Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Science (Page 1 of 3)

The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

I really don’t know what to make of this book.  It was on my bedside table for more than 3 weeks. This is very, very unusual. It is not that I couldn’t read it, it was actually quite interesting but I could manage only a few pages at a time, and that’s because I needed time to think about and reflect on what I had just read. It sounded so weird and so unbelievable that I wasn’t sure if this was a serious work from an accomplished academic, as Dr Robin Hanson, or a science fiction dystopia. Perhaps, it’s both.

Ok, let’s start.  Nowadays, our economy doubles roughly every 15 years, from every 1000 years during the farming period. If this trend were to continue, we should expect, according to the statistics models, that sometime during the next century, our economy to go to doubling every one month, or so.  This will last for a couple of years maybe, and then something entirely different will happen that would change everything. What will cause that disruptive change? The arrival of artificial intelligence, that is robots, smart enough to substitute wholesale for human workers.

There are several stories how this will become possible. One scenario is that we will keep writing and accumulating better software. At this rate, we need about three to four centuries for a full AI. Another scenario is that humans would be able to modify their biology so as to achieve a superhuman intelligence. Robin Hanson, who studied physics and was a software engineer before he become an economics professor at George Mason University, believes there is an entirely different way, and that is porting software from where it already exists, and that is the human brain.

To do that we need three things. First, fast computers, much faster than those today, second, scanning machines that will be able to produce a most detailed scan of the human brain with all its particular cell features and connections, and finally, computer models that would be able to process signals for each brain cell.  If we have all these, then we can have robots which will be whole brain emulations or “ems,” for short.  Robin Hanson expects that the first ems will appear within roughly a century or so.

Emulations are not a new idea, there have been in science fiction for many decades. Arthur Clarke investigated this idea in his novel The City and the Stars, in 1956 and more recently in 2003, in his novella The Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge explores the idea of conscious computer simulations.

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson focus on robots and how the world would look like at the next big era after ours. He explores what happens in this strange world that it is dominated by trillions of ems that live and work in liquid-cooled skyscrapers, in very dense and very hot cities where they can quickly interact with other ems. He talks about the physics the economy, the organisation and their attitudes to law, politics, love, sex, and a lot of different other things.

Ems are smart, efficient, conscientious and workaholics. They basically work all the time but despite their hard work, they earn just enough to survive. Because they are so many and because it is easy – although not inexpensive – to make a lot more, the value of the work goes down. It is the supply- demand concept of economics.

Ems congregate in related “clans” and make use of Decision Markers to make key group decisions. Psychologically are very human.  They are not ordinary humans, but they have all the psychological tendencies that humans have. They are after all emulation of human brains that are put on a computer. Therefore, they develop relationships, they have friends, lovers, work connections. Some ems have bodies, others do not.

Emulations do not have to feel pain, or hunger. They don’t have to face death as they can make billions of copies of themselves.  Em ethics are different from ours. Their society is less democratic and gender-balanced, more divided into district classes, and its leaders are more accessible and trusted.

But what about humans? If they survive, they will retire somewhere outside the dense cities and will live on pensions doing whatever they want to do. It is not very clear, humans are not the purpose of Robin Hanson.

The Age of Em is an efficiency, undemocratic utopia or dystopia, depending on your perspective.  The em scenario is not entirely persuasive to me but the book provides a baseline for future study in the important topic of artificial intelligence.

A Day in the Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield

“Without consciousness, life would indeed be pretty much the same as death. The conscious condition makes life worth living: yet what is it, this insubstantial, intangible inner … what exactly?”

Consciousness, once the province of philosophers and theologians, has become in the past few decades one of the great scientific challenges, a fascinating topic of research in psychology and neuroscience.

Susan Greenfield, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, heads a multi-disciplinary research group exploring novel brain mechanisms linked to neurodegenerative diseases. In her book A Day in the Life of the Brain draws on her own research to illuminate the mystery of consciousness in the course of a single day in the life of the brain.

Susan Greenfield takes everyday activities – waking up, walking the dog, eating breakfast, at the office, problems at home, sleeping and dreaming – to explore how the human brain is working. Her theory is that coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness. These ‘neuronal assemblies’ play a central role in organising all the networks in the brain and somehow these neuronal assemblies provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness.

