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.


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

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.