Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The decision arbitrator

A recent study from Caltech provides tantalizing clues into decision processes employed by humans. Using experimental results, the study hypothesizes that distinct parts of the brain control habits and goal oriented behaviors and that there is an arbitrator region that makes an eventual decision after comparing these potentially conflicting signals. After the arbitrator receives the two signals (decisions), it selects the one that has the highest probability of success given the problem at hand. The authors propose selective activation or inhibition of these regions as well as the manipulation of the optimization logic used by the arbitrator, could result in more effective medicines for brain diseases.

Better understanding of how the brain circuitry works in making decisions is also useful in the design of business processes and complex organizations. Modern companies and technologies require decision-makers to substantially side-step their evolution driven logic engines. Making decisions under significant uncertainty requires logic that does not fit into habits or goal orientation. With the arbitrator lacking historical parallels to modern problems, it is likely to proxy the current unfamiliar situation with a combination of unrelated past episodes, leading to bad decisions, routinely. Multi-factorial uncertainty is indeed a new experience for modern humans and all indications are that they are perpetuating knowledge from an irrelevant past.

Leaders of organizations need to understand the physiology of their own brains and the physiology of the groups of complex humans they are leading, to be effective.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Last men standing – US Graduate schools

A recent report from the NSB (National Science Board) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) portray a gloomy picture for the US – showing the majority of the R&D shifting East and the lion’s share of the technology manufacturing moving to China. Measuring innovation content of countries has always been tricky. For example, the elite engineering schools of India, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), with arguably the first call on the best talent in India for over 50 years, have failed to produce any breakthrough innovation for all of its history. Any misguided comparisons of it to the top graduate schools in the US is just that – totally misguided.

Innovation is not necessarily about technical know-how – it is about the ability to combine multi-disciplinary knowledge into practical stuff. Diving deep, albeit being interesting from a theoretical perspective, has never been proven to be a profitable strategy. Institutions that have contributed to the progress of mankind by high innovation always practiced the art of multi-disciplinary learning. Efficient production of one-dimensional people is not a good thing – neither for the individual nor for the countries that engage in it.

The top graduate schools in the US, continue to be the pillars of open innovation. Stealing and replication can take one only so far.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Efficient designs

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a group of non-experts in aggregate produced designs for RNA molecules that are substantially better that what were created by computer algorithms. Humans have always shown significant capabilities for pattern finding that are unsystematic. However, it has also been shown that perspectives of a single individual are inferior to what could be accomplished by systematic computer searches. So, it is the group of interacting people, albeit being independently imperfect, that shows superiority over machines. The slight imperfections in each provides random excursions in the search space that could get reinforced or negated away by the crowd. In financial markets, this is called efficient prices and in other areas, wisdom of the crowds.

This idea appears to be poorly understood in many areas. In the financial markets, significant value is lost by advice and individual trading of securities, based on the premise that individuals can beat crowd wisdom. In large companies, decisions are made by a few managers without extracting the knowledge that reside in the people who make up the company, based on the premise that they know better and/or the broader information cannot be systematically gathered. In politics, representative democracy destroys value by instituting a small number of decision-makers between the population and policies, based on the premise that the representatives know better and/or the populace cannot realistically express opinions on policies.

The idea is simple. Human crowds are the most powerful logic engines. Neither machines nor a few selected people are going to have any better insights. Humans interacting with machines that allow collaboration and aggregation likely dominate in most areas.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Apparent confusion

Recent revelations of the apparent horizon, trumping the long held notion of the event horizon, is symptomatic of mathematical manipulation and resulting unverifiable constructs. The “theory of everything,” has to include the undeniable fact that physicists, given enough time, will cook up confusion and make it sound plausible. Once stated, the theory can be proven by experimentation – especially by the kind that creates infinite noise that affords any proof.

The assertion that black holes exist is a necessary condition to engage in hypothesizing their properties. After nearly a century, most are still looking for the underlying reasons for dark matter, energy and flow. None has been forthcoming – even in the presence of enterprising engineers hiding their detectors deep under-ground and far above-ground. Papers have to be published, prizes have to be won and egos have to be nourished. Story tellers have become super stars and the “science men,” have pushed the ignorant into the abyss.

The playground of physics has become dirty and it is no different from ignorant politicians attempting to cure the ills of the world.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The entropy of nations

Research from the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) shows that the disparity in per capita energy consumption among nations has been decreasing – now approaching a maximum entimageropy condition, nestled half-way between perfect equality and inequality. The authors argue that this is likely the equilibrium condition for the status-quo.

