Monday, July 15, 2024

What about some positive news for a change?

Doomsaying can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as David Brooks points out. I want to point to Fix The News, a website curated by Angus Hervey and Amy Davoren-Rose, that points out positive stories, and offers to send occasional emails (Which I enjoy receiving) that list some of its content.  

Another positive (and totally woke) effort at making a more positive future is described in the document "New voices for a better society".

I would also point to previous MindBlog posts on the positive views of Steven Pinker. Nicholas Christakis, and Hans Rosling.

Friday, July 12, 2024

The emerging world order as a global version of the pre-Westphalian Middle Ages.

I would like to pass on this link to an essay by Parag Khanna in Noema Magazine which is one of the best description of the increasing entropy in global geopolitical systems as America's former hegemony contines its rapid decline. A previous MindBlog post has pointed to Zeihan's version of this story. Here are a few clips from the start of the piece that indicate its direction:
In global politics, entropy is captured by the term devolution, the transfer or surrender of power toward ever more local levels of authority. The deconcentration of power we witness today has been unfolding since the end of World War II, at which point the U.S. represented roughly half of the global GDP, was the only proven nuclear power and occupied strategic geography in both Europe and Asia.
Fast forward to today and China is the world’s largest economy in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, which accounts for the price of goods in local currency rather than U.S. dollars. Meanwhile, the EU’s share of the world economy in PPP is roughly equal to America’s, there are nearly 20 economies with a GDP of one trillion dollars or more, nine official nuclear weapons powers, and America’s influence is being actively challenged in the Middle East, Central Asia, Far East and even South America.
It is no coincidence that this rapid diffusion of systemic power coincides with the spectacular expansion of globalization, which connected Western capital to Asian labor, Arab oil supply to Asian demand, ultimately leveling the global economic playing field.
Ascending powers such as China and India have used globalization not to serve the Western-led order but to assert themselves within an interconnected global system. Globalization then has not been a tool of Americanization but far more fundamentally an avatar of entropy: distributing capacity and connecting an ever-wider array of agents.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

From nematodes to humans a common brain network motif intertwines hierarch and modularity.

Pathak et al. (abstract below) suggest the evolved pattern they describe may apply to information processing networks in general, in particular to those of evolving AI implementations.

Significance
Nervous systems are often schematically represented in terms of hierarchically arranged layers with stimuli in the “input” layer sequentially transformed through successive layers, eventually giving rise to response in the “output” layer. Empirical investigations of hierarchy in specific brain regions, e.g., the visual cortex, typically employ detailed anatomical information. However, a general method for identifying the underlying hierarchy from the connectome alone has so far been elusive. By proposing an optimized index that quantifies the hierarchy extant in a network, we reveal an architectural motif underlying the mesoscopic organization of nervous systems across different species. It involves both modular partitioning and hierarchical layered arrangement, suggesting that brains employ an optimal mix of parallel (modular) and sequential (hierarchic) information processing.
Abstract
Networks involved in information processing often have their nodes arranged hierarchically, with the majority of connections occurring in adjacent levels. However, despite being an intuitively appealing concept, the hierarchical organization of large networks, such as those in the brain, is difficult to identify, especially in absence of additional information beyond that provided by the connectome. In this paper, we propose a framework to uncover the hierarchical structure of a given network, that identifies the nodes occupying each level as well as the sequential order of the levels. It involves optimizing a metric that we use to quantify the extent of hierarchy present in a network. Applying this measure to various brain networks, ranging from the nervous system of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to the human connectome, we unexpectedly find that they exhibit a common network architectural motif intertwining hierarchy and modularity. This suggests that brain networks may have evolved to simultaneously exploit the functional advantages of these two types of organizations, viz., relatively independent modules performing distributed processing in parallel and a hierarchical structure that allows sequential pooling of these multiple processing streams. An intriguing possibility is that this property we report may be common to information processing networks in general.

Monday, July 08, 2024

Our well being influences our mitochondrial biology.

I pass on the abstract from Trumoff et al (open source) below. The bottom line is that our experienced well being correlates with with higher levels of energy transformation machinery in our mitochondria.  

