Monthly Archives: February 2012

Hutter on Singularity

Back in July I posted my response to Chalmers’ singularity essay, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS) where his paper was published. A paper copy of a JCS issue with thirteen responses recently showed up in my mail, though no JCS electronic copy is yet available. [Added 4Mar: it is now here.] Reading through the responses, the best (besides mine) was by Marcus Hutter.

I didn’t learn much new, but compared to the rest, Hutter is relatively savvy on social issues. He isn’t sure if it is possible to be much more intelligent than a human (as opposed to just thinking faster), but he is sure there is lots of room for improvement overall:

The technological singularity refers to a hypothetical scenario in which technological advances virtually explode. …

When building AIs or tinkering with our virtual selves, we could try out a lot of different goals. … But ultimately we will lose control, and the AGIs themselves will build further AGIs. … Some aspects of this might be independent of the initial goal structure and predictable. Probably this initial vorld is a society of cooperating and competing agents. There will be competition over limited (computational) resources, and those virtuals who have the goal to acquire them will naturally be more successful. … The successful virtuals will spread (in various ways), the others perish, and soon their society will consist mainly of virtuals whose goal is to compete over resources, where hostility will only be limited if this is in the virtuals’ best interest. For instance, current society has replaced war mostly by economic competition. … This world will likely neither be heaven nor hell for the virtuals. They will “like” to fight over resources, and the winners will “enjoy” it, while the losers will “hate” it. …

In the human world, local conflicts and global war is increasingly replaced by economic competition, which might itself be replaced by even more constructive global collaboration, as long as violaters can quickly and effectively (and non-violently?) be eliminated. It is possible that this requires a powerful single (virtual) world government, to give up individual privacy, and to severely limit individual freedom (cf. ant hills or bee hives).

Hutter noted (as have I) that cheap life is valued less:

Unless a global copy protection mechanism is deliberately installed, … copying virtual structures should be as cheap and effortless as it is for software and data today. The only cost is developing the structures in the first place, and the memory to store and the comp to run them. … One consequence … [is] life becoming much more diverse. …

Another consequence should be that life becomes less valuable. … Cheap machines decreased the value of physical labor. … In games, we value our own life and that of our opponents less than real life, … because games can be reset and one can be resurrected. … Why not participate in a dangerous fun activity. … It may be ethically acceptable to freeze, duplicate, slow-down, modify (brain experiments), or even kill (oneself or other) AIs at will, if they are abundant and/or backups are available, just what we are used to doing with software. So laws preventing experimentation with intelligences for moral reasons may not emerge.

Hutter also tried to imagine what such a society would look like from outside:

Imagine an inward explosion, where a fixed amount of matter is transformed into increasingly efficient computers until it becomes computronium. The virtual society like a well-functioning real society will likely evolve and progress, or at least change. Soon the speed of their affairs will make them beyond comprehension for the outsiders. … After a brief period, intelligent interaction between insiders and outsiders becomes impossible. …

Let us now consider outward explosion, where an increasing amount of matter is transformed into computers of fixed efficiency. … Outsiders will soon get into resource competition with the expanding computer world, and being inferior to the virtual intelligences, probably only have the option to flee. This might work for a while, but soon … escape becomes impossible, ending or converting the outsiders’ existence.

When foragers were outside of farmer societies, or farmers outside of industrial cities, change was faster on the inside, and the faster change got the harder it was for outsiders to understand. But there was no sharp boundary when understanding became “impossible.” While farmers were greedy for more land, and displaced foragers on farmable (or herd able) land quickly in farming doubling time terms, industry has been much less expansionary. While eventually industry might displace all farming, farming modes of production can continue to use land for many industry doubling times into an industrial revolution.

Similarly, a new faster economic growth mode might well continue to let old farming and industrial modes of production continue for a great many doubling times of the new mode. If land area is not central to the new mode of production, why expect old land uses to be quickly displaced?

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Turbulence Contrarians

A few months ago I came across an intriguing contrarian theory:

Hydrogravitional-dynamics (HGD) cosmology … predicts … Earth-mass planets fragmented from plasma at 300 Kyr [after the big bang]. Stars promptly formed from mergers of these gas planets, and chemicals C, N, O, Fe etc. were created by the stars and their supernovae. Seeded gas planets reduced the oxides to hot water oceans [at 2 Myr], … [which] hosted the first organic chemistry and the first life, distributed to the 1080 planets of the cosmological big bang by comets. … The dark matter of galaxies is mostly primordial planets in proto globular star cluster clumps, 30,000,000 planets per star (not 8!). (more)

Digging further, I found that these contrarians have related views on the puzzlingly high levels of mixing found in oceans, atmospheres, and stars. For example, some invoke fish swimming to explain otherwise puzzling high levels of ocean water mixing. These turbulence contrarians say that most theorists neglect an important long tail of rare bursts of intense turbulence, each followed by long-lasting “contrails.” These rare bursts not only mix oceans and atmospheres, they also supposedly create a more rapid clumping of matter in the early universe, leading to more earlier nomad planets (not tied to stars), which could then lead to early life and its rapid spread.

