Field of Science

A meeting with V. S. Naipaul


I met him at a Starbucks outside the Tower of London. It was pre-arranged. I had told him I was an independent blogger. He told me he preferred to talk to independent writers these days; the mainstream media was more trouble than what it was worth. It helped that I wrote for a site that he regularly read and admired. 

The complexities of the London tube have thwarted me on more than one occasion, and this time was no different.  I was a full fifteen minutes late. He was sitting in a cafe, his signature fedora on his head, but still dressed inconspicuously enough so as to seem like one of the many people thronging the cafe.
“Mr. Naipaul”, I said, extending my hand. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh yes, please, I was expecting you. Please, call me Vidia”
Taken a little aback by the very informal moniker I was supposed to address him by, I exclaimed, “Ok, thank you. And so sorry”, I said, “I have to admit that the tube, as wonderfully efficient as it is, challenges me every time I visit the city.”
“Indeed. It was difficult to get around the first time I visited too, more than fifty years ago. Often when I thought I had made it to my destination, I realized I was back where I started. Shall we?”
We passed several tourists on our way inside the Starbucks. Inside, we ordered a regular coffee for Vidia and, for me, an American bastardization I had gotten used to since my graduate school days – a caramel macchiato. Vidia insisted on paying. Then, with a conspiratorial wink at me and the barista  – a woman who seemed like she had been around since before the advent of coffee shops – Vidia started toward the direction of the restrooms.
“Come with me”, Vidia said, leading the way. I was a bit confused: weren’t we supposed to get a table either inside or outside, where the weather was gorgeous, especially for a London summer? But I followed his lead.
At the very end of the hallway in which the restrooms were located Vidia stopped. Making sure nobody was around he pressed what seemed like a small photo frame of a bucolic mountain landscape hung on the wall. Suddenly the narrow wall swung open, and with a quickness belying the girth of his aging figure, Vidia disappeared into the void and beckoned me in. I was too stunned to say anything, and I followed him almost as a reflex action.
The door in the wall swung back and closed as fast as it had opened, and a bright light suddenly illuminated the hallway.
“Sorry about the mischief, but I have to guard against unexpected knocks on the door, even when I am seemingly past my prime.”
I still remained rather stunned to say anything.
There was another brown door at the end of the hallway. Vidia walked up to it and knocked. A few seconds later the door opened. Nadira Naipaul was gently smiling at us and welcomed us in. She was warm and welcoming, the picture of grace.
“Nadira, we have a guest with us today”. Vidia introduced me and briefly told Nadira about my background. I followed the two of them into the living room. The elegance of the room belied its simplicity. The walls were cream colored and easy on the eyes, and photos of various and sundry landscapes hung on the wall; a street scene in Trinidad, a sea of grass from England’s Lake District, and a weekend market in Agra with the Taj Mahal in the background. The apartment behind the wall seemed spacious. What caught my eye the most, however, was the low-slung Japanese table in the middle.
Vidia saw me staring at it and quickly said, “That’s where I write these days. I used to write at a desk for decades, but I have found recently that a low Japanese desk, a desk where you must sit cross-legged, imposes a kind of contemplative discipline that is hard to achieve with other seating arrangements. Would you like to give it a try?”
Of course, I said. I sat on one side, Vidia on the other. Nadira asked me if I would like some tea and went inside to fetch some. “So, what is it that you wanted to talk about?” Vidia asked.
“Well, I must apologize in advance, because this is undoubtedly a topic that many must have discussed with you, but I wanted to talk about identity. I wanted to talk about this both because it has been a central part of all your writings, and also because it’s something I can identify with myself.”
“Ah, identity”, Vidia exclaimed, a look of wistful familiarity compounded with some sadness evident in his eyes. “Yes, we all must grapple with identity at one point or another. We can certainly talk about it.”
“Well”, I said, “I must give you some personal background regarding why I wanted to bring up this specific topic.” Vidia indicated that he wanted me to continue at length.
“I am an Indian transplant in America. I came to the country for graduate school. I was steeped in American history, American science, American politics, throughout my upbringing in India. My parents were both college professors, both highly educated and literate, and our house was full of books, intellectual discussions, social occasions, laughter. America, especially, figured prominently in our dinnertime conversations, and people like Edison, FDR and George Washington Carver were greatly admired figures and regular topics of discussion. When I came to America, I realized I knew about many aspects of the country as well as the natives.”
