Scientific Sense Podcast

Monday, November 4, 2019

A closed universe?

Recently released Plank data (1) appears to point to a closed universe. This may be the impetus needed in cosmology to move away from accepted ideas and models. Nearly all the proposed hypotheses to explain away observational discrepancies in the last forty years, albeit beautiful in construction, have been untestable and thus useless. The only real information out there for next-generation cosmology is the cosmic microwave background. Rather than building the next heavy steel particle smasher, physicists may want to spend more time analyzing the data emanating from Plank and other sources. It has been speculated that even ideas such as the multiverse could be proved if certain patterns are found in the CMB.

If the universe is indeed closed, it may open up realistic ways to think about its origin and ultimate demise. As the human mind is limited, it simply cannot internalize an infinite universe. It would be ironic if we find that the contemporary physicists were akin to humans venturing out of Africa assuming flat earth. The presumption of a flat universe in combination with observations has led to a lot of hypothesized dark entities - matter, energy, and even flow. Perhaps it is time to step back and recraft many of these questions within a geometry with positive curvature.

The next step in knowledge is in data and the ability to formulate, simulate and test mathematical models. It is not going to come from plunking down billions of $ for the next smasher in the middle of a growing particle zoo. If a particle is hypothesized, it will be found and the one who said it first will get a Nobel prize.


Monday, October 28, 2019


The future of cloud computing is getting cloudy. The roundtrip from mainframes to personal computers and back to centralized computing has been inefficient, to say the least. It just allowed a plethora of mediocre companies and ideas to try and die. Massive computing power never solved any problems, it just misled a lot of technologists seeking fame and riches. And, in the process, it contributed to worsening the climate problem. Granted, it did create the world's richest person, in anticipation of a never-ending scale-up, that is unlikely to materialize. As Silicon Valley burns from fires started by electric wires, it is time to refocus on computing with less power.

We are reentering a regime governed by distributed computing once again. This time, it is not going to be on desktops but everywhere. It is not going to be about data but decisions. Humans could have taken a clue from their own societies thriving on distributed brainpower. Those seeking efficiencies and scale always preferred centralization (1) not only in computing but also in organizational structures. But with centralization came a variety of costs including but not limited to lack of redundancy, flexibility and, volatile decision-making. Aided by a few monopolistic behemoths willing to sink billions of unused cash on computer farms, the "cloud," has been growing. Their strategies are ably aided by consulting gurus, experts of the present and not the future. Not to be left behind, the developing countries have been in hot pursuit, assembling centralized computing power as if there is no tomorrow.

The future will not require such stranded investments spewing heat and pollution. Instead, we will need to invent massively distributed computing that requires almost no power. The minuscule amount of power needed should be produced in-situ by movement, ambient temperature or air.


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Quantum computing and the reversal of time

The search company’s recent announcement (1), that it has a breakthrough in quantum computing, albeit with highly overinflated benchmarks, is interesting. Just the fact that a few dozen qubits could substantially change the landscape of computing has been known for a while. The applicability of such hardware may still be limited to highly specialized problems. Just as the over-inflated expectations at the intersection of conventional AI and neuroscience are dying down, the latest news may provide a shining toy for engineers to fool around for a few years.

However, orders of magnitude improvement in the speed of computing is a profitable path for humans to pursue. The most interesting application could be in Physics and not in Medicine as the company appears to speculate. In the former, a recent experiment (2) that appears to show the possibility of a reversal of time in the state of a quantum computer provides new avenues for next-generation cosmology. As the universe itself appears to be a quantum computer, humble efforts by humans to pull together a few coordinated qubits could, at the very least, open our minds. On the latter, in spite of the best efforts of engineers to programmatically understand biological systems, nothing much has happened for a century. The primary reason for this could be that biological systems are fundamentally different from engineering systems and just crunching ignorance faster may not lead to anything. With the missing theory of consciousness, humans still seem to be seeking deep answers to who they really are. And, their inability to arrest the deterioration of their infrastructure as well as prevent catastrophic wars from within is ample evidence that we are nowhere close to a fundamental understanding. One cannot just throw fast and raw computing power to problems she does not understand.

Efforts expended in materials science and increasing computing speed likely have much higher returns than other popular ideas such as searching for ET and habitable planets. One may be able to find a needle in an accessible haystack but not in haystacks that are beyond the space-time limits. And, there should not be any worries that ET will interfere with the Earth as she will not have much interest. It is amazing to see the happiness gushing out of experimentalists at the discovery of yet another exoplanet; one would have thought it would be tempered after finding 4000 of them. Even theoreticians have been taking a cue from the novelists, as they spin up beautiful stories about the universe. High-speed computing could bring a level of sanity to this field as realistic simulations could provide better avenues to explore for meaning.

