Monday, December 10, 2018

It is all in your mind


An experiment at Stanford (1) appears to demonstrate the power of the placebo effect. Most pharmaceutical research clearly points to the effects of believing and as suggested in the study, it has implications for how information is captured and disseminated through tests. Humans are susceptible to suggestion and can completely rewire the infrastructure of their body from their brain. This should have had survival benefits early as the village elder may have segregated people into random groups and reinforced one side positively and the other not. Those who where lucky enough to be in the right group started believing and ultimately succeeded, proving the point.

An over-tested and over-treated contemporary population is not only suffering from ineffective treatment regimens but also the negative effects imparted on their bodies by their brains. As medical schools get more technical in their educational stance, they have to remember that the weakest link in the chain remains to be the patient, who could easily fight technology. In this context, it may be time to redesign education bottoms up with more focus on how patients internalize information. Ultimately, it is the content of revealed information that drives outcomes. As technology advances we are likely to be exposed to more information and the effects of such exposure could completely negate any positive impact of advanced treatments.

For a variety of reasons, humanity is at crossroads. On one hand, we have accelerating technologies that boasts to make everything better and on the other, it conflicts with the psyche of ordinary human beings. With a harsh timing constraint, once an individual is sliding down the slope, it is nearly impossible to reverse the trend.

Everything appears to come back to how society manages and uses information.


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/12/just-thinking-you-have-poor-endurance-genes-changes-your-body


Thursday, December 6, 2018

GammaGo

News (1) that AlphaGo can successfully learn Chess, Shogi and Go through self-play is interesting. It is symptomatic of trends in AI largely relying on raw computing power. Typically, innovation lags when resources become infinite and we have early signs of trouble here. Reinforcement learning through self-play is not a new concept - it has been here from the advent of computers. It is just that not many have access to computing resources necessary to create demonstrable prototypes.

More importantly, this approach is unlikely to culminate in cognition and consciousness, the possible end game. It is clearly the case that computers can create usable heuristics by repeated experiments, just as humans do. However, those heuristics are generated within a framework of rules that were specified ex. ante. The "deep mind," enthusiasts had argued a few years ago that their computer found a "new way," to play an ancient game. It is quite possible that given a large number of experiments, computers can learn from cases that are outside the norm. But to label this "creativity," is a stretch. It is more an accident than invention. One could argue that humans have benefitted handsomely from accidents in the past and so why not computers. This is true and so the general question is whether computing resources running amuck with an infinite number of repeated experiments can provide learnings from accidents at a faster rate than humans are capable of.

It is tantalizing. What the AI leaders need to understand, however, is that we have been here before. A critical look at the approach may be beneficial. We knew that we could predict from historical data ever since math was invented and we knew that repeated search of the design space could yield usable results since the advent of computers. The question is whether we have done anything new except pouring money into scaling conventional technologies. Stacking countless "computers," in the "cloud" on the promise of AI has many drawbacks.

It is time to go back to the drawing board. A field replete with engineers seems to be going in the wrong direction. As innovation lags in materials and quantum processing, they are creating mountains of Silicon to show heuristics generation is possible. The mathematicians locked up in low productivity areas such as finance, may be well advised to go back and think.

Thinking has a low premium currently and that is problematic.


(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6419/1140

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Gene editing: There is no turning back

Recent news (1) that gene editing could successfully create a mutant form of a gene that makes the host, resistant to HIV, is likely to create scientific awe and ethical concerns. It is important to understand that the technology has arrived and there is no turning back. We will use it to solve identified tactical problems and gloss over the unknown and the unanticipated. Logically, this is the best decision.

Humans are in a bind - they have not been able to meaningfully extend life but they have found many band aids that will keep the recipient breathing, pulsating and alive for short periods of time. The constraints are clear and the micro-optimization problem, relatively simple to solve. But the relevance of their innovations and actions in the societal context, is less clear. Now that we can gene edit out of one problem without considering future ones, the technical minds will be happier than ever.

As we manage life bottoms up as the individual desires, we are approaching a discontinuity in which those with resources to accommodate the micro-objectives win over the rest. But the victory is short lived, literally. The larger question is why the individual makes decisions for herself even though the expected outcomes are utility diminishing for her, given the current technology. One reason could be the option value the individual computes with the uncertainty in emerging ideas and technologies. In this case, sustaining life even with debilitating disease states, could be dominant.

