Scientific Sense Podcast

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

An economic loss to society

The passing of Ronald Coase makes us poorer in our ability to conceptualize complex problems that affect society at large and solve them elegantly. He made two invaluable leaps in economics, while teaching law at the University of Chicago and those insights stood the test of time. “The nature of the firm",” survived through industrial revolution into information revolution providing a simple and complete framework to analyze and understand scale and scope of firms. He will repeat it again in “the problem of social cost,” with a clear articulation of the cost of blind government intervention, with normative prescriptions for auctions and allocations.

The elegance of these observations was astonishing and they left mere mortals, yearning for intellectual stimulation. It has influenced a wave of innovation in economic thinking under the umbrella of Chicago school, where frameworks based on a set of principles yielded tools with broad applications to every aspect of society. This ability to solve problems top-down, uncluttered by data and anecdotes, is a skill that is waning. In the contemporary world of “big noise,” where academics and practioners scramble to create and prove hypotheses, such insights are very rare.

A true economic loss to society - perhaps educators and policy-makers may take a moment to look back and see the brilliance.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dropped call

As the world’s largest democracy attempt to grapple with the problems of its own creation, one has to wonder if the last decade was yet another failed start. From its recent independent beginnings, its incompetent leaders consistently made bad policies – from soft socialism to fully planned societies, with the hope that failed policies elsewhere will work in India. It should be clear by now, that they do not.

Three primary vectors have always held the country back. First, its political elite, with compassion clearly worn on the long sleeves of their home made garments, have always been corrupt – top down. Such a corrupt system simply cannot make optimal policies and a country that claims to be a democracy goes to the poll, mesmerized by a few last names as if it is in some sort of hypnotic trance, and keep electing the same corrupt and incompetent bunch. And second, the one-sided education handed out to the politicians from a few choice institutions in Europe, have sufficiently brain washed even those who may have wanted to do something good. And, finally – a disconnected set of kingdoms, packed into a country for the convenience of the World, still hoards endemic discrimination across classes, regions and sexes.

Central planning does not work, markets do. This simple idea is yet to penetrate those technocrats in charge, still burning the midnight oil to optimize resource allocation and to engineer optimal growth, as if they are the only ones who know how to drive a ship with over 1 billion people to their certain heavenly destiny. The basic idea that past performance is no indication of the future has never been explained to the entire country, that seems to cling to its illustrious past, as if godly intervention will return it to its past glory. It will not.

The prescriptions are simple – open markets, trade freely, shed cronyism, punish corruption and implement a true democracy. Opening markets means clear and consistent implementation of rules – those regulating market failures such as monopolies and those implementing fair taxation and minimal subsidies. Trading freely means it has to get stronger in areas of comparative advantages and not drive its educated populace to industries of fleeting cost advantages, afforded by a protected currency. Shedding cronyism means that it creates organizations that compete on merit and intellectual property and not those manufacturing profits by connections and handouts. Punishing corruption means that it has to get tougher on white collar crime and use powerful disincentives to remove this issue that is eating into its core. And, implementing a true democracy means that the system is able to understand available choices and elect representatives who are the best leaders, irrespective of where they come from and what their last names are.

It is a long shot.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Buggy OS

The rise of humans from available alternative biological systems has been ably aided by a robust Operating System (OS) design. The hardware, sported by the species, was never a head-turner, showing fragility, clumsiness and lack of power to move fast, climb high or lift heavy. However, the installed OS, compensated for these deficiencies, by allowing efficient use of memory, learning and pattern finding. However, on the downside, the OS appears buggy, thanks to ad-hoc evolutionary processes and random mutations.

For starters, at the core, logic processing appears volatile and seems to be prone to errors. To make matters worse, built in learning and error-correction facilities can and does go haywire, producing unexpected and unreliable outcomes. Since these issues are seen across the entire cross-section of humans, they can only be attributed to the OS itself and not the acquired applications. Early adoption of the next generation OS, perhaps thrust into the market by nature without sufficient testing, seems to have provided an edge early but the tight coupling of high level (but rather premature functionality) ended up in a less robust long-term design.

Humans may be sufficiently limited by a buggy and outdated OS. Newer and more powerful applications – education, culture and art - are unlikely to make a fundamental difference, if this is the case.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Recent news that physicists at ETH-Zurich have successfully teleported a large number of qbits, albeit over a short distance, is welcome news for practical quantum computing and telecommunications. It appears that we are fast approaching a possible jump in the application of science, with a theoretical foundation laid down nearly a century ago – something that engineers and technologists have been waiting for many decades. Teleportation and quantum computing have the highest potential to transform the human psyche, currently lost in meaningless wars and less meaningful experiments.

Incrementalism, a disease of modern human societies, has been eating into the potential of humans, substantially lowered by ignorance, conformation, racism and politics. Only a leap in technology that can flatten the ego, wealth and timidity, has any chance of transforming the status-quo. This will not come easy as conventional education and contemporary industry favor less risky mediocrity – most propped up by connections, campaign contributions and charitable donations with tax-breaks. In this toxic pool of influence and 15-minute fame on TED talks, humanity has been held hostage by the blind and the dumb.

