Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Singularity is Near :)

The idea of technological singularity is roughly a state in the future when machines are smarter than humans, which in turn sets the stage for them to make even smarter machines etc. I understand that there are a bunch of people who think Singularity is exceedingly near with Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near arguing that it is likely to be attained by 2045!!! Elizer Yudowsky's posts on have a similar theme too!

Most of their arguments for the singularity being near have to do with the highly super-linear impact of a lot of technology which tend to build on one another etc. I would like to add a new argument borrowed from the movie, idiocracy!

Idiocracy makes that point that the last 50-100 years have been a turning point in the history of human evolution. While higher intelligence caused better survival and reproductive success for several million years, in the last few decades number of surviving offspring is undoubtedly negatively correlated with intelligence in most societies. The movie is a hilarious take on a society 500 years hence wherein society has undergone a heavy dumbing down both for the aforesaid genetic reasons, and also since popular culture heavily discourages activities that involve usage of intelligence.

So here is my two cents from a discussion with Jonathan. One more reason to believe that the singularity is near is that humans are getting dumber and consequently the machines could cross human intelligence (aka. Turing's test), simply as a result of humans getting dumber. :P

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nassim Taleb: My points of disagreement

This post is directed at those who are somewhat familiar with Nassim Taleb's writings "The Black Swan" and "Fooled by Randomness", or even articles by him which talk about these ideas. So I dare say I am looking at quite a niche audience, not unlike my other posts.
I am in complete agreement with the "trunk" of his ideas regarding funds with better than market returns often taking blow up risks, which in expectation doesn't leave you better off than market returns etc. I however disagree with a number of "branches".

Specifically I can't help thinking Taleb goes overboard to placate pseudoscience and religion, merely because as he rightly points out, a good deal of financial analysis and recommendations performs no better than random guesses and is probably bordering on pseudoscience too.

Taleb describes his typical fool of randomness as one whose views match say that of Richard Dawkins with regard to the claims of religion, astrology, faith healing, miracles, the paranormal etc., which is to be highly skeptical of all of these since there isn't an iota of evidence for them. I firstly see no evidence to believe that these people are greater suckers for financial markets than the non-skeptics. He claims to be involved in some research on this and I predict that he would see a tiny positive correlation between general skepticism and financial market skepticism.

Another fatal premise that he bases a lot of his views on his the following. He asserts that it takes humans enormous mental effort to disbelieve anything and that that humans have a fixed capacity for disbelieving. From this, he concludes that belief in religion, astrology, miracles etc. can often be harmless and assets without justification asserts that belief in financial analysts is worse for society. And since disbelief in religion, astrology, miracles etc. consumes some of the fixed disbelief resources, we would be in a bad position to be skeptical of financial analysis!

In reality, skepticism is readily transferred from one field to another, and the whole "fixed bag of skepticism" hypothesis is utterly absurd. This is exactly why scientists who are skeptical of fantastic scientific claims (such as cold fusion) are also much more skeptical on average of religious claims, and claims of the paranormal.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Existential Crisis

It has been on my mind for sometime that the so called philosophical idea, the existential crisis is not caused by the lack of an inherent purpose to life. It is merely thrown up when the person is unhappy for other reasons. This is a nice post on overcoming bias on the very same thing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

God and Evolution

For those who properly understand the fundamentals of evolution (eg: if the person understands the reasoning and mathematical intuition in the book, "The Selfish Gene"), I think it's very hard to maintain a belief in a personal God and most variations of that. I was fuzzy on God for a while, but still considered myself to mildly theistic since I allowed for the possibility of inherent meaning/purpose in the universe, in particular with regard to life.

A reading of the selfish gene however destroyed all illusions of divinity or inherent meaning from life. The concept of a soul or anything like that looks ridiculous in the light of that understanding. At some level, an understanding of evolution implies that humans (and all life forms) are "automatons", only much more sophisticated than many other life forms and of course non-living objects.

Another strong implication is that the idea of "atomicity" of an individual (which is a cornerstone of all our social interactions) has no more biological basis than the fact that we have a bunch of DNA that were iteratively refined for billions of years and all our body parts happens to work together as "one unit", since it was locally optimal this way from the point of view of natural selection.

Feelings are another thing that we tend to assign a somewhat divine/metaphysical status to, but again they are products of natural selection and it's very easy to see the evolutionary basis of some of the feelings we hold most sacred.
With all this understanding its very hard to believe in a God of some sort.

I find the whole idea of "God did it through evolution" very puzzling. This means that God like emperor Nero, fiddled when the brutal processes of natural selection were at work, implying starvation of several young animals/humans whose genes were not among the best, life-forms carrying sub-optimal genes getting eaten more by predators, a small percentage of males cornering most of the females in a lot of the animal kingdom (4% males corner 100% females in elephant seals), with the majority of males remaining celibate or getting killed in the process of trying to copulate with females in the harems of stronger males.

In other words, most of the beautiful life forms produced have been the result of unbelievable brutality and cruelty of nature with absolutely no divine kindness rendered towards the carriers of sub-optimal genes. The kinds of brutality that shock us today are probably nothing compared to what has been going on in nature for billions of years.

