Monday, September 28, 2020

Feynman on AI

Thanks to a reader for sending the video to me. The first clip is of Feynman discussing AI, taken from the longer 1985 lecture in the second video.

There is not much to disagree with in his remarks on AI. He was remarkably well calibrated and would not have been very surprised by what has happened in the following 35 years, except that he did not anticipate (at least, does not explicitly predict) the success that neural nets and deep learning would have for the problem that he describes several times as "pattern recognition" (face recognition, fingerprint recognition, gait recognition). Feynman was well aware of early work on neural nets, through his colleague John Hopfield.  [1] [2] [3]

I was at Caltech in 1985 and this is Feynman as I remember him. To me, still a teen ager, he seemed ancient. But his mind was marvelously active! As you can see from the talk he was following the fields of AI and computation rather closely. Of course, he and other Manhattan project physicists were present at the creation. They had to use crude early contraptions for mechanical calculation in bomb design computations. Thus, the habit of reducing a complex problem (whether in physics or machine learning) to primitive operations was second nature. Already for kids of my generation it was not second nature -- we grew up with early "home computers" like the Apple II and Commodore, so there was a black box magic aspect already to programming in high level languages. Machine language was useful for speeding up video games, but not everyone learned it. The problem is even worse today: children first encounter computers as phones or tablets that already seem like magic. The highly advanced nature of these devices discourages them from trying to grasp the underlying first principles.  

If I am not mistaken the t-shirt he is wearing is from the startup Thinking Machines, which built early parallel supercomputers.

Just three years later he was gone. The finely tuned neural connections in his brain -- which allowed him to reason with such acuity and communicate with such clarity still in 1985 -- were lost forever.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Foreign Observers of US Empire

Four recommended discussions, with perspectives largely absent from US media and establishment sources. 

1. US, Russia, China, Iran: Geopolitics and Realpolitik, discussed by a former UK diplomat, a professor at Tehran University, and a Brazilian journalist who covers Eurasia, living in Thailand.


2. Carl Zha, Caltech alumnus and China watcher. TikTok, WeChat, Huawei, semiconductors. The insidious role of US intelligence agencies in the tech war. Part 2.


3. Columbia economic historian Adam Tooze: World Order, Then And Now, ChinaTalk Podcast. Among other topics: State Capitalism, or National Socialism? Why Carl Schmitt is widely studied among Chinese intellectuals. The US won the cold war in Europe, but perhaps not in Asia...  More Tooze

4. The New Great Game: Bruno Maçães and diplomat, writer and former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon discuss Asia’s search for a constructive new equilibrium in the wake of growing tensions between China and its neighbours.


Bonus! Energy, Geopolitics, And The New Map: A Book Talk With Daniel Yergin.


Manhattan Institute: 

The shale revolution brought about not only an American competitive advantage in the global oil and gas market, but also an entirely new geopolitical dynamic. Energy is the bedrock of every industrial economy, and even minor shifts in production and prices have had resounding impacts on international diplomacy. 

Today, the global energy landscape differs drastically from a decade ago. The U.S. now leads the world in oil production thanks to fracking, and the world is reacting. But even as Russia pivots to China, and Middle Eastern producers try to recalibrate, every oil-producing country faces the same questions about the future of energy: Will renewable energy reign? And how will international relationships fare with this new map? These issues will become even more controversial during the presidential campaigns.

See also Remarks on the Decline of American Empire for earlier discussion of the impact of fracking on geopolitics.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

When Machine Learning Met Genetic Engineering | CogX 2019 (video)


I recently came across this video on YouTube. 

Hard to believe it's been over a year since the conference. 2020 versions of these meetings were all killed by the pandemic.

