Monday, November 2, 2015

Why Phones Need a Driving Mode: Questions and Answers

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal published "A Simple Solution for Distracted Driving," an essay that I wrote with Daniel Simons. We argued that all smartphones should come equipped with a Driving Mode—an easily activated or default setting that would prevent users from engaging in the most distracting activities while they were driving their cars. In such a short piece, we were only able to sketch the outlines of this idea. Below are some further elaborations, based on comments we saw or received, organized as a set of questions and answers. (If you want to hear me talk about Driving Mode for a few minutes, you can listen to my radio interview this morning on The Financial Exchange.)

My phone already has Driving Mode.
As we noted, some phones already have features like the one we are proposing, and some of them are similar to our version. However, the vast majority of phones do not have the "robust" driving mode that we advocate. By robust we mean a driving mode that: (1) eliminates all sources of significant distraction, including non-emergency communications; (2) permits full use of GPS and navigation; and (3) sends automatic responses to anyone who tries to contact you while you're driving, and holds the incoming messages without showing them to you until you exit driving mode. Here's an interesting blog post along similar lines to our idea, with more implementation details (we weren't aware of this post when we wrote our essay).

Isn't what you propose the same as Apple Car Play?
No. From what we can tell about Car Play, it's an iOS 9 feature that integrates your phone with a screen built into your car. And it permits the user to do a lot more than our driving mode would. Car Play lets you make and take calls, send and receive messages, etc. Sure, it lets you do this hands-free, but those activities are still very cognitively absorbing even if you don't need your hands to do them.

What about AT&T's "DriveMode" app? (Or similar apps.)
Apps that implement something resembling our robust driving mode are great, and people should use them. AT&T's DriveMode app has several nice features, but lacks some of the ones we think are important. What we'd like to see is a universal driving mode that is fully integrated with the operating system and the hardware of the phone, so that it can have full control over all communication, app use, etc. Third-party apps may not have sufficient control to really implement a robust driving mode, or to stay functional when the operating system or hardware change.

I just put my phone in my purse/briefcase or turn it off, so I don't need Driving Mode.
If you can maintain the discipline to do this, good for you! But this prevents you from using your phone for GPS and navigation, features that probably provide more value than they cost in potential distraction. For users who need those features, or who forget or can't force themselves to put their phones far away while driving, a Driving Mode would help. And some of those less disciplined users are going to be behind the wheel of their own cars while you are on the road.

There are already public service campaigns, laws, and other efforts against distracted driving.
Very true. In an earlier draft of our essay, we mentioned some of these. We aren't against them (except when they are based on erroneous assumptions, such as the idea that hands-free technology will solve the problems of limited attention); we just think that it's so tempting to use a phone while driving, and also so dangerous, that industry can do more to help customers exert self-control.

I like my car's head-up display feature. It feels as though I can read the information on the windshield while keeping my eyes on the road and not driving any worse.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of research on attention in general and head-up displays in particular, and it all generally concludes that this feeling is an illusion. Like the feeling we have that we can talk on the phone (or do even more) while driving, or the feeling people have that they can drive just fine when they are drunk, it reflects a mismatch between the signals our brain uses to monitor its own performance levels, and the reality of those performance levels. Often they line up, but when it comes to knowing how well we are paying attention, we can be way off.

Won't a driving mode that activates based on GPS-detected speed stop passengers from using their phones? And what about people using mass transportation?
We were well-aware of these issues, but in a short essay we didn't have space to address them. And we aren't sure ourselves of the optimal solutions. But we are cognitive psychologists, not mobile operating system designers. We are sure that the geniuses at Apple and Google can come up with clever answers, perhaps working with car makers and phone service providers. Meanwhile, here are a couple of our thoughts:

  • The key principle is that a phone should have an intelligent default behavior, without preventing users from doing things outside the default. If a phone enters driving mode automatically over 10mph, perhaps it would require just two taps to exit the mode. Passengers or mass-transit riders could do this quickly and easily when a prompt popped up on their screen, but drivers would be less likely to. Some would, of course, but many wouldn't. Many users stick with default settings and never learn how to change them, or learn how but don't bother. The default is not just an arbitrary factory setting: it is also interpreted as a recommendation or a social norm.
  • Perhaps this feature could be deactivated by a driver before he starts driving, so that driving mode wouldn't start. This simply shifts the burden of action from those who want to be in driving mode to those who don't. Again, there is no God-given standard setting for what features should be available on a phone at what times: making people affirmatively decide to enable distractions seems just as sensible, if not more so, than making them affirmatively decide to disable them.
  • Even if there is no automatic activation for Driving Mode, its mere existence, combined with the ease of initiating it, should help. Even if only 10% of drivers would turn it on, that would be a win.

