Antoni Gaudi and learning algorithms from Nature

Happy holidays.

A few days ago, I was exploring Barcelona. This means that I saw a lot of architecture by Antoni Gaudi. His works have a very distinct style; their fluid lines, bright colours, myriad materials, and interface of design and function make for very naturesque buildings. They are unique and stand in sharp contrast to the other — often Gothic revival and Catalan Modernisme — architecture around them. The contrast is conscious; when starting out, Gaudi learned the patterns of the neo-Gothic architecture then in vogue and later commented on it:

Gothic art is imperfect, only half resolved; it is a style created by the compasses, a formulaic industrial repetition. Its stability depends on constant propping up by the buttresses: it is a defective body held up on crutches. … The proof that Gothic works are of deficient plasticity is that they produce their greatest emotional effect when they are mutilated, covered in ivy and lit by the moon.

His buildings, however, do not need to be overgrown by ivy, for Gaudi already incorporates nature in their design. I felt this connection most viscerally when touring the attic of Casa Mila. The building was commissioned as an apartment for local bourgeois to live comfortably on the ground floor off the rents they collected from the upper floors. And although some of the building is still inhabited by businesses and private residence, large parts of it have been converted into a museum. The most famous part among tourists is probably the uneven organic roof with its intricate smoke stacks, ventilation shafts, and archways for framing other prominent parts of Barcelona.

This uneven roof is supported by an attic that houses an exhibit on Gaudi’s method. Here, I could see Gaudi’s inspiration. On display was a snake’s skeleton and around me were the uneven arches of the attic — the similarity was palpable (see below). The questions for me were: was Gaudi inspired by nature or did he learn from it? Is there even much of a difference between ‘inspired’ and ‘learned’? And can this inform thought on the correspondence between nature and algorithms more generally?


I spend a lot of time writing about how we can use algorithmic thinking to understand aspects of biology. It is much less common for me to write about how we can use biology or nature to understand and inspire algorithms. In fact, I feel surprisingly strong skepticism towards the whole field of natural algorithms, even when I do write about it. I suspect that this stems from my belief that we cannot learn algorithms from nature. A belief that was shaken, but not overturned, when I saw the snake’s skeleton in Gaudi’s attic. In this post, I will try to substantiate the statement that we cannot learn algorithms from nature. My hope is that someone, or maybe just the act of writing, will convince me otherwise. I’ll sketch my own position on algorithms & nature, and strip the opposing we-learn-algorithms-from-nature position of some of its authority by pulling on a historic thread that traces this belief from Plato through Galileo to now. I’ll close with a discussion of some practical consequences of this metaphysical disagreement and try to make sense of Gaudi’s work from my perspective.

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Fusion and sex in protocells & the start of evolution

In 1864, five years after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Pyotr Kropotkin — the anarchist prince of mutual aid — was leading a geographic survey expedition aboard a dog-sleigh — a distinctly Siberian variant of the HMS Beagle. In the harsh Manchurian climate, Kropotkin did not see competition ‘red in tooth and claw’, but a flourishing of cooperation as animals banded together to survive their environment. From this, he built a theory of mutual aid as a driving factor of evolution. Among his countless observations, he noted that no matter how selfish an animal was, it still had to come together with others of its species, at least to reproduce. In this, he saw both sex and cooperation as primary evolutionary forces.

Now, Martin A. Nowak has taken up the challenge of putting cooperation as a central driver of evolution. With his colleagues, he has tracked the problem from myriad angles, and it is not surprising that recently he has turned to sex. In a paper released at the start of this month, Sam Sinai, Jason Olejarz, Iulia A. Neagu, & Nowak (2016) argue that sex is primary. We need sex just to kick start the evolution of a primordial cell.

In this post, I want to sketch Sinai et al.’s (2016) main argument, discuss prior work on the primacy of sex, a similar model by Wilf & Ewens, the puzzle over emergence of higher levels of organization, and the difference between the protocell fusion studied by Sinai et al. (2016) and sex as it is normally understood. My goal is to introduce this fascinating new field that Sinai et al. (2016) are opening to you, dear reader; to provide them with some feedback on their preprint; and, to sketch some preliminary ideas for future extensions of their work.

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Chemical games and the origin of life from prebiotic RNA

From bacteria to vertebrates, life — as we know it today — relies on complex molecular interactions, the intricacies of which science has not fully untangled. But for all its complexity, life always requires two essential abilities. Organisms need to preserve their genetic information and reproduce.

In our own cells, these tasks are assigned to specialized molecules. DNA, of course, is the memory store. The information it encodes is expressed into proteins via messenger RNAs.Transcription (the synthesis of mRNAs from DNA) and translation (the synthesis of proteins from mRNAs) are catalyzed by polymerases necessary to speed up the chemical reactions.

