Life during summer and consilience notes

I should definitely to a decent post some time soon, but it seems that I’m in middle of severe drought of ideas and writing abilities. Hopefully this is just a passing phase… Someone should definitely develop a drug against writer’s block I think.

A few things I’ve been working on so far between all the jobs I have to run to pay my rent. I’ve been studying the Exploring Complexity by Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine since the beginning of the summer. Studying as in tearing through every bit of reference mentioned at ends of each chapters and working out all the equations, making up some of my own for practice. The progress has been slower than I would have liked but it’s still coming along nicely. I’m upto  the randomness and complexity chapter where they begin describing Markovian processes and different types of entropy. I’ve been trying to come up with some cool graphics describing some of the stuff in the book using Mathematica but couldn’t really find the time to get around to it, with all the other coding projects on my hand at the moment, but I’ll definitely have something to show for by the end of the summer.

I’ve also been reading up on some bioinformatics literature, beginning with the eponymous ‘For Dummies’ book on the subject which is surprisingly well written, or at least comprehensible (well, considering the title it would be hard to write a book on the subject that is incomprehensible). It’s part of my attempt at coming up with a decent diybio coursework aimed at 14 and above, centering around the kind of projects the laymen would normally find out of reach, like designing a biological circuit and putting it together in a wetlab. With so many computerized tools and advent of abstraction in biological sciences brought on by synthetic biology, I think it is possible to empower the citizenry with end-user scientist toolset. The average computer user don’t code in assembly or the machine language yet many of them are perfectly capable of coming up with useful high-level softwares and beautiful works of art (it still takes effort and mastery but what doesn’t?). In order for the biological sciences to become user-friendly I believe we need a tool to familiarize them with the higher level abstraction in molecular biology and computerized tools associated with it. In my experience the best way to break down an intellectual barrier is to make people do the impossible easily and cheaply. The first step of breaking down the biology barrier would be teaching people how to design genetic circuits using extremely high level abstraction symbols. Theoretically it should be possible to put together a very simple circuit on a napkin using symbols and diagrams using unified ‘visual language‘ of synthetic biology. Once the individual becomes scientifically fluent enough to visualize these molecular circuits within his or her head, and feel a real want for building something in real life, we can easily transfer the design into computerized tools for specification and optimization. After that it would be a simple process of transformation using mail-order kits (or using diy tools if you’re so inclined), which DIYBio NYC have already demonstrated to be easy and straightforward.

By then, maybe I’ll try to pitch my not-so-secret ambition of coming up with diy-minimal/synthetic cell ::evil laugh::

As you might have guessed I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading through E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge again. It’s amazing just how much of the book resonates with me, not necessarily in solutions but in problems he outlines as something fundamental that needs to be resolved if we are to further our understanding of the universe.

-From pg.93
…the U.S. federal high-performance program has upped the goal to a trillion calculations per second by the end of the century. By the year 2020, petacrunchers, capable of reaching a thousand trillion calculations per second, may be possible, although new technologies and programming methods will be needed to reach that level. At this point the brute-force simulation of cell mechanics, tracking every active molecule and its web of interactions, should be attainable- even without the simplifying principles envisioned in complexity theory.

The continuing battle (if there is one) between raw computing power against elegant universal systems like the kind proposed by some of the complexity scientists is interesting. For one thing, would we need raw computing power the world has never seen so far to replicate human-like intelligence? Or can it be done in smaller scale using some aspect of the logical system that gives rise to emergent trait we refer to as intelligence? Classification of life/intelligence as a type of physical system that very closely resembles phase transition due to complexity is an intriguing possibility that will need to be examined in detail… I’m especially interested in intelligence as not something that computes but as something that creates. Why am I sitting here writing down this stuff when the weather outside is so great? Why do people strive to create this stuff and ideas when it’s much easier to sit on their collective asses and eat chips? To some the activity of creating get to the point of destructive obsession. Am I alone in sensing that the society at large tend to be envious of those kind of people?

