October 01, 2015

The Lemming Within Us

Is the blue-dress/gold-dress frenzy officially over? Good. It was getting crazy for a moment. The way that photograph made people realize that "reality" is nothing more than a construct concocted in our brains opened the door to the collective realization that what we see is actually just an interpretation that allows us to function in the world.

We see colors under different shades a different way (the "white" tile under the table vs. the "black" one to its right) because the brain gets confused between perceiving colors during day and night. The "reality" is that they are exactly the same color once you apply the same light intensity.

This differentiation needs to occur in our brain; a mental shortcut happening in our left hemisphere (the one that connects the past with the present) tells us that colors look different under the shadows, and shapes our perception mechanisms to make better decisions in the environments we live in. After all, it's the result of thousands of years of evolutionary iterations instilled in our brains, right? Natural selection. Hail Darwin!

But is it? Are the rules that govern us and our evolution in this beautiful blue marble inscribed in the Atheists' bible?

What if the reason this illusion exists in our brain (this evolutionary adaptation) was in fact just an illusion? What if "evolution" was not this epochal trial-and-error mechanism that weeds out unfit outcomes to arrive at the most "optimal" forms of complex life? What if the only feasible outcome is us; and we're really not the triumphant expression of biological superiority, but just logical conclusion of a mathematical formula that governs the molecular interactions within us at the sub-atomic level?

Well, there's 31-year-old a guy asking himself this question. And he has solved it.

Jeremy England bases his theory on the Second Law of Thermodynamics --the Law that states that hot things cool down; that gas diffuses through air; that eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble. In essence, that energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy (or the dissipation of energy) happens. And in so doing, everything (inert and live matter alike) will reach a state of "thermodynamic equilibrium." You and I will die and be as cold as the coffin we'll be interred in. A cup of hot coffee will eventually cool down to the temperature of the room it's sitting in.

Put in other words, a chunk of atoms surrounded by an environment (like a certain temperature in the atmosphere or the ocean), tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with their environments, reinforcing each other. In chunks of atoms that happen to be living organisms, this is achieved by replicating (reproducing) themselves. Exponential population growth is irreversible (in the sense that the present is never like the past) and therefore population growth is a manifestation of entropy. After all, more living things mean that we're able to better absorb more energy in our environment (the sun) and dissipate it. But, to reproduce, matter needs to become a well structured living organism in the first place. Here's England's breakthrough idea: under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self organize (become alive!) to be more efficient at energy dissipation. Because entropy has to occur.

Thus, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is what dictates the origin of life.

This means that the primordial soup had no "special" ingredients. It was bound to spark life eventually, or else entropy would not have occurred. This means that life is just a special case of energy dissipation, one that just happens to be sentient and self aware (or at least we'd like to think so) in the case of one ├╝ber complex single species. It means that humanity is an entropy accelerator (perhaps the most efficient one there is in the planet). But most importantly, it means that we, as well as all living (and non-living) things in this planet, are nothing more than marionettes moved by this hand:

You can forget about self-determination. We're just lemmings destined to follow the secret manual imprinted at our molecular level, as dictated by The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Dissipate, dissipate, dissipate.

Having learned this, now think about the next point: where are we headed? We all know how "efficient" humankind is at extracting energy from our environment. Please look at these words by Jeremy England:
"We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,”
In other words, civilization's complexity (what economists call "prosperity") is simply a (THE) consequence of this self-accelerating mechanism of energy dissipation, from energy extraction (oil drilling, sun harvesting, wind farming), to replication; to self-reinforcing factors that will drive all of us lemmings into the next cliff. Just like lemmings of eras past.

Earth is a system on track to dissipate its energy away into the cosmos, and we, we are nothing more than lemmings running in our wheel.

May 07, 2015

Don't Let Your Domino Fall Alone

Our mind is a surreptitious and tyrannical ruler. We may have a sense of self consciousness (some of us a very inflated one), but so many vestigial processes rule our brains' functioning that we fail to fathom how little room we actually have to exercise our freedom.

No organ in our body has been more shaped by the "trial-and-error" process of evolution than our brain. Our irrationality, biases, fears, addictions, and phobias are all somehow anchored in an ancient and obscure vestige behavior that allowed our ancestors thrive past through harsh conditions.

Don't know about that gag reflex that prevents you from drinking perfectly safe purified sewage/toilet water? There's a reason we innately find excrement and fetid matter gross. Couple thousand generations ago our brains had to incorporate this preservation mechanism to avoid dysentery, cholera, and many more nasty digestive-born diseases.

Ever heard of trypophobia, that irrational repulsive reflex towards images of clusters of holes? Yeah, that was buried into our psyche thousands of years ago to prevent you from going touching that outrageously poisonous blue-ringed octopus, or people with smallpox --the disease that wiped out 90% of the natives in the Americas in the 1500s.

