Scientific Sense Podcast

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The fragmentation of knowledge

Philosophers of yesteryear have argued that knowledge emanates from integration and not fragmentation. Even the early scientific disciplines, such as religion, attempted to integrate and simplify information into a set of holistic heuristics. That has been a highly successful process for most of human history. But in the modern world, largely dominated by contemporary scientific disciplines, fragmentation reigns supreme. This is problematic.

Information does not unambiguously lead to knowledge. Diving deep into silos with impenetrable walls has been the defining characteristic of modern education. As one gets deeper and deeper into highly structured information, the chance of creating knowledge largely disappears. This is because of conventional academic metrics favoring the known rather than the less certain and lack of integration across disciplines, aides tunnel vision. Here, the publishing gurus who make trivial incremental improvements to the known, win and those who seek the periphery, perish. Here, the managers of businesses driven by measurable tactics, win and those with stars in their eyes, lose predictably. Here, politicians who can appeal to emotions, win and those who make cogent arguments that could advance humanity, lose. Here artists who produce conventionally expected work, win and those who explore emerging areas, lose. Here, musicians who can scream and babble win, and those who integrate lyrics with beauty, lose. Here, those who want to make the world better lose, and those who want to dominate it, win.

Knowledge is not trivial and few achieve it.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Gut feel

A recent finding (1) that shows that the gut uses a variety of communication channels to rapidly communicate with the brain has implications for the prevention and treatment of many diseases, including obesity and the metabolic syndrome spectrum. Many had this intuition but now hard data is showing that humans are driven largely by their gut with the brain playing the role of a computer, merely calculating and shuttling instructions. This is not surprising. For over half a million years, they sought food for survival and the gut and its occupants, the constituents of the microbiome, have been reigning supreme. The overgrown appendage, the brain, serves little purpose in the grand scheme of things.

The recent reversal of roles has the brain scrambling to divide itself into two halves - the tactical and the strategic. Enormous excess capacity allows it to process ancient rules and instructions without breaking a sweat. The ensuing boredom has led it to seek utility from abstract ideas such as art, music, and literature. With science and technology in the background, not requiring significant processing power, the brain can float above triviality and the routine.

This is problematic. An organ, largely intended as a conventional computing resource, is wasting itself, getting involved in thought experiments, at least from the perspective of the gut. A bifurcating human architecture, still fundamentally managed by the microbiome in the gut, coupled with a confusing potpourri of capabilities upstairs, could portend disaster. The toys they have invented are now growing into entities without guts and that will certainly pose a challenge to the declining species.

The decline of the advanced entity is predictable but that has implications for the most successful species for nearly 5 billion years. A world controlled by silicon and light will be bad news for the microbiome. It is unlikely that the species that dominates the universe will let that happen.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The value of time

Humans, with apparently hard constraints on affordable time, appear to sub-optimize the shape of their objective functions in every conceivable fashion. Some run without destinations, others stay put without ambitions, some rely on unprovable heuristics, others create theories without the need for proof, some ignore inconvenient data, others create convenient data, some travel, others remain absolutely still, some cry, others laugh but none of these maximize utility within such harsh limitations.

Mathematically, an entity that optimizes within inextensible time, will cherish the approaching moment, live in the present, learn from the past and understand that the future may never arrive. It is a depressing construct handed down to the present crop, over half a million years. The philosophers understood the idea but not the scientists and technologists, as the modern bandwagon gained speed, down the steep slope and then lost control. And now, as we approach the cliff of a knowledge discontinuity, yet again, we find a world of disparity and most sub-optimize on the premise that time is infinite.

Time is limited and that makes it valuable. Don't waste it.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The game is rigged

A recent study (1) shows that kinship and fellowship were held in equal regard in the households of medieval times and cultural appropriations were common among closely related individuals then, is in contrast to what is becoming of modern humans. Recent leaders have advocated cultural purity and ethnic cleansing and close to a quarter of the world population now believe in these ideas. Culturally and socially, it is possible that medieval times were better than the present. It is unfortunate.

Ignorance is costly - especially in leaders who are supposed to lead humanity to better places. As technology advances and opens up a chasm between those in the know and others, the rich and the poor and the connected and disconnected, we are fast approaching a social discontinuity. If we had knowledgeable leaders who presided over this unique time in history, we could have surpassed it. Ironically, as humanity reaches a technology and social discontinuity, they are "led," by kids, crooks and religious fanatics. This appears to be systemic as there is some evidence that incompetence rises to the top exactly at the point of hyper advancement in knowledge. Perhaps this is programmed into the human psyche and it acts as a break against achieving a more advanced state of society.

If humans are simulated in a random fashion, historically consistent observations in this vein will be impossible. So, we have to conclude that there is something programmatic in the game we play that acts as a natural brake against progress. The error function is dominant at points of discontinuity. This disallows humans to break out of a level 0 society. They could certainly imagine the next level but it is impossible to attain as they get close enough to it, disaster strikes - in the form of ignorance, ego or incentives that aid localized and tactical optimization.

The game is rigged...


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Time to wake up and face technology

A recent article (1) that notes that advancing technology initiated productive scientific regimes, speculates that Artificial Intelligence could be the next engineering innovation that speeds up biological and chemical advancements. It makes sense but life sciences, an old and traditional industry, has been lagging in the application of technology. As high energy physics, economics and even business, embrace rapidly advancing AI, life sciences and healthcare have been reluctant.

Historical friction resulting from blind alleys followed by scientists based on prescriptive mathematics is one reason. Biology remains to be the last frontier where uncertainty and non-linear interactions have kept technologists from making measurable progress. Half a million years of trial and error could not be replicated easily in Silicon and this has been a late realization. Unchanging regulatory frameworks are the other reason why healthcare has not been able to take advantage of available technology. It is time that regulators realized that the failure and success of a pharmaceutical product have nothing to do with the p-value emanating from clinical trials data. Even manufacturing companies have moved away from this century old and incorrect notion.

