Thursday, September 21, 2017

Risk of ignorance

Humans appear to have positioned themselves into a corner, between rock and the hard place. The political systems they built over the last thousand years seem to have produced an idiot in the East, well matched by his counterpart in the West. At no time in the recent past, they have faced this situation in which billions of people were put at risk by the ego and ignorance of a few men and women. As the technologists seek artificial intelligence, it may be better to focus on finding intelligence first. Without it, humanity may be at great risk.

Ignorance has always been potent. Many regimes in the last five thousand years have been dominated by it. As the academics weave plans for tenure and prizes, after imbibing from the knowledge hydron, they seem to have forgotten that nobody is going to care for his or her "accomplishments." There are two major problems at hand - the phenomenon of ignorance rising to the top and the active shooting gallery of asteroids, zipping past the blue planet. Electric cars, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and even space travel are great ideas, but they could be rendered marginal if the leaders of these companies lose perspective. One has to survive first before they can create machines that play soccer, albeit a wonderful idea.

The disconnect between intelligentsia and politics is problematic. The former
stuffed with the millennials and the later oversubscribed by octogenarians,
have been moving in opposite directions. What the technologists seem to miss is
that their view of the future may not be possible without the aging bureaucrats
making the right decisions. Based on recent experiences, the chance of
politicians doing good is close to zero.

Rock and the hard place; indeed, in every way you look. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lazy deep learning

The neural net, an old technology, improved recently by marginal tricks for faster and stable learning, is now the most expensive old wine in a new bottle, appropriately called, "deep learning." Technologists have been getting more creative and now they believe they are going to take over the world. It is possible, but unlikely. Scientists, who have been struggling with age-old statistics suddenly find a way to throw large amounts of raw data to the dumb machine to make pattern finding easier. We could now chase fundamental particles, pharmaceutical products, and weather forecasts, by chasing noise. Now, one could automate it with insights rising to the top just like butter does as one churns spoiled milk.
Lack of experience is problematic; for politicians, management consultants, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, scientists and even bureaucrats. It takes a while to be good at what one does. Machines are certainly great but as a large mainframe maker found out recently down South that not even Sherlock, let alone Watson, can solve all the world's problems. And the largest and smallest analytics companies in the world clamoring for glory by the application of technology and "artificial intelligence," some to save humanity and others to stuff their own pockets, we are fast approaching a highly bifurcated regime. As they seek "deep mind," much deeper questions remain and that's not something the millennials appear to be interested in.
Preserve the human mind, compassion and an incessant yearning for knowledge to survive. Sometimes, it is better to take a break from "learning programmatically."

Friday, September 15, 2017

Goodbye Cassini

A fateful plunge into the heart of Saturn was how the faithful probe, Cassini, ended its own life. Saturn and its moons have stirred up the imagination in the human psyche forever. Cassini’s end though has been carefully orchestrated as the agency feared biological contamination of its moons if it were to collide with any of them unexpectedly. The fact that the agency fear microbes could still exist on the probe after two decades in the outer stretches of the solar system is telling. Sterilization of space projectiles have not been effective and it is very likely that humans have already spread robust microbes on both Moon and Mars. As the window draws near to 2020, the “drop dead” timeline for finding aliens, this could be a profitable way to accomplish it. But if they find microbes elsewhere that look remarkably terrestrial, caution could be in order as the “explorers,” have not been tremendously careful.

Green women have been curiously absent, albeit that stories of abduction and alien craft crashes have been plenty. The fact that some think an alien will conquer the space-time constraint to reach the most irrelevant speck in the Milky Way, just to be astonished by human biology, is symptomatic of the limitations of the species. For fifty thousand years they have killed and pillaged their neighbors and now they would like to explore nearby planets and pretend to be sage. Such explorations have led to little increase in knowledge and likely distracted the theorists from imagination. The domination of engineering in Astronomy has been costly as there has not been any advancement in the fundamental understanding of the universe in nearly a century. The unusual men and women at the turn of last century who made a leap into the knowledge sphere have not been replicated. Mathematical noise have assured that the younger generation will be lost in partial differential equations and “quantum uncertainty,” forever.

