Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, May 3, 2013

Analyze this!

A recent research demonstrates that application of machine learning techniques applied to brain activity in a dream state do well against activity found in waking responses to visual stimuli (1). In general, visual contents of dreams seem to correlate well with those observed when the brain is awake.

The brain, albeit being a non-linear quantum computer, harbors characteristics that could be understood by traditional techniques. Machine learning techniques have been improving although most are extensions of deterministic statistical methods, engineers have been using for many decades. The observation that even such a crude technology is able to correlate brain states is encouraging and it may imply that the practice, if not the theory, of the brain is understandable. Research into biological and artificial intelligence progressed along opposite directions with little in common. The ability to build robust models from brain patterns that do well in predictions in different brain states could open a path toward collaboration among experts in these different areas.

Convergence in technologies and ideas is the most powerful concept yet. Segmented research is increasingly less productive.

(1) Neural Decoding of Visual Imagery During Sleep
T. Horikawa1,2, M. Tamaki1,*, Y. Miyawaki3,1,†, Y. Kamitani1,2,‡

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Shutting down the brain

Recent research from UCLA demonstrates that rats require less brain power in a virtual reality than in real world. This is an interesting observation. Although the UCLA experiment defines virtual reality in a narrow sense, one could broaden the concept. Conceptually, humans with routine lives are in a sort of virtual reality that requires less brain power to live in and thrive. Such a programmatic life is the norm for most, following traditional careers.

The larger question is whether such an effect has evolutionary implications. If the probability of success is higher when you find yourself in a virtual reality – a repeating game with less volatility – then they are more likely to be selected. Most large companies of today fit the bill. This means that the skills to adhere and optimally shut down parts of the brain that are not useful are the most valuable. If so, it is possible that humans may slide down the brain power curve as they evolve. The brain, already a highly expensive organ consuming 20% of available energy, can only be justified if it is fully deployed. Why buy a super computer if all one needs is a PC running a spreadsheet?

We may be precariously positioned in the evolutionary process, that never led to optimal outcomes in the past. The most likely outcome appears to be more brawn and less brain – a return to the origins for humans.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Recent research from Cornell University hypothesizes that life in the universe may have originated 9.5 Billion years ago. The authors, Alexei A. Sharov and  Richard Gordon do this by looking at trends on Earth and using a linear regression against the Log of the Genome size – a measure of complexity. See the chart below.

This has several implications.

First, with a universe only 13.7 billion years old and suffering from an initial violent epoch dominated by QSOs, this observation means that life initiated at the first available opportunity – just 4 billion years after the inception of the universe. As the solar system does not demonstrate any advantages over numerous other alternatives, it is likely that life originated across the universe, 10 billion years ago.

Second, the only known life progression has taken nearly 10 billion years to reach a level of complexity that aids interstellar communication capabilities. If this relationship holds in the universe, then the complexity of life everywhere may be approximately the same as what is found on Earth. Current capabilities of humans to communicate thru interstellar space are primitive. With similar expected capabilities elsewhere, the chance of a contact is close to zero. Further, current theory allows a very limited window of space-time for possible communications and that further constraints this possibility.

Finally, this observation makes it clear that life arrived in the solar system from outside – perhaps just 4.5 billion years ago. The visitors already harbored sufficient genetic complexity and spread highly successfully. What is not known, however, is whether the progression could have been different given different conditions.

Extra-terrestrial life has been a fascination for humans from the beginning. It appears that the effort expended in this direction is a waste of time. Humans may be better off focusing on how to protect the Earth and borrow sufficient time to evolve into something, bit more interesting.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Quantum efficiency

Recent research from the University of Chicago hypothesizes that quantum coherence may play an important role in the highly efficient conversion of energy in photosynthesis. This is an exciting fundamental finding that may open the doors for the creation of efficient and possibly organic solar cells. This further illustrates that most life, including plants, have figured out how to practically use quantum effects.

Humans are heavily handicapped – as they seek to improve incrementally based on well established frameworks. Most of what we proudly hold as true, are irrelevant and in most cases send us on dead end pursuits. There are enough signs that technologists are on a wrong track to boredom – but they are shackled by an antiquated education system and their prospective employers are chasing next quarter's earnings. This spiral – well constrained by the established notions and status-quo structures, can have only inferior outcomes.

