Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant issues that have not appeared in recent posts.

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  • David Jinkins

    I would like to hear your opinion on the increasing use of randomized controlled trials in economics. I am referring to “field” rather than “lab” experiments.

  • Ansis Māliņš

    In your lecture about ems you didn’t tell how are ems going to transition from the perfect slaves to the people of the future. Do you think humans will just give them rights at some point?

  • C Peel

    Two questions
    1: Are you familiar with the theory of disruptive innovation from Clay Christensen? How do you think it meshes with your view of the future?

    2: What do you think about the idea of a progressive tax on companies? My thought is that big incumbent companies are somewhat more likely to get disrupted by new technology, and so why not tax them more, while letting the little companies which are more likely to innovate grow by taxing them less.

    • A progressive tax on companies would be absolutely great for the economy and for society.

      The most important thing it does is inhibit the generation of entities “too big to fail”.

      If a company can reduce its tax burden simply by dividing itself into smaller entities, then they will be encouraged to do so. If there really are good economies of scale, then larger companies will be able to afford higher taxes. If there are not, then there is no value (to society) of that kind of concentration of power.

  • How is Information Overload very different from Sensory Overload? We handle sensory overload all the time, with amazing ease.

    Similarly, can’t we deal with Information Overload? What makes it different? We could walk from point A to point B without getting distracted, in spite of the sensory overload. How is Information Overload different? Please reflect and write on it.


    • Mark M

      Sensory filtering is natural, something we’ve all been doing since birth. You simply can’t pay attention to everything. Over time you learn what hurts and what doesn’t, and filter accordingly.

      Information filtering is not natural. You can’t pay attention to everything, but there is no sensory feedback to tell you what hurts and what does not hurt. You do not necessarily learn what is important over time, and information filters are not always chosen well.

  • Mark M

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on future conflicts between Ems and Humans. I don’t know if you’ve posted on this before.

    I never bought into the idea that Skynet would gain consciousness and try to wipe out the human race. Artificial Intelligence would be an artificial design, capable of independent thought, but for the most part designed to support human endeavors with goals, desires, and limitations of our choosing.

    Ems are another story entirely. Ems, as I understand them, are copies of the human mind, infused with human goals, desires, and emotions. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, humans aren’t always nice people.

    As recently pointed out, Ems can be enhanced and would be far superior to humans in almost any objective measurement. Ems would be more fit for virtually any job than humans. Who would hire humans when Ems can do the job better and faster?

    I can easily see human unemployment going through the roof and a popular uprising of natural humans against Ems, calling for government intervention. Politicians may resist, but with unemployment high enough, popular anti-Em sentiment will put anti-Em politicians in place. Laws would be passed to put restrictions on Ems in one form or another.

    Ems, being more capable than humans but with all the same goals and fears, would fight back. They don’t want to be owned, unemployed, or destroyed. They would organize a resistance, and . . . what happens next?

    I’d like to hear your thoughts. Will there be war? An Em nation? Will humans benefit from Em productivity, or will humans become unemployed and impoverished, dependent upon Em charity?

    • Dave

      I too am confused by the concept of ems. They seen to be beings that have no holistic anchors in reality as animals do. Animals must eat,poop and perform mental calculi. Ems don’t do anything of use but think. How do ems turn their infinitely brilliant thoughts into acts.

      If I understand anything about the theory of mind it is that all behaviors are controlled by interactions between desires and inhibitions. For example if you have the desire to eat and you walk into a restaurant, you are inhibited from walking up to a table and grabbing a streak off a man’s plate and eating it,then having sex with his daughter who is sitting with him. What would an em do and how would it do it? I don’t expect this will be answered.

      • Ems are connected with reality just like us, because they need hardware and energy to survive.

        There can be different strategies for getting the hardware and energy. The simplest would be trading some mental work for money, and then buying the resources. With enough Ems, the price of their work may be rather low, but so may be their living expenses. Or they could try to build their own factories and power plants operated by robots. Some of them can become criminals specializing on hacking other ems and taking their resources, or enslaving them. The profitability of various actions will depend on circumstances.

        Ems can turn their thoughts to acts by sending electric signals over network, or operating robotic bodies.

        Desires and inhibitions of ems will partially depend on their way of living, and partially on random cultural drifts. We can guess that evolution will select for traits like: desire for more resources, ability to cooperate with other Ems or cheat them when convenient, desire to reproduce, intelligence, and ability to self-control and balance various desires. If these is something like sexual reproduction on the Em level (a new Em created as a combination of two or more existing Ems), there will be traits that make an Em attractive for other Ems. What would that be? Whatever is successul, is sexy, because it makes the new Em more successful. But this definition is partially recursive (being sexy is successful, being successful is sexy, therefore being sexy is sexy), so it could be any random thing (think about the peacock’s tail) if the selection starts to drift in that direction.

        So when an Em comes to a room with other Ems, it will generally try to do directly useful things (some kind of trade, like humans change money for food in restaurant), and make contact with and impress the other Ems .

      • Dave

        So ems are a fusion of Darwinism, information theory and computer science or an abusive narrative of of all three.

  • Andr

    Some might find this interesting. One factor that was missing from the discussion was the facts of population ecology, but then again neither expert was an expert in that field.

    • Another factor that was missing was a mathematician to point out that exponential growth is possible in a universe with negative Gaussian curvature.

  • Ely

    I’d like to hear about prospect theory applied to your evolution of health altruism and “showing that we care” idea in medical spending.

