Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The human algorithm

Biological evolution, speculated to be a mechanism to improve the operating system of Earth based life, by massive parallel experiments, may be running out of steam. Lack of future slope in incremental benefits may lead to a stalemate or more likely a retreat to previous and more stable states. The human algorithm shows significant instability, having specialized more in the individual and less in systems. Individual’s objective functions tend to be simplistic and tactical, primarily bound by hard constraints, such as expected and predictable life span. Meanwhile, society, with inexplicable false expectations, languishes.

The human algorithm, imperfect at best, shows no signs of improvement over time. Individual's objective function has largely remained the same for over hundred thousand years, with a few clear goals. Occasional excursions into irrational arts and science have been quenched quickly, with bone numbing efficiency. They extricated the few individuals who asked questions and then innovated ways to cleanse entire swaths of gene pools, who disagreed. Improvements in the operating system itself were delegated to fancy apps with attrition rates that rival fruit flies. Optimism was replaced by fear, appropriately so, with octogenarians making policies and taking courses in gerrymandering.

The human algorithm, inefficient and stagnant, requires motivation to move to the next quantum state.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Singularity, suspended?

There appears to be less noise in the airways about the impending singularity, recently. Perhaps, reality is sinking in, yet again. Many times in the past, humans have been lured by the exponential curve – some looking forward, ready to shake hands with ET and watch robot football. Others, looking backward, have been lamenting about the world running out of gas (fossil fuels, that is) and all associated problems. The exponential curve has led many astray.

The human brain, albeit a quantum computer, still remains limited in its ability to take advantage of exponential trends. For over 100 thousand years, they have been living in a linear progression, devoid of any major discontinuities. Apparent modern discontinuities – airplanes, computers and the internet – may have changed the slope incrementally, but the baggage carried by the human brain and psyche, will all but assure that there is no exponential ride for the race. They are prone to mean revert in any stochastic regime and the volatility afforded by the increasing stock – now approaching 8 billion – could all but assure they remain grounded.

As a minority in an ego bubble, worry about the singularity - for most, it is still, simply suspended animation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Same beat, different drums

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that dozens of statistical universals are present in music from all around the world. The authors argue that all music are constructed from the same building blocks. They also hypothesize that music brings people together and it has been acting as a social glue. Regardless, the statistical observations are interesting.

It has been intuitively obvious that humans have an affinity to rhythmic beat but the observation that statistical universals exist across all genre of music is intriguing. Music, perhaps, a precursor to the more structured and rigid language, has spanned evolution, as many animals show an equal or higher level of skill. Human societies, fragmented by language and culture, could find common ground in music – a more foundational protocol of communication. The fact that the shape, type and color of the drums carried by different cultures do not matter as they produce the same beat, may come as a surprise to those trying to cling to meaningless differences.

Music, foundational to human culture, could be a powerful mechanism to bring people together. It could be more effective than older concepts such as religion and emerging tools such as science.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Wasting resources

A recent article in Child Development shows what has been obvious to many – stressful home environments have significant deleterious effects on a child’s development. Since such low level stress is generally negatively correlated with income and wealth, children from the lower economic strata are at a much higher risk of this phenomenon. As the technologists and politicians strive to build a “better society,” they are completely ignorant of the most important resources, being wasted – children.

As more than one third of the world’s children, impacted by lack of food, shelter and education, struggle to make sense of a system that seems to be moving backwards with lack of empathy and knowledge, we are fast approaching a stalemate. The intelligentsia, appear to understand the mechanics of Net Present Value (NPV) for their pet projects, but often miss applications of finance and economics for policy that may positively impact society. Even the Nobel Laureates from the “Chicago School,” famous for seeing beyond the mountains, seem to have lost the desire to make a fundamental change. Tacticians galore and in the process, we are losing.

Any policy, that does not have a positive impact on malnourished, undereducated and stressed children, occupants of this planet tomorrow, is not worth pursuing.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Societal memory

Recent finding that amnestic mouse brains are able to recall lost memories is encouraging for those with Traumatic Brain Injury and Alzheimer’s disease related memory loss. Lost memories, perhaps, the most costly aspect of human societies, have not been studied in sufficient detail. For most of the history of homo-sapiens, downloading memories was central to their development – with the village elder willingly transmitting knowledge to the chosen few of the next generation for perpetual propagation. Modern humans, virtual slaves to technology, seem to have lost the art of memory storage and propagation, yielding to the least effective mechanism for the same, computers.

