Scientific Sense Podcast

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Freedom and the value of options for humans

The value of a human is the aggregate value of options held by her. Puts such as insurance and calls such as jobs, influence the overall value of the human portfolio. But this presumes that options are devoid of counterparty risks and timing constraints. Lack of freedom for the individual and society will impose constraints on the exercise of options held by humans. Thus, freedom is not just conceptually attractive but it is the basis of the value of humans.

Freedom is foundational to human societies for, without it, the value of humans will decline sharply. As they roamed out of Southeastern Africa with infinite horizons in front of them, freedom was important for humans. Those who object to capitalism on symptoms related to contemporary inefficient implementations should think more broadly about how value is created and disbursed. Humans create value by exercising options optimally and any constraint on this will reduce the value of the individual and society.

The autocrats, who span from the West to the East, substantially reduce the value of societies by imposing arbitrary constraints on individuals. Policies that reduce freedom are unambiguously value destroying but what the politicians do not have the capability to understand is that freedom is a multifactorial construct. A fickle greenhouse afforded to nearly 8 billion human specimens could be destroyed in a matter of decades, substantially extinguishing all option values held by humans. Progress made in over a century to assimilate populations, cultures, and colors could be arrested by ignorant leaders, substantially reducing freedom for humanity.

An advanced society will maximize the value of options held by its members - all of them. It is a portfolio maximization problem, something politicians are unlikely to appreciate. Stuck in a trough, humans may find it hard to climb out.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Bypassing the infrastructure

Recent news (1) that brain functions can be translated to speech outside the human infrastructure is interesting. More generally, it is likely that most human senses can be replicated with inputs from the brain. As humans live a lot longer than their design life, their infrastructure is likely to fail before their brain. If the brain is still able to function, most outputs could be replicated outside the ill-designed body.

Humans have been struggling to optimize a horizon that is increasingly predictable. Their infrastructure was likely selected for long distance running, something that has become less useful in the modern context. But their brains, likely overdesigned for survival, seem to be robust, perhaps able to go twice the design life of the hardware. Hence, connecting the instruction set from the brain to outside systems may become necessary for the species to survive.

Lack of understanding of the brain has kept the humans guessing. It is likely that a brain is a quantum machine and that is enigmatic in the status-quo. In the long run, pickled brains could store and process information in such a way that the network can be expanded exponentially. The failure of the infrastructure should not be considered final, as long as the brain is able to function, outside its enclosure.

We could create a new meaning to "plug and play." The brain appears to last a lot longer and conventional metrics of expiry may not be optimum. The human network could incorporate significantly more information than what contemporary societies allow. 


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Artificial Intelligence and the slowing of Time

Artificial Intelligence has been percolating in many domains lately. If properly applied, AI could significantly slow down time for humans and organizations. From their inception, humans have been prisoners of space and time. Even in the modern context, most appear to lack time, with "work," expanding to fill any empty voids. The modus operandi for organizations has been "putting out fires." And, both the creation and ultimate extinguishment of "fires," have been the distinguishing feature of large companies and that takes a lot of time.

The most valuable resource for humans, time, has been inflexible forever. Crude attempts at extending it beyond available horizons have had minimal impact. But now, they could slow time down by delegating time-consuming tasks to obedient machines. Any organization or individual, squeezed for time, is going to fall further behind as it is a clear symptom that they have been unable to move beyond the status-quo. Humans are good at some things and they are exceptionally bad at others. Machines are quite complementary in this respect.

Any repeated task taking the same amount of time in the current iteration compared to the previous one would indicate a deteriorating process. Ironically, those attempting to apply AI rely largely on human time as defined presently. Some appear to be proud of how many data scientists they have hired and others, how much Silicon they have assembled in close proximity. Neither will allow organizations to slow down time, just the opposite. Use of conventional metrics such as the quantity of human time and computers is symptomatic of a disease that is preventing the slowing down of time for organizations of all types - both the users and providers of services and products.

Individuals and organizations have a singular metric to assess if they are able to utilize AI properly. That metric is Time - if it is not slowing down for you now, it is problematic.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Information realism and economic systems

A recent blog (1) that brings attention to information realism in physics with an abstract thought that matter is "unnecessary garbage," in a universe driven only by information, is thought provoking. More tactically, such questions could be asked of economic systems, such as businesses and countries. Most identify economic systems based on financial metrics such as profits and GDP, but one could argue that these concepts are unnecessary garbage. There appears to be ample evidence for the failure of economic systems, chasing these tangible metrics, as they leak information and become devoid of it.

In the context of physics, matter is a distraction in a universe driven only by information. Same could be argued about economic systems. Profits and such metrics are pure distraction for viable economic systems. If they do not grow information, they can be predicted to fail with high confidence. The value of a system can then be determined by the information it holds and the expected growth in such information. The latter is more critical as economic systems live in a competitive pool of bounded growth in information and their success and failure largely depend on taking a share of that growth. Thus, success of an economic system does not depend on its balance sheet, income statement or even the quantity of countable resources it holds such as humans, computers and mining rights. Rather, it depends on its ability to grow information - private and public.

For most conventional systems, the idea that countable metrics do not matter could be shocking. More provocatively, systems that count what can be counted are bound to fail. Assets of an economic system, thus, can be defined as entities that hold information or have the power to grow information. As we move toward a regime driven by technology, it is important for the leaders to think about accounting in terms of information content and not tangible and countable units. Financial markets are quick to catch up and they become efficient lot faster than real markets and decisions, contrary to popular views. Real markets show high inertia to change and in this rapid and deep transition, traditional companies become risky as evident in their risk premia. Size does not matter but more importantly if information per capita is not growing in a system, its market value will decline rapidly.