It is ironic that humans are the last ones to the quantum party.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fine tuning emptiness

Recent findings that the universe is older, is expanding slower and it harbors more dark matter than energy compared to what was previously thought, are attempts at fine tuning a model, most are unwilling to let go. The basic idea that the inhabitants of a space-time bubble could not understand the system that governs itself, appears to have been lost. Only imagination, not experiments, has any chance of breaching that hard constraint.

Knowledge, then, could only come from philosophy and imagination, with science and technology delegated to noise created by those who do not perceive the constraints. Ironically, science is most apt at showcasing the constraints even though the underlying theories valiantly attempt to surpass them. There was a fork on the road – perhaps couple of centuries ago - when humanity eagerly marched down the scientific route, that was predetermined to win the tactics but lose the plot. The question is whether there is a possibility of convergence of the different ideas to substantially expand knowledge. That will require an integration of contrasting belief systems – science and philosophy, included.

Not all hope is lost – As a beautiful mind remarked nearly a century ago - “Logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bidding bias

A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that when the bidders are unaware of the characteristics of their competition, they are likely to bid more aggressively – possibly indicating inefficient price outcomes. Although the study was done on bidding in the social channels over tangible products, the finding has implications for the financial markets as well.

By definition, the originator of a bid price on a financial asset in a liquid market does not know the characteristics of the counter-party. Does this mean that there is a built-in positive upward bias (aggressive bidding) in the prices of financial assets? The article does not seem to explain if there is an asymmetry – i.e. are the sellers of assets, equally aggressive, when they are lacking such information? And without that, it is difficult to conclude anything.

However, the finding seems to imply that transaction prices are less efficient when the buyers are sellers are unaware of the counter-party characteristics. An exchange, thus, may induce a level of inefficiency into transactions. This is an interesting area of research and if straight bartering has a higher probability of establishing efficient prices, then, it may have some policy implications.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The accounting FED

Many economists and those less endowed are at the misimpression that the FED has been doing the right things. Little do they know that the FED, whose chairman had the right prescription for the Japanese a full decade ago would suffer from amnesia and take a course, dramatically opposite to it. Salt water freezes at lower temperatures but the brains of those closer to the oceans, do so faster.

Moving money around never increased value for anybody or anything - countries, companies and individuals included. Buying liabilities of the banks and giving them reserves in return that gained interest did not either. As most first year business school students know by now, dressing up the balance sheet does not increase value – for most of the value of an enterprise emanates from its ideas, people and intellectual property – none of which are balance sheet items. Placing accountants on top of companies, countries and monetary authorities are value destroying. Worse, those who are economists but doubt their own ideas could not do any better.

It is time for a monetary revolution – those with brains speculated over half a century ago that the targeting of money supply will lift production and welfare and at the very least keep the incompetent and impotent fiscal stimulus at bay. There is little know-how left, concentrated around the fresh water lakes ever dominated by those who are still willing to imbibe the toxic brine.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Stuck humans

Nearly hundred thousand years of experience does not seem to have done humans much good. As they spend most of their time seeking materials that provide little overall utility and they spend the rest, harming those around them. Disconnected and sparse attempts at culture building resulted in predictable deterioration to mediocrity, over time. Similarly, attempted leaps at knowledge – religion and science – ended in dead ends.

Humans, then, are stuck. They prefer to ignore constant extra-terrestrial threats of collisions, while seeking to gain land from their neighbors. They prefer to ignore the sub-optimized capabilities of disconnected brains, while attempting to pack transistors ever closer together. They prefer segregation to integration and opinions to imagination. They prefer TV to  irrelevant books and sports to documentaries. They prefer to jog while ignoring who cannot and they prefer to dominate rather than think. They look up in the night sky, lamenting the light around them, while ignoring the knowledge underneath. They travel, learn languages and seek variety, while ignoring the neighborhoods and communities.

Humans are stuck – perhaps, that is the essence of being human.