Monthly Archives: July 2013

That Old SF Prejudice

Back when I was a physics student in the late 1970s, my physics teachers were pretty unified in and explicit about their dislike for so-called social “sciences.” Not only is there no science there, they said, there is no useful knowledge of any sort – it was all “pseudo” science as useless as astrology. Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today, but since our world is so much more politically sensitive, they also know to avoid saying so directly.

Old school science fiction authors were taught pretty much the same thing and sometimes they say so pretty directly. Case in point, Arthur C. Clarke [ACC]:

TM: Why has science fiction seemed so prescient?

ACC: Well, we mustn’t overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we’re bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn’t matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says, “What if?” not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we’d probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that. …

To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. …

TM: What’s a precondition for being a science fiction writer other than an interest in the future?

ACC: Well, an interest — at least an understanding of science, not necessarily a science degree but you must have a feeling for the science and its possibilities and its impossibilities, otherwise you’re writing fantasy. …

TM: Is it fair to call some science fiction writers prophets in a way?

ACC: Yes, but accidental prophets, because very few attempt to predict the future as they expect it will be. They may in some cases, and I’ve done this myself, write about — try to write about — futures as they hope they will be, but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever said this is the way the future will be. …. I don’t think there is such a thing as as a real prophet. You can never predict the future. We know why now, of course; chaos theory, which I got very interested in, shows you can never predict the future. (more)

You see? The reason to be interested in science fiction is an interest what will actually happen in the future, and the reason fantasy isn’t science fiction is that gets the future wrong because it doesn’t appreciate scientific possibilities like flying, space travel, and computers. But chaos theory says you can’t predict anything about politics or economics because that’s all just random. Sigh.

Of course folks like Doug Englebart were in fact predicting things about the social implications of computers back when Clarke made his famous movie 2001, but Clarke apparently figures that if the physics and sf folks he talked to didn’t know something, no one knew. Today’s science fiction authors also know better than to say such things directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science exists and social science does not.

Added 10a: Note how it is easy to entice commenters to say they agree with the claim that there is no social science, but it is much harder to get a prominent physics or sf blogger to say so in a post. Lots of them think similarly, but know not to say so publicly.

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Beware Star Academia

I recently saw the show Old Jews Telling Jokes, and was reminded of a big change in humor over the last century. The show was full of old-style jokes, i.e., jokes designed to be funny given only a moderate level of showmanship. Once upon a time the jokes we heard were mostly jokes that got passed around because lots of pretty ordinary folks could tell them and get laughs. Today, instead, most jokes we hear are told by professional comics, who mostly tell their own unique jokes integrated with their life story and personality. Few others, even professional comics, can get such laughs from these jokes.

A similar change happened in music. Once upon a time the songs we heard were mostly songs that got passed around because many relatively ordinary folks could sing them and sound good. Today instead we mostly hear songs designed to show off the particular abilities of particular musicians. We are less tempted to sing these songs to our friends, or even to ourselves. Further in the past, a similar change happened with stories. Once, the stories we heard were passed around because many story tellers could enthrall listeners with them, even with many details changed. Then after the invention of writing we have preferred to pass around the exact words of particular story-tellers.

These changes seem driven by the ability to pass around more exactly the particular performances of particular artists. When we have that option, we take it eagerly. While we might think we mainly like the jokes, songs, and stories, and that artists are just a vehicle for getting to those. But it seems instead that we more care about admiring the abilities of particular artists, and that jokes, songs, and stories mostly vehicles to showcase artists.

If, as I have suggested, academia mainly functions to let us affiliate with impressive intellectuals, then academia should be at risk of suffering the same trend. That is, once upon a time we passed around the intellectual arguments and claims that a wide range of speakers could use in many contexts to persuade many listeners. But as we have gained better abilities to pass around the particular ways that particular speakers argue for claims, the above trend in jokes, song, and stories suggests that we did or will switch to focus more on the particular ways that particular intellectuals express and elaborate claims and arguments, and less on the claims and arguments themselves.

This is a problem because we have stronger reasons to expect that the arguments and claims that many people can use in many contexts to persuade varied listeners are more likely to be true, relative to those designed more to be parts of overall impressive displays by particular persons in particular contexts. If listeners actually care less if claims are true than if claimers are impressive, we should expect that when the audience for intellectuals can get better access to a rich personal display of attempted persuasion, they will lose much of their derived interest in the truth of claims. After all, maybe the audience never really cared that much if the claims were true – they mainly cared about claim truth as evidence of claimer impressiveness.