I'm in London again to give the talk below and attend some meetings, including Founders Forum and their Healthtech event the day before.
CogX: The Festival of AI and Emerging Technology
King's Cross, London, N1C 4BH

When Machine Learning Met Genetic Engineering

3:30 pm Tuesday June 11 Cutting Edge stage


Stephen Hsu
Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation
Michigan State University

Helen O’Neill
Lecturer in Reproductive and Molecular Genetics

Martin Varsavsky
Executive Chairman
Prelude Fertility

Azeem Azhar (moderator)
Exponential View

Regent's Canal, Camden Town near King's Cross.

CogX speakers reception, Sunday evening:


Commanding heights of global capital:

Sunset, Camden locks:

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Schrodinger's Cat and the Normaliens

Yesterday I had cause to look something up related to macroscopic superposition states ("Schrodinger cat states") in Serge Haroche's book Exploring the Quantum. Curiosity led me to Haroche's 2012 Nobel Lecture and autobiography, which I found fascinating. 

One wonders how long an elitist, highly meritocratic and undeniably productive system like the French Grandes Ecoles can continue to function in the current political climate. Quel dommage.
... I was fascinated by astronomy and by calculus, the notion of derivatives and simple differential equations which describe so directly and so well the laws of dynamics obeyed by moving bodies. This was the time of the first artificial satellites, the sputniks which orbited the earth and launched the American-Soviet race to the moon. 
I marveled at the fact that I was able, with the elementary calculus I knew, to compute the escape velocity of rockets, the periods of satellites on their orbits and the gravitational field at the surface of all the planets … I understood then that nature obeys mathematical laws, a fact that did not cease to astonish me. I knew, from that time on, that I wanted to be a scientist. For that, I embarked in the strenuous and demanding “classes préparatoires” of the famed Lycée Louis-Le-Grand, one of the preparatory schools which train the best French students for the contest examinations leading to the “Grandes Ecoles.” They are the engineering and academic schools, which since the French Revolution, have formed the scientific elite of France. These were two years of intensive study where I learned a lot of math and of classical physics. I eventually was admitted in 1963 to the Ecole Polytechnique (ranking first in the national examination, to the great pride of my parents) and at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). I chose to enter the latter because, at that time, it offered a much better opportunity to embark in a scientist career. 
The years as a student at ENS (1963–1967) have left me wonderful memories, contrasting sharply with the strenuous training of the preparatory school. Here, in the middle of the Latin Quarter, I was free to organize my time as I wished, to meet and discuss with students working in all kinds of fields in science or humanities and to enjoy all the distractions and cultural activities Paris has to offer. And I was paid for that, since the “Normaliens” as the ENS students are called, are considered civil servants and receive a generous stipend! These were my formative years as a scientist. Coming so to speak from the physics of the 19th century which was taught in the classes préparatoires, I was immediately thrown into modern physics and the quantum world by the classes of exceptional teachers. Alfred Kastler gave us a lyrical description of the dance of atomic kinetic moments, and gave atoms and photons a near poetic existence. Jean Brossel brought us back to Earth by describing the great experiments thanks to which quantum concepts were established, instilling in us the austere passion for precision. And Claude Cohen-Tannoudji revealed the theory’s formalism to us with extraordinary depth and clarity. I still remember three books I read avidly at the time: Quantum Mechanics by Albert Messiah, where I truly understood the depth and beauty of the quantum theory; Principlesof Nuclear Magnetism by Anatole Abragam, who introduced me to the subtle world of atomic magnetic moments; and Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, which was a revelation.
See also 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Orwell: 1944, 1984, and Today

George Orwell 1944 Letter foreshadows 1984, and today:
... Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, i.e. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving ... 
... intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.
I am sure any reader can provide examples of the following from the "news" or academia or even from a national lab:
there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted  
the exact sciences are endangered  
two and two could become five
dictatorial methods ... systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. It takes only a generation for costly lessons to be entirely forgotten...

