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).


(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6393/1096

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.


(1) http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaar4206.full