Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, June 21, 2013

Single City

A recent study from the Santa Fe Institute shows that cities are excellent systems – they are efficient social reactors and networks. As they grow, they make larger and denser social webs available to each participant, without any additional effort from the individual. The study does not suggest any diseconomies to scale and maximum limits.

Conceptually, then, the larger a city is, the better. This implies that the best design for humanity is to establish a single city that houses all of the World’s population – about 7 billion currently. To reduce extra-terrestrial risks from such a concentration, perhaps a second city can be established, at a location diametrically opposite to the first one. The second city, a mirror image of the first, could be left vacant for emergency use only. With distributed 3D printing, conventional manufacturing can be eliminated. Power production can be designed at mega scale with concentrating solar and wind farms away from the city, with efficient transmission back. Vertical farming may allow food production in close proximity. Excess power production may ultimately eliminate the need for farming, with instant conversion of power to food or direct consumption of energy instead of food.

With a single city design, most of the World can be returned to its original state. Such a system will have higher diversity and associated flexibility to mend itself after shocks.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Predictive scans

A recent study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that brain scans before and immediately after the initiation of a treatment hold valuable information to predict efficacy. Both the discovery and the practice of medicine, still, largely depend on trial and error. Multi-factorial complex responses of the biological system to CNS therapies have resulted in significant noise in the collected behavioral data – creating havoc both in R&D and in healthcare providers, not to mention the payers. The process of inventing and applying medicines for mental health seem fully antiquated in the presence of available technologies.

Pharmaceutical R&D and healthcare, albeit being technologically advanced in certain dimensions, have been lagging in the analysis of available information. PET scans, an old technology, show brain activity in highly analyzable matrix, providing an almost instantaneous path to measure efficacy of a drug. Such scans may also provide a method to determine optimal dose, something that researchers were forced to ignore. The 7 billion specimens of humans across the world show such genetic diversity that it seems unlikely that popping a standardized amount of the NCE within standardized time intervals, will be optimal treatment.

It is time both R&D and the practice of medicine embraced the tools of analytics – something boring engineers have been accustomed to for many decades and it has resulted in handsome returns.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Democratic network

Recent research from the City University of Hong Kong and the School of Management, at Beijing Normal University, shows that the click stream is not dominated by a few hubs – but rather smaller and relatively unknown websites could have significant influence on network traffic. The basic notion of scale – still a dominant theme of strategy for consulting firms and business schools alike - has been irrelevant for over two decades. Somehow, the PowerPoint gurus of corporate board rooms, have been a bit slow in recognizing it. And, they have been successfully draining shareholder value in fees and escaping before the owners are able to recognize the scheme.

Two basic ideas – content is important and people are not stupid – have escaped many. The “hubs” - some perfecting algorithms through neural nets trained to seek cat videos and others spawning cloud capacity like escaping water from the Amazon, may have missed the mark. Scale does help you but it is not a life saver. Content is more important and increasingly content is inversely correlated with scale. As the knowledge content of society increases, business models based on legacy ideas and those frozen in time – either mesmerized by monopoly profits or just sheer ignorance, are bound to fail. Such enterprises, akin to autocratic regimes with little understanding of optimal polices, are now run by people who have lost touch with reality. As they yahoo themselves to mediocrity, some demanding physical presence at the workplace and others counting earnings per share – apparently believing it is the most important metric, there is life beneath.

Democracy – a concept that never fails to bring the best possible outcomes – will continue to dominate networks, societies and the universe.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Complex stability

Recent research from the University of Southampton shows a mechanism that self-stabilizes complex systems – such as the Earth’s environment. When the system and its participants are affected, a control system emerges to stabilize the environment. This has implications for many different systems including the financial markets and large companies.

If the financial system is akin to a self equilibrating complex system, that would mean that it is more likely to mend itself after shocks. This means that there is a strong mean reversion in asset prices after shocks. This will challenge the assumption that asset prices follow random walk and this may cast doubts on the efficient market hypothesis. Similarly, predictions of the demise of large and complex companies are premature as unknown mechanisms appear to sustain them and their participants even though most do not demonstrate competitive advantages outside monopoly power.

In general, it appears that the higher the complexity of a system, the more likely that it nourishes self-equilibrating control systems that kick in after shocks. Complexity could be a valuable survival trait for inefficient and naturally unstable systems.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mathematical language

Recent research from the University of Texas demonstrates how Markov logic chains could be used to assign a probability of “closeness” of a word or phrase to a paraphrase. This appears to finally break the shackles of determinism and prescriptive rules in natural language processing. Decades of lull in artificial intelligence could be attributed to those trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. Chess and Jeopardy have given certain technologies respect they do not deserve. More importantly, research in that direction holds everything back. It is unclear if computer scientists will ever accept that intelligence is not rules based.