Wikipedia: Trofim Denisovich Lysenko ...Soviet agronomist and biologist. Lysenko was a strong proponent of soft inheritance and rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of pseudoscientific ideas termed Lysenkoism.[1][2] In 1940, Lysenko became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR's Academy of Sciences, and he used his political influence and power to suppress dissenting opinions and discredit, marginalize, and imprison his critics, elevating his anti-Mendelian theories to state-sanctioned doctrine. 
Soviet scientists who refused to renounce genetics were dismissed from their posts and left destitute. Hundreds if not thousands of others were imprisoned. Several were sentenced to death as enemies of the state, including the botanist Nikolai Vavilov. Scientific dissent from Lysenko's theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1948. As a result of Lysenkoism and forced collectivization, 15-30 million Soviet and Chinese citizens starved to death in the Holodomor and the Great Chinese Famine. ...


In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR: "He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists."

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Adam Tooze: American Power in the Long 20th Century


London Review of Books (LRB) lecture:
The history of American power, as it is commonly written, is a weighty subject, a matter of military and economic heft, of ‘throw-weight’, of resource mobilisation and material culture, of ‘boots on the ground’. In his lecture, Adam Tooze examines an alternative, counterintuitive vision of America, as a power defying gravity. This image gives us a less materialistic, more fantastical and more unstable vision of America’s role in the world.
The Q&A at 1h03min is probably the best (at least most concise) part of the talk. I don't find the Geithner anecdote quite as important / symbolic as Tooze does. Geithner is expressing the point that financial markets and economies are heavily affected by animal spirits, investor confidence, etc. Geithner understands well how much the power of central banks depends on purely psychological multiplier effects.

From a YouTube comment, this outline:
1:10 - Tim Geithner; U.S. Treasury: America had been “defying gravity" 
5:50 - U.S. was the “gravity” of world 
11:07 - U.S. is now also subject to the “gravity” of world 
13:28 - 100 years of 9 historic U.S. events; Overview 
14:44 - Adam Tooze; Historian “Ordering rather than Order, and the Disordering effects of efforts at Ordering.” 
16:28 - Start at the beginning of 1800’s 
17:12 - 1898 U.S. Imperialist power 
17:50 - 1916 U.S. Globalist power 
18:47 - Woodrow Wilson; U.S. President 
22:46 - 1920s Republican domestic priority of Financial Austerity and Tax cuts. 
25:59 - Great American Financial shocks/panics; 1857, 1873, 1893, 1896, 1907, 1920, 1929 26:49 - 1920s Great Depression 
27:18 - 1930s U.S. Hyper militaristic power 
31:51 - World War 2; One World, One War (1942) 
33:48 - Post World War 2, Bretton Woods economic conference. 
36:24 - Marshall Plan not the same as Bretton Woods... 
41:10 - Cold War: Asia 
43:30 - U.S. President Nixon abandons the Gold peg in 1971. Which results in inflation in G7 countries and Switzerland. 
44:10 - Keynesian era 50s to 60s. Start of Neoliberalism or the Paul Volcker shock 1979. 
45:07 - Cold War: Europe 1980s, Reagan & Gorbachev 
47:13 - Concluding phase of the talk 
1:01:56 - Challenges in 2019 and going forward; China and Climate Change 
1:03:20 - Q&A
Also recommended: Tooze on US-China geopolitical competition (August 6 2020 Sinica podcast). This discussion focuses more on the present and future than the past and may be of more interest to readers.

This conversation with Tyler Cowen is excellent, with more focus on Europe.

This is part 3 of a discussion at the Paris School of Economics. Thomas Piketty is on the panel and his remarks are in part 2, following Tooze's presentation in part 1. I recommend part 3 as the most interesting. Topics covered include MMT, inequality, central banks, current sources of systemic risk. Note this discussion took place before the Covid19 pandemic. Tooze mentions individual hedge fund compensation in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Typically in such cases a big chunk of this compensation is really returns from the individual's own net worth which is co-invested with the fund. So it's not directly comparable to other forms of compensation, such as salary or bonus.

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