A few thousand orders of magnitude improvement in computing speed is in the cards. It may be better to direct it to engineering problems that are well articulated. Speed is not something that cures a lack of fundamental understanding.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Mafia optimization problem

Non-market entities such as the Mafia have unique management challenges. These organizations certainly try to maximize shareholder value. Since the strategy is primarily based on uniquely defined criminal activities, the most important thing for the organization is the people involved and their loyalty. Specific functions such as those delivering justice or negotiate arrangements in the state of operations with non-willing participants are especially important. Successful leaders will fill these functions first with close associates who will always stay loyal to the leader and will be willing to partake in anything the leader desires. So, hiring is fundamentally important for a successful mafia operation.

On the human resource side, selection, design and portfolio management are all equally important. With stringent quality criteria applied to a limited pool of available resources, the selection problem is particularly acute. Identification and retention of quality personnel is the key. On the design side, there is a lot of risk in assembling people with long criminal records, who do not typically play well together. So, it is important to segregate and manage, as organizations that allow a lot of contact among the members, may not succeed. And, the portfolio management problem is the most challenging for the leader. As turnover is likely to be high, it is important that the person in charge of justice delivers it with high accuracy. If the turned-over personnel escape, that substantially increases the risk of failure.

History indicates that successful organizations have had high domain focus. They seldom deviated from their core competencies, whether it is religion, government or even hospitality. As the mafia itself does not typically have any assets of value, they have to continuously replenish their coffers with activities they focus on. Operational efficiency is the key here. As the customers are typically non-willing, it is important to find ways to coerce and confuse. This is a significant operational challenge as they have to navigate around laws and regulations. Once the prey is cornered, they have to move with high precision.

Family has always been the critical component of a successful mafia operation. Grooming the next generation to take over has been optimal for the leader as the immediate layer below has high loyalty, by definition. Often, as the enterprise grew, the leader found it difficult to plug the gaps with non-family members, who have an inherent risk of disloyalty. Often, it may be better to leave the positions open rather than filling those with outside members as vacant positions may reduce the overall risk of the enterprise.

Dealing with laws and regulations of the land have always been a bane for a mafia organization. Successful ones have always understood them and figured out how to circumvent them. Domicile is also an important optimization criterion. In general, a mafia organization would like to avoid scrutiny or be able to create or change laws by itself when needed. Often, they have to approach it in two directions – by attempting to invalidate the status-quo or by suggesting ideas as to how to improve it.

The Mafia is the most efficient organizational structure known today. Modern societies have been attempting to fight it but with limited success.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The inefficient layer between people and policy

Democracy in modern societies requires an establishment of a highly inefficient layer between people and policies, aptly called the "representatives." This idea started as a matter of convenience rather than necessity as policy selection, design and portfolio management could not have been done with the participation of the entire society. This assumes that technology does not exist for that to happen, which may not be the case anymore. Half the world's population, however, avoided this inefficient layer as autocrats with infinite wisdom simply prescribe the best policies for themselves and the people. In both cases, we seem to have ended up with the least desirable outcomes.

Autocrats, unfortunately, are humans, driven largely by crude objective functions that maximize their own utility. This is efficient, not for the people but for the autocrats. This is not an issue one could attempt to debate and solve. On the other side, it may be time to seriously think about returning to direct democracy. There is a number of reasons for this.

1. It is clear that the representatives have objective functions that are extremely narrow. Getting elected is the dominant requirement and hence a representative will never be able to pursue optimal policies for the people. Even those who have a "broad view," are only worried about a few counties or a single state in the US. As such, they will never be able to opt for optimal policies that maximize the utility of the system. The fact that the joking congressman from the Midwest and the senator from the South recently found such irony in the statements of the "most powerful man," on Earth, clearly indicates what is important for them. Getting elected again is the only thing.

2. Policy choices are too complex to be designed by a small group of people. As a self-proclaimed "most stable genius," once remarked, "nobody knew healthcare is this complex." Unknown to him, it was known to most people in the world, except himself. If a society has representatives who are either unaware or unable to internalize the complexity of policy choices, they will continue to make bad decisions for the people.

3. Policies have to be dynamic. They cannot be optimally executed in 4 or 6-year cycles. Fine adjustments to policy choices have to be effected continuously. They cannot be prevented by the vacation schedules of the "representatives."