It is unlikely that life started that way, with such a refined division of labor. A popular theory for the origin of life, known as the RNA world, posits that life emerged from just one type of molecule: RNAs. Because RNA is made up of base-complementary nucleotides, it can be used as a template for its own reproduction, just like DNA. Since the 1980s, we also know that RNA can act as a self-catalyst. These two superpowers – information storage and self-catalysis – make it a good candidate for the title of the first spark of life on earth.

The RNA-world theory has yet to meet with empirical evidence, but laboratory experiments have shown that self-preserving and self-reproducing RNA systems can be created in vitro. Little is known, however, about the dynamics that governed pre- and early life. In a recent paper, Yeates et al. (2016) attempt to shed light on this problem by (1) examining how small sets of different RNA sequences can compete for survival and reproduction in the lab and (2) offering a game-theoretical interpretation of the results.

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Three mechanisms of dark selection for ruxolitinib resistance

Last week I returned from the 6th annual IMO Workshop at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. As I’ve sketched in an earlier post, my team worked on understanding ruxolitinib resistance in chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML). We developed a suite of integrated multi-scale models for uncovering how resistance arises in CMML with no apparent strong selective pressures, no changes in tumour burden, and no genetic changes in the clonal architecture of the tumour. On the morning of Friday, November 11th, we were the final group of five to present. Eric Padron shared the clinical background, Andriy Marusyk set up our paradox of resistance, and I sketched six of our mathematical models, the experiments they define, and how we plan to go forward with the $50k pilot grant that was the prize of this competition.


You can look through our whole slide deck. But in this post, I will concentrate on the four models that make up the core of our approach. Three models at the level of cells corresponding to different mechanisms of dark selection, and a model at the level of receptors to justify them. The goal is to show that these models lead to qualitatively different dynamics that are sufficiently different that the models could be distinguished between by experiments with realistic levels of noise.
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Dark selection and ruxolitinib resistance in myeloid neoplasms

I am weathering the US election in Tampa, Florida. For this week, I am back at the Moffitt Cancer Center to participate in the 6th annual IMO Workshop. The 2016 theme is one of the biggest challenges to current cancer treatment: therapy resistance. All five teams participating this year are comfortable with the evolutionary view of cancer as a highly heterogeneous disease. And up to four of the teams are ready to embrace and refine a classic model of resistance. The classic model that supposes that:

  • treatment changes the selective pressure on the treatment-naive tumour.
  • This shifting pressure creates a proliferative or survival difference between sensitive cancer cells and either an existing or de novo mutant.
  • The resistant cells then outcompete the sensitive cells and — if further interventions (like drug holidays or new drugs or dosage changes) are not pursued — take over the tumour: returning it to a state dangerous to the patient.

Clinically this process of response and relapse is usually characterised by a (usually rapid) decrease in tumour burden, a transient period of low tumour burden, and finally a quick return of the disease.

But what if your cancer isn’t very heterogeneous? What if there is no proliferative or survival differences introduced by therapy among the tumour cells? And what if you don’t see the U curve of tumour burden? But resistance still emerges. This year, that is the paradox facing team orange as we look at chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) and other myeloid neoplasms.

CMML is a leukemia that usually occurs in the elderly and is the most frequent myeloproliferative neoplasm (Vardiman et al., 2009). It has a median survival of 30 months, with death coming from progression to AML in 1/3rd of cases and cytopenias in the others. In 2011, the dual JAK1/JAK2 inhibitor ruxolitinib was approved for treatment of the related cancer of myelofibrosis based on its ability to releave the symptoms of the disease. Recently, it has also started to see use for CMML.

When treating these cancers with ruxolitinib, Eric Padron — our clinical leader alongside David Basanta and Andriy Marusyk — sees the drastic reduction and then relapse in symptoms (most notably fatigue and spleen size) but none of the microdynamical signs of the classic model of resistance. We see the global properties of resistance, but not the evidence of selection. To make sense of this, our team has to illuminate the mechanism of an undetected — dark — selection. Once we classify this microdynamical mechanism, we can hope to refine existing therapies or design new therapies to adapt to it.

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Don’t take Pokemon Go for dead: a model of product growth

In the last month, some people wrote about the decay in active users for Pokemon Go after its first month, in a tone that presents the game as likely a mere fad – with article on 538, cinemablend and Bloomberg, for example. “Have you deleted Pokémon Go yet?” was even trending on Twitter. Although it is of course certainly possible that this ends up being an accurate description for the game, I posit that such conclusions are rushed. To do so, I examine some systemic reasons that would make the Pokemon Go numbers for August be inevitably lower than those for July, without necessarily implying that the game is doomed to dwindle into irrelevance.

