Monthly Archives: April 2011

Consider Conspiracies

New research suggests people are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they would be willing to personally participate in such a conspiracy. … “At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it. … People who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.” (more; HT David Brin)

All the commentary I’ve found on this seems to take it as evidence against conspiracy theories, since it offers a non-evidential explanation for why people might believe in such theories. For example, people are eager to mention birthers in the same breath, to discredit them. But in fact this result tends to support conspiracy theories.

Think about it. Why are conspiracy theories in such disrepute, given that there have in fact been many real conspiracies in the world? One theory is that conspiracy theories just tend to be wrong – that there is some bias which makes people believe them too much, and the anti-conspiracy attitudes you see are a response to that bias. Another theory is that the people who tend to support conspiracy theories are disliked, independently of the evidence supporting their theories. The result above adds support for this disliked theory, relative to the bias theory.  And this gives you less reason to believe there is in fact a widespread bias to believe too easily in conspiracy theories. Which is evidential, if not social, support for such theories.

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What Is Em “Death”?

Yesterday I talked about one big change with ems (future whole  brain emulation robots) – they’d mostly be workaholics. Another other big change with ems, I think, is their concept of and attitude toward “death.” Ems would often agree to make copies of themselves, copies which they expected would only last for a limited time, such as one year. But they’d mostly be fine with this. Let me explain.

Imagine that you have lost all memories of some period of your life, say a period one year long. You still have pictures, letters, a diary, some video, memories in others you can talk to, etc. But while it all sounds like the sort of thing you might have done, you don’t additionally recall doing any of it. How much would this memory loss degrade the value of your overall life? I’d say it would be far worse to have not lived that year at all, say being put in suspended animation, than to merely have lost the memory of that year.

Now imagine that, because you had access to a time machine, this lost year happened at the same time as one of your other years. During 2006, for example, you were off experiencing 2005 all over again, but in another place, and then you forgot it all, expect for the pictures, etc. For me, this would not much degrade the overall value of my life. It would again be a bit sad not to remember that year, but its not a big deal when it happened.

Now imagine that you could use this time machine to both experience 2005 twice, forgetting one of the parts, and also to experience 2006 as usual. Here you’d be adding one more year onto your life, which I’d consider great. If the cost of having one more year of life were that you don’t fully remember that year, to me that would be a small price to pay.

For an em who shared my attitudes here, the option to spawn a new copy who only lasted a year would be much like the option to live another year longer, but without remembering it. Mostly a good deal, at least if you liked your life during that time. Yes the copy might be sad when his year came to an end, knowing his detailed memories of that year would not last. But he’d usually expect that “he” would continue to exist through other copies. He wouldn’t consider this harm to be remotely as large as what we call “death” — the end of anyone who remembers our life in some detail.

Ems would start as scans of humans, but not of random humans – the humans would be chose for their productivity and their acceptance of the em patterns of life, and “death.” As a result, ems would mostly be fantastically-capable workaholics who were not greatly bothered by “death” given the existence of other close copies. Since they seem to me quite “human” with lives well worth living, I consider the em revolution to be far more glorious than horrifying.

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Are Workaholics Human?

I might better ask “Are workaholic lives worth living?” — I’m taking about “human” here in the sense that we call “inhuman” people who do things we disrespect, or whose lives lack enough input from the “humanities.” The question is: are the lives of the workaholics around you are within an order of magnitude of being worth as much as typical human lives?

Why ask this? Because this is a key issue for judging if the coming em (whole brain emulation) revolution is glorious or horrifying. I’ve talked about how there’d be a huge em population and that wages would quickly fall to near “subsistence” level. But the images that the word “subsistence” brings to mind often mislead people here I think.

This isn’t world of much famine, disease, war, or pain, of severe isolation, or of drawing-with-sticks-in-the-dust level entertainment. The costs of high bandwidth long-distance communication and vast detailed arbitrarily-luxurious virtual reality would be small compared to the cost of just running an em brain, so the main limits to em enjoyment would be status and time. If you want something because it is in short supply, you may well not get it. And among all the humans available for scanning, the first generation of ems would select for humans who are both very productive, and willing to work very hard. So ems would be world-class-capable workaholics who stop working not much longer than needed to recuperate and rest.