Life sciences and healthcare have to (finally) embrace personalized medicine. Cross-sectional statistics of population data is misleading and damaging for the health of humans. It is not the health of the population that healthcare needs to worry about, but rather the health of the individual. Mass manufacturing of single-dose drugs is as archaic as TV dinners and static thresholds on blood pressure, sugar, cholesterol, and other such measurements are as obsolete as slide rules.

Healthcare, the most ancient of all industries, has been progressing slowly. If we are unable to break out of a constraining regulatory architecture and choking traditionalism, we will put the entire "population," at risk and the share of the GDP commanded by healthcare will continue to climb.

It is time for life sciences and healthcare to wake up and face technology.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Senator McCain's decision to invite presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to eulogize him gives us the last glimpses of civility in politics. A country that stands on the shoulders of great men and women, who passed before us and laid the foundations for a great democracy that attracted the best from around the world, still remains to be the last hope for those who struggle. As they separate kids from their parents based on the color of their skin, as they rob healthcare from the weak and the weary, as they appoint supreme court judges who could arrest the progress toward equality between the sexes, we still have to believe there is a better tomorrow, yet to arrive.

And it will, for America never surrenders, never compromises and never fails. We have demonstrated freedom to be the most important thing to cherish and free markets, free trade and free ideas to be superior to anything that is prescriptive. America remains to be the unfailing idea for those who want to go further, for those who are never satisfied by the present, for those who respect knowledge and a determination to achieve the same, for those who consider the world to be the scope of optimization, for those who know luck and initial conditions largely determine outcomes, for those who stand up against racism, ignorance, and sexism and for those who want to sing, cry and be amazed at humanity.

There was a chamber of a hundred men and women, more intelligent and capable than the rest, who make policies that could make a difference. But now, there is an emptiness as those who made it work are disappearing and as darkness descends in the city of corrupt politicians, we can only hope for somebody who could make a difference again. The callous hearts who assert failure to be a weakness should know that we have a country built on the sacrifices of many.

We will fight for everyone, we will leave nobody behind, we will strive to be free - in thoughts, markets, trade, and humanity. And, we will always remember those who created a country and a path to success for those who followed.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Policy inefficiencies

It has been shown that good intentions are not sufficient to make good policy decisions. Humans have generally been incompetent in making optimum policy in the presence of uncertainty and interconnectivity. A recent article (1) gives a powerful example of this phenomenon. The article demonstrates the futility of subsidies and massive investments into improving irrigation efficiencies on the premise that freshwater is a valuable resource. The blue planet has abundant water - but the species that apparently dominates it has not figured out how to harvest it. More importantly, it also shows how policymakers and politicians, in general, do not have the capabilities to optimize the system.

As the tumbling blue planet skirts disaster in an active shooting gallery in space, we have a system that allows incompetence to rise to the top. Knowledge and meritocracy do not matter, money and the ability to tweet garbage, do. As the "free market capitalists," raise tariffs and the socialists stand ready to dole out subsidies without thinking, it is clear that we are entering a regime of governance that will not be attractive for the rising millennials. A generation seems to have wasted time and space, adorned with ego and irrational ideas such as religion and prestige. Such is the disastrous state of affairs for the 8 billion that even scientists, who claim to think rationally and religious leaders, who claim to perpetuate good, have become numb.

If humans are observed from above by an entity that understands the non-linear effects of arbitrary actions on a complex and virtually unpredictable system, she will be sad. As the space agency makes plans to perpetuate the human species to Mars and beyond, there is a more important question it has to answer, first. Why? Will the universe lose knowledge and compassion if humans were to vanish as the Earth gets scorched under the expanding Sun? Will the universe lose information if humans were to vanish in a catastrophic impact from outer space. Will the universe care about a species that shows no positive slope in conceptual knowledge?

Likely not.

(1) The paradox of irrigation efficiency.
  • R. Q. Grafton1,2,
  • J. Williams1,
  • C. J. Perry3,
  • F. Molle4,
  • C. Ringler5,
  • P. Steduto6,
  • B. Udall7,
  • S. A. Wheeler8,
  • Y. Wang9,
  • D. Garrick10,
  • R. G. Allen11
  • See all authors and affiliations

    Friday, August 24, 2018

    The end of "Machine Learning."

    Machine learning, an obnoxious term, that simply means statistical modeling, has the potential to lead many budding data scientists and universities clamoring to create programs that support it, down blind alleys. Machines do not learn and apparently, those immersed in this concept do not either. In the coming decade, "Machine learning," could create a significant drag on the economy as the hype is pumped up by "reputable," academic institutions, software companies and even politicians.

    Regression was the "original," machine learning. The statistical modeling platforms have added all sorts of ancient mathematics in neat little packages, they sometimes even call, Artificial Intelligence. But calling Arithmetic better names, does not improve anything, let alone intelligence. What is most disappointing is the fact that universities have created entire programs around this "fake news," as they have seen favorable economics and the possibility of their graduates skating to the C suite on the back of degrees. Academic integrity used to be important and as the crop of professors who loved to advance knowledge, vanish behind time, we are approaching a regime that will devalue education. We have education rendering casinos, with all the adornments that surpass the real thing and the bricks in the wall they manufacture are going to be incompetent to face the future.

    Hype has a negative value. Academic institutions should understand this. If they do not, the only competitive advantage we possess, graduate education, could be at risk. Perhaps it is time we shut down the .ai domain names and academic courses designed to appeal to pure hype.