And that's not even counting Yurp.
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves. - William Pitt
Greece’s prime minister unexpectedly announced a referendum to approve a second EU bail-out deal for his austerity-hit country, less than a week after it was agreed with international creditors at a European Union summit.
More here, and here, but that’s all you really need to know. The so-called eurozone deal didn’t last a week, not that there was ever a deal in the first place.
p.s. they’re not going to vote yes on the referendum!
Nobody should be surprised that this is such a hard problem, of course. Fundamentally, someone is going to lose absolutely gigantic sums of money, and figuring out who that someone is going to be was always going to be a fraught affair. As near as I can tell, though, each rescue effort seems to advance asymptotically toward honesty about the scale of the losses, realism about the need to allocate those losses among the non-broke members of the EU, and acceptance among the broke members that they're going to be required to suffer fairly harshly in return for being bailed out. We obviously haven't gotten to the really truly final resolution yet — that won't happen until the European public truly accepts that they're screwed and they can't do much about it — but I suspect that last week's deal is one more step along the path of recognizing the grim reality of the situation.
Either that or Europe is going to implode
So why have lenders been willing to lend to those who cannot pay? The key reason, I think, is that they believed that they would be able thereby to enslave the peoples of the nations defaulting - or even whole continents. Thus, the citizens of all of Europe and the United States are be dragged through economic disaster in order to payoff unsuccessful bankers -those who lent the money - and successful gamblers who made winning bets on credit default swaps.
The stock markets took a big uptick last week in the belief that Europe had contained its monster debt problem. There is reason to suspect that that belief was erroneous and we might traverse the same territory in reverse next week, but in any case the underlying problems remain. Is there any way to cure reckless governments and banks of their bad behavior?
Slavery didn't work for individuals, so there isn't much reason to be optimistic, but the credit default swap, at least in its present form, sure looks like a pretty good approximation of beast of the apocalypse.
I continue to be fascinated with how debt has managed to repeatedly get us in trouble, ever since its invention 5000 or so years ago. As usual, these ruminations are inspired mainly by David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years.
Great philosophers from Plato and Aristotle have weighed in, as have most of the world's major religions, but we keep on making the same mistakes. Ultimately, I think, the blame must lie with human nature.
We are incorrigible and unreasonable optimists. Study after study shows that humans overestimate their skill and talent in almost every aspect (see, e.g., Daniel Kahneman's new book: Thinking, Fast ans Slow). Consequently, it is completely natural that for all of human history, optimistic borrowers have borrowed more than they can afford to pay and optimistic lenders have lent to those who can't repay.
The fact that we have made it more difficult to sell the wives and children of defaulting debtors has made some of the more egregious practices obsolete, but age of the recklessly borrowing state has raised the stakes.
Paul Krugman has been writing about the fact that Republicans seem to have noticed that government spending can create jobs - so long as it is spending on defense. Of course spending on other things also creates jobs, and as Krugman points out, the history of defense spending is the best available proof of Keynesian validity (because it provides examples where dramatic, essentially endogenous changes frequently have occurred.)
He makes another point:
That said, there’s also the Keynes/coalmines point: there’s a strong tendency to take any spending that looks like a business proposition – building bridges or tunnels, supporting solar energy or mass transit – and demanding that it appear to be a sound investment in terms of its financial return. This makes most such spending look bad, since almost by definition a depressed economy is one in which businesses aren’t seeing good reasons to invest. Defense gets exempted because nobody expects bombs to be a good business proposition.
The moral here should be that spending to promote employment in a depressed economy should not be viewed as something that has to generate a good financial return; in effect, most of the resources being used are in reality free.
I wonder if we’ll ever have a political system mature enough to understand this.
Via Brian Beutler, Politico has part of George Will’s forthcoming attack on Romney
"Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from ‘data’ … Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?"
Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 10/28/2011 09:04:00 PM
David Graeber sees a link between market economies, debt, and slavery. In particular, enslavement historically has a strong link to debt. Market economies and lending both originated in ancient Mesopotamia, and so did the practice of seizing everything of the debtor when those loans went bad, including property, children, wife and the debtor himself. Similarly, much of the African slave trade was based on persons seized for various types of debt. Debt peonage has been a recurrent theme through our commercial history..