I’ve actually seen a lot that looks like this in my intellectual travels over the years. For example, many famous classic texts, especially in philosophy, are said to be popular because they can’t be effectively summarized or rephrased for a modern audience; to assimilate their insights, one must read the original authors in the original voices, even if their issues and styles are strange to us. We should suspect that folks read these classics less for insights and more for admiring and affiliating with impressive minds.

Also, I have seen people take arguments that others have made and express them with a bit more elegance and status, perhaps using more difficult methods, and get famous for originating such arguments, even when they mostly repeated what others said. It seems that people pretend that they celebrate these folks for originating certain arguments, but really want to admire and affiliate with their impressiveness.

Where could you go if you wanted to get the robust arguments, instead of affiliating with impressive intellectuals? First, read textbooks. I heartily recommend textbooks in most any subject. In fact, it is hard to do better than just sitting in a university bookstore and reading all the intro texts they have. Long ago I spent many days in the Stanford bookstore doing just that. Once you are done with textbooks, review articles are the next most robust option. And beware when interest in a topic seems to focus mainly on a particular author, and doesn’t transfer much to others who write on that same topic.

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Exemplary Futurism

Back in May there was a Starship Century Symposium in San Diego. I didn’t attend, but I later watched videos of most of the talks (here, here, book coming here). Many were about attempts by engineers and scientists to sketch out feasible designs for functioning starships. They’ve been at this for many decades, and have made some progress.

Most of us have seen many starships depicted in movies, and you might figure that since the future is so uncertain, fictional starships are our best guess to real future starships. Since no one can know anything, no one can beat fictional imagination. But that seems very wrong to me; we get a lot better insight into real starships from serious attempts to design them.

It is worth noting that these folks do futurism the way I say it should be done: making best combos.

Form best estimates on each variable one at a time, and then adjust each best estimate to take into account the others, until one has a reasonably coherent baseline combination: a set of variable values that each seem reasonable given the others. (more)

Even though this is the standard approach of historians, schedulers, and puzzle solvers, many express strong disapproval about doing futurism this way. Well at least when predicting social consequences. Starship designers don’t seem to get much flack. Why? I’d guess it is because they are high status. Starships and physicists are sexy enough that we forget to be politically correct, and just let experts do what seems best to them.

Some might say this is okay for engineering, because we know lots of engineering, but not ok for social things, because we know little there. But that is just wrong. Not only do we know lots about social things, this is still the right approach in areas of history and engineering where we know a lot less.

It is also worth noting that the usual starship vision mainly seem interesting if one expects familiar growth rates to continue for a while. A starship carrying humans would take about a decade or two in flight time, and a thousand times as much energy as the Apollo moon rockets. And today our economy doubles in about 15 years. So if energy capacity doubled with the economy, it would take about 150 years to get that capacity. Or since energy has doubled about every 25 years lately, it might take 250 years. But 150-250 years still seems culturally accessible to us; we feel we can relate to folks 200 years ago. Much more at least than to people 20,000 years ago.

But if growth rates either slow down or sleep up a lot, this doesn’t work. For example, if the economy doubled every thousand years, as it did during the farming era, then it would take ten thousand years to get enough capacity. And we feel much less related to people who will live ten thousand years in the future. We expect their culture to change so much that we are much less interested in stories about them, or in thinking about what they will do.

If growth rates instead speed up by the same factor, the economy would then double every three months. And then a decade long flight to another star would encompass forty doublings, or a factor of a trillion. At growth rates like that, a journey that  long just seems crazy. Before you’ve hardly left our system another much better ship is likely to whiz past you. And even if your ship gets there first, the civilization back home by then is likely to be culturally unrecognizable. A trillion size bigger economy is likely to be a very different place.

Of course fast growth can’t go on forever. So a fast growing economy will slow down eventually. And that is when it would make sense to take a decade long journey, when a decade doesn’t encompass that much cultural change back home. But such a post-fast-growth society will likely be so different from ours as to deflate most of our interest in thinking about their starships.

If our industry era growth rates continue on for several centuries, then we may have descendants capable of starlight, and culturally similar enough to us that we care a lot about them. But if growth rates either slow down or speed up a lot, the descendants who are finally willing and able to fly to the stars are likely to be so different from us that we are much less interested in them.

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Ponder Questions

A Harvard assistant dean of admissions:

You had to look for people who could come into a very competitive environment, who could still find self-esteem and who in some way, shape or form was still the best at something.

How do you figure that out?

