Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Data science blindspot

Recent research from MIT that claims their "data science machine," does better than humans in predictive models is symptomatic of the blind spots affecting data scientists - both the human and non-human variety. Automation of data analytics is not new - some have been doing it for many decades. Feature selection and model building can certainly be optimized and that is old news. The problem remains to be how such "analytics," ultimately add value to the enterprise. This is not a "data science problem," - it is a business and economics problem.

Investments taken by companies into technologies that claim to be able to read massive amounts of data quickly in an effort to create intelligence are unlikely to have positive returns for their owners. Information technology companies, who have a tendency to formulate problems as primarily computation problems, mostly destroy value for companies. Sure, it is an easy way to sell hardware and databases, but it has very little impact on ultimate decisions that affect companies. What is needed here is a combination of domain knowledge and analytics - something the powerpoint gurus or propeller heads cannot deliver themselves. Real insights sit above such theatrics and they are not easily accessible for decision-makers in companies.

Just as the previous "information technology waves," called "Enterprise Resource Planning" and "Business Intelligence," the latest craze is likely to destroy at least as much value in the economy, if it is not rescued from academics seeking to write papers and technology companies trying to sell their wares. The acid test of utility for any "emerging technology," is tangible shareholder value. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Favorable direction for machine learning

Machine learning, a misnomer for statistical concepts utilized to predict outcomes based on large amounts of historical data, has been a brute force approach. The infamous experiment by the search giant to replicate human brain by neural nets, demonstrated a misunderstanding that the organ works like a computer. Wasted efforts and investments in "Artificial Intelligence," led by famous technical schools in the East and the West, were largely based on the same misconception. All of these have definitively proven that engineers do not understand the human brain and are unlikely to do so for a long time. As a group, they are least competent to model human intelligence.

A recent article in Science (1) seems to make incremental progress toward intelligence. The fact that machines need large amounts of data to "learn" anything should have instructed the purveyors of AI that the processes they are replicating have nothing to do with human intelligence. For hundred thousand years, the quantum computer, humans carry on their shoulders, specialized in pattern finding. They can do so with few examples and they can extend patterns without additional training data. They can even predict possible future patterns, something they have not seen before. Machines are unable to do any of these.

Although the efforts of the NYU, MIT and Univ of Toronto team are admirable, they should be careful not to read too much into it. Optimization is not intelligence, it is just more efficient to reach the predetermined answer. Just as computer giants fall into the trap of mistaking immense computing power as intelligence, researchers should always benchmark their AI concepts against the first human they can find in the street - she is still immensely superior to neatly arranged silicon chips, purported to replicate intelligence.

It is possible that humans could go extinct, seeking to replicate human intelligence in silicon. There are 7 billion unused quantum computers in the world - why not seek to connect them together?


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Science of Economics

Many have wondered if economics is, in fact, science. Those who doubt it point to lack of testability and replicability of experiments. Natural experiments in macro systems are often unique and as they say in biological sciences, " a n of 1" is not useful. Further, predictions based on accepted theories often miss the mark. These appear to erect an insurmountable barrier to legitimizing the field of economics.

However, it is worthwhile to explore what is considered to be science. Physics, arguably the grandest of sciences, suffers from the same issues. Sure, human scale Physics is able to make eminently testable predictions based on Newtonian mechanics. Economics could also make such trivial predictions - for example on how demand will change with prices. And, quantum mechanics in the last hundred years has propelled the field further making fantastic and testable hypotheses. Whole industries have grown around it but those with knowledge and associated humility will contend that much remains unknown. In economics, there has been an analogous movement - where uncertainty and flexibility govern and not numbers in a spreadsheet. However, in economics, this has been delegated as something not many understand and thus not fully compatible with academic tenure. That is fair, we have seen that before but that does not indicate that the field is not scientific.

