Benedict Carey in the New York Times: “FOR the past year or so genetic scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have been collaborating with a specialist from another universe: Daniel Kohn, a Brooklyn-based painter and conceptual artist.
Mr. Kohn has no training in computers or genetics, and he’s not there to conduct art therapy classes. His role is to help the scientists with a signature 21st-century problem: Big Data overload.
Advanced computing produces waves of abstract digital data that in many cases defy interpretation; there’s no way to discern a meaningful pattern in any intuitive way. To extract some order from this chaos, analysts need to continually reimagine the ways in which they represent their data — which is where Mr. Kohn comes in. He spent 10 years working with scientists and knows how to pose useful questions. He might ask, for instance, What if the data were turned sideways? Or upside down? Or what if you could click on a point on the plotted data and see another dimension?….
And so it is in many fields, whether predicting climate, flagging potential terrorists or making economic forecasts. The information is all there, great expanding mountain ranges of it. What’s lacking is the tracker’s instinct for picking up a trail, the human gut feeling for where to start looking to find patterns and meaning. But can such creative instincts really be trained systematically? And even if they could, wouldn’t it take years to do so?
The answers are yes and no, at least when it comes to some advanced skills. And that should give analysts drowning in data some cause for optimism.
Scientists working in a little-known branch of psychology called perceptual learning have shown that it is possible to fast-forward a person’s gut instincts both in physical fields, like flying an airplane, and more academic ones, like deciphering advanced chemical notation. The idea is to train specific visual skills, usually with computer-game-like modules that require split-second decisions. Over time, a person develops a “good eye” for the material, and with it an ability to extract meaningful patterns instantaneously.
Perceptual learning is such an elementary skill that people forget they have it. It’s what we use as children to make distinctions between similar-looking letters, like U and V, long before we can read. It’s the skill needed to distinguish an A sharp from a B flat (both the notation and the note), or between friendly insurgents and hostiles in a fast-paced video game. By the time we move on to sentences and melodies and more cerebral gaming — “chunking” the information into larger blocks — we’ve forgotten how hard it was to learn all those subtle distinctions in the first place….(More)