Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Maximizing children

Recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that early stress – such as poverty and abuse - has a lasting deleterious effect on children’s brains. Stress at ages less than five seems to impact even the structure of the brain with predictable negative effects all through life. Policy tacticians, counting today’s debt and tomorrow’s votes and busy shutting down the government may be well advised to take a more holistic and macro view of societal costs and health.

Education and health with unambiguous positive network effects on society could substantially influence the trajectory a nation or society could progress in. Now, it appears that even micro-effects such as early childhood stress may have to be considered in the design and provision of healthcare if societies want to nourish healthy, productive and intelligent future generations. Maximizing human resources is an important strategic goal for any society and if that is understood then one could delve into policy implications.

Humans, born totally incompetent and unprotected, require systematic nourishment in early part of their lives. Evolution seems to have assumed that societies would care for the children and accordingly selected a design with a large brain attached to a feeble body that can be pushed through a narrow canal at birth. Such a design requires a system of support, for without it the results are obvious. But in more subtle ways, even if the children survive physically, it appears that they get hurt mentally if sufficiently protective environments are not afforded. The brain, a fantastic organ, requires close attention in the formative years and it appears that modern societies do not understand this well.

More practically, there are two primary questions modern societies have to grapple with. First, given that a child requires specific considerations at least in the first five years, should parents be punished if they are unwilling or unable to provide the required environments for them?. Since the child is a luxury item and a choice, more thought and planning are needed prior to a decision to have children. And, second, assuming no policy will be perfect and that transitions will be problematic in any case, how should societies treat children born into environments unable to provide the evolutionarily required conditions?

As the politicians and policy makers – some octogenarians – are utterly incompetent and incapable of understanding and thinking about the future, it seems that we are entering a very problematic time. “Serving the country,” is not a job and it requires people who recognize at the very least that they have become ineffective.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The age of AI

Computer scientists from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle claim that they have created the first fully automated computer program that teaches everything there is to know about any visual concept (1). Artificial Intelligence has been the most hyped and the least effective of concepts for over three decades. Determinism and rules based logic – underpinnings of the shallow understanding of human knowledge by humans, have put a lid on progress in this field and it appears that such a constraint could be for ever.

Watson, the current champion, has perpetuated the same ideas even though it dazzled ordinary humans by its ability to memorize rules and retrieve them fast. Not impressed, the autonomous car maker of the West, unleashed the “neural net” of immense proportions on the web where it invented search, only to realize that the beast only went looking for “cat videos.” And now, some academics claim that all they need is raw computing power to create something that will learn “everything there is to know.” It is indeed impressive.

Artificial Intelligence is showing its age. No amount of computing power is going to help humans learn how stupid they really are.


Sunday, June 8, 2014


Nearly 500 years ago, a heliocentric view of the solar system was proposed. It was reluctantly accepted over time – by the religious and not so religious, as it fundamentally shook the core belief system of humans – the idea that they are not at the center of the universe. Further intellectual excursions into defining the universe, first as infinite and then as very large, possibly supplemented by alternatives, have been eating into the psyche of humans, as they struggle to forfeit superiority.

They never really let the idea go. The fact that Earth revolves around the Sun and the solar system revolves around the center black hole of the Milky Way and the galaxy itself revolves around the center of gravity of the local group, that represents a tiny part of the space-time continuum of one of the many possible universes, never sinks in. Astrophysics and Astrobiology, arguably the most progressive of scientific disciplines of the present, still invest significant resources looking for Earth’s twins and Human’s alter-ego, across the universe. They argue that life will be found on an “Earth-like planet,” rocky with a density of 5.5 grams per cubic centimeters, revolving around a “Sun-like” star in the “habitable zone,” that affords the same temperature and radiation shields, with an atmosphere replete with oxygen and oceans with plenty of water to drink, bathe and perform religious ceremonies. Such is the power of homocentrism that leading science fiction writers find extra-terrestrials travelling to Earth to be similar to humans - eyes, legs, hands and a brain, supported on long and flexible necks, albeit with a different skin color, something humans hold dear. The less sophisticated ones create crafts that travel across space-time and find creatures, well dressed and fed, ready to converse in English.

The discovery of thousands of exoplanets has led to a feeding frenzy and heart-break for most for they are yet to find something with the precise dimensions and density of their beloved home. Exolife has eluded them and this has forced them to lower some standards. Some are now willing to accept that the Sun is no ordinary star and that there are ten times as many dwarf stars as Sun-like stars with one-tenth the energy, occupying space near and far. This has expanded the “habitable region,” where Earth’s twins would be found, albeit such a discovery may not be as exciting. On that Earth, just next door, orbiting a dwarf, they still hope to find organisms, animals and human clones of similar proportions, aerobic and hydrophilic, living, fighting and killing each other, occasionally looking for their twins elsewhere. They are ready to sacrifice the Sun but not the Earth, an ironic twist to the story of “scientific discoveries.”

Homocentrism, the curse of humanity, may have substantially limited humans.