The learnable and the unlearnable

Let’s start with the story of Wolfram|Alpha. Check out the webpage. It is the Wiki for geeks. I am a big fan of it.

Wolfram|Alpha is a web-based answer engine that is most powerful in providing answers for the user’s computational queries or inquiries about statistical facts. It has a very user-friendly interface and produces an easily-readable output. For example, if you are interested in the expression: x^2/(x^0.5+sin(x)), you can simply input the function, and it will return to you its plot, roots, series expansion, derivatives, etc..

In a word, Wolfram|Alpha is my computational Wiki. The server of Wolfram is essentially located at MATHEMATICA. I use it as a very handy browser-based mathematica on my PC and an App on my ipad. It enabled me to implement complicated functions the algorithm of which I may not be able to write.

Today, I heard a cold joke from an engineering friend: The password to their programmer forum is the 547345-th prime number. A well-trained programmer can easily work out the algorithm for obtaining this number within limited time, but a non-programmer is not supposed to do so. However, nowadays, a non-programmer can easily open Mathematica, and input Prime[547345]. The software will quickly respond with the answer.

While I don’t have Mathematica installed in my PC, I can easily type Prime[547345] in my Wolfram page, and remote server gives me the answer. The password is 8121067. I did this within 5 seconds, and I am a non-programmer, not knowing any good algorithm myself.

Here comes my point of telling the long Wolfram story.

Ours is a time of fast-learning and fast-learners. Two-by-two multiplication can be learned at school, cooking pasta can be learned from a recipe, the modern-world diplomatic politics can be learned at a cocktail party. “Nothing is hard once you put your heart into it!” – That is what I was repeatedly told when I was a kid. Even if we don’t want to spend time learning by ourselves, computer software enables us to compute complicated algorithms faster than a human brain. And in the event of me having no software installed on my PC, I still have my Wolfram webpage to easily perform my tasked on a remote server at the Mathematica company. In a world, this is a time of learning – human learning and machine learning alike.

In such a happy-learning world, are we worry-free? Is a fast-learner the world-saver? Unfortunately, democratizing knowledge does not guarantees the democratizing the ability to create the unlearnable. “Knowing-how” does not guarantee the invention of ideas and thoughts. The former is learnable, while the latter is not. A fast-learner may not be creative, and it is creativity that saves the world, not learning ability. Art is not totally learnable. Neither is science.

After all, the truth that keeps human race alive is that we, or at least some of us, aspire to go beyond learning. We train machines to perform some of our tasks, because we want to free ourselves and invent ideas and thoughts that can be learned by others. We spend some effort on self-control in learning the situation, because we want to better activate our intelligence in creating something new.

I am a fan of Wolfram, but not addicted to it. Wolfram computes the learnable, and I shall continue with the unlearnable.

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