Saturday, December 9, 2017

Knowledge dark ages

It appears that complexity is increasing in every field. Past experience tells us that knowledge only arrived by simplification, the exact opposite of what seems to be happening currently. In Physics (1), theories have been emerging from every corner but most of them are pure fantasy and remain to be unprovable. Having a mathematical foundation to a theory does not mean that it is useful - one could always dream up such constructs but they have no implication for knowledge for lack of testability. In Medicine, doctors seem to believe that humans are extremely complex to figure out and they seem to adhere to empirical tests of small samples that emerge routinely. In economics, simple theories are now considered commonplace and academics are constantly on the hunt for more complex formulations.
Are we reaching the limits of knowledge? The slope of aggregate knowledge has been declining since the 1930s, and it is problematic for a society that believes it is progressing forward. Yes - technology and engineering have made strides but those are applications of knowledge not the creation of it. There, the current crop of technologists appear to be highly efficient - Artificial Intelligence and all - but none of these ideas are going to make a step-function change in knowledge. To make matters worse, money has been a luring influence on emerging thinkers, who have shunned academics and headed to the nightmare on Wall Street or the valley, replete with coding testosterone. The few who have stayed behind seem to be more attracted to complexity rather than creating insights. The committees who award prestigious prices, including the Nobel Prize, also gravitate toward complexity and that provides misguided incentives to young academics.
We are slowly slipping toward the next dark ages of knowledge creation. With no progress in aggregate utility metrics for society, one could argue that we are living through one of the worst time periods in human history. The arrival of the next genius, who can simplify and create knowledge is the only hope.
(1) https://www.quantamagazine.org/edward-witten-ponders-the-nature-of-reality-20171128

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Robust engineering

News that NASA engineers have been successful in firing the trajectory correction maneuver thrusters on Voyager 1, some 13 billion miles away, after not using them for nearly 40 years, to align its antennas toward the Earth, exemplifies the quality in engineering that used to exist. In spite of all the developments in the last 40 years, engineering has been slipping in both creativity and quality. As engineers head for the "street," and such largely useless activities, the field has been suffering and in the "valley," they do not care for building tangible things, just vaporware. The downward trend in the field has resulted in lagging innovation in many areas, with deleterious effects on computing hardware, transportation and city planning.
Traditional engineering has been less sexy than the ideas pursued by the purveyors of "deep mind." But what educators and policymakers may be missing is that we don't yet have bots, able to plan for the long term. Groundbreaking ideas such as the hyperloop are good, but they are not going to make much difference to the masses. We are bifurcating into dreamers who want to save the world by sending probes to Mars and those struggling with an inferior infrastructure to cover basic necessities. Those sitting on 10s of billions of capital, wondering what to do, may be well advised to look into how they could aid engineering innovation in materials, construction, and basic transportation across the world. These may not get them a Nobel prize or bring instant accolades, but they could make a much broader beneficial effect on society.
A society degrading into classes of haves and have-nots, those who live in the valley and mountain tops, those who pretend to be in academic ivory towers and those who are trying to climb out of lagging hopes and dreams, those who commit crimes with presumed immunity and those who are peaceful and content, those who want a better tomorrow and those who would like to destroy what could be, tacticians and strategists, politicians and the religious, the educated and those who could not afford it, scientists and those who do not believe in science, we have a tragic comedy with a bad ending.
Conventional engineering, a lost art form, could be as important as anything else today.

Monday, November 27, 2017

AI for policy

Humans, inconsistent, unstable and biased, have been ill-equipped to make optimal policy choices. In the modern era, rich with dynamic data, this problem has been magnified many times. Career bureaucrats and politicians with countless conflicts of interests have been running amok. In the process, they are degrading the advantages built up by generations in small steps. Just as a hedge fund manager, proud of her small victories over a long time, end up losing the entire pot in a few seconds in a massive and unanticipated discontinuity, politicians are playing with fire that could have disastrous consequences.
It is about time we delegated policy-making to machines. They have been impressive in the presence of large amounts of dynamic data and they are silent and efficient learners. Lack of ego gives them a distinct advantage over humans for their objective functions are programmed to have an unambiguous positive slope in knowledge. Failure does not seem to bother them and they always learn from it. And, they take empirical validation to be the truth and not opinions and fake news. In spite of their lack of education, they are quickly moving to a position of superiority and for the first time in history, we can look forward to a regime of rationality, driven by machines.
In this context, policy-making is an important domain for applications of AI. It is ironic that a few thousand people, making irrational decisions without knowledge or data, has become the gold standard in governance. The fact that most of them do not have a technical training but they assume to be "good enough," to make policy choices in a regime of technology, is puzzling. They appear to be disconnected from the millennials, who will be most affected by the choices they make and it is disturbing. Perhaps, they read a book or two during their summer break and understood that the internet is not a series of tubes. But, has anybody told them that it will not be enough? Can they pass a basic competency test? If not, it is time to move on.
As Sci-Fi enthusiasts hold their breath for AI to take over the world, a more common-place solution will be to replace policy-makers with it. Machines are great optimizers of policies without consideration of color, wealth, education, age, gender or orientation. Humans will have great difficulty competing with this superior knowledge.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Neutrality