“For the first few years I never felt the so-called identity crisis that is often talked about by immigrants, and I even laughed when other Indians in the United States indicated that they felt it. I felt at home in America. The public libraries, the basic rule of law, the respect for science and technology, the clean air, all left me feeling ecstatic; left me feeling that this was the greatest place in the world. Naturally during the first few years, just like other immigrants, I was eager to assimilate. However, in a somewhat paradoxical way, as I spent more time here, I started to ask myself, who am I, exactly, Indian or American or something in between, and does this even matter? And then – quite recently, I must admit – I read your wonderful book, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, and that drove home the dilemma of identity in a fresh manner. My parents are no more now, and I certainly think of myself as American – or least Indian-American – and proudly call America home, but it is hard to let go of the dilemma entirely”
Vidia was quiet as I was saying this, nodding almost imperceptibly. “Yes”, he said, “the feelings you noticed weren’t alien to me, and I am sure you realized them when you were reading my book. I can certainly understand the gnawing dilemma of identity you must have felt. I am sure you understand that with me it was a case of a triple identity crisis, if you will. My grandfather came to Trinidad as an indentured Indian laborer, so I grew up with a motley collection of brown, black and white-skinned people in a very heterogeneous culture. Ideally I should have appreciated the cornucopia of racial and cultural complexity, but I was desperate to leave. Then I won a scholarship to Oxford, and I have lived in England for the last forty years. As you know, I have even been knighted, which is as English as it gets. And yet, if you ask me if I feel English alone, I would say no. There is a deep sense in which my mixed Indian-Trinidadian-English identity is indelible, and no amount of denial will peel away those layers and reveal a shining singular self.”
Glad to hear that he empathized with my thoughts regarding identity, I suddenly noticed Nadira standing next to us, holding a tray on which teacups made of elegant China were kept. I took a cup and added two spoonfuls of sugar in spite of the warnings about diabetes from my doctor; I wanted to make sure I was alert and attuned to anything Vidia was saying. “Can I join both of you?”, Nadira asked, “Of course”, I said. Company this charming was always welcome.
“Vidia and I were talking about identity”, I said. “Yes”, Nadira replied. “It’s a topic that Vidia and I never tire of discussing, especially in the context of his book, “The Enigma of Arrival”. “Exactly”, I said, delighted that Nadira and I shared the same taste in all things Naipaul. I recounted to Nadira what I had told Vidia. “I do understand”, Nadira said, “Each one of us has to square with different dilemmas of identity. As Vidia mentioned, he had to deal with a triple identity, I had to deal with a mixed Pakistani-English identity myself, and it seems you went through a similar experience.”
“I did. And as I told Vidia, I wonder sometimes whether it’s even worth feeling as if you have a conflict of identify, whether it’s something you should simply take in and become comfortable with rather than rationalize and overthink. And you know, you wonder about this even in the smallest instances; whether to speak in an American accent, how much to celebrate festivals from the old country, even something as seemingly trivial as whether to respond in your native language in kind on social media.”
“Yes, there is something to be said about the challenge of adopting to your new culture while being true to yourself.”, said Vidia, empathizing with my sentiment.
“There’s also something else I want to ask you about. What is identity, after all? How specific is it to one’s upbringing and family as opposed to one’s country? I say this especially in the context of the so-called ‘values’ that we speak of. For instance, if I ask myself what specific values I inherited from India, I would feel hard-pressed to find an answer. I would say that all the important values I have inherited are specific to my parents and family rather than to my country. At least the deep ones. The fundamental values I have gotten from my parents are ones like hard work, honesty, a thirst for knowledge and basic human decency. Is there something in here specific to India? I would think these are universal values, imparted by conscientious parents to their children around the world, in any country. If the deep and fundamental values I have are not specific to India, then what are? Diwali and Holi and Butter Chicken? Those sound rather superficial.”
Both Vidia and Nadira looked contemplative, and for a moment I worried whether I was boring them with my extended monologue. “I want to agree with you in principle; at least in terms of the notion of universal values that you speak of.”, remarked Vidia. “That being said, I think you are being too rational in your analysis here. It is quite difficult to truly speak of the values you imbibe when you grow up in a certain place, especially when you spend your impressionable years there. The real value of values, if you would forgive the expression, is intangible. It is the sum total of formative influences imparted by both your family and your country, the little things that you take for granted, the almost unconscious tics that you display; these are the lasting influences that are going to shape you as a person and contribute to your so-called identity.”
