Most people of our generation grew up learning languages like Dutch, French, English and German. It was obvious we were taught these languages as they were spoken in countries adjacent to us. Nowadays, as companies become more globalized, languages like Chinese, Spanish, Arab or Hindi gain more popularity because of the large amount of people that speak them. Governments and parents pressure their citizens and children to learn more languages. But some languages are still often overlooked: Java, HTML, C(++), PHP, Python.. programming languages!
However, not all governments overlook the importance of programming languages. Finland for example, the home of tech companies like Nokia and Supercell, has become one of the first countries to make learning programming compulsory for schoolchildren. Starting from 2016, pupils aged between seven and 16 will the learn the basics of programming in a renewed national core curriculum. This does not mean that children will have to sit through boring programming classes, instead it will be integrated into other subjects. A main focus will be on areas like practical skills, creative working and safe use of technology. A subject like mathematics could for example include assignments where pupils will have to write a script to perform calculations. More exciting subjects could integrate coding by applying it to for example product design or manufacturing.
Finland is not the first country to see the importance of introducing children to the world of coding. Estonia already implemented programming into their education in 2012 and the UK introduced a new computing curriculum in 2014. It is to be expected that many more countries will follow, as the introduction of programming into school curriculums is become an international trend. Technology has become a big part of nowadays’ daily life, with everyone – from pupils to elderly – using smartphones, tables and notebooks to communicate with each other.
What is your opinion about this new international trend? Do you wish your elementary education included programming, 10 or 15 years ago?
It might be. Unless pattern recognition saves your eyes.
Pattern recognition might sound pretty nerdy, but you come across it more often than you think. Shazam created an app to find out which song is playing in the club, Spotify predicts which other artists you might like and Google created an algorithm to identify cats in YouTube videos. But while it is cool that a computer can recognize a cat video, there might be more important possibilities for pattern recognition as well, such as in the medical sector.
The CHCF, the California HealthCare Foundation, is one of those organizations that decided to use pattern recognition for more important things. They created an application to detect a premature medical implication: diabetic retinopathy, a long-term complication of diabetes. The implication is caused by damage to the tiny blood vessels that support the retina. If left untreated, you will lose all your vision. This complication actually affects 80% of all patients who have had diabetes for 10 years or more (Kertes et al., 2007).
So how did they figure out how to detect this issue?
The CHCF organized a competition – with a $100,000 prize – on a website called Kaggle. This website has all sorts of competitions for some of the smartest people on the globe – statisticians and data scientists. The CHCF gave participants a database with thousands of images of healthy and affected retinas and let them figure out a solution.
In the end, one smart bloke called Benjamin Graham – who worked as a statistician at the University of Warwick – came up with an algorithm that identifies signs of diabetic retinopathy from an eye scan.
The big advantage of the algorithm is that it is faster, cheaper and more accurate than real doctors. Images are analysed instantly, instead of first having to be sent to a lab. This gives the advantage that there is less work involved, lowering the medical expenses involved. And while normally doctors only agree 84% of the time with each other on a diabetic retinopathy diagnosis, the algorithm agrees with a doctor’s opinion 85% of the time (The Economist, 2015) – so the algorithm can actually be more accurate than a human doctor. Jorge Cuadros, the CEO of Eyepacs, a company interested in using the algorithm, is intrigued by the high correlation between the algorithm and human experts. Even more so when there is a disagreement, sometimes the algorithm proves to be right, not the human doctor (Farr, 2015).
So does this mean the diagnosis will be conducted by computers now?
Even though the algorithm offers so many advantages, it will still take a long time before it has taken a place in clinical practice. Currently the solution is being held back by regulations, such as those from the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. Fear is another obstacle that needs to be overcome, because who is going to take the blame when something goes wrong?
But in the end it will probably all work out. As pattern recognition software applied in medicine becomes better, institutions will have more incentives to bring the algorithms into the clinic.
The Economist,. (2015). Now there’s an app for that. Retrieved 6 October 2015, from http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21664943-computers-can-recognise-complication-diabetes-can-lead-blindness-now
Farr, C. (2015). This Robo Eye Doctor May Help Patients With Diabetes Keep Sight. KQED Future of You. Retrieved 6 October 2015, from http://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2015/08/20/this-robo-eye-doctor-may-help-patients-with-diabetes-keep-sight/
Kertes PJ, Johnson TM, ed. (2007). Evidence Based Eye Care. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.