Goodbye Cassini, an engineering marvel, but it is unlikely to advance knowledge in any dimension. If it does not shower microbes in pristine environments, that is a bonus.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

More dangerous than politicians

NASA has revealed that a 3-mile asteroid will pass by the Earth Friday. The space agency may be a bit cavalier about how much of a threat such a large body poses but more likely it may have concluded that technology simply does not exist to save humanity from calamity. As philosophers have argued in the past, there is no point worrying about something one can’t do anything about. If the "representatives," and policy makers do not pose enough of a threat to the population, by their stupidity and ego, there are “huge,” objects flying past the blue planet, a sitting duck in the active shooting gallery.

The dinosaurs had no choice. After an impressive period of many millions of years of domination, they simply vanished in the blink of an eye. Their physical infrastructure was more robust than the mammals that followed to weather a catastrophe. However, with size came the need for higher energy consumption and in a regime of low energy availability, survival was not an option. The later incarnation of the mammals has also been endowed with an energy hog, an organ they carry on their shoulders. But more importantly, they have a tendency to stop thinking and kill each other at the first sign of trouble. So, humans have little chance of survival, much less than the dinosaurs, if an asteroid heads in this direction. It is unlikely that you will find a human genome a few million years from now if that were to occur. We have at least birds to remind us of the previous domination.

Engineering advancements in the last century were focused on tactics - buildings, transportation, chemicals, and power – attributes that incrementally improves the greenhouse, humans have been afforded. In the process, they have been trying to burn off the critical molecule they need to breathe and live. If there is a definition of stupidity, one will find it here, in the present. However, it is important to remember that even that fades in comparison of their inability to create technology that could stop their complete elimination.

Politicians are certainly dangerous, but there is a more dangerous thing out there – and humans are living on borrowed time.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The discontinuity

It could be here. A resolution of the disconnect of the emerging against the status-quo, the pristine against the established, the young against the old, the uncultured against the culturally sophisticated, the academic against the the politically astute, the color blind against the racists, the healthy against the wealthy, the markets against the regulators, the agnostics against the atheists, the empathetic against the apathetic, the travelers against those who stay put, the globalists against the localizers, the peace lovers against the war mongers, the optimistic against the pessimistic, the thinkers against the feelers, the scientific against the religious, the capitalists against the communists, the future against the past, the good against the evil, the people against those who hold power, and the machine against the human. In the short history of the Homo sapiens, such reversals have been rare, if at all. And now, it is turning upside down in front of a singular generation as the technologists advance the ability to replicate the basic functions of the human brain. For thirty years, many have been on the prowl, but now they may be closing in on the algorithm that makes pattern finding practical.

Some caution may be apt. Pattern finding is certainly an important cognitive function and driven primarily by data. It has served humanity well from inception and the seven billion that inhabit the Earth today are well endowed with these capabilities due to selection. However, pattern finding would not have led humanity to advance art, language, science, and psyche. These are the features that made them human and mechanical replication of their basic brain functions is not “artificial intelligence,” by any stretch of the imagination. Intelligence is not artificial; the few cases on display from Newton to Einstein show characteristics that are not mechanistic. They were driven by dreams, visions and imagination, signs of a misbehaving brain seeking an escape route from boredom.

Till the technologists figure out a way for a computer to experience intellectual boredom, we are nowhere close to “artificial intelligence.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Deadly cocktail

The value of waiting to make an irreversible decision is intuitively clear to most thinking humans but it is likely too much to ask of politicians, even those who are not politically astute. Business and finance schools have been graduating stars who descend on Wall Street, consulting firms and corporate board rooms with a tool box that is mostly useless in aiding decisions. The same are now advising those with little understanding of the impact of their utterings and decisions and it is a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, and shortsightedness that puts humanity at great risk.