It was never the answers they gave. It was the questions they asked. The questions give a much better clue to how a person thinks. Answers can be learned, can be rote. But it’s the questions. (more)

I know many folks who consider themselves intellectuals. I guess they think that in part because if you asked them “What have you been up to lately?,” they’d tell you about books, articles, blogs, or twitter feeds that they’ve been reading. Or perhaps TED talks they’ve watched. This is why I prefer the question “What have you been thinking about lately?” And I’ll usually be a bit disappointed if the answer isn’t about a question they’ve been trying to answer.

Yes perhaps if they just mention a topic, that really stands for some questions about that topic. But often people thinking about a topic are mostly trying to find more supporting evidence for things they already believe. Less often are they taking what I consider the most productive intellectual strategy: focus on an important question where you don’t know the answer.

Once you start to think about a question, you’ll probably soon start to break it down into supporting sub-questions. Instead of asking “How can we get world peace?” you might ask “What most goes wrong when the United Nations intervenes?” or “Why do citizens on the losing sides of wars support them?” And hearing about your interesting sub-questions might just make my day. That is why I, like the Harvard admissions dean above, will be especially eager to hear that you’ve been thinking about interesting questions.

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Impressive Power

Monday I attended a conference session on the metrics academics use to rate and rank people, journals, departments, etc.:

Eugene Garfield developed the journal impact factor a half-century ago based on a two-year window of citations. And more recently, Jorge Hirsch invented the h-index to quantify an individual’s productivity based on the distribution of citations over one’s publications. There are also several competing “world university ranking” systems in wide circulation. Most traditional bibliometrics seek to build upon the citation structure of scholarship in the same manner that PageRank uses the link structure of the web as a signal of importance, but new approaches are now seeking to harness usage patterns and social media to assess impact. (agenda; video)

Session speakers discussed such metrics in an engineering mode, listing good features metrics should have, and searching for metrics with many good features. But it occurred to me that we can also discuss metrics in social science mode, i.e., as data to help us distinguish social theories. You see, many different conflicting theories have been offered about the main functions of academia, and about the preferences of academics and their customers, such as students, readers, and funders. And the metrics that various people prefer might help us to distinguish between such theories.

For example, one class of theories posits that academia mainly functions to increase innovation and intellectual progress valued by the larger world, and that academics are well organized and incentivized to serve this function. (Yes such theories may also predict individuals favoring metrics that rate themselves highly, but such effects should wash out as we average widely.) This theory predicts that academics and their customers prefer metrics that are good proxies for this ultimate outcome.

So instead of just measuring the influence of academic work on future academic publications, academics and customers should strongly prefer metrics that also measure wider influence on the media, blogs, business practices, ways of thinking, etc. Relative to other kinds of impact, such metrics should focus especially on relevant innovation and intellectual progress. This theory also predicts that, instead of just crediting the abstract thinkers and writers in an academic project, there are strong preferences for also crediting supporting folks who write computer programs, built required tools, do tedious data collection, give administrative support, manage funding programs, etc.

My preferred theory, in contrast, is that academia mainly functions to let outsiders affiliate with credentialed impressive power. Individual academics show exceptional impressive abstract mental abilities via their academic work, and academic institutions credential individual people and works as impressive in this way, by awarding them prestigious positions and publications. Outsiders gain social status in the wider world via their association with such credentialed-as-impressive folks.

Note that I said “impressive power,” not just impressiveness. This is the new twist that I’m introducing in this post. People clearly want academics to show not just impressive raw abilities, but also to show that they’ve translated such abilities into power over others, especially over other credentialled-as-impressive folks. I think we also see similar preferences regarding music, novels, sports, etc. We want people who make such things to show not only that they have have impressive abilities in musical, writing, athletics, etc., we also want them to show that they have translated such abilities into substantial power to influence competitors, listeners, readers, spectators, etc.

My favored theory predicts that academics will be uninterested in and even hostile to metrics that credit the people who contributed to academic projects without thereby demonstrating exceptional abstract mental abilities. This theory also predicts that while there will be some interest in measuring the impact of academic work outside academia, this interest will be mild relative to measuring impact on other academics, and will focus mostly on influence on other credentialed-as-impressives, such as pundits, musicians, politicians, etc. This theory also predicts little extra interest in measuring impact on innovation and intellectual progress, relative to just measuring a raw ability to change thoughts and behaviors. This is a theory of power, not progress.

Under my preferred theory of academia, innovation and intellectual progress are mainly side-effects, not main functions. They may sometimes be welcome side effects, but they mostly aren’t what the institutions are designed to achieve. Thus proposals that would tend to increase progress, like promoting more inter-disciplinary work, are rejected if they make it substantially harder to credential people as mentally impressive.