Boredom? That's a tricky one. It basically is the evolutionary consequence of having developed such a huge brain (compared to other animals). Zynga thanks your business. It's also a preliminary stage to depression; a lack of meaning that leaves us in an emotional limbo. Viewed from a glass-half-full perspective, it's evolution's shock mechanism that pushes us into self-realization. After all, restlessness and inquisitiveness have been the key drivers of human advance. So don't feel empty when your soul-eating, 9-to-5 job damps your mojo. Go write an obscure blog post about the evolution of the brain that no one will read, or something [wink, wink].

Even our urge to socialize is based in primal, evolutionary instincts. We are wired to connect to something. Anything. If that connection happens to be with a good, nurturing group of people, all the better. But it's not always the case, as many drug addicts can attest. Put us alone and isolated from society, and our bodies will trigger inflammatory signals; an immunological alert state of stress that makes us prone to depression. And it only makes sense. Pushed to the edges of society --the proverbial primitive pack-- we become vulnerable to the attacks of the dreadful Saber-Toothed Tiger, hence the crucial importance to belong; to be protected from predators by outer layers and layers of our very own kind. That's where our imitative behavior comes from: the core of complex human civilization.

But how did all begin? Was there an inception-like point in time when the acceleration of these transformational changes occurred? For all the negative connotations around belonging to a monolithic, societal state of mind, it turns out that following a crowd may not have been all that bad after all. Around 50,000 years ago, when modern, societal behavior spearheaded (pun intended) the explosion of human ingenuity --technological innovation, art, cultural exchange-- there was also a marked decrease in the level of testosterone, which fomented interaction, decreased aggressiveness, and encouraged cohabitation. The emergence of more feminine-like skulls (the product of less testosterone) during that period proves it. Ideas, which need the nurturing of a sounding board for them to evolve and propagate, found the propitious launching pad in this less aggressive, social man. People with ideas are like dominoes falling. When one happens, it needs another one around to propagate and transcend.

So, relish those boring moments. Linger on them. Let the vagueness of the wandering mind attack you, because that's when really cool things are created. Don't let them be a solitary domino falling without consequence. Share them. Bounce them. That's how progress is made.

January 14, 2015

Algo-calyptic Armaggedon

There seems to be hysteria these days around AI and algorithm-based consumption. The algorithmic economy threatens to bring to the realm of the tangible that totem of economic dogma called the "invisible hand." Computers are finally linking --through big data-- individuals' behavior with algorithms that sort them, allowing machines to predict reactions: the "invisible hand" materializes(!). Nothing like predicting human conduct to be able to make money. That damned watch I dared to search for 3 weeks ago in a moment of stupid leisure has haunted me everywhere I go on the internet. Please, stop it Google. I'm not buying it.

The idea that we are just soft machines is a fascinating one. It feeds the collective dread of an algorithmically-dominated Armageddon, making people fret about a time in the not-so-distant future when we will decide nothing for ourselves, and when everything will be dictated by an algorithm --surreptitiously creating the illusion of  freedom. Free will will disappear. Wacky futurists scaring us with their vision of bio/AI-powered "people" and such.

But will it? Will algorithms be eventually able to decide for us, directing Capitalism 2.0 corporations in this apocalyptic world to produce "X" or "Y" to please our insatiable consumerist selves?

To accept this as truth, you need to rely on a very heavy assumption: that we are "modelable"; that our behavior can be hard-coded into a series of mathematical formulas that mimic and --most importantly-- presciently announce our reactions to specific stimuli. In other words, that we are rational. (HA!)

The unending litany of financial bubbles that populates human history should alone be the crushing data point that obviates this assumption as ridiculous. If anything, algorithms only exacerbate human irrationality, but they don't take control. In the end, it's always a --not-so-smart-- human who decides to act on his innate impulses and crashes down. After all, algorithms --being the distilled interpretation of human behavior as devised by a human-- can only filter and dissect behavior as perceived by those who created them, who happen to suffer from the same biases of the subjects they attempt to arrogantly catalog. The same heuristics that rule the brains of consumers dominate those of programmers. So, when Myron Scholes and Robert Merton devised their formula to price options, they relied on (incorrect) assumptions that fit their limited perception of human rationality (namely, that big movements in markets are actually very, very rare), ultimately leading a bunch of blindsided traders into a financial crash that still after 15 years is the subject of postmortem analysis.

So, don't fear nor blame the algo's. Behind every outrageous, extremely over-the-top Facebook update your read in your newsfeed, there is always someone who ultimately clicked "send." Yes, an algorithm may have fed him/her the crap he/she's sharing, but really, are we really going to blame a formula for that?