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?

naturalarches

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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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.

imo2016_participants

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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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 mathbabe.org. 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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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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Evolutionary dynamics of acid and VEGF production in tumours

Today was my presentation day at ECMTB/SMB 2016. I spoke in David Basanta’s mini-symposium on the games that cancer cells play and postered during the poster session. The mini-symposium started with a brief intro from David, and had 25 minute talks from Jacob Scott, myself, Alexander Anderson, and John Nagy. David, Jake, Sandy, and John are some of the top mathematical oncologists and really drew a crowd, so I felt privileged at the opportunity to address that crowd. It was also just fun to see lots of familiar faces in the same place.

A crowded room by the end of Sandy's presentation.

A crowded room by the end of Sandy’s presentation.

My talk was focused on two projects. The first part was the advertised “Evolutionary dynamics of acid and VEGF production in tumours” that I’ve been working on with Robert Vander Velde, Jake, and David. The second part — and my poster later in the day — was the additional “(+ measuring games in non-small cell lung cancer)” based on work with Jeffrey Peacock, Andriy Marusyk, and Jake. You can download my slides here (also the poster), but they are probably hard to make sense of without a presentation. I had intended to have a preprint out on this prior to today, but it will follow next week instead. Since there are already many blog posts about the double goods project on TheEGG, in this post I will organize them into a single annotated linkdex.

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Computational kindness and the revelation principle

In EWD1300, Edsger W. Dijkstra wrote:

even if you have only 60 readers, it pays to spend an hour if by doing so you can save your average reader a minute.

He wrote this as the justification for the mathematical notations that he introduced and as an ode to the art of definition. But any writer should heed this aphorism.[1] Recently, I finished reading Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.[2] In the conclusion of their book, they gave a unifying name to the sentiment that Dijkstra expresses above: computational kindness.

As computer scientists, we recognise that computation is costly. Processing time is a limited resource. Whenever we interact with others, we are sharing in a joint computational process, and we need to be mindful of when we are not carrying our part of the processing burden. Or worse yet, when we are needlessly increasing that burden and imposing it on our interlocutor. If you are computationally kind then you will be respectful of the cognitive problems that you force others to solve.

I think this is a great observation by Christian and Griffiths. In this post, I want to share with you some examples of how certain systems — at the level of the individual, small group, and society — are computationally kind. And how some are cruel. I will draw on examples from their book, and some of my own. They will include, language, bus stops, and the revelation principle in algorithmic game theory.
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Multiple realizability of replicator dynamics

Abstraction is my favorite part of mathematics. I find a certain beauty in seeing structures without their implementations, or structures that are preserved across various implementations. And although it seems possible to reason through analogy without (explicit) abstraction, I would not enjoy being restricted in such a way. In biology and medicine, however, I often find that one can get caught up in the concrete and particular. This makes it harder to remember that certain macro-dynamical properties can be abstracted and made independent of particular micro-dynamical implementations. In this post, I want to focus on a particular pet-peeve of mine: accounts of the replicator equation.

I will start with a brief philosophical detour through multiple realizability, and discuss the popular analogy of temperature. Then I will move on to the phenomenological definition of the replicator equation, and a few realizations. A particular target will be the statement I’ve been hearing too often recently: replicator dynamics are only true for a very large but fixed-size well-mixed population.

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