Monday, June 18, 2018

ET deadline

As we approach the deadline for ET discovery, as proclaimed by the space agency, there appears to be a bit of panic. Discovering organic matter in Martian rocks (1) is not ET discovery, especially because there are plenty of abiotic explanations for the same. Even if it were of biological origin, it proves nothing as close proximity panspermia is not particularly interesting. The question remains to be where the green women are hiding in this vast universe of ours. The answer is that they may not exist.

Statistics enthusiasts always pointed to the fact that the universe contains 10 billion galaxies and a billion trillion stars and that makes it virtually impossible for life not to exist elsewhere. This could be true but a more interesting question is what the probability is for humans to find them. On this question, the chances appear bleak, for the laws of Physics constrain them to the darkest corners of the universe as they make toys to "explore," the heavens. It is almost like the current crop of explorers are yet to understand the harsh space-time constraints proposed by the century-old theory. 

Contemporary physicists are adept at proving that ever elusive particles exist by mining "big data," but they are certainly incompetent in finding tangible proof for the puzzle that has vexed humanity ever since they looked up into the night sky. "Is there anybody out there?." The most logical answer appears to be an emphatic no, as an "N of 1," experiment proves nothing, in spite of the daunting statistical likelihood. Even if the rover finds worms and bacteria in the red planet, it does not mean that they are extra-terrestrial, for two reasons. First, robust single cell organisms have been hitching rides on Mars missions forever and second, it could just mean that life originated there and then migrated to the blue planet. So, this is not the ET that the world has been waiting for.  Further out near Saturn, icy globes of Enceladus and Titan have been tantalizing for ET enthusiasts forever. They appear to be giving up on them, as it could be too much work. Digging 6 meters into the Martian soil and finding a single cell organism appears to be an easy way to put an end to the misery.

The space agency is on notice. They have to produce an ET in less than 500 days (as they promised several years ago).


(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6393/1096

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The naked put

Recent news of celebrities exercising a put option on life, apparently sub-optimally, has to be understood in a larger context. If the individual's expectation of aggregate utility from the point of decision to the expiry of the put is negative and deterministic, the exercise is optimal from her viewpoint. In a free society, the individual's optimum decision has to be upheld over society's desires.

However, if the individual's expectations are wrong or they are motivated by incorrect assumptions, then both the individual and society lose simultaneously. The solution to this rising epidemic is not tactical intervention but rather a strategic analysis of decision processes that lead individuals to a point of no turning back. One important area of further research is the struggle between the left and right brain processes. If the left brain dominates this negotiation, a linear and logical assimilation of known information, leading to a set of assumptions and subsequently an estimation of aggregate remaining utility, it may provide a deterministic or low volatility answer. In this case, the individual may incorrectly perceive an optimum exercise horizon. It appears that one solution is to re-engage the right brain more forcibly into the conversation.

As humanity move faster toward a technology-led society where predictability is increasing, it is possible that left brain dominance will continue to increase. The accelerated growth in suicide rates in developed countries is a symptom of this phenomenon. The solution is the nourishment of the right brain and the imposition of possible penalties for left brain dominance. An objective function that is primarily driven by materialism and ego, will continue to favor the left brain. The goal for societies, then, is to nourish complete individuals and not efficient humanoids. To do this, one has to get away from conventional and precise metrics and embrace uncertainty more fundamentally.

Humans, lining up on a conveyor belt to nowhere that appears to go ever faster, may want to look over the horizon and into the heavens, for inspiration.




Saturday, June 2, 2018

Deeper learning

A recent article (1) that demonstrates how neural networks could be used to approximate light scattering by nanoparticles is an interesting new direction. We appear to be approaching a regime in which prescriptive analytical solutions and conventional simulation become inferior to deep learning. This is exciting but it also presents a huge downside for the advancement of abstract knowledge. Models that show robust outcomes are welcome but a generation of new scientists, prone to taking to the machine to prove hypotheses, by feeding them small samples of historical data, could dampen theoretical advancement not only in Physics but also in other areas.

