Category Archives: Soapbox

Feeling extraordinarily at ease

At the beginning of September, I assumed significant new responsibilities and have had to rethink some of my priorities, including the weekly posting of this blog.  My decision to continue writing posts was influenced by a book I was reading at the time by Natalia Ginzburg.  In ‘Little Virtues’ she talks about her vocation as a writer and how when she sits down to write she feels extraordinarily at ease.  She worries about being misunderstood and claims to know nothing about the value of her writing.  These comments are made early in the book and much latter she writes ‘that at the  moment someone is writing he is miraculously driven to forget the immediate circumstances  of his own life.’  I can confirm that this is sometimes true for me and that writing can transport me away from the pressures of everyday life and, more recently, the stresses associated with my new role in the university.  So, I intend to continue to carve out time to write weekly posts even though, like Ginzburg, I am dubious about their value to others.

Source:

Natalia Ginzburg, Little Virtues, London: Daunt Books, 2015.

Fake facts & untrustworthy predictions

I need to confess to writing a misleading post some months ago entitled ‘In Einstein’s footprints?‘ on February 27th 2019, in which I promoted our 4th workshop on the ‘Validation of Computational Mechanics Models‘ that we held last month at Guild Hall of Carpenters [Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten] in Zurich.  I implied that speakers at the workshop would be stepping in Einstein’s footprints when they presented their research at the workshop, because Einstein presented a paper at the same venue in 1910.  However, as our host in Zurich revealed in his introductory remarks , the Guild Hall was gutted by fire in 2007 and so we were meeting in a fake, or replica, which was so good that most of us had not realised.  This was quite appropriate because a theme of the workshop was enhancing the credibility of computer models that are used to replicate the real-world.  We discussed the issues surrounding the trustworthiness of models in a wide range of fields including aerospace engineering, biomechanics, nuclear power and toxicology.  Many of the presentations are available on the website of the EU project MOTIVATE which organised and sponsored the workshop as part of its dissemination programme.  While we did not solve any problems, we did broaden people’s understanding of the issues associated with trustworthiness of predictions and identified the need to develop common approaches to support regulatory decisions across a range of industrial sectors – that’s probably the theme for our 5th workshop!

The MOTIVATE project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 754660 and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation under contract number 17.00064.

The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

Image: https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/Zunfthaus-Zur-Zimmerleuten-Wiederaufbauprojekt-steht/story/30815219

 

Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.

 

When will you be replaced by a computer?

I have written before about extending our minds by using external computing power in our mobile phones [see ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 12th, 2016; and ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on March 18th, 2015]; but, how about replacing our brain with a computer?  That’s the potential of artificial intelligence (AI); not literally replacing our brain, but at least taking over jobs that are traditionally believed to require our brain-power.  For instance, in a recent test, an AI lawyer found 95% of the loopholes in a non-disclosure agreement in 22 seconds while a group of human lawyers found only 88% in 90 minutes, according to Philip Delves Broughton in the FT last weekend.

If this sounds scary, then consider for a moment the computing power involved.  Lots of researchers are interested in simulating the brain and it has been estimated that the computing power required is around hundred peta FLOPS (FLoating point Operations Per Second), which conveniently, is equivalent to the world’s most powerful computers.  At the time of writing the world’s most powerful computer was ‘Summit‘ at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is capable of 200 petaFLOPS.  However, simulating the brain is not the same as reproducing its intelligence; and petaFLOPS are not a good measure of intelligence because while ‘Summit’ can multiply many strings of numbers together per second, it would take you and me many minutes to multiply two strings of numbers together giving us a rating of one hundredth of a FLOP or less.

So, raw computing power does not appear to equate to intelligence, instead intelligence seems to be related to our ability to network our neurons together in massive assemblies that flicker across our brain interacting with other assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. We have about 100 billion neurons compared with the ‘Summit’ computer’s 9,216 CPUs (Central Processing Unit) and 27,648 GPUs (Graphic Processing Units); so, it seems unlikely that it will be able to come close to our ability to be creative or to handle unpredictable situations even accounting for the multiple cores in the CPUs.  In addition, it requires a power input of 13MW or a couple of very large wind turbines, compared to 80W for the base metabolic rate of a human of which the brain accounts for about 20%; so, its operating costs render it an uneconomic substitute for the human brain in activities that require intelligence.  Hence, while computers and robots are taking over many types of jobs, it seems likely that a core group of jobs involving creativity, unpredictability and emotional intelligence will remain for humans for the foreseeable future.

Sources:

Max Tegmark, Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, 2018.

Philip Delves Broughton, Doom looms over the valley, FT Weekend, 16 November/17 November 2019.

Engelfriet, Arnoud, Creating an Artificial Intelligence for NDA Evaluation (September 22, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3039353 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3039353

See also NDA Lynn at https://www.ndalynn.com/