However, the individual has to consider the trade-offs systematically. Given a small probability of hitherto unknown technology that could reset pre-existing disease states with potential pain and disutility that are most likely otherwise, it is a difficult problem to solve. This problem is easier to analyze at the societal level, if the objective function can be clearly defined. For most on Earth, it appears to be perpetuating their genes and humanity in general. It is unclear if that is objective.

A thought experiment on the formation of objective functions in an advanced society could be interesting. If the individual is perpetual, you could effectively remove the noise emanating from micro-objectives. In such a society, only the macro-objective remains. Since the individual's desires are already maximized, society can extend overall objectives without constraints. What would an advanced society like to maximize? They will likely incorporate universal ambitions in a beneficial way.

Humans do not have to fear an "attack," from an advanced ET. They are unlikely to "attack," if they are advanced.


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/ethics-aside-does-crispr-baby-experiment-make-scientific-sense

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Beyond the horizon

The span of human life, with a stringent expiry date, has been short to attempt fundamental changes to society. The age gene they carry, apparently by sheer accident, has done more damage to the human psyche than diseases and lately, accidents and suicides. The human brain has been a slow learner, deploying empiricism and machine learning to create meaning for context. But by the time it recognizes pure abstractness, it is typically too late. As knowledge simply vanishes over the horizon and as the new batch starts over with a different technology, humanity may be reaching a plateau with little expected advancements.

Early civilizations recognized the value of knowledge in a tactical sense. They could actually see better decision-making by the village elder, who had gained experience. But this simply does not work in the modern context. As technology and knowledge increase exponentially, humans will likely struggle to find a happy medium to encapsulate relevant information from the past. The technology behemoths, competing with each other to create a "bigger cloud," simply do not understand the needs of society. As they attempt to siphon all available electrons to power their data centers, eminently capable of accelerating entropy, there are larger questions facing society they could potentially help with.

Information is a dying asset and having an infinite capacity to store it simply does not help. Heuristics generated from information is in a spectrum, some robust enough to stand the test of time and others superseded by emerging ones. So, knowledge is about differentiating the utility of heuristics and reducing noise to the absolute minimum. The generation who thrived on noise and triviality is about to check out and they will be replaced by another who seem to be better positioned. However, they will simply lose the few heuristics from the past generated at tremendous cost. It is this connection that may have made other civilizations to move further. This is not about technology but an abstract understanding of how knowledge could be transferred.

The problem to solve is not robotics or AI, but how relevant knowledge could be transferred across generations. This idea will not increase shareholder value, reelect incompetent politicians or allow academics to publish papers to capture "tenure," and therein lies the conundrum. The "think tanks," across the world are incapable of "thinking," and we have arrived at the doorstep of self-destruction. The biggest "accomplishments," of contemporary humans such as landing a mechanical toy on a nearby planet, increasing the life span of humans marginally, building vehicles that can move marginally faster and  designing computers that are marginally more efficient are not accomplishments at all.

It appears that there are no positive slope to the human psyche. Perhaps, they are programmed this way. But beyond the horizon, there is a rainbow that we could continue to seek.


Friday, November 23, 2018

Look Ma, No Hands!

Recent news from MIT(1) that electro-aerodynamics has successfully powered a small aircraft over 60 meters is an interesting development. Such a vehicle has no moving parts and makes no noise. Since the arrival of steam powered automobiles, humans have been noisy - in water, air and everywhere. Their machines in water create such cacophony they do not let whales and dolphins communicate with each other. Their aircrafts and drones have been creating so much noise leading to health issues for themselves and the structures they have erected. And, on the ground, their pollutant puffing slow vehicles have been pushing the planet to the edge.

It is about time. Propulsion by burning fossil fuels, the most inelegant engineering idea ever, has to stop. The band aid on the ground, "electric vehicles," is not a solution - just a hype that allows shifting pollution from one spot to another. The electric motor and the internal combustion engine, massive inventions that propelled humanity to the adjacent step, ultimately could be their Achilles heel. They have been keeping warm, blazing the night sky and moving in space by burning fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow. They could be right.

