Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Gene editing: There is no turning back

Recent news (1) that gene editing could successfully create a mutant form of a gene that makes the host, resistant to HIV, is likely to create scientific awe and ethical concerns. It is important to understand that the technology has arrived and there is no turning back. We will use it to solve identified tactical problems and gloss over the unknown and the unanticipated. Logically, this is the best decision.

Humans are in a bind - they have not been able to meaningfully extend life but they have found many band aids that will keep the recipient breathing, pulsating and alive for short periods of time. The constraints are clear and the micro-optimization problem, relatively simple to solve. But the relevance of their innovations and actions in the societal context, is less clear. Now that we can gene edit out of one problem without considering future ones, the technical minds will be happier than ever.

As we manage life bottoms up as the individual desires, we are approaching a discontinuity in which those with resources to accommodate the micro-objectives win over the rest. But the victory is short lived, literally. The larger question is why the individual makes decisions for herself even though the expected outcomes are utility diminishing for her, given the current technology. One reason could be the option value the individual computes with the uncertainty in emerging ideas and technologies. In this case, sustaining life even with debilitating disease states, could be dominant.

However, the individual has to consider the trade-offs systematically. Given a small probability of hitherto unknown technology that could reset pre-existing disease states with potential pain and disutility that are most likely otherwise, it is a difficult problem to solve. This problem is easier to analyze at the societal level, if the objective function can be clearly defined. For most on Earth, it appears to be perpetuating their genes and humanity in general. It is unclear if that is objective.

A thought experiment on the formation of objective functions in an advanced society could be interesting. If the individual is perpetual, you could effectively remove the noise emanating from micro-objectives. In such a society, only the macro-objective remains. Since the individual's desires are already maximized, society can extend overall objectives without constraints. What would an advanced society like to maximize? They will likely incorporate universal ambitions in a beneficial way.

Humans do not have to fear an "attack," from an advanced ET. They are unlikely to "attack," if they are advanced.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Beyond the horizon

The span of human life, with a stringent expiry date, has been short to attempt fundamental changes to society. The age gene they carry, apparently by sheer accident, has done more damage to the human psyche than diseases and lately, accidents and suicides. The human brain has been a slow learner, deploying empiricism and machine learning to create meaning for context. But by the time it recognizes pure abstractness, it is typically too late. As knowledge simply vanishes over the horizon and as the new batch starts over with a different technology, humanity may be reaching a plateau with little expected advancements.

Early civilizations recognized the value of knowledge in a tactical sense. They could actually see better decision-making by the village elder, who had gained experience. But this simply does not work in the modern context. As technology and knowledge increase exponentially, humans will likely struggle to find a happy medium to encapsulate relevant information from the past. The technology behemoths, competing with each other to create a "bigger cloud," simply do not understand the needs of society. As they attempt to siphon all available electrons to power their data centers, eminently capable of accelerating entropy, there are larger questions facing society they could potentially help with.

Information is a dying asset and having an infinite capacity to store it simply does not help. Heuristics generated from information is in a spectrum, some robust enough to stand the test of time and others superseded by emerging ones. So, knowledge is about differentiating the utility of heuristics and reducing noise to the absolute minimum. The generation who thrived on noise and triviality is about to check out and they will be replaced by another who seem to be better positioned. However, they will simply lose the few heuristics from the past generated at tremendous cost. It is this connection that may have made other civilizations to move further. This is not about technology but an abstract understanding of how knowledge could be transferred.

The problem to solve is not robotics or AI, but how relevant knowledge could be transferred across generations. This idea will not increase shareholder value, reelect incompetent politicians or allow academics to publish papers to capture "tenure," and therein lies the conundrum. The "think tanks," across the world are incapable of "thinking," and we have arrived at the doorstep of self-destruction. The biggest "accomplishments," of contemporary humans such as landing a mechanical toy on a nearby planet, increasing the life span of humans marginally, building vehicles that can move marginally faster and  designing computers that are marginally more efficient are not accomplishments at all.

It appears that there are no positive slope to the human psyche. Perhaps, they are programmed this way. But beyond the horizon, there is a rainbow that we could continue to seek.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Look Ma, No Hands!

Recent news from MIT(1) that electro-aerodynamics has successfully powered a small aircraft over 60 meters is an interesting development. Such a vehicle has no moving parts and makes no noise. Since the arrival of steam powered automobiles, humans have been noisy - in water, air and everywhere. Their machines in water create such cacophony they do not let whales and dolphins communicate with each other. Their aircrafts and drones have been creating so much noise leading to health issues for themselves and the structures they have erected. And, on the ground, their pollutant puffing slow vehicles have been pushing the planet to the edge.

It is about time. Propulsion by burning fossil fuels, the most inelegant engineering idea ever, has to stop. The band aid on the ground, "electric vehicles," is not a solution - just a hype that allows shifting pollution from one spot to another. The electric motor and the internal combustion engine, massive inventions that propelled humanity to the adjacent step, ultimately could be their Achilles heel. They have been keeping warm, blazing the night sky and moving in space by burning fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow. They could be right.

Lagging innovation in materials, propulsion and computing has kept a lid on human progression. They have been stuck in a level 0 society from their arrival. More recently, they have become experts in the implementation of the status-quo, with available materials, propulsion systems and computing resources. That has been easy but it is unlikely to help them escape the known and move to the next level.

