Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Never look back

The human brain, a compendium of false and true memory, formed by past interactions and events, feels comfortable creating heuristics from history to deal with the future. For millennia, this was a dominant strategy as the ability to predict the presence and behavior of predators from historical data helped them survive. But now, this has become a huge liability. Even basic ideas in finance, such as sunk costs, have been difficult for many to internalize. Even those in the know, seem to make bad decisions because it has been difficult not to look back. The software giants found out recently that using historical data to model the future has some drawbacks and this has implications for decision-making and policy design at many levels.

Looking back has been costly for humans in the modern context. They may be better off rolling the dice to pick from available future states than using faulty heuristics shaped by the past. If machines can only learn from the past, then, they will be simply perpetuating the status-quo with no insights. This is equally true in education, where history and experience have been given undue credit and research, where conformation bias has led many astray.  What is most problematic is a recent experiment (1) that shows that children have a tendency to conform to robots. In the current technology regime that appears to be accelerating toward fake humanoids, we may be dumbing ourselves down by using history and the prompts provided by robots.

Looking back is costly in many ways for humans. Looking back is value enhancing only if the cost of doing so provides future benefits. It is tough to find use cases where such an activity adds value. There is little practical value in history or how one lived last year. If the future generations can mend the ills caused by the "greatest," that went before them, they could inherit a world that is peaceful and forward-looking. In such a world, there will be no looking back and every day will start with fresh ideas. In such a world, there will not be any recordings, only future possibilities. In such a world, they will reject past theories in favor of uncertain future hypotheses. In such a world, thought experiments will dominate over attempts at proving what was observed. In such a world, experiments will triumph over institutions and legacy.

Only look forward, for anything else will be costly.


Monday, August 13, 2018

Extending the brain

A recent publication (1) that describes a Brain-machine interface (BMI) to control a robotic arm simultaneously with human arms open up interesting possibilities for maximizing brain utilization. By a quirk of nature, humans have been endowed with an organ that far surpasses their routine needs to live and die. With simple objective functions, humans have substantially sub-optimized this endowment. But now, there may be mechanical means to keep the organ interested.

There has been a lot in the literature about the inability of humans to multitask. However, it is possible that multitasking improves with practice just like anything else (2). The quantum computer they carry, albeit being an energy hog, requires little to maintain from an infrastructure point of view. And the calorie requirement to keep it going is very small in the grand scheme of things. Hence, maximizing the use of the brain is an important consideration for every human and humanity in general.

Brain utilization shows an upward trend as people network across the world, surpassing the constraints offered by race, religion, and ignorance. This electronic extension of the brain has been unambiguously good for humanity but it feels like there is still a lot in the tank for every individual. If she can multiply limbs by mechanical multitasking it is likely that such an activity will grow neurons upstairs with unpredictable beneficial effects in the long run.

Extending the brain - mechanically and electronically - is dominant for humans. That will allow them to get over all the tactical problems currently plaguing humanity.

(1) BMI control of the third arm for multitasking:


Monday, July 30, 2018

Redefining Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence, the contemporary darling of technologists and investors, has been largely focused on trivial consumer-oriented applications and robotics/automation, thus far.  Constrained by conventional computing, AI has been bottled up in hype and confusing name calling. What the AI enthusiasts do not seem to understand is that AI was never meant to be a technology that fakes what a human being appears to do externally but rather it was supposed to replicate her thought processes internally. As the search giant demonstrates how its technology could fool a restaurant reservation system or play games, as the world's largest shipper of trinkets demonstrates how they could send you things faster and the purveyors of autonomous vehicles demonstrate how they could move people and goods without the need for humans at the driving wheel, they need to understand one important thing: these technologies are not using AI, they are using smarter automation. They do not replicate human thought processes. They either fake what a human appears to do or simply automate mundane tasks. We have been doing this for over half a century and as everybody knows, every technology gets better over time. So, before claiming victory in the AI land, these companies may need to think deeply about if their nascent technologies could actually do something good.

However, there is a silver lining on the horizon that could move AI to real applications (1) including predicting and controlling the environment, designing materials for novel applications and improving the health and happiness of humans and animals. AI has been tantalizingly "close" since the advent of computers. Imagination and media propelled it further than what it could ever deliver. As with previous technology waves, many companies attempt(ed) to reduce this problem to its apparently deterministic components. This engineering view of AI is likely misguided as real problems are driven fundamentally by dynamically connected uncertainties. These problems in domains such as the environment, materials, and healthcare require not only computing resources beyond what is currently available but also approaches further from statistical and mathematical "precision."

