Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The knowledge paradox

Gaining knowledge is costly. It takes time, effort, and money. Rational decision-makers will partake in this activity only if the risk-adjusted excess returns from it are positive. Since the risk associated with investing in gaining knowledge has both a systematic and idiosyncratic component to it, if the individual is able to diversify the unsystematic risk by accumulating varied and less correlated knowledge items, the relevant risk for computing returns to knowledge is only the systematic component. Thus, it may be dominant for a young person to garner knowledge in uncorrelated domains. In this context, education systems that force an individual to specialize may be responsible for reducing overall returns to knowledge for the individual and for society more broadly. Further, the value of specialized knowledge declines in a regime of high volatility as the aggregate option value of the portfolio will be higher if it is constructed with diverse and uncorrelated knowledge components.

The value of knowledge, however, declines with age. Both the returns to knowledge as well as any diversification advantages that exist from varied knowledge decline sharply after a certain age. Thus, it is puzzling why older people will engage in the accumulation of knowledge in diverse domains. It has been observed that individuals take on foreign knowledge domains, such as new languages, music, literature, and even science after retirement. Since the computable and observable returns from these apparently irrational activities are negative, it has to be that there are benefits that are intangible. Such benefits may include an incremental extension of life by keeping the brain active and packets of happiness emanating from gameplay if knowledge-seeking is constructed as a game. These are difficult to measure and may depend on the individual.

As the expiration date of an individual is predictable within reasonable error bands, it may be possible to tease out the motivation for knowledge activities through longitudinal studies. Controlling for the individual’s mental deterioration with age, it is possible that the individual will continue to enhance the diversity of her knowledge portfolio. If the extension of life is the dominant objective, this activity should decline over time with a sudden drop closer to expiry. If gameplay drives the motivation, it should hold steady and perhaps even increase as the individual nears the irreversible outcome.

A diverse portfolio of knowledge appears dominant whatever age one is, except very close to expiry.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Concentrating Solar: The right first step toward zero cost energy

Nearly zero cost energy is a real possibility for humans living in close proximity to a large fusion device with billions of years of fuel left. However, the immediate need to push away from fossil fuels has led to massive investments into inefficient alternatives such as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. Both of these have inherent limitations and in the absence of hitherto unknown materials, these technologies could never reach the required efficiencies to be useful. This is another reminder that a focus on incremental innovation is not the right approach to solve big problems. Recent news (1) that concentrating solar with an array of reflectors driven by Artificial Intelligence could generate temperatures exceeding 1000 degrees is welcome news. Although initial applications could be industrial, power production cannot be too far behind.

On the other hand, room temperature superconductivity, something engineers have been dreaming about for many decades is yet to materialize. Just like photovoltaic cells, the focus here has been incremental. Because of this, we are not too far from where we were a few decades ago. A few 10s of Kelvin higher temperature, albeit interesting scientifically, has no real practical implications. Rather than nourishing this toward room temperature slowly, engineers should throw out the templates they are working on and start with the requirement of finding superconductivity at room temperature, nothing less.

With efficient harvesting of heat through well designed concentrating solar devices moving toward central power production, it is imperative that we make advances in superconductivity as the transmission and distribution of power will become more important in the future. If concentrating solar wins, we will have to shelve all the contemporary inefficient and costly attempts for distributed power production.

Incrementalism is not a good approach to solve big problems.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

No Artificial Intelligence without Consciousness

Artificial Intelligence, a nebulous area, has been around from the advent of computers. Every decade, aided by increasing computing power and cheaper memory, those who just got out of school start to believe they found something new. Most often, new terms are invented to relabel what has been known forever. In the latest iteration, terms such as machine and deep learning have been trending. More interestingly, in the current wave, a new profession is coined, aptly called, "data science." Consulting firms, running out of ideas, strategies and PowerPoint magic, have been jumping in, to make a fast buck. The larger ones have assembled "thousands of data scientists," to make AI for their clients. The smaller ones have raised many 100s of millions of $ to "change the world." Now that we are approaching practical quantum computing within a decade, the next wave is just about to start. The behemoths, stuck with excess cloud capacity, have been providing "tools," so that they can download the costs of the stranded investments to the users. Unfortunately, all of these could be rendered obsolete in a few years. It may be a warning sign for educational institutions scrambling to create more data scientists on-line or not.