Memories, that encapsulate experience and knowledge, are misunderstood by humans on a treadmill to nowhere. The rat race keep them occupied for most of their lives, unable to make memories or to appreciate those who create them. A society that is unable to store and propagate memories is not sustainable, for its content will be left undefined and its tactical accomplishments, fleeting. A human, the combined total of chemicals worth less than $25, is nearly worthless without memories – her own, or those of her society. In spite of all their technical accomplishments, humans will drift endlessly if they could not figure out how to create, nourish, store and utilize societal memories.

Memories – most valuable but least understood resource of a society – may ultimately define the path humans could take.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Inelegant science

Science, perhaps the only accomplishment of modern humans, is affected by the collective myopia of scientists – the tendency to spend too much time on details and little on larger questions. For example, recent revelations that indicate that the universe is so finely tuned to be flat that even an addition of a single gram of mass into the system could substantially change its future, seem to have gotten little attention. Attempted descriptions of dark matter, energy, flow and tilt – with heavy and incomprehensible mathematics is the status-quo. Some at space agencies world-wide get too excited about sending a craft to Mars or designing a sojourn with Titan. If one cannot answer the larger questions, it does not matter if the atmosphere of Europa could be finely measured. Answering, larger questions, however is more difficult.

Details, often the noise that destroys elegant solutions, have been dominant in every field. One could argue that an elegant, simple solution to the larger question, even if it is incorrect, is much more valuable than adding yet another particle to the zoo to explain phenomenon that will remain inexplicable with existing theories. Humans seem to be evolving downward, adding skills that aid detailed analyses – but losing the ability to see the bigger picture. Part of the blame has to go to educational systems worldwide – masters of creating cogs in the wheel, adept at taking standardized tests and soaking up text-books from the past, most of which have become irrelevant. Further, hiring managers in the dying behemoths, trained at conventional techniques prefer those who can deliver next quarter’s earnings at the expense of a valuable enterprise. 

We could be tending toward a world of engineers, doctors and scientists – who have no interest in answering why we are really here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Light chip

Recent research from the University of Utah seems to get closer to silicon photonics and faster light based processors, many orders better than conventional products. Splitting light has always been easy but Utah engineers have accomplished it with beam splitters of a mere 2.4 microns of size. This may propel us out of the ongoing rat race of packing silicon ever closer on conventional chips for less interesting performance improvements.

Moore’s law, held sacred by technologists and used by exponential curve plotting, singularity seeking intellectuals, for stupid predictions, may have done significant damage to the psyche of innovation in electronics. Humans, grand optimizers of their limited life horizons, always fall into the trap of incrementally improving what is available. They appear to be satisfied with metrics that double over long horizons – such as years and this is in stark contrast to their keen awareness of limited time. With less than a thousand months of life span, a metric that doubles every 18 months appears so much less interesting than one that explodes by a few orders of magnitude in the same horizon. More importantly, doubling computing power in 18 months with no perceptible impact on existing applications is a waste of time.

It is time to throw out processes that grow within the same orders of magnitude every year – they will certainly employ people, but they will not make any difference to humanity.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Accent inefficiency

A recent study from the University of Washington at St.Louis, speculates that accents may have a high negative correlation to comprehension and recall to a population, that is native. If true, this is a significant loss of efficiency for 8 billion people, worldwide. Humans, already reeling from a plethora of disconnected languages and incomprehensible accents, seem to have painted themselves into a corner. Language, the foundation of communication that propelled humans away from their close cousins, chimps, may be their Achilles’ heel – as they struggle to understand each other.

And, most humans do not understand each other. Their natural inclination, driven by evolutionary forces, has been to distrust anything that is foreign – structure and accent. The segmentation schemes they have been able to invent – countries, religions and now, accents – have kept them bottled up from progressing any further for nearly hundred thousand years. As they take pride in their understanding of the universe, computers that run faster than ever, aluminum tubes that propel them across continents and into space, medicines that keep them alive and in pain for an incremental five years and ego that keep them stressed for ever, they are worried primarily about color, language and accents.

As the space agencies search for dominant extra-terrestrials across space-time, as the intellectuals seek a meaning for life, as physicists seek the next particle from heavy bombarding, as economists seek to define how money flow from one to the other, as chemists and biologists seek to keep the dying human on life extending machines, one has to wonder if a world with a singular language and indistinguishable accents could have made a difference.