Physicist Proposes New Way To Think About Intelligence

Chris Gorski in Physics Central:

ScreenHunter_172 Apr. 28 22.25Alexander Wissner-Gross, a physicist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cameron Freer, a mathematician at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, developed an equation that they say describes many intelligent or cognitive behaviors, such as upright walking and tool use.

The researchers suggest that intelligent behavior stems from the impulse to seize control of future events in the environment. This is the exact opposite of the classic science-fiction scenario in which computers or robots become intelligent, then set their sights on taking over the world.

The findings describe a mathematical relationship that can “spontaneously induce remarkably sophisticated behaviors associated with the human 'cognitive niche,' including tool use and social cooperation, in simple physical systems,” the researchers wrote in a paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.

“It's a provocative paper,” said Simon DeDeo, a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, who studies biological and social systems. “It's not science as usual.”

Wissner-Gross, a physicist, said the research was “very ambitious” and cited developments in multiple fields as the major inspirations.

The mathematics behind the research comes from the theory of how heat energy can do work and diffuse over time, called thermodynamics. One of the core concepts in physics is called entropy, which refers to the tendency of systems to evolve toward larger amounts of disorder. The second law of thermodynamics explains how in any isolated system, the amount of entropy tends to increase. A mirror can shatter into many pieces, but a collection of broken pieces will not reassemble into a mirror.

The new research proposes that entropy is directly connected to intelligent behavior.

“[The paper] is basically an attempt to describe intelligence as a fundamentally thermodynamic process,” said Wissner-Gross.

More here.

Bee Wilson reviews ‘Cooked,’ by Michael Pollan

Bee Wilson in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_171 Apr. 28 18.47In each of the sections — neatly themed as “Fire,” “Water,” “Air” and “Earth” — Pollan seeks wisdom from masters who will teach him one of the four basic elements of cooking. In “Fire,” he learns barbecue from a “slow-moving bear of a man.” In “Water,” he is taught pot cookery — casseroles and braises — by a lively ­Iranian-American woman who once worked at Chez Panisse. “Air” refers to the rising of bread as he trains himself in the magic of sourdough. Finally, “Earth” is devoted to fermentation, following sauerkraut gurus, cheese makers and craft beer enthusiasts to find out what microbes really do for us, whether in our guts or in our food.

A life involving no home cooking, Pollan convincingly argues, is a life diminished. It’s not just that you probably eat food that’s of worse quality (in Pollan’s world, cooks seldom burn things or give their guests food poisoning). It’s also because the noncook suffers a loss of engagement “with the material world.” And cooking may be the best line of defense against obesity: Pollan cites a 2003 Harvard study that correlated the increase of obesity in America with the decline of home cooking.

If such an absence is indeed disastrous, you might expect that “Cooked” would examine how to get more people to change their habits. Now, Pollan notes, the typical American household devotes “a scant 27 minutes a day” to food preparation. Pollan rounds up the usual enemies of home cooking: “longer workdays and overscheduled children,” and, of course, convenience foods. But instead of considering ways to make cooking easier to fit into time-pressed lives, he sets off on a personal quest — albeit written with all his trademark lyricism — to master techniques that are perversely slow and difficult, from cheese making to kimchi fermentation.

More here.

Interpreting Tino Sehgal

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

6a00d83453bcda69e2017d432cbeb9970c-350wiI recently worked as an 'interpreter', to use the term of art, in This Situation, a work by Tino Sehgal on exhibit at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal throughout most of March and April, 2013. My reasons for signing on to this project are several, including some having to do with the commitments that ensue from friendship, and some, I'll confess, with my seemingly constitutional inability to get my financial situation in order (peers in a similar stage of their careers are using words like 'refinance' and 'diversify'; I'm out in the moonlight scraping together a security deposit for a short-term sublet in Paris). More importantly, I went into it in the hope that I would come out the other end with a properly informed critical judgment about the work and about the state of contemporary art. When I was a lad I enthused about every new thing that came along. I would shell out for CDs with recordings of HVAC sounds in office buildings, and would go to the Pompidou and look at Joseph Beuys' rolled-up carpets or whatever and think some inarticulate thought along the lines of: Fuck you, stuffy old people. In more recent years I have come to feel that modernity was already bad enough, let alone whatever is supposed to have come after it, and I spend most of my time thinking about things one could just as easily have thought about when Oedipus Rex first realized what he'd done. I'm not nearly as contemporary as this thing I've just been involved in, I mean to say, and this necessarily constrains what sort of things I shall be able to say about it.