I didn’t understand turbulence well enough to judge these theories, so I set it all aside. But over the last few months I’ve noticed many reports about puzzling numbers and locations of planets:

What has puzzled observers and theorists so far is the high proportion of planets — roughly one-third to one-half — that are bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. … Furthermore, most of them are in tight orbits around their host star, precisely where the modellers say they shouldn’t be. (more)

Last year, researchers detected about a dozen nomad planets, using a technique called gravitational microlensing, which looks for stars whose light is momentarily refocused by the gravity of passing planets. The research produced evidence that roughly two nomads exist for every typical, so-called main-sequence star in our galaxy. The new study estimates that nomads may be up to 50,000 times more common than that. (more)

This new study was theoretical. It used a best fit power law fit to the distribution of nomad planet microlensing observations to predict ~60 Pluto sized or larger nomad planets per star.  When projected down to the comet scale, this power law actually matches known bounds on comet density. The 95% c.l. upper bound for the power law parameter gives 100,000 such wandering Plutos or larger per star.

I take all this as weak support for something in the direction of these contrarian theories – there are more nomad planets than theorists expected, and some of that may come from neglect of early universe turbulence. But thirty million nomad Plutos per star still seems pretty damn unlikely.

FYI, here is part of an email I sent the authors in mid December, as yet unanswered: Continue reading "Turbulence Contrarians" »

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Is Pessimism Immoral?

John Horgan says pessimism is immoral:

During adolescence, I was sometimes so gloomy that my mom called me Eeyore. … I mocked … Peter Medawar for declaring, “To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.” Now, perhaps because I’m a father and teacher (and hence, dare I say it, a role model), I’ve come to agree with Sir Peter, at least about social (as opposed to scientific) progress. …

Pundits … warn that humanity may descend into a nightmarish world of savage Malthusian wars over dwindling resources. I nonetheless now believe that pessimism about humanity’s future is wrong, both morally and empirically. Morally because pessimism can undermine our efforts to solve our social problems. Empirically because our history shows that these problems are far from insurmountable. …

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, in which he asked his fellow Americans to join him in the quest to end poverty, disease, tyranny, and war. I polled my students on whether they thought those four goals were reasonable, or merely utopian fantasies that politicians invoke in speeches but no one really does or should believe in. Everyone chose the utopian-fantasy option. So young, and so pessimistic! I spent the rest of the class trying to change their minds by presenting the following facts about our surging wealth, health, freedom, and peace. …

Over the last two centuries, however, average standards of living have surged. … Jeffrey Sachs … argues that we can eradicate extreme poverty and the threat of starvation within a generation, if we have the will to do so. … since the early 20th century, life spans have more than doubled, … Just as longevity and prosperity have surged in the past century, so has freedom. … Finally … our era is quite peaceful by historical standards. … continued progress is by no means guaranteed. We may never eradicate poverty, disease, tyranny, and war, as JFK hoped. But given how far we’ve come toward creating a healthier, wealthier, freer, and more peaceful world, surely we can go much further. (more)

Yes many trends have been positive for a century or so, and yes this suggests they will continue to rise for a century or so. But no this does not mean that students are empirically or morally wrong for thinking it “utopian fantasy” that one could “end poverty, disease, tyranny, and war” by joining a modern-day Kennedy’s political quest. Why? Because positive recent trends in these areas were not much caused by such political movements! They were mostly caused by our getting rich from the industrial revolution, an event that political movements tended, if anything, to try to hold back on average.

Furthermore, while a century more of these nice trends is enough to greatly reduce these bad things, it is not enough to end them. And there are good reasons to think that our non-Malthusian era is a temporary exception to a robust historical regularity.

