Monday, June 5, 2017

The autoimmune era

Humans, it appears, have successfully conquered external biological threats to them, at least in the short run. One implication of this dominance is the alarming rise of autoimmune diseases that now account for most of the healthcare costs. Their finely tuned and powerful immune system has become a great liability for the modern humans, devoid of bugs. Boredom of overdesigned systems appear to be as deadly as anything else. Recent discovery of rare diseases in which the immune system attacks the brain itself is a constant reminder that the biggest threat for humans in the long run is their own immune systems.
Heart disease, cancer, mental disorders, COPD, asthma, arthritis, diabetes and hypertension account for over 80% of the healthcare costs. The bugs are not implicated in any and it appears that the body has begun to attack itself. Original design deficiencies in Homo sapiens have certainly caught up with them. The plumbing was never designed to last more than a few decades and the body, now stretched to twice the original design life, seems to struggle to get rid of the waste products both in the brain and in the circulation systems. To make matters worse, humans invented agriculture recently and this has fundamentally changed the course of their health. They have been feeding themselves material that neither the body nor the bacteria in their guts have ever been designed to efficiently digest.
We are in the autoimmune era, in which most humans will die because of the efficiency of their immune systems or the inability of the circulations systems to discharge waste products. Medicine and Engineering are certainly converging, but not in a way that technologists imagined.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Artificially Intelligent Pain

Recent observations (1) from the University of Cambridge that machine learning could identify the amount of pain suffered by sheep from their facial expressions is a good tangent to pursue. It may even have applications in humans, unable to communicate because of  recent or permanent loss of auditory and visual functions. Machines have been growing in stature and they seem to trump humans in most routine tasks. But increasingly, they are filling the gaps that humans are unable or untrained to do. There is no turning back from the AI train as it had left the station nearly 3 decades ago. Now cheaper and faster computers are making what could not be done by pure imagination.

On the other hand, humans generally get over-excited about emerging technologies and they believe problems could be solved in the matter of months, if not, days. Often, they have been wrong and many examples are available, in air travel, the internet, human genome based medicines and most recently, machine learning. Humans have been slow leaners, in spite of the massive energy hog they have been endowed with and they are programmed to look to the future rather than the past. That is a good thing but looking too far and over the hills may get them into trouble, something that did not exist for most of their evolution.

Understanding pain from facial expressions is a good step forward but a 67% accuracy (1) is not sufficiently robust for practical applications. Machine learning can easily create models of that accuracy from random and noisy data. Before declaring victory, much work is in store to think about what it could mean.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Vancomycin 3.0 - The fight continues

Recent news (1) that a new breed of antibiotics, possibly many orders of higher potency than what is currently available, is entering the fight against the Earth's oldest inhabitants, could be welcome news for extension of life for humans. However, the long term implications of such leapfrogs remain uncertain. Bacteria, the most robust form of life known, have been fighting and improving for nearly 4 billion years. The upstarts, humans, seem to have turned them back incrementally. But the aggregate number of evolutionary experiments possible matter and here, the single cell organism reign supreme and for ever.

Bacteria have crowded out the human gut and they supply a large number of genes incorporated into the human architecture. There has been some evidence that bacteria control the human brain from the gut using nerve ends and they have occasionally even breached the blood-brain barrier. The original Extra-terrestrials have been potent and high achieving, seemingly able to dominate anything thrown their way. They even dance in unison and communicate by telepathy, notions higher order animals, find hard to appreciate. Lack of sight and biases helped them cooperate across species and evolve into the most dominant life form on Earth.

The winner of this race is predetermined as the early arrivals to the blue planet have captured the soul and imagination of the irrelevant speck in the universe.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Sleep discrimination

A recent study (1) concludes that the world is heading toward sleepless nights with climate change driving temperatures up. A mere 1 degree temperature rise at night could result in a 10% loss in sleep. This is a problematic trend, with a skewed impact on the poor who can't afford air conditioning. More importantly, loss of sleep has significant deleterious effects on health and cognition, with possible broad impacts on students and young adults. This is another reminder that changes in the environment could have negative effects on the population in many different ways. Anything that affects the rapid progression of millennials is not something humanity could afford, at this critical juncture, if they were to leap to a level 1 society.

As they ventured out of Africa, humans encountered harsh winters in the North with their systems adjusting rapidly by changes in skin and hair colors. Those who went South had an easier time and appear to be well positioned for the rising temperatures of the modern world. However, the organ they carry on their shoulders hogs energy and has to be kept cool for them to slumber. A rise in the ambient temperature is problematic for the human system and especially for the CPU. Perhaps, it is time for newer technologies that let a cooler bubble around the human brain. Evolution of the human brain has been slow. Massive leaps achieved a few hundred thousand years ago by animal fat have been tempered significantly by the advent of agriculture. And, modern humans appear to show slow degradation of cognitive capabilities, perhaps aided by substance abuse.