In biological sciences, experiments have been creating havoc. It is almost as if a hypothesis, once stated, could always be proven. In the world of empiricism, this may point to biases - confirmation and conformation - but more importantly in commerce, it showcases a lack of understanding of sunk costs (pardon the non-scientific term). Once hundreds of millions have been plunked into "R&D," the "drug" has to work, for without that, lives of many - if not the patients but the employees of large companies, could be at risk. So, testable hypotheses in themselves, albeit necessary, are not sufficient for science.

The dogma of science may be constraining development in many fields - such as economics, policy, psychology and social sciences. Those who are dogmatic may need to look back into their own fields before passing judgement.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Terraforming the Earth

As space agencies around the world race to the red planet and beyond in an attempt to satisfy ego and ignorance, they may want to focus their limited resources on real tactical problems facing the planet. As those, who had a tough time with science at school, rise to make polices that affect humanity, the danger of human extinction is now more real than ever. To top it off, those who were good at science appear to get real excitement by looking at pictures of the dwarf planet and designing ways to punch a one-way ticket for humans to a planet close-by. Admirable, of course, but completely irrelevant.

It is time NASA had a real resource and portfolio management process. Engineers, albeit being good at what they do, often fail to see the big picture. The risk of an asteroid impact or run-away greenhouse effect are so high in close quarters - it does not make any sense to allocate resources to finding green men in the solar system or among the thousands of exo-planets, that were found recently.  Terraforming the Earth, although not as exciting as the projects undertaken by the space agency, has real utility for humanity. Humans, designed to burn anything they get their hands to, have cooked up a real mess, that would require rectifying. It is a solvable problem if the best technologists in the world put their minds to it and perhaps forget the exploration of the universe for a little bit. Sure, this may not propel careers or pave the way to easy Nobel prizes, but limited resources have to be optimally deployed for the sake of humanity. Additionally, although not as exciting as science fiction including a black hole from the LHC devouring us all, an asteroid impact that could substantially extinguish humans is real. Having “plans on paper” to “bomb the rock” may not be realistic. It may require real technology to nudge the Earth bound catastrophe to safety.  

Those who are responsible and accountable for deploying the limited resources to practical uses may need to refocus their priorities. Ego cannot be part of the objective function, rationality has to be.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Barren universe

Not withstanding the efforts of space agencies and academic institutions around the world to find extra-terrestrial life, it appears that disappointment could be in store for humans. Recent excitement about an exoplanet just 14 light years away is symptomatic of scientific quest that is chasing pre-determined answers. Before turning all listening devices to the “target,” one may want to ask a few questions. If we are seeking human like life there, one has to assume that they are enjoying “Friends” and “Seinfeld” now. And, it is difficult to find fault with them not attempting to make contact. If we are seeking something less or more, then it is unlikely they will be spewing garbage into the airways. In other words, the attempts of humans to make contact are unlikely to be rewarded unless an extra-terrestrial civilization of similar incompetence is close at hand.

Humans, locked into a tiny window of space-time, have been chasing an unattainable dream – intelligent life that could teach them better tricks. As they peak through that microscopic window, they are most likely to see a barren universe, devoid of life and intelligence. Expanding the window, either by new Physics or by constructs deemed feasible with the status-quo, such as worm holes, information travelling at speeds many magnitudes higher than light and quantum entanglement, could provide a way out of these hard constraints.

Finding life in the searchable space-time in close proximity is as unlikely as spotting a needle in a haystack as big as the solar system. Good luck getting there by 2020.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The death of logic

