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Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Discontinuity

A world, largely governed by people from the last generation, is suffering from discontinuities in policy heuristics. A recent conversation (1) attempts to portray that media multitasking is a bad. What the contemporary researchers don't seem to understand is that the world has indeed changed in a step function fashion and anybody on the lower tier is at a distinct disadvantage to see beyond the horizon. Education systems that relied on rote memorization in Asia have already suffered a major setback as in the future world, it is likely that memory would be a commodity and the ability to memorize will carry no premium.

Memory has gotten humans far. The water hole and the lion's den were good things to remember. Till very recently, perhaps just a couple of decades, the ability to memorize had a huge premium. As such, educational reward systems are largely based on rote memorization. "Standardized tests," the gold standard for measuring potential, are largely based on the student's ability to memorize. Early metrics based on capabilities to memorize and traditional test scores seem to have no correlation with future success. For the emerging generation, success will be largely based on their ability to think and not memorize. In fact, it is likely that memorization capabilities will hinder the individual's creativity and as technology advances, driving the marginal cost of memory to zero, this will be the last thing humans would want to do.

It is a regime shift. The people in power do not have any idea what the next generation needs and they are making policies based on century old heuristics. For the emerging generation, this is the time to rise and take control of your own destiny. An ailing planet, heavily bombarded by extra-solar projectiles, is sick. As the biodiversity recedes in an environment driven by tactical utility maximization and materialism, we are fast approaching a binary outcome.

Go vote - it is likely too late but then, you could give it another try.


(1) https://news.stanford.edu/2018/10/25/decade-data-reveals-heavy-multitaskers-reduced-memory-psychologist-says/

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dreamers

From inception, humans have been prone to dreaming, with and without full control of their faculties. Nightmares may have awakened them from short slumbers with distinct survival benefits in the African Savannah. Later, they dreamed of places beyond the horizon and kept walking to reach them. Over many generations, the journey took them to North Africa and into the Middle East. Later they will embark on separate one way trips to South Asia and China. Their dreams kept them going as if the world were flat and over the ice bridge into North America.

Humans would have been distinctly inferior without the ability of dreaming. Dreams allowed them to conceptualize without the constraints of a boring and agonizing real life. In dreams, they could fly, do magic and kill mighty beasts with their own weak hands. In dreams, they could challenge the village elder, run away from the clan and form her own. In dreams, they could create concoctions that could alleviate pain, enhance their brains and let them run faster than a Cheetah.

Much later, they will segregate themselves into cohorts of dreamers and non-dreamers. The later variety is laser focused on few objectives and their goals are well defined in a few metrics. For them, dreams are impractical and inefficient. They make the world go around but it appears that they never dreamed of reasons of why it is so. And the former, with their heads in the cloud, keep dreaming with no apparent tactical utility. They move, dance, smile and ask questions. They dream of saving the world, Dolphins and Whales. They engage in such irrational acts as a start-up and later, crash and burn. They attempt to solve the unsolvable, travel to the unknown, die young and generally keep the population in check.

As the world micro-segments into countries, religions, languages and hierarchy, at the heart of it, there appears to be only two - dreamers and non-dreamers.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Wealth destroyers

Black boxes, Artificial Intelligence and FinTech - likely a deadly combination that is going to destroy a lot of wealth. We have seen this before - fresh graduates from business schools coupled with mathematicians and physicists, descending on Wall Street to make the world go around in the opposite direction. As they appear on TV after hours - mad and fast - to confuse and pillage small money, ascertaining where every stock is going and even the market, there are 20 million fat fingers across the world chasing the illusion. 

The theory underlying financial markets has been robust in spite of the recent confusion about "behavioral economics." New information moves markets and unless one has insider information, it is impossible to create alpha from fundamental or technical analyses. A lot of careers are made and destroyed on this false idea.  For some of us, theory still matters and it can be shown without any empirical uncertainty that alpha is a white elephant. If an adviser is demonstrating consistent alpha, one has to wonder where the information is coming from. The SEC has gotten a lot more sophisticated lately but a simple heuristic of alpha consistency will tell you that there is something wrong.

Business schools need to rethink their focus. Some even have classes in "trading," and that idea is utterly inconsistent with everything we know. In the presence of uncertainty, it is easy to make returns and lose them quickly. In spite of all the academic literature behind this, not many involved in "money management," really talk about alpha (only returns). Granted, a single factor model is woefully inadequate to measure risk but not considering risk in your returns, like the TV moguls do, is a prescription for disaster. The fact that conventional finance education and even the high-end certifications do not prepare the professionals adequately is symptomatic of education chasing trends and not sticking with what is known.