Driving Mode is a further step in the infantilization of people by governments and elites. Adults should be aware of what they are and aren't capable of doing, and should be free to choose how to use their phones.
Speaking for myself only, I sympathize greatly with this point of view.  I wish people were more aware of their mental capabilities, and I try to educate people about that. I worry quite a bit about the impulse to regulate or forbid behavior that people don't like. Regulations are often put in place on speculation but rarely repealed when their costs turn out to outweigh their benefits. But it seems much more infantilizing to regulate, say, what words people can use, or what Halloween costumes they can wear, or what subjects they can research or study, than to regulate how distracted they can make themselves while driving a car at high speeds. We already regulate many aspects of driving for safety reasons: we restrict speeds, require turn signals, encourage seatbelt use, paint lanes on roads, put up stoplights, and so on. Even if you have perfect self-control and don't need a driving mode, you might agree that other people on the road could benefit from being less distracted, and thus you would benefit too.
     One way to look at the situation is this: The invention of the internet and the smartphone have brought countless benefits to everyone. Society is much, much better off with them than without. Compared to the gains we have made in staying connected, having knowledge at our fingertips, and even just being better entertained, the loss from a slightly restrictive driving mode is a very small price to pay. No higher a price, I would think, than what you lose by not being able to drive 70 miles per hour on empty local roads at night, which is a restriction everyone accepts as sensible. While I admire the behavioral technology of the "nudge," which has the power to make people better off without reducing their real options, I also worry that it can be used in inappropriate ways—to push people toward choices that are not in their own true best interests. This, however, is not one of those cases. Eliminating distractions while driving should be in everyone's interests. And finally, note that we are not proposing any new laws or regulations; indeed, regulating the features of smartphones sounds (to me) like a futile exercise. We are only urging the phone industry to think about how to make their products safer and better than they already are.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

No, College Lectures Are Not "Unfair"

In her recent New York Times essay "Are College Lectures Unfair?" Annie Murphy Paul, a science writer, asks "Does the college lecture discriminate? Is it biased against undergraduates who are not white, male, and affluent?" She spends the rest of the essay arguing the affirmative, claiming that "a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation college students." She cites various studies that find that "active learning" and "flipped classroom" pedagogical techniques lead to the biggest improvements in performance among the groups who do the worst in traditional lecture-format classes.

Unfortunately, while it may well be true that flipping the classroom (having students watch video lectures at home and using classroom time for problem-solving and discussion) and making learning more active (increasing low-stakes quizzes, which enhance memory for concepts) are excellent ideas—and I personally think they are—the argument that the use of lectures has anything to do with fairness and discrimination is simply erroneous.

Here's why. First, if one group of students tends to perform better than another under a particular instructional regime, then it is likely that any change that improves everyone's performance (as active learning does, according to studies cited by Ms. Paul) should benefit most the group that starts out doing worst. This is a simple function of the fact that grades have maximum values, so there is less room for improvement for students who are already doing well. If this point isn't clear, imagine a hypothetical educational intervention that leads to every student knowing the answer to five particular questions on a 100-question final exam. The best-prepared students would probably have known several of those answers absent the intervention, while the least-prepared students would have good chances of not not having known them. Therefore, the least-prepared students might gain as much as 4 or 5% on their final exam grades, but the best-prepared students might gain as little as 1 or 0%. This would narrow the achievement gap between those groups. Any intervention that results in more learning is likely to have a similar pattern of effects.

So active learning should be good for any students who start out doing worse in general, not just for minority, low-income, or first-generation students. As Ms. Paul notes, "poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools" and get to college "with less background knowledge." Suppose you tried active learning in a school where the students were overwhelmingly the children of white, middle-class, college-educated parents. You would still expect the lowest-performers among those students to benefit the most from the improved methods. Likewise, the best-performing minority students should get less out of improved pedagogy than the worst-performing minority students. In other words, the value of active learning for traditionally underperforming groups of students has everything to do with the fact that those students have underperformed, and nothing to do with the fact that they come from minority groups.

Now to the question of whether older pedagogical approaches "discriminate" against those minority groups, as Ms. Paul says they do. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, to discriminate is "to make distinctions on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit, especially to show prejudice on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or a similar social factor." Teaching a course in an old-fashioned lecture format, though it may often be less effective than teaching in flipped or active formats, and for that reason may result in lower grades for some types of students than for others, makes no distinctions between classes or categories of people, and therefore cannot be a form of discrimination. Indeed, any inferior form of instruction should lead to wider differences between students who start at different levels.

