Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Mars One Mission: One-Way Ticket to Space

Astronaut on Mars
Something fishy is going on here. There are a number of films that deal with distant space travel involving humans (Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and The Martian directed by Ridley Scott come to mind) and then there are a number of NASA space missions that constantly bring us news about the red planet, including the recent discovery of water on Mars. When there is so much focus on one thing, especially in the media, I become suspicious and look for a hidden agenda.

A possible objective could be possibly to raise and drum public support (and funding) for further NASA missions to Mars. Or else it could be a slick way to advertise for the Mars One Mission. I had not heard about this latter mission until I attended a wonderful and informative talk by one of my colleagues, Commerce instructor David Crawford.

At first, I listened incredulously as this seemed the stuff of science fiction movies and novels, but slowly I realized that this was meant for real. The overall plan was to colonize Mars, which is at the same time a running theme of various current films on the big screen. In order to colonize Mars, they needed a number of volunteer astronauts to go to space on a One-Way mission.

Why one way? Well, as travel time is both long and costly, it would save money that way. You can get to Mars, but not come back. David then showed us the criteria used to recruit people from the general population. In terms of characteristics, they were rather on the vague wishy-washy side with sought attributes like resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust, and creativity / resourcefulness.

These are very general characteristics, but it shows also the psychological profile they are targeting. In other words, ability to trust would ensure that the person is not paranoid about intentions or hidden agendas, but has a warm and accepting attitude towards others telling them what to do. Resiliency is a no-brainer as you have to survive and get by with little to no resources (hence also the addendum of creative resourcefulness).

But as I was listening to all of this and thinking that this was a mission of no return, I wondered (and worried) about the psychological profile of somebody willing to undertake such a - to put it less bluntly - suicide mission. Who would be willing to risk their life in order to try to colonize an uninhabitable strange land? What was the pay-off for the individual?

Such thinking is often counter-attacked by those who love adventure and who would like to further their causes of the so-called development or progress of humanity. They claim that such thinking would have hindered the early settlers to explore the Earth and to discover new continents. My response was, yes, but at least we were talking about the same planet, not some mysterious planet far off in space that will most likely pose a number of threats to our physical and psychological well-being.

It boggles my mind that someone in their full sanity would undertake such a mission, no matter how adventurous you may be or this trip may seem. You would probably get candidates who are generally dissatisfied with life or people who are never satisfied with what they have and want something more out of life. Anyhow, there must be some sort of lack that such a mission would fill in their personal or professional lives.

In a video of the selected astronauts, a selection process that by the way does not restrict or discriminate regarding age (basically anyone above 18 in good health was eligible to apply), there were a number of reasons given. Many candidates wanted to make a strong impact; those less modest claimed to be pioneers that advanced the human race. I nod in wonder and disbelief.

Perhaps I love our planet too much; notwithstanding, I have my personal attachment with my family here as well as friends, job and colleagues. I have traveled rather sufficiently across the globe satisfying my curiosity and sense of adventure, but I feel it more important to be grounded on this planet of ours as long as it is possible (despite the future but very tangible threats of global warming and the constant threats of devastating wars). As I have posted previously, I do not subscribe to dying or sacrificing one's life for noble ideas or goals: Is an idea worth dying for?

I do not necessarily disagree with nor am I generally opposed to space missions that will give us a better understanding of our universe and further our knowledge for educational purposes. And in theory, trips to Mars sound exciting, and I have even acquired both a mug and a cap with the Mars One logo on them. The fact that I am keeping up with the news on the issue and that I am watching the films that are churned out on the topic (and this blog post itself) should be evidence for my evident interest in the topic.

But all that aside, what would life be and look like out there? You wake up in a container or a self-sufficient biosphere bubble every day to a red wasteland, you willingly give up all your sources of entertainment (no movies, no smartphone, no computer, no Arash's World!) and you have very limited company. There is no escape, nowhere else to go or run to. What if you do not get along with your fellow travelers? You are stuck with them in deep space.

The other issue would be a lack of food and drink. Astronauts temporarily give up on these pleasures, but they are well aware that this is limited in time and scope. But what if I cannot have good food anymore, or coffee, or God forbid, an occasional glass of red wine? I doubt that vineyards or coffee plantations are ever possible on the red planet.