In a country of blue, red and grey
In a land of every possible hue
Where policies are made on the back of a napkin
To satisfy donors and those who may become donors
In a country of red, white and blue
In a land of every possible opinion
Where judgments are made by pictures on TV
To satisfy friends and those who may become friends
In a country of East, West and Midwest
In a land of every possible culture
Where biases are made by location and accents
To satisfy those nearby and those who may move close
In a country of wealthy, poor and the middle-class
In a land of disappearing dreams for most
Where classes segregate by every possible means
To satisfy those who hold similar views
In a country of knowledge, ignorance and mediocrity
In a land of expensive and unattainable education
Where students march in the streets to be heard
To satisfy their own cults and egos
In a country of fake hair, fake stories and fake passion
In a land of politicians and incompetent policy-makers
Where debates are designed to expose the hatred
To satisfy the millions glued to the idiot box
In a country of science, religion and agnosticism
In a land of pretense and wisdom
Where they battle each other for superiority
To win prizes, acceptance and money
In a country of coasts, mountains and plains
In a land of inexplicable space and beauty
Where they battle for the last acre of land
To nourish their own false sense of wealth
In a country of finance, technology and movies
In a land of fraud, fallacy and fiction
Where the suits battle the turtle-necks
To stuff their own pockets and wallets
In a country of such complexity
Where logic is dead and buried
But, somehow, one can’t lose hope
For without it, the world will be in despair

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Proof of simulation

The idea that the universe is a simulation has been in the periphery of cosmology. This is not surprising – every established scientific arena, astrophysics, medicine and economics included, has not been kind to pursuits that questioned the status-quo. This abundant bias, nourished by the ability to publish and win Nobel prices in short horizons, has perpetuated established theories even in the absence of any evidence. Even “theories” that could never be tested has been gaining popularity, within the closed doors of academia, with even less interest to look outside than country club dwellers.

The thought experiment that the universe could be a simulation, however, has been around for over a decade. Some have even suggested ways to test it experimentally. Given that the established theories require 96% fantasy for them to work, it is not too big a leap to go a bit further. After all, thought experiments typically do not require 6 trillion experiments to ferret out an elusive particle and such statistical fantasies have been held as one of the greatest achievements of contemporary humans.

If the universe were a simulation, what would be the properties of such a system? In a sufficiently complex simulation:

1. The participants of the simulation, albeit capable of describing the processes that make the simulation work, will never be able to explain the origin of it.

2. The participants, who could measure the constants that drive the rules of the simulation, will find them finely tuned and held constant.

3. The simulation will exhibit recurring patterns.

4. The participants will find constraints within the system that limit them to certain parts of the simulation.

5. The participants will face an overall hard constraint that does not allow them to get outside the simulated system.

6. The participants of the system will remain unaware of anything outside the boundaries of the simulation for the duration of the simulation.

7. The participants will likely reject the hypothesis that they are part of the simulation.

8. The participants may find anomalies to the rules they have discovered because of the possible flaws in the simulation itself. Such flaws may be patched up over time and the anomalies may disappear.

9.  The system will exhibit no learning.

10. Any excursion – random, planned or induced by the participants, away from the rules, will revert back to the rules.

Within the context of the tiny part of the universe – humans - all these properties appear to be true. Moreover, no current observation negates the hypothesis. Hence, it is likely that the universe is a simulation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Chicago’s moment to leap to the future

With nearly 75% of the US population expressing the idea that racism is a problem for the country, it is clear that the country is in deep thoughts as to how to get rid of the cancer affecting its soul. A modern society, afflicted by the disease of racism, could have a rather pessimistic prognosis. On the other hand, if most of the country sees the problem, then, we can certainly solve it. As they say in medicine, early diagnosis almost always leads to better outcomes. And, in the pain and despair of a horrible incident, Chicago has a unique opportunity to lead the country and perhaps the world out of ignorance and a curable disease through education and the advancement of culture.

Chicago has been at the forefront of advancing emerging ideas in economics, science, arts and journalism. Its educational institutions opened the eyes of those seeking knowledge but the city itself, could not get out of its artificially imposed boundaries, allowing irrational thoughts and actions to percolate through. In the process, they suffered from violence and segmented islands of wealth, information and ignorance. A city, that led in thought and culture advancement has been trailing in practical actions, however. Steeped in political corruption for decades, the city has been losing its just position in history. It will be a shame if one of the greatest cities in the world, sub optimizes itself, not because of lack of knowledge but of the constraints self imposed on itself.

This is Chicago’s moment to leap to the future. It has leaped many times before to open the eyes of the world. Now, it is time for introspection and out of that will come strength to leap again.