Arrival of the Fittest: why are biological systems so robust? | Arlindo L. Oliveira | in Digital Minds

arrivalIn his 2014 book, Arrival of the Fittest, Andreas Wagner addresses important open questions in evolution: how are useful innovations created in biological systems, enabling natural selection to perform its magic of creating ever more complex organisms? Why is it that changes in these complex systems do not lead only to non-working systems? What is the origin of variation upon which natural selection acts?

Wagner’s main point is that “Natural selection can preserve innovations, but it cannot create them. Nature’s many innovations—some uncannily perfect—call for natural principles that accelerate life’s ability to innovate, its innovability.”

In fact, natural selection can apply selective pressure, selecting organisms that have useful phenotypic variations, caused by the underlying genetic variations. However, for this to happen, genetic mutations and variations have to occur and, with high enough frequency, they have to lead to viable and more fit organisms.

In most man-made systems, almost all changes in the original design lead to systems that do not work, or that perform much worse than the original. Performing almost any change in a plane, in a computer or in a program leads to a system that either performs worst than the original, or else, that fails catastrophically. Biological systems seem much more resilient, though. In this book, Wagner explores several types of (conceptual) biological networks: metabolic networks, protein interaction networks and gene regulatory networks.

Each node in these networks corresponds to one specific biological function: in the first case, a metabolic network, where chemical entities interact; in the second case, a protein interaction network, where proteins interact to create complex functions; and in the third case, a gene regulatory network, where genes regulate the expression of other genes. Two nodes in such networks are neighbors if they differ in only one DNA position, in the genotype that encodes the network.

He concludes that these networks are robust to mutations and, therefore, to innovations. In particular, he shows that you can traverse these networks, from node to neighboring node, while keeping the biological function unchanged, only slightly degraded, or even improved. Unlike man-made systems, biological systems are robust to change, and nature can experiment tweaking them, in the process creating innovation and increasingly complex systems. This how the amazingly complex richness of life has been created in a mere four billion years.

In Digital Minds

In memoriam of Raymond Smullyan: An unfortunate dualist | Arlindo L. Oliveira in “Digital Minds”

arlindo oliveiraMind-body Dualists believe there are two different realms that define us. One is the physical realm, well studied and understood by the laws of physics, while the other one is the non-physical realm, where our selves exist. Our essence, our soul, if you want, exists in this non-physical realm, and it interacts and controls our physical body through some as yet unexplained mechanism. Most religions are based on a dualist theory, including Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

On the other side of the discussion are Monists, who do not believe in the existence of dual realities.  The term monism is used to designate the position that everything is either mental (idealism) or that everything is physical (materialism).

Raymond Smullyan, deceased two days ago (February 10th, 2017),


had a clear view on dualism, which he makes clear in this history, published in his book This book needs no title.

An Unfortunate Dualist

Once upon a time there was a dualist. He believed that mind and matter are separate substances. Just how they interacted he did not pretend to know-this was one of the “mysteries” of life. But he was sure they were quite separate substances.
This dualist, unfortunately, led an unbearably painful life-not because of his philosophical beliefs, but for quite different reasons. And he had excellent empirical evidence that no respite was in sight for the rest of his life. He longed for nothing more than to die. But he was deterred from suicide by such reasons as: (1) he did not want to hurt other people by his death; (2) he was afraid suicide might be morally wrong; (3) he was afraid there might be an afterlife, and he did not want to risk the possibility of eternal punishment. So our poor dualist was quite desperate.

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India considers the adoption of Universal Basic Income | Arlindo L. Oliveira in “Digital Minds”

arlindo oliveiraA recent article published in The Economist reports that India is considering the adoption of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme to replace a myriad of existing welfare systems.

Unlike the discussions that are taking place in other countries, this discussion about Universal Basic Income is not motivated by advances in technology and the fear of massive unemployment. The main aim of such a measure would be to replace many existing welfare mechanisms that are expensive, ineffective, and misused.

The scheme would provide every single citizen with a guaranteed basic income of 9 dollars a month ( hardly a vast sum ) and would cost between 6 and 7% of GDP. The 950 existing welfare schemes cost about 5% of GDP. Such a large scale experiment would, at least, contribute to make clear the advantages and disadvantages of UBI as a way to make sure every human being has a minimum wage, independent of any other considerations or the existence of jobs.

Photo by Amal Mongia, available at Multimedia Commons.

Photo by Amal Mongia, available at Multimedia Commons.

