Friday, April 28, 2017

Faking news

Recent news that an unvaccinated Portuguese girl has died of measles (1) is a constant reminder that ignorance can exact a high cost. A single individual with a fraudulent study (2) may have caused humanity, a high level of disutility. Humans often fall prey to small N experiments and it further reinforces the need to eradicate ignorance.


Humans have always been susceptible to small experiment bias. However, small experiments may have played a substantial role in human progression. If the outcomes are of very high probability, small experiments may have been sufficient to learn - such as taking the right run at the fork, gets you killed by the waiting lion. A few experiments may have been sufficient to establish truth in this case. However, to prove that vaccination causes autism takes a few more than a dozen.


Education systems around the world may have to incorporate a better understanding of statistics into their curriculum. Understanding that truth is not revealed by one or few experiments is important and that may allow large swaths of the world population to get over "fake news." Faking news has become a strategic weapon. If a population is susceptible to believing what they see or hear, without asking for proof, ignorance will unambiguously rise to the top and that could have unpredictable negative effects on society.


Education has to evolve appropriately to add value to society.




(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/riskiest-vaccine-one-not-given


(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136032/

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stuck in a quantum state

Development of life over the past few billion years on Earth shows few regime changes and evolution has been largely an incremental process. The organizing principle has remained the same from the inception of life till now - from a single cell entity to larger accumulation of the same in more specialized life. The objective functions remained simple with only a handful of attributes and optimization has been trivial. Extrapolation of the status-quo seems to imply that life on Earth is stuck in a quantum state and seemingly for ever.
 
Some have been dissatisfied with the overall progress of societal structure and organization. Academics and philosophers have proposed alternatives to enhance aggregate societal utility, largely by redistribution and reorganization. But they seem to miss a more fundamental issue - societies cannot transverse quantum states incrementally. To propel to the next quantum state, contemporary societies need a technology discontinuity, likely in the realm of energy. To make this happen, knowledge has to increase exponentially but in level 0, there appears to be a hard cap on knowledge.
 
If level 1 societies exist elsewhere in the universe, they would certainly have mastered energy as there appears to be plenty, freely available. With zero cost energy, such societies could organize around fully networked thoughts and transport modalities. Organization would be automatically optimal with a singular, albeit complex, objective function of the network rather than that of the individual. If it were to progress further, then the scope could be extended across universes and that would require another step-function change.
 
Humans seem to have approached societal design and optimization with a set of wrong assumptions. Visions of a level 1 society are not useful in thinking about optimality in the current state. A more practical question is what could be achieved in contemporary societies. Evidence shows free markets with well defined rules of engagement that apply equally to all participants move societies closer to an optimal state. However, humans have segregated themselves into countries, religions, languages, size and color and they pose hard constraints on free markets. With localized optimization dominating policy, we may be rewinding time back and destroying the precious little that was accomplished in the last ten thousand years.
 
Thought experiments that portray level 1 societies are useful abstract notions but with little practical utility. If 4 billion years do not show a slope that will get earthlings to the next quantum state, it is unlikely. Then, the real question is how to best utilize the limited time afforded to the blue planet in a state that cannot be breached.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Back to Europa


ET experts at the space agency have been focused on exoplanets for several years. After the proclamation that ET would arrive by 2020, there have been increased activities on multiple fronts. It has been known for a while that both Europa (Jupiter’s moon) and Enceladus (Saturn’s moon) harbor vast oceans and energy sources underneath their barren surfaces. As exoplanets similar to the Earth began to show up across the Milky Way, the ET enthusiasts seem to have taken their eye off possible habitats in their neighborhood.

Now that the space agency has determined that the probability of contact of green men at an exoplanet by 2020, whether it is the “exact twin,” of mother Earth, is small, they are back on neighborhood prowl and that may be a good thing. If humans were ever going to make “contact,” it could only be with the micro-organisms in Europa or Enceladus. However, as the space agency, on a binge of crashing space probes through the pristine atmospheres of these moons, have to be careful not to contaminate the oceans in these habitats. Otherwise, they may just find Salmonella there and declare victory. The process of sterilization has not been good and it is unclear if any of the single cell organisms that hitched rides on spacecrafts, used in interplanetary missions, is setting up colonies  in those planets before the mighty human gets there.

More importantly, in spite of the somewhat suspect sterilization regimen, if the space agency fails to find life in Europa and Enceladus, one has to wonder what it means. So far, most ET hunters have argued that it does not mean anything, for there are trillions of possibilities out there. That is true, but there is no free lunch in the absence of infinite resources. If no Salmonella was found in Europa and Enceladus, it may be time to take a break from ET hunting and focus on more mundane things such as protecting the Earth from an asteroid impact.

Extra-terrestrials appear not have a great desire to make contact with humans and I wonder why?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Living on luck

In a couple of weeks, an asteroid of nearly a kilometer wide will pass by the blue planet at just a million miles away, a mere whisker by any measurement. As the "leaders" throw hand grenades at each other, few have understood the precarious position their habitat is in. Reducing emissions to protect the environment is great, attempting to save it from instantly evaporating could be a bit better. Humans, carrying a heavy organ on their shoulders, seem to have wasted hundred thousand years, proving to themselves they are great and if not, thinking how to make them great again.
 
It is a miracle that the world survived in this active shooting gallery. Nothing much has happened since the first rulers of the planet were wiped out 65 million years ago by a massive event. And, the probability of that happening again is close to 1. As space agencies clamor to travel to nearby planets, just to demonstrate they are capable or design rockets that can take large and diverse payloads, they have to understand that none of these ego boosting triviality, will save humanity. As the most "intelligent" private investors, design, redesign and reuse rockets, as if that is the end game, they have to understand that there is a higher order problem to solve. Moving deck chairs on the titanic, optimizing how many chairs to move from one side to another or even creating a "game," that allows such movements to be automatic, is not going to be helpful at the face of calamity.
 