With an understanding of all this, it is very hard to imagine how one could ever imagine a loving, merciful, caring God choosing a method like evolution to spawn off the rich and diverse life forms we see. I suspect most people who say "God did it through evolution" have no idea of how the process works. They probably subscribe to the common misconception that it is some kind of painless process wherein species constantly "improve" themselves with some Goal state such as humans in mind. Indeed, many people seem to think of humans as "more evolved" than other life forms, rather than recognize that the only "evolutionary goal" is to survive and spread your genes and humans are no better at it than others. Humans were pretty competent in their ecological niche and so are other life forms.

People like Francis Collins puzzle me to a much greater degree though. As director of the human genome project, there can be no dearth in his understanding of evolution.
He however professes strong faith to the extent of writing books about it. It comes across multiple times that he keeps his faith largely as a result of how it makes him feel, rather than good scientific arguments. It nevertheless puzzles me as to how belief in a God, who chose evolution as the path for creating life could make one more comfortable with his existence. This implies believing in a God, who chose a path of untold pain and misery for all life-forms, with no generosity towards those lagging behind in the evolutionary arms race.
So a God consistent with evolution would have to be an extremely lazy (since evolution takes care of the whole job, with no need for the God hypothesis)
and malevolent and I don't see how anyone can derive comfort or inspiration from him.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Siddharth Jonathan and I recently started Infoaxe, a search company currently in the stealth mode.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

God at the Perimeter of Ignorance?

Here is the link to the essay "The Perimeter of Ignorance". A must read!

Neil Tyson argues with multiple examples from history that people tend to invoke God right at the limits of their understanding. When the "boundary" of their understanding gets extended, they stop invoking God for the earlier things, but instead invoke him for the updated list of things that they do not understand. He aptly calls this "the God of the Gaps".

Similar is this article below.

I particularly liked the last few paragraphs from this essay, which I reproduce below.


When scientists do talk about God, they typically invoke him at the boundaries of knowledge where we should be most humble and where our sense of wonder is greatest. Examples of this abound. During an era when planetary motions were on the frontier of natural philosophy, Ptolemy couldn't help feeling a religious sense of majesty when he wrote, "When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch the earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia." Note that Ptolemy was not weepy about the fact that the element mercury is liquid at room temperature, or that a dropped rock falls straight to the ground. While he could not have fully understood these phenomena either, they were not seen at the time to be on the frontiers of science.

In the thirteenth century, Alfonso the Wise (Alfonso X), the King of Spain who also happened to be an accomplished academician, was frustrated by the complexity of Ptolemy's epicycles. Being less humble than Ptolemy, Alfonso once mused, "Had I been around at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe."

In his 1686 masterpiece, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton lamented that his new equations of gravity, which describe the force of attraction between pairs of objects, might not maintain a stable system of orbits for multiple planets. Under this instability, planets would either crash into the Sun or get ejected from the solar system altogether. Worried about the long-term fate of Earth and other planets, Newton invoke the hand of God as a possible restoring force to maintain a long-lived solar system. Over a century later, the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace invented a mathematical approach to gravity, published in his four-volume treatise Celestial Mechanics, which extended the applicability of Newton's equations to complex systems of planets such as ours. Laplace showed that our solar system was stable and did not require the hand of a deity after all. When queried by Napoleon Bonaparte on the absence of any reference to an "author of the universe" in his book, Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

In full agreement with King Alfonso's frustrations with the universe, Albert Einstein noted in a letter to a colleague, "If God created the world, his primary worry was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us." When Einstein could not figure out how or why a deterministic universe could require the probabilistic formalisms of quantum mechanics, he mused, "It is hard to sneak a look at God's cards. But that he would choose to play dice with the world?is something that I cannot believe for a single moment." When an experimental result was shown to Einstein that, if correct, would have disproved his new theory of gravity Einstein commented, "The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not." The Danish physicist Niels Bohr, a contemporary of Einstein, heard one too many of Einstein's God-remarks and declared that Einstein should stop telling God what to do!

Today, you hear the occasional astrophysicist (maybe one in a hundred) invoke God when asked where did all our laws of physics come from, or what was around before the big bang. As we have come to anticipate, these questions comprise the modern frontier of cosmic discovery and, at the moment, they transcend the answers our available data and theories can supply. Some promising ideas, such as inflationary cosmology and string theory, already exist. These could ultimately give to the answers to those questions, thereby pushing back our boundary of awe.

My personal views are entirely pragmatic, and partly resonate with those of Galileo who, during his trial, is credited with saying, "The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." Galileo further noted, in a 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, "In my mind God wrote two books. The first book is the Bible, where humans can find the answers to their questions on values and morals. The second book of God is the book of nature, which allows humans to use observation and experiment to answer our own questions about the universe."

