Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 20/03/2021

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Cal Tech and the eunuchs of science

Catchy title.

Founded (1891) as Throop University [Cal Tech], a coeducational institution for manual training and basic education from fifth grade through college, it reinvented itself several years later as all-male Throop College of Technology (with a mission of intellectual excellence) and then assumed its current name in 1921.

In the 1960s, the undergraduates began lobbying the administration to admit women, believing that this would promote the “humanization of students.” Students complained of a sterile curriculum and social wasteland that created “eunuchs of science.”

After a 1967 national survey of rising sophomores revealed that Caltech students were much less happy with campus life than those elsewhere, an ad hoc faculty committee examined student experiences during their first two years.

The committee soon recommended that Caltech admit female undergraduates, arguing that discrimination against women is “morally unjustifiable.” A student poll in fall 1967 found 79% supported that change, and a month later the Faculty Board voted 50 to 10 to recommend to the administration and trustees to “proceed with all deliberate speed toward the admission of women undergraduates.”

A mouth without a brain: sounds familiar.

Robo-writers: the rise and risks of language-generating AI

In June 2020, a new and powerful artificial intelligence (AI) began dazzling technologists in Silicon Valley. Called GPT-3 and created by the research firm OpenAI in San Francisco, California, it was the latest and most powerful in a series of ‘large language models’: AIs that generate fluent streams of text after imbibing billions of words from books, articles and websites. GPT-3 had been trained on around 200 billion words, at an estimated cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Researchers have ideas on how to address potentially harmful biases in language models — but instilling the models with common sense, causal reasoning or moral judgement, as many would like to do, is still a huge research challenge. “What we have today”, Choi says, “is essentially a mouth without a brain.”

I know a few people like that.

Just 7%

The Economist | Shelter from the storm

At its most basic, the welfare state provides some form of social security and poverty relief. In 1990 Gosta Esping-Andersen, a political scientist, identified three models: market-oriented in Anglophone countries, where the state plays a “residual” role; family-oriented in mainland Europe, where the state and employers play a supporting role; and state-oriented for the Scandinavians, with universal protections and services. The balance between state, market and family shifts over the course of people’s lives, but most take out about as much as they put in (in any year 36% of Britons receive more than they pay in taxes, but over their lifetimes only 7% do).

Not the Mail or the Telegraph, then.

Making progress

I quote from just two of many good letters in the Economist of last week. The first, is the mess that Cummings has bequeathed. The second, how it seems our humanities masters are ignorant about, well, the humanities.

By definition, “blue skies research” is driven by curiosity, without any obvious practical implications (“Blue skies ahead”, February 6th). Yet the aim of Britain’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency is to develop proposals that give a payout to the economy. The left field nature of paradigm-changing scientific discoveries and their long path to being actually applied mean that no manager at arpa would understand the impact of such research. Who, for example, would have predicted that understanding blood-clotting in the horseshoe crab would end up protecting our drug supply from bacterial contaminants, including covid-19 vaccines?

Professor Brian Stramer, the author of the above, quotes a beautiful phrase from the father of modern neuroscience, Ramon y Cajal, who, in 1897, noted the preoccupation with applied research and ignorance of the “mysterious threads that bind the factory to the laboratory” [emphasis added]. If you know anything about Cajal’s work, the metaphor does not surprise.

The second letter is from Professor Jonathan Michie, who, if I am correct, has first hand familial experience of the example he quotes.

Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate stem-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.

On bending the knee

The Economist | The pain of displacement

I always read the Economist by starting with the obituary. Last week’s was about Mourid Barghouti, a Palestinian poet. The prose was fitting, too.

As a lover of freedom, he could not join a party or pledge allegiance to anyone: all you need to make a tyrant, he wrote, “is a single bend of the knee”.

“I rubbed the leaf of an orange in my hands/As I had been told to do/So that I could smell its scent/but before my hand could reach my nose/I had lost my home and become a refugee.”