It is unlikely that humans can turn back the temperature dial but perhaps they can find more creative ways to cool the brain cells and sleep better.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Tactical valley of ignorance

Many of the rich and famous appear to be now indicating that universal income (1) is a good policy. It may be too little too late with children running powerful nations and corporations. If they do want to make an impact, it will take more than speeches and photo ops. It will require actions to disseminate information across populations and technologies that can curb misinformation. It will require belief and the ability to embrace a utility function that encompasses humanity.

There are good signs for humanity, however. Bad examples have great value in education and we certainly have a great number of them in full display. But education is a necessary condition that will allow humanity to separate the wheat from the chaff, those who have been marginalized and the lucky, those who volunteer to make the world better and the uninterested, the unlucky from those who fight for money, the rebels from those who appear religious, the travellers from those who stay put, the indifferent from those who seek their own kind, the optimizers from those who maximize, the elderly from those who do not grow up.

We are slowly progressing toward a better society. The hiccups on the way are just that and contemporary events may provide rich fodder for comedy shows in a few decades. The millennials appear to have it but they have to get through a tactical valley of ignorance.


Friday, May 19, 2017


Nearly 3% of the population - 250 million, live outside the country of their birth (1) and it is a constant reminder that humans have been on the move for over 100 thousand years. They spread culture, ideas and biases across locations and continents, eliminated those who differ from them and clung together to survive in the bottleneck that reduced them to a few thousand. In spite of the walls that separated them, they pushed to assimilate in spite of the color of their skin, eyes or hair, and now we may be turning time back for the worse.

Knowledge has always slowed down the journey to destruction and those who did not imbibe from the fountain have been left behind to fend for themselves. Geographical segmentation schemes have separated siblings and illogical religious constructs have united those who never wanted to be united. Humans have separated themselves based on surface features, never considering that their architecture has been a lot deeper. As they shut down the boundaries of their recent homes based on ignorance, the intelligentsia bleeds but as they always do, they remain ineffective.

Move, move again - and let humanity come together, once again.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The advantages of sex

A recent study (1) suggests that genetic interactions are driving selection. This is an important finding and it suggests that mutations are not sufficiently robust to propel populations to more dominant states. In fact, mutations may have a negative effect on optimal progression. It has major policy implications in that, if humanity were to survive, it would be largely driven by genetic interactions rather than optimization in sub-populations.
Humans seem to be on a dangerous course, propelled by an affinity to surface features and segmented utility. The leaders in most countries appear to be less intelligent than average and it implies suboptimal policies with long term deleterious effects. As they travelled out of Africa by foot, first to Australasia and then to China, they never imagined the state of affairs, they would find themselves in fifty thousand years later. Some travelled north and obliterated the gentle Neanderthals and some stayed put, only to be marginalized. Some crossed the ice bridge into the new continent only to be separated from the rest.
Without an abundance of genetic interactions, humans are doomed to oblivion. Fortunately, the idiots who run countries and corporations have a limited life span.


Saturday, May 6, 2017


At the pinnacle of innovation, technology and war mongering, those who are climbing it seem to have left behind nearly ten million of their exact copies in Nigeria, with half of them malnourished and failing from diseases, amplified by hunger (1). For a societal leap forward, it will require moving the entire humanity to a position of sustenance. Empathy has been easier than effective policies, tweets easier than action, cosmetics and shallow conversations easier than thoughts and ignorance safer than seeking knowledge. Meanwhile, millions perish from lack of basic necessities.
The question remains to be why humanity is stuck in this local minimum. Good has always trumped the bad and ideas flourish over stagnation, but it appears that we are unable to break out of a stalemate, aided by global apathy and instability. Societal progress has been immensely hampered by illogical constructs such as an outward show of religion and patriotism. Those who could aid a move up from the valley have been busy nourishing their egos in academia and fighting their colleagues. Those who want to save the world by elevating themselves to the top of the hierarchy have been corrupt and emotionless. At the heart of this stalemate is lack of education, as ignorance has spread like wildfire across the world, aided and abetted by their leaders. If the 7.6 billion occupying the world only knew that they are clones of a single human being, perhaps we can begin to bridge the gap.
But it is a tall order as humans suffer from myopia, driven by hard constraints on life span.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The bulge in the frontal cortex

Recent finding in the Journal of Neurological Sciences (1) that Descartes' brain had an unusual bulge in the frontal cortex is further proof that humans with unusual developments in the organ they carry on their shoulders, move societies. Less than a hundred individuals with such deformities in the last two thousand years, including Albert Einstein, substantially contributed to most knowledge accumulated by humans. This implies that knowledge is a result of unusual patterns in the brain and humans in general are not really designed to go a lot further than the basic attributes in their objective function, largely driven by food and reproduction.