Significance

Psychosocial experiences predict health trajectories, but the underlying mechanism remains unclear. We report that positive psychosocial experiences are linked to greater abundance of the mitochondrial energy transformation machinery, whereas negative experiences are linked to lower abundance. Overall, psychosocial experiences accounted for 18 to 25% of the variance in protein abundance for complex I, the largest and most upstream mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos) enzyme. At single-cell resolution, positive psychosocial experiences were particularly related to glial cell mitochondrial phenotypes. As a result, opposite associations between glial cells and neurons were naturally masked in bulk transcriptomic analyses. Our results suggest that mitochondrial recalibrations in specific brain cell types may represent a potential psychobiological pathway linking psychosocial experiences to human brain health.
Abstract
Psychosocial experiences affect brain health and aging trajectories, but the molecular pathways underlying these associations remain unclear. Normal brain function relies on energy transformation by mitochondria oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos). Two main lines of evidence position mitochondria both as targets and drivers of psychosocial experiences. On the one hand, chronic stress exposure and mood states may alter multiple aspects of mitochondrial biology; on the other hand, functional variations in mitochondrial OxPhos capacity may alter social behavior, stress reactivity, and mood. But are psychosocial exposures and subjective experiences linked to mitochondrial biology in the human brain? By combining longitudinal antemortem assessments of psychosocial factors with postmortem brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) proteomics in older adults, we find that higher well-being is linked to greater abundance of the mitochondrial OxPhos machinery, whereas higher negative mood is linked to lower OxPhos protein content. Combined, positive and negative psychosocial factors explained 18 to 25% of the variance in the abundance of OxPhos complex I, the primary biochemical entry point that energizes brain mitochondria. Moreover, interrogating mitochondrial psychobiological associations in specific neuronal and nonneuronal brain cells with single-nucleus RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) revealed strong cell-type-specific associations for positive psychosocial experiences and mitochondria in glia but opposite associations in neurons. As a result, these “mind-mitochondria” associations were masked in bulk RNA-seq, highlighting the likely underestimation of true psychobiological effect sizes in bulk brain tissues. Thus, self-reported psychosocial experiences are linked to human brain mitochondrial phenotypes.

Friday, July 05, 2024

ChatGPT as a "lab rat" for understanding how our brains process language.

I've now read twice through a fascinating PNAS piece by Mitchell Waldrop (Open source, with useful references), and urge MindBlog readers to havve a look. Our brains, as well as all of the GPT (Generative Pretrained Transforer) engines are prediction machines. The following slilghtly edited extract gives context.
...computer simulations of language [are] working in ways that [are] strikingly similar to the left-hemisphere language regions of our brains, using the same computational principles...The reasons for this AI–brain alignment are still up for debate. But its existence is a huge opportunity for neuroscientists struggling to pin down precisely how the brain’s language regions actually work...What’s made this so difficult in the past is that language is a brain function unique to humans. So, unlike their colleagues studying vision or motor control, language researchers have never had animal models that they can slice, probe, and manipulate to tease out all the neural details.
But now that the new AI models have given them the next best thing—an electronic lab rat for language—Fedorenko and many other neuroscientists around the world have eagerly put these models to work. This requires care, if only because the AI–brain alignment doesn’t seem to encompass many cognitive skills other than language...Language is separate in the brain...there are left-side regions of the brain that are always activated by language—and nothing but language..the system responds in the same way to speaking, writing—all the kinds of languages a person knows and speaks, including sign languages. It doesn't espond to things that aren’t language, like logical puzzles, mathematical problems, or music.

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Cumulative human culture began ~600,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene

An interesting study by Paige and Perreault:  