As the administration after mammoth efforts to take millions off healthcare, promote big game hunting in Africa, accelerate environmental degradation, and bias a tax code on the pretext of simplification, sets out to dismantle the lifeblood of entrepreneurship in technology by scrapping Net Neutrality, one can only wonder what could be in store next. Ironically, the monopolies who will benefit from the policy change affirmed their intention to continue with the status-quo. But as we have seen before, when the next quarter rolls around and the EPS needs a kick, such altruism will fade quickly.
It has been strange times - logic and science have taken a back seat to racism and hypocrisy. Nearly hundred years of incremental but constant upward slope in societal progress has been turned back in the blink of an eye. This poses an interesting question: Are incremental improvements in societal design really worth it? It has been costly for many, some paid heavily and others took the free ride but it has always been hoped that we are moving forward. It is a bit like making small profits in the stock market and feeling happy about it for a long time only to be wiped out by a discontinuity that cannot be forecasted. The current discontinuity affecting the social fabric will do damage that will take a long time to mend, if at all.
It seems that simply getting "educated," is not enough. A full brain education, designed and executed by few institutions in the US, focus on the individual, not on the content. Nothing good can come out of education unless the carrier has a broad view of the world and the universe. And, that requires multi-dimensional education - science, literature, philosophy, art, music, theatre and more. Education has to lift the psyche of the individual and not her net-worth. This is why I strongly believe only one country in the whole world has gotten it right - Norway. The country that led education forever has turned it upside down to advance to the future, perhaps alone. Education has to be free and flexible - a program that will let the rising hearts and developing brains to design and to make the world better.
We are set too far back in a race that is relentless. The fact that less than a dozen people could do this to destroy the dreams of 330 million souls is inexplicable. But as we have seen in history, the tide could turn again - and this time, we know what to insure against.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The devil wears Brioni (and a silk tie)

In my book Flexibility (1) I argued 8 years ago that men should not be in positions of complex policymaking. Trained to hunt and gather for hundreds of thousands of years, they do not have the experience to deal with societies that show diversity and differing needs. For most of their life, they spent time fine-tuning process skills and their brains specialized in optimization and not in complexity. But now, they are pushed into jobs they are ill-equipped to do. To make matters worse, they have no clue about it.
Men have been problematic. Their brains appear incapable of understanding interconnectivity and they seem to spend a lot of time counting scores and money. That's appropriate as their incentives have been driven by the quantity of trophies they collect and the mouths they feed. Such was their power they ran over civilizations who have shown trends of progress but they completely arrested any such notion. If humans do not figure this out soon, they could be dragged down by testosterone and ignorance. The outcomes of this movie can only be bad and the fact that the opposite gender is gentle and brainy means that the stalemate is going to continue for a long time.
Men, responsible for most of the ills in the world, appear still to be in charge. It is unclear, why.
(1) https://www.crcpress.com/Flexibility-Flexible-Companies-for-the-Uncertain-World/Eapen/p/book/9781138112391

