Monthly Archives: April 2017

Steven Levy’s Generic Skepticism

Steven Levy praises TED to the heavens:

Not every talk is one for the ages, but the TED News Feed is in sync with Ezra Pound’s insufficiently famous quote that “literature is news that stays news.” In TED’s world, at least when it’s working well, the news that stays news is science — as well as the recognizable truths of who we are as a species, and what we are capable of, good or evil. .. Much of the TED News Feed was an implicit rebuke of the politics of the day. Generally, TED speakers are believers in the scientific method. There were even a couple of talks this year whose very point was that there is a thing called truth.

Well, except for my talk:

Still, the TED News Feed was not free of potentially fake news, albeit of the scientific kind. A speaker named Robin Hanson (a George Mason professor and a guru of prediction markets) gave what he described as a data-driven set of predictions of a world where super-intelligent robots would rule the earth after forcing humans to “retire.” It seemed to me that he simply labeled his sci-fi fantasy as non-fiction. Plus, when I checked his website later, I learned he “invented a new form of government called futarchy,” and that his favorite musician was Vangelis. (When I later asked Anderson about that talk, he explained, without necessarily endorsing my criticism, that it was “a roll of the dice,” and that generally it was a good thing when talks took risks.)

That is all of Steven Levy’s critique; there is no more. He actually came up to me after my talk, saying something generically skeptical. I pointed out that I’d written a whole book full of analysis detail, and I asked him to pick out anything specific I had said that he doubted, offering to explain my reasoning on that. But he instead just walked away.

Maybe Mr. Levy comes from a part of science I’m not familiar with, but in the parts of science I know, a critic of a purported scientific analysis is expected to offer specific criticisms, in addition to any general negative rating. The 130 words he devoted here was enough space to at least hint at which of my claims he doubted. And for the record, in my books and talks I’m very clear that my analysis is theory-driven, not data-driven, and that it is conditional on my key technology assumptions.

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Superhumans Live Among Us

Computers are impressive machines, and they get more impressive every year, as hardware gets cheaper and software gets better. But while they are substantially better than humans on many important tasks, still overall humans earn far more income from using their smarts than do computers. And at past rates of progress it looks like it will take centuries before computers earn more income overall.

The usual explanation for why humans are so much more capable is their flexibility, which probably results mainly from their breadth. A computer doing a task usually has available to it a far smaller range of methods, knowledge, and data. When what it has are good enough, a computer can be far more accurate and cheaper than a human. But when when a computer lacks important relevant method, knowledge, and data, then you just can’t do without that human flexibility and breadth. You might hire a human to work with a computer, but still you need that human on the team.

In our world today, most people are specialists; they spend years learning the methods, knowledge, and data relevant to an existing recognized specialty area. And when your problem falls well within such an existing area, that is exactly the sort of person you want to work on it.

But often we face problems that don’t fall well within existing specialty areas. If we can give a short list of specialty areas that cover our problem, then we can collect a team with members in all those areas. Because talking between people is much less efficient that communication within one person, this team will take a lot longer to solve our problem. But still, eventually such teams are usually up to the task.

However, sometimes we face problems where we don’t know which kinds of expertise are relevant. In such cases what we really need is a person who is expert in far more areas than are most people. Let me call such people “polymaths”, though that word is often used for people who have wide interests but not wide expertise. A polymath with expertise in enough areas has a far better chance of solving broad hard-to-classify problems. A polymath is to an ordinary human as that human is to a computer. At least in terms of relative flexibility and breadth, and thus generality.

Quite often a specialist will see that some of their tools apply to a problem, and not realize that there are tools from other areas that also apply. And if specialists from other areas tell them that other tools do apply, they will usually not have sufficient expertise to directly evaluate that claim. And so the usual human arrogance will often lead them to disagree. Specialists from each area will say that they can help, and discount the possibility of help from other kinds of specialists.

Now a clear long track record showing that teams that include several kinds of specialists tend to solve a certain kind of problem better may convince many specialists that other specialists are relevant. But we often lack such clear long track records. In such cases, we often get stuck in a pattern of having a particular kind of expert deal with a particular kind of problem, even when other kinds of experts could help.

The same thing applies when humans know more than computers. Usually there’s nothing the human could say to prove to the computer that it is missing important relevant tools and knowledge. The computer just doesn’t understand these other tools well enough. So the computer has to just be told to defer to the human when the human thinks it knows better.

Bottom line: superhuman really live among us, whose better abilities compared to us really are analogous to the way we are so much better than computers: they have more flexibility, due to more breadth of expertise. But without clear track records, they usually don’t have ways to convince us to listen to them. Once we’ve found one kind of expert relevant to a problem, those experts tend to tell us that other kinds aren’t needed, and we tend to believe them.

Superhumans walk among us, but don’t get the respect they deserve. We reserve our highest honors for those who are best at specific recognized specialty areas, and mainly only recognize polymaths when they are good enough at one such area.

Added 22Apr: Actually, someone with multiple expertise areas isn’t what I meant if they haven’t worked to integrate them. Compared to computers, the human mind can not only do many things, it has integrated those tools together well. When areas overall, one needs a common representation to accommodate them both. Is one a special case of the other? Do they focus on different parameters in a common parameter space? I mean to refer to a polymath who has successfully integrated their many areas of expertise.

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Mormon Transhumanists

A standard trope of science fiction has religious groups using violence to stop a new technology. Perhaps because of this, many are surprised by the existence of religious transhumanists. Saturday I gave a keynote talk on Age of Em at the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) annual conference, and had a chance to study such folks in more detail. And I should say right off the top that this MTA audience, compared to other audiences, had notably fewer morality or religious related objections to my em scenario.

