Local maxima and the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points

An economist and a computer scientist are walking through the University of Chicago campus discussing the efficient markets hypothesis. The computer scientist spots something on the pavement and exclaims: “look at that $20 on the ground — seems we’ll be getting a free lunch today!”

The economist turns to her without looking down and replies: “Don’t be silly, that’s impossible. If there was a $20 bill there then it would have been picked up already.”

This is the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points.

In this post I want to discuss both the importance and power of local maxima, and the dangers of simply assuming that our system is at a local maximum.

So before we dismiss the economist’s remark with laughter, let’s look at a more convincing discussion of local maxima that falls prey to the same fallacy. I’ll pick on one of my favourite YouTubers, THUNK:

In his video, THUNK discusses a wide range of local maxima and contrasts them with the intended global maximum (or more desired local maxima). He first considers a Roomba vacuum cleaner that is trying to maximize the area that it cleans but gets stuck in the local maximum of his chair’s legs. And then he goes on to discuss similar cases in physics, chemisty, evolution, psychology, and culture.

It is a wonderful set of examples and a nice illustration of the power of fixed-points.

But given that I write so much about algorithmic biology, let’s focus on his discussion of evolution. THUNK describes evolution as follows:

Evolution is a sort of hill-climbing algorithm. One that has identified local maxima of survival and replication.

This is a common characterization of evolution. And it seems much less silly than the economist passing up $20. But it is still an example of the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points.

My goal in this post is to convince you that THUNK describing evolution and the economist passing up $20 are actually using the same kind of argument. Sometimes this is a very useful argument, but sometimes it is just a starting point that without further elaboration becomes a fallacy.

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Quick introduction: the algorithmic lens

Computers are a ubiquitous tool in modern research. We use them for everything from running simulation experiments and controlling physical experiments to analyzing and visualizing data. For almost any field ‘X’ there is probably a subfield of ‘computational X’ that uses and refines these computational tools to further research in X. This is very important work and I think it should be an integral part of all modern research.

But this is not the algorithmic lens.

In this post, I will try to give a very brief description (or maybe just a set of pointers) for the algorithmic lens. And of what we should imagine when we see an ‘algorithmic X’ subfield of some field X.

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Danger of motivatiogenesis in interdisciplinary work

Randall Munroe has a nice old xkcd on citogenesis: the way factoids get created from bad checking of sources. You can see the comic at right. But let me summarize the process without direct reference to Wikipedia:

1. Somebody makes up a factoid and writes it somewhere without citation.
2. Another person then uses the factoid in passing in a more authoritative work, maybe sighting the point in 1 or not.
3. Further work inherits the citation from 2, without verifying its source, further enhancing the legitimacy of the factoid.
4. The cycle repeats.

Soon, everybody knows this factoid and yet there is no ground truth to back it up. I’m sure we can all think of some popular examples. Social media certainly seems to make this sort of loop easier.

We see this occasionally in science, too. Back in 2012, Daniel Lemire provided a nice example of this with algorithms research. But usually with science factoids, it eventually gets debuked with new experiments or proofs. Mostly because it can be professionally rewarding to show that a commonly assumed factoid is actually false.

But there is a similar effect in science that seems to me even more common, and much harder to correct: motivatiogenesis.

Motivatiogenesis can be especially easy to fall into with interdisiplinary work. Especially if we don’t challenge ourselves to produce work that is an advance in both (and not just one) of the fields we’re bridging.

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From perpetual motion machines to the Entscheidungsproblem

Turing MachineThere seems to be a tendency to use the newest technology of the day as a metaphor for making sense of our hardest scientific questions. These metaphors are often vague and inprecise. They tend to overly simplify the scientific question and also misrepresent the technology. This isn’t useful.

But the pull of this metaphor also tends to transform the technical disciplines that analyze our newest tech into fundamental disciplines that analyze our universe. This was the case for many aspects of physics, and I think it is currently happening with aspects of theoretical computer science. This is very useful.

So, let’s go back in time to the birth of modern machines. To the water wheel and the steam engine.

I will briefly sketch how the science of steam engines developed and how it dealt with perpetual motion machines. From here, we can jump to the analytic engine and the modern computer. I’ll suggest that the development of computer science has followed a similar path — with the Entscheidungsproblem and its variants serving as our perpetual motion machine.

The science of steam engines successfully universalized itself into thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. These are seen as universal disciplines that are used to inform our understanding across the sciences. Similarly, I think that we need to universalize theoretical computer science and make its techniques more common throughout the sciences.

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Fitness distributions versus fitness as a summary statistic: algorithmic Darwinism and supply-driven evolution

For simplicity, especially in the fitness landscape literature, fitness is often treated as a scalar — usually a real number. If our fitness landscape is on genotypes then each genotype has an associated scalar value of fitness. If our fitness landscape is on phenotypes then each phenotype has an associated scalar value of fitness.

But this is a little strange. After all, two organisms with the same genotype or phenotype don’t necessarily have the same number of offspring or other life outcomes. As such, we’re usually meant to interpret the value of fitness as the mean of some random variable like number of children. But is the mean the right summary statistic to use? And if it is then which mean: arithmetic or geometric or some other?

One way around this is to simply not use a summary statistic, and instead treat fitness as a random variable with a corresponding distribution. For many developmental biologists, this would still be a simplification since it ignores many other aspects of life-histories — especially related to reproductive timing. But it is certainly an interesting starting point. And one that I don’t see pursued enough in the fitness landscape literature.

The downside is that it makes an already pretty vague and unwieldy model — i.e. the fitness landscape — even less precise and even more unwieldy. As such, we should pursue this generalization only if it brings us something concrete and useful. In this post I want to discuss two aspects of this: better integration of evolution with computational learning theory and thinking about supply driven evolution (i.e. arrival of the fittest). In the process, I’ll be drawing heavily on the thoughts of Leslie Valiant and Julian Z. Xue.

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