Understanding their limitations is a leap forward for humans as their forward momentum depends largely on the arrival of the next genius. There has not been a positive sign in the last hundred years as they move technology forward at the destruction of the delicate greenhouse they have been afforded. As they travel to nearby planets, extend life incrementally and double computing power every 18 months, they have to realize that none of these have any fundamental impact on knowledge. For that, humans still require a major deformity in the brain of one of the billions of specimens they seem to have replicated into.

As indicated in the article (1) " It is not enough to have a good mind, the main thing is to use it well."


Friday, April 28, 2017

Faking news

Recent news that an unvaccinated Portuguese girl has died of measles (1) is a constant reminder that ignorance can exact a high cost. A single individual with a fraudulent study (2) may have caused humanity, a high level of disutility. Humans often fall prey to small N experiments and it further reinforces the need to eradicate ignorance.

Humans have always been susceptible to small experiment bias. However, small experiments may have played a substantial role in human progression. If the outcomes are of very high probability, small experiments may have been sufficient to learn - such as taking the right run at the fork, gets you killed by the waiting lion. A few experiments may have been sufficient to establish truth in this case. However, to prove that vaccination causes autism takes a few more than a dozen.

Education systems around the world may have to incorporate a better understanding of statistics into their curriculum. Understanding that truth is not revealed by one or few experiments is important and that may allow large swaths of the world population to get over "fake news." Faking news has become a strategic weapon. If a population is susceptible to believing what they see or hear, without asking for proof, ignorance will unambiguously rise to the top and that could have unpredictable negative effects on society.

Education has to evolve appropriately to add value to society.



Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stuck in a quantum state

Development of life over the past few billion years on Earth shows few regime changes and evolution has been largely an incremental process. The organizing principle has remained the same from the inception of life till now - from a single cell entity to larger accumulation of the same in more specialized life. The objective functions remained simple with only a handful of attributes and optimization has been trivial. Extrapolation of the status-quo seems to imply that life on Earth is stuck in a quantum state and seemingly for ever.
Some have been dissatisfied with the overall progress of societal structure and organization. Academics and philosophers have proposed alternatives to enhance aggregate societal utility, largely by redistribution and reorganization. But they seem to miss a more fundamental issue - societies cannot transverse quantum states incrementally. To propel to the next quantum state, contemporary societies need a technology discontinuity, likely in the realm of energy. To make this happen, knowledge has to increase exponentially but in level 0, there appears to be a hard cap on knowledge.
If level 1 societies exist elsewhere in the universe, they would certainly have mastered energy as there appears to be plenty, freely available. With zero cost energy, such societies could organize around fully networked thoughts and transport modalities. Organization would be automatically optimal with a singular, albeit complex, objective function of the network rather than that of the individual. If it were to progress further, then the scope could be extended across universes and that would require another step-function change.
Humans seem to have approached societal design and optimization with a set of wrong assumptions. Visions of a level 1 society are not useful in thinking about optimality in the current state. A more practical question is what could be achieved in contemporary societies. Evidence shows free markets with well defined rules of engagement that apply equally to all participants move societies closer to an optimal state. However, humans have segregated themselves into countries, religions, languages, size and color and they pose hard constraints on free markets. With localized optimization dominating policy, we may be rewinding time back and destroying the precious little that was accomplished in the last ten thousand years.
Thought experiments that portray level 1 societies are useful abstract notions but with little practical utility. If 4 billion years do not show a slope that will get earthlings to the next quantum state, it is unlikely. Then, the real question is how to best utilize the limited time afforded to the blue planet in a state that cannot be breached.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Back to Europa

ET experts at the space agency have been focused on exoplanets for several years. After the proclamation that ET would arrive by 2020, there have been increased activities on multiple fronts. It has been known for a while that both Europa (Jupiter’s moon) and Enceladus (Saturn’s moon) harbor vast oceans and energy sources underneath their barren surfaces. As exoplanets similar to the Earth began to show up across the Milky Way, the ET enthusiasts seem to have taken their eye off possible habitats in their neighborhood.

Now that the space agency has determined that the probability of contact of green men at an exoplanet by 2020, whether it is the “exact twin,” of mother Earth, is small, they are back on neighborhood prowl and that may be a good thing. If humans were ever going to make “contact,” it could only be with the micro-organisms in Europa or Enceladus. However, as the space agency, on a binge of crashing space probes through the pristine atmospheres of these moons, have to be careful not to contaminate the oceans in these habitats. Otherwise, they may just find Salmonella there and declare victory. The process of sterilization has not been good and it is unclear if any of the single cell organisms that hitched rides on spacecrafts, used in interplanetary missions, is setting up colonies  in those planets before the mighty human gets there.

