Untouched by Human Brains

In one science fiction story, a spaceship sets out from Earth on a long journey to a distant planet. Due to the length of the trip, many generations of passengers are born and die in transit. When they finally arrive at their destination, the descendants of those early pioneers find on the alien world … their cousins from Earth already there, in long-established colonies. These others settlers had left centuries later, but had access to much faster space travel, which allowed them to make the journey in much less time, even considering the massive head-start.

This is how I think of the quiet revolution Google ignited with its AlphaZero learning algorithm, which uses a neural network with general reinforcement learning. On December 6, 2017, it was declared that “Chess changed forever” when it was announced that AlphaZero had crushed the program called Stockfish, the 2017 Chess.com Computer Chess Champion:

“the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use a type of ‘machine learning,’ specifically reinforcement learning. Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not ‘taught’ the game in the traditional sense. That means no opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.”

Humans have been trying to improve Chess strategy for about 1,500 years, and computer programs have been refined for decades. Starting with ZERO knowledge of chess, besides the rules, AlphaZero became the most power chess-playing entity in history after training against itself for… 4 hours!

AlphaZero completely dispensed with all of the usual information chess algorithms usually rely on. These include simple human heuristics (e.g. “a bishop is worth three pawns” or “try to develop your pieces”), databases of openings or endgames, or even move lists from previous games. “Essentially, AlphaZero acquired 1,400 years of human chess knowledge—and then some—on its own, and in a ludicrously short amount of time.”  Unlike with previous programs, this is not a case of methodically tweaking and optimizing a specialized algorithm until it outperformed older versions of itself. Instead, this is a new kind of flexible artificial intelligence that has the potential to be put to use on a huge array of problems is science, healthcare, or finance.

For a brief primer of how neural networks work, since this excellent video:

Since it is untainted by puny human minds, AlphaZero’s “alien” style can be shocking at times:

What’s also remarkable, though, Hassabis explained, is that it sometimes makes seemingly crazy sacrifices, like offering up a bishop and queen to exploit a positional advantage that led to victory. Such sacrifices of high-value pieces are normally rare. In another case the program moved its queen to the corner of the board, a very bizarre trick with a surprising positional value. “It’s like chess from another dimension,” Hassabis said.

Hassabis speculates that because Alpha Zero teaches itself, it benefits from not following the usual approach of assigning value to pieces and trying to minimize losses. “Maybe our conception of chess has been too limited,” he said.

On the one hand, AlphaZero took an “arguably more human-like approach” , since it could only process about 80,000 positions per second, compared with 70 Million for Stockfish. However, since there are no identifiable “rules” AlphaZero is playing by, we risk the “Black-boxification” of our tools, in which we know that something works, but have no access to the internal workings.

One trend I did notice in some of the games released by Google, was that AlphaZero would often sacrifice material to obtain positional advantages over Stockfish. Over and over, Stockfish’s pieces would get blocked in and almost completely negated, while AlphaZero’s pieces would command a huge range of potential moves while coordinating with each other. Simply counting up the “point value” of the pieces remaining on the board is easy and tempting for human players, but perhaps AlphaZero has “discovered” that a blocked-in bishop might as well not be there, while a “good” knight can turn the tide of the game.

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In a similar way, TensorTip is a medical sensor that tries to dispense with human programming. Using non-invasive monitoring of the temporarily color distribution of the tissue, it tries to measure “…a wide range of physiological and bio-parameters such as blood glucose, hemoglobin and hematocrit, blood PH, oxygen saturation SpO2, blood carbon dioxide, blood pressure, peripheral pulse and more…” based on a huge database of previously accumulated data.

CNOGA Medical Appointed ARTECH To Distribute Their Non-invasive Medical Devices In Italy

As described by the FDA filing:

The Tensor Tip is based on real time color image sensor, real time photographing the fingertip tissue. A color image sensor of the type used in the Tensor Tip enables a wide range of information in the spectral, resolution, dynamic range and time domains enabling further investigation of the blood chromatic changes as a function body physiology. The concept behind this investigation reflects the idea that a change in human physiology condition would temporarily change the blood pigmentation.