The book shows how the brain works, its complexity and the functionally of certain areas. It   has some good insights and it is written in a simple style, devoid of difficult jargon. It sheds some light on consciousness.

Superforecasting: Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

Forecasting might appear to be a game but in fact it is real. We are making forecasts every day, when we are buying a product at the supermarket, or when we decide to date someone or live with him. We are making forecasts when we make financial investments.

Forecasting is important. On a personal level because the ability to forecast may be the difference between success and failure. And despite the unwillingness of some decision-makers to examine and accept scientific evidence – think the case of parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children, or the lack of action to lower the level of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet – as societies, we have started embracing evidence-based policies in order to deal better with contemporary challenges.

Superforecasting – The Art and Science of Prediction is a fascinated book, about lots of things I didn’t know about.  Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner tell us why forecasting is so important and crucial in our daily lives, look into what make people good forecasters, and what elevates forecasting to superforecasting.

Because of people like Tom Friedman and the rise of big data, people have started to have an interest in forecasting. But despite the interest, forecasters’ accuracy is not measured and forecasting itself is not very well analysed at all.

There is an inverse correlation between fame and accuracy, says Philip Tetlock, a psychologist who teaches at Berkeley. The more famous an expert is, the less accurate he is. Tetlock’s conclusions are based on a long-term study, the Good Judgment Project which won a massive four‑year US government‑sponsored forecasting tournament.

There is a story in the book, the fox vs hedgehog metaphor that is very interesting. The story is based on a fragment of a poem written by the Greek poet Archilochus, 2,500 years ago.  It actually says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” ‘Πολλ’  οίδ’  αλώπηξ, εχίνος δε εν, μέγα’, for those who know ancient Greek.

The meaning of this epigramma, is  that the “hedgehogs” devote their whole life to one big issue, insist on their views, and  they are reluctant to change them even when they fall out. They are so committed to their ideology that they expect solutions to everyday problems to come through some great theory, their favourite theory, preferably.

On the contrary, the “foxes” tend to be more eclectic. They use accumulated interdisciplinary knowledge and adapt their approaches according to real circumstances, while doing their own self-criticism whenever necessary. Above all, they recognize the complexity of the world in which we live in, and rely more on observation and less on theory.

Of course, if you are a producer for a television show, you tend to go with the hedgehog. You don’t really care if she is a good or bad forecaster. What you really need is a media pundit, someone who is bold and decisive, one that can tell an interesting story …. the eurozone is going to melt down in the next two years, for example.

‘Foresight isn’t ‘a mysterious gift bestowed at birth,’ says Philip Tetlock. It is the product of particular ways of thinking, of gathering information, and of updating beliefs. Broadly speaking superforecasting demands focus, thinking that is open-minded, careful, curious, less ideological, and above all, self-critical. The most systematically and thoughtfully we go about forecast the better we do.

I really liked this book and I enjoyed learning about these things. I had a look on the website and I even made my first attempt on forecasting. I am now looking forward to see the results. Am I a fox or a hedgehog?

Weapons of math destruction by Cathy O’Neil

It was mostly the subtitle that made me interested in Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction.

“How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.”

Weapons of math destruction (WMDs), is the term coined by O’Neil to describe the ways that mathematical models adversely affect a large number of people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.  They are used to generate scores that are used in critical decisions, such as teacher performance scores, criminal recidivism scores, or credit scores that are used in hiring people, approve loans and mortgages, in sentencing criminals, and in influencing how we vote.

The current Big Data craze is not new. During the last 20 years there has been a great interest in storing and analysing large data sets. It is a digital revolution that will transform the way society is organized.

Today, algorithms know almost everything about us. All of our clicks in the Internet are being recorded and evaluated. Algorithms know our profession, where we live, our hobbies, and our shopping activities. They know how we feel; they can even control how we feel. Algorithms can be used to manipulate and influence our attitudes and behaviour, it is called persuasive computing. Does these technologies are threatening our democracy?