More importantly, in spite of the somewhat suspect sterilization regimen, if the space agency fails to find life in Europa and Enceladus, one has to wonder what it means. So far, most ET hunters have argued that it does not mean anything, for there are trillions of possibilities out there. That is true, but there is no free lunch in the absence of infinite resources. If no Salmonella was found in Europa and Enceladus, it may be time to take a break from ET hunting and focus on more mundane things such as protecting the Earth from an asteroid impact.

Extra-terrestrials appear not have a great desire to make contact with humans and I wonder why?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Living on luck

In a couple of weeks, an asteroid of nearly a kilometer wide will pass by the blue planet at just a million miles away, a mere whisker by any measurement. As the "leaders" throw hand grenades at each other, few have understood the precarious position their habitat is in. Reducing emissions to protect the environment is great, attempting to save it from instantly evaporating could be a bit better. Humans, carrying a heavy organ on their shoulders, seem to have wasted hundred thousand years, proving to themselves they are great and if not, thinking how to make them great again.
It is a miracle that the world survived in this active shooting gallery. Nothing much has happened since the first rulers of the planet were wiped out 65 million years ago by a massive event. And, the probability of that happening again is close to 1. As space agencies clamor to travel to nearby planets, just to demonstrate they are capable or design rockets that can take large and diverse payloads, they have to understand that none of these ego boosting triviality, will save humanity. As the most "intelligent" private investors, design, redesign and reuse rockets, as if that is the end game, they have to understand that there is a higher order problem to solve. Moving deck chairs on the titanic, optimizing how many chairs to move from one side to another or even creating a "game," that allows such movements to be automatic, is not going to be helpful at the face of calamity.
It will be ironic if the "greatest species," get wiped out by a similar event that happened before. At least the previous greats did not know it was coming.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Quantum optimization

Classical annealing has been a method of optimization in many areas, for ever. Recently, quantum annealing, based on quantum tunneling, was proposed as an improved process. Challenges remain (1), however, as qbits are immensely limited to make anything practical. The most profitable path to knowledge, at the intersection of quantum mechanics and optimization, may be breaking open. Flux quantization, as the authors argue, may allow us to tackle complex optimization problems.

It is clear that humans have been stagnant in the advancement of mathematics. At the intersection of theoretical physics and mathematics, there is a beautiful avenue to knowledge, something that has been less travelled in. There, determinism takes a back seat and probabilistic speculation dominates. Those who want interplanetary travel are simply leaving the movie theater before the show is over and it is possible that the few brain cells left to humanity could, indeed, take a quantum leap.

Humans wanted to always optimize as it has been ingrained in their structure from the moment they started to explore. They wanted to minimize distances and maximize the probability of a killing or analogously, minimize the probability of being killed. Ingrained in their quantum limited brain is the concept of optimization and now we could possibly take it further. In this context, it is important to remain humble as many before us have thought they indeed optimized, only to realize that there were many attributes beyond the equation that was used.

Flux quantization could provide a path forward to optimization but it is important to keep in mind that we have been here many times before.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hubble Trouble (1)

Hubble, from the University of Chicago, observed for the first time in 1929 that galaxies are flying away from us. Many candles later, the constant attributed to his name, is still being refined. Now, it appears that there is a revision to the constant, perhaps as much as 8% downward. This is not the first time physicists realized that they are yet to understand how things work. Complexity typically portends lack of understanding and the current state of affairs in high energy physics, albeit data emanating from big steel in Geneva like water from a faulty fire hydrant, is stagnant. Physicists and engineers are a dangerous combination, the former dreaming up complexity and the latter standing ready to prove anything thrown at them by steel and concrete. But this is unlikely to lead anywhere. It appears that one does have to have 1.5 brains to break out of the stalemate - and we have not had a specimen for 100 years and it is unclear if we will ever do.

Predicting the behavior of complex non-linear systems is dangerous. Making uncertain observations and attempting to prove those by creating dark stuff is even more dangerous, for this will lead the next generation down rabbit holes to the wonderland. Hanging mirrors to measure reverberations to the diameter of a proton, indeed, is a great accomplishment. But one has to note that engineers have always been good at proving hypotheses but replicability could be more challenging. The best way to proceed when one cannot understand over 94% of the observations is to ask if the underlying theories are correct. That's what we do in most fields.

As they revise the Hubble constant, perhaps, it is time to rethink how research is done in high energy Physics.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Open research

Recent news (1) that the European Commission will soon join the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation to launch an open research publication platform is encouraging. Increasingly, university based research, peer reviewed or not, are shown to be suffering from inherent biases - both of the author and her peers. Academics, tenured or not, seem to have a clean objective function - driven largely by volume and in the vast publication enterprise, replicability is certainly an afterthought. Open research, thus, has to expand beyond conventional research if it has to capture useful insights from those who never climbed the high mountain.

