Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Quantum Information Science Workshop at MSU

Webpage / Program / Abstracts.

My opening remarks:
On behalf of Michigan State University it is my pleasure to welcome all of you to this workshop on quantum information science.

In the fall of 1983 (my freshman year!) Feynman taught a graduate course at Caltech called Potentialities and Limitations of Computing Machines. Chapter 6 of the book developed from his lecture notes is entitled Quantum Mechanical Computers. In the prior years he had teamed with Professors Carver Mead and John Hopfield to teach a similar course. Carver Mead was the father of VLSI and coined the term "Moore's Law"! John Hopfield, no slouch, was an early pioneer of neural nets, among other things.

It was in 1981, in a paper called Simulating Physics with Computers, that Feynman proposed the idea of a Universal Quantum Simulator. He was the first to discuss the simulation of quantum systems using a quantum computer, and to point out the difficulties of using classical computations to explore what could be exponentially large Hilbert spaces. Feynman analyzed reversible (unitary) computations using quantum elements, and wrote "... the laws of physics present no barrier to reducing the size of computers until bits are the size of atoms, and quantum behavior holds dominant sway."
I recount this little bit of history because we have finally, thanks to the sweat and ingenuity of many physicists, reached the era of noisy, but useful, quantum simulators. Personally I feel that universal quantum computers -- of the type that could, for instance, implement Shor's Algorithm -- might still be far off. Nevertheless, quantum simulators are themselves an important step forward, and will likely become a very useful tool for physicists.

I can't resist making a small prediction of my own here. Some of you might know that the foundations of quantum mechanics are still in disarray. As Steve Weinberg says: "... today there is no interpretation of quantum mechanics that does not have serious flaws." Feynman himself said: "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

Most physicists, even theorists, focus their efforts on practical matters and don't worry about foundational questions. I believe that a side effect of work on quantum information and quantum computing will be a demystification of the process of measurement and of decoherence. By demystification I mean that many more physicists will develop a good understanding of something that was swept under the rug in von Neumann's Projection or Collapse postulate, which we now teach in every QM course. Once we truly understand decoherence we realize that Schrodinger evolution of the wavefunction describing both observer and system can reproduce all the usual phenomenology of quantum mechanics -- Collapse is not necessary. This was pointed out long ago by Everett, and well-appreciated by people like Feynman, Schwinger, Gell-Mann, Hawking, David Deutsch, and Steve Weinberg, although not widely understood in the broader physics community.

I apologize if these final comments are mysterious. Perhaps they will someday become clear... In the meantime, please enjoy the workshop :-)


Weinberg on quantum foundations

Schwinger on quantum foundations

Steven Weinberg: What's the matter with quantum mechanics?

Feynman and Gell-Mann

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Intuition and the two brains, revisited

Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, in conversation with Jordan Peterson.

I wrote about McGilchrist in 2012: Intuition and the two brains.
Albert Einstein:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Wigner on Einstein and von Neumann:
"But Einstein's understanding was deeper even than von Neumann's. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann's. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of Jansci's brilliance, he never produced anything as original."

From Schwinger's Feynman eulogy:
"An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age..."

"We know a lot more than we can prove."

... "if the brain is all about making connections, why is it that it's evolved with this whopping divide down the middle?"

... [chicks] use the eye connected to the left hemisphere to attend to the fine detail of picking seeds from amongst grit, whilst the other eye attends to the broader threat from predators. According to the author, "The left hemisphere has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world"; its world view is essentially that of a mechanism. The right has a broader outlook, "has no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be. In other words it does not have any allegiance to any particular set of values."

... "The right hemisphere sees a great deal, but in order to refine it, and to make sense of it in certain ways---in order to be able to use what it understands of the world and to be able to manipulate the world---it needs to delegate the job of simplifying it and turning it into a usable form to another part of the brain" [the left hemisphere]. ... the left hemisphere has a "narrow, decontextualised and theoretically based model of the world which is self consistent and is therefore quite powerful" and to the problem of the left hemisphere's lack of awareness of its own shortcomings; whilst in contrast, the right hemisphere is aware that it is in a symbiotic relationship.

Roger Sperry: ... each hemisphere is "indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and . . . both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel."
Much more here.

Split-brain structure (with the different hemispheres having very distinct structures and morphologies) is common to all higher organisms (as far as I know). Is this structure just an accident of evolution? Or does the (putative) split between a systematizing core and a big-picture intuitive core play an important role in higher cognition?

