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.


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.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018


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."

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Physics saves humanity

Recent news that a blood test could detect early-stage cancer with a 65% accuracy (1), is promising. However, this is not a sensitivity level that makes such technology very useful. Life sciences and healthcare researchers have been suffering from segmented specialization and domain experts in each sub-segment believe that they know everything. This has led to underutilization of available technologies from other industries and solutions that optimize within a narrow context. If the goal is to reach the best possible solution, it is advisable to get out of the labs and look across domains and let some of the egos go.

Healthcare, perennial laggards in the use of information technology, in the prediction, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases is falling further behind. As the engineers figure out autonomous cars and space tourism without breaking a sweat, life sciences and healthcare professionals, steeped in conventionalism, have been pretending that humans are indeed different from machines. Certainly, the policymakers in Washington appear closer to machines as they "retire," with lifetime healthcare benefits after robbing the same from 13 million Americans. And the most powerful one, after figuring out the 140 character idiot box, has been addicted to it just as a robot would be.

Machines are accelerating toward demonstrating higher cognitive capabilities while the frail bodies of the declining species suffer from a lack of acceptance of change. They have been immensely creative at inception. As they stood up in the African Savannah with a feeble architecture that was no match to the beasts that roamed, they courageously exposed themselves to danger. They traveled to every corner of the blue planet on foot and created habitats that are in sync with the environment. They survived a narrow bottleneck of fewer than 15,000 samples as the ice age advanced across the globe. And then, the "modern woman," arrived - and that was bad news. Agriculture, the industrial revolution, and computer technology seem to have made them weaker. Grains made them diabetic, industries have been fuming poison into their greenhouse and technology now appears to set them back.

The fundamental question remains to be that if life indeed is a result of Physics. Before the "God particle," and "gravitational waves," there were more fundamental concepts such as entropy. If entropy has an unambiguous positive slope and more importantly if there is a universal objective function that maximizes entropy, life certainly fits. Life appears to be most efficient compared to natural processes to accelerate entropy and that points to the idea that the creation, maintenance, and eventual destruction of life are driven by physical processes. To reject this hypothesis, one has to prove that life has entropy reducing effects. It does not appear to be so. Organization of life in structures from bacteria to humans appear to accelerate entropy. It is possible that one can mathematically show that the size of colonies of life that we observe is entropy maximizing.

Physics may require life to survive as it may be the best way to maximize an overall objective function. Humans may be saved in spite of themselves, by Physics.


Saturday, April 7, 2018

The bane of pharmaceutical R&D

A recent study (1) appears to raise red flags on pharmaceutical research, animal studies and the contemporary scientific process in general. Perhaps it could be new to the authors but most of what they describe have been known to the community for many decades. The following are important considerations in this debate. I state them without proof but there is plenty out there:

(a) A very large percentage of the published studies cannot be replicated
(b) Most of the published studies target proving something rather than the other way around
(c) The quantity of publishing (rather than the quality) is the most important metric for most educational institutions to determine the reward for academics
(d) Big pharma is run by outdated leaders who are trying to churn out incremental medicines to meet shareholder value targets
(e) The drug discovery and development processes are ably assisted by an incompetent regulatory agency with many conflicts of interest
(f) Hypothesis testing in life sciences still clings to a nearly 100 years’ old idea that uncertainty is normally distributed. And most statisticians, encumbered by the agency’s love for “p-value,” will not deviate from the framework. And in the process, they have approved bad drugs, rejected good ones and failed to identify sub-populations who could benefit from the NCE.

So, the authors’ contention that many animal studies are not published at all, albeit interesting, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a much bigger problem to tackle. The leaders of life sciences companies and their regulators may want to consider retirement, say after 80, as they may need to yield to young leaders who have a higher appreciation of emerging technologies.

The correlation between animal studies that precede the clinic and what happens in humans has been incredibly low for almost a century. They have tried everything from mice, rabbits, dogs, and chimps in an attempt to prove the unprovable. In the process, they reduced animal welfare while simultaneously developing therapies that can only be called, “bad.” The finding that the therapeutic index of marketed drugs seems to decline over time is a warning signal that there are many inefficiencies in the R&D and approval processes.

