Saturday, December 9, 2017

Knowledge dark ages

It appears that complexity is increasing in every field. Past experience tells us that knowledge only arrived by simplification, the exact opposite of what seems to be happening currently. In Physics (1), theories have been emerging from every corner but most of them are pure fantasy and remain to be unprovable. Having a mathematical foundation to a theory does not mean that it is useful - one could always dream up such constructs but they have no implication for knowledge for lack of testability. In Medicine, doctors seem to believe that humans are extremely complex to figure out and they seem to adhere to empirical tests of small samples that emerge routinely. In economics, simple theories are now considered commonplace and academics are constantly on the hunt for more complex formulations.
Are we reaching the limits of knowledge? The slope of aggregate knowledge has been declining since the 1930s, and it is problematic for a society that believes it is progressing forward. Yes - technology and engineering have made strides but those are applications of knowledge not the creation of it. There, the current crop of technologists appear to be highly efficient - Artificial Intelligence and all - but none of these ideas are going to make a step-function change in knowledge. To make matters worse, money has been a luring influence on emerging thinkers, who have shunned academics and headed to the nightmare on Wall Street or the valley, replete with coding testosterone. The few who have stayed behind seem to be more attracted to complexity rather than creating insights. The committees who award prestigious prices, including the Nobel Prize, also gravitate toward complexity and that provides misguided incentives to young academics.
We are slowly slipping toward the next dark ages of knowledge creation. With no progress in aggregate utility metrics for society, one could argue that we are living through one of the worst time periods in human history. The arrival of the next genius, who can simplify and create knowledge is the only hope.
(1) https://www.quantamagazine.org/edward-witten-ponders-the-nature-of-reality-20171128

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Robust engineering

News that NASA engineers have been successful in firing the trajectory correction maneuver thrusters on Voyager 1, some 13 billion miles away, after not using them for nearly 40 years, to align its antennas toward the Earth, exemplifies the quality in engineering that used to exist. In spite of all the developments in the last 40 years, engineering has been slipping in both creativity and quality. As engineers head for the "street," and such largely useless activities, the field has been suffering and in the "valley," they do not care for building tangible things, just vaporware. The downward trend in the field has resulted in lagging innovation in many areas, with deleterious effects on computing hardware, transportation and city planning.
Traditional engineering has been less sexy than the ideas pursued by the purveyors of "deep mind." But what educators and policymakers may be missing is that we don't yet have bots, able to plan for the long term. Groundbreaking ideas such as the hyperloop are good, but they are not going to make much difference to the masses. We are bifurcating into dreamers who want to save the world by sending probes to Mars and those struggling with an inferior infrastructure to cover basic necessities. Those sitting on 10s of billions of capital, wondering what to do, may be well advised to look into how they could aid engineering innovation in materials, construction, and basic transportation across the world. These may not get them a Nobel prize or bring instant accolades, but they could make a much broader beneficial effect on society.
A society degrading into classes of haves and have-nots, those who live in the valley and mountain tops, those who pretend to be in academic ivory towers and those who are trying to climb out of lagging hopes and dreams, those who commit crimes with presumed immunity and those who are peaceful and content, those who want a better tomorrow and those who would like to destroy what could be, tacticians and strategists, politicians and the religious, the educated and those who could not afford it, scientists and those who do not believe in science, we have a tragic comedy with a bad ending.
Conventional engineering, a lost art form, could be as important as anything else today.