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The Tree of Life is Far

Experiencing awe may have all sorts of tonic effects, including a better sense of perspective on time and priorities, more patience and charity toward others, and generally more satisfaction with life. … Those who were primed to feel awe—those volunteers also saw time as much more expansive, less constricted. They felt free of time’s pressure. … Those who felt they had more available time were less impatient; they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others; and they were less materialistic. (more)

The Tree of Life is up for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars tonight. Though it has only 0.6%, 1.3% chances of winning, it is a great illustration of the ties between far mode, awe, and spirituality. I’ll need spoilers to explain – you are warned. Continue reading "The Tree of Life is Far" »

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Charles Murray, Farmer

I finished Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. He is quite convincing on his main empirical claim: the behavior of US high and low classes have indeed come apart in the last half century, mainly as low classes reject religion, marriage, and full-time work.

This raises the obvious question of whether classes have been similarly coming apart in the rest of the world. But Murray seems uninterested in that question – he is fervently nationalist, and mainly laments the US losing its exceptional status of having fewer class differences, and becoming more like other rich nations. Since regression to the mean is what we should expect about most any nation with an exceptional feature, this shouldn’t be very surprising, and we shouldn’t expect a reversal.

Curiously the US may have “regressed past the mean”, achieving classes that are even more distinct classes than in most rich nations. Perhaps the US allows more change and mobility overall.

Near the end of the book Murray allows himself a rant on what he thinks was great about the US, and bad about Europe. This seems to me an unusually vivid presentation of a farmer-style intellectual point of view, a rare find in the modern world:

There’s a lot to like about day-to-day live in the advanced welfare states of western Europe. They are great places to visit. But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – The Europe Syndrome.

Europe’s short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome. The idea of work as a means of self-actualization has faded. The view of work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure, dominates. … The precipitous decline of marriage, far greater in Europe than in the United STates, is another symptom. What is the point of a life-time commitment when the state will act as surrogate spouse when it comes to paying the bills? The decline of fertility to far below replacement is another symptom. Children are seen as a burden that the state must help shoulder, and even then they’re a lot of trouble that distract from things that are more fun. The secularization of Europe is yet another symptom. Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. It that’s the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.

The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. (p.284)

This sort of view may seem alien to many intellectuals, and even obviously wrong. But it isn’t obviously wrong, and it was pretty common in the farming era. Well aside from his saying that activated chemicals should only want to achieve pleasure – that’s just silly.

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Econ Advice Confirmed

We … construct management data on over 10,000 organizations across twenty countries, … [and] use a new double-blind survey tool. … We define “best” management practices as those that continuously collect and analyze performance information, that set challenging and interlinked short-and long-run targets, and that reward high performers and retrain/fire low performers. … Our management scoring grid … was developed by McKinsey as a first-contact guide to firms’ management quality. … We also test (and confirm) that these practices are indeed strongly linked to higher productivity, profitability, and growth. (more)

Not a bad quick measure of the quality of management practices. They find:

In manufacturing American, Japanese, and German firms are the best managed. Firms in developing countries, such as Brazil, China and India tend to be poorly managed. American retail firms and hospitals are also well managed by international standards, although American schools are worse managed than those in several other developed countries. We also find substantial variation in management practices across organizations in every country and every sector, mirroring the heterogeneity in the spread of performance in these sectors. One factor linked to this variation is ownership. Government, family, and founder owned firms are usually poorly managed, while multinational, dispersed shareholder and private-equity owned firms are typically well managed. Stronger product market competition … [is] associated with better management practices. Less regulated labor markets are associated with improvements in incentive management practices such as performance based promotion. …

Publicly (i.e., government) owned organizations have worse management practices across all sectors we studied. … Multinationals appear able to adopt good management practices in almost every country in which they operate. … The level of education of both managers and nonmanagers is strongly linked to better management practices.

So, the world would get more productivity and growth if it had fewer government-owned organizations, less labor regulation, stronger product market competition, and more things run by multinational firms. Gee, sounds a lot like standard economists’ advice.

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Keynes’ Forager Future

Suresh Naidu pointed me to a fascinating 1930 essay (excerpts below) by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes on the long term future. Consideration of the far future put Keynes into a very far mode, where he upheld far ideals against near practical constraints. While Keynes accepted that farmer ideals of work, property, and saving for the future were needed to maintain economic growth, he detested such ideals, and looked to a future roughly a century hence when, humanity’s absolute material needs being satisfied, we embraced forager ideals for sharing material goods, living in and enjoying the moment, and just doing what feels right.

Now Keynes did note that humans also seek relative status, but he seemed to assume that humans would coordinate to suppress such urges, and to keep just enough farmer habits to preserve material wealth. In his far idealistic mode, he didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that nations would still compete for relative status, and promote farmer norms for that purpose, or that individuals would still work full time seeking personal relative status.