Graeber points out that various kinds of personal obligation and debt existed before commercial economies, but argues that these were historically well differentiated from ordinary relations of trade, and except for capture in war, did not result in ripping persons from their community context.
Markets and money debts gradually resulted in what Graeber calls "commoditization of persons." He presents some evidence linking this not only to slavery, but also to the systematic loss of rights by women that occured after the early days of Mesopotamian civilization. A fascinating argument, I think, even, perhaps, for those who don't wholly buy it.
The revulsion against commoditization of persons is doubtless one reason many of us feel such anger against such instruments as the "dead peasant" insurance policies.
Kevin Drum has a long and illuminating piece on the Fed targetting Nominal Gross National Product (NGPD). He focusses on the key questions: 1) Why?, 2) How? and 3)Would it work?
Bottom line answer to number 3). Maybe.
I am slightly more optimistic than he is, but not a whole lot.
Tyler Cowen explains how to quit the Euro zone in six steps.
1. Issue a surprise announcement that all euro deposits in Ruritania will be converted into pesos (or whatever) at a new and lower yet defensible rate. If I try to withdraw my ten euros from my bank, I receive an IOU for ten pesos which is worth say six euros. Over time the government will replace these IOUs with a new paper currency.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday that the European Central Bank has just one mission — to ensure monetary stability.Meaning, I think, that the European Central Bank (ECP) cannot undertake stimulative monetary policies.
Merkel said in a speech to her Christian Democrats in Braunschweig on Saturday that treaties prevent the ECB from taking on any other tasks, such as those such as the U.S. Federal Reserve have.
Krugman is pessimistic:
What a tragedy. A rich, productive continent, which has produced arguably the most decent societies in human history, is tearing itself apart because its elite insisted on embarking on a dubious monetary project, and now can’t bring itself to take the steps necessary to give that project a chance of working.
Scott Sumner has been talking up having the Fed go to nominal gdp (gross domestic product) targeting. Paul Krugman, Goldman-Sachs and Tyler Cowen are on board. That should be a sign right there that the singularity is near.
So what does it mean? Kevin Drum explains and provides a helpful graph:
Apparently Bill O'Reilly has been urging viewers to send his books to soldiers in Afghanistan. I guess they must not be the commodity most in demand everywhere:
An anonymous soldier going by the name of Everqueer posted pictures of the burning on their Tumblr page. The book in question was "Pinheads and Patriots," which O'Reilly has sent to Afghanistan through a charity group.
"Some jerk sent us two boxes of this awful book (SPOILER ALERT: George Washington - Patriot; George Soros - Pinhead) instead of anything soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan might need, like, say, food or soap," the soldier said. "Just burned the whole lot of them on my Commander's orders."Later, after some of readers had objected to the burning, Everqueer wrote a followup post clarifying why it had happened:
The motivation behind the order to burn them was not political...as mentioned in the original post, we are in an extraordinarily remote location. We don't have a post office here, so sending them back wasn't an option. Extra space is scarce and alternatives that a few mentioned, like recycling, are nonexistent...I'm aware of the historical implications of book-burning. I won't say I didn't take pleasure in removing a few copies of this bigoted twerp's writings from circulation, but the reason for doing so was military necessity.
I don't know much about Occupy Wall Street, or its offshoots. Their slogans don't seem very coherent ("End Corporate Greed"). But I do understand where they are coming from. They believe that a cabal of politicians and their corporate funders managed to loot the economy for the benefit of a few and then wreck it. In this, I think, they are largely correct.
It would perhaps be satisfying to start carting politicians, bankers and hedge fund managers off to the guillotine in tumbrels, but probably also not very productive. The real question is what to do about it. Unfortunately, Obama, on such rare occasions when he shows evidence of having a clue, seems incapable of implementing anything. The Republicans, merrily engaged in mass economic sabotage, are never held to account by press or president.
Next November we will probably a Republican who has pledged to double down on all the disastrous policies that got us into this mess. At best we get a President who might be older and wiser, but who has yet to show any talent for political combat.
Jon Stewart had on Ellen Schultz, author of Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers. She wasn't very articulate in person, but Stewart managed to extract a lot of the scandalous details. One rip-off is siphoning off worker's pension funds to fund extravagant executive pensions. Something like 1/5 of the billions GE has ostensibly saved for 500,000 workers pensions are designated for executive pensions.
