Saturday, October 15, 2011

Huffpo Lanza Template

I noticed that Dr. Lanza has a new article on The Huffington Post.  For a while I was following his articles because he writes on some topics that I find interesting.  Unfortunately, what he writes is mostly pseudo-science new age tripe but pointing out the errors in his tripe can be a lot of fun. I admit the satisfaction is sort of like setting the level of your chess program down near the bottom and then defeating it.  It can be fun the first couple of times but after a while it gets old. As a result I've only been scanning his articles lately. Looking only for outrageous errors such as proclaiming that Skinner was a proponent of the idea that animals are conscious.

However, as I skimmed through the latest article I had a feeling of deja-vu. I realized that all of Lanza's numerous articles on The Huffington Post followed a predictable pattern:
  • Ask an interesting question
  • Say some vague and unproven things about the interesting question that relate to Biocentrism
  • Make some tangential reference to the interesting question as a way to cite previous work by Dr. Lanza
  • Describe a personal emotional experience that relates to the interesting question
  • Reference books by Dr. Lanza on Biocentrism
Ask an interesting question. I will give Lanza credit he knows how to ask interesting questions. The usual form of the question is “Question? Experiments (new theory, etc.) suggest answer” Examples: Do You Only Live Once? Experiments Suggest Life Not One-Time Deal, Anything Beyond The Universe? New Theory Changes Our Destiny, Can Science Resurrect God? New Scenario Says ‘Yes’.

Say some vague and unproven things about the interesting question that relate to Biocentrism. Biocentrism is Dr. Lanza’s new theory that uses some very interesting evidence from theoretical physics to give scientific credence to traditional religious beliefs such as life after death.

Make some tangential reference to the interesting question as a way to cite previous work by Dr. Lanza. Lately he has taken to cite work he did with the B.F. Skinner. I find this interesting because I’ve studied a bit of psychology and Skinner is about as diametrically opposed to Lanza’s current views as its possible to get. Skinner was a hard core behaviorist. He believed that internal states such as emotions and consciousness were not appropriate subjects for scientific study. Dr. Lanza thinks the consciousness is what defines the universe, or more accurately the multiverse. I left a comment about that on Dr. Lanza's article but it was censored and deleted.

Describe a personal emotional experience that relates to the interesting question. Examples include taking a walk with his dog and seeing how the dog’s perception of the world differed from his, remembering his sister “Bubbles”, and his friend Dennis who died due to a tragic accident.

Reference books by Dr. Lanza on Biocentrism.  The end of each article usually includes a plug for one or more of Dr. Lanza's books on Biocentrism.

I think there is something more serious going on here than just another mediocre new age writer pretending to be profound. Dr. Lanza's posts and the censorship of legitimate criticism of them are part of a disturbing trend at The Huffington Post.  New age and alternative medicine advocates such as Lanza,  Gupta, and Dana Ullman are given great exposure with virtually no counter views from respected scientists.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why Your Brain is NOT a Quantum Computer

Ervin Laszlo has written a number of articles declaring that human brains are quantum computers. As a computer scientist who is also interested in psychology I found the topic to be very interesting. However, as I read the articles I became frustrated with the lack of detail and the way they seemed to put forth provocative ideas with no sound evidence or reasoning behind them. They were still useful to me, sometimes we can learn as much from a poorly thought out idea as a good one. Prior to reading the article I had no idea what a quantum computer was. Unfortunately, I didn’t gain much insight on that from the articles but I did do some research to better understand them. I would like to describe what I found here and describe why I strongly believe your brain is not a quantum computer.

The first important point is that everything I or anyone is about to say about quantum computers is all about the idea of a quantum computer. To date there are no quantum computers and there are many complex unsolved problems (indeed they may be unsolvable problems) that need to be addressed before such computers exist.

The most interesting thing I found on researching quantum computers is that in many ways they aren’t all that different from traditional computers. A traditional computer consists of memory and a Central Processing Unit (CPU) that manipulates the memory. The CPU does things like basic math and moving information from one place to another. The memory is represented as electrical impulses (bits) that can be either on or off, 0 or 1. The essential difference between a traditional computer and a quantum computer is that a quantum computer would take advantage of the very mysterious phenomenon of quantum entanglement. The significance of entanglement is that it offers a model where particles can be described as being in multiple states at the same time. An entangled bit (known as a qubit) can be in the state of on and off at the same time. Qubits allow highly parallel search of a problem space. Rather than investigating each solution one at a time, using a qubit you can test many different alternatives all at the same time.

While qubits and quantum computers offer exciting possibilities to solve certain very complex problems from a computer science standpoint they aren’t that revolutionary. In fact as I looked on the Internet I found some incorrect statements about how Qubits differ from traditional bits. JR Minkel at Scientific American stated in a video “even today’s fastest computers ultimately do things one at a time”. This is absolutely and patently false. Supercomputers in fact work precisely because they do many computations at the same time. In fact its even wrong when considering personal computers. If you have a desktop computer it most likely has at least two CPU’s. That’s one of the things that enables you to have multiple applications up and running at the same time. For supercomputers this is taken to the extreme, they have hundreds or more CPU’s that work in parallel. The difference is that those computers still work with traditional bits that can be either 0 OR 1. A quantum computer working with qubits that can represent both values at the same time would be able to be much more massively parallel than even our fastest supercomputers.