We are now only eighteen years shy of Keynes’ 2030 forecast date. While there has certainly been a weakening of farmer ideals, especially on fertility, we are far from embracing forager ideals overall. We still work hard for material wealth. Our lower classes have moved furthest, more rejecting marriage, religion, and full-time work, via relying heavily on the sharing of others, and this is considered a big problem. Give us another century of similar economic growth, and this lower class malaise might well infect most everyone. But it is far from clear that this would settle at a stable rich no growth equilibrium, rather than economic and population collapse.

In any case, even we preserve farmer norms enough to support continued growth, material wealth per person will only be high until we find new techs to increase population faster than we increase wealth. While in theory-overconfident far mode, Keynes’ is tempted to see his forager-value future as lasting indefinitely, it would in fact only be temporary. The em transition that I envision within a century or two should quickly return most people (i.e., most ems) to near subsistence income, and put a huge premium on reviving farmer-like norms and ideals. And even if that doesn’t happen, growth must slow in the very long run.

Is my summary fair? Judge for yourself; here are excerpts from Keynes’ essay: Continue reading "Keynes’ Forager Future" »

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Why Retire?

Our lives are a mix of work and play (= “liesure”). We tend to play more in the evenings, on weekends, holidays, and vacations, and at the start and end of our lives. Why this pattern of work vs. play?

We clearly like to put some play time close to work time, to avoid delaying gratification, and to get periodic rests from work. We also like to play at the same time as our friends and family. These factors go a long way toward explaining evenings, weekends, and holidays.

We also get some scale economies from periodic longer playtimes, which helps explain vacations; some sorts of play just don’t fit well in weekends. Humans and other animals were designed to learn important skills during childhood playtime, which helps explain our start of life play. (Most animals only play when young.)

Our habit of deferring so much play into the end of life, however, is a bit more puzzling. Our ancestors didn’t do this – it is a feature of our modern world. While encouraged by laws and regulations, the idea also just seems to appeal to many. But why, for example, doesn’t the idea of spreading a decade of play from age 65-75 across the four decades from age 25 to 65 appeal more? Why not want a week off every month, or two years off out of every eight?

Some say we play more when old because our work productivity declines then. And this makes complete sense in the extreme case when one isn’t able to work at all. But as Nick Rowe points out (HT Eric Crampton), before that extreme our ability to play and work decline together. And since our bodies decline faster than our minds, our capability for physically active play declines even faster than our ability to do mental work.

Asking my colleagues, most endorsed the view that we retire early because when our abilities decline, work abilities decline faster than play abilities. Yet this view doesn’t fit our short-term choices. When we are modestly under the weather, and can choose either to work with reduced productivity, or to play with reduced fun, most folks choose work over play. (I surveyed a class of 35 students.)

Once as a young man working at Lockheed, I decided to switch from working 40 to 30 hours per week, to spend more time on my independent research. My rate of advancement in the company didn’t just slow by 25%, it stopped completely — I was seen as not serious about my job. This suggests a signaling explanation for retirement: spreading our end of life play across the rest of our life would makes us look less serious and productive as workers.

Murray’s book Coming Apart emphasizes how there are many people with very poor work habits and motivation:

“What about the white guys on the corner.” … “The bums. … Those guys couldn’t work here, they can’t hold a job. …. They’re not motivated to work.” … “They’ll live on welfare or any other income they got coming in. They don’t want to work.” (p.217)

It seems that a willingness to put in lots of hours in midlife signals many other good things about you. So we send such signals, and then switch to play at the end of our lives, when it is too late for the bad signals to hurt us much. If real, this is a pretty big signaling cost we all pay, to seem like serious workers.

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Why Allow Lies?

Jonathan Turley wants to keep lies legal:

Alvarez … is a liar. … After his election to a water board in California, he introduced himself at a public meeting as “a retired Marine of 25 years,” a repeatedly wounded warrior and a Medal of Honor recipient. … He was found out, publicly ridiculed and hounded out of office. … [He is] one of the first people prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, … [which] makes it a crime to falsely claim “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” …

The problem with the law they may have broken is not just that it is unnecessary, but that it can be dangerous to criminalize lies. After all, with the power to punish a lie comes the power to define the truth — a risky occupation for any government. … Now the [Alvarez] case will go to the Supreme Court, where the Obama administration will argue that the First Amendment does not protect lies as it does true statements. …