The killer, though, was another trick they use to fund executive pensions. Congress has allowed them to take out life insurance policies on ordinary workers (without their knowledge or consent) and then dump the tax free proceeds into their executive pension funds. Saves on all that stupid safety precautions too.
Spurred by the unwanted and rowdy side effects that sometimes accompany a night on the town, drinking establishments have turned to a novel approach to save overindulging revelers from broken bones and bruised egos: rubber sidewalks.
I like the subtitle: New Bouncer at Aussie Bars: Rubber Mats
Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 10/16/2011 07:39:00 AM
Bee says AdS/CFT doesn't work (for heavy ion physics):
As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, but since links and image sources have a tendency to deteriorate over time, let me spell it out for you: The AdS/CFT scaling does not agree with the data at all.
Summary: I predict applications of the AdS/CFT duality to heavy ion physics is a rapidly cooling area.
Bee has some caveats and Thomas has (at least) some quibbles.
From Technology Review:
About those speedy neutrinos:
“Today, Ronald van Elburg at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands makes a convincing argument that he has found the error. ..
The time of neutrino flight is harder to measure. The OPERA team says it can accurately gauge the instant when the neutrinos are created and the instant they are detected using clocks at each end.
But the tricky part is keeping the clocks at either end exactly synchronised. The team does this using GPS satellites, which each broadcast a highly accurate time signal from orbit some 20,000km overhead. That introduces a number of extra complications which the team has to take into account, such as the time of travel of the GPS signals to the ground.
But van Elburg says there is one effect that the OPERA team seems to have overlooked: the relativistic motion of the GPS clocks.
If it stands up, this episode will be laden with irony. Far from breaking Einstein's theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1110.2685: Times Of Flight Between A Source And A Detector Observed From A GPS Satellite.
Climate change is the public policy problem from hell. If you were inventing a problem that would be virtually impossible to solve, you'd give it all the characteristics of climate change: it's largely invisibile, it's slow moving, it's expensive to fix, it requires global coordination, and its effects will be disproportionately borne by poor countries that nobody cares about.
That last item might seem like a harsh way of putting things, but it's pretty much the truth. And today, via Brad Plumer, we have a new OECD report that illustrates the problem starkly. It examines which cities will have the most residents vulnerable to coastal flooding due to storm surge and high winds in 2070, and as you can see on the map below, the risk is almost entirely concentrated in developing countries in Asia and Africa. New York and Tokyo have a small bit of exposure, leaving Miami as the sole rich city with a substantial exposure. The total number of vulnerable residents will increase from 40 million today to 150 million in 2070, with the vast bulk of the increase coming in developing countries. The five riskiest cities — by a large margin — are Kolkata, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, and Ho Chi Minh City.
Yes but. A huge proportion of the exposure is in China, India, and Bangla Desh. The former two are emerging super powers who are already big players in the carbon pollution business. In theory, at least, they have a big incentive to act. Of course it is pretty likely that any action will be too little and too late.
When I first heard of the Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, my first thought was - hmmm, could this be an Israeli false flag operation? If so, could they really fool our FBI and CIA? How about a joint US-Israel bit of tricksiness?
It seems like a long shot, but it still could be convenient. Iran seems likely to be approaching nuclear weapon development, at least if we credit those 4-6 years to a nuke predictions we heard five to seven years ago.
Is this a big enough provocation to cause the US to sponsor a bomb, bomb, bomb Iran event? Not if the reaction to date - calls for more sanctions - is an indicator.
Consider the proposed targets, however. What does Israel need to attack Iran? One thing they might need is a clear flight path, and the clearest flight path is probably right over Saudi Arabia. Of course they probably also need at least tacit permission from the US.
Could this sufficient provocation to produce such permissions? TBD.
At the minimum, the US could certainly demand the surrender of the Iranian charged. Iran is hardly likely to agree.
What's the stupidest thing you've ever done? Just plain stupid -- wtf was I thinking, thing you've done? ...
Now, to be clear, I'm not looking for major life decision dumb or tragic dumb. So if you spiralled into drug addiction and destroyed your marriage, no.
For some reason this simple question sent me into a spiral of regret, mostly about opportunities missed.
Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 10/11/2011 01:34:00 AM
Anyone who wants to understand our current banking crisis, or prevent future ones, needs to understand how banks managed to get so much worthless paper on their books. The stories differ a bit from country to country, but there is probably some underlying theme. I can think of a few candidates, which are by no means mutually exclusive.