There is no small degree of irony in the fact some recent trends, like evidence-based medicine, that have tried to “optimize decision-making by emphasizing the use of evidence from well-designed and well-conducted research” – instead of age-old “professional opinion” or “expert intuition” – might themselves be superseded by black-box neural networks like AlphaZero or Watson. So the debate will continue about how much we really need to understand about what is going on under the hood of our best decision-making tools.




Mario’s Odyssey

I got the chance to play a few minutes of Super Mario Odyssey, and it definitely lived up to the critical acclaim: Capture a.JPG

In this latest installment of the Mario franchise, our Plucky Plumber has with a large array of new abilities, some hat-related, and finds himself set in a huge open world to explore.

By far, the most satisfying  power is the take control of enemies and use their powers to reach previously unreachable areas.

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What makes the game so fun, in my opinion, is that it makes the player feel powerful, but that these powers must be mastered in order to use them to maximal effect. This effort get rewarded in the game with secret items. Also, the player directs the order and method Mario uses to collect the items. As Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, work is satisfying when the following elements are present

Autonomy: Our desire to be self directed.

Mastery: The urge to get better skills.

Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

Super Mario can be enjoyed by young children, as well as adults who will practice a certain jump for hours just to collect the last few Power Moons. Extra effort is rewarded with moments of joy:

“Odyssey seeks to strike a balance between structured challenges and open-ended play. It achieves that balance with remarkable consistency. Each level is a toy-filled sandbox, loaded with springs, levers, and buttons for you to bounce, pull, and press. The game feels so fundamentally good to play that it’s easy to spend an hour just doing stuff with no clear goal. Of course, each spring, lever, and button is usually a part of one or more carefully laid-out challenges. I can be messing around one minute, then find myself amazed at how the game anticipated and rewarded me for what initially seemed like aimless experimentation.”

This fight make Mario almost like the monster in a horror movie when you think about it…

It is encouraging the see such a fresh and exciting addition to the Mario cannon.

Speedrunning Evolution

I came across an interesting example of evolution that illustrates some of its important features: video game speedrunning. Instead of going for leisurely enjoyment, players frantically attempt to complete video games in the fastest possible time, gleefully taking advantage of glitches and quirks, some pretty mindblowing, while others take a robot to pull off. Finding and exploiting glitches is considered part of the “optimization,” rather than cheating, as noted:

Many viewers have an expectation that speedruns clear the game using only the tools intentionally given by the developers. This is an explicit constraint on the run brought on by an internal perception of the game. This by itself is not inherently wrong or incorrect, but it is based on an attachment to the game. Speedruns in the unconstrained case are separated from this in that the game itself is no longer regarded as a game, but is instead the medium. The “game” then becomes the optimization problem, while the medium is just a set of implicit constraints. In this sense, there is no such thing as a glitch, provided that nothing external to the medium impacts it.

This YouTube channel traces the history of a number of games, including classics like Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda. You can also watch attempts on Twitch or see speedrunning for charity World record strategies evolve much like living organisms:

  • Optimization via heredity and mutation. That is, a player can start with a good strategy and refine it with changes.
  • Tons of trial and error.
  • Modularity. A newly discovered approach or glitch can often be used in sequence with previously known techniques.
  • Progress can come in tiny improvements (tweaks) or major revolutions (jumps). As a result, the world record can remain stable for years, then be broken successively several times in one week. This is reminiscent of punctuated equilibrium.
  • Glitches pierce the surface layer of reality to reveal the actual nuts-and-bolts of the games. Some evolutionary adaptations, like photosynthesis and magnetoreception, rely on the quantum-mechanical nature of our Universe.






Dispatches from Tru[mp/deau] Country

I love visiting new cities, and seeing how other people solve problems in different ways. I also like tracing the “path dependence” of history, in which choices and events of the past continue to resonate into the present. During this trip, I learned that investigating even a tiny anomaly can sometimes lead to a major discovery, and also that some cities can remain prosperous by virtue of constant reinvention.