I’ve known quite a few workaholics (many are engineers), and it seems to me that, compared to average lives, workaholic lives are usually no less than half as worth living, and often far more. To me, such folks are quite recognizably human, expressing qualities I respect, and many of the values celebrated in the “humanities.” Yes, workaholics consume fewer stories, and spend less time in idle conversation and play, and ems bodies would alienate them a bit more from their distant human ancestors and feelings. But since such ems seem to me quite “human” with lives well worth living, that suggests the em revolution is more glorious than horrifying.

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What Is “Quality”?

It seems to me that what people usually mean by a product’s “quality” is the overall value someone might gain from it, ignoring its price. Sometimes people talk about a product’s “value”, or it being a good “deal,” referring to its over all value including its price. And sometimes people will talk about quality given certain constraints. For example, folks might talk about a “great one bedroom apartment” suggesting that two bedroom place might be better, but that such comparisons are set aside for now. But the most common way to evaluate products is to just talk about value ignoring price. Yet why ignore price?

A status theory is that we most want to know about how impressed other folks might be if we had a product, and so want “quality” to focus on visible features. When price is invisible, we don’t want it included. This theory predicts that other invisible features will also not be included in quality.

Another theory is that we want “quality” to focus on features that we mostly agree are good. The more we disagree on the value of a feature, the less we want it included in “quality.” So if people vary enough in their value for money relative to other features, we won’t want price included.  This theory predicts that other features where preferences also vary greatly will not be included in quality.

A third theory is that we just mentally categorize what we pay for a product as not “part of” the product.” This theory suggests we’d also not include how quickly we could get the product shipped to us, or how easily it could be serviced, in its quality.

Any other theories to consider?

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Natural Hypocrisy

This video offers a window on natural hypocrisy:

Most people believe that redistributing money within a nation is good, but that redistributing GPA within a school is bad, and if asked why these should be treated differently, have little to say. My point isn’t to say one can’t come up with reasons to treat these differently.  One could, for example, argue that we prefer differing school signals to help employers sort people into jobs, to achieve higher productivity so that the pie is bigger when we redistribute money. My point is that most people can’t think of such reasons, making it pretty unlikely that such reasons are the cause of their opinions.

Some observations from this and my many class discussions:

  • Ask random colleges student random policy questions and they will feel compelled to come up with opinions.
  • Ask them for reasons for those opinions and they’ll feel compelled to come up with such reasons.
  • Such opinions strongly tend to support the status quo – mostly whatever is, is assumed good.
  • There is only a weak added tendency for students to offer similar opinions and reasons on similar policy questions. Opinions and reasons are not being generated by processes that tend to produce much added similarity.
  • Students are mostly satisfied to grasp at any plausibly policy-relevant difference to justify treating things differently, even when such differences don’t obviously “make a difference” to the issue at hand.

We humans are much better at coming up with reasons for opinions than at choosing coherent sets of opinions – we clearly have a powerful inbuilt capacity for hypocrisy.

Added 28Apr: Those who think it unfair to evaluate what students said on the spot, how much better do you think the reasons would have become if the students were given an hour to think about it by themselves?  A week?

Added 6May: Megan McArdle weighs in.

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Reply To Karl Smith

On Friday I wrote:

[Imagine] a fountain of youth pill … [that had] to be … given to everyone over thirty … [and] required dosage doubled every decade [of age]. … Eventually we’d run out of money to pay for these pills; we’d have to say no to some people, and then they’d quickly die. And the longer we waited before admitting to ourselves that we couldn’t afford to give effective treatments to everyone, no matter what the cost, the worse it would be.

Karl Smith replied:

Why would it be worse the longer we lived in self-deception? That really needs to be spelled out because off the top it sounds like Robin is describing a scenario in which we maximize the the total amount of human life we can support. We are also doing this without implicitly valuing anyone’s life over anyone else’s. We save everyone we can, as long as we can, until we hit capacity. This could easily be a utopian scenario.

Again, its probably not the scenario I prefer but one has to be explicit about exactly why throwing everything we have at an extremely effective method of preserving enormous amounts of human life is bad idea. It seems like something the average person would regard as a great idea.

Well first we might not smoothly transition to a maximal sustainable state, but instead borrow too much, fail to maintain infrastructure, etc. Second, the steady state might have a pretty low quality of life, from spending everything possible on pills. Third, we could support much more human life by having new young kids who wouldn’t need any pills for another thirty years. If the choice is between a million folks kept to age 200 or a billion folks keep to age 100, I’ll take the billion any day.