Uma revolução na educação | Arlindo L. Oliveira, Presidente do Instituto Superior Técnico | in Jornal “Público”

arlindo oliveiraDe acordo com uma estimativa muito divulgada, 2/3 dos alunos que agora iniciam a sua formação escolar irão trabalhar em profissões que ainda não existem.

O desenvolvimento da tecnologia, com a primeira e segunda revoluções industriais, criou necessidades de educação que não existiam até então. O rápido crescimento dos sistemas de ensino que acompanhou estas revoluções levou à criação de gerações cada vez mais qualificadas, o que, por seu lado, criou condições para a redistribuição de riqueza que, de outra forma, não existiriam.

Durante os séculos XIX e XX, a educação foi vista como algo que se adquire enquanto se é jovem, sendo o paradigma mais comum a obtenção de um grau, médio ou superior, através da frequência escolar durante um período contínuo e prolongado, antes da entrada no mercado de trabalho. A terceira revolução industrial, com a introdução das tecnologias de comunicação e informação, e o rápido desenvolvimento destas tecnologias, veio colocar em causa este paradigma.

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European Parliament to analyze proposal to give robots legal status and responsibilities | Arlindo L. Oliveira in “Digital Minds”

arlindo oliveiraThe committee on legal affairs of the European Parliament has drafted and approved a report that addresses many of the legal, social and financial consequences of the development of robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

The draft report addresses a large number of issues related with the advances of robotics, AI and related technologies, and proposes a number of european regulations to govern the utilization of robots and other advanced AI agents.

The report was approved with a 17-2 vote (and two abstentions) by the parliament’s legal affairs committee.

Among many other issues addressed, the report considers:

  • The question of legal status: “whereas, ultimately, robots’ autonomy raises the question of their nature in the light of the existing legal categories – of whether they should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons, animals or objects – or whether a new category should be created”, advancing with the proposal of “creating a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations…”
  • The impact of robotics and AI on employment and social security, and concludes that “consideration should be given to the possible need to
    introduce corporate reporting requirements on the extent and proportion of the contribution of robotics and AI to the economic results of a company for the purpose of taxation and social security contributions; takes the view that in the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so;”
  • The need for a clear and unambiguous registration system for robots, recommending that “a system of registration of advanced robots should be introduced, and calls on the Commission to establish criteria for the classification of robots with a view to identifying the robots that would need to be registered;”

Finland flirts with basic income | Arlindo L. Oliveira in blog “Digital Minds”

arlindo oliveiraIn an experimental trial started January 1st, 2017, Finland started to attribute a basic social income to 2000 unemployed persons. Unlike a standard unemployment income, this subsidy will still be paid even if the recipients find work.finland

Under this scheme, unemployed Finns, with ages in the 25 to 58 range will receive a guaranteed sum of €560, every month, independently of whether they have or find any other income. This value will replace other existing social benefits. A number of articles, including this one, in the Guardian, provide additional information about the scheme.

The move comes on the wake of a promise made by the centre-right government coalition elected in 2015, to run a basic income pilot project. The objective is to address concerns related with the disappearance of jobs caused by technological changes.

Other countries, cities and regions are running tentative experiments in basic income, including the Netherlands, Canada and the city of Livorno, in Italy. However, many concerns remain about whether this mechanism is the right mechanism to address the challenges brought in by the advances of technology.

Photo by Mikko Paananen, available at WikiMedia Commons.

Is there life out there? | Arlindo L. Oliveira in “Digital Minds”

As reported in an article in the journal Nature, Proxima Centauri (pictured), the star nearest to our sun, has an Earth sized planet, orbiting the “Goldilocks” zone (not too hot, not too cold).

The recently discovered planet orbits the mother star in 11 days, an orbit much smaller and much closer to its sun than the orbit of the Earth. However, since Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, it is much cooler than our sun, which makes this orbit to be just the right size. The planet, named Proxima Centauri b, weights between 1.3 and 3 times the Earth, which makes it likely that it may be a rocky planet. The distance to the star makes it possible that it may exhibit liquid water.


This combination of factors makes it the planet most likely to help us obtain additional information about the possible existence of life outside of Earth. Earth based instruments, such as the European Southern Observatory, ESO, an array of telescopes in the Atacama desert, in Chile, will be able to obtain additional information.

ESO was involved in the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, and likely to play an important role in the discovery of further information about this planet that, in astronomical terms, lies tantalising close to Earth, at “only” 4.2 light-years. Sending a spacecraft out to that planet may also be a possibility, albeit a very challenging one.