Will these missions render success? Let us assume they get to Mars safe and sound and manage to get by the daily mental and physical strains and pressures living in a bleak environment. What would be the next step? Sending invitations for friends and family to follow suit and come for a (one-way) visit?

Having children is still not encouraged as the environment is not ideal for the upbringing of babies. But then other questions arise around the needs of our adult colonizers. What to do in case of an emergency? Will there be a doctor on board and a police officer or a lawyer to settle disputes? Will it turn to a space-version of Lord of the Flies? Will it turn into a John Carpenter movie?

There is often a limit and downside to imagination. We may be inspired and dip our heads in the clouds, but should have our feet firmly set in the ground. This mission is the perfect fodder and stuff for the movies. Sure, a Matt Damon Martian may be able to survive, but we have to clear our heads and think straight and decide after all is said and done: Is this really a good idea?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Limits of Embodied Simulation and Piaget's Schemata

Harvard Professor Talk about Concepts
It was that time of the year again for me, time to attend the latest (10th) Quinn Memorial at UBC and to write and reflect on the issues raised. This time around we had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Susan Carey, a Harvard professor, talk about concepts. The title of the talk was “Concept Acquisition: Beyond Logical Construction and the Building Blocks Model.”

Susan Carey was introduced by UBC's Head of the Psychology department Geoff Hall who enumerated all her distinguished awards and accomplishments and summarized her view as one that gave more credit to infants' minds than Piaget had done previously. In fact, her views were also opposing a number of ideas propagated by Locke and Berkeley.

All this sounded interesting and aroused my curiosity. I have often felt that Piaget had generally underestimated the rich and resourceful mind and the mental and other capabilities of children, but it would be much better to actually hear it from someone who was an expert on the matter.

Yet as so often happens, I was disappointed at first. What she was talking about mostly had little to do with what I thought she was going to talk about. In fact, it seemed initially that she was not showing us how children are smarter than we think, but that they, in fact, deceive us!

But first thing first. Susan Carey asked us the simple but poignant question of why understanding can be at times easy and at other times hard. The general view is that we are born with a set of innate primitives. This is basically our knowledge base that can increase its content but not its processing capacity. In other words, we are operating with an 18-month processor.

According to this view, our learning cannot increase our expressive power. Put differently, we are rather limited in terms of learning and understanding new primitives since we have already acquired the necessary linguistic and semantic blueprint, a set that is somewhat set in stone. But Susan Carey disagrees with this view since new primitives can be learned.

She gave us an example of certain migrating birds. They travel over long distances and do so at night. How do they know where to go? Is it based on a set of innate primitives or do they learn and adjust? Or in that specific case, how did the birds know where to go in the dark?

One theory is that they may have used the North Star Polaris. But how did they know which one is the right one to follow as following an erroneous star could take you - or rather the birds - to the wrong place? Also, what is the North Star for us now has not always been so due to the Earth's rotational axis; in fact, about 14,000 years ago, it used to be the star called Vega (and it will become Vega again in 12,000 years or so).

This cannot be information passed on genetically from bird to bird generations. There must be some learning involved, that is the ability to create new primitives. That is when the computational primitives come in. This is not just using your processor, but also making it more powerful through the power of arithmetic.

How does this knowledge happen and does it apply to humans as well or is it simply for the birds? There are two methods we apply to learn about numbers. One of them is the Parallel Individuation Model. This means that we learn and count each number at a time, and see each number as distinct and separate from other numbers.

Yet there is also a process called the Analog Magnitude Model. In this case, we process chunks of information at once and see them more as a comprehensive set rather than as individually different or distinct items. The ability to do this changes with practice, experience, and age, but as a general rule of thumb, we can pay attention to and “hold” 3 or 4 items at a time.

Susan Carey then presented us with a bunch of dots grouped together and asked us to guess how many there were. For lower numbers where less crowding occurred, say 7 or 8 dots, we could make more confident and accurate guesses, but once there were twenty or thirty dots, there was too much noise and distortion, and we would be often wrong in our estimates.

Hence, she was explaining the acquisition of concepts via a mathematical / computational manner. I felt a bit disappointed because I had been more interested in concept-making in terms of language and their representation. Nonetheless, there were interesting bits of information that caught my immediate eye and attention. For instance, there was the surprising fact that children learn numbers at an early age, but they do not “understand” them! In other words, they can count from 1 to 10, but they do not know what that means!

