Thursday, August 31, 2017

More dangerous than politicians

NASA has revealed that a 3-mile asteroid will pass by the Earth Friday. The space agency may be a bit cavalier about how much of a threat such a large body poses but more likely it may have concluded that technology simply does not exist to save humanity from calamity. As philosophers have argued in the past, there is no point worrying about something one can’t do anything about. If the "representatives," and policy makers do not pose enough of a threat to the population, by their stupidity and ego, there are “huge,” objects flying past the blue planet, a sitting duck in the active shooting gallery.

The dinosaurs had no choice. After an impressive period of many millions of years of domination, they simply vanished in the blink of an eye. Their physical infrastructure was more robust than the mammals that followed to weather a catastrophe. However, with size came the need for higher energy consumption and in a regime of low energy availability, survival was not an option. The later incarnation of the mammals has also been endowed with an energy hog, an organ they carry on their shoulders. But more importantly, they have a tendency to stop thinking and kill each other at the first sign of trouble. So, humans have little chance of survival, much less than the dinosaurs, if an asteroid heads in this direction. It is unlikely that you will find a human genome a few million years from now if that were to occur. We have at least birds to remind us of the previous domination.

Engineering advancements in the last century were focused on tactics - buildings, transportation, chemicals, and power – attributes that incrementally improves the greenhouse, humans have been afforded. In the process, they have been trying to burn off the critical molecule they need to breathe and live. If there is a definition of stupidity, one will find it here, in the present. However, it is important to remember that even that fades in comparison of their inability to create technology that could stop their complete elimination.

Politicians are certainly dangerous, but there is a more dangerous thing out there – and humans are living on borrowed time.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The discontinuity

It could be here. A resolution of the disconnect of the emerging against the status-quo, the pristine against the established, the young against the old, the uncultured against the culturally sophisticated, the academic against the the politically astute, the color blind against the racists, the healthy against the wealthy, the markets against the regulators, the agnostics against the atheists, the empathetic against the apathetic, the travelers against those who stay put, the globalists against the localizers, the peace lovers against the war mongers, the optimistic against the pessimistic, the thinkers against the feelers, the scientific against the religious, the capitalists against the communists, the future against the past, the good against the evil, the people against those who hold power, and the machine against the human. In the short history of the Homo sapiens, such reversals have been rare, if at all. And now, it is turning upside down in front of a singular generation as the technologists advance the ability to replicate the basic functions of the human brain. For thirty years, many have been on the prowl, but now they may be closing in on the algorithm that makes pattern finding practical.

Some caution may be apt. Pattern finding is certainly an important cognitive function and driven primarily by data. It has served humanity well from inception and the seven billion that inhabit the Earth today are well endowed with these capabilities due to selection. However, pattern finding would not have led humanity to advance art, language, science, and psyche. These are the features that made them human and mechanical replication of their basic brain functions is not “artificial intelligence,” by any stretch of the imagination. Intelligence is not artificial; the few cases on display from Newton to Einstein show characteristics that are not mechanistic. They were driven by dreams, visions and imagination, signs of a misbehaving brain seeking an escape route from boredom.

Till the technologists figure out a way for a computer to experience intellectual boredom, we are nowhere close to “artificial intelligence.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Deadly cocktail

The value of waiting to make an irreversible decision is intuitively clear to most thinking humans but it is likely too much to ask of politicians, even those who are not politically astute. Business and finance schools have been graduating stars who descend on Wall Street, consulting firms and corporate board rooms with a tool box that is mostly useless in aiding decisions. The same are now advising those with little understanding of the impact of their utterings and decisions and it is a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, and shortsightedness that puts humanity at great risk.

It has been predictable for a while. Part of the blame has to go to educational institutions who have been clinging to age old ideas of economic value and optimality in decisions. The concepts were developed for companies thriving in a regime of manufacturing and the reluctance to let go of old ideas have costed both the academics and their disciples dearly. And to make matters worse, the ones in power seem to think that they are in the know just because they got branded. It is not so, just the opposite. In corporate finance, for example, unless one can publish within established notions of value and risk, it is tough going. And the crop of the young academics, trained in empiricism, have been toiling with their spreadsheets to prove what they know are incorrect theories. So, it is not innovation that matters but the ability to perpetuate the status-quo. Most do not seem to understand that we do not make widgets anymore and the ideas applicable there are not relevant for an environment driven by uncertainty and flexibility.

There has to be a basic test of competence before anybody can take a decision-making position, companies and countries included. The same has to be true in academics also and the fact that the "peers," accepted established notions proposed by those who are rising is not an automatic reason for tenure. It is a shame that politics and academics share many common features.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Memory has been a dual edged sword for humans; they benefited from it by accumulating experience but often they suffered from it as well with pain dominating pleasure in the unknown chambers of the mysterious organ. Little has been known about the processes that support memory and the crude attempts at equating human memory to those of silicon based idiot boxes only took the scientists away from the truth. The selection advantages of memory are clear; it clearly reduced the probability of being eaten in the African Savannah. In the modern context, however, memory is not necessarily a good. It creates two problems; first, it nourishes biases based on extreme events, both positive and negative and second, it erects an unassailable wall to climb out of pain and tribulation.

At the abstract level, one has to wonder why humans remember. It did help them identify those from other clans by pattern finding, a good application of memory. But for those who have surpassed the clan regime, memory is not necessarily a benefit. Memory appears to be useful to find connections among uncertain and complex data but now, computers are getting a lot better at this task. If machines reach superiority over humans on pattern finding, the need for human memory will decline. The disutility of memory is in plain view for a species constrained by space, time and fleeting emotions. Faced by a hard life span constraint, they have been accumulating pain and often seek to alleviate it by physical means. The efficiency of the brain to store unpleasant episodes with high detail has led to diseases causing both mental and physical impairment.

A beautiful organ that combines chemistry, physics, and biology has marvelled everybody who attempted an examination of it. But then, design and architecture are not that interesting if the final product is not utility maximizing.