“I agree”, Nadira said. “There are all kinds of hidden influences that contribute to your identity, and through your actions later in life, you drop little hints here and there regarding those influences. For instance, as I am sure you know, Vidia’s father had a very deep and rather ambivalent influence on him; Vidia never even read the collection of letters between him and his father that was published a few years ago. This influence was a joint combination of his father’s identify as the son of an indentured Indian laborer in Trinidad and as an English-language journalist growing up as a subject in an English colony. Now of course, Vidia’s grandfather himself had been imported from India as a British colonial subject into a country where he became a different kind of British colonial subject. And he is also a Brahmin to boot, so there is another kind of caste-based identity embedded in this forest of identities. So you see how complicated this layering of identities gets?”
Vidia seemed a bit uncomfortable with Nadira’s explication, looking like he resoundingly agreed with it in principle while trying to stay away from the particulars. But he retorted, “She’s right. I think the best thing to say is that one always has many different identities; identities layered upon identities; identities fortifying identities; even identities contradicting other identities. It’s the essence of Walt Whitman’s quote about a person containing multitudes. That’s the way we all are. And we have to be comfortable with these splinters of identities.”
I took a cue from this discussion. As someone trained as a scientist, I thought I could bring a different idea of identity to the table. “I agree. Beyond a certain point it seems like it may be futile to analyze identity too rationally and minutely. But please humor me a bit here. I think of identity as something that goes beyond caste, creed, nationality, ancestry. I always think of human identity as embedded in a tapestry of biological identities, and I think we have to consider this aspect of identity at some point. I mean, think about it: whether as Indians or Americans or Englishmen, we are all part of a vast identity called ‘Homo sapiens’. And as Homo sapiens, we bear, as Darwin so memorably put it, “the indelible stamp of our lowly origins”. Our identities are intertwined with the identities of starfish and bears and orchids and earthworms and hummingbirds and barnacles that make up the grand edifice of evolution. The point I am making is that whatever our feelings about our national or ethnic identities, these are but a speck compared to the four billion years of identities that have manifested on our planet.”
“Wonderful, wonderful.”, Vidia remarked, and his face showed genuine appreciation. “I must confess I have always had trouble appreciating you scientific types. You know, during my travels in India, whenever people I met seemed quite confused about my identity as a Trinidadian-Indian-Englishman, I always took the easy way out and told them I was a chemistry teacher. Fortunately nobody asked me what I exactly taught, otherwise I would have been in trouble. Now, listening to you, I think perhaps I should have paid more attention to those meager science classes I attended in high school. ‘The indelible stamp of man’s lowly origins’. Wonderful. I could not agree more. However, I would say that it’s not always easy to subsume your proximate identity of caste and country, if you will, to this ultimate identity that you speak of. Everyone grapples with their own particular brand of identity. That differentiation of identities is itself a dilemma within a dilemma which we should all confront, much like the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma which that blue-blooded imperialist Churchill talked about in reference to the Soviet Union.”
The tea and pastries had gotten cold, the hour was late, Vidia seemed tired. “I think that if there is one take-home lesson from this discussion”, I said, “it would be that all of us, without exception, have to deal with multiple identities. Even if it’s not an identity of caste, it’s an identity of nationality. And even if it’s not one of nationality, even if your ancestors have lived in a country for hundreds of years and have never married outside their specific ethnicity, they still have to live with the multiple identities that have been bequeathed to them by evolution. We are all connected to each other in that regard.”
“Yes, as much as they try to deny it, not even those fervent evangelicals that I saw at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas can escape from these multiple layers of identity!”, said Vidia. Nadira laughed.
“Indeed!”, I exclaimed. “Well, I think I don’t want to take up too much of your time. This has been a delightful conversation, and I am deeply grateful to you for your time.”
“We feel the same way. Make sure you send us your article, please.”, Vidia said. After bidding him and Nadira goodbye, he again walked me through the secret passageway and pressed a little button that opened the door in the wall. I grasped his hand and said goodbye, and made my way through the dimly lit Starbucks. Opening the door, I stepped out into the London night. The city was still alive, its multiplicity of identities glowing with anticipation.
Note: I never met V. S. Naipaul, although I am sure I would have loved to. But I did have a delightful dream about meeting him, about the secret passageway at the end of which was his home, about his charming wife Nadira, about a vigorous discussion about identity and his book The Enigma of Arrival (which, after waking up, I read enthusiastically). This is an elaboration of that dream. RIP, V. S. Naipaul.
This post was first published on 3 Quarks Daily.

