Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Proxima test

As the year 2020 draws near, those who emphatically professed conclusive evidence for extra-terrestrial life would be found by then, are getting a bit nervous. But there is good news - a rocky planet, Proxima-b, has been found in the "habitable zone" just a mere 4 light years away. All that remains now is the "contact," - or perhaps spectral evidence of oxygen, water and methane before uncorking champagne bottles. We are now months away from the declaration that life on Earth is not unique, albeit, by proxy evidence. The space agency, as usual, is ahead of schedule.

Boring statisticians have devised constructs such as prior and posterior probabilities of expectations - something ET enthusiasts appear to have little respect for. They have left Enceladus, Saturn’s beautiful moon, the most promising for life in the neighborhood, in the dust with the news that Proxima-b has been found, for conjecture is more powerful than facts and spectra, more beautiful than actual measurements. Before the space agency devises methods to test for life on Proxima-b, they have to ask two important questions.

1. What is the a priori probability of life on Proxima-b?
2. If they do not find life there, does the posterior change in any way?

If the answer to question 1 is zero or the answer to question 2 is no, then there is no logical reason to explore the rocky cousin. We already know there is no "advanced life," there because if there were, we would already have been at war with them.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The fifth force

Recent research from the University of California, Irvine, (1) speculates on the existence of the fifth fundamental force field, apart from gravitation, electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces. This is possibly in a newer direction that counters the tendency of contemporary physicists to spawn yet another "fundamental particle", anytime they do not understand a phenomenon. Speculating on the existence of a newer force, at the very least, shows some creativity in high energy physics, resting on the laurels of their recent discovery of the God particle, in the noise generated in Geneva.

It appears that we are in a stalemate. Physics, dominated by technicians, has been running amok, plunking billions down the tunnel, proving particles of fantasy. It appears that few are asking if proving fantastic particles is advancing the field in any way. Recently, the engineers hung mirrors to measure gravity waves to the tune of the diameter of a proton to prove two black holes merged nearly a billion years ago. Could somebody prove otherwise? Physics has reached a plateau, in which physicists can prove anything with the help of engineers.

Since we have over hundred "fundamental particles," already, perhaps defining a new "fundamental force field," is in a better direction.

(1) http://esciencenews.com/articles/2016/08/15/uci.physicists.confirm.possible.discovery.fifth.force.nature





Thursday, August 11, 2016

Deeper learning

Recently, statistical and mathematical techniques that have been tried and abandoned decades ago to teach computers to be smarter, have surfaced again with better sounding names. With nearly zero cost computing power in the cloud, some companies have been plunging head first into the deep abyss. Deep learning is stylish - some even try "deep mind," in an attempt to replicate the complex human. What the younger scientists may not know is that most of what they have found, has been known for a long time and one should not take advancements, due to only the recent availability of cheap computing power and memory, as "ground-breaking." Disappointments may be in store for those, highly optimistic of "solving," human intelligence. The convergence of Neuroscience and Computer Science is a welcome trend, but a dose of realism may be apt medicine for those modeling the mind, downloading the brain and possibly curing physical death.

Even since she stood up in the African Savannah, a few hundred thousand years ago, the human has been puzzled by her own mind. She searched the skies, climbed mountains and dived into the oceans, seeking the object, she could not herself define. The theory of consciousness has eluded her, for what she was seeking obviously interfered with the tools she was using. It was the ultimate prize. If she could understand herself, then, a whole new world could open up. The body can be separated from the mind, and the latter then could be rendered immortal. The mind could be replicated and networked and perpetuated across space and time. She could create and capture imagination at will. She could solve problems of infinite complexity, travel into interstellar space or even to another universe. If only, she could understand the mind and concoct a theory of consciousness. But alas. it is not to be. Whatever one calls it, the "neural network," has failed to show signs of consciousness. Yet another technology is substantially sub-optimized by engineers and scientists, most comfortable with deterministic answers to complex questions.

Ignorance is highly scalable in the presence of infinite computing power.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Premature existence

Recent ideas from Harvard (1) speculate on the lack of  maturity of life as we find it on Earth. Contemporary theory, which appears highly unlikely to be true, suggests an origin of the universe about 14 billion years ago and the ultimate demise of it in about ten trillion years from now, making it infinitesimally closer to birth than death. Life, if it is a property of the system, has had only a short moment in this unimaginably long time horizon. So prototypical observations of life, such as that we find on this uninteresting corner of the Milky Way, a rather common place galaxy, is premature by any stretch of the imagination. Even after the Sun balloons up in less than five billion years to a red giant and consumes the blue planet, with all its ignorance locked up in a small space, the universe will continue and create life forms of much greater capabilities and interest.

Life on Earth appears to show severe limitations and indicate prototypical experimentation, with infinitesimal life spans of biological units, that appear incapable of perpetuating information and knowledge across time. Such a design can only be the result of an unsuccessful trial of a large number of possible simulations. The fact that "advanced life," is battling the microscopic ones on Earth can only imply very early and unsophisticated experiments to gather raw data. If there is any learning present in this prototypical system, it has to be about what does not work rather than the other way around. The fact that the blue planet at the exact distance from a medium size star with such abundant resources and stable climate has been unable to produce intelligence may instruct future experiments, what not to attempt.

It is early but known experiments appear to be in the wrong direction.