To survive, humans need innovation, not efficiency. They have to find materials that are many orders of magnitude lighter and stronger, they have to move without burning fuels and they have to compute infinitely faster without spewing heat. Then, they could attempt for the next level.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

The non-capitalistic Economist

A recent article in the Economist seems to imply that capitalism is responsible for industry concentration and associated loss in societal utility. Treating symptoms never cured diseases but perhaps economists are not aware of this phenomenon. There have not been free markets and free trade in any capitalistic societies - just the opposite. And existing laws are not sufficient to aggressively prosecute monopolies, a necessary condition. More recently, ignorant policy makers have been conducting "trade wars," and protecting their bunkers with "tall and strong," walls. The Economist has to understand that these are not ideas that emerged from capitalism.

It is not capitalism that is responsible for the ills witnessed in society. Ignorant policy makers who do not understand economics and the cunning ones, who have figured out how to take asymmetric risks - as they keep the gains and get bailed out when they lose are the cause. These two cohorts of people, likely less than 0.01% of society have been responsible for the apparent failure of the "free market system." The blame has to go to lack of consistent implementation of laws. Capitalism requires that everybody is treated the same, those who travel by private jets and those in the back of the bus. Capitalism requires incompetence to fail and any policy prescription that simply bails out failed gamblers is fraught with danger.

It is not capitalism that is failing but the semblance of the idea without consistent implementation. As the pendulum swings to the left, aided by an astonishing lack of understanding of the world on the right, it is likely we are in for motion sickness for a long time. It is important that economists develop a bit of right brain, for without it, they will continue to make the wrong conclusions.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Downstairs, upstairs

Recent finding (1) that the owners of the human gut may already have found a residence in the brain further reinforces the potency of the most successful biological entity in the universe. It has been known that the bacteria in the gut use nerve endings to influence human decisions and now they are placed directly in situ. This has implications for the diagnoses and treatment of a plethora of neurological diseases.

Most recently, it has been speculated that humans moving from one location to another get a completely new and custom microbiome in a matter of days. Now that it is possible that they can move across the "impenetrable," blood brain barrier, it portends a world returning to its original state in due course. They appear to have filled every nook and corner of life and they can make their hosts eat, die and disintegrate at will. But their presence in the brain of the most complex entity on Earth indicates that the design is nearing completion.

As we seek extra-terrestrials in nearby rock, ice and gas balls, it is important to remember that they may have arrived early and already conquered the blue planet.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

RIP, Kepler

The space telescope, Kepler, seems to have run out of fuel. Finding the existence of exo-planets has been interesting. On the other hand, statistics would have informed the physicists of the same. The more important question is, so what? Did anybody really think that the rock and water in the most uninteresting corner of the Milky Way is unique?. Granted, most people in the world think so but $700 million may be too high to prove irrationality exists.

Exo-planets have tickled the fantasy of the common woman and set the careers of some physicists on an exponential track. They look for transits and lately that has yielded the discovery of an exo-planet's moon. As academics pump out papers, they have to really come back to the fundamental question of so what?. Did anybody really think there was no moon out there for an exo-planet? I suspect some do but if you don't like religion, it is a very irrational expectation. The big brains at the space agency had drawn a line on the sand a few years ago - they will absolutely find ET by 2020. There are less than 1000 days left. But more importantly, does anybody think there is no biological activity outside the most irrelevant corner of a the most uninteresting galaxy?

A species that shows no redeeming qualities, is spending billions of $ to prove the obvious. Science needs direction - perhaps from philosophy. And, engineers and doctors have to understand that ideas are non-prescriptive.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Schrödinger's Bacterium

Biological entanglement (2) has been showing up in many places (1). Although conceptual without hard proof, it is symptomatic of the fact that there is something wrong with our understanding of the universe. There is ample evidence that the human brain represents a quantum field (3). And if so, using it as a conventional computer with logical processing is not optimum. It is as if humans strive to be rational in a universe without rationality. That behavior is unambiguously irrational.

Is rationality feasible? Observations in physics and financial markets provide tantalizing evidence that it is unlikely. However, humans with hard tactical horizons attempt to be rational as that appears to optimize utility. But does it? An unbiased optimization of a human being would point to early termination as that would minimize aggregate pain. But unsubstantiated future expectations of benefits flow - really speculation - keep them going beyond what could be best. This optimization problem is increasingly difficult to solve. As technology advances, it is possible that humans can arrest pain and replicate themselves with downloaded memory.

 In the context of entanglement, however, these prescriptive ideas do not work. If macro objects can entangle, they could free themselves from the limitation of the speed of light and transmit information across vast swaths of space time. Apparently, there is nothing that prevents it. If so, humans have been focusing on wrong technologies and ideas. The real problem to solve is entanglement with another that allows instant transfer of information. In a limited context, the 8 billion humans that team the planet, could be entangled, allowing better ideas and policies to be transmitted and received instantly.

If humans are entangled, they could fundamentally change the slope of progress. Currently, this is defined by a few, who do not have much understanding of anything. It is a possible future state in which your thoughts are entangled with the rest and in a chamber of progressive reinforcement, you could only go further. This is an apt future state in which humans move from determinism into probabilistic expectations.

Entangle with one another and you could go further.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018


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.