The thing about parallel computing is that it sounds wonderful in principle but its a bit more complicated in practice. Adding 100 CPUs does not at all guarantee that you will cut the time required to solve a problem by 100. There is effort to write a special program that can exploit the benefits of parallelism, essentially divide a big problem into a bunch of smaller problems, solve the smaller problems than combine those solutions into one big solution. Not all problems lend themselves to such a divide and conquer approach. In fact no computer scientist that I came across is talking about quantum computers as a significant step toward artificial intelligence or better understanding the human mind. The emphasis is on specific mathematical problems such as factoring integers which could be useful in code breaking.

So with that background on quantum computers we can address the question: “is there any evidence at all that our brain functions as a quantum computer?” The answer to that is an emphatic no. We do have a model for how a computer can mimic our brain. That model is neural networks, mathematical representations that simulate the biochemical neurons in our brains. That model has proven extremely powerful, to the point where we can use computer neural networks to replicate the pattern matching capabilities, the ability to recognize edges, shapes, even faces that our brains do. To date there is absolutely zero evidence that the neurons in our brain have any ability to communicate at the quantum level. In fact there is no evidence that any biological system has the capability to interact at the quantum level. This is not surprising, Entanglement is a phenomenon that is extremely difficult to measure in the laboratory. It requires setting up complex highly sensitive and sophisticated electronic devises such as beam splitters and the entangled states are very susceptible to being disentangled by such measurements. That is the whole point of quantum entanglement, that such states represent multiple possible probability functions before being measured but the probability waves collapse into one real value after they are measured. The idea that a biological capability to detect such entanglements could somehow evolve seems highly improbable.

I would like to close with a more general discussion of why I think its important to rigorously examine such claims as “your brain is a quantum computer”. As I and others with a scientific background commented on Dr. Laszlo’s articles we were often maligned as people with closed minds and no imagination. I think its important to distinguish between having an open mind and an uncritical mind. I believe that I’m very open to all sorts of possibilities. I do think that the potential philosophical implications of quantum physics and string theory for example may be mind blowing and are worth serious investigation. However, there is a difference between serious investigation and arbitrary speculation. Many authors on the Huffington Post these days love to attach the word quantum to whatever their pet theory is. Quantum consciousness, quantum alternative realities, quantum brains,... These authors take advantage of the fact that quantum theory is difficult to understand to give any pet theory the appearance of scientific validity. This is pseudo-science at its worst. It does nothing to educate people on the very interesting topics of quantum theory nor on their potentially very interesting philosophical implications.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Bait Car

I was on a jury a few months ago on an interesting case. I think it demonstrates a disturbing trend: the intersection between our justice system and the corporate world.

At first the case seemed open and shut. The defendant stole a high tech bait car that was set up with cameras and a “kill switch” that allowed the police to shut down the car (turn off the engine, lock it) at any time. However, as the case unfolded there were some disturbing facts. The car was parked on a busy street and left open with the key in it.

I live in San Francisco and I don’t know anyone who leaves their keys in their car, ever, no matter where they live even on quiet streets, let alone on a well traveled street. The owner of the car was not the SFPD but “KKI Productions”. At first when I heard this I assumed it was a car company or maybe one of those companies that rent cars to people in the city like City CarShare. However, as the case unfolded and I saw the several high tech hand held cameras that documented the crime it was obvious what was going on -- this was a reality TV show that was inciting crimes so they could film them.

Its funny because the last thing I wanted to do was serve on a jury this holiday week and when the DA screened jurors by asking “do you have a problem with pro-active police work” the first thing that occurred to me was “now is your chance, just say yes” but there was also a voice that said I should do the right thing, civic duty, blah, blah, blah.... At the time I never imagined that this case would be as massively “pro-active” as it turned out to be.

Unfortunately, the defendant in this case decided to be his own lawyer. When I first heard that I had visions of various Law and Order episodes where the articulate jail-house lawyer manages to give a great defense and even gives Jack McCoy a run for his money a few times. That didn’t turn out to be the case. The guy’s defense was rambling incoherent and if anything increased my belief that he was guilty. The judge made it clear in his instructions that we couldn’t consider entrapment as a defense and based on his instructions and the evidence we had no choice but to find him guilty. When we did the forewoman of the jury made it clear that some of us had major issues with the entrapment issues.

To his credit the DA attorney met with us afterwards and discussed some of the issues. He said that he realized a San Francisco jury might have issues with this kind of case. He also dispelled the picture I had of the defendant as some innocent homeless guy who wasn’t really a criminal. The guy had several previous felony convictions. The DA attorney also made a pretty convincing case saying they had very solid statistics that when they did these kind of operations car thefts go down dramatically because the word gets out about possible stings.

I was impressed with his attempts to convince us but I’m still left with a bad feeling about the ever growing intersection between the for profit section and the justice system. First it was for profit prisons now its Bait Cars who knows what’s next.