Curiosity is not a rational trait. It’s crazy and sometimes suicidal, and doesn’t serve any kind of immediate need for survival or propagation. It is the very picture of irrationality. So where does it come from? What aspect of the molecular system that we refer to as living beings gives rise to such weird behavior? And what’s with this crazy unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences? Isn’t it weird how questioning the nature of mind, life, and human behavior so often leads us to the questions on the fundamental nature of the universe itself?

-From pg.93~94
In 1994 editors of Science, celebrating the inauguration of developmental biology by Wilhelm Roux a century earlier, asked one hundred contemporary researchers in the field to identify what they considered the crucial unanswered questions in the discipline. Their responses, in rank order of attributed importance, were:
1.The molecular mechanism of tissue and organ development.
2.The connection between development and genetic information.
3.The steps by which cell become committed to a particular fate.
4.The role of cell-to-cell signaling in tissue development.
5.The self-assembly of tissue patterns in the early embryo.
6.The manner in which nerve cells establish their specific connections to create the nerve cord and brains.
7.The means by which cells choose to divide and to die in the sculpting  of tissues and organs.
8.The steps by which the processes controlling transcription (the transmission of DNA information within the cell) affect the differentiation of tissues and organs.
Remarkably, the biologists considered research on all of these topics to be in a state of rapid advance, with partial successes in at least some of them close at hand.

Above questions were written around 1994 according to the Consilience. It’s been over a decade, so I wonder how many of above questions had been answered definitely and conclusively….

Also, it’s rather interesting that most if not all of above questions are in some way related to study of complexity sciences. It’s almost as if the whole field of complexity science is biology fused with mathematical abstractions.

The singularity and the legacy of the world- Sketch

I’ve been reading up on quite a bit of transhumanist literature recently, both arguments for and against it. I must say, I’m beginning to think that the biggest hurdle to any kind of transhumanist and historical/technological singularity ideas is the shallow naivety of the transhumanism/singularity proponents themselves.

Technology will not magically fix the ailing of the world, and the nature of intelligence and consciousness will take much longer to understand fully; it is only that we will be capable of simulating such characteristics using artificial medium. Electric networks certainly catalyzed some great changes for the system of the world, but in the end it was merely catalyzing of the potential already there. The human network and corresponding complex system of human-nodes and social-economic-cultural links were already put in place long time ago, to the extent that we classify such trait as a fundamental part of humanity as organisms. This also means that simple increase in technological capacity will not be enough to surpass the nature of the human network itself, only speed the process already in place.

Mind you, I am very enthusiastic about the future potential of humanity. And I do certainly believe that some sort of chapter-opening change of human civilization will take place sometime soon, not necessarily while I’m alive (I’m 21 by the way) but definitely soon when viewed from the scales of world history. I am simply becoming increasingly skeptical of the kind of change expected to take place by the transhumanist community at large (if there can be such a thing). Massive information processing and storage ability does not translate into intellectual capacity without human input. There simply aren’t enough scientific evidence to support such a claim. The very idea that some sort of external intelligence engine would be able to fix the world’s problems is a vague notion that makes me want to question the degree of understanding possessed by some of the more radical supporters of transhumanism regarding matters of intelligence, brain physiology, and complex system dynamics. Certain degree of performance boost in brain capacities will definitely change the face of human civilization. Artificial intelligence in its ideal form will transform everyone’s lives. There is no doubt about that. I am just very irked about the underlying notion that such advances would be the singular answer to the singular problem of the world. Does anyone remember the concept of legacy anymore? I suggest you to find and read Jaron Lanier‘s essay on irreducible complexity (I’ve read it in a book) if you don’t know what I am talking about.

I believe in singularity-esque future, and all the good things it will bring. I also believe in reasonable ideas and sound scientific basis for reality, something some people seem to be forgetting in their rush to live forever.