She showed us some videos of experiments done with young children. When they were told to give a certain number of toys and they had awareness of that number, they would do so correctly. However, if they had no knowledge of that number, they would err. For example, a child that does not know anything beyond 3 would grab an indiscriminate amount of toys. They could still “count” up to ten, but did not notice that the number “4” corresponded with the four items in front of them, that is 4 toys put together.

This was very interesting as we often show off the knowledge of our children without awareness of the fact that their counting and these numbers had no tangible relation with the facts and abilities! One child, for example, would comment “Daddy, Mommy, and me” to talk about any items in a set of 3. This shows that she has awareness that the set of 3 corresponds with three, in this case very specific, items.

In a similar way, according to embodied simulation, this is how we learn our first language. We have an image in our head and the spoken or written word is used as an analogy; they are paired and associated with each other using a representational scheme. For example, the word One would be associated with “finger” and that would then lead to a long-term memory of that particular concept, i.e. number.

We often learn concepts and use logic to connect them with others, hence building connections within our mind. But not all learning processes as we have seen is through logic alone. We often use mathematical representations. We know that adding one more to any set increases the number and value of the set by one. 

It may take us a few years to be able to accomplish this feat, but at a certain age we understand it. This then can be expanded and applied to a number of other computations, hence growing and diversifying our capacity to learn. In other words, she has shown us that learning increases over time and is not limited to a set of primitives.

Now if you are slightly confused, you are not alone. As I am wont to do at such events, I looked to personally chat with our presenter Susan Carey for some clarifications. With my red wine in hand, I approached her at the reception and asked her about embodied simulation and Piaget. She gave me an answer that clarified my doubts and confusions.

According to her, embodied simulation is correct but a too simplistic view and account of human learning. We are capable of much more. When a person sees a dog, they do not simply associate the animal with the word “dog,” but concept building goes beyond that. The person makes a wide range of assumptions, such as the fact that there are many of its kind and that this particular animal is different from other animals, say a tiger or a squirrel.

Some of these assumptions may be wrong or mistaken, but they are still part of the inner world that the individual carries around with him or her. We can see that this is not just associating one thing with another à la Piaget, but that children at an early age already make a number of assumptions vis-à-vis what they see. This shows more activity and awareness of the human mind than was previously assumed, and it may not be necessarily limited to humans as animals seem to draw conclusions and notice connections as well.

All this left me inspired. There is more to human learning than meets the eye. I imagined the brain being capable of doing an infinite number of tasks like the endless possible moves on a limited chess board. As this was going through my head and our conversation had reached its end, she surprised me with the following question: Was I a computer scientist?

I admitted I was not. I do not think that watching Mr. Robot would make me a computer expert and my general suspicion regarding technology has always prevented me of embracing technology more than was necessary or pragmatic. 

It was also the first time I had been associated with computer science. Perhaps it was due to my question, which she deemed both relevant and appropriate, or perhaps my look (I think I was wearing a hoodie). Be it as it may, I left this talk feeling slightly more accomplished knowing that I had added to and updated my knowledge base.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hubris of Unlimited Power: Gods, Gangs, and Narcos

Image of powerful Greek God Zeus
What would it be like to have unlimited god-like power? I am not talking about being a vigilante / superhero like Batman or Superman who use their skills and powers to right the wrongs in the world. I mean to have power that exceeds the reaches of nature and to be suspended beyond the tentacles of the law and the limitations of morality; hence, to be a Zeus-like entity that often engages in a self-absorbed, shamelessly and unapologetically narcissistic show of power.

To be someone to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most tangible and vivid image that comes to mind would be the God of the Old Testament. He is filled with wrath and the power to destroy and demolish anything he so wishes, be it individuals or whole towns. He is basically ready to eliminate anything and anyone that do not please him or do not abide his bidding. There are no limits to his reach and nowhere for you to hide since he can track you down, find you and make you pay for your sins and transgressions.

The closest example that comes to this power on Earth would not be the American president but rather somebody like a ruthless dictator or a scrupulous drug pin like Pablo Escobar. The problem with the president is that his powers are limited in scope and reach. As we often see, despite having executive orders, there are many things that the president in the Oval Office cannot do, such as scrap guns or close Guantanamo.