The information tsunami is here. Most economic systems are ill-equipped to survive in it.


Sunday, March 31, 2019

The hype of AI

A recent article (1) further reinforces what autonomous vehicle industry has been doing. Neural net systems with feedforward and feedback control architectures trained by historical data on specific surfaces and conditions. Remnants of 1960s technologies, ably assisted by zero cost computing, have been percolating across the autonomous landscape. This trajectory is problematic for many reasons.

First, a brain trained on historical data selected by a biased human is a disaster waiting to happen. The situation is no better with hand-coded heuristics as demonstrated by recent aircraft failures. What computer and data scientists have to understand first is that their own brains still remain to be vastly superior to code they write running even on a super-computer. Hence, blind attempts at removing the human from complex decision-making processes are likely to fail.

Second, hype and ignorance have propelled AI to the stratosphere without significant practical use cases. AI is a tool and it is not a panacea. AI still fails when it encounters the unexpected. This is important as it indicates conventional computing and Silicon based architectures, albeit great engineering innovations, have nothing to do with "intelligence." We have not advanced AI much from the 80s, when the "oldies," used to call it expert systems. Granted, simulated voices, believable human faces, and incredible jumping robots are great inventions, but unfortunately, these have nothing to do with AI.

And finally, high human resource intensity in model building often leads to costly failures. For practical AI, two important things need to come together - rapid and flexible prototyping with automation and considering AI to be augmenting the human, not replacing her.


Saturday, March 30, 2019

Alzheimer’s - we fail again!

Recent news (1) that high profile experiments, targeting a solution for the famous disease, Alzheimer's, has failed again is sobering. It clearly indicates that life sciences companies are on the wrong track to improve a condition, most dread. It is also a constant reminder that systemic problems cannot be solved by treating symptoms or tactical observations. The engineering view of medicine has run its course and it has been very successful in fighting opponents that can be clearly identified. But now, a system failing because of overuse, cannot be mended by such crude methodologies.

Immortality is prohibited by contemporary Physics. So, the optimization problem narrows to maximizing utility within an afforded time horizon. Humans have been naturally optimistic, an evolutionary advantage. They have been attempting to extend life rather than optimizing within constrains. Therein lies the paradox for healthcare. As artificial intelligence progresses, it is conceivable that a human could have reasonable estimates of life span and disease incidences, at birth. For the first time in history, we may be in a position to focus on optimization of utility rather than extending a highly uncertain horizon.

It is clear that the human hardware deteriorates in predictable ways. Most of it appears to be related to plumbing, an inability to remove waste at an optimum rate. From the brain to the kidneys, waste removal efficiency seems to decline over time, just as in any physical system. We may need to accept this as an unbreakable law and find ways to slow down the deterioration. In this context, research in the direction of cure for auto-immune diseases may be misplaced. What could be more important is predicting the likelihood of disease early and slowing its progression.

Artificial Intelligence could have a significant impact on human utility and happiness. If one can get over the hype and confusion, it will become clear that AI could provide useful guidance for humans to best utilize their limited time in the universe.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

F-Theory, Occam's razor and ignorance

Physicists are funny people - they like complexity and large numbers. They recently found F-theory (not sure what "F" stands for except for the obvious possible guesses), that demonstrates a "quadrillion ways, string theory could make the universe." That is impressive and could provide rich fodder for PhD theses and "peer reviewed," publications for a century to come. But does it advance knowledge? It is less clear.

Complexity is a problematic concept. As the true geniuses of the yesteryear correctly emphasized, "God does not play dice," and unless she has a quantum computer in the basement, she will not embark on a journey that has "quadrillion," ways to make the universe. Large numbers could be ego boosting behind the ivy walls but it has no practical use. It is probably time for those attempting to formulate the next exotic "theory of everything," to get out of their windowless offices and smell the roses.

There is no problem that has been solved by increasing complexity. Those who advanced thinking always preferred simplicity. Knowledge is clearly inversely correlated with complexity. Even the money men, who typically do not know much, seem to have gravitated to this universal law. So, why are we here at this point in time? One possible answer is that engineering heavy education has churned out engineers who want to measure "reverberations," not much larger than the size of a proton or mathematicians, enamored by "large numbers." Even the business guys seem to have learned bad habits as most want to use, "big data."

Complexity is utility diminishing. Theories that push in that direction is utterly useless.


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The era of bioelectronics

The most complex electromagnetic and chemical system known, the human body, so far has substantially avoided manipulation by electromagnetic means. This may be changing. Recent news (1) about a transistor design that enables integrated, real-time sensing and simulation of signals from living organisms, could lead to better diagnostics and treatment. Low cost Silicon has impeded innovation and applications in non-conventional substrates. There have been few biocompatible designs for the lack of appropriate materials and incentives.

Chemicals have been easier and in the presence of many low hanging fruits, researchers did not spend much time on alternatives. As they solved simpler problems, auto-immune diseases start to dominate the human architecture. The heart-breaking failure of a recent drug for Alzheimer's (2) is symptomatic of the end of the chemical era. The brain likely responds better to electromagnetic stimuli but contemporary pharmaceutical companies are ill-equipped to pursue this line of thought.

Simple diseases such as Hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes, that command over half of the healthcare costs in the log run, could be positively influenced by better monitoring and treatment mechanisms that are integrated into the body. CHF and other Cardiovascular events could be picked up earlier and intervened optimally by the same mechanisms. As the sun gets hotter and nastier, embedded devices in the skin could shield the body from harmful rays. Organ failures could be arrested, nutrition deficiencies could be remedied, better food and treatment regimens could be suggested and humanity could possibly move to a more advanced health regime.

It is exciting. Integrated bioelectronics with embedded artificial intelligence could be a game changer.