More here.

Sunday Poem

I Sit
One afternoon with the sky covered in thin clouds
I sit on a sofa
like a shelled clam

There are things I must tend to
but I do nothing
simply sitting enchanted

Those that are beautiful are beautiful
Even those that are ugly
somehow look beautiful

Simply being here is
I become something other than myself

I stand up to
drink a sip of water
water is also wondrous

by Shuntaro Tanikawa
from minimal
publisher, Shichosha, Tokyo, 2002

What Alexander Graham Bell Sounded Like

From The Atlantic:

Home-article-curation-beltOn March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke nine words that heralded our modern age of rapid long-distance communication. “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.” And then, as soon as he spoke the words, they were gone.

…But there are sound recordings that survive from as far back as the 1860s, '70s, and '80s. It's just that, until very recently, they were unplayable. We no longer had the right tools, and even if we had, playing them would ruin the wax cylinders or fragile records upon which the sounds were stored. But over the past few years, physicists have developed tools for creating 3D scans of the old records and converting those scans into playable audio files. Last year, they released the oldest playable American recording, a series of sounds from an 1878 demonstration of sound-recording technology in St. Louis. In it, you can hear laughter, a song, and some counting, all spoken into the world by people of another century. But until today, the voice that spoke that age of far-traveling sound into being has remained unknown — no living person had ever heard it. What did he sound like? “Did Bell speak with a Scottish burr? What was the pitch and depth of the voice with which he loved to belt out ballads and music hall songs?” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray asks in Smithsonian. He had lived in England, Canada, the eastern United States. He summered in Nova Scotia where people spoke Gaelic. How did all these influences combine in his speech? And now Gray has her answer. The Smithsonian has released audio recovered from a wax and cardboard disc dated April 15, 1885. In it, you can clearly hear the inventor speak the words: “Hear my voice — Alexander Graham Bell.”

More here.

Breakthrough Diabetes Discovery Offers Potential Treatment

From Harvard Magazine:

MelXander University Professor Douglas Melton and postdoctoral fellow Peng Yi today announced that they have identified a hormone that induces reproduction of new insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, offering hope for a better way to treat type 2 diabetes. The disease, which is usually caused by lack of exercise and obesity, affects approximately 26 million Americans. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to be able to manage a patient’s blood sugar; the patient also becomes increasingly resistant to insulin’s effects. Melton—co-scientific director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute—and Yi initially demonstrated the effectiveness of their new treatment in mice but have since found evidence that the same pathways on which the hormone works are active in humans. Melton hopes that betatrophin, the newly discovered hormone, will be approved for clinical testing in humans within five years. “If this could be used in people,” says Melton, co-chair of the University’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, “it could eventually mean that instead of taking insulin injections three times a day, you might take an injection of this hormone once a week or once a month, or in the best case maybe even once a year.” The hormone works by causing beta cells to divide. Normally, only one in a thousand or one in ten thousand beta cells divides in a day. Betatrophin increased the rate of division 30 times in insulin-resistant mice. These mice began with only 10 percent to 15 percent of the normal complement of beta cells. In an experiment using betatrophin, Melton was able to triple those numbers in a week.

Melton has been seeking a cure for diabetes ever since his son, and later his daughter, were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a disease in which the immune system attacks and kills off insulin-producing beta cells. Melton said in an interview that this latest discovery is not likely to be an effective treatment for type 1 diabetes because it requires existing beta cells in a patient: the treatment works by causing those cells to divide. But he says it might help in the early stages of type 1 diabetes, before all the beta cells had been eliminated. And it holds further promise: if in the future scientists find a way to stop the immune attack on beta cells, then betatrophin might become an important treatment for even the type 1 form of the disease.

More here.

The Austerity Delusion


Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

The eurozone countries, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic states have volunteered as subjects in a grand experiment that aims to find out if it is possible for an economically stagnant country to cut its way to prosperity. Austerity — the deliberate deflation of domestic wages and prices through cuts to public spending — is designed to reduce a state’s debts and deficits, increase its economic competitiveness, and restore what is vaguely referred to as “business confidence.” The last point is key: advocates of austerity believe that slashing spending spurs private investment, since it signals that the government will neither be crowding out the market for investment with its own stimulus efforts nor be adding to its debt burden. Consumers and producers, the argument goes, will feel confident about the future and will spend more, allowing the economy to grow again.