It will be ironic if the "greatest species," get wiped out by a similar event that happened before. At least the previous greats did not know it was coming.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Quantum optimization

Classical annealing has been a method of optimization in many areas, for ever. Recently, quantum annealing, based on quantum tunneling, was proposed as an improved process. Challenges remain (1), however, as qbits are immensely limited to make anything practical. The most profitable path to knowledge, at the intersection of quantum mechanics and optimization, may be breaking open. Flux quantization, as the authors argue, may allow us to tackle complex optimization problems.


It is clear that humans have been stagnant in the advancement of mathematics. At the intersection of theoretical physics and mathematics, there is a beautiful avenue to knowledge, something that has been less travelled in. There, determinism takes a back seat and probabilistic speculation dominates. Those who want interplanetary travel are simply leaving the movie theater before the show is over and it is possible that the few brain cells left to humanity could, indeed, take a quantum leap.


Humans wanted to always optimize as it has been ingrained in their structure from the moment they started to explore. They wanted to minimize distances and maximize the probability of a killing or analogously, minimize the probability of being killed. Ingrained in their quantum limited brain is the concept of optimization and now we could possibly take it further. In this context, it is important to remain humble as many before us have thought they indeed optimized, only to realize that there were many attributes beyond the equation that was used.


Flux quantization could provide a path forward to optimization but it is important to keep in mind that we have been here many times before.




(1) http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/4/e1602273

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hubble Trouble (1)

Hubble, from the University of Chicago, observed for the first time in 1929 that galaxies are flying away from us. Many candles later, the constant attributed to his name, is still being refined. Now, it appears that there is a revision to the constant, perhaps as much as 8% downward. This is not the first time physicists realized that they are yet to understand how things work. Complexity typically portends lack of understanding and the current state of affairs in high energy physics, albeit data emanating from big steel in Geneva like water from a faulty fire hydrant, is stagnant. Physicists and engineers are a dangerous combination, the former dreaming up complexity and the latter standing ready to prove anything thrown at them by steel and concrete. But this is unlikely to lead anywhere. It appears that one does have to have 1.5 brains to break out of the stalemate - and we have not had a specimen for 100 years and it is unclear if we will ever do.


Predicting the behavior of complex non-linear systems is dangerous. Making uncertain observations and attempting to prove those by creating dark stuff is even more dangerous, for this will lead the next generation down rabbit holes to the wonderland. Hanging mirrors to measure reverberations to the diameter of a proton, indeed, is a great accomplishment. But one has to note that engineers have always been good at proving hypotheses but replicability could be more challenging. The best way to proceed when one cannot understand over 94% of the observations is to ask if the underlying theories are correct. That's what we do in most fields.


As they revise the Hubble constant, perhaps, it is time to rethink how research is done in high energy Physics.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/recharged-debate-over-speed-expansion-universe-could-lead-new-physics

Friday, March 31, 2017

Open research

Recent news (1) that the European Commission will soon join the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation to launch an open research publication platform is encouraging. Increasingly, university based research, peer reviewed or not, are shown to be suffering from inherent biases - both of the author and her peers. Academics, tenured or not, seem to have a clean objective function - driven largely by volume and in the vast publication enterprise, replicability is certainly an afterthought. Open research, thus, has to expand beyond conventional research if it has to capture useful insights from those who never climbed the high mountain.


Research and manufacturing have become synonymous. The latter takes raw materials and create commoditized widgets and the former takes raw data and create research papers with no new insights and if there were, they are typically not replicatable. The peers, who approve of the production, seem to form a colony of conformists, ready to approve papers that support the highly subscribed ideas and marginalize anything new. Academics and politicians share many common characteristics as both of them live in a bubble with their "peers," and have little interest to ever look outside the window to see how the world actually works.


Open research, if it encompasses the world at large, providing an avenue for new ideas to float through, could be a game changer. But then, those behind it are all controlled by their "peers."


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/european-commission-considering-leap-open-access-publishing

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The economics of health

The economics of health has been complex. Diverse stakeholders - patients, providers, manufacturers and payors - who all seem to have a partial picture of the whole problem, have made it more difficult to solve. To top it all off, policy makers, with little understanding of this complex picture, seem to trade in photo ops and healthcare acts.

The value accruing to society is an important and possibly the only consideration of policy. The evaluation of policy choices will require an understanding of the value of the foundational units - the individuals, themselves. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the value of an individual is not the discounted stream of utility to society and thus healthcare systems around the world, making decisions on a fixed value of a human, are misguided. Since the individual is perfectly capable of changing the future stream of utility, she can only be considered to be a basket of interacting options. Thus, any policy that forces the individual to prematurely exercise such options is unambiguously suboptimal.  Additionally, policies that reduce the flexibility afforded to the individual to pursue new ideas will devalue the options held by the individual. This automatically reduces the value of the individual, both to herself and to society.

For example, any policy that can be shown to reduce the incentive of an individual to move from one job to a more attractive one, will have a deleterious effect on aggregate utility. Any policy that does not allow an individual to climb out of a low value position, either due to a capital constraint or due to failing health, will reduce aggregate utility. Any policy that does not provide incentives to prevent health problems for individuals will automatically increase the expected future costs in the system. Any policy that does not allow market forces to move the complex system to an optimal position by sharing the economics among the various participants will have a negative value to society.

Politicians are likely the worst people to create and implement healthcare policies. It has been known for ever that "healthcare is this complex." It will take a bit more than theatrics and politics.