Less sexy areas of AI such as enhancing business decisions have attracted less interest, thus far. Feeble attempts at "transforming," a large healthcare clinic using a "pizza-sized," box of technology that apparently solved all the world's problems already, seem to have failed. Organizations chasing technology to solve problems using AI may need to spend time understanding what they are trying to tackle first, before diving head first into "data lakes" and "algorithms." Real solutions exist at the intersection of domain knowledge, technology, and mathematics. All of these are available in the public domain but the combination of this unique expertise does not.

Humans, always excitable by triviality and technology, may need better skills to succeed in the emerging regime, driven by free and fake information and the transformation of this noise into better decisions. Those who do this first may hold the keys to redefining AI and the future of humanity. It is unlikely to be the companies you know and love because they are focused on the status-quo and next quarter's earnings.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

Biological entanglement

Research from Northwestern University (1) that apparently demonstrates quantum entanglement in biological entities opens up new possibilities. A century-old but enigmatic theory has kept a few interested in thought experiments. The recent demonstration of a quantum superposition of a photon in a bacterium (2) is further proof that existing theories are inadequate to describe the universe around us. The status-quo foundational theories are not sufficiently robust to explain reality and that should provide excitement to the emerging generation as there is still much to be explained.

Engineering has kept Physics bottled up for many decades. In a regime of low knowledge, Occam's Razor has to rule, for proof can be manufactured by technology for any hypothesis. It is clear that we lost a century, chasing noise with no fundamental advancement in understanding. Entanglement has been intriguing in many aspects - it proves that the theories we take for granted are likely untrue. It is time to leave grand experiments behind and return to paper, pencil and thought experiments. Advancements can only come from such an avenue as it will require significant shifts away from established notions in Physics.

The struggle between determinism and uncertainty can be seen in many fields, Physics and Economics included. Humans are more comfortable with precision as their senses have been designed to fool them into such an idea. This should have had evolutionary advantages as pattern finding is more about reducing information into neatly organized classifications - predators, tribes, and poisons. And now, technologists have been getting ahead of themselves by machine and deep learning to reduce noise into recognizable patterns. Some have been even calling it "Artificial Intelligence," that includes facial recognition, synthetic speech, NLP, vision, and robotics. A less pretentious term could have been "expert systems," but then the millennials are never short of creative wordsmithing. All of these exciting technologies are simple applications of established mathematics with a deterministic end.

The fork on the road has been between determinism and uncertainty. Nearly 90 years ago, it was shown that the world does not work like we perceive it. That is ironic as perceptions have been the basis of most modern ideas, religion and politics included. They assert something to be true without doubt as the more precise one is, the better she is in the eyes of her followers. Scientists seem to have picked up some bad habits along the same lines, as they look for precision in experiments with the aid of massive computers and bigger particle smashers. Precision, however, is their Achilles' heel as attempts at reducing noise into pre-determined chunks will lead them down blind alleys with no exit.

The same struggle happens in economics, where researchers attempt equations and charts to explain outcomes in a clear and concise way. But not many have asked if the underlying assumptions are true and how uncertainty plays into decision-making. Without a clear understanding of the macro uncertainty that drives systems, some have been wasting time in "behavioral economics," as if explaining human irrationality has utility. If anybody has doubts about the fact that individuals are irrational, just study the zombies who trade back and forth looking at electronic terminals all day. But the behavior of the system could be distinctly different from those of the participants and it is something that engineering processes cannot tease out.

An evolutionary advantage, that bestowed humans with an ability to quickly classify predators, tribes, and poisons, will work against them in the future. As progress comes from diving into a pool of uncertainty and having the flexibility to challenge anything that has already been established. It does not take huge capital nor titles, just the ability to keep an open mind.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Externalizing ego

From inception, humans have been guided by their ego, a constant force that separated the individual from society and provided meaning for her otherwise inexplicable emotions. With the advent of religion and the alluring hypothesis of the existence of God, ego was given higher context. It has been powerful in shaping and often restricting the individual's ability to observe from outside as the demarcation between the individual and the rest seemed clear. There have been philosophical attempts to break the shackles, but it has been limited to a few samples over the 100 billion that passed.

It is unfortunate. A design fault in the powerful quantum computer they carry lead most astray. The hardware provides possibilities but the software has failed to advance over the last half a million years. Ego has been chained to the darkest corners of the brain with an innate ability to disburse precise instructions on how and when not to interact. It has been exceptionally good at recognizing shades of white, black, brown and yellow. It recognizes right and left precisely but never the middle. It drives the West against the East, the South against the North and those who nestled in comfortable corners against those who want to change direction. It is powerful in its own mind and it is unable to consider alternatives. It speaks in full throttle in your brain and it shuns those without a voice. It wants to live perpetually and not let others do the same.

Humans, prisoners of their own ego, need an inspiration discontinuity to move further. It is unlikely to come from the past and the future appears uncertain, but that may not be bad.

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).


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.