Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Proxima test

As the year 2020 draws near, those who emphatically professed conclusive evidence for extra-terrestrial life would be found by then, are getting a bit nervous. But there is good news - a rocky planet, Proxima-b, has been found in the "habitable zone" just a mere 4 light years away. All that remains now is the "contact," - or perhaps spectral evidence of oxygen, water and methane before uncorking champagne bottles. We are now months away from the declaration that life on Earth is not unique, albeit, by proxy evidence. The space agency, as usual, is ahead of schedule.

Boring statisticians have devised constructs such as prior and posterior probabilities of expectations - something ET enthusiasts appear to have little respect for. They have left Enceladus, Saturn’s beautiful moon, the most promising for life in the neighborhood, in the dust with the news that Proxima-b has been found, for conjecture is more powerful than facts and spectra, more beautiful than actual measurements. Before the space agency devises methods to test for life on Proxima-b, they have to ask two important questions.

1. What is the a priori probability of life on Proxima-b?
2. If they do not find life there, does the posterior change in any way?

If the answer to question 1 is zero or the answer to question 2 is no, then there is no logical reason to explore the rocky cousin. We already know there is no "advanced life," there because if there were, we would already have been at war with them.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The fifth force

Recent research from the University of California, Irvine, (1) speculates on the existence of the fifth fundamental force field, apart from gravitation, electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces. This is possibly in a newer direction that counters the tendency of contemporary physicists to spawn yet another "fundamental particle", anytime they do not understand a phenomenon. Speculating on the existence of a newer force, at the very least, shows some creativity in high energy physics, resting on the laurels of their recent discovery of the God particle, in the noise generated in Geneva.

It appears that we are in a stalemate. Physics, dominated by technicians, has been running amok, plunking billions down the tunnel, proving particles of fantasy. It appears that few are asking if proving fantastic particles is advancing the field in any way. Recently, the engineers hung mirrors to measure gravity waves to the tune of the diameter of a proton to prove two black holes merged nearly a billion years ago. Could somebody prove otherwise? Physics has reached a plateau, in which physicists can prove anything with the help of engineers.

Since we have over hundred "fundamental particles," already, perhaps defining a new "fundamental force field," is in a better direction.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Deeper learning

Recently, statistical and mathematical techniques that have been tried and abandoned decades ago to teach computers to be smarter, have surfaced again with better sounding names. With nearly zero cost computing power in the cloud, some companies have been plunging head first into the deep abyss. Deep learning is stylish - some even try "deep mind," in an attempt to replicate the complex human. What the younger scientists may not know is that most of what they have found, has been known for a long time and one should not take advancements, due to only the recent availability of cheap computing power and memory, as "ground-breaking." Disappointments may be in store for those, highly optimistic of "solving," human intelligence. The convergence of Neuroscience and Computer Science is a welcome trend, but a dose of realism may be apt medicine for those modeling the mind, downloading the brain and possibly curing physical death.

Even since she stood up in the African Savannah, a few hundred thousand years ago, the human has been puzzled by her own mind. She searched the skies, climbed mountains and dived into the oceans, seeking the object, she could not herself define. The theory of consciousness has eluded her, for what she was seeking obviously interfered with the tools she was using. It was the ultimate prize. If she could understand herself, then, a whole new world could open up. The body can be separated from the mind, and the latter then could be rendered immortal. The mind could be replicated and networked and perpetuated across space and time. She could create and capture imagination at will. She could solve problems of infinite complexity, travel into interstellar space or even to another universe. If only, she could understand the mind and concoct a theory of consciousness. But alas. it is not to be. Whatever one calls it, the "neural network," has failed to show signs of consciousness. Yet another technology is substantially sub-optimized by engineers and scientists, most comfortable with deterministic answers to complex questions.

Ignorance is highly scalable in the presence of infinite computing power.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Premature existence

Recent ideas from Harvard (1) speculate on the lack of  maturity of life as we find it on Earth. Contemporary theory, which appears highly unlikely to be true, suggests an origin of the universe about 14 billion years ago and the ultimate demise of it in about ten trillion years from now, making it infinitesimally closer to birth than death. Life, if it is a property of the system, has had only a short moment in this unimaginably long time horizon. So prototypical observations of life, such as that we find on this uninteresting corner of the Milky Way, a rather common place galaxy, is premature by any stretch of the imagination. Even after the Sun balloons up in less than five billion years to a red giant and consumes the blue planet, with all its ignorance locked up in a small space, the universe will continue and create life forms of much greater capabilities and interest.

Life on Earth appears to show severe limitations and indicate prototypical experimentation, with infinitesimal life spans of biological units, that appear incapable of perpetuating information and knowledge across time. Such a design can only be the result of an unsuccessful trial of a large number of possible simulations. The fact that "advanced life," is battling the microscopic ones on Earth can only imply very early and unsophisticated experiments to gather raw data. If there is any learning present in this prototypical system, it has to be about what does not work rather than the other way around. The fact that the blue planet at the exact distance from a medium size star with such abundant resources and stable climate has been unable to produce intelligence may instruct future experiments, what not to attempt.

It is early but known experiments appear to be in the wrong direction.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Biology meets computing

The ease of biological manipulation by chemical means has held life sciences companies back for over a century from exploring the system, that is equally receptive to electromagnetic interventions. Recent news that GSK has partnered with Alphabet to advance the field of bioelectronics is encouraging. The idea is to impart electrical signals to neurons by micro implants to cure chronic diseases. Although it is a profitable path to pursue, some caution may be in order.

There is a long history of engineering experts attempting prescriptive interventions on biological systems with an expectation of deterministic outcomes. Humans are generally good in engineering and traditional computing but biological systems do not behave in such a predictable fashion. Their engineering competence comes from selection, in which simple tools based on Newtonian Physics let them survive the harsh environment they were in for nearly hundred thousand years. The modern game is distinctly different and it is unlikely that they possess the skills to fast track with the hardware they have built up. With "Artificial Intelligence," soaking up the air waves, it is important for technology giants to bias toward humility. As projects such as "death cure," so slow to come to fruition so as to annoy the technologists behind it, perhaps getting not too excited about curing diabetes through neuron stimulation is a good idea. After all, nature took four billion years to get here, albeit, it was without a computer farm that soaks up a high share of the world electricity production. Competing with nature is likely to take a bit more than that.

The convergence of biology and computing is unavoidable. However, it is unlikely to be advanced by those with stagnant notions of either field.