I’m not surprised by the existence of religious tech futurists. Overall, the major world religions have been quite successful in adapting to the many social changes since most of them first appeared many millennia ago. Also, the main predictor of interest in tech futurism and science fiction is an interest in science and technology, and religious folks are not underrepresented there. Even so, you might ask what your favorite theories of religion predict about how MTA folk would differ from other transhumanists.

The most obvious difference I saw is that MTA does community very well, with good organization, little shirking, and lots of polite, respectful, and friendly interaction. This makes sense. Mormons in general have strong community norms, and one of the main functions of religion is to build strong communities. Mormonism is a relatively high commitment religion, and those tend to promote stronger bonds.

Though I did not anticipate it, a predictable consequence of this is that MTA is more of a transhuman take on Mormonism than a Mormon take on transhumanism. On reflection, this reveals an interesting way that long-lived groups with dogmas retain and co-op smart intellectuals. Let me explain.

One standard sales technique is to try to get your mark to spend lots of time considering your product. This is a reason why salespeople often seem so slow and chatty. The more time you spend considering their product, the longer that you will estimate it will take to consider other products, and the more likely you are to quit searching and take their product.

Similarly, religions often expose children to a mass of details, as in religious stories. Smart children can be especially engaged by these details because they like to show off their ability to remember and understand detail. Later on, such people can show off their ability to interpret these details in many ways, and to identify awkward and conflicting elements.

Even if the conflicts they find are so severe as to reasonably call into question the entire thing, by that time such people have invested so much in learning details of their religion that they’d lose a lot of ability to show off if they just left and never talked about it again. Some become vocally against their old religion, which lets them keep talking and showing off about it. But even in opposition, they are still then mostly defined by that religion.

I didn’t meet any MTA who took Mormon claims on miraculous historical events literally. They seemed well informed on science and tech and willing to apply typical engineering and science standards to such things. Even so, MTA folks are so focused on their own Mormon world that they tend to be less interested in asking how Mormons could anticipate and prepare for future changes, and more interested in how future/sci/tech themes could reframe and interpret key Mormon theological debates and claims. In practice their strong desire to remain Mormons in good standing means that they mostly accept practical church authority, including the many ways that the church hides the awkward and conflicting elements of its religions stories and dogma.

For example, MTA folks exploring a “new god argument” seek scenarios wherein we might live in a simulation that resonate with Mormon claims of a universe full of life and gods. While these folks aren’t indifferent to the relative plausibility of hypotheses, this sort of exercise is quite different from just asking what sort of simulations would be most likely if we in fact did live in a simulation.

I’ve said that we today live in an unprecedented dreamtime of unadaptive behavior, a dream from which some will eventually awake. Religious folks in general tend to be better positioned to awake sooner, as they have stronger communities, more self-control, and higher fertility. But even if the trope applies far more in fiction than in reality, it remains possible that Mormon religious orthodoxy could interfere with Mormons adapting to the future.

MTA could help to deal with such problems by becoming trusted guides to the future for other Mormons. To fill that role, they would of course need to show enough interest in Mormon theology to convince the others that they are good Mormons. But they would also need to pay more attention to just studying the future regardless of its relevance to Mormon theology. Look at what is possible, what is likely, and the consequences of various actions. For their sakes, I hope that they can make this adjustment.

By the way, we can talk similarly about libertarians who focus on criticizing government regulation and redistribution. The more one studies the details of government actions, showing off via knowing more such detail, then even if one mostly criticizes such actions, still one’s thinking becomes mostly defined by government. To avoid this outcome, focus more on thinking about what non-government organizations should do and how. It isn’t enough to say “without government, the market will do it.” Become part of a market that does things.

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Hail Humans

Humans developed a uniquely strong and flexible capacity for social norms (see Boehm). Because of this, the praise that humans most crave is an acknowledgment that we are principled. That is, that we (mostly) adhere to the norms of our society, even when doing so is costly. And that includes the norm of calling attention to and punishing norm deviators.

In this post, I want to praise most humans for living up to this standard. This isn’t remotely a trivial accomplishment, and it just doesn’t get enough mention. Again, other animals can’t manage it. And most of us are often sorely tempted to defect.

It is much easier to embrace our society’s norms when we feel that we are winning by those norms, or at least breaking even. In this case we can each justify our norm-supporting sacrifices as the price we each pay to get others to make their sacrifices, to create a functioning society.

But much of our innate programming is tuned to watch for markers of relative status, ways in which some us seem better than others. And by this standard most of us are losers, gaining less than average relative status. (In technical terms, the median of success is well below the mean.)

When we feel like we are losers, so that others are gaining much more from society’s norms than we are, it is easier to doubt if we should continue to personally sacrifice to support those norms. Especially when we suspect that winners tend to win in part because they support some norms less than others do.

I think that in most societies, most losers do in fact suspect most winners of insufficient norm support. And there are some who use that as a justification to excuse their norm deviations. And most losers believe that there are many such deviants, and that such deviants tend to gain as a result of their failures to support norms.

And yet, even when they believe that most winners and many others gain from failing to sufficiently support norms, most losers still pay large personal costs to support most norms most of the time. Yes most everyone deviates sometimes, and yes we often work much harder to create the appearance than the substance of norm support. That is, we often attend more to what looks helpful than what is helpful.

Even so, hail to most humans for supporting their society’s norms enough to make possible society, and civilization. Yes, you might think that some societies have a better set of norms than others. And yes we might lament the lack of enough attention to preserving or inventing good norms.

But still, given that it is the praise that humans most crave to hear, and that they in fact do meet the relevant standard, we should give credit where credit is due. Hail to humans for supporting norms. At least their appearance, for most norms, most of the time.

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