Stop hiring data scientists 

Saturday, May 12, 2018 7:14:00 PM

They have been riding high. The abandoned and somewhat less sexy field of Statistics has taken the business world by storm. Bottling old wine in new bottles certainly helped and now both venture capitalists and operating companies may be heading for a hangover. Engineers and statisticians have always wanted to be scientists and now they are crowned as such. There is a .ai company formed every 15 minutes by graduates of prestigious universities and there are capitalists with sacks of money willing to entertain them. As we have seen before, this movie will likely end in tears for many.

Data is certainly a good thing and applying "science," to it could also be good. But those who assert their "scientific credentials," based on regressions and neural nets should be aware that the slide rules they are using have been available for nearly half a century. Mathematics does not fade but asserting old ideas have suddenly sprung to life certainly shows the maturity and age of the emerging "scientists." Consulting firms have always been creative and some of the most famous ones, who could hardly spell "data science," just a few years ago are now pretending to be experts at it. Conferences are plenty where the scientists meet their seekers and the vendors portray their wares almost like the bartering that was routine a few centuries ago. They flow tensors, cognitive networks and even hardware in a Pizza size box, that apparently has solved all the world's problems, already.

Stop hiring "data scientists." They are ordinary human beings with bias and they could do your companies a lot of damage.

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Are we there, yet? 

Friday, October 17, 2014 7:46:00 PM

Recent news from Lockheed Martin that their engineers may have successfully tamed small scale fusion and practical generators, the size of a truck could be available in a decade, is the type of discontinuity that the world has been craving for decades. The famous Skunk Works, may have done it again. Although academics are skeptical, if true, it will substantially change the game. 

Humans, notorious for destructive tactics at the expense of strategy and damaging anything they touch, may still pull a rabbit out of the hat at the nick of time. Misguided environmentalists and compassionate politicians have been filling the airwaves with noise, with no benefit. The solution has always been zero cost energy and if the Lockheed engineers are right, it will mark one of the proud moments in the history of humanity. Now, they could afford clean water, air and environment, at no cost to society. They could shield the blue planet from countless projectiles from space. They could create airplanes that stay afloat and seaplanes that stay underneath for years – measuring, studying and rectifying the blue dot in the unimaginable void. They could print food, clothing, shelter and medications for anybody on demand. They could, possibly, bring happiness back to earth. 

Engineers, behind thick glasses and adoring pocket protectors, may still save the world. 

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Quantum chemistry 

Sunday, September 28, 2014 8:06:00 PM

Recent news from Princeton University that describes a technique that can closely approximate lattice energy of molecules may open up new avenues for pharmaceuticals research. Innovations at the boundary of Physics and Chemistry have been slow, primarily due to the lack of flexibility in scientific disciplines that tend to prefer colloquial and incremental improvements to traditional methods. The Princeton team shows how the crystalline form could be predicted using emerging ideas from quantum mechanics. Such processes could be fully incorporated into computational chemistry. With the availability of vast computing power and software technologies, this innovation could usher in the next wave of productivity in pharmaceutical discovery.

Generation gap has been value destroying in most disciplines. Doctors use stethoscopes and engineers use calculators, even though these technologies have been made obsolete for many decades. Similarly, in the labs, once investments are taken into a technology, companies, unaware of the concept of sunk costs, tend to use them forever. In a regime of accelerating knowledge and innovation, the inertia of past knowledge has become exponentially more costly for every discipline, company and individual. Ironically, in the modern world, ignorance with flexibility is a lot more valuable trait than knowledge based on the past coupled with a resistance to change.

Incrementalism is a disease of the past. For the present, looking backward is likely most costly.

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Vanishing singularity 

Thursday, September 25, 2014 10:25:00 PM

A recent hypothesis by physicists at the University of North Carolina contends that black holes simply cannot exist – mathematically. It is a bit too late – as Nobel seeking scientists elsewhere had all but accepted black holes to be at the center of most galaxies. More creative ones had speculated that black holes lead to other galaxies and provide easy avenues for time travel. This is a constant reminder that theories that lead to inexplicable outcomes, however well they fit some other observations, are not theories at all. They are fancies of grown men and women, constantly seeking meaning for the universe and their own careers.

Black holes have tickled the fancy of many just as the concept of infinity. The possibility of a phenomenon that apparently demonstrates division by zero in practice provided immense flexibility for researchers and scientific journalists alike. As they scorned the “religious” as ignorant, they hid their own massive egos under mountains of illiteracy. Competing theories disagreed – but competing scientists did not, for it was easier to prove the existence of the unseen than reject the establishment. The possibilities were endless – black holes connecting with worm holes, bending space time like a child playing with rubber bands. But,  little did they know that the child had a more complete perspective than their own, weighed down by the pressures of publications and experiments under the dome of heavy steel.

