Scientists as Parrots

I just spent the last two days at a Whole Brain Emulation Workshop here at the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute.  Most of the dozen attendees were scientists who scan and model brains.  They were quite professional in their presentations and discussions, attending expertly to many subtle complications, but overall they were mostly excited and optimistic about the prospects for improving our abilities to scan, model, and emulate large brain areas, even entire brains, for many kinds of animals, including eventually humans.

When asked if they would be interested in producing a consensus statement which made more precise their expectations about feasibility and rates of progress, however, these scientists expressed concern about their funding.  Their research is expensive, and they typically frame their work on larger scale brain emulation in other terms, which funding agencies prefer; these agencies would react poorly to hearing that these people did  research framed as "whole brain emulation."

I’ve often seen such a pattern – scientists tell funding agencies, and all other public ears, just what they think the funding bodies want to hear.  I dearly wish we could have prediction markets on such topics, so we could find out whether the powers that be have good reasons for their negativity, reasons which would encourage them to bet, or whether they are expressing shallow unthinking prejudice, which betting markets might unmask.

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  • Constant

    Global Warming skeptic Richard Lindzen has said similar things in the context of the science of global warming.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Prediction markets should reveal if funding bodies have shallow unthinking prejudice towards the feasibility of various research.

    But they wouldn’t help if the funding bodies are prejudiced because of value disagreements; because they feel that “this isn’t the type of research that will benefit humanity”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, agreed.

    Constant, yes, and I think it is important for each of us to note whether we more directly see such things happen, rather that have to take the word of advocates with agendas.

  • Constant

    But once we have independently verified that scientists do this sort of thing, it is important for us to put one and one together and apply this insight.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    What I also heard was that the scientists we had invited felt that they already found it difficult to get funding for work in this area, independently of how it was labeled. Some of them hoped that we might create a community or in some other way help build support for the kind of work they want to do. It seemed that some thought that explaining the larger goal would help them get more funding, while others worried that doing that would instead make it more difficult for them. I understand that a parallel debate is going on among biogerontologists.

    I should note that the objective for the workshop was not to promote the area or help the scientists get more funding, but to better understand the state of the art, the rate of progress, and the remaining difficulties, as a basis for making better projections about how long it might take before WBE becomes possible (if ever) and how such a technology might develop. We deliberately did not discuss the desirability of this research or its wider implications – setting aside those issues for a future occasion. (For those who might be interested in the content of the workshop, we are hoping to produce a whitepaper eventually; we will also try to make available powerpoints from the workshop and some other materials.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Nick’s summary seems completely accurate to me.