Following the housing crash, Cathy O’Neil woke up to the proliferation of WMDs in banking and to the danger they posed to the economy. A Harvard trained mathematician, former academic mathematician, Cathy O’Neil was working until early 2011 for DE Shaw, one of the world’s leading hedge funds. After quitting her job, she rebranded herself as a data scientist and joined an e-commerce start-up. She has been involved in Occupy Wall Street,  she is the author of the blog Mathbabe.org and recently started a company called ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. Cathy o’Neil is the ideal person to write this book.

In Weapons of Math Destruction, she explores the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. She focuses on the potential or actual harm of powerful, and often secret and unaccountable mathematical models on people’s lives, and how they often reinforce inequality in America, with unfair discrimination against minorities, particularly African-Americans, and the poor.

“.. fairness isn’t calculated into WMDs. And the result is massive, industrial production of unfairness. If you think of WMD as a factory, unfairness in the black stuff belching out of the smoke stacks. It’s an emission a toxic one.”

Don’t expect to find mathematical formulas in the book. There is none. This is not a book about math at all – “it’s a book about power masquerading as neutral technology.” Its purpose is to demystify algorithms, and equip the reader with the knowledge to question the authority of the most influential and opaque algorithms that govern our lives.

The Weapons of Math Destruction is a very thought-provoking book and Kathy O’Niel’s writing is clear, concise and direct. In the last chapter, she calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and shares a few ideas about how we can use big data for good. She advocates an ethics of data science and she proposes a Hippocratic Oath for data scientists.

The book focusses only on US case studies. It would be useful to see if there are similar examples or cases in Europe or elsewhere and how policy makers regulate the use of WMDs.

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

Newton’s laws enabled the scientists to understand and decode the movement of objects in the solar system. It worked every time, everywhere. Everywhere except Mercury. Something strange was going on with our solar system’s innermost planet.

It turns out that every time the Mercury orbits around the Sun, its ellipse precesses ever so slightly. So far so good, no problem there.  Albeit, when scientists tried to calculate how quickly this should precess and then they observed how fast this procession was, the numbers did not match. There was a discrepancy of 43 seconds of arc per century (one second of arc=1/3600 degrees). This is small, very small. Nevertheless, it is still a discrepancy.

Newton’s law could not explain this discrepancy and nobody knew what was cause it. Until 1859. Urbain-Jean  Joseph Le Verrier, the man who discovered Neptune and sought out opportunities to extend his knowledge, thought he had found the solution to the Mercury’s anomaly.

“….a planet, or if one prefers a group of smaller planets circling in the vicinity of Mercury’s orbit, would be capable of producing the anomalous perturbation felt by the latter planet… According to this hypothesis, the mass sought should exist inside the orbit of Mercury.”

A planet, or a belt or asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury. It sounded exciting.

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Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

If you liked Rovelli’s last book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, you will be excited and challenged with his new one, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Be prepared to really dive into the fundamentals of quantum gravity, one of the most beautiful and thought – provoking theories in the world of physics.

Rovelli takes us on a fascinating journey spanning 2,500 years of evolution in physics, starting with the ideas of ancient Greeks and especially Democritus of Abdera to the Newtonian revolution and the genius of Albert Einstein to the strange world of loop quantum gravity. A world where time does not exist and physical reality is not what it seems.

Quantum gravity combines general relativity (GR) and quantum mechanisms (QM) to find a new synthesis that will help us understand a world in which quanta and curved space exist. It is a major challenge and most of the physicists, with the exception of Dirac, Feynman, Weinberg, Penrose, Hawking, among others, in the second half of the 20th century have ignored this challenge.

In science, writes Rovelli, “there are no secure recipes for discovery and it is important to explore different directions at the same time.” Currently, string theory and loop quantum gravity are the two most developed paths.   Carlo Rovelli belongs to the school of loop quantum gravity where the central idea is that space is not a continuum, “it is not divisible ad infinitum” but it is quantified, “formed of ‘atoms of space,’ a billion billion times smaller than the smallest of atomic nuclei.”

Rovelli, with great elegance and clarity, presents leading-edge research in the revolutionary field of loop gravity theory. It is an intellectually challenging book, accessible to all readers but not for the faint-hearted.

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