, you are worthless compared to the queen) makes the entire system more efficient. And that prejudice needs to be simple and fast, or otherwise you are not going to achieve millions of evaluations per second. If you start calculating who can be threatened by a particular pawn in the few moves then evaluation function is too slow to be useful.

Humans are many orders of magnitude slower than computers. But using generalizations and pattern recognition we can get to suboptimal solutions fast. Humans are still beating the best computer programs at the simple game of Go 10.

It is intriguing how many different problems hit the same barrier or combinatorial explosion. I think AI needs to focus more on the science of approximation than on the science of conclusions. You would be surprised how simple and obviously wrong approximation methods can outperform “right” approaches.

Take machine translation for example. For decades researchers were trying to fill machines with vocabulary and grammar rules in order to translate from one language to another. For decades they were having miserable results. Then somebody noticed that simple statistical models give pretty good results. Statistical translators just calculate probability that one phrase translates to another based on the words surrounding it. It is obviously a “wrong” approach — program is just doing word counting and statistics, without understanding of words, grammar or syntax. It produces some funny translate errors. However, it works really great. Google Translate is a statistical machine translator, trained on approximately 200 billion words from United Nations documents 11.

Let me end with an old computer joke. In nineties Intel released Pentium P5, the fastest processor to date. However, it had a floating point division bug, the Pentium P5 was giving the wrong decimals for some calculations 12. The joke goes:

Q: Why is Pentium faster than other chips?
A: Because it guesses the result.

I think the same will be true for any general purpose AI system; generalization and experience based intuition is an integral part of reasoning about the complex world. Otherwise, you just end up doing calculations forever. The computers that are always correct will stay in a beautiful world of science fiction.