Research and manufacturing have become synonymous. The latter takes raw materials and create commoditized widgets and the former takes raw data and create research papers with no new insights and if there were, they are typically not replicatable. The peers, who approve of the production, seem to form a colony of conformists, ready to approve papers that support the highly subscribed ideas and marginalize anything new. Academics and politicians share many common characteristics as both of them live in a bubble with their "peers," and have little interest to ever look outside the window to see how the world actually works.

Open research, if it encompasses the world at large, providing an avenue for new ideas to float through, could be a game changer. But then, those behind it are all controlled by their "peers."


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The economics of health

The economics of health has been complex. Diverse stakeholders - patients, providers, manufacturers and payors - who all seem to have a partial picture of the whole problem, have made it more difficult to solve. To top it all off, policy makers, with little understanding of this complex picture, seem to trade in photo ops and healthcare acts.

The value accruing to society is an important and possibly the only consideration of policy. The evaluation of policy choices will require an understanding of the value of the foundational units - the individuals, themselves. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the value of an individual is not the discounted stream of utility to society and thus healthcare systems around the world, making decisions on a fixed value of a human, are misguided. Since the individual is perfectly capable of changing the future stream of utility, she can only be considered to be a basket of interacting options. Thus, any policy that forces the individual to prematurely exercise such options is unambiguously suboptimal.  Additionally, policies that reduce the flexibility afforded to the individual to pursue new ideas will devalue the options held by the individual. This automatically reduces the value of the individual, both to herself and to society.

For example, any policy that can be shown to reduce the incentive of an individual to move from one job to a more attractive one, will have a deleterious effect on aggregate utility. Any policy that does not allow an individual to climb out of a low value position, either due to a capital constraint or due to failing health, will reduce aggregate utility. Any policy that does not provide incentives to prevent health problems for individuals will automatically increase the expected future costs in the system. Any policy that does not allow market forces to move the complex system to an optimal position by sharing the economics among the various participants will have a negative value to society.

Politicians are likely the worst people to create and implement healthcare policies. It has been known for ever that "healthcare is this complex." It will take a bit more than theatrics and politics.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Natural Intelligence

Recent news that researchers could now encode 215 petabytes of data in a single gram of human DNA (1) and possibly all the information created from human inception in a container of DNA that weighs couple of pickup trucks, is a constant reminder that Nature works in a dimension, possibly incomprehensible to humans. Recently, humans have been worrying about the growth of noise at an accelerating clip with over a zettabyte a year. Although some call this data and even information, an apt description of it is noise, as much of it is useless to advance knowledge.

More importantly, the capacity of data storage revealed by the DNA structure tells us that the status-quo technologies that some believe will propel us to the proverbial singularity are mere toys of insignificance. The only possible answer to the Fermi paradox is that extra-terrestrials find our level of development too premature to make contact. Evolution has been slow and biological systems seem to have taken almost 4 billion years to cobble together something that could start to think about knowledge replication and perpetuation. But the technology afforded to humans is too crude and likely in the wrong direction to make a significant leap toward harnessing high dimensional energy and tunneling through spacetime.

Those who are actively seeking "artificial intelligence" in Silicon may be well advised to return to studying natural storage and processing that appear to be fully integrated and freely exhibiting quantum states.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Pipe-climbing bacteria

Recent news (1) that bacteria can climb up a pipe at an astonishing speed of 2.5 cm/day is a constant reminder that the first inhabitants of the Earth is highly capable of eradicating those who appeared late. As they happily climb out of every hospital sink across the world, infecting their distant cousins, it appears inevitable that advanced biological entities will eventually succumb to potent simplicity. The information slope in the first cell has been so astronomically high that it seems obvious that incremental additions since then, have been trivial. Meanwhile, humans have been chasing extra-terrestrials and artificial intelligence as if they have conquered everything else.

Ignorance has been a constant companion for humans from inception. Their observations of the heavens always resulted in wrong hypotheses. First they saw the Sun going around the Earth and now they see dark energy and dark matter. In medicine, first they saw inexplicable spirits affecting the human body to create diseases and now they see pathogens and the body attacking itself. Alchemists have given way to modern chemists, manufacturing concoctions they don't understand to solve both biological and engineering puzzles. And in economics, they have created theories that seem to work only in regimes and those diving head first into the financial abyss have turned into TV personalities. But complexity does not advance knowledge - it just adds to ignorance.