In line with such thinking, and following the shock of the recent financial crisis, which caused public debt to balloon, much of Europe has been pursuing austerity consistently for the past four years. The results of the experiment are now in, and they are equally consistent: austerity doesn’t work. Most of the economies on the periphery of the eurozone have been in free fall since 2009, and in the fourth quarter of 2012, the eurozone as a whole contracted for the first time ever. Portugal’s economy shrank by 1.8 percent, Italy’s fell by 0.9 percent, and even the supposed powerhouse of the region, Germany, saw its economy contract by 0.6 percent. The United Kingdom, despite not being in the eurozone, only barely escaped having the developed world’s first-ever triple-dip recession.

Austerity: The Biggest Roadblock To Progressive Change


Ruy Teixeira's post in the Think Progress Ideas symposium on Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea:

Arguably, there is no greater obstacle to progressive change than the idea of austerity. Austerity dominates economic policy discussions in Europe, resulting in policies in country after country that ensure continued slow growth (or outright contraction) and high unemployment. These conditions have produced demoralized electorates that lack faith in all politicians, including those on the left, a cynicism that has only been deepened when left parties have attained power and failed to revive growth. In such an environment, progressive change is not possible and the left is reduced to purely defensive actions.

In the US, things are slightly better. Nevertheless, our economic policy discussions are still dominated by variants of austerity. The fiscal cliff deal at the beginning of this year slowed the economy and the sequestered spending cuts are slowing it more. Yet with unemployment still at 7.6 percent, growth projections for the year halved to 1.4 percent and the latest jobs report coming in at an anemic 88,000 jobs created, policy discussion continues to focus on the need to cut the deficit more (despite the fact it has already gone down dramatically) and solve a national debt “crisis” whose effects, if any, are many years away (and may never appear). Of course, such a focus precludes any progressive economic policies, including critically, spending programs that would help revive the economy and invest in our economic future.

How did we get into such a pickle? Does the current mania for austerity make any sense whatsoever? And could the recent discrediting of Carmen Reinhart’s and Kenneth Rogoff’sinfluential pro-austerity paper provide any hope for defusing this mania? Mark Blyth’s timely new book, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, provides answers to these questions. They are not necessarily comforting ones.

Perpetual Motion Test Could Amend Theory of Time


Natalie Wolchover in the Simons Foundation (via io9):

In February 2012, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek decided to go public with a strange and, he worried, somewhat embarrassing idea. Impossible as it seemed, Wilczek had developed an apparent proof of “time crystals” — physical structures that move in a repeating pattern, like minute hands rounding clocks, without expending energy or ever winding down. Unlike clocks or any other known objects, time crystals derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time, enabling a special form of perpetual motion.

“Most research in physics is continuations of things that have gone before,” said Wilczek, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This, he said, was “kind of outside the box.”

Wilczek’s idea met with a muted response from physicists. Here was a brilliant professor known for developing exotic theories that later entered the mainstream, including the existence of particles called axions and anyons, and discovering a property of nuclear forces known as asymptotic freedom (for which he shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2004). But perpetual motion, deemed impossible by the fundamental laws of physics, was hard to swallow. Did the work constitute a major breakthrough or faulty logic? Jakub Zakrzewski, a professor of physics and head of atomic optics at Jagiellonian University in Poland who wrote a perspective on the research that accompanied Wilczek’s publication, says: “I simply don’t know.”

Now, a technological advance has made it possible for physicists to test the idea. They plan to build a time crystal, not in the hope that this perpetuum mobile will generate an endless supply of energy (as inventors have striven in vain to do for more than a thousand years) but that it will yield a better theory of time itself.

The idea came to Wilczek while he was preparing a class lecture in 2010. “I was thinking about the classification of crystals, and then it just occurred to me that it’s natural to think about space and time together,” he said. “So if you think about crystals in space, it’s very natural also to think about the classification of crystalline behavior in time.”

