Sunday, May 6, 2012

Scientific Zombies

I used to think of lots of big ideas back in college.  I'd think of things like 'Hey, let's use genetic algorithms to evolve a fuzzy logic model of a person's psychological makeup so that we can simulate what would REALLY HAPPEN in a zombie epidemic scenario!  For science! And to watch a bunch of dots on a screen run away from other dots that are zombies!  Realistically!'

Yes, that was a real project I had.  That was the goal anyway.  A friend and I convinced a teacher to give us credit for a semester-long special project where we created  a project titled "FUZZY DECISION MAKING IN A CELLULAR AUTOMATA-BASED EPIDEMIC DISEASE SIMULATOR".  At least that's what the cut and paste from the abstract says.  Yes, abstract - we presented this at a real symposium where real people (presumably professionals) nodded their heads and clapped.  Now of course we didn't say it was a zombie attack simulator - we instead chose a real disease (you know, to promote actual science instead of awesome science).  But they thought the idea had merit!  I wasn't boo'ed off stage at an event where people are supposed to say smart things.  I must have said smart things!

I know what you're going to ask next.  No, we didn't finish it.  Not finish it finish it, but we had both parts of it.  He could simulate the airborne dispersal of a disease and its incubation in people and I created a person who could have his own little day:  When he's tired, he slept.  When he was hungry he would either go home to eat if he was feeling antisocial or poor, or to a bar to eat if he was lonely.  When he ran out of money he went to work - not exactly a perfect model, but for an automaton that basically just implemented the first three layers of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs it showed some very human behaviors.  I not only said smart things, I think I did a few too. 

I don't think I can say smart things anymore.  Pretty sure I can't do them either.  Not unless sitting on the couch watching Law and Order is a smart thing (geez, way to ruin my life Netflix...). Have I lost the knack?  Hey, you don't know if you don't try right?  So as a big idea pops into my head I think 'I wonder if anyone else has done this - if they haven't, I could get rich.'  Let me tell you - if one thing can get me away from Law and Order it's a whole crapload of money.  I'm just sentimental like that

Let me explain the idea.  One of the problems with linear controllers is that their performance becomes much worse the farther you move away from the operating point for which they were designed.  The operational range of a linear controller is conversely tied to performance: smaller range - better performance, larger - worse.  This is because plants tends to look more like a perfectly linear systems the smaller your operating range is.  The more linear your plant is, the easier it is to control - but only within that range.  If you can prevent the system from operating outside that range then you're fine.  But no one is going to accept a solution that can perfectly control a piston - as long as its maximum extension is no greater than 1 inch.

We can't avoid trying to span a wide range of operating conditions with a single linear controller, but we always want better performance.  How can these two be reconciled?  My Big Idea is to use two linear controllers optimized for different operating points in the wider operating range and use a fuzzy logic controller to combine the outputs from both into one controller that has better performance over the whole operating range. When near either of the two operating points the fuzzy controller would largely cede control to the appropriate linear controller, but if it is operating between them the fuzzy logic controller would combine the outputs of both to some degree.   Using two controllers in this fashion would theoretically give better performance over that wider range if you can tune the fuzzy controller to provide a smooth transition between the two controllers.  So has anyone figured that out?  Was it a smart idea?  Do people like me?

Truth is I have no idea.  I started Googling and  found this.  It's very interesting but I can't at all tell if it's what I wanted to do.  Is it just me or were textbooks always this hard to read?  No, don't answer.  If they were engineering textbooks then yes, they were always this hard to read.  Teachers were just as difficult to understand, had the same propensity to stare off into space, to offer unhelpful explanations or simply not offer any at all.  And we were the ones being graded.  It mattered to us that we could understand those inscrutable papers and confusing textbooks.  Our whole purpose for being  in college was to leap those academic hurdles.  Or, I dunno just run right through them.  Whatever gets you to the finish line since (as we all know) 'C's get degrees'.

I feel like I'm not going to get anywhere with books like that and quite frankly I don't have to care anymore even if I really want to.  I have my degree so I'm off the hook.  But it does make me ask: who is right here?  Who is the smart one here?  Does my idea have merit?  Are those textbooks full of greek letters and dry mathematical drivel necessary, or is my frank yet wordy description above preferable?

I think the most fundamental question here is was our zombie simulator fake science one second and real the next just because we changed a few parameters in the disease model, wrote an abstract and slapped together some PowerPoint slides?  Was it because people nodded and clapped?  What if they were just being polite?  Why does polite clapping at a symposium make something more scientifically legitimate than a million 'Hells yes zombie attack simulator FTW!!!11!' comments on the internet?  Can't those comments be coming from scientists?  In fact I have a sneaking suspicion that if we had presented a zombie attack simulator at that symposium we would have had that exact reaction from the scientists present. And it didn't require foaming at the mouth about  epsilons and solution spaces and lots of other mathy jargon. 

Can't normal people have good ideas?  Ideas that smart people think are good?  Can't we explain them without trying to confuse one another?  With compassion and caring - compassion in that the person on the other side of your explanation is a poor person who probably isn't nearly as smart as you but is making every effort to try, and caring in that you do everything you can to help that person understand?

There is an amazing opportunity in this country (and possibly across the world) for individuals - hobbyists, lay-people, the proletariat - to contribute to scientific progress in a real way.  Never before have we had so many educated so well.  A college degree doesn't make you a genius but it gives you something - no matter what you studied.  It is far better than not having it and today more people have a college degree than ever.  Today, more people than ever have a computer - a computer that can calculate in hours or days what a computer fifty years ago could calculate in decades.  A computer that can look up almost any fact for you. The same programming languages that run aircraft and space ships are free for you to use.  Oh, you can't make an aircraft?  Yes you can (top three hits for 'kit aircraft' on Google).  It's expensive and I'm sure time consuming, but saying it's impossible?  And who's going to tell you you can't build a space ship.  These are things that hobbyists are doing.  There's more support than ever now to do whatever you want.  Maybe you want PCBs made?  Or you need help having mechanical parts fabricated? Oh, but where will you get funding for all of these amazing ideas?

The barriers to doing things that matter - like real science and technology - are lower now than they've ever been.  But you still have sides.  On one side you have hobbyists trying everything they can as hard as they can, filled with questions and looking for a place to make a real, helpful contribution to something greater than themselves.  On the other you have symposium-goers.  People who focus on publishing in peer-reviewed journals, double-checking results, navigating scientific political squabbles and generally becoming known and respected.  But these two sides are not in opposition to each other.  Both have the same goal: scientific progress and the betterment of mankind.  The only difference is in their temperament (and how much they get paid). It's not a question of real science vs. fake science.

As we go forward the ability of hobbyists and other scientific lay-people to contribute to scientific discussion will have nothing but positive benefits for both sides.  Professional scientists should take steps to make their research more accessible by anyone with a passing interest.  But we must not think that science can be handled by hobbyists alone.  The rules of process that seem stifling to many hobbyists are a necessary part of the scientific method.  Hobbyists need to respect the scientific process because that is ultimately what keeps us honest. The best case scenario for everyone is not to choose sides and see which wins, but to respect the necessity of both while finding ways to work together for greater effect.  

No comments: