As any quantitative researcher knows all too well, visualizing data facilitates interpretation and extrapolation, and can be a powerful tool for solving problems and motivating decision and actions. Visualization allows one to leverage our intuitive sense of space in order to grasp connections and relationships, as well as to notice parallels and analogies. (It can, of course, also be used to confuse).
Modern machine learning algorithms operate on very high dimensional data structures that cannot be directly visualized by humans. In this sense, machines can “see”, and “think”, in spaces that are inaccessible to our eyes. To put it with Richard Hamming’s words:
“Just as there are odors that dogs can smell and we cannot, as well as sounds that dogs can hear and we cannot, so too there are wavelengths of light we cannot see and flavors we cannot taste. Why then, given our brains wired the way they are, does the remark ‘Perhaps there are thoughts we cannot think’, surprise you?”
In an era of smart homes, smart cities, and smart governments, methods that visualize high-dimensional data in two dimensions can allow us to bridge, albeit partially, the understanding gap between humans and algorithms. This explains the success of techniques such as t-SNE, especially when coupled with interactive graphical interfaces.
As virtual reality and mixed technologies vie with standard two-dimensional interfaces as the dominant medium between us and the machines, data visualization and interactive representation stand to gain another dimension. And the difference may not be merely a quantitative one. As suggested by Jaron Lanier:
“People think differently when they express themselves physically. […] Having a piano in front of me makes me smarter by applying the biggest part of my cortex, the part associated with haptics. […] Don’t just think of VR as the place where you can look at a molecule in 3-D, or perhaps handle one, like all those psychiatrists in Freud avatars. No! VR is the place where you become a molecule. Where you learn to think like a molecule. Your brain is waiting for the chance.”
As such, VR may allow humans “to explore motor cortex intelligence”. Can this result in a new wave of innovations and discoveries?