Archive for the ‘Synthesis’ Category

Mind your Brain

April 2, 2013

Obama is about to announce the brain initiative any minute now. I happen to think it is a colossal mistake, but an instructive one. First, it prompts an analysis of Obama: more than his drone war and budget debacles, this brain project is my wake up call that for all his eloquence, he utterly lacks imagination: the only thing he can actually get excited about (like his election campaign) are numbers, measurables and deliverables with no feeling for ideas. Very much a prisoner of the Harvard-MIT best and brightest syndrome.

If you are interested in an extended analysis, read on:

I think of this initiative as the culmination of “iScience,” science as product development, which has a clear recipe:

  1. Assert a metaphysical goal such as: this project will help us understand consciousness, make us all happier, make our military better and build a 21st century economy.
  2. Immediately transform that goal with the greatest reductionist efficiency imaginable into a set of modular, measurable goals with clear deliverables.
  3. Hire a lot of smart people who will do as they are told, pay them a lot of money and give them lot of fancy gadgets to follow the script. Even better if they can keep writing papers about solving the brain.
  4. Show the world how you are sticking to a Brain 2020 timeline or some such vapid goal and have lots of press conferences where even more fancy gadgets and smart people showcase their latest sci-fi stuff.
  5. Torture a lot of animals in the name of science.

Now this is a good recipe for building iphones and Boeing 787’s, because that’s how global supply chains are structured now. But I think it is a terrible way to do science or any engagement with ideas and imagination.

The worst part of the brain initiative for me is not that it’s impractical or outlandish but that it is boring, a view of human inquiry that’s reached an imaginative dead end. If the project “works” then we will all be living in the matrix. But I don’t think it will, for the project for all its technical wizardry is not addressing the key questions – it is really about searching for the lost jewels where the light is shining rather than where it they were lost.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/live/president-obama-speaks-brain-initiative

Question 3: Dimensional Analysis (7)

July 15, 2012

In physics and also in biology, dimensional analysis can help the scientist achieve qualitative understanding without detailed calculations. One of the chief impediments to studying complex systems like cells and cities is that we have no clue as to what the dimensions are. For example, in order to characterise a city, should:

  • Inflows of people and goods be along the same dimension or separate dimensions?
  • All energy sources be clubbed into one dimension?

Any rational analysis of a complex system has to start with identifying the relevant dimensions. Given a system S, what is the procedure for identifying its relevant dimensions? 

The Desi Turing Test (7)

July 12, 2012

Can we create an AI program that will top the IIT-JEE?

Question 1: Sensing the City (21)

July 9, 2012

What will take to sense and store all the variables that determine the dynamics of a large city? A list that includes:

  1. Migration, both in and out.
  2. Material inflows and outflows – food, industrial production, construction materials everything
  3. Pollution, solid waste, effluents and other byproducts of human activity.
  4. Health, education, livelihood statistics.

and so on. In other words, what will it take to convert a city into a fully sensible organism?

What is 42?

July 8, 2012

More here.

For a long time, I have been thinking that in the age of large scale human networks with its tremendous potential for aggregating distributed expertise, it is perhaps even more important to ask the right questions than it is to answer questions once posed. I am also aware of my limited knowledge; unlike Douglas Adam’s infamous computer I can’t compress the universe into a single number. He who can’t answer must question instead. My goal is to ask questions on a 42 point (nonlinear!) scale:

  • 1 = Obvious, like trying to remember where you left your coffee.
  • 2 = Takes a little more effort; a crossword puzzle.
  • 3= Term paper.
  • 4 = Getting serious now; a master’s thesis.
  • 7 = PhD thesis.
  • 14 = Life’s work.
  • 21 = The work of an entire community.
  • 42 = All of human knowledge

These signposts are all calibrated to academic achievements, but you get the point.

The first (21 point) question is now posted here. I plan on posting a new question (with its associated q number, 1<= q <= 42) every week if I am lucky and no less than once a month.. The questions will also be cross posted here and on several other networks.

If you have a question that you want to throw into the pool, just submit it on the site or here.

This blog itself is the best place to respond to the questions. Every so often, I will aggregate the responses; if the experiment goes well, it might even be worth building an aggregation platform for that purpose, like stackexchange or mathoverflow, only more interesting 🙂

The purpose of this project is to see if we can aggregate our wisdom in interesting ways. If nothing else, it will be fun to collect a bunch of interesting questions and if it works, who knows?

PS: Why 42?

The Object of Vision

May 4, 2012

The second post in the Frode conversation series.

As visual creatures, we are prone to thinking that sight reveals the world as such. If you are asked to name the attributes of a tiger or a cup, you will most likely name its visual features – large, yellow with stripes, handled etc. Touch and audition come second: you might have a good idea of what a tiger sounds like and what it feels like to hold a cup, but nevertheless, it seems as if touch and hearing reveal properties of objects while sight reveals the object itself.  Even within vision, shape takes precedence over texture and color as the revealer of the essence of the object.

When I was a college student, I would recognize my roommate’s imminent entry through the sound that his slippers used to make, but I never confused the sound for the person himself. It would almost be like confusing the signature of a person on a sheet of paper for the person himself. Vision on the other hand isn’t experienced as a signature. When I see someone, I see her, not a vision of something that looks like her. Touch is like vision in that when we touch something we are touching it, not doing something that feels like touching the object. The difference between a signature and the object distinguishes our experience of vision and touch (and to a lesser extent, taste) from hearing and smell. Touch and vision are also experienced as exterior to the self, while sounds and smells are as much interior as exterior. One can get lost in the interior landscape of a song or a poem, but once you open your eyes, you are bound to see the world out there.