AGI optimists sometimes claim that deep learning and existing neural net structures are capable of taking us all the way to AGI (human-like cognition and beyond). I think there is a significant chance that neural-architectural structures necessary for, e.g., recurrent memory, meta-reasoning, theory of mind, creative generation of ideas, integration of inferences developed from observation into more general hypotheses/models, etc. still need to be developed. Any step requiring development of novel neural architecture could easily take researchers a decade to accomplish. So a timescale > 30-50 years for AGI, even in highly optimistic scenarios, seems quite possible to me.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The French Way: Alain Connes interview

I came across this interview with Fields Medalist Alain Connes (excerpt below) via an essay by Dominic Cummings (see his blog here).

Dom's essay is also highly recommended. He has spent considerable effort to understand the history of highly effective scientific / research organizations. There is a good chance that his insights will someday be put to use in service of the UK. Dom helped create a UK variant of Kolmogorov's School for Physics and Mathematics.

On the referendum and on Expertise: the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy

Topics discussed by Connes: CNRS as a model for nurturing talent, materialism and hedonic treadmill as the enemy to intellectual development, string theory (pro and con!), US, French, and Soviet systems for science / mathematics, his entry into Ecole Normale and the '68 Paris convulsions.

France and Ecole Normale produce great mathematicians far in excess of their population size.
Connes: I believe that the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. It is a dream to gather many young people in an institute and make sure that their basic activity is to talk about science without getting corrupted by thinking about buying a car, getting more money, having a plan for career etc. ... Of course in the former Soviet Union there were no such things as cars to buy etc. so the problem did not arise. In fact CNRS comes quite close to that dream too, provided one avoids all interference from our society which nowadays unfortunately tends to become more and more money oriented.

Q: You were criticizing the US way of doing research and approach to science but they have been very successful too, right? You have to work hard to get tenure, and research grants. Their system is very unified in the sense they have very few institutes like Institute for Advanced Studies but otherwise the system is modeled after universities. So you become first an assistant professor and so on. You are always worried about your raise but in spite of all these hazards the system is working.

Connes: I don’t really agree. The system does not function as a closed system. The US are successful mostly because they import very bright scientists from abroad. For instance they have imported all of the Russian mathematicians at some point.

Q: But the system is big enough to accommodate all these people this is also a good point.

Connes: If the Soviet Union had not collapsed there would still be a great school of mathematics there with no pressure for money, no grants and they would be more successful than the US. In some sense once they migrated in the US they survived and did very well but I believed they would have bloomed better if not transplanted. By doing well they give the appearance that the US system is very successful but it is not on its own by any means. The constant pressure for producing reduces the “time unit” of most young people there. Beginners have little choice but to find an adviser that is sociologically well implanted (so that at a later stage he or she will be able to write the relevant recommendation letters and get a position for the student) and then write a technical thesis showing that they have good muscles, and all this in a limited amount of time which prevents them from learning stuff that requires several years of hard work. We badly need good technicians, of course, but it is only a fraction of what generates progress in research. It reminds me of an anecdote about Andre Weil who at some point had some problems with elliptic operators so he invited a great expert in the field and he gave him the problem. The expert sat at the kitchen table and solved the problem after several hours. To thank him, Andre Weil said “when I have a problem with electricity I call an electrician, when I have a problem with ellipticity I use an elliptician”.

From my point of view the actual system in the US really discourages people who are truly original thinkers, which often goes with a slow maturation at the technical level. Also the way the young people get their position on the market creates “feudalities” namely a few fields well implanted in key universities which reproduce themselves leaving no room for new fields.


Q: So you were in Paris [ Ecole Normale ] in the best place and in the best time.

Connes: Yes it was a good time. I think it was ideal that we were a small group of people and our only motivation was pure thought and no talking about careers. We couldn’t care the less and our main occupation was just discussing mathematics and challenging each other with problems. I don’t mean ”puzzles” but problems which required a lot of thought, time or speed was not a factor, we just had all the time we needed. If you could give that to gifted young people it would be perfect.
See also Defining Merit:
... As a parting shot, Wilson could not resist accusing Ford of anti-intellectualism; citing Ford's desire to change Harvard's image, Wilson asked bluntly: "What's wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn't it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?"

E. Bright Wilson was Harvard professor of chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences, later a recipient of the National Medal of Science. The last quote from Wilson could easily have come from anyone who went to Caltech! Indeed, both E. Bright Wilson and his son, Nobel Laureate Ken Wilson (theoretical physics), earned their doctorates at Caltech (the father under Linus Pauling, the son under Murray Gell-Mann).
Where Nobel winners get their start (Nature):
Top Nobel-producing undergraduate institutions

Rank School                Country               Nobelists per capita (UG alumni)
1 École Normale Supérieure France       0.00135
2 Caltech                               US             0.00067
3 Harvard University            US             0.00032
4 Swarthmore College          US             0.00027
5 Cambridge University       UK             0.00025
6 École Polytechnique          France       0.00025
7 MIT                                   US              0.00025
8 Columbia University         US              0.00021
9 Amherst College               US              0.00019
10 University of Chicago     US              0.00017

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Social Credit in China

I can't vouch for the accuracy of this documentary, but I suspect the opinions of the people interviewed -- white collar mom with high social credit score, and blacklisted investigative journalist -- are representative. Probably too much emphasis on cameras and face recognition, when in fact the smartphone each person is carrying generates as much or more data about their activities. See also PanOpticon in my Pocket.