This struggle between empiricism and rationalism has been with humans from inception. Did they survive by predicting where the lion is likely to be by using historical data of previous (bad) outcomes or did they rationalize by abstracting the expected behavior of the animal? Did they predict when an animal is likely to attack by using historical data on the timing of previous attacks or did they understand the animal's incentives and available alternatives? Did they migrate incrementally by using predictions, originating from previous short excursions, or did they go boldly where no woman had ever gone? Were our ancestors empiricists or rationalists?

It is difficult to ascertain one way or the other. It appears that empiricism has been a hidden attribute in our psyche for long. Till the advent of computers, rationalism appears to have dominated but since then, empiricism has been on a steep rise. In Physics, they now collect and stream data to find "new particles," without even asking why such observations are important. In medicine, they "high throughput screen" looking for the needle in the haystack, without a clear understanding of the mechanism of action. In economics, they regress data to find insights without asking whether they are insights at all.

There is likely no stopping the trend. As computers get more powerful, empiricism will become ever more dominant. If this is a natural outcome of evolution, then, advanced societies elsewhere (if they do exist) would be asymptomatically approaching pure empiricism for knowledge generation. That could be there Achille's heal as it also means that their knowledge is dependent on the past. A planet full of robots, with no ability to abstract but with an infinite capacity to learn from the past, could be highly inefficient.

Would humans retain inefficient qualities of being a human? It seems unlikely.


(1) http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaar4206.full

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Brainy bitter

A recent study (1) suggests a novel way to control blood sugar and more generally, reduce the complications arising from type II diabetes, the disease responsible for over half of healthcare costs around the world. Meat eating homo-sapiens found agriculture recently and an overdose of carbs now threaten to create a negative slope to their expected lifespan for the first time in human history.  As millions around the world take to processed food and sugar-infused drinks as their economies improve, the world is moving closer to a healthcare precipice. They lose feeling in their feet, sight, movement and even reach amputations of limbs, not to mention the complete loss of life due to heart attacks and strokes, due to a simple condition - excess sugar and insulin in their system. The miracle of insulin has kept them going beyond expiry but all attempts at delivering the drug in easier ways, have failed.

Now, the intriguing new study shows how the brain could play an important part in the regulation of glucose (1) in the body. Dopamine release induced by deep brain electrical stimulation seems to improve insulin sensitivity, the loss of which portends the arrival of the wretched disease. Loss or lack of production of dopamine appears to reduce insulin sensitivity, likely leading to type II diabetes over time in non-diabetics. The pancreas which is responsible for optimally producing insulin to break down the bad intake is totally within the control of the brain that appears to behave differently based on the amount of dopamine it produces. The experiments explained in the study appear to support that neuronal activity in the forebrain could improve insulin sensitivity with beneficial effects on humans, either suffering from or tending toward the well-understood condition.

An active and stimulated brain could be the least invasive intervention to most diseases.


(1) Striatal dopamine regulates systemic glucose metabolism in humans and mice
http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/10/442/eaar3752



Sunday, May 20, 2018

Revisiting economics

As countries, run by clueless leaders, proliferate, it may be worthwhile to revisit economics in a modern context. Pure empiricism, albeit a small sample, tells us that decisions made by a few people will always be inferior to the wisdom of the crowd and markets. Although there have been a few examples of a benevolent, yet autocratic, leader maximizing societal utility through finely crafted policies, it is not something modern societies can aspire to. Humanity has been degenerating to such an extent that benevolence is not an attribute that one thinks of in leaders.

Recent findings that (1) the Greenland ice samples show how greed and ignorance, did the Roman empire in, are interesting. Money, based on a dirty metal, resulted in led pollution and the subsequent fall of an autocratic syndicate. As academics cling to pure notions of last century economics, they may be missing some important ideas. First, the value of countries and companies are not based on resources or balance sheets, but rather the ability to innovate. Second, there are different varieties of market failures with differing loss of value. For example, a country or company, with an educated and healthy population will have such a high competitive advantage, market failures in these domains will likely result in loss of value, much higher than anything else.

Markets and crowd wisdom provide good guidance for policy. As democracies get manipulated by information webs, it is unclear that the systems and processes that evolved to an optimum position will survive. As countries and companies bifurcate into red and blue without any brown in between, we are approaching a policy impasse. The gap is widening between those who want to focus on tactics to maximize today's cash flow and those with stars in their eyes, setting out to change the world. Neither is likely to succeed as the former will be like the frog that got cooked in a pool of water with slowly increasing temperature and the latter, learning to fly by jumping off the precipice.