Way Up

Places along the way:

  • St. Augustine FL
    • Founded in 1565. The fortress of Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish to protect their monopoly of natural resource plundering from Pirates and the British.


  • Charleston SC
    • Fort Sumter, which is on a island in the harbor, was the flashpoint of initial hostilities in the Civil War.
  • Richmond VA
    • Capital of the Confederacy and current home of the American Civil War Museum at the site of the historic Tredegar Iron Works.
  • Fredericksburg VA
    • Site of important battle that showed that the Civil War was not going to be as short as many people expected.
  • Instead of claiming that “it wasn’t about slavery,” Southern apologists are now trying the opposite approach: OF COURSE if was about slavery, but you guys were cool with buying all our cotton and tobacco until one day you decided to imperiously and sanctimoniously crash our economy and way of life. As the reasoning goes, it was easy for Northern abolitionists to opine about the immorality of slavery; they were not totally dependent on the “peculiar institution”. The author of “all men are created equal [some exceptions may apply]” Thomas Jefferson said, “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” I call this the “Captain Renault – I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” defense. For example, the Constitution (and many of its signatories) condoned slavery, and a litany of compromises were found to keep the agrarian and industrial halves of the country duct-taped together. Even Lincoln thought that Freedmen should not be allowed to vote, and only signed the Emancipation Proclamation in a cynical attempt to boost flagging support for the war. We reject this argument, because the fact that slavery was tolerated, either tacitly or explicitly, does not make it hypocritical to oppose it later.
  • Binghamton
    • SUNY Binghamton is doing well as the result of State Funding for shiny new Engineering and Biotech Research buildings on Campus, as well as a Technology Incubator downtown. However, the city overall is still feeling the effects of factory closures.
  • Howe’s Cavern
    • Pulling on a tiny thread can lead to major discoveries. Howe found these caverns when he was curious about why his Cows stood by a particular rock formation on hot days. The cool air from underground was the reason.


To Toronto

  • Corning Glass Museum
    • R&D by the Corning Glass Company has enabled it to transition from car headlights to iPhone screens. Its Gorilla Glass is light, thin, and highly scratch-resistant. The Main Street of the city of Corning reflects the commercial success that comes with continual innovation.
  • Buffalo NY
    • Very impressive Art Deco city hall

  • Niagara Falls (Canada)
    • A Steampunk homage to the hydropower generated at the falls
  • Toronto Ontario. I noticed some subtle differences in Canada, when compared with the USA:
    • Canadians Love Coffee: There was a Tim Hortons, 2nd Cup, and Aroma all in same food court
    • Law Firm Radio Commercial: “Resolve Amicably”
    • Corn Syrup is “Liquid Sugar” (Lack of Big Sugar Lobby to outlaw this)
    • Temperature adjustment for Gasoline
    • Bus: “Sorry, out of Service”
    • Bus-Only highway lanes
    • “Hydro-Company” instead of “Power Company”
    • There are no more pennies, so if you pay cash, your charge is rounded to the nearest nickel. (Thus, you should wait to see if it will be rounded up or rounded down before you decide to use cash or a credit card)

I was lucky enough to be in Toronto for Canada’s Sesquicentennial, which apparently is celebrated with a giant rubber duck.

The controversial giant rubber duck in Toronto Harbour on Monday. (STAN BEHAL/Postmedia Network)

Way Down

  • Geography is Destiny(?)
  • Pittsburgh PA
    • Built on the location of Fort Pitt, at the river confluence. With water access to the Ohio/Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic network, as well as newly built railroad, steel manufacturing (and theater) took off. Now, it has transitioned to a technology center.
  • West Virginia
    • Very mountainous, for a very particular reason. The major proponents of secession were wealthy planters in Virginia. WV was formed because the Mountaineers, who lived on land not suitable for cultivation, wanted to stay with the Union. Today, this makes the state more reliant on the coal industry.
  • Charlotte NC
    • Build on an early Colonial “Great Wagon Road“, it is now a Financial Hub with many Glass Skyscrapers
  • Savannah GA
    • The settlement was planned with Squares as “Scaffold” for public goods.

