Science and Technology links (December 8th, 2017)

  1. Facebook’s leading artificial-intelligence researcher Yan Lecun wrote:

    In the history of science and technology, the engineering artifacts have almost always preceded the theoretical understanding: the lens and the telescope preceded optics theory, the steam engine preceded thermodynamics, the airplane preceded flight aerodynamics, radio and data communication preceded information theory, the computer preceded computer science.

  2. In total, Sony has sold 2 million PSVR units, its virtual-reality headsets. I find the number impressive. How many people will get one for Christmas? Sadly the game line-up is unimpressive, but maybe others will see it otherwise.
  3. There are faculty positions open only to female applicants in Germany.
  4. A team from Google (Alphabet/DeepMind) has created a computer system (AlphaZero) that can learn games like Go and Chess in a few hours, based only on the rules, and then beat not only human players, but the very best software systems. In effect, they have made existing Chess and Go software obsolete. What is more, AlphaZero plays Chess in a remarkable new way:

    Imagine this: you tell a computer system how the pieces move — nothing more. Then you tell it to learn to play the game. And a day later — yes, just 24 hours — it has figured it out to the level that beats the strongest programs in the world convincingly!
    (…) Modern chess engines are focused on activity, and have special safeguards to avoid blocked positions as they have no understanding of them and often find themselves in a dead end before they realize it. AlphaZero has no such prejudices or issues, and seems to thrive on snuffing out the opponent’s play. It is singularly impressive, and what is astonishing is how it is able to also find tactics that the engines seem blind to. (…) The completely disjointed array of Black’s pieces is striking, and AlphaZero came up with the fantastic 21.Bg5!! After analyzing it and the consequences, there is no question this is the killer move here, (…) I gave it to Houdini 6.02 with 9 million positions per second. It analyzed it for one full hour and was unable to find 21.Bg5!!

    Nahr points out another remarkable fact about AlphaZero:

    What’s even more remarkable than AlphaGo Zero’s playing strength is the puny hardware it runs on: one single PC with four specialized TPUs, no distributed network needed

    AlphaZero has made the work done by many artificial-intelligence engineers obsolete. It is likely that many other games will follow in the near future. This is a remarkable breakthrough. Their paper can be found on arXiv.

  5. Qualcomm announced its latest mobile processor, which will find its way in many smartphones next year:

    The Adreno 630 GPU will be able to push 4K video at 60 FPS, but on top of that, display a split screen for VR of 2K x 2K (each eye) at 120 FPS. The icing on the cake comes from the ability to handle 10-bit color depth as well, for HDR10 UHD content. (…) Another addition to the chip is an increased presence of machine learning hardware (…) with the increased presence of VR and AR (slowly becoming XR for miXed Reality), being able to see the outside world and understand what’s going on, requires a major shift in processing capabilities, which is where machine learning comes in.

    You will be excused if you don’t understand everything about this processor, but if you are buying a high-end phone next year, that is what you are getting inside. You are getting a computer capable of doing advanced in-silicon artificial intelligence, a system supporting high-quality virtual reality and a machine able to display video at a quality that exceeds that of most televisions. These same processors will probably be dirt cheap in a few years. Anyone who thinks that virtual reality is a fad should pay close attention to what is being built in silicon right now.