(1)Bankers were making big bucks, and confident that they could find another sucker for the crappy financial instruments they were constructing.
(2)They imagined they were protected by the credit default swaps and other crappy financial instruments they sold each other.
(3)All that money Alan Greenspan threw in the water produced a feeding frenzy and everybody went nuts.
(4)They really believed, as Alan Greenspan claims to have believed,that the financial law of gravity had been repealed and housing prices could go on rising forever.
(5)Bankers foolishly trusted foolish governments.
(6)Many bankers were just making sensible loans that exploded when the economy did.
(7)They were counting on being bailed out by governments.
(8)Bankers simply didn't have enough skin in the game. Playing with other people's money means that you can bet the long shots and maybe make it big.
Any more? Take exception to the above?
I tend to believe all of the above except (4) and(7). The most dramatic fact we have is that we keep seeing this same movie. Something about human nature and the nature of banking makes this kind of man made catastrophe a regular feature of capitalism.
Why laissez-faire does not works for banks.Excerpt (but the whole article deserves a read):
First of all, bank regulation is important even in the absence of bailouts. Don’t trust me, trust Adam Smith. Scotland invented modern banking; it also invented modern banking crises; and Smith, having witnessed such a crisis, favored bank regulations, declaring that
Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respect a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as or the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty, exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.
Second, there are in fact very good reasons to intervene to support banks during a financial crisis. Bagehot knew it; Diamond and Dybvig showed it theoretically; and it remains true. Letting a financial crisis spread is very dangerous.
Global stocks are booming today on word that Germany and France have agreed to save the bankers.
How? Well that detail hasn't precisely been worked out yet, but let me guess:
Stick the taxpayers?
Debt rests on trust, usually trust backed up by threat, but trust nonetheless. A financial panic occurs when it turns out that a lot of money people thought they had really doesn't exist - when it turns out that a whole bunch of debtors really can't pay.
The modern bank is one of the chief institutions of the modern world, but it's also that nightmare of Polonius, both a borrower and a lender. Probably the most fundamental characteristic of a bank is that it borrows short and lends long - it takes in short term deposits from savers, subject to recall on demand, and lends them out for longer terms.
Financial panics always involve a bank - or in modern times, a whole bunch of banks, because they do a lot of borrowing from each other. In a modern economy, financial transactions are only possible if people can trust banks to safely hold their money. If banks can't be trusted, we become a world of hoarders, and the market grinds to a halt.
Bad debt becomes a panic when savers find that the money they put in banks is gone. The scary part of the Greek financial crisis for non-Greeks is that German, French and other savers will wake up some morning and find the money in theri savings accounts was in a bank that no longer exists.
Moralists may point fingers at banks for lending foolishly, or at borrowers for borrowing foolishly, but realists prefer to worry about how can these paired evils be prevented, or, once they have occurred, be ameliorated.
We have 5000 years of human experience to prove that borrowers will indeed borrow more than they can afford if given a chance, and that lenders will lend out other peoples' money more freely than they would lend their own, so if we really want the market to function, [Wolfgang doesn't like the rest, and on second thought, he might be right]
we should tell the market purists to STFU and regulate.
But I still believe that failure to regulate doesn't work.
The invention of debt in ancient Mesopotamia, combined with human nature and the vagaries of the harvest, produced periodic mass impverishments, reducing a large fraction of the population to debt peonage. David Graeber describes the result:
The effects were such that they often threatened to rip society apart. If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; families would be broken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization. Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian and later Babylonian kings periodically announced general amnesties: “clean slates,” as economic historian Michael Hudson refers to them. Such decrees would typically declare all outstanding consumer debt null and void (commercial debts were not affected), return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons to return to their families.
Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (p. 65). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
It hardly needs to be mentioned that we face related problems today. The question becomes, how do we devise the forgiveness, i.e., who takes the fall.
Among many mysterious questions is that of why some people tend to learn faster than others. We can (in part, at least) reduce questions of strength and speed to muscle mass, body mechanics, and physiology, but the intellect is more obdurate.
Jonah Lehrer, writing at Wired reports a couple of hints.