Elected presidents are bound by laws and morality (to a certain extent at least), which may limit what they are able to say or do. They can circumvent these limitations by using doublespeak or by changing and distorting facts and events to their advantage, but few of them have the guts to downright speak their mind. Again the only ones that do not mince words and have the power to back it up are dictators. They are free to act as they please, be it for good or bad (mostly it is the second as absolute power does corrupt).

Yet somebody like Escobar and his fellow narco counterparts today are the closest we come to absolute power. I have been watching the brilliant and addictive series Narcos and it shows us an astute and cunning businessman at first who becomes a megalomaniac shamelessly abusing his power in his latter years.

One of the strongest traits of this drug lord was his extensive network. He had information, and that gave him power (I suppose the NSA is trying to copy that kind of network, but this is better left unsaid). In one of the early scenes of the Netflix series, Escobar intimidates a group of boastful military police officers at a road check by enumerating not only their names, but detailed personal events in each of their lives, such as one of their mothers being sick in a hospital or so-and-so having a beautiful wife. Having all this intimate knowledge coupled with the power that money brings and affords him, he is indeed invincible.

If anybody dared to oppose him, no matter who it was, they would feel the wrath and fire of this man. He could kidnap their children, torture their relatives, and, at the last instance, assassinate them at a whim. At the same time, he is untouchable because of a sort of unofficial and unspoken immunity nor can he be found or located, let alone arrested due to his multi-faceted connections. The mention of his name alone only induces fear.

Who would not sometimes dream of having this type of power? Not to have to run to the Godfather in times of emergencies so that they can take vengeance on our behalf for the slights and insults we suffer every now and then, but to simply be that person. Imagine to threaten the person that disgruntles you and have them shake in their boots! A simple phone call or with today's technology a simple text message can arrange the problem and seal the fate of those who malign you or treat you wrong.

In life, we see the opposite occur. We bow our heads and obey the authorities, official or otherwise. It could a teacher, school director, landlord, boss or higher-up at work, a government employee, judge, security guard or police officer. It seems that the list is never-ending and despite living in a democracy and having recourse to the law, we are quite limited in our powers.

This may be also a main reason why youth are attracted to join dangerous cults, radical groups or gangs. They feel not only validated in those cohorts, but it also gives them a (false) sense of empowerment. They feel protected by a god, for instance, who they believe will guide them through danger, or by gangsters who (supposedly) treat them not only as family, but give them also protection from authorities; the same gang leaders also give them symbols and weapons to assert their new-found identity. The young initiates see themselves as somebody stronger and better, somebody not to be messed with or else consequences will ensue upon the perpetrators.

This power that they feel with and within those radical or criminal organizations is in direct proportion to the helplessness they feel due to lack of cultural or national identity or simply due to the erosive nature of poverty. Incidentally, Escobar himself was poor in his younger years, which may explain his general sympathy for the poor, but also his unbridled ambitiousness.

His desire was to attain absolute power. This power transcends morality in a Nietzschean way since any action by this Übermensch is justified and righteous in itself. What would Nietzsche say about Escobar, I ask myself? Like the God of the Old Testament, you need to obey and never ever dare to negate anything. This embodied power is to be respected because of the fear it induces and its suffering it can create in a flash.

Yet in reality this power, no matter how extensive it may seem, comes up a little short. Escobar's dream of becoming a president of his country was cut short. With all his powers, influence and money, and despite the ramping corruption, that was one dream he could not fulfill. And despite being so powerful, he had to, for a large part of his life, live in hiding and even worry about the safety of his family members and friends.

And again, dealing with the hard currency of reality, there are always rivals and competitors who will try their best to make you tumble and fall. They may be as ruthless as you are, if not more so. And your vengeance after vengeance will lead to more and more bloodshed and misery for all. Put differently, such power and privilege comes with a bloody price tag attached to it.

But as an occasional daytime fantasy, it does fulfill some needs. We can imagine we had those powers and that we are respected in a society that pushes us around, whereas laws and regulations equally protect and stifle us. For the downtrodden and the poor or for the dreamy middle class with a little bit of control and say, all we can do is to hold onto floating pieces of dignity, that small space we call our own and not be all too fazed or impacted by the slings and arrows of the world.