Autonomous automobiles and aircrafts are not AI, they are transportation modalities with a computer onboard. Robots that can put nuts and bolts together, assemble objects of use and occasionally jump in magnificent ways are not evidence of AI, just expert logic embedded in mechanical systems. Fooling people into thinking there is a human on the other side of the telephone is not AI just a set of rules fed into a synthesizer. Machines beating humans in prescriptive games is not AI - they are either a massive set of rules fed into high powered computers or pattern-finding neural nets (some call it deep learning) on steroids. None of these use cases have anything to do with AI, generalized or not. They just make some feel important and make a lot of positive economics for their proponents.

However, we cannot move an inch forward in AI without a coherent theory of consciousness. Engineers have been on a quest to define what they do not seem to understand, by quantitative means. It is possible that consciousness is a property that is externally applied. If so, the entities with consciousness are unlikely to understand it. In the absence of a theory from within, one possible explanation is that consciousness is induced by the simulator of the game. If so, it is likely that consciousness is a democratized property and is not limited to humans, let alone living things. This may explain why humans locked in a mathematical jail seem unable to understand it. 

Those chasing AI may need to spend more time thinking about a possible theory of consciousness. Without that, it is just age-old statistics.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Kids these days (1)

A recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1) demonstrates why the "adults," seem to put the kids down. The article says, "authoritarian people especially think youth are less respectful of their elders, intelligent people especially think youth are less intelligent, and well-read people especially think youth enjoy reading less." As we await the departure of septa and octogenarians from the highest echelons of companies and countries so that we can replace them with kids who have brains, it is important to recognize that these biases of elders are without any basis.

The only hope remaining for the world is the kids who seem to think better, use logic and make better decisions. The idiots in complete control of policies, countries, and companies have to understand that they can be easily replaced by better decision-makers, who are younger by a few decades. The political landscape is changing, and perhaps the "data scientists," are unaware of it. The kids will rise and make the world a better place. They will resist the mafia that is enveloping humanity and culture with evil intent. They will raise against time to prevent an impending climatic catastrophe facing the blue planet. They will attempt to lift every soul and eliminate the constraints for the weak and the weary. They will be humble and treat every individual the same regardless of color, gender or sexual preference.

It is time we turned the world over to the kids.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Why the real billionaire is the right choice?

As the fake billionaire who did not know there are two sides to the balance sheet, creates chaos in the nation's capital, a real billionaire could be the right choice for the country to move forward. Having a good grasp of accounting and statistics are useful for those asserting to be billionaires. To do that, one has to attend schools, not just the "best" ones but those who teach real concepts. A divided country, 40:40:20, with 80% of the population showing little flexibility as they go to the polls, we have only 20% who could analyze policy and capabilities of politicians, typically without a soul, let alone integrity. That could be enough to right the course of a country that led humanity to the best possible places. Those who bet against capitalism and freedom, do so at their own peril. We have already demonstrated that a beautiful collection of diverse people, minds and ideas in an unconstrained setting, lifts everybody.

As a vehicle slips on snow, it is a bad idea to steer all the way to the left or right. We can never underestimate the sacrifice of those who served the country as soldiers and diplomats. As we observe politicians with little desire to assure that we do not lose a beautiful idea approaching 250 years, it is important that we do not give up. To serve humanity, one has to be human first and that does not originate from counting the number of billions in the bank. To be a human, one has to understand the pain that surrounds 8 billion identical specimens across the tiniest blue dot in the most irrelevant corner of an ordinary galaxy in a universe of over 100 billion of them.

As the comedian and coatless wonder congressman from the Midwest, who is able to figure out when somebody is just "joking," shows up in the capital to serve the people every day, but mostly for his singular client, he is banking on the idea that people have short memories as he has many years before attempting to get back. He could be wrong on two things - people do remember and by the time he attempts a return, the place will be swarming with millennials who use logic to make decisions. As the congressman of transparency before he became the secretary, entertains thoughts of climbing to the senate, he has to understand that most people remember. As the guy who wanted to "cleanse and repeat," suddenly got religion in the opposite direction, may need to consider that even in safe zones, people have integrity and they remember.

People will remember and we are not about to lose over two centuries of hard work.

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.