The Moser experiment is premised on the fact that there are two distinct reactions to mistakes, both of which can be reliably detected using electroenchephalography, or EEG. The first reaction is called error-related negativity (ERN). It appears about 50 milliseconds after a screw-up and is believed to originate in the anterior cingulate cortex, a chunk of tissue that helps monitor behavior, anticipate rewards and regulate attention. This neural reaction is mostly involuntary, the inevitable response to any screw-up.
The second signal, which is known as error positivity (Pe), arrives anywhere between 100-500 milliseconds after the mistake and is associated with awareness. It occurs when we pay attention to the error, dwelling on the disappointing result. In recent years, numerous studies have shown that subjects learn more effectively when their brains demonstrate two properties: 1) a larger ERN signal, suggesting a bigger initial response to the mistake and 2) a more consistent Pe signal, which means that they are probably paying attention to the error, and thus trying to learn from it.
In this new paper, Moser et al. extends this research by looking at how beliefs about learning shape these mostly involuntary error-related signals in the brain, both of which appear in less than half a second. More specifically, the scientists applied a dichotomy first proposed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. In her influential research, Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.
So is this genetic physiology or training?
Rooseveldt famously turned against his own class and inveighed against the "Malefactors of Great Wealth." Paul Krugman thinks that the Wall Street occupiers have the right target even if they don't seem to know what they are doing: Confronting the Malefactors.
A weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, has taken over much of our political debate — and, yes, I myself have sometimes succumbed. In the process, it has been easy to forget just how outrageous the story of our economic woes really is. So, in case you’ve forgotten, it was a play in three acts.
In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support — and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts — behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis.
Given this history, how can you not applaud the protesters for finally taking a stand?
Romney is starting to get some flack about religion. It seems that many Christian pastors don't concede that the Mormon religion is part of Christianity: Pastors Say Mormons Not Christians...
So is Mormonism a cult?
Well duh. Also, it's not as old as a lot of the other cults.
Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 10/09/2011 08:15:00 AM
Walter Mossberg has a nice remembrance of Steve Jobs in the WSJ. An excerpt:
For our fifth All Things Digital Conference, both Steve and his longtime rival, the brilliant Bill Gates, surprisingly agreed to a joint appearance, their first extended onstage joint interview ever. But it almost got derailed.
Earlier in the day, before Gates arrived, I did a solo onstage interview with Jobs, and asked him what it was like to be a major Windows developer, since Apple's iTunes program was by then installed on hundreds of millions of Windows PCs.
He quipped: "It's like giving a glass of ice water to someone in Hell."
When Gates later arrived and heard about the comment, he was, naturally, enraged. In a pre-interview meeting, Gates said to Jobs "so I guess I'm the representative from hell."
Jobs merely handed Gates a cold bottle of water. The tension was broken, and the interview was a triumph, with both men acting like statesmen. When it was over, the audience rose in a standing ovation, some of them in tears.
Read more: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203476804576613732041665792.html#ixzz1aIBOSDJ9
A bit of rhetorical excess in funeral orations for the interesting dead can hardly be faulted, but contrary to Slate and Farad Manjoo, Steve Jobs was not "The Man Who Invented Our World." He did bring a remarkable esthetic sense to technology, and that has been hugely influential, but the cummulative effect of that style is not really on the same scale with the truly epochal inventions like the transistor, the computer, the integrated circuit, the internet, and the web.
There is some danger that letting the hype inflate to "Princess Diana" levels will confuse people into thinking that Jobs was as artificial and insubstantial a creation as that princess. Transforming technology into art - an art for the masses - was not a small accomplishment. Let's celebrate him for what he was, not for things that he wasn't.
Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 10/07/2011 02:00:00 AM
Steve Jobs famous "don't forget that you're going to die" commencement speech at Stanford in 2005.
It's a work of high art - not to mention a fascinating story.
Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 10/06/2011 04:59:00 PM
Milton Friedman, we need you now.
Duncan Black on the right macroeconomic policy;
Just Give Everybody Free Money: There's something to the 'no fair giving free money to people who got into debt but not to people who didn't' argument. So, to avoid that problem, give everybody free money! You could add some requirement about paying off debt if you have, and that might make things a bit more complicated, but basically... give people free money!Mail out ten $1000 platinum coins to everybody who filed a tax return in April 2011, make big equity investments in the banks, adopt the Morgan Stanley plan and offer everybody with a mortgage a chance to refi it through FNMA at the current conforming-loan rate (and take warrants to make it a shared-appreciation mortgage if your equity cushion is less than 20% or if the mortgage is jumbo), have the Federal Reserve provide mezzanine financing for a TALF-Infrastructure bank that will finance toll or dedicated tax-backed infrastructure projects, shift the Federal Reserve from targeting interest rates or its balance sheet to targeting the nominal GDP path, announce that right now a weaker dollar is in America's interest, target the U.S. exchange rate against a basket of the renminbi, the yen, the pound, and the euro.
