Limits to machine prediction, the psychology of Brexit fantasies and how biology exploits phase transitions – a few recent essays

Here are links to a few recent articles by LML Fellow Mark Buchanan.

 

Limits of Machine Prediction      Nature Physics 15, 304 (2019)

Increasingly, many people believe that the explosive rise in technology for data gathering and analysis may soon make the scientific method unnecessary. After several centuries of science driven by the profitable interplay of observation and theory, we’re moving into a new era in which theory and conceptual understanding can be eliminated, as machines will do science for us. This essay examines a number of reasons by such beliefs are almost certainly mistaken.

 

Navigating Conflicts Among the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals      Bloomberg Opinion, 15 March, 2019

We’ve made good progress in pursuing some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with far fewer children dying before age five, and ever more people gaining access to electricity and clean water. But progress on one goal can hamper action or even cause regress on others. A new study shows that pursuit of some goals appears to stir up far fewer conflicts than others, so our choice of priorities could make a big difference.

 

Maybe What We Love About the Brexit Drama Is… The Drama    Bloomberg Opinion, 1 March, 2019

When human behaviour seems to drift into the irrational, one looks for explanations in the unconscious, perhaps the only level on which the bizarre Brexit process can be understood. As suggested by Irish journalist Finnian O’Toole in his book Heroic Failure, the most plausible explanation for Brexit fervour lies in the power of historical myth, reflected in rising English nationalism and longing for the mythic heroism of World War II and the glories of the lost British Empire.

 

Going Into Resonance   Nature Physics 15, 203 (2019)

The notion of ‘resonance’ is among the most familiar ideas in science. Two pendulum clocks in resonance synchronize themselves, sound waves of the right frequency drive strong vibrations in a drum, and photons tuned to atomic transitions put atoms into excited states. Yet surprisingly, the modern familiarity of the concept obscures an unusual history of extremely slow recognition, with full appreciation taking some 300 years. This essay explores a little of this history.

 

Media Bias on Artificial Intelligence         Bloomberg Opinion, 14 February, 2019

Where are we headed with artificial intelligence? We seem to be sleepwalking into the future without much public discussion of what most people want from it, or how to make sure it is used responsibly. Media coverage of AI is part of the problem, as it mostly follows industry products and announcements, and helps to purvey the industry’s self-interested view of AI’s value and desirability.

 

Searching for Civilization           Nature Physics 15, 108 (2019)

Over the past half century, efforts to find evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe have centred on the search for so-called technosignatures — signs of technology being employed by a civilization that ‘modifies its environment in ways that are detectable.’ The current status of the search for technosignatures was the focus of a NASA meeting in September 2018, and the main points were reviewed in a recent paper. As it emphasizes, the search rests heavily on imagination to conceive of the kinds of possible technologies a civilization far more advanced than our own may develop.

 

Biological Transitions     Nature Physics 15, 2 (2019)

Phase transitions reflect spontaneous transformations of collective organization and are among the most surprising physical phenomena. They define natural fault lines along which natural organization can exist, or change from one form to another. It would not be surprising if biology made extensive use of phase transitions in ensuring the proper workings of living organisms. Indeed, biologists have recently identified many examples, running from the basic structure of the cytoplasm in the interior of a cell to the collective migration of cell tissues during organism development or wound healing.

 

Underestimating Climate Change Cheats Investors         Bloomberg Opinion, 27 December, 2018

As the effects of climate change unfold, its impact on business will grow more severe: altered rain patterns will affect agriculture, floods will disrupt supply lines, heat waves will prevent employees from working. If markets are to work well, investors need to know about these consequences, and many companies now voluntarily disclose estimates of climate-linked risks. Unfortunately, a comprehensive new study finds that such reporting reflects serious blind spots, and businesses appear to be dramatically underestimating the risks they face.

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