Lagging innovation in materials, propulsion and computing has kept a lid on human progression. They have been stuck in a level 0 society from their arrival. More recently, they have become experts in the implementation of the status-quo, with available materials, propulsion systems and computing resources. That has been easy but it is unlikely to help them escape the known and move to the next level.

To survive, humans need innovation, not efficiency. They have to find materials that are many orders of magnitude lighter and stronger, they have to move without burning fuels and they have to compute infinitely faster without spewing heat. Then, they could attempt for the next level.


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/airplane-no-moving-parts-takes-flight


Sunday, November 18, 2018

The non-capitalistic Economist


A recent article in the Economist seems to imply that capitalism is responsible for industry concentration and associated loss in societal utility. Treating symptoms never cured diseases but perhaps economists are not aware of this phenomenon. There have not been free markets and free trade in any capitalistic societies - just the opposite. And existing laws are not sufficient to aggressively prosecute monopolies, a necessary condition. More recently, ignorant policy makers have been conducting "trade wars," and protecting their bunkers with "tall and strong," walls. The Economist has to understand that these are not ideas that emerged from capitalism.

It is not capitalism that is responsible for the ills witnessed in society. Ignorant policy makers who do not understand economics and the cunning ones, who have figured out how to take asymmetric risks - as they keep the gains and get bailed out when they lose are the cause. These two cohorts of people, likely less than 0.01% of society have been responsible for the apparent failure of the "free market system." The blame has to go to lack of consistent implementation of laws. Capitalism requires that everybody is treated the same, those who travel by private jets and those in the back of the bus. Capitalism requires incompetence to fail and any policy prescription that simply bails out failed gamblers is fraught with danger.

It is not capitalism that is failing but the semblance of the idea without consistent implementation. As the pendulum swings to the left, aided by an astonishing lack of understanding of the world on the right, it is likely we are in for motion sickness for a long time. It is important that economists develop a bit of right brain, for without it, they will continue to make the wrong conclusions.

(1) https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/11/15/the-next-capitalist-revolution

Friday, November 9, 2018

Downstairs, upstairs

Recent finding (1) that the owners of the human gut may already have found a residence in the brain further reinforces the potency of the most successful biological entity in the universe. It has been known that the bacteria in the gut use nerve endings to influence human decisions and now they are placed directly in situ. This has implications for the diagnoses and treatment of a plethora of neurological diseases.

Most recently, it has been speculated that humans moving from one location to another get a completely new and custom microbiome in a matter of days. Now that it is possible that they can move across the "impenetrable," blood brain barrier, it portends a world returning to its original state in due course. They appear to have filled every nook and corner of life and they can make their hosts eat, die and disintegrate at will. But their presence in the brain of the most complex entity on Earth indicates that the design is nearing completion.

As we seek extra-terrestrials in nearby rock, ice and gas balls, it is important to remember that they may have arrived early and already conquered the blue planet.

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/do-gut-bacteria-make-second-home-our-brains


Sunday, November 4, 2018

RIP, Kepler

The space telescope, Kepler, seems to have run out of fuel. Finding the existence of exo-planets has been interesting. On the other hand, statistics would have informed the physicists of the same. The more important question is, so what? Did anybody really think that the rock and water in the most uninteresting corner of the Milky Way is unique?. Granted, most people in the world think so but $700 million may be too high to prove irrationality exists.

Exo-planets have tickled the fantasy of the common woman and set the careers of some physicists on an exponential track. They look for transits and lately that has yielded the discovery of an exo-planet's moon. As academics pump out papers, they have to really come back to the fundamental question of so what?. Did anybody really think there was no moon out there for an exo-planet? I suspect some do but if you don't like religion, it is a very irrational expectation. The big brains at the space agency had drawn a line on the sand a few years ago - they will absolutely find ET by 2020. There are less than 1000 days left. But more importantly, does anybody think there is no biological activity outside the most irrelevant corner of a the most uninteresting galaxy?

A species that shows no redeeming qualities, is spending billions of $ to prove the obvious. Science needs direction - perhaps from philosophy. And, engineers and doctors have to understand that ideas are non-prescriptive.