Links of the week

Morning mist rolling through beech forest in Monte Amiata, Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, Italy.

Conscious exotica: From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own? – Aeon
A philosophical attempt to map minds other than human, with implications to what it means to be conscious. Is consciousness an intrinsic, inscrutable subjective phenomenon or a fact of matter that can be known? Read on.

Crash Space – Scott Bakker
What would happen if we engineered our brains to be able to tweak our personality and emotional responses as we experience life? What would life look like? Scott Bakker gives us a glimpse in this short story.

AlphaGo, in context – Andrej Karpathy
A short, but comprehensive explanation of why the recent AlphaGo victories do not represent a big breakthrough in artificial intelligence, and how real-world problems differ, from an algorithmic point of view, from the game of Go.

Multiply or Add? – Scott Young
In many business and personal projects, factors multiply, meaning that the performance you get is heavily influenced by the performance of weakest factor. In some other cases, e.g., learning a language, factors add. The strategy to take in developing factors/skills depends by which context, add or multiply, you’re in. For more insights, read the original article.

Human Resources Isn’t About Humans – BackChannel
Often, HR is not there to help us or solve people’s problems, it is just another corporate division with its own strict rules. But it can be changed for the better. Read on.

Living Together: Mind and Machine Intelligence


Neil Lawrence wrote a nifty paper on the current difference between human and machine intelligence titled Living Together: Mind and Machine Intelligence. The paper initially appeared in his blog,, on Sunday, but was then removed. It can now be found on arXiv.

The paper comes up with a quantitive metric to use as a lens to understand the differences between the human mind and pervasive machine intelligence. The embodiment factor is defined as the ratio between the computational power and the communication bandwidth. If we take the computational power of the brain as the estimate of what it would take to simulate it, we are talking of the order of exaflops. However, human communication is limited by the speed at which we can talk, read or listen, and can be estimated at around 100 bits per second. The human embodiment factor is therefore around 10^16. The situation is almost reversed for machines, a current computational power of approximately 10 gigaflops is matched to a bandwidth of one gigabit per second, yielding an embodiment factor of 10.

Neil then argues that the human mind is locked in, and needs accurate models of the world and its actors in order to best utilize the little information it can ingest and spit out. From this need, all sorts of theories of mind emerge that allow us to understand each other even without communication. Furthermore, it seems that humans operate via two systems, one and two, the fast and the slow, the quick unconscious and the deliberate self, the it and the I. System one is the reflexive, basic, biased process that allows us to survive and take rapid life-saving, but not only, decisions. System two creates a sense of self to explain its own actions and interpret those of others.

Machines do not need such sophisticated mind models as they can directly and fully share their inner states. Therefore, they operate in a very different way than us humans, which makes them quite alien. Neil argues that the current algorithms that recommend us what to buy, what to click, what to read and so on, operate on a level which he calls System Zero, in the sense that it boycotts and influences the human System One, exploiting its basic needs and biases, in order to achieve its own goal: to give us “what we want, but not what we aspire to.” This is creating undesirable consequences, like the polarization of information that led to the Fake News phenomenon, which might have had a significant impact on the last US elections.

What can we do? Neil offers us three lines of action:

  1. “Encourage a wider societal understanding of how closely our privacy is interconnected with our personal freedom.”
  2. “Develop a much better understanding of our own cognitive biases and characterise our own intelligence better.”
  3. “Develop a sentient aspect to our machine intelligences which allows them to explain actions and justify decision making.”

I really encourage you to read the paper to get a more in-depth understanding of these definitions, issues and recommendations.

Links of the week

Arches onto high cliff over the Mediterranean. Portovenere, Italy.

Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day – Study Hacks
How to increase your productivity by taking control of your time via time blocking.

Chaos, Ignorance and Newton’s Great Puzzle – Scott Young
Luck, chaos or ignorance? Understanding this mixture for your projects may help to better allocate resources.

Garry Kasparov on AI, Chess, and the Future of Creativity – Mercatus Center
A very interesting conversation with Garry Kasparov on chess, AI, Russian politics, education and creativity.

If everything is measured, can we still see one another as equals? – Justice Everywhere
The dangers of measuring everything and ranking ourselves on different scales, neglecting those human skills and experiences that cannot and should not quantified.

Links of the week

Close-up of a gall on oak leaf.Close-up of a gall on oak leaf.

The Attention Paradox: Winning By Slowing Down – Unlimited
Time and attention are limited resources that most cognitive workers waste in unnecessary behaviour. Some useful advice on how to think about cognitive resources and plan your working day accordingly.

The Problem of Happiness – Scott Young
Have we evolved to be unhappy? What are the pros and cons of some of the proposed solutions to be happier? Read this concise summary to know more.

The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI – MIT Technology Review
Machine learning and, in particular deep learning, are notoriously inscrutable. This may be an issue in deploying them to mission critical applications, such as health care and military. But are humans much more transparent? Or are they just capable of providing ad-hoc a-posteriori explanations?

