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.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/blood-test-shows-promise-spotting-early-cancers

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.

(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/clinical-trials-may-be-based-flimsy-animal-data


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.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Where has all the compassion gone?

Recent news that hunger amplifies infectious diseases (1) is problematic for areas such as Nigeria where life is becoming more of a struggle. Humans are funny animals - they spend hours seeking pennies from work and then lose all of it in the stock market in a micro-second. There are 2 billion souls in the world struggling to defeat disease and hunger and they are there only because of the bad initial conditions they started from. Not many got "a few million $," to start a business, something the most powerful man in the world considers to be nothing. Ignorance typically has limits but not always.

Health and food are important public goods. Humans, attempting to rise from their meager beginnings from a few hundred thousand years ago are stuck in a level 0 society, seemingly forever.  They have successfully erected walls in every dimension and are often forgetful of the world at large. They are all connected by a singular genome in spite of the visible surface features, they seem to attach too much importance to. As their cousins die in areas hard hit by hunger and disease, most are unaware of humanity and life itself.

Could we ever pull ourselves to the next level? Could we stop religion and politics? Could we get over academics seeking tenure and politicians getting elected, again? Could we get those pretending to be the best come down from the heavens and could we get those in hell, climb upwards? Could we get humanity to even or at the very least understand that gold is not a proxy for value and power is not a proxy for intelligence?

Where has all the compassion gone? It is time for the next generation to rise and do something good.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/hunger-amplifies-infectious-diseases-millions-fleeing-violence-boko-haram

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The good people

Recent finding (1) that uses Uranium-Thorium dating on cave paintings in Spain seems to show that they are at least 64,000 years old, well before the arrival of the dominant species in Europe. The gentle and shy humanoids, the Neanderthals, perhaps more artistic and humble than their modern day counterparts, have been wiped out in the blink of an eye by those who migrated from the South. There have been many debates about their brain power and capabilities, arguments likely biased toward those who are making them. But now, it seems like their ability to create art, a clear precursor to intelligence, has predated the humans by a sizable slice of time.
The misunderstood species, now living in less than 5% of the human genome in the world may have been a more worthy occupants of the blue planet. Their swift elimination by those who invaded their hunting grounds indicates that they were gentle and perhaps accommodating. We have many modern day scenarios of the same. In South India, they welcomed most varieties of humans from around the world in recent times only to be run over later. In the Americas, the curiosity of the original inhabitants seem to have done them in. It has happened before, advanced societies seem to perish in the presence of brutal invaders and it could happen again. This implies that advancing thoughts and culture is not necessarily dominant if you want your genome to survive.
The simple objective function that drives most biological entities today - to optimally spread their genes - has a downside. It sub optimizes societal evolution and prefers micro advancement without any overall objectives. Humans are in the worst position - most believe they are put on this earth by God or something similar. And, they try to eliminate anybody who is different.
(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6378/912

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lies spread faster than truth

A recent study (1) that shows lies spread ten times faster than truth and reach as many more believers, is troubling. This appears to go against the basic notions of homo-sapien evolution as one would assume selection advantages to those who could separate truth from lies. So, either such advantages did not exist or the structure of recent society has given undefinable advantages to those who go against the grain. If it is the former, that implies who lived longer was able to utilize lies more advantageously and if it is the latter, perhaps society can do something about it.
As the social media kings rise - doling out information with zero marginal cost, they do not seem to understand that their actions have societal costs. As economists stick to their century old text books that discuss the trade-off between work and leisure, they are missing an important point. Leisure has a dark side, especially in the presence of "social media," where those with low cost of lack of work could derive higher utility from unbelievable lies than boring truth. The US currently has a leader who seems to have figured out this idea, perhaps by sheer accident. As the academics in ivy towers try to set the story right, they do not seem to realize that they have been rendered irrelevant by a populace, who derive no value from "education."
If the velocity of lies is ten times faster than truth, humanity may be progressing toward doom. The cause of this phenomena cries out for further research - but then it is unlikely as the social media kings are making money they cannot even count and the academics are still writing papers based on century old ideas to assure tenure.
(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Blue monkeys

As they roll out the next great technology - operating system and all - those behind the "revolution" seem to have missed some basic things. They have reinvented the "blue box," that shows up arbitrarily on your screen - and since they are all engineers, they do not want to give any options to the user. Often on my server, they show a blue box that requires you to "see" the updates and on my desktop, they give me only a few minutes before they forcibly shut my computer down. Monopoly has costs and if the company does not learn it, there could be trouble ahead.
Granted, they may be saving you as they realize the attacks from the East (and perhaps even from the West), but is it worth having a blue box at the center of the screen when you are doing something important or even watching a Netflix movie? More importantly, forcibly rebooting one's computer in the middle of watching a movie, may be taking monopoly power a bit too far. Even if the evil twin from the East is clamoring to get into your computer, throwing up a screen that proclaims your computer has been infected and you should call them so that they can disinfect you, it seems like a high price to pay when you are enjoying a movie. As often the case, engineers do not have much respect for the population and their programs are "most efficient." Efficiency, however, is not the only thing in life.
Makers of operating systems, autonomous cars and search, need to have an introspection. It is unclear if the leaders of these companies, "know everything." The blue box and failed artificial brain are ample evidence that they do not.