Intelligence, however, is not rules based. Engineers with traditional training find it hard to move away from this concept just as the business students who were given antiquated methods to determine the value of something, fail to consider alternatives. This is a significant failure of the education system that appears to favor the past and discount the future. Why else would we have people in venerable companies stuffing rules into hardware in an attempt to beat a human or business students who adorn spreadsheets with numbers neatly adding up, down and sideways as if it means something. Language is a good example of chaotic outcomes that start with simple patterns. Incremental addition of random noise renders it completely incomprehensible to those with linear brain waves.

If the education systems are not able to catch up with the present, we may be fast approaching a regime in which education has negative value.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Fast decisions

Recent research from the Laboratory of Behavioral Ecology and Evolution at Seoul National University demonstrates that birds, specifically magpies, make fast decisions based on human gaze. Clearly, selection advantages have provided them with the ability to both collect and process information from human gaze efficiently. Although the human gaze, on the surface, appears to be a binary phenomenon – present or absent, it is possible that the birds may be using finer details of the available information in the decision processes.

If the speed of decision-making is a skill that is passed on from generation to generation, then, it should point to observable differences in the bird brain. If the skill has been improving over time, then, it is unlikely that it is an acquired skill. If the structure of the brain, indeed, is changing, it is interesting to think about what is happening in the case of humans. The speed of decisions was critical early in human evolution but it seems less important now. If evolution did select for speed, then the current crop of humans are thrust into an unfamiliar environment. Excluding certain war situations, video games and financial trading (that is largely taken up by computers), the quality of decisions is more important than the speed of making them. In other words, the magpie that is able to discern finer shades of human gaze by analysis may ultimately win the game. 

Trigger happy Homo-sapiens may have been successful in eliminating slower Neanderthals but one has to wonder if this is another evolutionary quirk, that resulted in sub-optimal outcomes.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Stress-less belief

Research from the University of Oxford, recently reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrates that “the belief in science,” increases with stress. In trials where subjects were known to be stressed in the experimental group compared to the control, they found that the stressed group are more likely to agree with seemingly innocuous statements such as “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.” This points to the general observation that it is “belief” that acts as the stress reducer. An equal number of people may be using “the belief in religion” in a similar vein.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Early days of homo-sapiens were not pretty – animals and cannibals were hunting them down and stress was the primary attribute of living. One had to believe to survive, for without it, everything looked bleak. Burdened with a powerful organ, an evolutionary quirk, humans could look forward and see a worse tomorrow. The uncertainty was constant and they were completely ill-equipped to survive in the environment they were afforded. The elements reduced them to less than a few thousand – before inexplicable luck launched them higher from near extinction.

Stress has been with humans ever since. And survival, thus, selection depends much on how to reduce stress. Belief has become a critical defense mechanism in this battle. They started believing in inanimate objects that resembled something. As society developed, they moved onto legends and stories – that will someday morph into organized religion. Then, science arrived – with similar but potentially superior constructs that could explain what is observed. It slowly ate into the market share of the dominant provider of belief – religion. Science, however, could never appeal to the masses as belief is not about explaining the present - it is more about obscuring the future. The inability of science to give meaning to ignorance will likely hold it back for ever.

Believe to reduce stress – it does not matter what one believes in.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Technology lift

A recent study from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras argues that making cheap tablets available to millions in India may lift them out of poverty. This is a path worth pursuing as poverty is fundamentally driven by lack of access to information and capital. The competence and even desire can be shown to be uniform across the masses but market failures in information have held nearly 1/3 of the world’s population back and pinned them to incurable poverty. This is a shame for a civilization claiming to have made progress in virtually every dimension but has little to show for it.

Lack of access to information is the worst contemporary societal disease, as it leads to poverty, disease, crime and moral decay. As the leaders of countries across the world clamor to build and enhance physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges, they forget the leverage afforded by improved information infrastructure. The world has already moved on from the need for physical transport to mental engagement. With 3D printing around the corner, the trucks, trains and airplanes that carry physical goods are about to become obsolete. Further, with computer languages and mathematics rendering the world flatter than a pancake, the only advantage remains to be in information and knowledge.

If the IIT hypothesis holds good, then the distribution of millions of tablets across the country at $50 a piece, may usher in a wave of innovation. If the leaders of the country are serious about making a difference, here is a golden opportunity to run an experiment that cost nearly nothing. But then, one can never underestimate bureaucratic friction, corruption and sheer incompetence in policymaking, in a country, vastly famous for it.