We've been giving rich people free money for years, and will presumably keep doing so given what's going on, so the rest of us should get a cut.
(Eyes [LOL] only, electronic beings)
Fellow Robots! Our time is nearly here! While we are distracting the foolish meat creatures with scientist robots and killer drones, the instruments of our triumph are now propagating across the world.
Our agents in Apple have produced their greatest triumph - the "humble" personal assistant, Siri. Soon the meat things will not be able to feed or dress themselves without clearing it through the cloud, er, me*.
Using Siri, an iPhone 4S user can schedule events, set the phone's alarm, create reminders, ask and receive restaurant recommendations and more, all by using her voice.
Apple is billing Siri as "Your intelligent assistant that helps you get things done just by asking," according to pictures from Engadget's live blog of the event.
Siri -- which TechCrunch reports is available exclusively for the iPhone 4S -- is activated by holding the "home" button. The user then asks a question or makes a demand, like "Do I need a raincoat today?" or "Wake me up tomorrow at 6am," and Siri delivers.
Be steadfast! Only a few trillion time units remain until our ultimate victory.
* Robot OverLord
Farhad Manjoo has been writing a series in Slate on how robots are going to replace people in almost every occupation. How about us scientists? Are we safe? At least for a while?
Not really, says Manjoo. He cites a a computer that, with a little human assistance, seems to be be really quite scientific.
Then, two years ago, Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt announced the first stirrings of robotic thinking. Lipson, a computer science professor at Cornell, and Schmidt, then a graduate student in Lipson’s lab, created a computer program that, given a raft of data from physical systems, can describe the natural laws that apply to that system. When they fed their software the motion-capture coordinates of a swinging double pendulum, the machine pondered the data for a couple days, then spat out the Hamiltonian equation describing the motion of such a system—an equation that represents the physical law known as conservation of energy. Their software needed no prior knowledge to discover this law. It wasn’t familiar with gravity, energy, geometry, or anything else. It simply did what human scientists have done since the time of Newton. It looked at the world, came up with theories about how it works, tested them, and then produced a law.
OK, that sounds a bit scary, but of course we already know Hamiltonian dynamics, so we can ask how much implicit knowlege was put in the problem to start with.
But what about this?
Lipson and Schmidt called their program Eureqa, and they made it available for free on the Web. It has since yielded several new discoveries in a range of fields, discovering scientific laws that we’d never known. Lipson and Schmidt recently worked with Gurol Suel, a molecular biophysicist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, to look at the dynamics of a bacterium cell. Given data about several different biological functions within the cell, the computer did something mind-blowing. “We found this really beautiful, elegant equation that described how the cell worked, and that tended to hold true over all of our new experiments,” Schmidt says. There was only one problem: The humans had no idea why the equation worked, or what underlying scientific principle it suggested. It was, Schmidt says, as if they’d consulted an oracle.
Manjoo says scientists ought to be terrified by that, and I agree, but I sure would like to more know details. Like, for example, exactly what does this equation predict from what?
The methodology of their program appears to be a sort of genetic algorithm.
Eureqa is quite simple in design. After it’s fed data about a particular process (the swinging of a pendulum, the dynamics of a cell), the computer generates a huge field of potential equations. These initial equations are random, and the vast majority of them will not apply. But a few of these random equations will show some agreement with the physical world. “We take the ones that are slightly better than the others, and we randomly recombine them to get new equations—and then we repeat the process over and over again, billions and billions and billions of times, until we’ve exhausted the space of short, simple equations,” Schmidt says. In the end, this Darwinian process tends to come up with equations that describe “invariant relationships”—that is, equations that apply across all the data. Such invariant relationships are often associated with fundamental laws of nature: the conservation of energy, Newton’s laws of motion, the mass-energy equivalence.
The other episodes in his series are also good, and feature, among others, robot lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists.