Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Dunbar's Number

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A slap on the face of racism


The nomination of Kamala Harris to the democratic ticket is a slap on the face of racism, worn by most humans. A combination of black and brown, married to a Jewish person may be too much for those seeking to be pure. She is contra-indicated for everyone, blacks, whites, browns, and anything in between. It is sad humanity has reached this nadir.

Attempts at explaining the 8.4 billion specimens across the world share the same genes have not been successful. It is not surprising as a sizable number believes the Sun goes around the flat Earth. The attributes of color, religion, and language govern decision-making for most, remnants of clan-based organization of homo-sapiens. Modern humans have devised sophisticated ways to hide their racist beliefs. But their actions speak volumes and the leaders of the greatest and largest democracies always understood it. The electorate may talk a good game but behind the screen in the election booth, their instincts kick in.

Racism is the most prevalent disease of humanity today. It shows no signs of abatement. It means that the training of the brain through information, although necessary, is not sufficient to eradicate the disease. It appears to be resident in the operating system and applications put on top of this foundation, simply mask the instincts temporarily.

The “progress,” of humans may become irrelevant if they are unable to put on a new operating system on their hardware upstairs.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Vanishing Species

Humans, a recent arrival on the planet Earth, appear to be on track to vanish in a few 100 years. According to a recent article in Lancet (1), population growth is slowing and the aggregate population is expected to peak in 40 years or so, just under 10 billion. With a Total Fertility Rate well under the replacement rate in many countries and the rest moving rapidly in that direction, humans are on course to a slow and painful extinction in the blink of an eye. In less than a century, the value of a human could rise to such levels that countries may fight for them or devise ways to manufacture them.

Humans were never expected to be here. A mere 75,000 years ago they were reduced to a few thousand samples during the Toba catastrophe (2). As they ventured out of Africa, just 50,000 years ago, they were given a palette of relative freedom to create their own history. They eliminated any other humanoid they found systematically, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans, albeit after mating with them, using abundant experience from clan-based violence borrowed from their ancestors (3). In less than 10,000 years ago, when humans settled and succumbed to agriculture and domestic animals, they exposed themselves to organisms that could wipe them out quickly. Their height and health started to decline since then (4) and with little knowledge of their invisible enemies, they remain to be sitting ducks in the midst of advancing pandemics.

There are three common themes that characterize Homo-sapiens all through their sojourn on the blue planet that possesses an incredible level of homeostasis. First, they are driven by a simple objective function, just like any other biological entity on Earth, a need for energy and a desire to perpetuate their architecture — more specifically, food and sex. Second, they try to maximize this objective function through violence, perhaps worse than other animals that have shown to be prone to irrational empathy. A freak evolutionary quirk ballooned their brains and that gave them the ability to strategize and collaborate to eliminate the foe. Ironically, the bigger brain accelerates their path to extinction as they devise weapons of mass destruction, religions, and caste systems. Finally, their long-practiced clan behavior pushes them to segment to ever so finer distinctions based on visible surface features and presumed differences. In other words, the deadly cocktail of food, sex, violence, and racism has set them up for the final assault by disease as their numbers naturally decline due to falling fertility rates.

Physics is yet to provide a reasonable explanation of life. The most elegant of ideas has been the second law of thermodynamics (5) and a systemic force toward increasing entropy at an ever-faster rate. Life certainly fits this as a biological organism is able to accelerate entropy by many orders of magnitude higher compared to a random combination of chemicals that make life. If so, it makes sense that Humans, an extreme form of entropy enhancing mechanisms, materialized. If the Physics holds true, they will be replaced by other forms that are more efficient in increasing entropies. The new species has to be more potent than humans in the current environment. Recent advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics may fit the bill. It is more likely that the environment of contemporary life will be blown to pieces in a shock and awe process of massive entropy accretion.

Humans, the vanishing species, a quirky experiment of evolution, never had the staying power.






Sunday, August 2, 2020

Ignorance, the biggest threat to society

In the midst of pandemics, environmental degradation, social unrest, and other observable catastrophes, the primary threat to humans remains to be ignorance (1). Merriam-Webster defines ignorance as a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness. More generally, it is a state of being apathetic to emerging information and a lack of a framework to evaluate such data.

It should worry every human on earth that the greatest and largest democracies have leaders who demonstrate ignorance to such levels that their mere presence is a threat to humanity. It has been assumed that in a democratic system, fair elections will guarantee that elected officials will be competent at the very least. It was also an implicit assumption that democracies will avoid those who have evil intentions to roll back the ideals of the system. It is clear that these assumptions do not hold and it may be time to ask if the democratic systems, as designed, are appropriate.

The concentration of power has always been a problem in a democratic system. The world’s largest democracy, which purports a unitary system, has accumulated power at the center and that has led to the uneven treatment of states all through its short history. As the pandemic illustrated, the center has schizophrenia, taking credit for what works and blaming the states for the rest. In the world’s greatest democracy, which is apparently getting greater every minute, the dangerous effects of concentration of power in the executive branch are becoming clearer.

Democracy has always been a fragile system. It relied on the intelligence, foresight, and compassion of elected leaders to perpetuate it. All it takes is one or a few individuals to turn it back. Large democracies are sitting at the precipice of a societal tsunami. How they manage through this period will have a profound impact on history.


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.