“Oglethorpe’s plan for settlement of the new colony had been in the works since 1730, three years before the founding of Savannah. The multifaceted plan sought to achieve several goals through interrelated policy and design elements, including the spacing of towns, the layout of towns and eventually their surrounding counties, equitable allocation of land, and limits to growth to preserve a sustainable agrarian economy”

On this trip, I heard people in Toronto praise their single-payer healthcare system, and radio hosts in Georgia demanding the repeal of Obamacare. Canadians wondered if their celebrity Prime Minister was receiving just a bit too much fawning on a overseas trip to Ireland, while North Carolinians beamed with pride for a President who defended “Western Values” in Warsaw. In conclusion, if you live in a Whole Foods County or a Cracker Barrel County, consider a trip to the other. City-dwellers can learn a lot by driving out on the open road and turning on talk-radio.

Press Release

Autocorrect for your DNA
Information Theory and the Genetic Code

New research at NSU has revealed the information content associated with each letter of DNA. This work may improve our understanding of how the genetic code can resist the effects of mutations that may cause cancer or inherited diseases. The same genetic code is used by almost all living organisms to translate three-letter “words,” or codons, of DNA into amino acids, which are strung together to form proteins. Assistant Professor Louis Nemzer, a biophysicist at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, used methods from the field of information theory to calculate the “Shannon entropy” of each letter of DNA, depending on the type of base (A, T, G, or C) and its position in the codon. Although many people have never heard of Claude Shannon, his pioneering work at Bell Labs on measuring the maximum amount of information contained in messages is still crucial today for digital communication technologies, including text messaging, WiFi, and mobile data transmission. So why did Shannon choose to call his measure of information “entropy,” a word more associated with the physics of an ideal gas? “There are very close connections between thermodynamics and information theory” said Dr. Nemzer, “entropy in physics really just measures how much information about a system you are missing.” By using the equations originally developed for thermodynamics and adapted by information theory, he calculated how “determinative” each letter, or nucleotide, is for the properties of the amino acid it codes for. Changing the properties of even a single amino acid too much may cause the entire protein it is in to lose its ability to function, with potentially negative health outcomes. Fortunately, the genetic code has a kind of built-in “autocorrect” feature that causes most single-letter mutations to produce the same, or a chemically similar, amino acid to the original. This helps make the genetic code robust more to error. The new research, just published in a pair of related papers in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and BioSystems, quantifies how important each letter is to the final properties of the amino acid. It was also found that the genetic code takes advantage of the fact that not all mutations are equally likely. The mutations in DNA that would cause the most severe changes to proteins are less frequent, and more easily repaired. Dr. Nemzer hopes to use the knowledge gained from this research to improve our understanding of the risk factors for cancer and genetic disorders, as well as trace the evolution of different genes between species.

Louis R. Nemzer. Shannon information entropy in the canonical genetic code.
Journal of Theoretical Biology 415 158–170 (2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2016.12.010

Louis R. Nemzer. A binary representation of the genetic code.
BioSystems 155 10–19 (2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.biosystems.2017.03.001

Art Deco Games

After a long hiatus, I’ve been getting back into the Civilization Series. It only took me a few rounds of Civ 5 to fall in love with the updated gameplay, as well as the Art Deco theme.

The futurism and techno-optimism fit perfectly with the message of the game.

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Here is the Rockefeller Center loading-page tribute. The central themes are progress, human ingenuity, and lots of mechanically inspired straight lines. Prometheus presides over the ice-skating rink as the hero, rather than heretic.

Also published by 2K Games is BioShock . The use of Art Deco in the underwater city of Rapture was somewhat more Ayn-Randian and foreboding.

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