4. Policies have to be long term optimal and have to be contemporaneously relevant. If the representatives are from an era that has no relevance, they should not attempt policy. Those who cannot spell "internet," will likely make the wrong choices for the next generation.

It is time we moved to direct democracy. The octogenarians who are trying to save society in the nation's capital are unlikely to do so.  As they proclaim the "greatest day for civilization," while letting the defenseless be slaughtered, they have to understand that people in the aggregate are not stupid.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Is rationality real?

In financial markets where standard and divisible instruments are traded, it has been shown that rational outcomes are more likely. Even though individuals act irrationally most of the time, the aggregation of individuals, markets in general, tend toward rational outcomes. It appears that this is unlikely to be true in real markets. In a recent experiment in the US, three entities - one from radio, one from TV and one from a powerful position, have been able to create irrational responses from a very large population - perhaps as much as 50 million. All the "broadcasters," had to do is to repeat incorrect information over and over again. This has broad implications for rationality, policy and the future of humanity.

Rationality is not real in non-financial markets. Humans tend to clump, perhaps an evolutionary trait that kept small clans together. Early in homo-sapien progression, identifying and protecting the clan was dominant. Although early humans used more sophisticated attributes, the modern variety seems to have fallen into using surface heuristics such as the color of the skin, eyes, and hair. The fundamental reason three loudspeakers could lead a large population down an irrational rabbit hole is that they used ideas from hundreds of thousands of years ago. This is not something the "intellectuals," understand. It is not that there aren't rational solutions to the problems we face but rather if such choices align with the human brain created much before modern times. 

Real markets cannot assume rationality. Anybody who assumes rationality exists and design campaigns around that is bound to fail.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Next wave of Artificial Intelligence

As Artificial Intelligence matures over half a century, we may be fast approaching the limits of independent developments in software and hardware. Consulting companies seem to have embraced "data science," an ill-conceived and confusing area. Hardware companies, pressured to sell Silicon at any cost, have been creating Pizza sized "smart boxes." and "cognitive networks.". Not to be left behind, companies that specialize in "IoT," things that are on the internet, have been struggling to define how they are different. All of these, aided by massive hype, will likely destroy shareholder value in many ways.

There are two important avenues to make progress in this area. First, the hype created by consulting companies has to be tempered - data scientists do not add value, they typically destroy it. R and Python do not automatically add any value if the users of these somewhat obsolete tools do not understand the problem they are trying to solve. Most of the "new math," has been around for many decades, it is just that fast and cheap computers now have made the incompetent look smart.

It is time to focus on the assimilation of hardware and software to move the field forward. Lack of a theory of consciousness automatically means that humans are better off abandoning the idea of "modeling," the brain. However, we could learn a lot from observing the brain - it is an efficient learning system that gets tired and ages over time. No machine based on conventional computing architecture exhibits these qualities. This means that it is futile to throw more Silicon to a foreign design in an effort to make it act like the brain. In other words, intelligence is never artificial.

Human intelligence, albeit impressive, cannot be the end game. The inability of individual specimens to form a network has substantially restricted their ability to advance. So, replicating the human brain in silicon is not a good idea both because contemporary designs do not allow consciousness and the lack of network capabilities disallow scaling.

It's time software and hardware came together to advance AI.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Individual's optimization problem

A human has a relatively simple optimization problem. Each specimen is expected to be alive less than 30K days,  divided into 3 horizons. In the first 10K days, they rely on somebody else to survive and live. In the next 10K days, they swim on their own to accumulate resources to take care of themselves for the remaining 10K days. This is a relatively simple optimization problem but humans are not generally impressed by simple ideas and solutions. For most of the 8 billion, irrational thoughts govern, such as optimizing beauty, hair, ego, wealth, tenure and research papers. Most miss the cliff and fly off the handle.

The human appears to be unable to optimize, given harsh constraints. Most run and run but never reach their goals. Some kill and pillage in an effort to climb the hill only to get vertigo as they reach the cliff. Most miss the simple objective function they are given and try to redefine it. As science accepts ignorance to be prevalent, as religion begins to recognize crime does not pay, as governments and societies realize the costs of electing crooked leaders, it is important to keep the 30K horizon in mind. How have humans reached this position?

Advanced human societies from 100K years ago were significantly more advanced. Most were not impressed by the color of their skin, hair and eyes. Most wanted to explore out of their comfortable habitats. Most shared resources across clans and societies. Most wanted to advance on their own and not by making others retreat. Most laughed and stopped laughing when they saw somebody else cry. They were humans and it appears that the modern version is not.

What happened to humans? Where have they gone?