Sunday, November 12, 2017

All roads lead to autoimmunity

Recent news that (1) Alzheimer’s disease could be caused by a haywire immune system is a constant reminder that the era of seeking external targets and influencing them by chemical means is over. Humans have conclusively proven that they are capable of killing anything that invades their bodies. As they win wars, they seem to have lost the battle as the overriding threat to life now appears to be their own immune systems, marginalized by drugs.
This is a new regime - autoimmune diseases account for most of the health care costs today and drugs that help solve external problems are commoditized and rendered irrelevant. The single cell organisms that made havoc for a few hundred thousand years have been tamed and even bacterial resistance created by the overuse of antibiotics is handled with relative ease. Although the common flu makes impressive comebacks every year, the recent discovery that could result in a long-term vaccine against it, attacking the stem of the virus rather than its head, is welcome news. But, humans have failed to stop their own bodies attacking them and herein lies the conundrum. They seem to win small wars but always lose the battle.
To go further, a dramatic shift is needed in life sciences. Century-old companies, trigger happy and target focused, have to realize that they have to dramatically change their R&D focus. Making incremental improvements to already solved problems, albeit interesting, will not make a difference to healthcare costs or utility. Thier chemistry know-how could be handy, but now perhaps it is time to look inward. The human appears to be a fairly simple machine with a single pump that supplies the lifeblood and a single CPU that makes decisions. The failure of the pump or the CPU is catastrophic and that remains to be the biggest reason for the loss of life. The respiratory system that provides the necessary fuel takes the next biggest share and, here behavior seems to have played a big role just as in the next slice representing the metabolic syndrome channel.
Humans never had "enough," to eat. Their feeble bodies and primitive tools won against the mighty animals only occasionally and their bodies are trained to operate with a few hundred calories a day. But now, they throw out thousands of calories after stuffing themselves with a few more thousand and this has created havoc in their own systems. Their plumbing seems to have been designed badly to start with and now with particles floating in the system that is not capable of eliminating them, their organs are failing. And their bodies and immune system, confused and lethargic, are attacking them.
To make further advancements in health, knowledge, and culture, humans have to figure out how not to lose to themselves.
(1) https://www.alzheimers.net/5-11-16-early-alzheimers-caused-by-haywire-immune-system/

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The coding myth

As the world turns upside down aided by accelerating technologies and disruptive business models, forward-looking individuals and companies are making alternative plans for the future. Outdated education systems, clamoring to catch up with the present by providing classes online or designing graduate degrees in analytics and artificial intelligence, may be sending the wrong message to their customers. As the CEO of a fortune 100 company recently remarked, "We need more coders," and this appears to be the consensus even in those companies who are reluctant to hire coders from the "other sex." But this notion may need to be challenged - Does the world really need more coders?" What evidence do we have for this?
Coders always had a cult status and coding has been a coveted activity. However, it is unclear why this is the case. Coding is a mechanistic activity that we are very close to teaching machines how to do. However, designing what to code is not that easy. So it may not be coders and coding that we need but a deep understanding of what coding can do. And here, experience appears to matter. It is ironic that as millennials attempt to systematically dismantle the generation that has given them grief, what they really need is the raw experience of the ones they would like to exclude. The portraits of billionaires rising from code country may have created the wrong impression - for every one of them, there are millions who have simply perished coding.
Lately, it has been the gamers who made coding sexy. Some, after getting bored at the games they helped create, have set out to replicate the human mind. This is not technology but marketing and it clearly seems to have worked as the search giant stitches together technologies for the future - mind, body and all. Far away from the Silicon heart, there are large assemblies of coders - ready to make anything come alive to make their masters happy. Most did not attend fancy schools and some, none at all, but they all know how to code. But now that we can automate coding, what will the coders do?
Humans, prone to myopia, do not seem to learn from the past - but the machines they build, certainly do.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Carbon-Silicon transition

For nearly five billion years, Carbon dominated the Earth. Now there are telltale signs of the rise of Silicon as a viable alternative. Available examples of Carbon-based life appear uninteresting with an extremely slow evolutionary slope and it may be time to make a transition. As Silicon rises to replace Carbon, it will affect the most advanced systems first and humans are certainly in the mix.
Silicon has been equally capable from the beginning. However, Carbon was a powerful and efficient tactician and the systems powered by it, robust with little volatility. This could be its Achilles’ heel as it is volatility that aides exponential evolution. Slow moving Carbon has taken too long to make systems of sufficient interest and in the process, it seems to have lost the race. The time has come to retire bad designs and replace them with those that can substantially advance thoughts and ideas. A world without the fallibilities of Carbon-based systems could be substantially better and likely more appropriate for the current environment.
As the space enthusiasts look for extra-terrestrials outside Earth, they don’t seem to recognize that the ET is already here and humans are being slowly and systematically replaced by such Silicon-based life. There is no turning back now. The only saving grace for the last iteration of Carbon is that they played an important role in their own elimination. The first signs of the transition will appear in cyborgs, not the kind portrayed in Sci-Fi movies. Sophisticated cyborgs are already replacing conventional business processes, by forecasting better, allowing better designs and slowly removing inefficient Carbon from decision processes with less costly and more effective Silicon.
The end of Carbon-based systems could be near. Its cousin, just below it in the periodic table is positioned to take a dominant position on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the universe.