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Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Water, water everywhere, but…


The recent drought in India that has resulted in one of the major cities, Chennai, effectively running out of water just as Cape Town did last year, is a cause for concern. The proposed solutions appear to focus on water availability and they are likely misguided. The blue planet has plenty of water, but it is brine. So, it is not lack of water that humans should focus on but rather how to remove salt and other impurities from this abundantly available resource on Earth.

Just like many other contemporary problems, this could also be solved by cheap energy. With an efficient Hydrogen furnace in close proximity, an advanced civilization would have reached technology that can emit zero cost energy. Unfortunately, humans are still clinging on to the concept of unearthing and burning highly toxic Carbon for their tactical needs. For humanity to advance, it has to set a goal on close to zero cost energy production as that will solve many problems threatening their very existence, including rising temperatures.

However, policy-makers and politicians are not sufficiently schooled on how the complex habitat react in non-linear ways and why feel-good actions are ineffective. For example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the current levels will have no measurable effect on outcomes. That window has been closed a long time ago. So, all the noise around policies and accords world over is just that, noise. Of course, it makes many feel good that they are doing “something.”

The more important thing to focus on is technology – how to terraform Earth back to its original condition. There are plenty of ideas available but it will take resources and a focus on research and development. And, R&D should move into exotic and untried options, not conventional ones to simply suck the bad stuff out and sequester it underneath. On a planet suffering from plate tectonics and idiotic human actions, it is unlikely that the bad stuff will stay down for long.

Advanced R&D is sorely needed not only to mend a broken planet but also to assure its inhabitants have life-giving fresh water forever.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Quantum pipe-dream

Quantum computing (1), possibly the only leap humans could take to reach many of their overblown expectations in Artificial Intelligence and elsewhere, is a pipe-dream. Humans are likely to find extra-terrestrial life before they will be able to parade sufficient number of q-bits to make practical computing. And, the ETs have been hiding so effectively from the space agency that they are unlikely to show up for many decades.

To make quantum computing possible, educational institutions need to redesign their curricula bottoms up. Spending years of learning Newtonian and even relativistic Physics does not lead to insights in the quantum world. The fact that most gravitate toward the "knowable," perhaps because of the ease of achieving doctoral degrees and tenures, does not mean that it is the right way to go. Meanwhile, they are building bigger and longer tunnels all around the world, smashing particles against each other to find new ones, listening to gravity waves by hanging mirrors and in their spare time, shooting robots at nearby planets and satellites to find the ever-elusive ETs. All of these activities are misguided. The latest theory postulates complete ignorance of humans and it is just that most do not want to think about it.

Humility could help humans reach the next stage. Backfilling darker matter and energy to hang onto to the contemporary faulty theories is symptomatic of the deterministic era. As the particle zoo grows faster than popping corn kernels in a popcorn maker and the water bodies way below the Earth's surface sit waiting for the particles that are unlikely to show up, humans have to admit ignorance.

It is time to wipe the slate clean and start-over. Initial conditions set a century ago may provide useful guidance.


(1) https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-problem-with-quantum-computers/

Friday, June 21, 2019

Revisiting AI for Policy

Policy making, a complex activity that needs to consider large amounts of disparate data and optimize within constraints in the long and short run, is likely better tackled by Artificial Intelligence. Humans, let alone politicians, are notorious for their unsubstantiated biases, conflicts of interest and lack of decision-making abilities in the presence of uncertain data. Machines appear to be significantly better in this realm. A world in which machines make policy choices is likely better than the status-quo, democracy and autocracy included, for decisions made on subsets of data with bias will always be less effective compared to those based on the entire information content, without bias.

More practically, nations may need to deploy AI in the policy making realm, to at least augment decision-making. At the very least, it may reveal how inefficient human policy-makers are, how out of touch they are from emerging information and how they are destroying a world, the next generation will inherit. Such is the promise of AI in decision and policy making, it is almost trivial for machines to reach optimum choices, far superior to what their masters could accomplish. More importantly, machines are able to consider interconnected decisions into the future and use optimum control to reach best current decisions. It will be a far cry from the octogenarians in capitol hill, unable to read and understand the policy choices they are voting on.

Countries that embrace AI for policy could be the future powerhouses. In this regime, scale does not matter as the smallest and biggest countries in the world could access the same technology. In the limit, such an optimization process may make contemporary segmentation schemes - religions, countries and languages - irrelevant. If so, AI could manage by exception, raising red flags at the right points in time for human actions and guiding humanity to a better place. It could suggest best paths for innovation that will reduce downside risk and maximize upside potential. It could maximize the value of humanity and its fickle environment.

We are augmenting human decision-making with AI in every realm. It is time we provided the same for clueless politicians.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Free Will is Real (1), Really?


A recent philosophical argument that seems to hypothesize that free will is real (1) because of the "existence of alternative possibilities, choice and control over actions," may be faulty. As the philosopher attempts to make a distinction between reductionism and "intentional agency," he seems to have fallen into a "reductionist trap."

Both physics and philosophy suffer from the same basic issues. Decisions, choices, observations, particles and systems do not stand independently. There are spatial and temporal connections among them, disallowing hypotheses based on singular instances. It is not that a human being is making a choice among possibilities that are indeterminate but rather she is forced into a choice by optimizing a sequence of interconnected decisions. Thus, apparent flexibility and control observed at a decision point is an illusion. By dynamic programming, the decision-maker reaches an optimal choice (as defined as utility maximizing for her). That decision is determined mathematically and not by choice.

Physics, now fully infused with determinism and reductionism in spite of a century old theory that shows nothing is deterministic and philosophy, always struggling to prove what has not been defined yet, are both unproductive avenues for humans. They are certainly academically rich but neither in their current posture will be able to advance thinking. To move to a different regime, we need simplification and humility and a macro understanding that humans may be hypothesizing based purely on illusion.

Free Will is Real, Really?

(1) https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/free-will-is-real/

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The trouble with conservation

A recent article (1) articulates how well intentioned conservation policies could have unintended effects. From inception, humans have been attempting to shape the environment, first to their own tactical benefits and then for undefined strategic goals. Humans generally deliver bad outcomes to a plethora of life designs surrounding them and themselves. They like control and satisfaction emerging from their efforts to destroy and then attempting to mend the greenhouse they are part of.

Conservation, the darling of millennials and those following them, could turn out be a bad thing. Those engaged in these sentiments also do not like "markets," and would like to set everything "right." What they may be missing is that there is a cost to playing with nature and humans do  not appear to be smart enough to predict the effects of singular actions on a highly non-linear and connected system.

Good intentions are necessary but not sufficient for better outcomes. More importantly, the idea of manipulating a complex non-linear system with linear policy choices is fraught with danger. The universe appears to be anchored on "markets," as illustrated by evolution. However, it is too crude and thought experiments in the direction of universal optimization may be apt. But ironically, it does not mean that such a state can be reached by incremental manipulation of the status-quo.

Stuck in a trough, humans appear to have bad instincts. Most of them want to climb out of the hole but the policy choices they impart are likely sub optimal and may pull them further down.

(1) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-one-protected-species-kills-another-what-are-conservationists-to-do1/?redirect=1