Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, November 22, 2019

Concentrating Solar: The right first step toward zero cost energy

Nearly zero cost energy is a real possibility for humans living in close proximity to a large fusion device with billions of years of fuel left. However, the immediate need to push away from fossil fuels has led to massive investments into inefficient alternatives such as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. Both of these have inherent limitations and in the absence of hitherto unknown materials, these technologies could never reach the required efficiencies to be useful. This is another reminder that a focus on incremental innovation is not the right approach to solve big problems. Recent news (1) that concentrating solar with an array of reflectors driven by Artificial Intelligence could generate temperatures exceeding 1000 degrees is welcome news. Although initial applications could be industrial, power production cannot be too far behind.

On the other hand, room temperature superconductivity, something engineers have been dreaming about for many decades is yet to materialize. Just like photovoltaic cells, the focus here has been incremental. Because of this, we are not too far from where we were a few decades ago. A few 10s of Kelvin higher temperature, albeit interesting scientifically, has no real practical implications. Rather than nourishing this toward room temperature slowly, engineers should throw out the templates they are working on and start with the requirement of finding superconductivity at room temperature, nothing less.

With efficient harvesting of heat through well designed concentrating solar devices moving toward central power production, it is imperative that we make advances in superconductivity as the transmission and distribution of power will become more important in the future. If concentrating solar wins, we will have to shelve all the contemporary inefficient and costly attempts for distributed power production.

Incrementalism is not a good approach to solve big problems.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

No Artificial Intelligence without Consciousness

Artificial Intelligence, a nebulous area, has been around from the advent of computers. Every decade, aided by increasing computing power and cheaper memory, those who just got out of school start to believe they found something new. Most often, new terms are invented to relabel what has been known forever. In the latest iteration, terms such as machine and deep learning have been trending. More interestingly, in the current wave, a new profession is coined, aptly called, "data science." Consulting firms, running out of ideas, strategies and PowerPoint magic, have been jumping in, to make a fast buck. The larger ones have assembled "thousands of data scientists," to make AI for their clients. The smaller ones have raised many 100s of millions of $ to "change the world." Now that we are approaching practical quantum computing within a decade, the next wave is just about to start. The behemoths, stuck with excess cloud capacity, have been providing "tools," so that they can download the costs of the stranded investments to the users. Unfortunately, all of these could be rendered obsolete in a few years. It may be a warning sign for educational institutions scrambling to create more data scientists on-line or not.

Autonomous automobiles and aircrafts are not AI, they are transportation modalities with a computer onboard. Robots that can put nuts and bolts together, assemble objects of use and occasionally jump in magnificent ways are not evidence of AI, just expert logic embedded in mechanical systems. Fooling people into thinking there is a human on the other side of the telephone is not AI just a set of rules fed into a synthesizer. Machines beating humans in prescriptive games is not AI - they are either a massive set of rules fed into high powered computers or pattern-finding neural nets (some call it deep learning) on steroids. None of these use cases have anything to do with AI, generalized or not. They just make some feel important and make a lot of positive economics for their proponents.

However, we cannot move an inch forward in AI without a coherent theory of consciousness. Engineers have been on a quest to define what they do not seem to understand, by quantitative means. It is possible that consciousness is a property that is externally applied. If so, the entities with consciousness are unlikely to understand it. In the absence of a theory from within, one possible explanation is that consciousness is induced by the simulator of the game. If so, it is likely that consciousness is a democratized property and is not limited to humans, let alone living things. This may explain why humans locked in a mathematical jail seem unable to understand it. 

Those chasing AI may need to spend more time thinking about a possible theory of consciousness. Without that, it is just age-old statistics.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Kids these days (1)

A recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1) demonstrates why the "adults," seem to put the kids down. The article says, "authoritarian people especially think youth are less respectful of their elders, intelligent people especially think youth are less intelligent, and well-read people especially think youth enjoy reading less." As we await the departure of septa and octogenarians from the highest echelons of companies and countries so that we can replace them with kids who have brains, it is important to recognize that these biases of elders are without any basis.