As the singularity evaporates with the radiation and associated mass, perhaps we could return to a regime dominated by Occam’s razor.

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Profit maximization in societal design 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 6:53:00 PM
A recent study in the Journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) (1) concludes what is obvious to some. They prove something that could be counterintuitive to most who do not care for economics and those who mix social preferences with economics and assume without proof, such a mixture leads to good policy and better societies.
The study looks at the automotive repair market and analyzes if the repair persons behave ethically and have social preferences, as opposed to purely profit maximizing businesses (e.g. free markets), whether society would be better off. The answer to a large swath of the population should be a resounding No – as a profit maximizing service provider seems like a bad person. In an environment where service providers are driven by ethical and social preference considerations, the study shows that the prices will rise – as they will tend to charge higher but uniform prices to everybody. If so, customers, who do not face price differentiation, will be forced to a higher uniform price, on average. In this case, analytical models show that society, as a whole will be worse off. In a society that contains both ethical and profit maximizing providers, the latter will quickly reflect the higher uniform price when it is convenient to them and reject service to those with higher costs. In a system with only profit maximizing providers and unconstrained transactions, market clearing prices will reflect the provider’s marginal cost, maximizing societal welfare.
Apparent common sense and social preferences are not necessarily good guiding principles for policy. Free markets and profit maximizing decision-makers, generally, push complex societies to higher welfare. The study correctly warns regulators and policy-makers to study social welfare issues before enacting uniform price policies.
(1) INFORMS study shows social welfare may fall in a more ethical market Published: Monday, August 25, 2014 - 15:41 in Mathematics & Economics, (e) Science News

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Redefining AI 

Monday, September 15, 2014 7:09:00 PM
Artificial Intelligence (AI), an artifact of the 80s, has been directionless. This is partly due to the overuse of the term and assigning “intelligence” to such common place activities as search, rules based logic and machine learning. Recent news that researchers at North Carolina State University has been able to use “AI” to predict the goals of a player in a video game using machine learning, highlights the idea that the term AI is poorly understood. It may be time to redefine it more precisely so that claims of progress in this area could be tempered.
If AI is about intelligence – human intelligence – then most contemporary attempts at replicating it has failed. If AI is about naive search of large data spaces for patterns or the use of classification, clustering or rules based logic on “big data”, then AI will continue to flourish with no innovation in knowledge or software. In this vein, all AI needs is raw computing power. The current leader, Watson, is a case in point. Packing silicon ever closer together and massively parallel processing set logic channels, is not AI – even though it may be able to find the answer to any vexing question asked in trivial games. Machine learning – the latest fad discovered by business brains, without understanding that it has been happening for many decades – has nothing to do with AI - it is just raw application of mathematics, afforded by cheap memory and cheaper computers. What the AI crowd seems to be missing is that, none of these – ability to create models from data, ability to guess answers to trivial questions, ability to predict goals – is about intelligence. It is about the inevitable marriage of computing power with established mathematics.
Human intelligence, however, is not mathematical, even though every scientist and engineer would like it to be. This is why the preeminent engineering schools in the world – in the East, West and in the middle, cannot make any progress in this area. Soccer playing robots and self driving cars, unfortunately are not intelligent. They are unlikely to imagine string theory or appreciate art. Considering intelligence to be mechanical and mathematical, is the first problem. Lately, it has been shown that the hardware itself, the human brain, is a quantum computer. Feeble attempts at replicating this hardware phenomenon is not going to get humans any further in AI because fundamental issues remain in understanding the operating system and applications that run on it.
Artificial Intelligence is meant to represent complete replication of human intelligence. It is not parroting answers in Jeopardy or predicting behavior based on historical data. Humans may be giving themselves less credit by assuming that the crude machines they build, are in fact intelligent.

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Moving deck chairs on the Titanic 

Monday, September 8, 2014 6:02:00 PM
News that a sizable piece of the asteroid that made a close encounter with the earth crashed in Nicaragua and the near miss of the massive solar storm in 2012 almost kissed us good bye, are constant reminders that moving deck chairs is not necessarily useful to evade a Titanic type disaster. Environmentalists and lamenting scientists have been burning the midnight oil to turn back the clock – “to protect the environment” and to slow down global warming. They fear the ice caps will melt, water levels will rise and enormous strife will follow for humanity at large. That may be true – but such a problem exists only if humanity is here to witness it in a few 100 years.
NASA and other space organizations around the world have been busy preparing probes to distant planets – to study, learn and get ready for interplanetary travel for the masses. It is indeed commendable but a more tactical need is to protect what is close at hand – not from global warming but from global disaster. The 60 ft. meteorite that crashed in Russia escaped all “monitoring devices,” of the observers and logic would tell us that it cannot be a singular event. It will be ironic if the mighty human gets wiped out by an asteroid when they are preparing to travel to Mars and slow down global warming by slapping solar cells on top of automobiles.
Protecting trees are great – but one has to assure that a forest is possible first.

