Monday, December 10, 2018

It is all in your mind


An experiment at Stanford (1) appears to demonstrate the power of the placebo effect. Most pharmaceutical research clearly points to the effects of believing and as suggested in the study, it has implications for how information is captured and disseminated through tests. Humans are susceptible to suggestion and can completely rewire the infrastructure of their body from their brain. This should have had survival benefits early as the village elder may have segregated people into random groups and reinforced one side positively and the other not. Those who where lucky enough to be in the right group started believing and ultimately succeeded, proving the point.

An over-tested and over-treated contemporary population is not only suffering from ineffective treatment regimens but also the negative effects imparted on their bodies by their brains. As medical schools get more technical in their educational stance, they have to remember that the weakest link in the chain remains to be the patient, who could easily fight technology. In this context, it may be time to redesign education bottoms up with more focus on how patients internalize information. Ultimately, it is the content of revealed information that drives outcomes. As technology advances we are likely to be exposed to more information and the effects of such exposure could completely negate any positive impact of advanced treatments.

For a variety of reasons, humanity is at crossroads. On one hand, we have accelerating technologies that boasts to make everything better and on the other, it conflicts with the psyche of ordinary human beings. With a harsh timing constraint, once an individual is sliding down the slope, it is nearly impossible to reverse the trend.

Everything appears to come back to how society manages and uses information.


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/12/just-thinking-you-have-poor-endurance-genes-changes-your-body


Thursday, December 6, 2018

GammaGo

News (1) that AlphaGo can successfully learn Chess, Shogi and Go through self-play is interesting. It is symptomatic of trends in AI largely relying on raw computing power. Typically, innovation lags when resources become infinite and we have early signs of trouble here. Reinforcement learning through self-play is not a new concept - it has been here from the advent of computers. It is just that not many have access to computing resources necessary to create demonstrable prototypes.

More importantly, this approach is unlikely to culminate in cognition and consciousness, the possible end game. It is clearly the case that computers can create usable heuristics by repeated experiments, just as humans do. However, those heuristics are generated within a framework of rules that were specified ex. ante. The "deep mind," enthusiasts had argued a few years ago that their computer found a "new way," to play an ancient game. It is quite possible that given a large number of experiments, computers can learn from cases that are outside the norm. But to label this "creativity," is a stretch. It is more an accident than invention. One could argue that humans have benefitted handsomely from accidents in the past and so why not computers. This is true and so the general question is whether computing resources running amuck with an infinite number of repeated experiments can provide learnings from accidents at a faster rate than humans are capable of.

It is tantalizing. What the AI leaders need to understand, however, is that we have been here before. A critical look at the approach may be beneficial. We knew that we could predict from historical data ever since math was invented and we knew that repeated search of the design space could yield usable results since the advent of computers. The question is whether we have done anything new except pouring money into scaling conventional technologies. Stacking countless "computers," in the "cloud" on the promise of AI has many drawbacks.

It is time to go back to the drawing board. A field replete with engineers seems to be going in the wrong direction. As innovation lags in materials and quantum processing, they are creating mountains of Silicon to show heuristics generation is possible. The mathematicians locked up in low productivity areas such as finance, may be well advised to go back and think.

Thinking has a low premium currently and that is problematic.


(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6419/1140

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Gene editing: There is no turning back

Recent news (1) that gene editing could successfully create a mutant form of a gene that makes the host, resistant to HIV, is likely to create scientific awe and ethical concerns. It is important to understand that the technology has arrived and there is no turning back. We will use it to solve identified tactical problems and gloss over the unknown and the unanticipated. Logically, this is the best decision.

Humans are in a bind - they have not been able to meaningfully extend life but they have found many band aids that will keep the recipient breathing, pulsating and alive for short periods of time. The constraints are clear and the micro-optimization problem, relatively simple to solve. But the relevance of their innovations and actions in the societal context, is less clear. Now that we can gene edit out of one problem without considering future ones, the technical minds will be happier than ever.

As we manage life bottoms up as the individual desires, we are approaching a discontinuity in which those with resources to accommodate the micro-objectives win over the rest. But the victory is short lived, literally. The larger question is why the individual makes decisions for herself even though the expected outcomes are utility diminishing for her, given the current technology. One reason could be the option value the individual computes with the uncertainty in emerging ideas and technologies. In this case, sustaining life even with debilitating disease states, could be dominant.

However, the individual has to consider the trade-offs systematically. Given a small probability of hitherto unknown technology that could reset pre-existing disease states with potential pain and disutility that are most likely otherwise, it is a difficult problem to solve. This problem is easier to analyze at the societal level, if the objective function can be clearly defined. For most on Earth, it appears to be perpetuating their genes and humanity in general. It is unclear if that is objective.

A thought experiment on the formation of objective functions in an advanced society could be interesting. If the individual is perpetual, you could effectively remove the noise emanating from micro-objectives. In such a society, only the macro-objective remains. Since the individual's desires are already maximized, society can extend overall objectives without constraints. What would an advanced society like to maximize? They will likely incorporate universal ambitions in a beneficial way.

Humans do not have to fear an "attack," from an advanced ET. They are unlikely to "attack," if they are advanced.


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/ethics-aside-does-crispr-baby-experiment-make-scientific-sense