Academia to Data Science – Airbnb
Some insights on how to shift from academia to industry from the perspective of Airbnb.

Scaling Knowledge at Airbnb – Airbnb
How does a company effectively disseminate new knowledge across their teams. Airbnb proposes and open-sources the Knowledge Repository to facilitate this process across their data teams.


Links of the week

Balda_20040911_OasiSantAlessio_22Couple of Flamingos at the Oasi Sant’Alessio Natural Reserve, Pavia, Italy.

The Black Magic of Deep Learning – Tips and Tricks for the practitioner – EnVision
A host of tips for properly training deep neural networks.

Prophet: forecasting at scale – Facebook research
Facebook research releases the open-source forecasting Python and R package Prophet. Maybe an ambitious name, but worth trying it out.

Inside Facebook’s AI machine – Backchannel
A peek inside Facebook Applied Machine Learning division, where Machine Learning is democratized to be used by all engineers in no time.

The Architects Of Time – Unlimited
Philosopher A.C. Grayling ponders the ultimate question: what is time? And offers this advice: it is never too late to stop wasting it.

God, Chance & Necessity by Keith Ward

god_chance_necessity_keith_wardGod, Chance and Necessity is a book I wish I had read in my early twenties, at the same time when I was immersing myself in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and popular scientific accounts of cosmological theories, such as Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe.

Keith Ward argues against the materialism advocated by the aforementioned books, but mostly focuses his response to Dawkins’s books and to Peter Atkins’s Creation Revisited.

Ward defines materialism as saying “that the only things that exist are material things in space. There is no purpose or meaning in the universe. Scientific principles are the only proper forms of explanation.” Dawkins and Atkins are firm believers in materialism, which leads them to state that God is superfluous. I was also a strongly believer in materialism, so much so that it brought me to have strong arguments against my mum’s spiritual perspective.

Conversely, the theistic hypothesis is “the idea of just one basis of all possible finite beings, which originates all other realities for good reasons, and realises the highest compossible set of values in itself.”

The great, and for me surprising, qualities of God, Chance & Necessity, is that it firstly elucidates that materialism is not a scientific theory, but a metaphysical hypothesis, and therefore should be treated as such and compared to other metaphysical hypotheses. Secondly, that the current understanding of cosmology and of the evolution of complex, and conscious, life leaves much room for metaphysical explanations of why things turned out as they are. Thirdly, that the pure materialistic hypothesis yields a very low probability for the current state of affairs on this universe. Consequently, Ward argues that we should consider the theistic hypothesis as a better one, since it makes the emergence of conscious life almost a necessity.

Personally, I think that while science is the best tool we have to investigate and understand how things work, it will never gives a satisfactory account of why things exist and work in the way they do. Furthermore, I do not agree with who says that there is no point in trying to find answers to “why” questions, since we would never be able to confirm or refute them. As human beings, we constantly ask ourselves why things happen, and constantly interpret in a teleological way events and actions, especially of fellow humans. It is not possible to altogether avoid forming a metaphysical hypothesis of why the universe exists and why it developed conscious intelligence that asks these sorts of questions.

God, Chance & Necessity, gave me a more sophisticated framework to discuss and analyse answers to these questions, and I’m now more inclined to accept the theistic hypothesis as a valid one, and perhaps a very good one.

As I normally do, I will wear the theistic hypothesis for some time, testing it against my other beliefs, and like some piece of clothing, I will see whether it fits well or must be discarded in favour of something better. What this could be, I have now not the slightest clue.

Apology, Symposium and Phaedo by Plato


Apology, Symposium and Phaedo are three dialogues by Plato that I recently read.

Apology is Socrates self-defense against the allegations of impiety and corruption. His discourse concerns the true nature of knowledge and of righteous behaviour. In contrast to many of his accusers, who are unaware of their ignorance, and pursue earthly riches and fame, Socrates had embarked on discovering true knowledge. Incessantly questioning the superficial knowledge of many people, and believing that the only knowledge worth pursuing is about the soul and the true nature of things, he attracted many enemies that eventually brought him to court.

Symposium describes a convivial dinner where several philosophers, among which Socrates, each in turn present an eulogy for Eros, the god of love. Thus, different views on what is the true nature of love are expressed, ending in the contraposition of Socrates’ highly idealistic stance and Alcibiades’s passionate account of his love for the old master.

Phaedo recounts Socrates’s last day, in company of his beloved disciples, when he discusses with them his ideas about the immortality of the soul. A philosopher’s lifelong endeavour is to elevate the soul from the corrupted, and corrupting, body. His disciples need not to mourn his imminent death, because he will finally reach that realm and that perfection that he had strived for his entire life.

Despite being two and a half millennia old, these philosophical discourse still retain their vividness and incredible relevance today. Definitely worth reading.