You might wonder: why would humans tend to seek signals of the combination of impressive abilities and power over others? Why not signal these things separately? I think this is yet another sign of homo hypocritus. For foragers, directly showing off one’s power is quite illicit, and so foragers had to show power indirectly, with strong plausible deniability. We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

So does anyone else have different theories of academia, with different predictions about which metrics academics and their customers will prefer? I look forward to the collection of data on who prefers which metrics, to give us sharper tests of these alternative theories of the nature and function of academia. And theories of music, stories, sport, etc.

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Me on PBS Off Book

PBS Digital Studios makes Off Book, with short (9 min) episodes for Youtube viewers. The latest episode is on The Rise of Artificial Intelligence:

I mostly appear from 3:30 to 5:30.

Added 16Dec: I’m told this video has had over 100,000 views so far.

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Drexler and I Again

Eric Drexler has responded to my last reply. Let me focus on one key issue. I wrote:

The main argument you gave for why a nanotech revolution could happen suddenly is that new nanotech designs could “unfold at the speed of new digital media”, i.e., we could sent such designs around fast as digital files. But if this were all that was needed for a technology to improve rapidly we should now see rapid gains in the design of novels, music, and software.

Drexler responds with quotes from his book:

Even partial upgrades of existing products that involve [merely] replacing structural components with materials that are lighter, stronger, and lower in cost can offer striking advantages. If a business today could deliver replacements for products already in use, but at lower cost and with superior performance by a few key metrics (vehicles with half the mass, electronic systems with ten thousand times greater capacity), one would expect to see rapid replacement of competing products along with the collapse of the supply chains behind them. …

Cycles of product improvement (and replacement) can be swift with an APM production infrastructure; the delays of prototyping, production engineering, and plant construction largely disappear, and production itself can be both fast and scalable. Further, for products adapted to decentralized APM-based production, distribution need not involve shipping and can more nearly resemble an Internet download.

Yes, if a broad mature nanotech ability were to drop out of the sky, then industry could use such an ability to rapidly to displace existing products with large efficiency gains. A sudden appearance of full nanotech would imply a big sudden social change. But the question here is exactly how fast would nanotech abilities appear!

Nanotech production lines take very small chemicals and incrementally bond them to each other, accumulating larger and larger assemblages, until they are big enough to be useful devices. Imagine that such production lines slowly became cheaper, faster, and more reliable, slowly adding to the menu of chemicals they could take in as basic building blocks, and slowly able to reliably create a wider range of chemical bonds at a wider range of relative block orientations. Slowly more of the steps in this production process became more fully automated, and less guided by human intervention. The slower that these improved abilities appeared, the slower would be the gains in performance and cost of the devices made this way.

Today the industries that create novels, music, and software all have the advantages Drexler foresees – they have little in the way of tech-induced delays of prototyping, production engineering, and plant construction. Production itself is both fast and scalable. Even so, those industries are not improving the efficiency of their products at rates much faster than when they suffered greatly from such delays. So the elimination of such delays is clearly not sufficient to imply much faster gains in final product value.

If there are reasons to expect nanotech abilities to improve rapidly, they must be additional reasons beyond those given above.

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I’m On After Bill Gates

This Monday I’ll speak for 15 min on Prediction Engines at a Microsoft Faculty Summit. The summit is private, but selected talks and interviews will be streamed publicly. I’ll be in a public interview 13:30–14:00 PDT, right after Bill Gates’ keynote talk. My private talk session is also right after Gates speaks, but in a breakout session; I probably won’t meet him.

Added: video here.

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Why Do Bets Look Bad?

Most social worlds lack a norm of giving much extra respect to claims supported by offers to bet. This is a shame because such norms would reduce insincere untruthful claims, and so make for more accurate beliefs in listeners. But instead of advocating for change, in this post I wonder: why are such norms rare?

Yes there are random elements in which groups have which norms, and yes given a local norm that doesn’t respect bets it looks weird to offer bets there. But in this post I’m looking more to explain which norms appear where, and less who follows which norms.

Bets have been around for a long time, and by now most intellectuals understand them, and know that all else equal those who really believe more strongly are willing to bet more. So you might think it wouldn’t be that hard for a betting norm to get added on to all other local norms and cultural factors; all else equal respect bets as showing confidence. But if this happens it must be counter-balanced by other effects, or bets wouldn’t be so rare. What are these other effects?