Students in Waterloo playing Pokemon Go. Photo courtesy of Maylin Cui.

Students in Waterloo playing Pokemon Go. Photo courtesy of Maylin Cui.

Others have made similar points before – see this article and the end of this one for example. However, in the spirit of TheEGG, and unlike what most of the press articles can afford to do, we’ll bring some mathematical modeling into our arguments.
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Social algorithms and the Weapons of Math Destruction

Cathy O'Neil holding her new book: Weapons of Math Destruction at a Barnes & Noble in NYC.

Cathy O’Neil holding her new book: Weapons of Math Destruction at a Barnes & Noble in New York city.

In reference to intelligent robots taking over the world, Andrew Ng once said: “I don’t work on preventing AI from turning evil for the same reason that I don’t work on combating overpopulation on the planet Mars.” Sure, it will be an important issue to think about when the time comes. But for now, there is no productive way to think seriously about it. Today there are more concrete problems to worry about and more basic questions that need to be answered. More importantly, there are already problems to deal with. Problems that don’t involve super intelligent tin-men, killer robots, nor sentient machine overlords. Focusing on distant speculation obscures the fact that algorithms — and not necessarily very intelligent ones — already reign over our lives. And for many this reign is far from benevolent.

I owe much of my knowledge about the (negative) effects of algorithms on society to the writings of Cathy O’Neil. I highly recommend her blog A couple of months ago, she shared the proofs of her book Weapons of Math Destruction with me, and given that the book came out last week, I wanted to share some of my impressions. In this post, I want to summarize what makes a social algorithm into a weapon of math destruction, and share the example of predictive policing.

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Drug holidays and losing resistance with replicator dynamics

A couple of weeks ago, before we all left Tampa, Pranav Warman, David Basanta and I frantically worked on refinements of our model of prostate cancer in the bone. One of the things that David and Pranav hoped to see from the model was conditions under which adaptive therapy (or just treatment interrupted with non-treatment holidays) performs better than solid blocks of treatment. As we struggled to find parameters that might achieve this result, my frustration drove me to embrace the advice of George Pólya: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.”

IMO6 LogoIn this case, I opted to remove all mentions of the bone and cancer. Instead, I asked a simpler but more abstract question: what qualitative features must a minimal model of the evolution of resistance have in order for drug holidays to be superior to a single treatment block? In this post, I want to set up this question precisely, show why drug holidays are difficult in evolutionary models, and propose a feature that makes drug holidays viable. If you find this topic exciting then you should consider registering for the 6th annual Integrated Mathematical Oncology workshop at the Moffitt Cancer Center.[1] This year’s theme is drug resistance.
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Multiplicative versus additive fitness and the limit of weak selection

Previously, I have discussed the importance of understanding how fitness is defined in a given model. So far, I’ve focused on how mathematically equivalent formulations can have different ontological commitments. In this post, I want to touch briefly on another concern: two different types of mathematical definitions of fitness. In particular, I will discuss additive fitness versus multiplicative fitness.[1] You often see the former in continuous time replicator dynamics and the latter in discrete time models.

In some ways, these versions are equivalent: there is a natural bijection between them through the exponential map or by taking the limit of infinitesimally small time-steps. A special case of more general Lie theory. But in practice, they are used differently in models. Implicitly changing which definition one uses throughout a model — without running back and forth through the isomorphism — can lead to silly mistakes. Thankfully, there is usually a quick fix for this in the limit of weak selection.

I suspect that this post is common knowledge. However, I didn’t have a quick reference to give to Pranav Warman, so I am writing this.
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Argument is the midwife of ideas (and other metaphors)

In their classic book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue — very convincingly, and as I’ve reviewed before — that “[m]etaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally” and that these conceptual metaphors are central to shaping our understanding of and interaction with the world we are embedded in. Based on the authors’ grounding in linguistics, part of their case proceeds by offering examples of, by my count, over 58 different metaphors and metonymies in our everyday language; and given their book’s intentions, they chose a particularly pertinent first case: ARGUMENT is WAR.[1]

They show this metaphor in action through some example of common usage (pg. 4):

What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.

Notice that the even the xkcd I borrowed for visual reinforcement is titled ‘Duty Calls’, an expression usually associated with a departure for war. With our awareness drawn to this militaristic structure, Lakoff and Johnson encourage the reader to ask themselves: how would discussions look if instead of structuring arguments adversarially, we structured them after a cooperative activity like dance?[2]

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