Scientific Sense Podcast

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Biology meets computing

The ease of biological manipulation by chemical means has held life sciences companies back for over a century from exploring the system, that is equally receptive to electromagnetic interventions. Recent news that GSK has partnered with Alphabet to advance the field of bioelectronics is encouraging. The idea is to impart electrical signals to neurons by micro implants to cure chronic diseases. Although it is a profitable path to pursue, some caution may be in order.

There is a long history of engineering experts attempting prescriptive interventions on biological systems with an expectation of deterministic outcomes. Humans are generally good in engineering and traditional computing but biological systems do not behave in such a predictable fashion. Their engineering competence comes from selection, in which simple tools based on Newtonian Physics let them survive the harsh environment they were in for nearly hundred thousand years. The modern game is distinctly different and it is unlikely that they possess the skills to fast track with the hardware they have built up. With "Artificial Intelligence," soaking up the air waves, it is important for technology giants to bias toward humility. As projects such as "death cure," so slow to come to fruition so as to annoy the technologists behind it, perhaps getting not too excited about curing diabetes through neuron stimulation is a good idea. After all, nature took four billion years to get here, albeit, it was without a computer farm that soaks up a high share of the world electricity production. Competing with nature is likely to take a bit more than that.

The convergence of biology and computing is unavoidable. However, it is unlikely to be advanced by those with stagnant notions of either field.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The inverted U

The value individuals add to society appears to be in the shape of an inverted U. On the high end - philosophers, scientists and technologists, who seem to know everything, appear to add very little of practical value. Recently, a scientist remarked, "when we found the gravity waves, the whole world stopped," unaware of the fact that most of the world did not know or care. On the low end, ignorance is as dangerous as cyanide, as ably demonstrated by contemporary politicians. In this scheme, the highest value to society appears to come from those in the middle - not too ignorant and not too arrogant. On both ends, there is a common factor - a brain that is idle, because of either stupor or conceit.

To maximize the value that individuals contribute to society, it appears that they have to be lifted from the abyss of ignorance or shown a practical path down from the mountains. The perception of knowledge is as dangerous as a lack of awareness of ignorance - for both result in a loss of value to society by a lack of contribution. The former, locked behind ivy walls, lament at a world of ignorance and the latter, aided and abetted by their leaders, scorn at knowledge. In the middle, humans of blood and flesh, are caught in a time warp they simply could not escape. Apathetic and lethargic, the middle withdraw from media events and elections and watch from the sidelines. This is a movie with a sad ending - dominated either by the ignorant or the arrogant, with little to differentiate between them.

Neither abundance nor lack of knowledge add societal value. Those who are aware of their limitations, do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Simplified diagnostics

Research from Columbia (1) indicates that impairment in odor identification portends cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer's disease. This appears to dominate more prevalent PET and MRI scans for the diagnosis of these ailments. This is a constant reminder that humans are far from mastering the workings of the organ they carry on their shoulders by engineering and scientific means and simpler measurements of inputs and outputs dominate such mechanics.

The human brain has been an enigma. It consumes vast amounts of energy and often produces little utility - either to the immediate host or to society at large. It effectively delegates routine affairs to the vast Central Nervous System attached to it by a thread and maintains a small garbage collection mechanism within itself to keep track of the estate it manages, automatically. Often, it gets bored and shows signs of over-design, a quirk of evolution that endowed it with vast processing power by incorporating quantum computing in a small and efficient space. Lack of large memory has allowed it to venture into the production of heuristics and showing signs of intelligence. But acceleration in technology and society has stretched it, lending some functions of importance irrelevant and elevating the irrelevant to importance.

Its decline is painful to close observers but not necessarily so for the host, herself. In a regime that disallows rolling back time, the objective function has to be minimizing pain - physical or emotional. A system that pragmatically allows such an outcome by its own deterioration can only be considered good. Diagnostics that does not require cutting open the delicate organ or injecting it with radioactive materials may be the best, for the recognition of the start of decline of this beautiful machine is not necessarily good for the host nor for close observers.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Shining a light on a black hole

Research from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) (1) hypothesizes a measurable and elegant difference between a black hole and a compact object. The event horizon of the black hole, defined by the Schwarzschild radius, is significant - anything slightly bigger shows fundamental differences in behavior. A beam of scattered particles shows discrete spectra in the presence of a compact object that escaped collapsing into a black hole. If it were a black hole, it will be in a constant process of collapse, with a complete stoppage of time for an external observer, resulting in a continuous and smooth spectra.

The concept of a black hole has been an enigmatic thought experiment for physicists and amateurs alike. Contemporary theory fails in the singularity and speculates a stoppage of time inside the event horizon, something that cannot be fully envisioned by humans trained in the practical regime of Newtonian Mechanics. A black hole will never stop collapsing from an external perspective and so there cannot be any question on a black hole. Theories that attempt more detailed explanation beyond the event horizon is fantasy - just as the mathematically elegant string theory that cannot be tested. In spite of all the engineering progress in the last hundred years, fundamental understanding has remained akin to a black hole - in suspended animation. A handful of men and women from the turn of last century remain to be responsible for most of the abstract knowledge that humans have accumulated. The reasons for this is unclear but lack of imagination appears to be the prime suspect.

Fooling around with mathematics may give contemporary scientists satisfaction but explaining the stoppage of time will require more than that.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

You are what you learn

Recent research from MIT (1) shows that the underlying attributes of music – consonance and dissonance – are not hard wired. Contrasting preferences of tribes with little exposure to Western music such as some Amazon tribes and those with gradually increasing exposure, culminating in accomplished American musicians, they prove that the preference toward consonance over dissonance is learned. Music, thus, appears to be personal and preferences largely generated by experience rather than an innate mechanism in the brain.