It has been predictable for a while. Part of the blame has to go to educational institutions who have been clinging to age old ideas of economic value and optimality in decisions. The concepts were developed for companies thriving in a regime of manufacturing and the reluctance to let go of old ideas have costed both the academics and their disciples dearly. And to make matters worse, the ones in power seem to think that they are in the know just because they got branded. It is not so, just the opposite. In corporate finance, for example, unless one can publish within established notions of value and risk, it is tough going. And the crop of the young academics, trained in empiricism, have been toiling with their spreadsheets to prove what they know are incorrect theories. So, it is not innovation that matters but the ability to perpetuate the status-quo. Most do not seem to understand that we do not make widgets anymore and the ideas applicable there are not relevant for an environment driven by uncertainty and flexibility.

There has to be a basic test of competence before anybody can take a decision-making position, companies and countries included. The same has to be true in academics also and the fact that the "peers," accepted established notions proposed by those who are rising is not an automatic reason for tenure. It is a shame that politics and academics share many common features.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Memory has been a dual edged sword for humans; they benefited from it by accumulating experience but often they suffered from it as well with pain dominating pleasure in the unknown chambers of the mysterious organ. Little has been known about the processes that support memory and the crude attempts at equating human memory to those of silicon based idiot boxes only took the scientists away from the truth. The selection advantages of memory are clear; it clearly reduced the probability of being eaten in the African Savannah. In the modern context, however, memory is not necessarily a good. It creates two problems; first, it nourishes biases based on extreme events, both positive and negative and second, it erects an unassailable wall to climb out of pain and tribulation.

At the abstract level, one has to wonder why humans remember. It did help them identify those from other clans by pattern finding, a good application of memory. But for those who have surpassed the clan regime, memory is not necessarily a benefit. Memory appears to be useful to find connections among uncertain and complex data but now, computers are getting a lot better at this task. If machines reach superiority over humans on pattern finding, the need for human memory will decline. The disutility of memory is in plain view for a species constrained by space, time and fleeting emotions. Faced by a hard life span constraint, they have been accumulating pain and often seek to alleviate it by physical means. The efficiency of the brain to store unpleasant episodes with high detail has led to diseases causing both mental and physical impairment.

A beautiful organ that combines chemistry, physics, and biology has marvelled everybody who attempted an examination of it. But then, design and architecture are not that interesting if the final product is not utility maximizing.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Shrinking mind

Humanity has been on an unambiguous upward slope of expanding mind and psyche forever. Although there have been minor setbacks in the dark ages, humans have always been marching forward. Now there are good reasons to doubt if this will continue. Half the world population is now governed by charlatans and autocrats, some fraudulent and others heartless. There have been telltale signs of a bifurcating world, based on knowledge and empathy. There are now alternative universes, not the kind physicists think about, but simultaneous spaces with different information content existing in the same time coordinate. It appears that we are fast approaching a fork on the road and the selection of this binary choice could possibly seal the fate of humanity.

From dynamite to nuclear bombs, the inventors always lamented of their own accomplishments. There are good reasons for it. In a world of peaceful human beings, less than 0.000001% could substantially change the dreams and hopes of the rest. Some use weapons and others words to hurt the rest using the pulpit they have been granted. Humans remain to be in a level 0 society, still lacking a holistic understanding of what connects them together and their own irrelevance in a universe of inexplicable complexity. They seem to be saddled with a badly designed organ with high computing power but little capability in seeing and understanding the big picture. They have not been here before. For most of their history, they basked in uniformity - in color, ignorance, knowledge and capability. In the last few hundred years, they have been forced to intermingle but they still have to use hardware and operating systems designed for the past. Masking this with fancy applications has not been successful for a small percentage of the population.

It looks bleak. Educators may want to take note, millennials seem to have it, but the issue is they that may not have a chance.