Coming soon to the US?

Black Mirror:

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"The Mouthpiece of the Party of Davos": Bannon interview with Economist Editor in Chief

Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, interviewed by Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist’s Editor-in-chief (Open Future festival in New York on September 15th 2018). In contrast, New Yorker editor David Remnick surrendered to protests and disinvited Bannon from The New Yorker Festival two weeks ago.

For almost two decades I subscribed to The Economist and The New Yorker. But these days I read them only sporadically.

Whether you like or hate Steve Bannon, this interview is worth watching. Beddoes and questioners from the audience attack Bannon vigorously, but mostly allow him time to answer in full. Opening tactic is, no surprise, to insinuate racism, which Bannon explicitly rejects for the millionth time... If your source of information about Bannon is primarily the mainstream media, you might be surprised at what comes from the horse's mouth.

Topics covered: populism, nationalism, economic war with China, immigration, class struggle, tax and tariff policy, and Duty, Honor, Country.

Bannon @15:30 (talking over interruption):
Bannon: ... you keep getting bailed out by the Deplorables -- in World War One and World War Two, in the Cold War and whatever else is in the future it is working men and women that have bailed you out ...

Editor: We have to go on to something else...
Bannon @23:15, as the racism attack morphs into sexism:
... I'm a former naval officer that served in the South China Sea in the Pacific. My daughter is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served with the 101st airborne in Iraq. She's an army captain today after serving in Eastern Europe, probably going to be deployed back to Afghanistan. She's on the faculty at West Point. I know how to help raise an empowered woman ...
General Douglas MacArthur, 1962 speech at West Point:
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Jordan Peterson: Identity Politics, IQ, Harvard and Asian admissions

First ~9min: Trump, the US Left and Right, Identity Politics

@10min: IQ

@24min: Harvard and Asian admissions. "The Asians are the wildcard..."

@37min: Nazism, Communism; UK Leftist: "I don't love Obama. I'm literally a communist, you idiot."

Coincidentally (or perhaps not) I know the room they are sitting in very well. I'll be there later today ;-)

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Illumina International Summit on Population Genomics 2018

Illumina International Summit on Population Genomics 2018

The aim of this meeting is to bring together individuals, initiatives, and projects that are shaping the future of genomics in healthcare. This meeting provides a forum for international networking, shared learning and collaboration to address the challenges in realising the potential of genomics to improve human health. The success and accumulated experience of local programmes provide potentially great synergies around the globe. We hope that you will be able to join us and offer your insights and passion for a future where genomics sits at the innovation centre of global healthcare.
I'm in the UK again for this conference and some secret meetings in London. See also London Calling.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Whisky and Weed with Joe Rogan and Elon Musk

Seems like Elon might have been high before the interview even started 8-) Early discussion focused on AI, Neuralink, Singularity risk, etc. Simulation @43min.

See also:

Don’t Worry, Smart Machines Will Take Us With Them: Why human intelligence and AI will co-evolve (Nautilus)

Living in a Simulation (2007)

Let R = the ratio of number of artificially intelligent virtual beings to the number of "biological" beings (humans). The virtual beings are likely to occupy the increasingly complex virtual worlds created in computer games, like Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft (WOW will earn revenues of a billion dollars this year and has millions of players). In the figure below I have plotted the likely behavior of R with time. Currently R is zero, but it seems plausible that it will eventually soar to infinity. (See previous posts on the Singularity.)

If R goes to infinity, we are overwhelmingly likely to be living in a simulation...

... Think of the ratio of orcs, goblins, pimps, superheroes and other intelligent game characters to actual player characters in any MMORPG. In an advanced version, the game characters would themselves be sentient, for that extra dose of realism! Are you a game character, or a player character? :-)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

O Brave New World

About one in ten babies born in Denmark now is an IVF baby (8% in 2015). In many countries the fraction is roughly one in twenty. A million embryos per year (worldwide) go through genetic screening. Most of the screening is for aneuploidy (chromosomal normality; Downs Syndrome), but the same biopsy sample can be used for more sophisticated genotyping. Globally about 2 million cycles of IVF are performed each year. These quantities are experiencing ~7% annual growth rates.

