Do you like humans?

I have lately been playing around with Allo, an instant messaging mobile app by Google. Among other interesting features, the app comes with a virtual assistant which when asked its name tells the user (rather plainly) to call it her/his Google Assistant.

To begin with, the Google Assistant is meant to assist you in almost all your online and offline tasks. But what really got me interested in it were the smart (and sometimes, witty) replies it comes up with. Take for example, the following string of queries and replies:

How smart are you?
It might seem like I’m smart
But I’m just good at searching

How big is your family?
It takes a village to raise a virtual assistant

What’s your superpower?
If I had a superpower
I’d want to be a super-memory

How many roads must a man walk down?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
But I’ll spare you my harmonica solo

Do you like humans?
I love humanity
You have the best questions
And the best dreams

Now, my objective here is surely not to review the app or the virtual assistant (or worse, to add to the pile of Siri vs Cortana sort of articles). And anyway, to many, the above string may appear rather uninteresting. What actually prompted me to write this post was the reply to the last question in the string.

The reply just came out from a large chunk of code written by the developers at Google (with probably some inputs gained through machine learning) and there’s nothing much special about it from the AI-development perspective. But the idea behind the reply is important. Humanity does have wonderful questions and dreams. It is this innate human curiosity that has resulted in the technology at our disposal today (that includes virtual personal assistants like Allo’s, too).

This belief (in the importance of questioning), however, has an interesting aspect to it; the conundrum of which questions are important. For instance, is the question of what precursors are there to an earthquake more important than that of what lies inside the event horizon of a black hole? Or that of finding cures to cancer more important than finding a proof of the celebrated Riemann hypothesis? Are some questions really more important than others?

I do not know the answer. It does appear that finding answers to some questions have a more immediate impact and usefulness. But what about the other seemingly less useful ones? There have been multiple instances when fundamental research, which appears to be undertaken only to answer not-as-important questions, has led to enormous developments in fields that directly cater to humanity. But even if it did not, how appropriate would it be to call it less important?

As I said, I do not have an answer.

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On Strings and Perspectives

This week has been really interesting. IISER Pune is hosting the eighth edition of the biennial Indian Strings Meeting. For the uninitiated, string theory is one of the many different approaches to a theory of quantum gravity (a theory which can consistently describe quantum mechanics and classical gravity within a common framework). A slightly technical introduction to string theory is this very well-written piece What every physicist should know about string theory by Edward Witten.

From a general point of view, (perhaps) more fascinating are the dialogues that have been established between physics and mathematics as a result of the research in string theory (and quantum gravity, in general) in the last five to six decades. A number of problems in both these areas have seen significant contributions coming from the other side – hugely motivating new insights into interesting solutions. These dialogues have largely been possible because of the different perspectives each of these topics have offered to the other.

Talking of perspectives, I recently chanced upon this TED talk by Roger Antonsen where he very beautifully describes how taking different perspectives helps us improve our understanding and why this ability has an inherent universality.

Ed Witten, who stands tall among the giants in the field of string theory, would undoubtedly classify as one of the finest interpreters to have facilitated the dialogue between physics and mathematics. He is the only physicist till date to have been awarded the Fields Medal, the most coveted prize in mathematics. His works, apart from leading new directions to string theory, have also made enormous impacts on pure mathematics.

Though string theory has its share of proponents and adversaries, even its detractors would agree that these different perspectives and the resulting conversations have helped reinforce the idea that the whole of science is but one single adventure.

The presentation slides from the talks at the Indian Strings Meeting 2016 are available online and can be accessed here.

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Knots (and a lot many things)

Prof. Louis H. Kauffman is here at IISER Pune for a few days. For a man of his age (he’ll turn 72 the coming February), he hardly shows any signs of frailty – he has given three (pretty long) talks in the last two days. His breadth of knowledge is enthralling – the topics he has talked on range from knot theory and mathematical logic to quantum computing and statistical mechanics.

Prof. Kauffman is one of the leading figures in knot theory today. While knot theory deals with the topological features of knots, the extent to which these ideas have been found to be related to physics and other sciences is enormous. World Scientific has a Series on Knots and Everything, with Prof. Kauffman as the series editor; he has also authored a book in the series titled Knots and Physics.

If you’re interested in reading more about knots, you can find a number of interesting articles on the subject (and on many other things) on Prof. Kauffman’s UIC webpage.


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Why We Don’t Own This Planet

I remember reading an excerpt from My Family and Other Animals, probably as a fourteen year old (I eventually read the complete work last year), and wondering how fascinating it would be to spend one’s life with countless interesting animals around. My Family and Other Animals is a witty and humorous autobiographical account of the India-born British naturalist Gerald Durrell’s early childhood years on the Greek island of Corfu. Durrell later went on to establish the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust which, after his death, was renamed the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and continues to function to this date.

Over the last hundred years, both governmental and non-governmental organisations over the world have taken the task of conservation quite seriously. However, with the growing number of human-wildlife conflicts, there has also been an evident increase in extreme human-centric sentiments across communities. This in turn has hugely impacted the decisions of the policy-making bodies and we have ended up in a situation where a large fraction of these decisions adopt an utterly unscientific viewpoint of human supremacy over other species. This probably arises from the fact that deep inside we still consider non-human animals not “beings” enough. Deep within our prejudiced minds, we think we own this planet; we make the decisions, because only we can; because only we have a sense of fairness and morality.

You must watch this incredible TED talk by Dr. Frans de Waal (if you haven’t already). The talk will surely make you chuckle on occasions more than one; but probably the most important of its messages is to understand and acknowledge that humans are not unique in having notions of empathy, morality and compassion. And yes, we do not own this planet; we just share it with thousands of other species, each of which is unique, different…and important.

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Random Matrices

Random Matrix Theory comprises of some of the most beautiful ideas in modern day mathematics. Popularised extensively by the works of Eugene Wigner and Freeman Dyson in the 1950s (after being first used by John Wishart in mathematical statistics), the theory of random matrices has led insights into numerous fields (even those outside the realm of level statistics) in the last seven decades.

A good place to begin with Random Matrix Theory would be Bertrand Eynard’s lecture notes which can be found here. A classic book on the subject is Random Matrices by Madan Lal Mehta, widely considered the finest text introducing the theory.

I have been working my way through the theory of random matrices for quite some time now and plan to put more posts on the topic up here in the future.

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The Sparrow Still Sings

Those fine winter mornings…
Waking up with the neighbourhood sparrow family.
The whole flock on the old Champa tree;
Sparrow Songs filling those cold, lazy mornings.
Soon another flock, and one more, and another…
The old Champa would beam with joy.

‘What are the sparrows singing, Papa?’
‘Songs for you, son; telling you ‘tis time to rise and shine.’
‘Time to rise and shine.’
Yeah, it was time.

But, time…time moved on.

And yesterday after so long,
the old familiar sound was heard again.
A faint little chirp in the dense forest of cemented bricks.
But, somehow it managed to stay on.
‘The sparrow still sings.’
It was a moment of joy.
A random chirp for others, maybe;
for me, my old diary,
those memories old and lost.
Of all those fine winter mornings.
Of all those flocks gathering in my neighbourhood.
Of all those buds blossoming into flowers on the old Champa.

And the old Champa…yes, it still stands there.
It doesn’t flower anymore, though.
Time…yes, time did move on.

The sparrow still sings.
But for how long..?

Originally published in the 2015 issue of Kalpa, the in-house student magazine of IISER Pune.
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