The only hope remaining for the world is the kids who seem to think better, use logic and make better decisions. The idiots in complete control of policies, countries, and companies have to understand that they can be easily replaced by better decision-makers, who are younger by a few decades. The political landscape is changing, and perhaps the "data scientists," are unaware of it. The kids will rise and make the world a better place. They will resist the mafia that is enveloping humanity and culture with evil intent. They will raise against time to prevent an impending climatic catastrophe facing the blue planet. They will attempt to lift every soul and eliminate the constraints for the weak and the weary. They will be humble and treat every individual the same regardless of color, gender or sexual preference.

It is time we turned the world over to the kids.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Why the real billionaire is the right choice?

As the fake billionaire who did not know there are two sides to the balance sheet, creates chaos in the nation's capital, a real billionaire could be the right choice for the country to move forward. Having a good grasp of accounting and statistics are useful for those asserting to be billionaires. To do that, one has to attend schools, not just the "best" ones but those who teach real concepts. A divided country, 40:40:20, with 80% of the population showing little flexibility as they go to the polls, we have only 20% who could analyze policy and capabilities of politicians, typically without a soul, let alone integrity. That could be enough to right the course of a country that led humanity to the best possible places. Those who bet against capitalism and freedom, do so at their own peril. We have already demonstrated that a beautiful collection of diverse people, minds and ideas in an unconstrained setting, lifts everybody.

As a vehicle slips on snow, it is a bad idea to steer all the way to the left or right. We can never underestimate the sacrifice of those who served the country as soldiers and diplomats. As we observe politicians with little desire to assure that we do not lose a beautiful idea approaching 250 years, it is important that we do not give up. To serve humanity, one has to be human first and that does not originate from counting the number of billions in the bank. To be a human, one has to understand the pain that surrounds 8 billion identical specimens across the tiniest blue dot in the most irrelevant corner of an ordinary galaxy in a universe of over 100 billion of them.

As the comedian and coatless wonder congressman from the Midwest, who is able to figure out when somebody is just "joking," shows up in the capital to serve the people every day, but mostly for his singular client, he is banking on the idea that people have short memories as he has many years before attempting to get back. He could be wrong on two things - people do remember and by the time he attempts a return, the place will be swarming with millennials who use logic to make decisions. As the congressman of transparency before he became the secretary, entertains thoughts of climbing to the senate, he has to understand that most people remember. As the guy who wanted to "cleanse and repeat," suddenly got religion in the opposite direction, may need to consider that even in safe zones, people have integrity and they remember.

People will remember and we are not about to lose over two centuries of hard work.

Monday, November 4, 2019

A closed universe?

Recently released Plank data (1) appears to point to a closed universe. This may be the impetus needed in cosmology to move away from accepted ideas and models. Nearly all the proposed hypotheses to explain away observational discrepancies in the last forty years, albeit beautiful in construction, have been untestable and thus useless. The only real information out there for next-generation cosmology is the cosmic microwave background. Rather than building the next heavy steel particle smasher, physicists may want to spend more time analyzing the data emanating from Plank and other sources. It has been speculated that even ideas such as the multiverse could be proved if certain patterns are found in the CMB.

If the universe is indeed closed, it may open up realistic ways to think about its origin and ultimate demise. As the human mind is limited, it simply cannot internalize an infinite universe. It would be ironic if we find that the contemporary physicists were akin to humans venturing out of Africa assuming flat earth. The presumption of a flat universe in combination with observations has led to a lot of hypothesized dark entities - matter, energy, and even flow. Perhaps it is time to step back and recraft many of these questions within a geometry with positive curvature.

The next step in knowledge is in data and the ability to formulate, simulate and test mathematical models. It is not going to come from plunking down billions of $ for the next smasher in the middle of a growing particle zoo. If a particle is hypothesized, it will be found and the one who said it first will get a Nobel prize.