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My CQ Researcher OpEd

Congressional Quarterly Researcher has a new issue focused on artificial intelligence. They invited me to write short a op-ed on the question “Will artificial intelligence lead to massive unemployment?” Alas they didn’t tell me the idea was for me to say “No” opposite Martin Ford saying “Yes” – we both said “Yes.” They’d have done better to have Ford and I dispute something we disagreed on, such as how best to deal with such unemployment.  Anyway, here’s mine oped:

Artificial intelligence could indeed lead to high unemployment if, in contrast to today’s situation, most world income was paid not for human wages, but instead for income from land and capital, including machines. After all, why work if working full time doesn’t increase your income much? And this could happen if the value of human labor fell greatly, relative to machines.

Is this possible? In the near term, it is unlikely. Right now, computers and other forms of machine intelligence aren’t nearly sophisticated enough to emulate the human brain or replace human labor on a global scale. But in the long term — say, a century or two in the future, as artificial intelligence becomes far more sophisticated than it is today — the picture could be far different. For now, it would be insufficient to merely have more powerful machines, if they continued to mainly complement human labor, as machines have for centuries. When machines complement humans, better machines lead to more, not less, demand for humans.

Even if machines have so far tended to complement humans, might machines someday become actual substitutes for human workers? The key thing to understand here is that while a machine might substitute for a human on any particular task, when the division of tasks between humans and machines is stable, then cheaper and better machines raise the demand for humans.

But if machines could effectively replace humans for most tasks now performed by humans, that would be a very different story. Full-time human wages would then become small compared to humans’ income from owning machines that do the work. This isn’t the current trend, so don’t worry about it happening soon. But not only is this possible, it is likely, within a century or two, through the use of “whole brain emulations.”

Imagine that we could 1) scan some real human brains in enough detail, 2) model all standard brain cell types with enough accuracy and 3) have cheap enough computers to emulate entire human brains, using these cell models and the scan details. Such emulations would then talk and act much like the scanned humans they emulate, and so could replace humans on most tasks.

An unregulated market in cheap brain emulations would lead to a vast explosion of wealth and emulations, and to human wages falling to match machine rental costs, soon well below human subsistence levels. Humans would then have to own enough other forms of capital, or starve. Emulations, in contrast, would be fully employed.

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Join The Party Party?

Born in ’59, I assimilated some 60s counterculture, even joining a pentecostal Jesus-freak “cult” as a young teen. And I still hold the “hippy” image to be somewhat positive. Some today try to say hippies were mainly about presaging their current political views, such as by opposing racism, pollution, or the Vietnam war. But most such folks trying to claim hippy heritage really aren’t very hippy like. Consider this hippy manifesto:

We want fun, good health and mutual caring … We love diversity. … We try to live a simple life with simple rules. … Everything about others can and may be different. … We still love marijuana brownies. (more; see also)

Hippies are more about going back to basics – paying more attention to simple things that seem obviously important, and less attention to all the other things folks say to worry about. So worry less about being “successful”, and do something you like. Worry less about satisfying official concepts of marriage and relationships, and more about just enjoying the people you are with. Eat good ingredients, prepared simply. Avoid getting weighed down by too many material goods. Worry less about defending your nation, ideology, race, or religion, and focus more on collecting friends, lovers, etc. that you like and get along with. Instead of obsessing about preparing your kids for the future, just treat them well and enjoy your time with them.

My colleague Bryan Caplan’s new book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids (read it; it’s good) is in fact a pretty hippy book, a description Bryan mostly accepts. He says you can’t really change kids much by parenting, but you can influence how much they enjoy their kid years. Bryan and I also agreed on relatively hippy positions on school, medicine, housing, and war, especially for the US. These things are just less useful, and matter less, than most say. The US would do well to cut our military in half, cut medicine in half, and subsidize school and housing less.

I’ve been impressed lately with the play vs. serious distinction. Obsessing about politics seems a much better way to signal your seriousness than your playfulness. Those who want to seem playful focus more on partying, joking, etc. So politics is biased, I think, toward taking most things too seriously. For example, on medicine the familiar political parties all say medicine is too important to be left to those other fools. None want to say medicine hardly matters for health, and so should be drastically cut. On war familiar parties similarly all agree on the great importance of fighting terrorism, or building nations, or supporting democracy. None want to say our military can’t do much about such things, and should be drastically cut.