Only a leap in technology has any chance of freeing the mind and visualizing the future.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The puzzle

Who solves the puzzle of life, who tries and retries, who fails and starts all over again? Who understands and then forgets? Who begins and ends? Who thinks and dreams? Who starts and then stops, abruptly? Who catches the inevitable and drops it later? Who knows and is then left with the inexplicable? Who predicts and then is challenged by the unpredictable? Who sees and then is blinded by the light? Who listens and then waits for the inaudible?

Who faces adversity and grows from it? Who sees further than what can be seen? Who hears the sound of future and dreams again? Who understands the present and fight for the future? Who knows the unknowable? Who smiles and waits for the unexpected fortune? Who takes a turn and tumbles higher? Who waits for a better tomorrow and forgets a worse yesterday?

It is an interesting puzzle.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Suspended knowledge

A recent paper in the journal of Physical Review Letters, showing a new analysis of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and hypothesizing how the constructs from the existing model – such as dark energy and Neutrinos – could be sufficient to explain them, is symptomatic of the common experimental problem, in which results almost always tend toward ex. ante expectations. This is now common in most scientific disciplines including Physics, Medicine, Economics and others.

Experiments have been useful for most of the scientific pursuit of humans. However, we are fast approaching a regime that has a critical level of knowledge that cannot be improved by experiments. Empiricism and experimentalism have contributed significantly to the acceleration of knowledge in the past. However, the alarming rise seen in confirmation bias in experimental results, across scientific disciplines also point to a level of knowledge saturation bounded by experiments. This is akin to an environmental change and if the human brain is not able to adapt to this new state of knowledge, it stands high risk of stagnation, or worse extinction.

One way to get around this stagnation is to increase the number of experiments designed specifically to disprove expectations. As the value of confirming experiments decline for knowledge creation, experiments that look for yet to be defined needle in yet to be defined haystack have to dominate. The problem, of course, is even in those cases, ex. ante expectations of the haystack and the properties of the possible needle will be corrupted by the status quo. It is possible that humans are unable to make a transition to the next wave of knowledge creation as the current education and industrial systems are simply unable to adapt to the new realities.

It will be sad if we experiment our way through finer and finer measurements of the non-existent, in a state of suspended and stagnant knowledge.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Social automobile

A recent study from Virginia Tech describes how unstructured textual information from online discussion forums and other social media can be mined to unearth vehicle defects. This, in turn, helps quality management professionals to predict impending problems, make decisions and proactively manage safety and quality. This is an area that merits further exploration.

There are two important vectors of possible future innovation here. First, portfolio information from social media, albeit being highly variable and unpredictable at individual level, contains valuable insights to aid decision support. One could imagine similar techniques to predict disease outbreaks and terrorist activities. It has been known that health and law professionals have been taking advantage of social media to support decisions. With improved technologies in unstructured text mining, these concepts can be further developed. In the long run, one has to believe that such technologies will become widely available to the consumers as well.

Second, it also showcases the importance of product quality for manufacturers as any lack of it will be internalized not just by the immediate customer but the populace at large, very quickly. For example, for automobile manufacturers, it is increasingly important that any possible quality issue is identified and corrected before the user of the vehicle knows and blogs about it. In essence, they have to build smart cars, able to self-diagnose problems and communicate them to the manufacturer. Additionally, the manufacturer has to be able to aggregate information at the fleet level to identify any looming quality issue before it affects the user adversely. We may be fast approaching the establishment of social channels for machine-to-machine communications. If manufacturers do not get ahead of this developing wave, they will be consumed by those who do.

It took thousands of years for humans to invent technologies to connect them all together, allowing the emergence of social intelligence. It will take less time for machines to do the same.

Friday, August 2, 2013


Recent simulation of NEST on a K Computer in Japan demonstrated a neural network close to 1% of a human brain. Although this is encouraging and point to the possibility of simulating an entire brain using exa-scale computers in the future, it also raises many questions as to the utility of programmatic simulation of the human brain. It has been a fascination for many ordinary men and women, for ages. A powerful quantum computer, housed in such an efficient space, standing ready to learn and forget, tantalized those who attempted to replicate it in-silica – but is has all been in vein.

Simulation of the human brain by traditional means, using raw computing power, is unlikely to produce insights into its workings. The brain is an efficient quantum computer, not something that possesses very high computing power and memory as measured by traditional computing metrics. Its specs are mediocre at best but it does have a highly sophisticated operating system, that is able to take advantage of its limited capabilities. In the absence of such powerful software, able to adapt to modular and learning apps, some able to reconfigure on demand, it will be less interesting. Failure of the operating system or some critical apps, render the brain incompetent quickly, regardless of its supposed hardware depth.

Sheer scaling of computing power and memory, although a straightforward experiment, is unlikely to yield the mysteries of this remarkable organ.