In the contemporary regime of accelerating data, the brain is bombarded with an information stream, it was never designed to tackle. An intricate quantum computer, specialized in pattern finding but with rather limited memory, the brain has been stretched to undervalue its advantages and it has been struggling to keep large swaths of data in its limited memory banks. The learning processor, however, has been able to efficiently design and store information in heuristics and dump the underlying raw data as fast as it can. As it loses history, the stored heuristics drive function and generate preferences, as if they are part of the original operating system.

The finding has implications for many areas not the least of which is in the treatment of Central Nervous System (CNS) diseases such as racism, alcoholism and ego. Fast discarding of underlying information due to a lack of storage capacity, prevents back testing of learned heuristics. A limited training set of underlying data could have irreversible and dramatic influences on end outcomes. More importantly, a brain that is trained with misguided heuristics, cannot easily be retrained as the neurons become rigid with incoherent cycles.

You are what you listen to, you are what you eat and more importantly, you are what you learn.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The failure of finite elements

Engineers and mathematicians, with a core competence in building complex structures from elemental and standardized components, have had a tough time with domains not amenable to prescriptive and deterministic logic. These include high energy physics, biology, economics and artificial intelligence. The idea that the behavior of a system cannot be predicted by its components is foreign to most disciplines and the applications of such hard sciences, supported by engineering and technology.

In complex organisms such as companies, it has long been recognized that outcomes cannot be predicted by an analysis of its components, however standardized they may be. The “rules of engagement,” if not defined in elegant and closed form mathematics, appear to be less relevant for those seeking precision. However, there is almost nothing in today’s world that could be defined so precisely and the recognition of this concept is possibly the first positive step toward embracing reality.

The interplay between physicists wanting to prove century old predictions and engineers standing ready to prove anything by heavy and complex machines, has been costly to society. The interplay between biologists and chemists wanting to influence systems with precise and targeted therapy and engineers standing ready to do so, has been costly to society. The interplay between economists looking to apply statistical precision to the unknown and engineers ready to build models to whatever is needed, has been costly to society.

Complex systems cannot be broken down to finite elements for the behavior of the system does not emanate from its components. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cognitive monopoly

Major discontinuities in human history have often led to monopoly positions in subsequent markets, driven by winner takes all characteristics. In the modern economy - automobiles, airplanes and computers certainly fit this view. In the case of the internet, invented by tax payer investments, attempts by a few to monopolize the flow of electrons, have been averted thus far. But "Net neutrality," is not something that rent seeking behemoths are likely to accept in the long run, even if they did not pay for it.

The nascent wave - machine cognition - has the monopolists scrambling to get the upper hand. In this wave, capital, as measured by megaflops and terabytes, has a significant advantage. The leaders, plush with computing power, seem to believe that there is nothing that may challenge their positions. Their expectations of technology acceleration appear optimistic but nonetheless we appear to be progressing at an interesting enough trajectory. Although many, including the world's leading scientist, are worried about runaway artificial intelligence, one could argue that there are more prosaic worries for the 7 billion around the world.

Monopolies generally destroy societal value. Even those with a charitable frame, acquire the disease of "God complex," as the money begins to flow in. Humans are simple, driven by ego and an objective function, either biased toward basic necessities or irrational attributes that are difficult to tease out. Contemporary humans can be easily classified by intuition, without even the need for the simplest of algorithms - Nearest neighbors - into those with access to information and those who do not. Politicians and policy makers have been perplexed by the fact that such a simple segmentation scheme seems to work in every part of the world population from countries to counties and cities. Cognition monopolists will make it infinitely worse.

Can Mathematics be monopolized? The simple answer is yes. In a regime of brute force over highly available computing power for a few, answers could be found by the blind and the dumb. Perhaps, there is still hope for the rest as we have seen this movie before.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Clans continue

It appears clear that habits formed over hundred thousand years cannot be changed in a mere hundred years. As homo-sapiens ventured out of the African Savannah, they were still tightly organized as small clans, less than a hundred in strength, with their own unique language, culture, religion and morality. In Europe and Asia, within hundreds of years of arrival, they erased their close relatives with astounding efficiency. They also successfully navigated disease and climatic change that reduced them to a few thousand - emerging out of the bottle neck, with even tighter clan relationships.

Technology - aircrafts, computers and the internet - opened up the modern economy in the blink of an eye. Economists, excited by the possibilities, argued for the opening up of countries, continents and economies, but they did not realize the behavior patterns integrated deeply into the human psyche. Countries cling to their languages and apparent cultural nuances aided by politicians who in autocratic and socialistic regimes seem to have convinced the populace that they can implement strategic policies that will make their countries, "great again." In advanced democracies, a larger percentage of the population, seem to have self taught the same ideas and in some rare cases they have found surrogates, who will sing the same tune as the autocrats, even though he/she does not know the words to the music. A dangerous trend has emerged in clans that profess to be democratic and sophisticated. The question is whether learning from mistakes is possible - something that made humans successful in the past. Ironically, in the complex modern economy, the outcomes are not clearly observable and often has long cycles. Getting mauled by a tiger is immediate feedback but having a stagnant and deteriorating economy has little feedback for the larger population.

The modern economy, still largely driven by the clan instincts of the seven billion that occupy the Earth, cannot be shocked out of its stupor by logic. Perhaps photographs from space that show the little blue spot in the midst of chaos may appeal to the artistic side of humans. Little closer, they will find no demarcations as depicted on maps and globes. After all, humans have shown great capabilities to think abstractly, albeit, such thoughts are not often tested by logic.