Consider the limiting case: imagine a "form of instruction" that is no instruction at all: the professor never issues a syllabus or even shows up, but still gives the final exam at the end of the semester. Students who started out with the most "background knowledge" about the topic will still know the most, and students who started out knowing the least will still know the least. All pre-existing differences between ethnic groups and any other student groups will remain unchanged. On the other end of the instructional spectrum, suppose the professor's teaching is so perfect that every student learns every bit of the material: then there will be no differences between any groups, because all students will receive grades of 100%. Note that none of this concerns what groups the students are part of—it can all be explained entirely by the artifact of high-quality instruction benefiting poorer-performing students more than better-performing students. Therefore, Ms. Paul's essay uses the words "biased" and "discriminating" incorrectly, with the pernicious effect of accusing anyone who doesn't flip their classroom or give lots of quizzes of being prejudiced against minority students.

For what it's worth, I have been truly impressed by the growing body of research on the science of learning. I think it's one of the most exciting practical achievements of cognitive psychology, and I am trying to incorporate more of it into my own teaching. But I also believe that good, engaging lectures have their place, and may be more effective in some disciplines than others. To be clear, I have no objections to any of the research Ms. Paul cites in her essay. (Indeed, I have not even read most of that research, because what's at issue here is not the scientific results, but the meaning Ms. Paul ascribes to them. I've assumed that she described all the results accurately in her essay. If the researchers somehow managed to separate the effects of minority status and baseline knowledge or performance in their analysis of the active learning effects, Ms. Paul doesn't say anything about how they did it—and since that analysis would be the logical lynchpin for her claims of bias, discrimination, and unfairness, it is negligent to ignore it.) We have learned a lot about effective teaching methods, but none of it justifies the sloppy, inflammatory claim that lectures are "biased" and "discriminate" against students from minority, low-income, or nontraditional backgrounds.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Martin Thoresen's World Chess Championship

My third “Game On” column, "The Real Kings of Chess Are Computers," appears this weekend in The Wall Street Journal. I write about the "real world chess championship," which is known formally as the Thoresen Chess Engines Competition, or TCEC. This is a semi-annual tournament that pits almost all the top computer chess programs against one another. Since the best chess engines are now much stronger than even the best human players, a battle between the top two engines is a de facto world championship of chess-playing entities.

That battle was the Superfinal match of TCEC season 7, and it was won last month by Komodo over Stockfish (both playing the same 16 core computer). In a digital-only extra, "Anatomy of a Computer Chess Game," I try to explain a key moment in game 14 of the match, which gave Komodo a lead it never relinquished over the remaining 50 games.

As part of the research for these pieces, I interviewed TCEC impresario and eponym Martin Thoresen by email. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, which took place between 29 December 2014 and 2 January 2015. The questions have been re-ordered to make the flow more logical.

CHRISTOPHER CHABRIS: Let’s start with the recent Season 7 Superfinal match. What is your opinion about the result? Do you think it shows that Komodo is a “better chess player” than Stockfish, in their current versions?
MARTIN THORESEN: I think the Superfinal was very close and exciting. The draw rate was slightly higher than what I expected, but then again the engines are very close in strength so this is quite natural. I think the result shows that Komodo is the better engine on the kind of hardware that TCEC uses. And for grandmasters with powerful computers this should be something to take note of when they analyze games using chess engines.

Do you believe that TCEC features the “best chess players” in the world?
Yes, I would say any of the top programs of say, Stage 3 and onwards would pretty much crush any human player on the planet using TCEC hardware.

Do you think it is a problem to have so many draws (53 out of 64 games)? It definitely distinguishes engine-engine matches from human-human matches to have so many draws, but I agree with you that it must result partly from the players being stronger than the best humans.
Personally I don’t mind the draw rate being this high in the Superfinal, it makes it very tense. But one of the main goals of TCEC is to entertain people. Too many draws defer from that and too many one-sided openings would lower the quality overall, even if it lowers the draw rate. I would be satisfied with a draw rate of roughly 75% in the Superfinal.

You must have watched more engine-engine games than almost anyone else. Were there any games or particular moves or positions that you thought were especially beautiful or revealing in this most recent Superfinal match?
I have not looked deeply at all the games yet, but games like #9 strike me as fascinating.

Let’s talk about some of the details of how TCEC works. Are the games played entirely on your personal computer at your home?
Yes, it’s a 16-core server I’ve built myself. It has two 8-core Intel Xeon processors and 64 GB RAM. It’s located at home here in Huddinge, a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. I live in an apartment of about 45 square meters.