While info often gets overtly shared in casual conversation, most of that info doesn’t seem very useful.  I thus conclude that casual conversation isn’t mainly about overtly sharing info. So I assume the obvious alternative: casual conversation is mostly about signaling (which is covert or indirect info sharing). But still the puzzle remains: whatever else we signal via conversation, why don’t we typically expect a betting offer to signal overall-admirable confidence in a claim?

One obvious general hypothesis to consider here is that betting signals typically conflict with or interact with other signals. But which other signals, and how? In the rest of this post I explore a few bad-looking features that bets might signal:

  • Sincerity – In many subcultures it looks bad to care a lot about most any topic of casual conversation. Such passion suggests that you just don’t get the usual social functions of such conversations. Conversationalists ideally skip from topic to topic, showing off their wits, smarts, loyalties, and social connections, but otherwise caring little about the truth on particular topics. Most academia communities seem to have related norms. Offers to bet, in contrast, suggest you care too much about the truth on a particular topic. Most listeners don’t care if your claim is true, so aren’t interested in your confidence. Of course on some topics people are expected to care a lot, so this doesn’t explain fewer bets there.
  • Conflict – Many actions we take are seen as signals of cooperation or conflict. That is, our actions are seen as indicating that certain folks are our allies, and that certain other folks are our rivals or opponents. A bet offer can be seen as an overt declaration of conflict, and thus make one look overly confrontational, especially within a group that saw itself as mainly made of allies. We often try to portray any apparent conflict in casual conversations as just misunderstandings or sharing useful info, but bets are harder to portray that way.
  • Provinciality – Bets are most common today in sports, and sport arguments and bets seem to be mostly about showing loyalty to particular teams. In sports, confrontation is more ok and expected about such loyalties. Offering to bet on a team is seen as much like offering to have a fist fight to defend your team’s honor. Because of this association with regional loyalties in sports, offers to bet outside of sports are also seen as affirmations of loyalties, and thus to conflict with norms of a universal intellectual community.
  • Imprudence – Some folks are impulsive and spend available resources on whatever suits their temporary fancy, until they just run out. Others are careful to limit their spending via various simple self-control rules on how much they may spend how often on what kinds of things. Unless one is in the habit of betting often from a standard limited betting budget, bets look like unusual impulsive spending. Bettors seem to not sufficiently keep under control their impulsive urges to show sincerity, make conflict, or signal loyalties.
  • Disloyalty – In many conversations it is only ok to quote as sources or supports people outside the conversation who are “one of us.” Since betting markets must have participants on both sides of a question, they will have participants who are not part of “us”. Thus quoting betting market odds in support of a claim inappropriately brings “them” in to “our” conversation. Inviting insiders to go bet in those markets also invites some of “us” to interact more with “them”, which also seems disloyal.
  • Dominance – In conversation we often pretend to support an egalitarian norm where the wealth and social status of speakers is irrelevant to which claims are accepted or rejected by the audience. Offers to bet conflict with that norm, by seeming to favor those with more money to bet. Somehow, who is how smart or articulate or has more free time to read are considered acceptable bases for conversation inequities. While richer folks could be expected to bet more, the conversation would have to explicitly acknowledge that they are richer, which is rude.
  • Greed – We often try to give the impression that we talk mainly to benefit our listeners. This is a sacred activity. Offering to bet money makes it explicit that we seek personal gains, which is profane. This is why folks sometimes offer to bet charity; the money goes to the winner’s favorite charity. But that looks suspiciously like bringing profane money-lenders into a sacred temple.

Last week I said bets can function much like arguments that offer reasons for a conclusion. If so, how do arguments avoid looking bad in these ways? Since the cost to offer an argument is much less than the cost to offer a bet, arguments seem less imprudent and less show sincerity. Since the benefits from winning arguments aren’t explicit, one can pretend to be altruistic in giving them. Also, you can pretend an argument is not directed at any particular listener, and so is not a bid for conflict. Since most arguments t0day are not about sports, arguments less evoke the image of a sports-regional-signal. As long as you don’t quote outsiders, arguments seem less an invitation to invoke or interact with outsiders.

If we are to find a way to make bets more popular, we’ll need to find ways to let people make bets without sending these bad-looking signals.

Added: It is suspicious that I didn’t do this analysis much earlier. This is plausibly due to the usual corrupting effect of advocacy on analysis; because I advocated betting, I analyzed it insufficiently.

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Drexler Responds

Three weeks ago I critiqued Eric Drexler’s book Radical Abundance. Below the fold is his reply, and my response: Continue reading "Drexler Responds" »

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