Friday, February 21, 2014

Eye of the Tiger

A bit of a disclaimer about this week's posting.  I'm in no way endorsing or promoting the product I'm about to discuss.  I have not personally used or purchased it.  In fact I encourage anyone to approach a product that uses the phrase "brain training" with a healthy dose of skepticism. All that said, if results hold up it's interesting and thus worth discussion.

Recently a new app has been generating some buzz in neuroscience circles.  Dr. Aaron Seitz has developed UltimEyes, a program which claims to improve visual acuity by training the visual cortex.  Seitz recently published a study wherein baseball players seemingly exhibited significant improvements in vision (and subsequently hitting).

First the bad news.  Although Seitz is a serious researcher with a prominent background in the discipline his UltimEyes study was preliminary at best.  Due to a variety of factors (which reportedly center around requests originating from the player's coach) the study was non-blinded, the treatment group was non-random and the control group received no placebo.  Further, while vision improvements (as demonstrated by a standard eye chart) were clear and attributable to the study's treatment; hitting improvements (attributed largely by Seitz to improved vision) are easily explainable by other mechanisms.  Essentially the study was conducted during the portion of the season that hitters (the treatment group) improve the most anyway whereas the control group (pitchers) rarely improve much at all.

The good news is that by all appearances the app does improve vision in otherwise healthy adults.  It's important to note that the program does nothing to repair or improve the eye.  If there is some physical cause of poor sight the program will not change that. However, reportedly by training the brain to process Gabor Stimuli more efficiently individuals can see (pun intended) significant improvements in eyesight.

There has been somewhat of a fad recently in so called "brain training" workouts. The goal is to keep the mind agile and stave off the eventual cognitive decline caused by aging.  Most of these workouts are essentially scams.  Keeping your mind active is an important part of overall physical health.  However, these marketed programs generally have no remarkable science behind them.  Any puzzle, discussion, or even meditation which sufficiently stimulates the mind would have the same effect as an expensive brain training program. Furthermore, all o the above can be found far cheaper than a brain trainer.

Seitz's work on the other hand is rather novel.  The app presents the visual cortex with stimuli which seem to improve it's efficiency. Stimuli which you are unlikely to encounter on your own.  Unlike brain trainers which simply sell simple puzzles at huge profits, Seitz seems to be selling something you can't easily get for free in your day to day life.  Undoubtedly free copycats will arise which are similarly effective (the app is not complex) but the point is Seitz seems to be peddling more than just snake oil.

Undoubtedly the research needs to be taken further before anyone can claim Seitz's work is worth your time (much less your money) but it's a promising and interesting exploration into how neuroscience can improve individual's day to day lives.  Next up could be improving individuals ability to hear a certain voice in a crowded environment or curing tone deafness.

A final note. By all reports the app is not particularly well made or functional.  Many users report the app crashes often or doesn't properly allow logins.  Again, I do not encourage anyone to purchase the app, only to explore the science behind it.

That's all for this week. Until next time stay safe and rationale.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Socially Responsible Investing

Before reading further take a moment to consider, what is the purpose of investment?

Most people probably would reply that investment is a means to acquire wealth and income.  On the individual level they're most likely correct.  Few people invest with hopes of losing their nest egg.  But on a social level what purpose does investment serve?  

The answer likely isn't terribly intuitive for non-economists.  Investors, through their self interested wealth creation should be allocating capital to firms that will use it most efficiently. For example, if Bill's company has a fantastic new software product that people will find useful he should be able to sell it for a decent profit.  This prospective profit should allow Bill to attract investors who will provide the funds for Bill to fully develop and distribute his product.  The end result is that Bill and his investors become wealthier and society benefits from a product that improves everyone's lives.  Everybody wins and everyone is happy.

This pattern has been followed in various forms for centuries.  Spice traders would provide funds for caravans to travel eastward, buy spices and return them to their homeland. Again, society benefits from the spices they desire and the investors and firms profit.  Kings and Queens would provide ships and crew for explorers mapping far off continents.  The explorers opened up new lands for society to develop and returned with new riches to fill the coffers of their investors. To generalize the pattern, investors provide capital to firms or individuals who then transform the capital into a good which society values more than the capital. The firm collects the excess valuation (profits) and passes it on in part or whole to the investors.

Contrast this pattern with gambling. Gambling, much like investing, has the same goal to the individual, wealth accumulation (although hopefully the ultimate goal is entertainment rather than income). However, gambling provides no benefit to society.  It is simply the semi-random exchange of funds between two parties, the gambler and the house. Although a gambler and investor both give funds to another party in the hope of great return, the gambler has no thought to a casino using funds productively or efficiently.  An investor meanwhile will only provide funds to a firm which he believes has a profitable purpose and effective means to accomplish it's purpose.

This brings us then to the concept of speculation, the investment in a firm or commodity simply due to the belief that the equity will appreciate in value.  An investor who buys iron with the belief that iron will become more valuable due to possible shortages performs no service to society.  Ultimately iron mining firms will seek investment to expand operations and thus fulfill societies iron needs.  But the investors that buy shares in the firms will be allocating capital optimally (from a societal perspective) whereas those that buy iron accomplish nothing but driving prices higher.  Both (assuming an increase in iron prices) will profit, but those that buy iron will only benefit themselves.