When matter crystallizes, its atoms spontaneously organize themselves into the rows, columns and stacks of a three-dimensional lattice. An atom occupies each “lattice point,” but the balance of forces between the atoms prevents them from inhabiting the space between. Because the atoms suddenly have a discrete, rather than continuous, set of choices for where to exist, crystals are said to break the spatial symmetry of nature — the usual rule that all places in space are equivalent. But what about the temporal symmetry of nature — the rule that stable objects stay the same throughout time?

taste of ashes


“When thinking about the fall of any dictatorship, one should have no illusions that the whole system comes to an end like a bad dream,” Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote 30 years ago. A Polish journalist, Kapuscinski was ostensibly reporting on the fall of the shah of Iran, but his devoted Polish readers knew that everything he said applied to their part of the world as well. “A dictatorship . . . leaves behind itself an empty, sour field on which the tree of thought won’t grow quickly. It is not always the best people who emerge from hiding.” Far more than peoples who’ve weathered revolutions and counterrevolutions, Americans too often assume that once a tyranny has collapsed and elections follow — whether in the Soviet Union, Iraq or Egypt — whatever comes next will be far better. Things are more complicated, of course, and this is the timely theme of Marci Shore’s “Taste of Ashes,” a book by turns insightful and exasperating.

more from Adam Hochschild at the NY Times here.

David Wolpe on Greg Bellow’s Memoir of His Father, Saul Bellow

David Wolpe in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

1366500043“I am a poor lost woof from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to.” The Bellow tone: This phrase from his letters gives us the winsome Bellow, seeking succor for his battered heart. This is Herzog the mess, trod upon by life; reading the letters (Saul Bellow: Letters, ed. Benjamin Taylor, 2012) we regularly come upon the Bellovian combination of demotic and exalted, Schopenhauer and sauerkraut, as if a teenage driver got hold of a high speed test car. Bellow’s style is street sophisticate, ornate and slangy, a tough dressed in tails, guided by a supernally shrewd intelligence that scoops up an entire character in a passing metaphor.

Bellow knew all this before we did, of course; each effect was written and rewritten, and his almost formless books are the messy, canny reflection of a remarkable mind. Still, he hides less than other authors, giving himself to his readers with both hands; this is not Joyce’s artist, like God beyond creation, paring his nails. This is the author as courtesan, beguiling us not only into reading, but loving him.

So what reader of Bellow does not wonder about the man? After James Atlas’s 2002 biography, widely panned, with its portrayal of an altogether unappealing philanderer, is there balm in Gilead?

“Our father was always easily angered, prone to argument, acutely sensitive, and palpably vulnerable to criticism.” Reading this sentence in Greg Bellow’s new memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart, one remembers the saying attributed to a French King, “I would rather be killed by my enemies than by my children.” Maybe we should have stuck with Atlas.

More here.

A Place in the Country


Admirers of the late WG Sebald’s inimitable blend of essay, memoir, novel and found images, deployed in books such as Vertigo (1990) and The Rings of Saturn (1999), will be grateful for A Place in the Country. The first of Sebald’s prose works to be translated into English since 2005 (he died in 2001) offers welcome glimpses into his stylistic and thematic preoccupations. The volume collects six pieces of writing about artists for whom Sebald declares an “unwavering affection”. These “extended marginal notes and glosses”, as the author modestly calls them, connect and overlap through shared allusions, recurring subjects and a common tone. Sebald’s fascination with written and visual ephemera is vividly displayed in the first essay, about the German-Swiss writer of almanacs Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826).

more from Ángel Gurría-Quintana at the FT here.

the boy behind kristallnacht


But just who was Herschel Grynszpan, the young man whose “short, strange life” Kirsch sets out to unlock with his handy tool kit of talents? In the author’s telling, he emerges as a contradictory character: small in stature, sickly, a mediocre student, yet at the same time a tough and cunning scrapper who, seeing all the abuses visited upon his people by the Nazis, began while still quite young to dream of exacting revenge upon the Germans. He did much of this dreaming not in Germany, where he was born into a family of poor Jewish émigrés from Poland, but in France, where his parents sent him at age 15 to escape the growing persecution at home. Of course, France itself was hardly free of anti-Semitism, especially in the year of Grynszpan’s arrival, 1936, when local racists were protesting the Popular Front government of Léon Blum, France’s first Jewish prime minister. The phrase “Better Hitler Than Blum” echoed through the streets of Paris. What prompted Grynszpan to strike out against the Germans, however, was not what he was witnessing in France, but a brutal action by Hitler’s government: the deportation of 12,000 Ostjuden (Eastern Jews), including Grynszpan’s parents, to a no-man’s land on the German-Polish border.

more from David Clay Large at the LA Times here.

The Cosmic Speed Limit

You might think the speed-of-light is the absolute limit that things can travel through the Universe, and you'd be right, “in theory”. But in practice, the limit's actually a little bit lower! Want to find out what it is, and why? (Yes, you do!!)

