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Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, December 28, 2018

Wearing the inside out

A precise definition of consciousness eluded humanity forever. As she stood up in the African Savannah for the first time and took a peak at the star-studded Southern sky, unobstructed by light pollution, she knew there was something more than tactical optimization of a narrow objective function that included food, sex and survival. Consciousness appears to have originated from the individual abstracting herself from the immediate and visible context. Thus, a conscious individual will be more prone to abstraction such as art, literature and music and will be less adept at prescriptive notions as perpetuated by science and technology. It is likely that the industries that drive the economy has less aggerate consciousness compared to society.

As "artificial intelligence," accelerates with a battle being fought on the margins to make machines, "conscious," the technologists have to understand that one cannot impart a property to an object without a clear definition of the property. Consciousness is clearly not appearing, talking and behaving like a human (or a dog), but rather an ability to abstract. Dogs are likely more imaginative than most humans and they are possibly more conscious. A narrow objective function will constrain the originator and most of the world's human population is struggling to cope. The luxury of time to think is an important nourishing aspect of consciousness.

Then, a more important question is whether consciousness is utility enhancing for the individual. A conscious human being will have a higher level of pain as she attempts to optimize within a complex and uncertain context. A conscious individual will not limit her thoughts to countries, religions, races or education. A conscious individual will not extinguish another, be unfair, seek localization and become narcissistic. A conscious individual will seek to unite rather than divide, seek freedom and achieve happiness within a finite time horizon.

Humans do not seem to have very high levels of consciousness nor do they have a definition for it.


Monday, December 24, 2018

Singularity, revisited

As fragmentation rules the status-quo, as hatred defines actions and policies, as incompetence dominates, as ignorance prevails, as uncertainty thumps the known and the deterministic, as science ignores religion, as religion seeks to kill science, as technologists travel to the street for money to invest, as financiers travel to the technologists to fill their sack, as musicians shout and cry without meaning, as cops kill, as the white, black and brown assert why they matter, as the politicians who went to drain the swamp, poison it, as the markets crash, as the homeless shiver, as the sea rises and crashes into the coasts to eliminate life, as the academics write papers of irrelevance, as the doctors attempt to keep their patients on life support, as the physicists make theories of nothing, as the engineers make meaningless inventions, as the graduates of the best schools get elevated in spite of their criminal backgrounds, as the bureaucrat in the lonely island gets lost in separation logic, as the elite drink wine and the rest beer, as the handsome horse rider plans the next intervention, as the purveyor of non-capitalism deals with the one who does not understand capitalism, as the religious leaders lock up their positions by attempting to eliminate those with a different faith, as the ancient island loses humans in droves, as the technologists spread private data as if it is Halloween candy, as the consultants assert they know everything and the investment bankers assert they have all the money, as the universities attempt to recruit the best and the brightest of certain shades, as some dole out tax relief and others take it back, as entrepreneurs struggle and monopolists win, as the young and confused battle against the old and weary, as some try to burn anything that burns and others try to save the burning residue, as the powerful kill those with information and the most powerful stand silently behind, as the world spins in distress in spite of the many exo-planet discoveries, we have reached a discontinuity.

I suspect, this was not the singularity they have been waiting for.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

High-throughput Screening for Energy


The battle for innovation will be won at the intersection of materials and information. The field has been lagging for nearly a century as scientists focused on incremental improvements to established media. Now, there appears to be hope for progress at an accelerated pace (1). Well established techniques in fields such as life sciences could boost productivity in other areas.

Humans have gotten used to relying on nature for materials for half a million years. In the modern world, that substantially curtails their ability to move further. They have been given a matrix of simple molecules and the capability to combine them at will to create new properties and applications. They have been misguided for ever, trying to make gold from charcoal and attempting to fuse hydrogen in a cold test-tube. Industries such as pharmaceuticals that claim to have found "new agents," largely relied on tree barks and soil. It was nature that made the humans tick, albeit at a very uninteresting level.

The ability to custom develop materials to fit desired properties will be an indication of human advancement. It is not the ability to code, to send mechanical toys to nearby planets, to keep the weak and the weary on life support systems, to devise theories of nothing, to postulate the growth and decline of countries, markets and cryptic currencies, to create humanoids without consciousness, to make vehicles that move at the speed of sound or to inject poison to the political swamps.

Next generation materials will redefine the energy and the future of the "tiny blue dot."


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/12/megalibraries-nanomaterials-could-speed-clean-energy-and-other-grand-challenge-targets

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