Technological convergence in drug discovery and other endeavors




You would think that the Wright brothers’ historic flight from Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 had little to do with chemistry. And yet it did. The engine they used came from an aluminum mold; since then aluminum has been a crucial ingredient in lightweight flying machines. The aluminum mold would not have been possible had industrial chemists like Charles Hall and Paul Héroult not developed processes like the Hall-Héroult process for refining the metal from its ore, bauxite. More elementally, the gasoline fueling the flight was the result of a refining process invented more than fifty years earlier by a Yale chemist named Benjamin Silliman. There was a fairly straight line from the Bayer and Silliman processes to Kitty Hawk.

The story of the Wright brothers’ powered flight illustrates the critical phenomenon of technological convergence that underlies all major technological developments in world history. Simply put, technological convergence refers to the fact that several enabling technologies have to come together in order for a specific overarching technology to work. And yet what’s often seen is only the technology that benefits, not the technology that enables.

We see technological convergence everywhere. Just to take a few of the most important innovations of the last two hundred years or so: The computer would not have been possible without the twin inventions of the transistor and silicon purification. MRI would not have been possible without the development of sophisticated software to deconvolute magnetic resonance signals and powerful magnets to observe those signals in the first place. There are other important global inventions that we take for granted - factory farming, made-to-order houses, fiber optics, even new tools like machine learning - none of which would have materialized had it not been for ancillary technologies which had to reach maturation.

Recognizing technological convergence is important, both because it helps us appreciate how much has to happen before a particular technology can embed itself in people’s everyday lives, and because it can help us potentially recognize multiple threads of innovation that could potentially converge in the future - a risky but important vision that can help innovators and businessmen stay ahead of the curve. One important point to note: by no means does technological convergence itself help innovations rise to the top – political and social factors can be as or more crucial – but this convergence is often necessary even if not sufficient.

It’s interesting to think of technological convergence in my own field of drug development. Let’s look at a few innovations, both more recent as well as older, that illustrate the phenomenon. Take a well-established technology like high-throughput screening (HTS). HTS came on the scene about thirty years ago, and since then has contributed significantly to the discovery of new medicines. What made the efficient screening of tens of thousands of compounds possible? Several convergent developments: recombinant DNA technology for obtaining reasonable quantities of pure proteins for screening, robotic techniques and automation for testing these compounds quickly at well-defined concentrations in multiple wells or plates, spectroscopic techniques like FRET for determining the feasibility of the end results, and graphing and visualization software for mapping the results and quickly judging if they made sense. These are just a few developments: in addition, there are techniques within these techniques that were also critical. For instance, recombinant DNA depended on methods for viral transfection, for splicing and ligation and for sequencing, and robotic automation depended on microelectronic control systems and materials for smooth manipulation of robotic moving parts. Thus, not only is technology convergent but it also piggybacks, with one piece of technology building on another to produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, aiding in the success of a technology it wasn’t primarily designed for.

Below is a table of just a few other primary drug discovery technologies that could not have been possible without ancillary convergent technologies.

Primary technology
Convergent enabling technologies
Combinatorial chemistry
LCMS for purification, organic synthesis methodology, hardware (solid phase beads, plastic, tubes, glassware) for separation and bookkeeping.
Molecular modeling
Computing power (CPUs, GPUs), visualization software, crystal structures and databases (PDB, CSD etc.)
Directed evolution/phage display
Recombinant DNA technology, hardware (solid phase supports), buffer chemistry for elution.
DNA-encoded libraries
PCR, DNA sequencing technology (Illumina etc.), hardware (solid phase beads, micropipettes etc.), informatics software for deconvolution of results.
NMR
Cryogenics, magnet production, software.

I have deliberately included NMR spectroscopy in the last row. A modern day organic chemist’s work would be unthinkable without this technique. It of course depends crucially on the availability of high-field magnets and the cryogenics techniques that keep the magnet cold by immersion in liquid helium, but it also depends fundamentally on the physics of nuclear magnets worked out by Isidor Rabi, Edward Purcell, Richard Ernst and others. Since this post is about technology I won’t say anything further about science, but it should be obvious that every major technology rests on a foundation of pure science which has to be developed for decades before it can be applied, often with no clear goal in mind. Sometimes the application can be very quick, however. For instance, it’s not an accident that solid phase supports appear in three of the five innovations listed above. Bruce Merrifield won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his development of solid-phase peptide synthesis in 1984, and a little more than thirty years later, that development has impacted many enabling drug development techniques.