I simply go with what works. And what works is the healthy skepticism embodied in scientific method. Believe me, if the Bible had ever been shown to be a rich source of scientific answers and understanding, we would be mining it daily for cosmic discovery. Yet my vocabulary of scientific inspiration strongly overlaps with that of religious enthusiasts. I, like Ptolemy, am humbled in the presence of our clockwork universe. When I am on the cosmic frontier, and I touch the laws of physics with my pen, or when I look upon the endless sky from a observatory on a mountaintop, I well up with an admiration for its splendor. But I do so knowing and accepting that if I propose a God beyond that horizon, one who graces our valley of collective ignorance, the day will come when our sphere of knowledge will have grown so large that I will have no need of that hypothesis.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Anti-Socialism/Bureaucracy in the 60s

The idea that we are constantly sold is that no non-trivial voice in India imagined that there was anything wrong with the high degree of socialism/red-tape/government control/license raj practiced till the 90s. A friend recently sent me information about the Swatantra Party by C. Rajagopalachari which stood unsuccessfully against the Congress. Below is part of their manifesto which looks rather far sighted in retrospect, given their support for free enterprise and attack on the license raj.

To Save freedom

From, "Why Swatantra," 1960, by C. Rajagopalachari

The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival.

The Swatantra Party is founded on the claim that individual citizens should be free to hold their property and carry on their professions freely and through binding mutual agreements among themselves and that the State should assist and encourage in every possible way the individual in this freedom, but not seek to replace him.

The new party seeks to oppose the trend of the ruling Congress Party to adopt the ways and ideals of the Communists in its eagerness to prevent the Communists from going forward. The Swatantra party believes that going over to the enemy is not defence, but surrender.

The Swatantra Party, apart from the ideology here explained, hopes to furnish a real opposition to the Congress Party so that parliamentary democracy may be properly balanced. The absence of a true opposition has led to the rapid deterioration of democracy into a kind of totalitarianism. Voices have been heard from all quarters calling for a strong opposition and the new party is supplying a felt want.

This party of freedom is further making a novel experiment in restricting disciplinary control over party members to essential issues, giving freedom in all other matters to vote according to individual opinion. This is not mere strategy to "net in" discordant miscellaneous elements as at first might appear. It is really an answer to the constantly expressed sense of dissatisfaction with party rigidity, and to the complaint that it often amounts to suppression of opinion and rule by a minority in the name of a majority. A majority in the ruling caucus can always, under present conditions, impose their views on all and every issue in the Parliament of the nation.

The Swatantra Party intends to initiate a departure from the usual practice of political parties and, true to its name, give Swatantra or freedom to its members to vote according to their own convictions and conscience on all but the party's fundamentals so that the decisions of Parliament may on those issues truly reflect the prevailing opinion, and not be just, a replica of the majority opinion of the ruling party or the fads of the ruling clique.

Without the inconveniences resulting from proportional representation and, in particular, the instability of governments formed under such a system, the reduction of voting in accordance with whips to the barest minimum, as proposed by the Swatantra Party would be a healthy example for all parties. If followed generally or even by the more important ones among the various parties, the freedom given to members on all but essential issues would result in government more in accordance with the ideals of those who conceived the system of proportional representation and laid high hopes thereon. In this matter, the new party may claim to have initiated a great democratic advance worthy of trial in all countries really believing in democracy, and not willing to be subjected to a form of dictatorship in the name of party discipline which often serves only the ambition of individuals or groups.

The new party does not believe that legislative compulsion, any more than the violence that preceded and enthroned Communism in certain countries, can contribute to true or lasting human happiness. We must depend on the moral sense of the people in order to equalise without destroying freedom.

It may be that there are a large number of people in our ancient land who have now lost the capacity to respond to moral appeals, who are impervious to the call of dharma. There have been causes that have brought about this state of things. But this large number of bad and successful men of the world should not blind us to the fact that in the large mass, dharma still rules and supports our society. The millions that make up our nation are still moved and guided by their sense of dharma and the voice of their conscience. If the cynics who deny this were right, our society would have broken down long ago and perished. We should have been hearing of starvation deaths in thousands every day. If we take a survey of the numerous charitable foundations and trusts that work as a matter of routine in the country and which were born of a sense of dharma, without any kind of State compulsion, we can cure our cynicism with irrefutable and abundant facts. The charitable motives and compulsions of the heart which prevailed in the days when these trusts and charitable institutions were founded can prevail today, for we are the same people after all.

"There is no need for charity when there is an obligation; let the State compel". This is the slogan of the Socialists. But it is forgotten that this will lead irresistibly to total serfdom.

The cynics are not right. Our society is still maintained by the inner law. The outer laws can touch but the fringe of life. They deal with criminals and keep order going. Normal life 'does hot depend on the laws. It depends on the moral consciousness of people. This moral sense has not been effaced whatever changes may have taken place in the rituals and observances of forms. It is by dharma that society is sustained, Lokah dhriyate. It is on dharma we must build, and not on the sands of material motives and our capacity to satisfy them quickly and get votes to be in power. The good seed is not lost. It is still there. We must not ignore its availability. The soil also is good and God will send us the rains. Let us not fail to look after it.