As the ignorance in chief leads the world to the brink of disaster, it may be worthwhile to keep an eye out for the little things, that creep up the pipes.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Forecasting society's prospects

The future prospects of human societies could be dependent on two important metrics - per capita knowledge and per capita compassion. It is difficult to define either precisely but proxies could be on offer to measure the slope of both. If outcomes of system behavior point to a decline in either of these metrics, human societies could be in trouble from a long term viability perspective. Even moderate increase in these metrics may not be sufficient to propel societies to the next level.

There have been troubling signs for many decades. Scientific pursuits impacted by high uncertainty often produce results that are less compelling to move aggregate knowledge, let alone per capita knowledge, on a positive slope. To make matters worse, there has not been a jump in knowledge progression for over a century, dominated by applications of existing knowledge. On the compassion axis, society seems to have bifurcated - some exhibiting high sensitivity and others falling victims to materialism. This is a potent combination and a perfect storm that may move humans back, perhaps for the first time in their history.

Education systems seem to have failed to improve per capita knowledge and segmented societies seem to have arrested compassion. And this poison cocktail has paved the way for ignorance to rise to power and that can initiate a spiral down in both directions - knowledge and compassion. They are correlated and that indicates that there are no obvious solutions in the horizon. To feel compassion, one has to deeply understand others, even those who appear foreign. And, to gain knowledge, one has to understand how the universe works, even the corners that appear exotic.

A break in the dam is sudden, an earthquake unanticipated and death arrives unannounced. Are there sufficient numbers among the 7.5 billion who could right the wrong? It will be a shame to throw it all away after hundred thousand years of progress.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Autonomous microbial growth distribution systems*

As scientists worry about how to protect Europa (1), Jupiter's famous moon that harbors vast subsurface oceans with the possibility of life, it is scary to think about past contaminations on the Moon and lately on Mars. Microbes, the original inhabitants of the blue planet, have been able to fool their macroscopic cousins in almost every dimension. They can enter them whenever they wish, leave tell tale signs that confuse their immune system and almost wipe them out. They dominate the human infrastructure, providing ten times as many cells as human cells to the complex union. And, they could hitch a ride to anywhere humans go and almost certainly they have in the past. The only question is whether they fell prey to the harsh conditions they encountered at the neighboring moons and planets.

As humans shower robots across the solar system, it is highly likely that they are seeding the neighborhoods with robust microbes. Disappointed ET enthusiasts have been lamenting the lack of encounters with the non-terrestrial variety for ever. With the space agency drawing a hard line in the sand and proclaiming discovery by 2020, one way to accomplish it is by contamination. Although it is illegal to do so, history strongly points to reverse panspermia. Humans have shown high level of incompetence in sterilization and hospitals still are the most dangerous places for people.

Before the over excited space enthusiasts expand their physical search across the solar system, they may want to update the current protocols of space equipment sterilization. Otherwise, they may find abundant life across all their targets - Europa, Enceladus and others.

* - Attributed to Norine Noonan, University of South Florida

Friday, February 17, 2017

A memory lapse

Modern science has been struggling to understand human memory for ever. It appears volatile and highly manipulatable but indestructible compared to the memory of the toys humans have been able to assemble. Attempting to bridge the gap in memory between humans and computers have led many researchers astray. Understanding human memory is a necessary condition toward a robust theory of consciousness. Without that, the over excited millennials trying to reach "Artificial Intelligence," are going to come out empty.

To understand a complex phenomenon, it is better to start in the basics. It appears that the hardware afforded to a human at inception is significantly more sophisticated than what humans have assembled thus far. The subtle differences in design in which the CPU is integrated closely with memory may provide guidance to those toiling to manufacture "deep mind." The human processing unit (HPU) is not a construct separate from its memory and thus functions differently from conventional computers. Consideration of memory as separate from processing power, has led conventional computer designs away from what is optimal for intelligent computing. Recent attempts by Hewlett Packard in hardware and MIT academics in software, could be in the right direction to elevate memory to be central to intelligent computing.

Intelligent computing, however, has never been in the scope of tactically optimizing humans. As they advance autonomous vehicles, deep learning game boy, music and breast cancer deciphering big steel, they seem to be unaware of a basic idea - computer scientists and engineers have never been able to understand the human mind, not even close. As they scorn the religious fanatics across the world, following unintelligible and unprovable hypotheses, they seem to be missing that they are are not too far. It is just that their ego is a bit higher than anybody else and that make them opaque to reality.

To advance computer science incrementally forward, it will require massive infusion from philosophy, psychology and creativity and a moratorium on engineers getting anywhere close to "Artificial Intelligence," technologies.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Expansion of the mind

When Lucy stood up in the African savannah for the first time, she demonstrated that humans could be fundamentally different from those who perished before them. Her mind was expanding and her thoughts, accelerating. With danger all around her, she was willing to explore information and that eventually propelled humans out of Africa and into the unknown. The expansion of the mind was the only attribute that fueled them out of mediocrity. However, recent history tells us that they are prone to the recurrence of ignorance.