The financial industry appears to be dominated by engineers and accountants, the former unaware of economics and the later unaware of the fact that we have computers now to count money. Adding mathematicians and physicists on top of this already deadly combination can only result in tears. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Oumuamua

Recent transit of cigar shaped Oumuamua that raised hopes of galactic panspermia (1) is a double edged sword. Hitching rides on stable objects over millennia appears plausible for robust life but the implications of such transference could be catastrophic for the blue planet. It is not the green men and women we have to worry about but deadly single cell organisms from another galaxy. If the space agency ever stops taking shots at everything near in an effort to prove life exists elsewhere, they may have enough resources to explore the extra-solar bodies that seem to frequent this quiet corner of the Milky way. There they may indeed find life but possibly of a different kind. The half a dozen plausible building blocks including Carbon and Silicon narrow the shape of life and that should allow profitable exploration.

Science may need to borrow from philosophy as it attempts to prove extra-terrestrial life. The fundamental question remains to be what qualifies as life. Even in the narrow context of Earth, we find entities that show dual properties of life and non-life, as we define it. It appears to indicate that life is a spectrum with entities spanning the full scope. The closer to non-life, the more robust they appear, possibly pointing to efficient panspermia of materials that are close to life but have not yet crossed the threshold. So, near life materials could be freeze-dried and transported over time and space and they could show biological activity with conditions that allow such transformation. The heuristics used by the agency to find life, such as the presence of water, are archaic and it is time to step out of the rooms without windows, surrounded by steel and electronics, and think clearly. It is likely that the most dominant life form in the universe is something that can easily transcend the life/non-life threshold at will and that provides infinite possibilities for spreading themselves. The ability of an organism to freeze-dry itself should be considered dominant for transference and the environment in the blue planet is not conducive to enhancing robustness.

A sitting duck in the meteor shooting gallery, the Earth should be counting down to the unavoidable catastrophic event. If that happens, it does not look like there is anything that could hitch a long ride to the next spot.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/10/cometlike-objects-could-be-spreading-life-star-star-throughout-milky-way

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The value of breadth

As the present regime shifts to one controlled by uncertainty and accelerating technology, the premium on breadth of knowledge compared to depth, continues to increase. Innovation appears to happen at the intersection of fields and not in secluded domains and that is an important issue that educational institutions need to consider as they design futuristic curriculums.

It is also highly problematic. As an example, business graduates tend to be broad and shallow and if the stated hypothesis holds true, they should do well in the future. However, it is more complex than that. As the value of the individual is intricately correlated with how she can improve the economics of societies, it is not just the breadth of knowledge that gets into the objective function but also applications of it. Here, shallow and broad knowledge suffers from interactions with institutional constraints. The politicians in Washington are certainly shallow and not necessarily broad. Without deep knowledge of technology, policy-makers are ill-equipped to do anything good for future generations, let alone for themselves. They could be well advised to go deeper, perhaps a few inches below the ground they walk.

A bifurcation is in the cards. There is an optimum shape - breadth over depth - that optimizes societal progress. The pride of the country, the graduate schools, are without a clue, chasing after the latest "trends," to optimize localized economics. They need and want to make money by selling the latest wares and they are beginning to resemble a used car sales tent. It is unfortunate. Those who want to advance knowledge and improve societies, need to get out of the artificial and rigid constraints placed on them - academic, political and economic - and attempt to shape thinking beyond their career horizons. That is a tough ask even for those who already secured tenure, but still counting the number of incremental papers they published in marginal journals.

The value of breadth is increasing but not for those who do not have any depth.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Right brained Artificial Intelligence

As Artificial Intelligence becomes more commonplace through hype and reality, it may be useful to characterize the plethora of methodologies and technologies that are part of the thoroughly confusing medley. Conventional AI appears to be largely driven by the left brain as engineers, data scientists, and technologists flock to the dream, ably assisted by capital, seeking returns somewhere. Generally speaking, that is a prescription for disaster as technology, data and mathematics do not typically solve any problem of importance to enterprises. Granted, game playing is interesting and faking human voices and interactions equally compelling but none of these are going to change anything in the lives of ordinary people. And, they add little value to the economy or even companies.

The search giant recently proclaimed that AI gets more aggressive as they get better. This observation is not substantially different from the twitter girl created by another giant, that turned nasty. What these companies seem to be missing is that building AI bottoms up from historical data will simply reflect existing information content. More generally, these AI agents should reflect society and such observations add no value to the emerging arena, except talking points. And as the hardware company found out down South recently, transforming an organization requires a bit more than a "pizza-sized box," albeit it has solved most of the world's problems already.

It is about economics, stupid!. And that requires the silent right brain. AI has enormous potential but only if they are developed with a right brain dominance. It is a tough task as the normally shy right brain prefers to work from the background and simply muffles out the noise created by the left hemisphere. The old-fashioned concept of, "seeing the big picture," is still very important before diving into the details. Education systems tend to churn out left only brains in great numbers and this is problematic for the emerging regime. Scientists, whether real or of the data kind, cannot solve the problems facing humanity, let alone companies.

As the singularity enthusiasts revise the date of arrival of the discontinuity, it is important to remember that civilizations did not advance by tactics in the past and it is unlikely in the future.

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.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/09/your-gut-directly-connected-your-brain-newly-discovered-neuron-circuit