Author Archives: James Miller

Are you dreaming?

Often when I’m dreaming I “feel” that I’m awake.  When I’m awake, however, I always  “feel” that I’m awake and have no conscious doubt (except in the philosophical sense) that I’m not dreaming.

But logically when I “feel” awake I should believe there is a non-trivial chance that I’m dreaming.  This has implications for how I should behave.

For example, imagine I’m considering eating spinach or chocolate.  I like the taste of chocolate more than spinach, but recognize that spinach is healthier for me.  Let’s say that if the probability of my being awake were greater than 99% then to maximize the expected overall quality of my life I should eat the spinach otherwise I should pick the chocolate. 

Rationally, I should probably figure that the chance of my being awake is less than 99% so I should go with the chocolate.  Yet like most other humans I don’t take into account that I might be dreaming when I “feel” awake.

Over the long run you would likely reduce your inclusive genetic fitness if when you  “feel” awake you act as if there is a less than 100% chance of your actually being awake.  For this reason I suspect we are “genetically programmed” to never doubt that we are awake when we “feel” awake even though it would be rational to hold such a doubt.

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Billion Dollar Bots

Robin presented a scenario in which whole brain emulations, or what he calls bots come into being.  Here is another:

Bots are created with hardware and software.  The higher the quality of one input the less you need of the other.  Hardware, especially with cloud computing, can be quickly allocated from one task to another.  So the first bot might run on hardware worth billions of dollars.

The first bot creators would receive tremendous prestige and a guaranteed place in the history books.  So once it becomes possible to create a bot many firms and rich individuals will be willing to create one even if doing so would cause them to suffer a large loss.

Imagine that some group has $300 million to spend on hardware and will use the money as soon as $300 million becomes enough to create a bot.  The best way to spend this money would not be to buy a $300 million computer but to rent $300 million of off-peak computing power.  If the group needed only 1,000 hours of computing power (which it need not buy all at once) to prove that it had created a bot then the group could have, roughly, $3 billion of hardware for the needed 1,000 hours.

It’s likely that the  first bot would run very slowly.  Perhaps it would take the bot 10 real seconds to think as much as a human does in one second.

Under my scenario the first bot would be wildly expensive.  But because of Moore’s law once the first bot was created everyone would expect that the cost of bots would eventually become low enough so that they would radically remake society.

Consequently, years before bots come to dominate the economy, many people will come to expect that within their lifetime bots will someday come to dominate the economy.   Bot expectations will radically change the world.

I suspect that after it becomes obvious that we could eventually create cheap bots world governments will devote trillions to bot Manhattan projects.  The expected benefits of winning the bot race will be so high that it would be in the self-interest of individual governments to not worry too much about bot friendliness.

The U.S. and Chinese militaries  might fall into a bot prisoners’ dilemma in which both militaries would prefer an outcome in which everyone slowed down bot development to ensure friendliness yet both nations were individually better off (regardless of what the other military did) taking huge chances on friendliness so as to increase the probability of their winning the bot race.

My hope is that the U.S. will have such a tremendous advantage over China that the Chinese don’t try to win the race and the U.S. military thinks it can afford to go slow.  But given China’s relatively high growth rate I doubt humanity will luck into this safe scenario.

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Now I’m Scared

Bruce Ivins was suspected of being the anthrax killer and recently committed suicide.  Ivins was a Ph.D. MICROBIOLOGIST who worked for the U.S. military and according to his therapist was a SOCIOPATH and HOMICIDAL KILLER.

Just how much damage could a sociopathic, homicidal killing microbiologist do?  If the blind idiot God of evolution can develop microorganisms that kill millions, what could an observant, intelligent microbiologist accomplish? 

Should governments perhaps force all microbiologists to be evaluated to determine if they are sociopaths?  After all, if employees of the Department of Commerce have to undergo background checks before they can see classified commerce related information, shouldn’t microbiologists be subject to some kind of governmental screening process?

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Bias against some types of foreign wives

Consider a typical 35-year-old unattached heterosexual U.S. male who hopes to eventually get married.  One day he goes to a club in his city and finds that thousands of extremely beautiful 20 to 25-year-old Russian women in the club want to marry him.  Many of these women speak English and have a college degree.  True, they want to marry him in large part because of his income, but they still want to marry him.  Although I have no evidence, I strongly suspect that many 35-year-old men would agree to marry one of these Russian women.