There are two interesting conclusions that emerge from considering technological convergence. The first is the depressing conclusion that if ancillary technologies haven’t kept pace, then even the most brilliant innovative idea would get nowhere. Even the most perspicacious inventor won’t be able to make a dent in the technology universe, simply because the rest of technology hasn’t kept up with him. A good example is the early spate of mobile phones appearing in the early 90s which didn’t go anywhere. Not only were they too expensive, but they simply weren’t ready for prime time because the wide availability of broadband internet, touchscreens and advanced battery technology was non-existent. Similarly, the iPhone and iPod took off not just because of Steve Jobs’ sales skills and their sleek GUI, but because broadband internet, mp3s (both legal and pirated) and advanced lithium ion batteries were now available for mass production. In fact, the iPod and the iPhone showcase convergent technologies in another interesting way; their sales skyrocketed because of the iTunes Music Store and the iPhone App store. As the story goes, Jobs was not sold on the app store idea for a long time because he characteristically wanted to keep iPhone apps exclusive. It was only flagging initial sales combined with insistent prodding from the iPhone team that changed his mind. In this case, therefore, the true convergent technology was not really battery chemistry or the accelerometer in the phone but a simple software innovation and a website.

The more positive conclusion to be drawn from the story of convergent technology is to keep track of ancillary enabling technologies if you want to stay ahead of the curve. In case of the iPod, Jobs seems to have had the patience to wait before USB, battery and internet technologies became mature enough for Apple to release the device; in spite of being the third or fourth mp3 player on the market, the iPod virtually took over in a few years. What this means for innovators and technologists is that they should keep an eye out on the ‘fringe’, on seemingly minor details of their idea that might have a crucial impact on its development or lack thereof. If you try to launch an innovative product before the ancillary technologies have caught up, you won’t achieve convergence and the product might well be doomed.

Of course, groundbreaking ancillary technologies are often obvious only in retrospect and are unexpected when they appear – Xerox’s mouse and GUI come to mind – but that does not mean they are invisible. One reason John D. Rockefeller became so spectacularly successful and wealthy is because he looked around the corner and saw not one but three key technologies: oil drilling, oil transportation and oil refining. Similarly, Edison’s success owed, in part, to the fact that he was an all-rounder, developing everything from electrical circuits to the right materials for bulb filaments; chemistry, electricity, mechanical engineering – all found a home in Edison’s lab. Thus, while it’s not guaranteed, one formula for noting the presence or absence of technological convergence is to cast a wide net, to work the field as well as its corners, to spend serious time exploring even the small parts that are expected to contribute to the whole. Recognizing technological convergence requires a can-do attitude and the enthusiasm to look everywhere for every possible lead.

At the very least, being cognizant of convergent technologies can prevent us from wasting time and effort; for instance, combinatorial chemistry went nowhere at the beginning because HTS was not developed. Molecular modeling went nowhere because sampling and scoring weren’t well developed. Genome sequencing by itself went nowhere because simply having a list of genes rang hollow until the technologies for interrogating their protein products and functions weren’t equally efficient. Developing your technology in a silo, no matter how promising it looks by itself, can be a failing effort if not fortified with other developing technology which you should be on the lookout for.

Technology, like life on earth, is part of an ecosystem. Even breakthrough technology does not develop in a vacuum. Without convergence between different innovations, every piece of technology would be stillborn. Without the aluminum, without the refined petroleum, the Wright Flyer would have lain still in the sands of the Outer Banks.