Ultimately, it is a comedy - if you do not find the irony, it is time to check out.

(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/05/rise-and-fall-roman-empire-exposed-greenland-ice-samples







Friday, May 11, 2018

Loss of limbs (and mind)

A recent study (1) that demonstrates how to make electrotactile stimulation for human-machine interfaces more effective seems to move us closer to electronically controlled humanoids. More generally, acceleration toward the assimilation of humans and machines could have far-reaching effects on society. A bifurcating humanity, one part fast forwarding to applications of technology and the other left behind, searching for basic needs, may not be sustainable.

Humans appear to have a faulty objective function. Given the right initial conditions, any of the current seven billion samples on Earth could do as good as any other. So, the observed final outcomes in individuals is not a measure of capability but rather differences in initial conditions afforded. An advanced society will attempt to maximize societal utility by providing optimal initial conditions to every individual. And, such a society will celebrate accomplishments and mourn failures as a function of the slope of the knowledge created by the individual. Such a society will be free but also understand that most stand on the shoulders of giants who gave them advantages.

A singular statement emanating from the madhouse, "he is dying anyway," referring to an individual who helped build a country, is incomprehensible. It appears that we have failed to perpetuate a dream that assimilated the world, propelled innovation and remained to be the envy of the populace. Those who consider skin color to be a defining characteristic of success need to learn more, those who believe wealth is a defining characteristic of capability need to learn more, those who believe power is a proxy for arrogance need to learn more, those who believe segmentation schemes such as countries, languages, and religions are useful constructs, need to learn more.

As we enter the dark ages of the modern era, it is useful to look toward the guidance of science.



(1) http://robotics.sciencemag.org/content/3/17/eaap9770

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Irrelvance

Professor Hawking's swan song that implies an infinite number of possible universes is apt. It seems interesting and it makes humanity utterly irrelevant. The idea that there could be an infinite number of universes with different physical laws appears very likely. If one could not transverse such universes, then, the existence of an entity within a narrow container does not explicate possibilities. 

Humans have developed in irrelevance. Out of Africa, they enveloped the world to kill and pillage and to eliminate anything that did not have the same skull shape. The species have been very destructive, suffering from biases based on surface features and most recently they apparently elected a leader, who in spite of getting educated in the "best schools," harbor few brain cells. He dictates his own health records and surrounds himself with lawyers, who could get him out of trouble. Not so fast. Lawyers are not sufficiently value-adding - in fact, they destroy value in most cases.

Future generations who look back to these dark ages will be astonished at the lack of intelligence. But then, humans have never been so intelligent.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

No Contact

What will an advanced society look like if it were based on the basic building blocks of known biological systems? We have observed that systems evolve from single cell organisms to somewhat more complex structures over time. The underlying objective function, however, has remained remarkably constant over 4 billion years. And it is optimized for few outcomes such as the individual entity's allowed time to the recycle bin and the probability of passing along its genes. From a system perspective, the optimization of such a localized and narrow objective cannot advance society, defined as the accumulation of all entities within scope.

This implies that society can only advance if the individual's objectives are different from what we are used to. In the only known experiment where chemicals spontaneously assembled to optimize simple and hard objective functions, it is clear that advancement is not possible. If other life forms exist, perhaps away from Carbon and DNA, it is conceivable that individuals have aligned incentives with society and in such a case, advancement is possible and that could be rapid.

It is possible that life forms tend toward binary endpoints - one in which individual's objectives are dominant where advancement is unlikely and another one in which individual is part of a unified whole, where advancement could be exponential. In the former, a hard end is likely and in the latter, a runaway advancement could lead to systems that can conquer the universe. In such a society, energy will not be a constraint and the only metric of importance will be the slope of aggregate knowledge. It is possible that mind could be abstracted from the body, the former allowing additive possibilities and the latter could be continuously replenished. Thus, individuals will not face a recycling horizon and society itself could have an infinite number of options to transverse space-time.

As the ET enthusiasts run out of time, they have to recognize a sober fact. Their cousins elsewhere, if they are like them, cannot surpass the space-time constraints to show themselves and if they are not, they will have no interest in "contact."