Dating websites such as this do allow an American male to pick a beautiful 20-25 year old Russian woman to marry.  Yet few take advantage of this.  Why not?

Maybe it’s because men fear that they will be cheated by international matchmaking organizations.  But if this is true there should be a profitable market opening for a firm with a trusted brand name to start such a matchmaking operation.  Google, perhaps, could extend its search services to help men find international marriage mates.

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Bias Against the Unseen

Economist John Lott on why many doctors oppose guns:

Doctors see the bad things that happen and it motivates them to do what they think is good. Take away the guns and those bad things won’t happen. However, what the doctors don’t see is the acts by guns that keep others from showing up in their emergency rooms. They are well motivated, but seeing only part of the picture causes them to misdiagnose the cure.

Bias against fully considering unseen consequences influences many public policy positions and, I suspect, explains why many intellectuals support the minimum wage, rent control and strong FDA regulations.  These anti-market intellectuals don’t, I believe, give proper weight to the jobs that were never created because of minimum wage laws, the buildings that were never constructed because of rent control, and the pharmaceutical products that were never developed because of the great expense of complying with FDA regulations.

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Caution Kills When Fighting Malaria

Mosquito induced malaria kills over 1 million people each year.

Fortunately, genetic engineering could greatly reduce this death toll.  As BBC news reports “A genetically modified (GM) strain of malaria-resistant mosquito has been created that is better able to survive than disease-carrying insects.  It gives new impetus to one strategy for controlling the disease: introduce the GM insects into wild populations in the hope that they will take over.”

Alas, it will likely take “10 to 20 years before transgenic mosquitoes are released into nature,” in part because “It’s very difficult to predict what will happen when we release these things.” 

Before releasing the mosquitoes scientists first want to conduct research that “address all the social, ethical and legal issues associated with releasing transgenic organisms into the environment.” (Emphasis mine.)

I’m not a biologist, but I find it almost impossible to believe that the expected negative side effects  of releasing the GM mosquitoes could even come close to the harm now caused by malaria.  If, therefore, GM mosquitoes could significantly reduce malaria deaths they should be quickly released into the environment even if there is a high chance that the GM mosquitoes will cause serious “social, ethical and environmental harm.”

I suspect that those who would take a cautious approach to releasing GM mosquitoes suffer from status quo bias and give much greater weight to avoiding new negative consequences than they do to eliminating existing harms.  Others, I suspect, give less relative weight to the existing harms because these harms are "natural" whereas any damage that comes about as a side effect of releasing GM mosquitoes would be man-made and thus unnatural.

If a researcher working on the malaria fighting mosquitoes is reading this post I urge you to take it upon yourself to release the GM mosquitoes as soon as they have a high probability of working even if doing so would violate the law and your colleagues’ trust.  You probably won’t be able to release them over a wide area.  But if you can show that the GM mosquitoes are safe and effective then they will likely be released on a large scale sooner than if you had not acted.

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What is the probability of the Large Hadron Collider destroying the universe?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will create conditions “last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.”  A lawsuit has been filed to prevent the LHC from being turned on for fear that it might destroy the earth or perhaps even the universe.  Some scientists associated with the LHC have stated that the LHC is safe to operate.

But, as the Dilbert Blog points out, should we trust these scientists’ stated opinions?  Scott Adams writes:

“And who exactly ran the numbers to decide it wasn’t that risky? After all, the whole point of the Large Hadron Collider is to create conditions that are not predictable. If someone already predicted what would happen using nothing but his laptop and Excel, and determined it was safe, I don’t think we’re getting our $8 billion worth.

I can’t see the management of this project spending $8 billion, realizing it was a huge boner, and then holding a press conference suggesting it be turned into a parking garage. I’ll bet a lot of people in that position would take at least a 5% risk of incinerating the galaxy versus incinerating their own careers. I know I would.

If the lawsuit succeeds, imagine trying to get another job with that project failure on your resume.

Interviewer: ‘So, you spent $8 billion dollars trying to build a machine that would either discover something cool or destroy the universe. Is it fair to say you are not a people person?’”

Some of this blogs’ readers and writer seem to know a lot about physics.  Here is a question for you:

(1)  What is the probability that the LHC will destroy the visible universe?

If you think the answer is zero please don’t bother posting a comment since your knowledge of probability theory is insufficient for your comment to be informative. 

And here is a question for everyone:

(2)  For what answers to (1) should the LHC be prevented from operating?