Even today, when the US desperately needs to cut spending to avoid going bankrupt, few dare to take such hippy-style positions, that most of the things we spend so much on just matter much less than most think, and so can be drastically cut. One might imagine starting a Party Party, based on a fun-loving hippy-style emphasis on simple living. But alas those who agree are less eager to be political. So I expect the usual political parties will continue to fall over themselves to emphasize how very important are things like war, medicine, school, parenting, etc., so important that you shouldn’t dare to leave such things in the hands of those other incompetent parties.

The hippy mentality is largely a forager mentality, which we should expect more of as society gets richer. But we are more hyper-farmers at work, and our farming fears also seem over-represented in our politics, which seems biased to emphasize the serious over the playful.  Turn on, tune in, drop out; the rest just matters much less than you think.  That won’t necessarily always be true, but it is for now.

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One Pill To Break Us All

Imagine a new “fountain of youth” pill – it doesn’t make you immortal, but it does drastically cut your death rate, to that of an ordinary thirty year old. Nanobots maybe. Imagine also that this pill’s required dosage increases about as fast as mortality does today, doubling every decade. So getting that fountain of youth effect requires twice the dosage at fifty as at forty, and twice again at sixty. (Below-dosage use has little benefit.) What would such a pill do to our medical systems?

A purely private medical system would do fine – those who could afford this pill in its required dosage would buy it, and the rest would do without, dying soon if they were very old. A hard-nosed strict government system would also do fine – it would set some policy about who was allowed to get the pill, basically a government-set age of death, like Last Day day in Logan’s Run. (Government elites would probably get to live longer.)

But in the US today, most folks feel that 1) there should not be effective medicines available to some but not to others, and 2) effectiveness, not cost, should be the main criteria for availability. So treatments are usually approved based on effectiveness, regardless of cost. Laws have long required that certain treatments be available to anyone with medical insurance, and new laws now say that everyone must have insurance. Yes, insurance companies and regulators do sometimes find excuses to reject overly-expensive but effective treatments, but it is hard. Once insurance companies approve a treatment for some patients, however, they usually approve it for everyone it could help. For example, patients are usually covered regardless of how many years of life the treatment might gain them, which contributes to excess end-of-life medical spending. This “cover all effective medicine” attitude is a big part of what drives US medical spending so high.

In this sort of system, a fountain of youth pill whose required dosage doubled every decade would either have to be banned, or given to everyone over thirty with insurance. And if everyone were required to have insurance, that would be everyone over thirty. But then the per-person expenses of this system would almost double every decade, growing about 7% per year. Every decade that passed, the oldest folks would be ten years older, and require twice the dosage. But per-capita economic growth rates today are far below 7%. So eventually we’d run out of money to pay for these pills; we’d have to say no to some people, and then they’d quickly die. And the longer we waited before admitting to ourselves that we couldn’t afford to give effective treatments to everyone, no matter what the cost, the worse it would be.

Good thing we don’t have a fountain of youth pill, right? Actually, our real situation is worse. Per capita medical spending in the US doubles about every fifteen years, which is still much higher than our economic growth rate.  Yet we struggle to see any substantial correlation between health and medical spending – our medicine is mostly useless on the margin. Its nothing like a fountain of youth pill. Our refusal to say no to any medical treatment that seems to our wishful-thinking eyes like it might help will also bankrupt us. And we won’t even get a fountain of youth in the bargain.

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Unhappy Is OK

Many happy countries have unusually high rates of suicide. … U.S. states … with people who are generally more satisfied with their lives tended to have higher suicide rates than those with lower average levels of life satisfaction. … Adjusting for clear population differences between the states including age, gender, race, education, income, marital status and employment status … still produced a very strong correlation. …

“Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life.” … “This result is consistent with other research that shows that people judge their well-being in comparison to others around them.” (more)

While it is good to be happy, be aware that your happiness comes a cost: it makes those around you feel worse by comparison. So please, only act happy if you actually are happy. It is hard to see how your gains from pretending to be happy could outweigh its harm on others. Yes, maybe pretending to be happy makes you a little bit more happy.  But, really, it is ok and probably best to act unhappy if that is how you feel.

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