To jostle nations out of this status-quo equilibrium requires something dramatically better. Alternatives have been threatening to upset the apple cart for long. Short sighted politicians and energy tycoons have been chasing the sun, wind and fire to get an upper hand on the energy equation. If extraterrestrials do exist, humans would be an unsurpassed reality comedy show on their TV sets. How stupid does one have to be to burn fossil fuels that reduce the air they need to live in a constrained greenhouse.

Intelligence is about breaking the status-quo equilibrium condition.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Entangled time

A recent paper from Cornell shows experimentally that time could be an illusion – a property fully internal to the system. Time materializes only in an entangled state, when an observer is entangled with the “clock,” – a mechanism to measure. Using an entangled state of the polarization of two photons, they show that one is able to gauge the evolution of the other, visualizing time. For an observer, outside the system, everything appears stagnant – with no concept of time.

Although conceptually difficult to internalize, the existence of time bothered many in the past. If time exists only if the observer is entangled with the measuring instrument, then, the paradox of increasingly meager life becomes even more ridiculous. If the split between past and future is an illusion, it means that such a distinction is only made by the entangled observer and not anything or anybody else. Such an observer, is in a sort of time jail, unable to escape. Every external participant is unaware of her motion in time.

Lack of time means no emotions or imagination. Did humans need time or was it just an accident? Did the internal clocks of biological systems entangle voluntarily with the universal clock? Was such an entanglement a necessary condition for the formation of life? Is it possible to break out of the constraints of time?

Did time create life or life create time?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Materials genome

Research from Duke indicates that the recently launched “Materials Genome Initiative,” is already beginning to yield results. Their study published in Physics describes a new Platinum group compounds with interesting properties. Humans are finally shaking off the perils of industrial revolution, when scale was the only consideration – mine, smelt, roll, build and sell – to the masses. Early automotive tycoons didn’t even want to color their end products as they feared loss of efficiency.

Lack of progress in materials sciences has held humans back in virtually every field. In computing, packing conventional silicon ever closer to increase speed has led to thermal and quantum tunneling limitations in chip design. In space travel, inelegant designs that use massive amounts of conventional fuel to propel heavy payloads into orbits, has been the norm for decades. In medicine, drug delivery continues to rely on decade long techniques that is akin to carpet bombing with little access to the brain. In transportation, traditional materials based designs are responsible for the highest number of deaths on the road and high energy use in other modalities. Century old building techniques and materials have led to energy inefficient homes aiding accelerating green house effect.

It is time to step back from mass manufacturing to intelligent materials based design in every field.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Social progress

Research from Harvard (1) provides an overall measurement of social progress for countries all around the world. Although there aren’t many surprises in the list, it does point to an overall disparity between social conscience and progress.

The most interesting observation in this empirical study is that no country was able to score in the top half of all dozen components measured including medical care, sanitation, shelter, safety, access to knowledge, information and higher education, wellness, ecosystem, personal rights and equity. This implies that progress in some of these dimensions are negatively correlated with others. Those seeking to design better future societies need to understand the causes of such correlations as well as have an overall view of portfolio management.

The source of negative correlations among factors of progress is likely temporal. The impact one can achieve by investing in certain dimensions is higher than others in the short run. However, such a skewed portfolio allocation may adversely affect overall progress in the long run. Very large countries such as India, pulling up the rear, is symptomatic of its lack of understanding of how to manage a portfolio of seemingly contradictory objectives. Focus on any one area at the cost of others may be useful to win elections for its leaders but it will likely keep it bottled up for decades.

Another large country, the US, albeit being on top, shows that it is necessarily sub-optimizing available opportunities. The immense talent available to it has been constrained by its increasing political and bureaucratic inertia, which if left unchecked, has the potential to bring the galloping nation to slow saunter. Although portfolio management principles are well understood, the current system prevents it from making optimal allocation decisions. The tendency to complicate policy decisions, either because of lack of understanding or for political gains, has created a regime that seems to be controlled by the incompetent.

Good performances by small countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland also imply that scale is a huge impediment to effecting beneficial policy changes. The real question for the countries down the list is how they can take advantage of their size and learn from the mistakes of those showing persistent under-performance.

(1) Michael Porter unveils new health and happiness index, the Guardian.