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Acceptable Casualties

Follow Up to Bias Against Torture and Kind Right-Handers

Imagine that one month after the 9/11 attacks the U.S. conducted a massive bombing campaign against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.  Further assume that (1) the U.S. knew Bin Laden was well hidden and so the attacks would have no significant chance of killing him, (2) the U.S. military had estimated that about 5,000 innocents would die because of the bombings and indeed around 5,000 innocents did die, and (3) the bombings were conducted mainly to deter future terrorist attacks against the U.S.  Such a bombing campaign would have been widely supported in the U.S.  Most Americans would assign the moral blame for the civilian deaths to Bin Laden.

But now imagine that instead of conducting a bombing campaign President Bush ordered the assassination of Bin Laden’s closest relatives.  Assume that 500 people were killed including all of Bin Laden’s parents, grandparents, children, uncles, aunts, and first cousins who were alive on 9/11.  President Bush, lets assume, announced that although those killed were innocents their deaths were necessary to deter future terrorist attacks against the U.S.  My guess is that for ordering such assassinations Bush would have been impeached, removed from office and sentenced to either death or life in prison. 

The relative expected responses to the bombing campaign and assassinations seem inconsistent because fewer innocents would die with the assassinations and the assassinations might well have a greater deterrence effect on future terrorists.  We would be less bothered by the bombings, I suspect, because we could claim that we didn’t want the innocents to die.  But if we estimate that X number of innocents will die because of a military strike, why should it morally matter whether we actually wanted these X people to perish?

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Give juries video recordings of testimony

I just finished serving on a jury in a rape trial.  The accused and the alleged victim had been best friends.  The alleged victim testified that she was forcibly raped whereas the defense attorney suggested that the sex was consensual.  The accused never testified.  The only significant evidence presented by the prosecution was the testimony of the alleged victim.  During cross examination the defense attorney attempted to reduce the credibility of the alleged victim and managed to trip her up on one point.  Everyone on the jury agreed that the case came down to the credibility of the alleged victim.   

It would have been extremely helpful during our deliberations to have had a videotape of the alleged victim’s testimony.  But the judge told us that it was not even possible to have a transcript of such testimony.  All we had to rely on were the handwritten notes we were allowed to take during trial.

The cost of providing the jury with a video recording, audio recording or written transcript would have been trivial, perhaps less than the cost of keeping a man in jail for a single day.  So I can’t imagine that cost is the reason why we the jury were denied such useful information.  Rather I suspect that those Massachusetts politicians or officials who have the power to give juries such information don’t greatly care about the accuracy of jury trials.

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A test for political prediction markets

Ron Rosenbaum writes:

"So I was down in DC this past weekend and happened to run into a well-connected media person, who told me flatly, unequivocally that ‘everyone knows’ The LA Times was sitting on a story, all wrapped up and ready to go about what is a potentially devastating sexual scandal involving a leading Presidential candidate. ‘Everyone knows’ meaning everyone in the DC mainstream media political reporting world….By the way, it’s not the Edwards rumor, it’s something else."

Slate’s Mickey Kaus thinks this speculation is worth repeating.

If there really is some “devastating sexual scandal involving a leading Presidential candidate” that the general public is not aware of but everyone in the “DC mainstream media political reporting world” knows then we have a perfect test for political prediction markets.

The price of candidates in prediction markets should take into account information known only to DC mainstream political reporters.  The prediction market Intrade gives Obama a 12.6% chance of capturing the Democratic nomination.  I follow politics fairly closely and this 12.6% seems low to me based on the information I have.  Obama has lots of cash, is doing well in the Iowa polls and lots of Democrats are worried about Clinton’s chance of winning in a general election.  So it seems very possible to me that Obama’s prediction market price is being negatively influenced by something that the general public is unaware of.

Intrade gives Clinton a 71.3% chance of winning the Presidential election and a 47.7% chance of becoming president.  Some people are speculating that Rosenbaum’s devastating sex scandal involves Clinton.  If this is true then her Intrade prices should be much lower than they currently are. 

In sum, if many media members have private information about an Obama sex scandal then the Intrade prediction markets are working as prediction market enthusiasts would hope and thus the Obama scandal represents a victory for prediction markets.  If, however, many members of the media have private information about a devastating Hillary Clinton scandal then prediction markets, in this instance, have failed us and supporters of prediction markets will have to rethink our enthusiasm towards them.

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