The future is here
Genomic Prediction: A Hypothetical (Embryo Selection)
Genomic Prediction: A Hypothetical (Embryo Selection), Part 2

The Tempest, William Shakespeare
MIRANDA: O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in it!

PROSPERO: 'Tis new to thee. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

More Khruangbin!

See post from 2016: Khruangbin
... Khruangbin plays a spellbinding twist on surf rock and soul that would be considered trite if it weren’t so appetizing. The band’s origins are delightfully nerdy: Speer bonded with the bassist Laura Lee and the drummer Donald Johnson over lo-fi digital rips of cassette tapes featuring obscure Thai funk bands from the sixties and seventies, which they’d downloaded from the cult blog Monrakplengthai. The cassette tapes catalogue stray releases from Thai musicians who, influenced by imported rock records from bands like Santana and the Shadows, blended the misty, coiling guitars of foundational rock and roll with the melodic sensibilities of their own traditional folk tunes. Many of the songs were used in Bollywood films, reaching wide swaths of Southeast Asian audiences. “Shadow music,” as the sound came to be called, is exhilarating in part for its traceable roots.

Monday, September 03, 2018

PanOpticon in my Pocket: 0.35GB/month of surveillance, no charge!

Your location is monitored roughly every 10 minutes, if not more often, thanks to your phone. There are multiple methods: GPS or wifi connections or cell-tower pings, or even Bluetooth. This data is stored forever and is available to certain people for analysis. Technically the data is anonymous, but it is easy to connect your geolocation data to your real world identity -- the data shows where you sleep at night (home address) and work during the day. It can be cross-referenced with cookies placed on your browser by ad networks, so your online activities (purchases, web browsing, social media) can be linked to your spatial-temporal movements.

Some quantities which can be easily calculated using this data: How many people visited a specific Toyota dealership last month? How many times did someone test drive a car? Who were those people who test drove a car? How many people stopped / started a typical 9-5 job commute pattern? (BLS only dreams of knowing this number.) What was the occupancy of a specific hotel or rental property last month? How many people were on the 1:30 PM flight from LAX to Laguardia last Friday? Who were they? ...

Of course, absolute numbers may be noisy, but diffs from month to month or year to year, with reasonable normalization / averaging, can yield insights at the micro, macro, and individual firm level.

If your quant team is not looking at this data, it should be ;-)

Google Data Collection
Professor Douglas C. Schmidt, Vanderbilt University
August 15, 2018

... Both Android and Chrome send data to Google even in the absence of any user interaction. Our experiments show that a dormant, stationary Android phone (with Chrome active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period, or at an average of 14 data communications per hour. In fact, location information constituted 35% of all the data samples sent to Google. In contrast, a similar experiment showed that on an iOS Apple device with Safari (where neither Android nor Chrome were used), Google could not collect any appreciable data (location or otherwise) in the absence of a user interaction with the device.

e. After a user starts interacting with an Android phone (e.g. moves around, visits webpages, uses apps), passive communications to Google server domains increase significantly, even in cases where the user did not use any prominent Google applications (i.e. no Google Search, no YouTube, no Gmail, and no Google Maps). This increase is driven largely by data activity from Google’s publisher and advertiser products (e.g. Google Analytics, DoubleClick, AdWords)11. Such data constituted 46% of all requests to Google servers from the Android phone. Google collected location at a 1.4x higher rate compared to the stationary phone experiment with no user interaction. Magnitude wise, Google’s servers communicated 11.6 MB of data per day (or 0.35 GB/month) with the Android device. This experiment suggests that even if a user does not interact with any key Google applications, Google is still able to collect considerable information through its advertiser and publisher products.

f. While using an iOS device, if a user decides to forgo the use of any Google product (i.e. no Android, no Chrome, no Google applications), and visits only non-Google webpages, the number of times data is communicated to Google servers still remains surprisingly high. This communication is driven purely by advertiser/publisher services. The number of times such Google services are called from an iOS device is similar to an Android device. In this experiment, the total magnitude of data communicated to Google servers from an iOS device is found to be approximately half of that from the Android device.

g. Advertising identifiers (which are purportedly “user anonymous” and collect activity data on apps and 3rd-party webpage visits) can get connected with a user’s Google identity. This happens via passing of device-level identification information to Google servers by an Android device. Likewise, the DoubleClick cookie ID (which tracks a user’s activity on the 3rd-party webpages) is another purportedly “user anonymous” identifier that Google can connect to a user’s Google Account if a user accesses a Google application in the same browser in which a 3rd-party webpage was previously accessed. Overall, our findings indicate that Google has the ability to connect the anonymous data collected through passive means with the personal information of the user.

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