Why do the games run only one at a time? Because it all happens on one computer? Have you considered using multiple computers so that more games can happen at one time?
Yes exactly, they run only one at a time because the engines utilize all 16 cores to get maximum power, which makes it impossible to run more games. Using more computers is of course something I wish I could do, but then people need to donate more. ☺ The server cost me roughly €4000–€5000 to build. Of course it would be possible to limit each engine to say, four cores, then I could have four games running simultaneously, but then again the engines would be weaker due to the fewer cores. I want TCEC to show only the highest quality of games. Not to mention that I’d have to redesign the website to support many games at once.

How hard was it to write the code that “plays” the two engines against each other, passing moves back and forth, and so on? Do the engines provide you with an API, or do the engine authors give you a special version that corresponds to an API for your own server code? (I assume you wrote the server code yourself too, correct?)
The interface that plays the games is a small command line tool called cutechess-cli, but somewhat modified for TCEC by Jeremy Bernstein after my instructions. I have not coded this tool. Cutechess is simply a UCI/Xboard interface tool that “runs” the engines in accordance with the UCI or Xboard specifications. Basically all chess engines comply with the UCI or Xboard protocols for I/O requests (time control, time left, the move it makes, etc.). Using this tool does not give you a chessboard to view the action like a GUI (Fritz, Arena, SCID, etc.) so ironically I can’t actually watch the game on the server—all I see is a bunch of text.

Who developed the software to broadcast the games to the internet? As someone who followed the latest Superfinal and browsed the archives quite a bit, I can say that it has a very nice interface.
There are two parts of TCEC. One is the website which shows the games, the other is the server on which the games are played. These two are not run on the same machine (for obvious performance reasons), so the server uploads the PGN to the website each minute. The website is designed by me and it has had different designs in previous seasons. The core technology on which it is built is the free JavaScript chess viewer called pgn4web.

How much money would you estimate you have personally spent, and how much total has been spent, to run the TCEC since it started, and season 7 specifically?
I have spent a lot of money. I am not quite sure how much, but I would estimate €6000–€7000 since TCEC started (hardware upgrades, power bills, etc.).

How many hours do you spend on it out of your own life?
For Season 7 I didn’t really code anything new for the website compared to Season 6, so I didn’t spend much time preparing this time around. But when I made the new (current) website for Season 6, I started right after Season 5 finished and coded for almost 3 months straight, sometimes as much as 4–6 hours a day. That left little sleep considering I had (and still have) a full time job as well. But when a season is running, my attention goes mostly to moderate the chat and making sure the hardware runs as it should. So everything from 0–4 hours per day during a season.

Are there any major engines that did not participate over the past few seasons? If so, do you know why they declined?
I pick the engines myself, but there was the case of HIARCS for Season 6, where the programmer Mark Uniacke told me to withdraw it. I only did it because I did not buy his program—he sent it to me for free for Season 5. But if I had bought it myself, I would have included it. Other than HIARCS there have not really been any similar cases in TCEC history. Now and then the question of why Fritz does not participate pops up, but that has a simple answer: It does not come in a form that supports UCI or Xboard—it has a native protocol built into the Fritz GUI which makes it unusable. 

If I understand correctly, your goal is to include every major engine, and the only reasons they could be left out is (a) their authors explicitly withdraw them, or (b) they aren’t compatible with the required protocols. Do I have that right? And that HIARCS and Fritz are the only major engines not participating?
Yes, every major engine that is not a direct clone. The whole clone debate is a hot topic in most computer chess forums. So your (a) and (b) are both correct. HIARCS was not a part of Season 7 for the same reason as it was not a part of Season 6.
Has there been any recent criticism of the TCEC from chess engine developers that were not included (Fritz), or sat out (HIARCS), or others?
No, there has not.
How strong a chess player are you? Do you play in tournaments, a club, or online?
I am not very strong. I don’t even have a rating. I would estimate my strength at around 1500 FIDE on a good day.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I am 33 years old and living with my dog. (For now!) I am currently working as an IT consultant and for the past 1.5 years I’ve worked for Microsoft as part of their international Bing search engine MEPM team. I have no formal education apart from what would equal high school in the U.S. Everything I’ve done so far is self-taught.
How many other people help regularly in organizing and running the TCEC? Are they all volunteers?
Nelson Hernandez is in charge of the openings, assisted by Adam Hair and international master Erik Kislik. Jeremy Bernstein has helped me with the cutechess-cli customization. Paolo Casaschi (author of pgn4web) has also helped me with some specific inquires I’ve had about JavaScript code. They are all volunteers. ☺