The challenges involved in obtaining further information about this planet are significant, but not unsurmountable, as the Economist reports. In a few years, we may have some better answers to Fermi’s famous question, “Where are they?”, referring to the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Arlindo L. Oliveira

Explaining (away) consciousness? | Arlindo L. Oliveira in “Digital Minds”

arlindo oliveiraConsciousness is one of the hardest to explain phenomena created by the human brain. We are familiar with the concept of what it means to be conscious. I am conscious and I admit that every other human being is also conscious. We become conscious when we wake up in the morning and remain conscious during waking hours, until we lose consciousness again when we go to sleep at night. There is an uninterrupted flow of consciousness that, with the exception of sleeping periods, connects who you are now with who you were many years ago.

Explaining exactly what consciousness is, however, is much more difficult. One of the best known, and popular, explanations was given by Descartes. Even though he was a materialistic, he balked when it came to consciousness, and proposed what is now known as Cartesian dualism, the idea that the mind and the brain are two different things. Descartes thought that the mind, the seat of conscience, has no physical substance while the body, controlled by the brain, is physical and follows the laws of physics

Descartes ideas imply a Cartesian theatre, a place where the brain exposes the input obtained by the senses, so that the mind (your inner I) can look at these inputs, make decisions, take actions, and feel emotions.


In what is probably one of the most comprehensive and convincing analyses of what consciousness is, Dennett pulls all the guns against the idea of the Cartesian Theather, and argues that consciousness can be explained by what he calls a “multiple drafts” model.

Instead of a Cartesian Theater, where conscious experience occurs, there are “various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain“. The brain is nothing more than a “bundle of semi-independent agencies“, created by evolution, that act mostly independently and in semi-automatic mode. Creating a consistent view, a serial history of the behaviors of these different agencies, is the role of consciousness. It misleads “us” into thinking that “we” are in charge while “we” are, mostly, reporters telling a story to ourselves and others.

His arguments, supported by extensive experimental and philosophical evidence, are convincing, well structured, and discussed at depth, with the help of Otto, a non-believer in the multiple drafts model. If Dennett does not fully explain the phenomenon of consciousness, he certainly does an excellent job at explaining it away. Definitely one book to read if you care about artificial intelligence, consciousness, and artificial minds.

Arlindo L. Oliveira

Can Prisma and DeepArt make everyone an artist? | Digital Minds | Arlindo L. Oliveira

The popularity of Prisma, one of the hot summer apps (together with Pokemon Go), has caught everyone by surprise, including its creators.

Prisma uses deep learning algorithms to derive image processing methods that change your pictures in accordance with the style of a given artist. Other sites, like DeepArt apply these methods based on machine learning techniques, such as the one described in this article, to process photos that you upload.

The following drawing of The Thinker was obtained applying Prisma to one of my travel pictures.















The following “painting” was obtained from one image of the tall ships in Lisbon, using DeepArt.


Applying the methods takes significant computer time, and is done by Prisma remote servers. These servers have, for a while, been unable to fully cope with the demand. Other sites, like DeepArt, also take significant time to process your request.

The results are, in many cases, surprising, obscuring the line between artistic merit and computerized image processing. Recently, Google raised a significant amount of money selling computer generated art.

For more examples of computer generated art, using Prisma and DeepArt, take a look at my deep art flickr album.

arlindololiveira | August 4, 2016 at 11:54 am | Tags: Deep Art, Prisma | Categories: Art, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning | URL:


Pokemon Go: the first step in the path to Accelerando? | Arlindo L. Oliveira

arlindo oliveiraThe recent release of Pokemon Go,  an augmented reality mobile game attracted much attention, and made the value of its parent company, Nintendo, raise by more than 14 billion dollars. Rarely has the release of a mobile game had so much impact in the media and the financial world.

In large part, this happened because the market (and the world) are expecting this to be the first of many applications that explore the possibilities of augmented reality, a technology that superimposes the perceptions of the real and the virtual world.

Pokemon Go players, instead of staying at home playing with their cellphones, walk around the real world, looking for little monsters that appear in more or less random locations. More advanced players meet in specific places, called gyms, to have their monsters fight each other. Pokemon Go brought augmented reality into the mainstream, and may indeed represent the first of many applications that merge the real and the virtual world. The game still has many limitations in what concerns the use of augmented reality. Exact physical location, below a few feet cannot be obtained, and the illusion is slightly less than perfect. Nonetheless, the game represents a significant usage of augmented reality, a potentially disruptive technology.