(1) http://esciencenews.com/articles/2016/08/01/is.earthly.life.premature.a.cosmic.perspective

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Biology meets computing

The ease of biological manipulation by chemical means has held life sciences companies back for over a century from exploring the system, that is equally receptive to electromagnetic interventions. Recent news that GSK has partnered with Alphabet to advance the field of bioelectronics is encouraging. The idea is to impart electrical signals to neurons by micro implants to cure chronic diseases. Although it is a profitable path to pursue, some caution may be in order.

There is a long history of engineering experts attempting prescriptive interventions on biological systems with an expectation of deterministic outcomes. Humans are generally good in engineering and traditional computing but biological systems do not behave in such a predictable fashion. Their engineering competence comes from selection, in which simple tools based on Newtonian Physics let them survive the harsh environment they were in for nearly hundred thousand years. The modern game is distinctly different and it is unlikely that they possess the skills to fast track with the hardware they have built up. With "Artificial Intelligence," soaking up the air waves, it is important for technology giants to bias toward humility. As projects such as "death cure," so slow to come to fruition so as to annoy the technologists behind it, perhaps getting not too excited about curing diabetes through neuron stimulation is a good idea. After all, nature took four billion years to get here, albeit, it was without a computer farm that soaks up a high share of the world electricity production. Competing with nature is likely to take a bit more than that.

The convergence of biology and computing is unavoidable. However, it is unlikely to be advanced by those with stagnant notions of either field.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The inverted U

The value individuals add to society appears to be in the shape of an inverted U. On the high end - philosophers, scientists and technologists, who seem to know everything, appear to add very little of practical value. Recently, a scientist remarked, "when we found the gravity waves, the whole world stopped," unaware of the fact that most of the world did not know or care. On the low end, ignorance is as dangerous as cyanide, as ably demonstrated by contemporary politicians. In this scheme, the highest value to society appears to come from those in the middle - not too ignorant and not too arrogant. On both ends, there is a common factor - a brain that is idle, because of either stupor or conceit.

To maximize the value that individuals contribute to society, it appears that they have to be lifted from the abyss of ignorance or shown a practical path down from the mountains. The perception of knowledge is as dangerous as a lack of awareness of ignorance - for both result in a loss of value to society by a lack of contribution. The former, locked behind ivy walls, lament at a world of ignorance and the latter, aided and abetted by their leaders, scorn at knowledge. In the middle, humans of blood and flesh, are caught in a time warp they simply could not escape. Apathetic and lethargic, the middle withdraw from media events and elections and watch from the sidelines. This is a movie with a sad ending - dominated either by the ignorant or the arrogant, with little to differentiate between them.

Neither abundance nor lack of knowledge add societal value. Those who are aware of their limitations, do.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Simplified diagnostics

Research from Columbia (1) indicates that impairment in odor identification portends cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer's disease. This appears to dominate more prevalent PET and MRI scans for the diagnosis of these ailments. This is a constant reminder that humans are far from mastering the workings of the organ they carry on their shoulders by engineering and scientific means and simpler measurements of inputs and outputs dominate such mechanics.

The human brain has been an enigma. It consumes vast amounts of energy and often produces little utility - either to the immediate host or to society at large. It effectively delegates routine affairs to the vast Central Nervous System attached to it by a thread and maintains a small garbage collection mechanism within itself to keep track of the estate it manages, automatically. Often, it gets bored and shows signs of over-design, a quirk of evolution that endowed it with vast processing power by incorporating quantum computing in a small and efficient space. Lack of large memory has allowed it to venture into the production of heuristics and showing signs of intelligence. But acceleration in technology and society has stretched it, lending some functions of importance irrelevant and elevating the irrelevant to importance.

Its decline is painful to close observers but not necessarily so for the host, herself. In a regime that disallows rolling back time, the objective function has to be minimizing pain - physical or emotional. A system that pragmatically allows such an outcome by its own deterioration can only be considered good. Diagnostics that does not require cutting open the delicate organ or injecting it with radioactive materials may be the best, for the recognition of the start of decline of this beautiful machine is not necessarily good for the host nor for close observers.

(1) http://esciencenews.com/articles/2016/07/27/smell.test.may.predict.early.stages.alzheimers.disease

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Shining a light on a black hole

Research from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) (1) hypothesizes a measurable and elegant difference between a black hole and a compact object. The event horizon of the black hole, defined by the Schwarzschild radius, is significant - anything slightly bigger shows fundamental differences in behavior. A beam of scattered particles shows discrete spectra in the presence of a compact object that escaped collapsing into a black hole. If it were a black hole, it will be in a constant process of collapse, with a complete stoppage of time for an external observer, resulting in a continuous and smooth spectra.

The concept of a black hole has been an enigmatic thought experiment for physicists and amateurs alike. Contemporary theory fails in the singularity and speculates a stoppage of time inside the event horizon, something that cannot be fully envisioned by humans trained in the practical regime of Newtonian Mechanics. A black hole will never stop collapsing from an external perspective and so there cannot be any ex.post question on a black hole. Theories that attempt more detailed explanation beyond the event horizon is fantasy - just as the mathematically elegant string theory that cannot be tested. In spite of all the engineering progress in the last hundred years, fundamental understanding has remained akin to a black hole - in suspended animation. A handful of men and women from the turn of last century remain to be responsible for most of the abstract knowledge that humans have accumulated. The reasons for this is unclear but lack of imagination appears to be the prime suspect.

Fooling around with mathematics may give contemporary scientists satisfaction but explaining the stoppage of time will require more than that.

(1) http://esciencenews.com/articles/2016/07/01/the.energy.spectrum.particles.will.help.make.out.black.holes