    For instance, Kahneman talks about several such effects in his recent book.

    (1) You care more about your memories of an experience than about the immediate consumption of that experience. Could this help explain why we are willing to exhaust resources to prevent others’ seemingly inevitable deaths?

    (2) There are lots of ways that risk aversion and lottery type biases effect us. If you’re a defendant in a court case and you see little chance to win, this might actually make you less willing to settle the case. You’ll figure that a small chance to walk away paying nothing is better than a sure thing (the settlement) forcing you to pay a little less than what the judge might ultimately compel you to pay. We give too much credibility to small probabilities and not enough to probabilities near one.

    Some medical decisions seem similar. If there’s little hope that a treatment will work, that might actually make me less willing to go into hospice care or something. Why not throw caution to the wind and let it ride on a game of chance? The worst that happens is that I die and lose out on some marginal chance at more pleasant final days… this just strikes me as similar reasoning to much of what prospect theory explains.

  • What is an economist’s academic over/under view
    on an Obama v Romney win –
    specifically regarding
    1. employment
    2. housing value

  • Vaniver

    What do you think of the Red Zone in Haiti?

  • There seems to be an gaping hole in the life extension discourse where cryobiology is concerned. It seems like everyone gets distracted by either cryonics (the current day practice of trying to keep people from being corpses after clinical death), or the prospect of trying to achieve actuarial escape velocity with antiaging therapies.

    There is an excluded middle ground here. Preventing cold things from experiencing damage is probably an easier thing than preventing living things from aging. Cold things are less complicated than (warm) living things. And it has the exact same promise for getting hundreds of thousands of people per day to the point of actuarial escape velocity.

    Clinical cryopreservation research has the following additional virtues:

    1. It can be tested quickly on humans and similar species with rapid feedback to know if it is working. An animal will be alive or dead (by the standards of the proposal), instantly after each given attempt to preserve and reanimate.
    2. The data is also likely to be more portable across the species because it is a simpler more physics-oriented problem, so we can more quickly use results from rats, dogs, pigs, and monkeys for humans — less human and higher mammal testing should be required.
    3. The data even if the goal is not achieved is useful for cryonics, and the pursuit of the goal builds credibility for cryonics.

    So why no huge Aubrey de Grey style program to publicize this kind of clinical-quality cryopreservation as a tech goal, and to raise tens of billions of dollars for the purpose?

    Further, when skeptics of Aubrey de Grey style antiaging speak, why do they never mention cryopreservation of individuals as an obviously more logical, plausible, safer, saner alternative for the near term?

    • Ely

      I am actually massively interested in this. I am working on a volunteer project for Giving What We Can (I should be starting it up in June). The goal is to come up with useful, generalizable measures of charity effectiveness that will extend to existential risk charities. Currently, plenty is understood in using disability-adjusted life years to assess things like malaria prevention strategies, or clean water strategies.

      But how does one assess the impact of the marginal dollar to the SENS foundation, or to SIAI, or to more fundamental cryopreservation research as you say. Perhaps we can email or speak offline another way, because I’d be extremely interested in where to look for detailed stuff on the effectiveness of cryopreservation.

      In my own view, I think there is a lot that can be done with analogy to long and short positions on securities in investing. There also seem to be long and short positions on charity, and we really need analogous measures of charity volatility. I would love to try to generate a paper out of this idea.

  • OhioStater

    You can be skeptical or have faith. The skeptical see why things won’t or can’t work; the faithful see why things will or can work.

    Is there any evidence of skeptics building anything? Do faithful people win in the long run?

    • OhioStater

      Let me elaborate…there are two levels of skepticism aka faithlessness. First, let me introduce this formula: inputs+agent=outcome.

      The first level of faithlessness is the agent fearing he’ll run out of the inputs needed to make the outcome happen.

      The second level of faithlessness is thinking your life will be ruined if the outcome doesn’t happy, or that you need the outcome to be happy. The skeptic is likely to be unhappy even if the outcome happens as he plans it.

  • MPS

    A common fee structure on mutual funds is 1-2% of principle per year. This is about the same as common property tax rates. Property, like mutual funds, gains value at a rate that, on average, is significantly greater than this. Property, like mutual funds, gain value in part due to events and operations that have nothing to do with what those fees / taxes are paying for, but to some extent they do make a difference.

    So I think there are many similarities between these two things. At least at first glance, it seems the property taxes buy you more. Public schools educate lots of people, presumably increasing their productivity and decreasing training costs for businesses, thus lowering prices. Police keep neighborhoods safe, fire departments as well. There’s sewage and trash collection and so on. Contrast this with the mutual fund, which basically buys you the service of being able to buy fractional shares in stocks, and saves you ~ hours to days labor picking a large sample of diverse stocks.

    Of course there are different scales of activity and funding here which helps explain the different amounts of service. But my point is, at naive face value, I think it really does seem you’re getting “more for your buck” with property taxes than with mutual funds. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce property taxes or use them in the best possible way. My point is to contrast the similarities with the different attitudes people have toward paying these, which run even against my sloppy attempt at a naive face-value assessment of what they pay for. This seems like a question up your alley.

  • I anyone attending The Amazing Meeting (James Randi Educational Foundation) also known as TAM X in Las Vegas in July? Apparently the Singularity and Futurism will be a theme, of course from a skeptical, critical viewpoint. Maybe we can have a meetup of some sorts. Email me at if your attending.