I enjoyed the visit at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton University. I have had great discussions with Professor Lin and her Hurricane Hazards and Risk Analysis Research Group.
I presented my research on understanding human judgments on environmental risks and hazards in a geographic context at the American Association of Geographers annual conference in New Orleans, LA. I also presented our study on environmental hazards and mental health among Gulf Coastal counties in this meeting.
In his book Skin in the Game and his previous paper, Nassim Taleb has specifically and extensively criticized Steven Pinker's approach to measuring wars and his conclusion that we are living in the most peaceful era in human history. This naive optimism, Taleb argues, is also shared by those who used to assume the stock market would go up forever without any crashes. Extreme events such as large-scale wars need special statistical approach to measure, such as extreme value theory.
Now, a new paper "show that the overall pattern is not a decline in war, but substantial variation between periods and places. War has not declined and current trends are slightly in the opposite direction."
15 years after the renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman won Nobel Prize in Economics, his coauthor Richard Thaler, became a newly minted Nobel laureate for "his contribution to behavioral economics." Over the past four decades, behavioral economists have fundamentally challenged the assumption on human rationality that is widely used in economics. Here is Tyler Cowen's blog post on Thaler's contribution to economics. Here is Thaler's coauthor Cass Sunstein's paper on Thaler's work.
I've finally finished reading Yuval Noah Harari's book: Homo Deus. His visionary account of what may happen to the humanity in the future is built upon his deep understanding of our past. In his last widely acclaimed book Sapiens, Harari lays out three important revolutions in the last 70,000 years that have fundamentally shaped who we are today. These revolutions are: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Now that the view organism is algorithm takes root in many minds, where is Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking us next? No one has a crystal ball in their hands to see the future. Harari's reading of history and current affairs informs him of a quite dark future.
In the past couple of centuries, with scientific and technological advances, humanism, attaching life's meaning to individuals' inner feelings and free will, has replaced traditional religions becoming the dominant ideology. With "free will" being fundamentally challenged in the lab by biology, neuroscience, and psychology, one can't but help wonder if there is such a thing as "free will." Like Harari writes, "Next time a thought pops into your mind, stop and ask yourself: 'Why did I think this particular thought? Did I decide a minute ago to think this thought, and only then think it? Or did it just arise, without any direction or permission from me? If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?' Try that, and see what happens. " If there is no real "free will," then what are we? The implication is, "we can manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation."
Harari's another acute observation of history: consciousness and intelligence have always gone hand in hand until recently. Now with machine/deep learning, artificial neural network and other techniques, AI can do tasks better than humans. Think of the case when IBM Watson beat the human chess champion. A decoupling process of these two is unfolding in front of our eyes. In the foreseeable, we may have self-driving cars to take us anywhere we want to go. We may depend on algorithm to detect any potential medical issues in our bodies. We may use algorithms to figure out for us what the best way to learn a specific subject based on our own natural attributes and learning patterns. Now that intelligence can be independent of consciousness the only thing we can cling to for our uniqueness, the major question then would be: what are we here for?
In the past, we have come up with different stories to make us unique. Whether it's religion or humanism, we managed to convince ourselves of the indispensable nature of our existence in the universe. With the humanity moving towards dataism, the new religion of 21st century, our indispensable existence will be fundamentally questioned. Are we just a bunch of data processing medium for a grand scheme? Since no one has the power to see the future, Harari ends his book by posing some questions to every reader of his:
"1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2. What's more valuable - intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?"
Here are some insightful quotes:
"History isn't a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others."
"Human networks built in the name of imaginary entities such as gods, nations and corporations normally judge their success from the viewpoint of the imaginary entity."
"Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. As history unfolds, stories about gods, nations and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality."
"Science and religion are like a husband and wife who after 500 years of marriage counselling still don't know each other. He still dreams about Cinderella and she keeps pining for Prince Charming, while the argue about whose turn it is to take out the rubbish."
"Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimizes human social structure by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws."
"The greatest scientific discovery is the discovery of ignorance."
"Religion is interested above all in order. Science is interested above all in power."
"People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons."
"Humans were supposed to distill data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom."
I am honored to be selected to be an Early-Career Research Fellow by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program.
Here is the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Press Release.
Elon Musk has demonstrated to the world his high-flying ambition to make our civilization cross-planetary, in case tragic events may bring an end to the world as we know it. Read about his vision to go to Mars.
Robert Caro has spent the past four decades writing about the life of one person: Lyndon B. Johnson. His meticulousness and eloquence have turned this epic biography into a masterpiece about an important episode during 20th century American political history. The Paris Review recently conducted an interview with Caro on the art of biography.
Anti-globalization sentiment swept the UK and US in 2006. With France's presidential election unfolding, all eyes are on the young front-runner Emmanuel Macron. Here is a piece on his remarkable rise to the political scene.
I am honored to be invited to attend the 64th National Security Forum (NSF) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, from 9-11 May 2017. I look forward to having intellectually stimulating discussions with senior Air Force officers on national security issues.