Ethan Siegel in Starts With A Bang!:

Hadron-600x533If you’ve been around the block once or twice, you know that the speed of light in a vacuum — 299,792,458 meters-per-second — is the absolute maximum speed that any form of energy in the Universe can travel at. In shorthand, this speed is known as c to physicists.

But you or I, no matter how hard we try, will never attain that speed. There’s a simple reason for this: we have mass. And for an object with mass, you can accelerate it all you want, but it would take an infinite amount of energy to reach c, and I’m sorry, folks, there’s only a finite amount of energy in the Universe.

But that doesn’t mean we settle for 90% of c, or 99%, or 99.9999%. We always strive for that extra fraction of speed, that extra bit of energy, that extra push ever-closer to the unattainable limit. You may be most familiar with our latest attempts to do this at CERN, where we’ve recently discovered the Higgs Boson.

By smashing two protons into one another, one moving at 299,792,447 meters per second (just 11 m/s shy of the speed of light) in one direction and the other moving at the same speed in the opposite direction, we can produce incredibly energetic particles, bounded only by the energy available via Einstein’s E=mc2. After the LHC’s upgrade is complete, that speed will increase to 299,792,455 m/s, which will make these the fastest protons ever created on Earth.

More here.

Facebook Home Propaganda Makes Selfishness Contagious

Evan Selinger in Wired:

The new ads for Facebook Home are propaganda clips. Transforming vice into virtue, they’re social engineering spectacles that use aesthetic tricks to disguise the profound ethical issues at stake. This isn’t an academic concern: Zuckerberg’s vision (as portrayed by the ads) is being widely embraced — if the very recent milestone of half a million installations is anything to go by.

Critics have already commented on how the ads exploit our weakness for escapist fantasy so we can feel good about avoiding conversation and losing touch with our physical surroundings. And they’vecalled out Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy: “Isn’t the whole point of Facebook supposed to be that it’s a place to keep up with, you know, family members? So much for all that high-minded talk about connecting people.”

However, the dismissive reviews miss an even deeper and more consequential point about the messages conveyed by the ads: that to be cool, worthy of admiration and emulation, we need to be egocentric. We need to care more about our own happiness than our responsibilities towards others.

Let’s examine the most egregious Facebook ad of them all: “Dinner” (in the video above).

More here.

Saturday Poem


All those times I was bored
out of my mind. Holding the log
while he sawed it. Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows
of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored)
weeded. Or sat in the back
of the car, or sat still in boats,
sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel
he drove, steered, paddled. It
wasn't even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details. Myopia. The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the greying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It's what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows. He pointed
such things out, and I would look
at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under
the nail. Why do I remember it as sunnier
all the time then, although it more often
rained, and more birdsong?
I could hardly wait to get
the hell out of there to
anywhere else. Perhaps though
boredom is happier. It is for dogs or
groundhogs. Now I wouldn't be bored.
Now I would know too much.
Now I would know.

by Margaret Atwood
from Morning in the Burned House
Houghton Mifflin, 1996

Is memory just a leaky reconstruction?

From The Guardian:

Memorysunsetrex460We are in the middle of a debate about the status of neuroscience. Against the deceptive allure of neuroimaging and reported sightings of “brain centres” for everything from sarcasm to religious experience, there are stern reassurances that, if we were ever to work out the scientific basis of consciousness, it would be too complicated for us to understand. Is neuroscience really changing the way we comprehend ourselves?

If tracing behaviour and experience to its neural underpinnings really offers a new understanding of humanity, aren't novelists bound to draw on it in revealing how their characters understand themselves? In one sense, neuro-explanations seem to challenge the mechanisms by which novels work. Neuroscientists warn us that we may have no freewill, no “self” at the helm; their work shows that our memories are leaky reconstructions and that even our visual perception of the world is a system of illusions. How do these messages change what we do, how we feel, how we decide to live? Fiction is a perfect medium for exploring these questions. A 2009 article by Marco Roth in n+1 magazine pointed out that neuroscience in fiction is often connected with atypical and pathological behaviour. For example, Gary Lambert's depression in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections gives a central role to his screwy neurotransmitters, but we don't get neuro-explanations for the (debatably) more sane members of the Lambert family. Richard Powers's The Echo Maker is more interested in the brain-damaged patient, Mark Schluter, than with the science-inflected self-descriptions of his neuropsychologist, Gerald Weber.

More here.