Speculation is at best attempting to outguess the market. Whereas investment is the efficient allocation of funds in a free market.  It's perfectly reasonable to invest in facebook because you believe the management will use the funds productively. However, investing in facebook simply because you believe others will drive up the price accomplishes nothing but the gain or loss of personal wealth.  Of course, on the individual level most people are more than satisfied with "just" the gain of personal wealth.  Still, in an ideal world investors would always gain profit at the same time they're helping keep the economy moving forward.

That's all for this week. Until next time stay safe and rationale. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Man vs Mechanization

Predictions that automation will supplant human workers are nothing new.  Indeed, in many industries machines have already taken over jobs previously performed by low skilled workers.  Yet, overall the inevitable rise of the machines has fallen rather short of most futurists predictions.  Still, over a long enough time line it's difficult to imagine how automation doesn't supplant most low skill jobs. After all, machines in general only grow cheaper while human labor often rises in cost.

Given the machines eventual workforce dominance it's an interesting exercise to determine which jobs are reasonably safe from robotic theft.  To this end let's define what machines do well and where they fall short.
  • Machines perform routine tasks quickly and cheaply.
  • Machines work without fatigue or distraction.
  • The cost of a machine is heavily front loaded and ends when a machine is decommissioned.
  • Machines do not react to novelty with adaptive behavior. 
  • Machines are generally either fully operational or non productive.
  • Machines do not exceed their designed purpose.
Points one through three are for the most part advantages machines have over people while points four to six are deficits. Machines are generally more productive, at less cost and require no payment when they're not working (such as retirement benefits or vacation time).  These characteristics make them generally preferable workers when suited for the task. Points four through six roughly define the tasks ill suited to machine labor.

Machines do not react to novelty with adaptive behavior.  Roughly speaking this means tasks which deal with highly variable inputs are often ill suited to automation. In customer service for example workers must engage with a customer who may have any number of complaints (both reasonable and unreasonable) and attempt to satisfy the individual.  Contrarily, the only input of importance for a cashier is barcodes and currency, two largely uniform inputs a machine can easily work with. Thus self check out lanes in stores make a great deal of sense while self customer service counters do not.  Interestingly self return counters in stores would make sense (after all it's just a reverse checkout) if not for the likelihood of deception on the part of customers. The essence of this point is that we have yet to create machines which make decisions wisely.  A task must be routine and approachable algorithmically for machine labor to be efficient.  Any job which consists primarily of judgement and decisions is likely safe from a machine takeover for the foreseeable future. This includes governance, law enforcement, any profession requiring extensive human interaction (note that just because a profession currently involves human interaction does not mean it requires it),  law, insurance, any profession involving diagnosis (both health and maintenance), inspection personnel, and management.

Machines are generally either fully operational or non productive. There is the possibility of performance degradation over time, but machines are a far more binary system than people.  When a part of a machine fails it's very likely to stop completely. People are far more resilient and predictable when it comes to component failures.  If a robot doctor (an independent robot surgeon, not a tool used by a human surgeon) had a component seize during a surgery the results would likely be life ending. However, a  human doctor with a hand cramp simply pauses, stretches out his hand for a moment and continues with the procedure.  Situations like these make machine labor unsuitable in scenarios where failure is unacceptable.  If there were a profession who's duties included "push this button once an hour or everyone on earth dies" we'd likely build a machine to push the button, but you can also be sure at least one human would be there as well to make sure it was done.  Professions made safe by this point are: many healthcare professionals, large construction project jobs, pilots, and any profession which puts lives or large amounts of money at risk if done incorrectly.

Machines do not exceed their designed purpose.  Essentially this amounts to machines are not very creative.  They do not invent, innovate, create art or entertainment.  Any profession which relies primarily on the imagination of the human mind is for the moment unlikely to be taken by a robot.  This includes artists, actors advertisers, academics, inventors, engineers, programmers, design, everything hollywood, and essentially any scientific pursuit.

It's important to note a key difference between machine automation that replaces a job and machine automation that assists a job.  Arguably on a plane the autopilot is a machine that does most of the work.  However, it is unlikely that we'll eliminate the profession of pilot any time soon.  Similarly, many surgeons are using machines which reduce the invasiveness of surgeries and speed recovery times.  But machines which conduct major surgeries without human input are probably not just around the corner.

Undoubtedly there are a number of professions not explicitly mentioned which are equally safe from the automation revolution.  However, much of manufacturing has already been supplanted by robotic workers and the trend continues.  The next wave is likely to be the elimination of many service industry jobs as cheap and easy to use interfaces replace cashiers and restaurant workers.  If half your job involves handing someone a receipt be on the look out for R2-D2 coming to take your job.  Though as dire as that sounds, keep in mind even the self check out lanes at grocery stores still have a real person there making sure things go smoothly.

That's it for this week. Until next time stay safe and rationale.