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Gut Feel 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 9:43:00 PM
Recent research from UCSF argues that the bacteria in the human gut could be strategically altering our eating habits. The study published in BioEssays (1) go as far as arguing that bacteria rule our minds.It even suggests a mechanism, the vagus nerve – apparently controlled by the bacteria to alter our eating habits.
This is a case of analyzing the roots of the trees in the Amazon forest and not recognizing one is in the forest. Scientific specialization has led to deep analysis, often disconnected from overall understanding of complex systems. Is one eating broccoli, really because the gut bacteria ask her to? Is one avoiding sugar, really because the gut bacteria have diabetes? In that context, would a human consume anything without the command from the bacteria – and perhaps the chief bacterium – from the gut?
Observing complex system behavior and then equating that to one of the underlying factors is not just a curse of biology and medicine, but every other scientific discipline. Stronger hurricanes are caused by global warming, market crashes are caused by stupid bankers and the stability of the universe is credited to “dark matter.” Sure, gut bacteria are powerful – but are they truly strategic as to cause weakness to the hand lifting a pint of beer, when they are in no mood to get intoxicated? Are they really reprogramming the vagus nerve with 100 million nerve cells to dial up what they want – sort of an Amazon ordering system? A system, overrun by 10:1 in favor of bacteria to human cells, is bound to have some effect from the lowly single cell organism.
Are bacteria really controlling the human mind or humans with free-will flushing them down the toilet every night? Do bacteria reincarnate? Would bacteria make humans regress to organisms that simply feed them – or have they already done that?
(1) Do gut bacteria rule our minds? Published: Saturday, August 16, 2014 - 05:12 in Biology & Nature

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Inefficient Accounting 

Saturday, July 26, 2014 6:48:00 PM
Recent research that shows conflicting and confusing but significant impact on stock prices during policy discussions around a suggested change in the “Fair Value Accounting,” rule, is puzzling at the very least. Common sense should indicate that the value of a firm and thus the prices of securities that subdivide that value do not change by accountants moving money around or changing reports. Hence, the change in prices of certain securities due to an anticipated accounting rule change could only happen if the policy forced a transfer of value from one set of stakeholders to another. Regulatory bodies, apparently in an attempt to “fix the economy,” through creative accounting, were overactive in policy-making during the financial meltdown. A deeper dive into basic economics may be the least one could do before heading out to Washington to engage in such activities.
Value is never generated by moving money around or by reporting financial statements differently. Value is only created by innovation and that happens only in real markets. Accounting, a necessary evil, should be as simple as possible, so that policy makers do not have to burn the midnight oil in the next crisis trying to “relax” and “tighten” accounting rules to save the economy. Simple accounting, however, could substantially increase the unemployment rate as it will flush out the value destroying activities in the financial sector, that is growing like cancer on real productive parts of the economy.
The prescription to grow the economy is simple – let entrepreneurship thrive in a regime of simple and consistent reporting of financials.

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Autoimmune games 

Friday, July 25, 2014 10:02:00 PM
Recent news from Johns Hopkins that game theory could have applications in cancer treatment is in a profitable direction. Windows of predictable regime switching by cancer cells appear to be the optimal time to attack them – by disrupting the lactate transport mechanism, slowing down cooperation. It is further proof that there are common foundational aspects to the behavior of complex systems. Those able to step out of the dogma of disciplines are more likely to invent in any field.
Biological systems, a complex dance among symbiotes, parasites and own cells, are not well understood by modern medicine. Although it has been easy to kill the invaders that are mutating slowly, other valiant attempts at controlling system behavior seem to have failed. This is because medicine has been a closed science that perpetuate ideas from ancient times. Humans have been humble enough to accept that they are unable to understand the work of God fully and thus set out to mend the components of their bodies by selectively intervening on organs and other components. Such intervention, however, is fundamentally symptomatic with no implications for long term welfare, happiness or utility.
Medicine could benefit significantly if it can shed dogmatic views and look outside their opaque walls for new ideas.

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