Technology is advancing. We do not have to stick to regression slide rules to prove or disprove if a drug works anymore. It is time life sciences industry embraced ideas that are transforming every other industry. To make that happen, it will require cleaning the shop and starting over.

Old ideas die hard and older ideas are even worse.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Man-made panspermia

Man-made panspermia is an increasing concern for humans as they struggle to understand their role in the universe. Harsh space-time constraints give them a very narrow view of their container that could be a small bubble in a multiverse. And thus far, they have not heard or seen from anybody in their neighborhood even with great efforts to do so. Calculations by a UCL cosmologist who showed that the solar system is about the size of an atom in the city of London, if one were to create a model of the known universe, may provide context to the irrelevance of our existence. Space explorations pursued by the budding species have been messy and may have already contaminated the very areas they use to estimate the probability of life elsewhere. It is ironic that in this "advanced technological age," our own space junk is showering down on us from the heavens.
Physical exploration of close proximities to understand the origins and existence of life is symptomatic of the lack of development of the human psyche. At the turn of last century, there were glimpses of intelligence when science and philosophy came together to explore ideas without toys and data mining. With the advent of computers, the ability of humans to advance abstract ideas has been declining. Who wants to theorize if one can simply grab "big data," and prove any possible hypothesis? This idea is accelerating with clinicians and scientists as they turn to machines to prove what they want to prove. Physics, without significant theoretical advancements for over a century, has been solely focused on colliders and space telescopes as if the ultimate frontier is data. As humans slip down to a regime driven largely by incrementalism, technology, and data, it is worth looking back to an age where abstract thinking made fundamental positive changes.
Religion, the original science, has provided a framework to think. The originators have been unbiased with an objective function that encompassed the entire society. But just as anything else, politics, business and academics included, such pure abstract notions were hijacked for the benefit of a few. The practice of religion, as observed today, has no semblance to the original thinking, just the opposite. Then science came along but it also shows similar attributes. Those who practice this modern religion, optimize within very narrow contexts with no real implications for society. What saved humanity thus far, however, is the sheer quantity of good over bad, perhaps aided by Selection that optimized outcomes over expected life spans. Humans appear to be drifting without any specific goals. Scientists and technologists are speeding down the highway that looks like it is to nowhere. And the onlookers from the pedestrian corridors have succumbed to a lack of understanding of societal utility. They appear to cling to unproven ideas and often have leaders who attempt to divide than unite. 
In a divided world of haves and have-nots, the colored and less colored, tall and short, wide and narrow, young and elderly, urban and sub-urban, sailors and climbers and musicians and mathematicians, we are all nestled in a space of an atom in a city of the size of London. And, there could be an infinite number of such cities. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

United Nations

The United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is generally a good philosophical framework for humans to attempt to climb out of the dreadful situation they are in. As the "advanced nations," run by idiotic leaders move backward by shoving millions of people away from health care and prevention, one can only wonder if the current regime is any different from the dark ages. The UN's attempts at expanding these goals to an overarching framework that includes social justice and environmental protection are likely ill-advised. Healthcare is already a complex multi factorial issue and given the limited capabilities of humans, it may not be a good idea to make it more complicated than it is.
Health has become an important issue for modern humans. For most of their history, it was not a worry as they either became prey to the mighty beasts, bacteria or their own kind before "old age," arrived. But now with tactical medications keeping them alive in the absence of meat eating predators, most have to worry about health care. As those in the know tend to stay away from politics, the halls of power are filled with octogenarian charlatans, attempting to save themselves and then perhaps, the rest of the world. The United Nations is no exception, where the appointees arrive with a bleeding heart but attempt to fill their own sacks back home. Grand ideas are good but perhaps the organization has to focus on tactics - to provide clean water, acceptable nutrition and health care to a billion people around the world. That certainly will not turn the heads of the Nobel committee but it will be a more important thing to do. As the man who sits on top of $70 billion still tries to figure out how many "nets," are needed in Africa and as the powerful industrialists attempt to enter the "healthcare market," in the US, the real question is whether they can do something practical.
It is unlikely. Doing something good has never won a Nobel prize, other accolades or a return for shareholders. But there are just a few unknown individuals who make humanity proud of their genes.