Both our experience of the objective world and our ideas of the objective world are affected by our tacit reliance on vision. There is a danger here though: if our ideas of objectivity and external reality are really projections of our experience of vision, we run the risk of over-generalization. A dog is perhaps (if at all that comparison makes sense) as good at smelling as we are at seeing. Isn’t it possible that vision and smell are inverted in their objectivity as far as dogs and humans are concerned? If so, what would a dog think as objective?

By focusing on a visual experience driven concept of objectivity, we run the risk of being shut out of the sensoriums of other species. It is not that I cannot know what it is like to be a bat per se, but that if we “to-know” means to know something in the way that vision reveals it to us, then of course, we cannot know what it is like to be a bat. However, if we relax our ideas of knowledge into a wider sensorium, we might be able to enter the bats world after all.

 

Experience isn’t subjective

April 27, 2012

This is the first post in a series deriving from a conversation with Frode on the 26th of April.

From Descartes to Nagel, there is an argument that consciousness is utterly subjective, that another person cannot feel my pain. A mild version of this argument is obviously true: you are not standing where I am standing, you do not see the coffee cup in front me in exactly the same way that I do. However, this mild argument for the exclusivity of consciousness isn’t particularly troubling. After all, I don’t see the world the same way as I did a minute ago as soon as I move from one location to another, or even turn my head. But there is a clear sense of continuity from one frame to another. Contrary to William James‘ intuition, we do not experience the world as a blooming buzzing confusion. One of the key insights of modern perceptual science is the continuity, coherence and stability of perceptual experience despite the dynamic character of the input to our senses.

Why is the transition from one organism to another in space any bigger than the transition within an organism in time? Unless you assume that the self is an impermeable entity, there is just as must reason to believe that my experience is continuous with yours as there is to believe that my experience is continuous with my own past experience.  Of course, one can never experience exactly what another person experiences, but that standard of exactness and certainty is too high a standard. As long as my experience is continuous with yours, your consciousness is accessible to me even if I don’t see the very same thing as you do.

Only if you believe, as Descartes probably did, that the self is impermeable and that the only form of valid knowledge is certain knowledge that we are stuck with the isolated subjectivity of consciousness. Knowledge of others’ experience that is continuous with their subjectivity rather than an exact replica of their experience is still enough for a science of experience.

 

Digital and Analog

April 21, 2012

Like the railroad and the United States in the nineteenth century, the internet is a geographical area revolutionized by a new technology. The progression of technology is the same in both cases:

  1. A new area is discovered.
  2. Survey and mapping is done.
  3. Communities are established.
  4. Community services are created.

The railroad clearly led to all four; the internet has only reached the third stage. The web started when the basic networking protocols were established and the first websites were created. Then came Yahoo and Google as surveyors, mapping out the newly created terrain, followed in the third stage by Facebook which started creating communities.

The next wave of the internet will involve creating community services: health, education, politics, entertainment located in the geography of the internet. 

The demand for community services will spill over from the world of information into the world of of matter, from the digital to the analog. The merger of the two – digital + analog = digpan – will increasingly be the story of the web.  

Digital and Analog

April 21, 2012

Like the railroad and the United States in the nineteenth century, the internet is a geographical area revolutionized by a new technology. The progression of technology is the same in both cases:

  1. A new area is discovered.
  2. Survey and mapping is done.
  3. Communities are established.
  4. Community services are created.

The railroad clearly led to all four; the internet has only reached the third stage. The web started when the basic networking protocols were established and the first websites were created. Then came Yahoo and Google as surveyors, mapping out the newly created terrain, followed in the third stage by Facebook which started creating communities.

The next wave of the internet will involve creating community services: health, education, politics, entertainment located in the geography of the internet. 

The demand for community services will spill over from the world of information into the world of of matter, from the digital to the analog. The merger of the two – digital + analog = digpan – will increasingly be the story of the web.  

The Viability of Political Formations

March 6, 2012

As Scott Page’s own work has shown, model thinking can help us understand political realities, of which the largest, most macro-level issues are with the evolution of political formations as a whole. There are several forms of human political sociality of which the nation state is the most dominant now. But we have also had kingdoms and republics and several tribal systems. What makes one give way to the other?

 The background: I just finished reading Thomas Trautmann’s beautiful summary of the main themes of Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which the oldest text on politics and statecraft.  One of the points he makes is that Ancient India had republics as well as kingdoms but for most of the last two thousand years, kingdoms were the norm. Trautmann says that kingdoms were both economically and morally more acceptable. Also kingdoms were both more economically efficient and politically more diverse. Strangely, modern democracy arose from Kingdoms rather than republics. Tribal communities like the Afghans haven’t evolved into democracies despite historically being more participatory in their decision making. Perhaps even more strangely, not a single Buddhist country is a real pluralist democracy, including our own southern neighbour Sri Lanka.
The Fundamental Observation. Democracy and dictatorship are neither inevitable nor completely random. Instead, they become more and/or less viable depending on the circumstances,  both material as well as mental. Model thinking should be able to help us think through what is accidental and what is structural in this evolution of political systems.
The Questions: What makes certain political formations more viable than others at a given time? Is it a function of economics alone? What role does technology play in sustaining a political entity? Why do we such linear paths in the space of politics: theocracy–>kingdoms–> democracy rather than a more liner path?
A book worth looking at is Acemoglu and Robinson’s “Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship,” which is the best modern treatment of this issue from an economists point of view.