If you want to improve AI, let it evolve toward emergence

One of my favorite quotes about artificial intelligence is often attributed to pioneering computer scientists Hans Moravec and Marvin Minsky. To paraphrase: “The most important thing we have learned from three decades of AI research is that the hard things are easy and the easy things are hard”. In other words, we have been hoodwinked for a long time. We thought that vision and locomotion and housework would be easy and language recognition and chess and driving would be hard. And yet it has turned out that we have made significant strides in tackling the latter while hardly making a dent in the former.
Why is this? Clearly one trivial reason is that we failed to define “easy” and “hard” properly, so in one sense it’s a question of semantics. But the question still persists: what makes the easy problems hard? We got fooled by the easy problems because we took them for granted. Things like facial recognition and locomotion come so easily to human beings, even human beings that are a few months old, that we thought they would be easy for computers too. But the biggest obstacle for an AI today is not the chess playing ability of a Gary Kasparov but the simple image recognition abilities of an average one year old.
What we forgot was that these things seem easy only because they are the sleek final façade of a four billion year process that progressed with countless fits and starts, wrong alleys and dead ends and random experimentation. We see the bare shining mountaintop but we don’t see the tortuous road leading to it. If you looked under the hood, both spatial and temporal, of a seemingly simple act like bipedal navigation over a slightly rocky surface, you would find a veritable mess of failed and successful experiments in the history of life. If the brain were an electrical box which presented an exterior of wondrous simplicity and efficiency, inside the box would be fused wires, wires leading nowhere, wires with the middles cut off, wires sprouting other wires, stillbirthed wires; a mélange of wired chaos with a thread of accident and opportunity poking through it. We see only that ascendant thread but not the field littered with dead cousins and ancestors it resides in.
Over the ages, much of AI tried to grasp the essence of this evolutionary circus by trying to reproduce the essential structure of the human brain. The culmination of these efforts was the neural network, a layered abstract model of virtual electronic neurons trying to capture different aspects of reality with adjustable weights on every layer and a feedback loop that optimized the difference between the model and reality. So far so good, but neural networks are only modeling the end product and not the process. For the longest time they were not allowed to deliberately make mistakes and mirror the contingent, error-ridden processes of evolution that are grounded in mutation and genetic recombination. They made the evolution of thinking seem far more deterministic than what it was, and if there’s anything we know about evolution by now, it’s that one cannot understand or reproduce it unless one understands the general process of clumsy, aimless progress intrinsic to its workings.
But apart from the propensity of evolution to make mistakes, there is another, much broader aspect of evolution that I believe neural nets or other models of AI must capture in order to be useful or credible or both. That aspect is emergence, a feature of the human brain that is directly the product of its messy evolution. Not only could emergence help AI approach the actual process of thinking better and realize its scientific and financial potential, but it could also lead to reconciliation between two fields that are often and unnecessarily at war with each other – science and philosophy.
The basic idea of emergence has been recognized for a long time, first by philosophers and then by scientists. Whether it’s a block of gold having color properties that cannot be ascribed to individual gold atoms, individual termites forming a giant anthill or thousands of starlings forming stunning, sweeping, transient geometric patterns that carpet the sky for miles, we have known that the whole is often very different from both the individual parts and the sum of the parts. Or as one of the philosophical fathers of emergence, the physicist Philip Anderson, wrote in a now-famous article, “More is different”. Anderson noted that the properties of a physical system cannot be directly derived from its individual constituents, and more components are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from fewer ones. Part of the reason for this is that both physics and biology are, in the words of Anderson’s fellow physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the result of “a small number of laws and a great number of accidents”. In case of biological evolution the laws are the principles of natural selection and neutral drift; in case of physical evolution the laws are the principles of general relativity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.
Emergence is partly a function of the great number of accidents that these small numbers of laws have been subjected to. In case of biology the accidents come from random mutations leading to variation and selection; in case of physics they come from forces and fields causing matter to stick together in certain ways and not others to form stars, galaxies and planets. Evolution critically occurred while immersed in this sea of stochastic emergence, and that led to complex feedback loops between fundamental and emergent laws. The human brain in particular is the end product of the basic laws of chemistry and physics being subjected to a variety of other emergent laws imposed by things like group and sexual selection, tribalism, altruism, predation avoidance and prey seeking. Agriculture, cities, animal domestication, gossip, religion, empires, democracy, despotism; all of humanity’s special creations are emergent phenomena. Mind is the ultimate emergent product of the stochastic evolution of the brain. So is consciousness. It’s because of the universal feature of accidental emergence that even a supercomputer (or an omniscient God, if you will) that had all the laws of physics built into it and that could map every one of the countless trajectories that life would take into the future would be unable to predict the shape and function of the human brain in the year 2018.
