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In Praise of Being Naive

Dear friend,

I have been studying a lot of algorithms, AI, etc — and came across this concept of ‘naive’. For example in machine learning, there is a concept of ‘naive bayes‘. Now how can a concept in machine learning be ‘naive’ (like a un-wise and silly human being)?

My (most likely wrong) interpretation

I am probably wrong, but this is my interpretation. Naive Bayes is ‘naive’ because it it infers ‘conditional independence‘ — a basic concept that in probability theory, Actions A and B can act independently without occurrence C happening, and is ignorant (naive) of the fact that Action C is even happening.


Why I enjoy studying AI/machine-learning

Anyways, the biggest reason I find it interesting to study AI, machine learning, etc is because of this:

To take our thinking about human behavior back to ‘first principles’, to challenge pre-existing beliefs, and to truly examine things for what they are (not our prejudice or stereotypes associated with it).


What does it mean to be ‘naive’?

The word ‘naive’ is often defined as ‘dumb’, silly, or foolish/un-wise.

In modern society, we are told NOT to be naive — or else people will “take advantage of you.” When you are an idealistic high school or college student who wants to “change the world” — we are told by (failure adults) that, “No — don’t be an idealist. You must be practical and pragmatic. Get a stable job, don’t pursue your dreams.”

But what does the word ‘naive’ actually mean?

Well, apparently the word ‘naive’ (usually said in French) comes from Latin ‘nativus‘, which means “natural, created, made, innate, imparted by birth, primal, original).

Taking it waaaay back to the Ancient Greek, the word to examine is ‘genna‘– descent, lineage, child-birth, etc.

So for myself, this is how I would define naive:

Naive is the innate spirit you are born with, or the “natural” or “un-judgemental” way you see the world.

Or in other words,

To see the world from the eyes of a child, without prejudice, is “naive” (in a good way!)

So in my eyes, I see the concept of being naive is good. To be naive is to not let prejudice cloud your judgement. To be naive means to see reality more clearly than others. If you are naive, you are like Neo in the Matrix– you can see the “truth” (that reality is a bunch of 1’s, 0’s, and green computer code). If you are naive, you learn the truth of life/reality based on your first-hand experiences, rather than just reading a bunch of books and learning (boring) theories on reality and life.

Thus, I think if we want to innovate more, we must be MORE naive!

Why be naive?

A question:

Why be naive?

The interesting thing about machines– they are naive. They are the ultimate naive beings. You feed them information (first principles), then they do as you tell them to. They aren’t imbued with stereotypes, or pre-judgements (unless these are programmed in).

But the good thing about machines (especially in AI) is that they have no fear or shame in challenging unconventional wisdom, concepts, or ideas. They don’t let “folklore” (in the words of Steve Jobs) cloud our judgement.

What did AlphaGoZero teach us?

Google Deepmind’s “AlphaGoZero” Go-playing AI did something phenomenal:

Based on self-play, it discovered (on its own) a lot of traditional moves that world-class professionals used. But then, it looked at these moves and said, “Nah — these moves are pretty good, but I have some new ideas of EVEN BETTER moves”. Thus, AlphaGoZero ended up DISCARDING and disregarding these “old-school” elite moves, for its own new and novel moves — which were seen as “ugly” moves by human commentators, but ended up being brilliant moves!

Thus this is the simple takeaway:

When you are naive, and you start off tabula rasa (blank slate), then you have more chances to innovate and do new and novel things, which can actually be better than the old-school way of doing things.

Humanity thrives on innovations (new ways of doing things more effectively and meaningfully). If Steve Jobs didn’t challenge the pre-existing “smartphone” of his day (the ugly Microsoft smartphone) and if Steve wasn’t so adamant on his vision of a simple and minimalist iPhone– perhaps all smartphones today would have 100 buttons and still have physical keyboards. If Elon Musk never pushed forth for electric cars and Tesla, perhaps the industry shift to making electric vehicles might have been delayed by another 20-30 years.

Innovators must be naive

As an innovator, you must be naive. You must constantly question pre-existing ways of doing things and ask yourself:

Why do people do it this (silly) way?

Honestly, a lot of people do things the “old school way”, because they weren’t naive or brazen enough to challenge these pre-existing ways of doing things. It takes a lot of courage to contest authority– to be a challenger and call a certain approach “stupid” or “silly”.

How to be more naive

A simple way to be more naive in everyday is this:

Don’t just ask yourself, “Why?” ask yourself, “Why Not?”

Challenge conventional wisdom

Challenge conventional wisdom. Be naive. Be shameless. Whenever you hear someone say something (which you perceive as silly, wrong, or misguided), ask them in a Socratic way:

“Why?”

Or,

“Why is it that way?”

Or,

“Why do you believe that to be true?”

To be honest, this is one of the best ways to engage in political, social, or economic debates. This also helps you see the world from the perspective of the other person — and will help enlighten your own thinking.

Never stop asking why

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My buddy Stoytcho helped me build a Facebook bot called ‘Zen of Eric’ — a bot that simply does one thing: You chat with it and it responds by asking “why?” It never stops asking, until you say “I am done”.

Give it a go. Reflect with yourself: Chat with ‘ZEN OF ERIC’ Facebook chat bot, and keep asking yourself “why” >

You might be surprised with the insights you glean from yourself (all chat bots are just a mirror to yourself).

ERIC

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