Significance

Our species, Homo sapiens, occupies a uniquely diverse set of ecological habitats. Humans expanded into tropical forests and arctic tundra through cumulative culture. Cumulative culture is the accumulation of modifications, innovations, and improvements over generations through social learning. Generations of variant accumulations allow humans to use technologies and know-how well beyond what a single naive individual could invent independently within their lifetime. We analyzed the stone tools made during the last 3.3 My. We found that these stone tools remained simple until about 600,000 B.P. After that point, stone tools rapidly increased in complexity. Consistent with findings from other research teams, we suggest that this transition signals the development of cumulative culture in the human lineage.
Abstract
Cumulative culture, the accumulation of modifications, innovations, and improvements over generations through social learning, is a key determinant of the behavioral diversity across Homo sapiens populations and their ability to adapt to varied ecological habitats. Generations of improvements, modifications, and lucky errors allow humans to use technologies and know-how well beyond what a single naive individual could invent independently within their lifetime. The human dependence on cumulative culture may have shaped the evolution of biological and behavioral traits in the hominin lineage, including brain size, body size, life history, sociality, subsistence, and ecological niche expansion. Yet, we do not know when, in the human career, our ancestors began to depend on cumulative culture. Here, we show that hominins likely relied on a derived form of cumulative culture by at least ~600 kya, a result in line with a growing body of existing evidence. We analyzed the complexity of stone tool manufacturing sequences over the last 3.3 My of the archaeological record. We then compare these to the achievable complexity without cumulative culture, which we estimate using nonhuman primate technologies and stone tool manufacturing experiments. We find that archaeological technologies become significantly more complex than expected in the absence of cumulative culture only after ~600 kya.

Monday, July 01, 2024

There are no more human elites of any sort...

 I want to pass on the conclusion of a great essay by Venkatesh Rao, giving the meanings of several acronyms in parentheses. You should read the entire piece.
 

"Let me cut to the conclusion: There are no more human elites of any sort. In the sense of natural rulers that is. There are certainly all sorts of privileged and entitled types who want the benefits of being elites, but no humans up to the task of actually being elite.

It is only our anthropocentric conceits that lead us to conclude that a complex system like “civilization” must necessarily have a legible “head,” and legible and governable internal processes for staffing that head. Preferably with the Right Sorts of People, People Like Us.

We’re all under the API (Application Programming Interface) in one way or another. What’s more, we have been for a while, since before the rise of modern AI (which just makes it embarrassingly obvious by paving the cowpaths of our subservience to technological modernity).

To know just how little you know about anything, be it car lightbulbs or national constitutions, whatever your degrees say, just ask ChatGPT to explain some deep knowledge areas to you. I don’t care if you’re a qualified automative technician or Elon Musk or clerking for the Supreme Court. Whether you’re failson C-average George W. Bush or a DEI (Diversity-Equity-Inclusion) activist trying to swap out some Greek classics for modern lesbian classics in the canon.

What you don’t know about the world humanity has built up over millennia utterly dwarfs what you think you know. Whatever the source of your elite pretensions, they’re just that — pretensions. Whatever claims you have to being the most natural member of the governing class, it is somewhere between weak to non-existent. Your claim is really about suitability for casting in a governance LARP (Live Action Role-Playing), not aptitude for governing as a natural member of an elite.

Humans do not like this idea. We ultimately like the idea of a designated elite, and legible, just processes for choosing, installing, and removing them that legitimize our own fantasies of worth and agency. We want to believe that yes, we too can be President, and would deserve to be, and do a good job.

The alternative hypothesis is that modern civilization, with its millennia of evolved technological complexity crammed onto the cramped surface of the planet, does not admit any simple, just, and enduring notion of elite that we can use to govern ourselves. The knowledge, aptitudes, and talents required to govern the world are distributed all over, in unpredictable, unfair, constantly shifting, and messy ways. When a lightbulb fails, there is no default answer to the question of how to replace it, and what to do when mistakes are made.

The rise of modern AI is presenting us with seemingly new forms of these questions. Those who yearn for a reliable class of elites, even if they must both revere and fear that class, are predictably trying to cast AIs themselves as the new elites. Those attached to their anthropocentric conceits are trying to figure out cunning schemes to keep some group of humans reliably in charge.

But there is nobody in charge. No elites, natural or not, deserving or undeserving. And it’s been this way for longer than we care to admit.

And this is a good thing. Stop looking for elites, and look askance at anyone claiming to be part of any elite or muttering conspiratorially about any elites. The world runs itself in more complex and powerful ways than they are capable of imagining. To buy into their self-mythologizing and delusions of grandeur is to be blind to the power and complexity of the world as it actually is.

And if you ever need to remind yourself of this, try changing a car headlamp lightbulb."