  6. Our cells are powered by their mitochondria which are like “tiny cells” that live inside our cells. It is possible to improve our mitochondria with small molecules and direct supplementation. In mice, it seems to lead to a healthier brain. It also seems to heal human heart cells.
  7. One PlayStation 4 has more memory than all of the Atari 2600 consoles ever manufactured.
  8. Miltner asks: Who Benefits When Schools Push Coding? Are computers in the classroom more helpful to students or to corporations? She is right, of course, that computers don’t, by themselves, make people smarter… and I am very critical of attempts to turn random young people into “coders”.
  9. Apple published an interesting paper that describes how it can learn from your data while preserving your privacy, all of it economically.
  10. Microsoft is relaunching Windows for ARM processors. Most PCs run on Intel (or AMD) processors. Most mobile devices run on ARM processors. Microsoft wants you to run Windows on a laptop with ARM processors, thus cutting off its dependency on Intel. Though Intel still makes the very best PC processors money can buy, there is a sense that ARM processors will soon catch up and beat Intel, maybe. It is already the case that my iPad Pro with its ARM processor could run circles around many Intel-based laptops. One argument that is made in favor of ARM processors is their relative low power usage. ARM processors are now trying to enter the server market (Qualcomm recently proposed a 24-core processor) by putting together many low-power processors. It seems that we are experiencing a shift in hardware design that is beneficial to ARM processors: we no longer care so much about having one very fast processor… we prefer to have many moderately fast ones. I am not sure what is driving this apparent shift.
  11. A bitcoin is now worth $15,000. An app to buy and sell bitcoins is the most popular iPhone app. I once owned a bitcoin, it was given to me. For a long time, they were very cheap. I did not even keep a record of it, and it is now gone. My wife is very angry at me. I don’t understand why people are willing to pay so much for bitcoins, but then I never tried to be a good capitalist.
  12. Though gene therapy has had few successes in the last decades, we have had four remarkable therapeutic breakthroughs in a little over a month: hemophilia, spinal muscular atrophy, retinal dystrophy…
  13. Though we can measure human intelligence, we don’t know what makes us more or less intelligent at the biological level. Some German scientists think that they have found the answer: it has to do with information flow in the brain.
  14. Metformin is a diabetes drug that is believed to have anti-aging properties. It is somewhat toxic for mice, but by administrating it every other week to old mice, scientists got healthier old mice according to an article in Nature.
  15. Consuming lots of sugar makes you at risk for heart disease.
  16. A woman with a transplanted uterus gave birth.
  17. In the US, there are more Netflix subscriptions than cable TV subscriptions.
  18. Amazon released Cloud9, a programming environment that allows you to code and build your code with just a browser. They have also released a service called SageMaker to make it easier to build and deploy machine learning on Amazon’s infrastructure.
  19. Arveson challenges the hypocrisy of American colleges regarding graduate students and tuition fees. Indeed, most colleges waive tuition fees for graduate students. So why pretend to charge it in the first place? She writes:

    The most self-serving reason university administrators continue to charge tuition, though, is to use the fact that they waive payment of it as propaganda.

    South Korea is a major power in technology… yet South Korea needs to “change to its conformist culture and rigid education system, which stymie creativity” according to the Financial Times.

4 thoughts on “Science and Technology links (December 8th, 2017)”

  1. Two comments:

    It would be more readable if there were a blank line between paragraphs. Right now, I find it hard to tell when a new subject begins.

    On the subject of grad students having tuition reimbursed versus no tuition at all, the new tax bill may force this issue since the reimbursed tuition is nondeductible and is taxed.

    I enjoy your blog – thanks.

    1. It would be more readable if there were a blank line between paragraphs. Right now, I find it hard to tell when a new subject begins.

      I agree that this effect is somewhat troubling. I’ll experiment with alternatives.

  2. I think Yan LeCun’s comment is a bit disingenuous. Optics theory predates the telescope by over 1,000 years, counting from Euclid’s “Optics”, and Cayley worked on theories of flight aerodynamics a century before the Wright brothers – who built upon Cayley’s work for their own successes. They might not be as good as modern theories, but they existed.

    Concerning radio, it may have been before Shannon’s information theory, but it was well after Maxwell’s 1865 “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field”. Wikipedia helpfully points out that “The effects of electromagnetic waves .. were actually observed before and after Maxwell’s work by many inventors and experimenters …but none could identify what caused the phenomenon and it was usually written off as electromagnetic induction.” It then took Hertz to show that these known effects were what Maxwell predicted, which then lead many others to work to develop radio.

    While the early telegraph developers didn’t have the modern, more sophisticated understanding of information theory, how does one create something like Morse code, which uses shorter sequences for more frequent letters, without at least some model of information theory?

    Similarly, when do you date the start of “computers” and “computer science”? The algorithm to compute the Bernoulli numbers using the Babbage Analytical Engine is computer science, yes? Doesn’t that mean that CS came first? Or do we say that CS didn’t exist until Church and Turing?

    I think I understand LeCun’s point, but I don’t think these historic examples are really good parallels. I also don’t think “alchemy” vs. “chemistry” is a good example – people use it more as a common cultural shorthand for “magic vs. science” than for historical underpinnings.

    Perhaps “magnetic compass” is a better one? Highly useful for centuries even without much of a theory for how it worked.

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