How did the idea for the TCEC come to you?
Basically it started after I left the computer chess ranking list (CCRL) after a couple of years of being a member. I was tired of just running computer chess engines games for statistics—I wanted to slow down the time control and watch the games. Obviously, the idea of a live broadcast wasn’t new, and in the beginning it was very simple, just a plain website with moves and not much else. It has now evolved with a more advanced website that I think is kind of intuitive and nice to use and gives TCEC a kind of unique platform.
Why is there so little time between TCEC seasons? Why not one season per year, more like the human world championship? Do the engines change enough between seasons for such frequent seasons to be meaningful?
The rhythm the past few years has been roughly two seasons per year. One season takes 3–4 months, so basically you can watch TCEC for half a year per year. It is definitely debatable whether this is useful or meaningful, but that’s just how it has been. Of course, this might change in the future. I have no other good answer. ☺

What are your plans for the future of TCEC, short-term and long-term?
Short-term would be to take a (well deserved) break. ☺ Long-term would be to be recognized by some big company to “get the ball rolling.”

Are you planning any changes in the format or rules for Season 8?
There might be changes for Season 8. Nothing is decided yet.
Regarding rules, while following the Superfinal games I noticed that some games were declared drawn by the rules when there seemed to be a lot of life left in the position—for example, the final position of game 18, which human grandmasters might play on for either side. Do you think this rule might be revised?
I don’t think the TCEC Draw Rule or TCEC Win Rule will be changed. They have been there from the start (slightly modified since the beginning) and no one is really complaining. As for the particular example with game 18, both engines are 100% certain that this is a draw (both show 0.00) so even if we humans think it looks chaotic, the engines simply have it all calculated way in advance.
I noticed that endgame tablebases were not used in the Superfinal, and this must have resulted in some incorrect evaluations. For example, as I was watching one game, I saw that one engine’s principal variation ended in a KRB-vs-KNN position, which is a general win for the stronger side, but the evaluation was not close to indicating a forced win. Do you think that could have helped cause more draws to happen?
That is correct, tablebases were disabled for all engines for the whole of Season 7. Previously they had been available, but some fans wanted them disabled so I figured they would have their wish fulfilled for Season 7. What tablebases do is to basically help the engines find the correct way into a winning endgame—or in worst case scenario, prevent a loss. It shouldn’t affect the draw rate overall since it would even out in the end. But the point is that without tablebases, the engines can only rely on their own strength in the endgame and the path for getting there.

Have you thought of inviting strong players to comment on the games live, as happens in the top human-versus-human tournaments and matches? Is it too expensive?
We’ve had some discussions, but nothing concrete yet. It could probably be something to do for the Superfinal if the required money could be arranged.

Have you approached any major companies like Intel, AMD, or Microsoft about sponsoring the event or making it much bigger in scope/publicity?
Not in a while. Back when I did, I got no reply or acknowledgment whatsoever.

Do you have data on how many people in total looked at the latest Superfinal on, and any other rough numbers on chat commenters, etc.? 
There were approximately 26,000 unique visitors there during the Superfinal. From memory, the number of users in the chat peaked at roughly 600 at one point during the match.

Do you think that the chess world should pay more attention to TCEC in particular, and to engine-versus-engine games in general? They are rarely quoted in discussions of opening theory, or of the best games, best moves, or most interesting positions. Do you have an opinion about why this is?
I think they should. There are so many beautiful games coming out of TCEC that can blow one’s mind. Why we see little reference to engine-versus-engine games is hard to say, but my guess is that it related to the fact that a chess engine is basically an A.I., so people might have a hard time admitting that “a robot” can play even more beautiful chess than humans.
What intrigues me most about TCEC may be the fact that it is a very personal project for you, yet it has attained a measure of worldwide respect and fame without having a big sponsor or lots of money involved.
This project is of course very personal. Anton Mihailov of contacted me prior to Season 5 and we have continued our cooperation since. To have a hobby being acknowledged like that is of course very nice. With that said, if Intel or AMD or any other big company would be interested in sponsoring TCEC I would definitely be interested in having a talk with them too. Bottom line is: Most people regard TCEC as the official “world computer chess championship.” And I don’t think they are wrong about that! ☺

My thanks to Martin Thoresen, grandmaster Larry Kaufman (of the Komodo team), international master Erik Kislik (who made the final selection of openings for the match), and everyone else who answered my questions for these pieces. I am looking forward to Season 8 of TCEC!