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski balked at the notion that lies can be crimes in a society saturated by untruths. “Saints,” he noted, “may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying.” Kozinski is supported by a host of studies on the human propensity, even necessity, to lie. … The dividing line in the law has always been fraud or related crimes — using lies to gain money or benefits. … But the Stolen Valor Act was designed to address cases in which the individual is not deriving financial gain or other benefits; rather, the law punishes the boast or the brag itself. …

If it is harmful to lie about soldiers, what about lying about being a former police officer or a former firefighter? How about lying about politicians or religion or terrorism? Once we criminalize lies, someone must determine what is a lie and what is harmless embellishment. … The First Amendment protects … the right of everyone to speak, even when they may be called liars. As for our heroes, they are no more diminished by pathetic pretenders than top singers are diminished by bad karoke. We know the real thing when we see it. (more)

Turley’s arguments are surprisingly weak. We needn’t let government set the truth on all topics to outlaw very clear cases of lying. Lies being common in social talk doesn’t require us to legalize all lies. We surely do not all instantly “know they real thing when we see it.” Even if the harm from lies isn’t monetary, it is clearly real harm. And we already outlaw non-monetary lies to the government.

This seems to me more about feeling that a line has been crossed, such as with a sense of appropriate social spheres. In sex and friendship, we seem to prefer that those who are not socially savvy or well-connected suffer from lies by those who are more clever and connected, at least relative to letting law get involved. It is mainly when we see dominance, via money, business, or government, that we want to outlaw lies.

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Are Firms Like Trees?

Trees are spectacularly successful, and have been for millions of years. They now cover ~30% of Earth’s land. So trees should be pretty well designed to do what they do. Yet the basic design of trees seems odd in many ways. Might this tell us something interesting about design?

A tree’s basic design problem is how to cheaply hold leaves as high as possible to see the sun, and not be blocked by other trees’ leaves. This leaf support system must be robust to the buffeting of winds and animals. Materials should resist being frozen, burned, and eaten by animals and disease. Oh, and the whole thing must keep functioning as it grows from a tiny seed.

Here are three odd features of tree design:

  1. Irregular-Shaped – Humans often design structures to lift large surface areas up high, and even to have them face the sun. But human designs are usually far more regular than trees. Our buildings and solar cell arrays tend to be regular, and usually rectangular. Trees, in contract, are higgledy-piggledy (see pict above). The regularity of most animal bodies shows that trees could have been regular, with each part in its intended place. Why aren’t tree bodies regular?
  2. Self-Blocking – Human-designed solar cells, and sets of windows that serve a similar function, manage to avoid overly blocking each other. Cell/window elements tend to be arranged along a common surface. In trees, in contrast, leaves often block each other from the sun. Yet animal design again shows that evolution could have put leaves along a regular surface – consider the design of skin or wings. Why aren’t tree leaves on a common surface?
  3. Single-Support – Human structures for lifting things high usually have at least three points of support on the ground. (As do most land animals.) This helps them deal with random weight imbalances and sideways forces like winds. Yet each tree usually only connects to the ground via a single trunk. It didn’t have to be this way. Some fig trees set down more roots when older branches sag down to the ground. And just as people trying to stand on a shifting platform might hold each other’s hands for balance, trees could be designed to have some branches interlock with branches from neighboring trees for support. Why is tree support singular?

Now it is noteworthy that large cities also tend to have weaker forms of these features. Cities are less regular than buildings, buildings often block sunlight to neighboring buildings, and while each building has at least three supports, neighboring buildings rarely attach to each other for balance. What distinguishes cities and trees from buildings?

One key difference is that buildings are made all at once on land that is calm and clear, while cities and trees grow slowly in a changing environment, while competing for resources. Since most small trees never live to be big trees, their choices must focus on current survival and local growth. A tree opportunistically adds its growth in whatever direction seems most open to sun at the moment, with less of a long term growth plan. Since this local growth end up committing the future shape of the tree, local opportunism tends toward an irregular structure.

I’m less clear on explanations for self-blocking and single-support. Sending branches sideways to create new supports might seem to distract from rising higher, but if multiple supports allow a higher peak it isn’t clear why this isn’t worth waiting for. Neighboring tree connections might try to grab more support than they offer, or pull one down when they die. But it isn’t clear why tree connections couldn’t be weak and breakable to deal with such issues, or why trees couldn’t connect preferentially with kin.

Firms also must grow from small seeds, and most small firms never make it to be big firms. Perhaps an analogy with trees could help us understand why successful firms seem irregular and varied in structure, why they are often work at cross-purposes internally, and why merging them with weakly related firms is usually a bad idea.

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