Humans seem to have been successful in rewinding the progression of knowledge back - something that seldom happened for hundred thousand years. Knowledge was always expected to have a positive slope, and for most of the human history that was true. However, in the recent past it has substantially deviated from the expected norm. The reasons for this is unclear but one possibility is the availability of a large number of information channels. The advent of printing formalized and accelerated information flow that was largely constrained to word of mouth before that. Now that a large number of diverse channels allow the creation and dissemination of content, without the need for verification, information itself is losing meaning. In such a regime, aggregate knowledge can decline and this could create chaos in a system that relies on informed and rational decision-making at all levels.

The negative effects on policy due to loss of information are clear. Elections have produced sub-optimal outcomes and autocratic regimes have been able to sustain themselves without significant effort. As the seven billion cling together hoping for a better tomorrow, their leaders appear to lack information to move them forward. The only viable solution to this stalemate is education that provides the skills to distill noise into usable information.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A catastrophic divergence

For most of human history, knowledge was evenly spread across the populace. As they hugged each other to survive the extreme cold that reduced them to a few thousand, they shared information and knowledge freely. Human societies, thus far, thrived on the democratization of knowledge. Now, it appears that we are entering a regime in which there is a catastrophic divergence in knowledge among the seven billion, spread across the world. Most believe in religion and some in scientific theories, but neither is able to claim an understanding of the mystery that surrounds them.

Modern humans seem to have woven themselves into a web of confusion and complexity. The acceleration in aggregate knowledge provides a false impression of positive societal development. However, knowledge is increasingly concentrated in a small percentage of the population and the purveyors of this wealth are generally incompetent in their attempts to spread it. They seem inarticulate and stubborn, unable to bridge the gap between know-how and ignorance. Their language sounds foreign and their explanations of phenomena, downright incredible. This has left most of the population back in time, unable to lift their psyche from the depths of unprovable assumptions and pure speculation.

This divergence in knowledge is a dangerous trend for humanity. The situation is made worse by the incompetence of those who possess it and the inability of those who do not, to seek it. Education systems, catering to accumulating knowledge in a few, seem to have lost the plot. Educators have to understand that spreading knowledge is as important as advancing it. If they make the knowledge edifice ever taller without an expanding foundation, the long term results are likely negative.

Unless knowledge is spread more evenly across the population, a democratic society could arrest progress by elevating ignorance to power. This is arguably the biggest danger facing societies now.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Strategy v/s tactics

For many hundreds of thousands of years, the human brain specialized exclusively in tactics. Managing a simple objective function with two dimensions - food and sex, clearly pointed to maximizing utility in short horizons. Very recently, human societies have been treading on strategy to maximize long term viability of their species, something that is not well understood by a great swath of them. Strategy is inherently inefficient, especially if viewed through a tactical lens, for strategy almost always show negative benefits in short horizons. Human societies, led by those less mentally equipped to understand strategic implications, could deteriorate fast as their leaders attempt to implement tactics to benefit themselves.

Humans may be entering the most dangerous phase of their short existence. Sporting a badly designed infrastructure, thanks to a highly inefficient CPU and a physical infrastructure designed to last less than half of their expected lifespan, they appear to be in real bad shape. Thoughts don't come natural to them, but actions do as the males of the species went out every day, hunting and pillaging to their own satisfaction. It was never profitable to think and it has always been beneficial to show power as their opponents were either from a different clan or animals, substantially better built than themselves. Dislike and hate come to them without effort as they see a specimen that does not exhibit the attributes they are familiar with. Ironically, little do they know that the surface features or the origin of their fellow human beings are noise of such irrelevance that they have an equal chance to be related to anybody in the world as their neighbor. These ideas are indeed abstract and strategic, something the politicians and policy-makers around the world are not able to analyze.

As the extra-terrestrial seeking engineers and scientists lament at the absence of the travelling kind, they have to ask why an entity of intelligence would even make contact with them. After all, humans do not seem to understand biological entities, less endowed than them. It seems hopeless as the potent and deadly combination of ego and ignorance appears to lead the inefficient species to their certain extinction. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Depressing - but there is hope

It is depressing to think about the fact that nearly 100 in the US and ten times as many across the world succumb to suicide every day. That is almost a person lost every minute, somewhere in the world. With nearly 10% of the US population suffering from depressive disorders, we may not be paying sufficient attention to a disease that kills silently. Nearly 10% of this cohort - almost 3 Million, suffer from Bipolar Depression, a condition that shows 20- 30 times higher probability of attempting suicide than the general population (1). This horrible disease sometimes leads to Acute Suicidal Ideation/Behavior (ASIB) - a condition that integrates suicidal thoughts with planning. And, it is growing at a 24% per year clip (from 1999-2014), especially among young adults.