The mind which itself is an emergent product of brain evolution is very good at modeling emergence. As just one example, our minds are quite competent at understanding both individual needs as well as societal ones. We are good at comprehending the behavior of matter on both a microscopic scale – although it did take some very determined and brilliant efforts to achieve this feat – and the macro scale. In fact, we have so completely assimilated the laws of emergent physics in our brains that implementing them – throwing a javelin or anticipating the speed of a charging elephant for instance – is instinctive and a matter of practice rather than active calculation. Our minds, which build constantly updated models of the world, can now take emergent behavior into account and can apply the right level of emergent detail in these models to address the right problem. Evolution has had a leisurely four billion years to experiment with its creations while buffeted by the winds of stochastic emergence, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it has now endowed one of its most successful species with the ability to intuitively grasp emergent reality.
And yet we are largely failing to take into account this emergent reality when imagining and building new AIs. Even now, most of our efforts at AI are highly reductionist. We are good at writing algorithms to model individual neurons as well as individual layers of them, but we ignore the higher-level emergent behavior that is expected to result from a real neural network in a real human brain. Through a process called backpropagation, the neural networks are getting better at optimizing the gap between reality and the models they represent by setting up feedback loops and optimizing the weights of individual neurons, but whether their models are trying to capture the right level of emergent detail is a question they don’t address. If your model is capturing the wrong emergent details, then you are optimizing the wrong model.
Even if your model does solve the right problem, it will be such a specialized solution that it won’t apply to other related problems, which means you will be unable to build an artificial general intelligence (AGI). Consider the example of image recognition, a problem that neural nets and their machine learning algorithms are supposed to especially excel at. It’s often observed that if you introduce a bit of noise into an image or make it slightly different from an existing similar image, the neural net starts making mistakes. And yet children do this kind of recognition of “different but similar” images effortlessly and all the time. When shown an elephant for instance, a child will be able to identify elephants in a variety of contexts; whether it’s a real elephant, a stuffed elephant toy, a silhouette of an elephant or a rock formation that traces out the outline of an elephant. Each one of these entities is radically different in its details, but they all say “elephant” to the mind of the child but not to the neural network.
Why is this? I believe that emergence is one of the key secret sauces accounting for the difference. The child recognizes both a real elephant and a rock formation as an elephant because its brain, instead of relying on low-level “elephant features” like the detailed texture of the skin and the black or gray colors, is instead relying on high-level “emergent elephant features” like the general shape and more abstract topological qualities. The right level of emergent abstraction makes the child succeed where the computer is failing. And yet the child can – with some practice – also switch between different levels of emergence and realize for instance that the rock formation is not going to charge her. Through practice and exploration, the child perfects this application of emergent recognition. Perhaps that’s why it’s important to heed Alan Turing’s prescription for building intelligent machines in which he told us to endow a machine with the curiosity of a child and let intelligence evolve.
Another emergent feature of living organisms is what we call “emotion” or “instinct”. For the longest time we used to believe that human beings make rational decisions when evaluating their complex social and physical environments. But pioneering work by psychologists and neuroscientists ranging from Daniel Kahneman to Antonio Damasio has now shown that emotion and logical thinking both play a role when deciding how to react to an environmental stimulus. Take again the example of the child recognizing an elephant; one reason why it is so good at recognizing elephant-like features is because the features trigger a certain kind of emotional reaction in her. Not only are the logical feature-selecting parts of her brain activated, but so are her hormonal systems, perhaps imperceptibly; not only does she start thinking, but even before this, her palms may turn sweaty and her heartbeat may increase. Research has now consistently shown that our instinctive systems make decisions before our logical systems even kick in. This behavior was honed in humans by millions of years of living and passing on their genes in the African savannah, where split second decisions had to made to ensure that you weren’t weeded out of the gene pool. This kind of emotional reaction is thus also a kind of emergent behavior. It comes about because of the interaction of lower-level entities (DNA sequences and hormone receptors) with environmental and cultural cues and learnings. If an AI does not take emotional responses into account, it will likely never be able to recognize the kinds of abstract features that scream out “elephant” in a child’s mind.
As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously quipped, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, and I would extend that principle to the construction of artificial intelligences. Human intelligence is indeed a result of a few universal laws combined with an enormous number of accidents. These accidents have evolved evolution to select for those brains which can take stochastic emergent reality into account and build generalized models that can switch between different levels of emergent abstraction. It seems to me that mimicking this central feature of evolution would not just lead to better AIs but would be an essential feature of any truly general AI. Perhaps then the easy problems would truly become easy to solve.

This is my latest column for 3 Quarks Daily.