The human brain, an evolutionary quirk, is a complex and fragile organ, prone to malfunctioning in many different ways. Initially designed to monitor and manage routine systems of the body, its massive excess capacity predictably led to thoughts and emotions, not typically seen in other biological entities. That was the beginning of trouble for the humans, as they struggled to understand and cope with the energy hog they carry on their shoulders. Primitive humans equated diseases of the brain to maligned acts of spirits and set out to ferret out the miscreants through unthinkable interventions. Ironically, the contemporary treatment regimen for ASIB is not substantially different, as patients are mostly locked in psychiatric hospitals, and receive electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). With no available medication for this indication, patients require many sessions of ECT, resulting in memory loss and confusion (1).

Large pharmaceutical companies have enjoyed a profitable franchise of Central Nervous System (CNS) treatments including SSRI/SNRI based antidepressants that carry an increasing risk of suicide. These widely available therapies are not effective in ASIB, a costly condition to treat as patients often progress to inpatient settings and ECT to tactically reduce the risk of catastrophic loss. The challenges to develop new medicines in neuroscience and particularly in psychiatry are very large, such that many big Pharmaceutical companies have abandoned psychiatry after their antidepressants became generic. However, ASIB appears to be a druggable target (1) as Bipolar Depression and in particular suicidal thoughts, may be modulated by the brain's NMDA receptor.

Treating this horrible disease with high risk of death with a medicine is potentially a great prospect for patients, but it will require investments and concerted efforts. Recent publications indicate that ketamine - an anesthetic, and potent NMDA blocker, reduces the impulse for suicide and for depression- which though related - seem not to be the same (1). However, its effect seems to be short lived, 4-7 days, and, it is administered through an iv infusion, making it important to find options that can extend its effect and allow patients to be treated on an outpatient basis once they are not a danger to themselves anymore. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It's time for universal basic income

Finland's grand experiment, albeit in small scale, in providing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) without preconditions, ushers in a new dawn in modern societal design. The idea is already late for many countries as accelerating technology makes routine jobs irrelevant and any education less than college, nearly valueless. It is a regime change in such a short time that disallows gradual adjustments and it affects large swaths of populations across the world. Finely tuned welfare programs that create a disincentive for the poor to seek work and policies such as minimum wages that curb opportunities for the young to gain experience, has been creating stress in the social fabric for many decades. UBI will not only correct such disincentives but also remove the cost and inefficiencies associated with the bureaucracies that manage such programs.

The objective function for a modern society is clear - maximize aggregate happiness. Most research on happiness indicate an inverted U relationship with significant disutility in the absence of basic necessities or the fear of not having them in the future. UBI will remove such fear but avoid any disincentive effects. More importantly, UBI could provide optionality for each individual with private utility functions to select optimal pathways to maximize own happiness. If each individual has the flexibility to design such pathways, then society will unambiguously maximize aggregate happiness. What's missing from the status-quo of centrally administered myriad of welfare programs is flexibility for the individual to maximize own utility, unencumbered by the lack of basic necessities - food, shelter, health and information. UBI could provide that at a lower cost than current programs.

Universal Basic Income is conceptually and practically elegant. But to implement it, politicians have to acquire a desire to do something good during the course of their long and uninterrupted careers.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Change resistant society

As India copes with demonetization - a minor perturbation to a cash dominated society - it is clear that its long history and comparatively low diversity may be contributing to significant resistance to change - any change. A democratic system, largely driven by a few personalities since independence, has been trying to break out for ever but India remains to be a "country with unrealized but great potential." In spite of the legend, not many tortoises win races as they succumb to watching laggards zoom past them. To propel the country to the next level, it has to substantially change its attitude, and it is unlikely with the current generation, steeped in pride, history and an unwavering ability to cling to the status-quo.

Even though it is one of the largest economies on a purchasing power parity basis, it is highly insular thanks to "strategic policies," pursued by its non-capitalist leaders from inception. It does not figure in the top 100 countries on exports or imports as measured as a percent of GDP. It is also symptomatic of its lack of understanding as to how economies grow. Specializing in its own comparative advantages and freely trading with others who do other things better, is a simple economic principle, something the leaders in India never seem to have understood. No country is good at everything, India included, but this could be anathematic to the Indian diaspora, let alone its leaders.

Blindly following what seems to be successful elsewhere is an equally dangerous proposition, especially if they are pushed by policy makers enamoured by what they see on trips abroad. And, India's leaders appear to be very prone to this disease. The wisdom of a few has never been shown to be effective in understanding and implementing optimal policies. What India needs is globalization not transplantation - and the confidence to free trade and implement free markets. If so, there appears to be no stopping it but it is a tall order.