Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Adam Ford & I on Great Filter

Adam Ford interviewed me again, this time on the Great Filter:

We have three main sources of info on existential risks (xrisks):

  1. Inside View Analysis – where we try to use our best theories to reason about particular causal processes.
  2. Earth Track Records – the empirical distribution of related events observed so far on Earth.
  3. The Great Filter – inferences from the fact that the universe looks dead everywhere but here.

These sources are roughly equally informative. #2 suggests xrisks are low, even if high enough to deserve much effort to prevent them. I’d say that most variations on #1 suggest the same. However, #3 suggests xrisks could be very high, which should encourage more xrisk-mitigation efforts.

Ironically most xrisk efforts (of which I’m aware) focus on AI-risk, which can’t explain the great filter.

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Lost For Words, On Purpose

When we use words to say how we feel, the more relevant concepts and distinctions that we know, the more precisely we can express our feelings. So you might think that the number of relevant distinctions we can express on a topic rises with a topic’s importance. That is, the more we care about something, the more distinctions we can make about it.

But consider the two cases of food and love/sex (which I’m lumping together here). It seems to me that while these topics are of comparable importance, we have a lot more ways to clearly express distinctions on foods than on love/sex. So when people want to express feelings on love/sex, they often retreat to awkward analogies and suggestive poetry. Two different categories of explanations stand out here:

1) Love/sex is low dimensional. While we care a lot about love/sex, there are only a few things we care about. Consider money as an analogy. While money is important, and finance experts know a great many distinctions, for most people the key relevant distinction is usually more vs. less money; the rest is detail. Similarly, evolution theory suggests that only a small number of dimensions about love/sex matter much to us.

2) Clear love/sex talk looks bad.  Love/sex are to supposed to have lots of non-verbal talk, so a verbal focus can detract from that. We have a norm that love/sex is to be personal and private, a norm you might seem to violate via comfortable impersonal talk that could easily be understood if quoted. And if you only talk in private, you learn fewer words, and need them less. Also, a precise vocabulary used clearly could make it seem like what you wanted from love/sex was fungible – you aren’t so much attached to particular people as to the bundle of features they provide. Precise talk could make it easier for us to consciously know what we want when, which makes it harder to self-deceive about what we want. And having available more precise words about our love/sex relations could force us to acknowledge smaller changes in relation status — if “love” is all there is, you can keep “loving” someone even as many things change.

It seems to me that both kinds of things must be going on. Even when we care greatly about a topic, we may not care about many dimensions, and we may be better off not being able to express ourselves clearly.

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Conflicting Abstractions

My last post seems an example of an interesting general situation: when abstractions from different fields conflict on certain topics. In the case of my last post, the topic was the relative growth rate feasible for a small project hoping to create superintelligence, and the abstractions that seem to conflict are the ones I use, mostly from economics, and abstractions drawn from computer practice and elsewhere used by Bostrom, Yudkowsky, and many other futurists.

What typically happens when it seems that abstractions from field A suggests X, while abstraction from field B suggests not X? Well first, since both X and not X can’t be true, each field would likely see this as a threat to their good reputation. If they were forced to accept the existence of the conflict, then they’d likely try to denigrate the other field. If one field is higher status, the other field would expect to lose a reputation fight, and so they’d be especially eager to reject the claim that a conflict exists.

And in fact, it should usually be possible to reject a claim that a conflict exists. The judgement that a conflict exists would come from specific individuals studying the questions of if A suggests X and if B suggests not X. One could just suggest that some of those people were incompetent at analyzing the implications of the abstractions of particular fields. Or that they were talking past each other and misunderstanding what X and not X mean to the other. So one would need especially impeccable credentials to publicly make these claims and make them stick.

The ideal package of expertise for investigating such an issue would be expertise in both fields A and B. This would position one well to notice that a conflict exists, and to minimize the chance of problems arising from misunderstandings on what X means. Unfortunately, our institutions for crediting expertise don’t do well at encouraging combined expertise. For example, often patrons are interested in the intersection between fields A and B, and sponsor conferences, journal issues, etc. on this intersection. However, seeking maximal prestige they usually prefer people with the most prestige in each field, over people who actually know both fields simultaneously. Anticipating this, people usually choose to stay within each field.

Anticipating this whole scenario, people are likely to usually avoid seeking out or calling attention to such conflicts. To seek out or pursue a conflict, you’d have to be especially confident that your field would back you up in a fight, because your credentials are impeccable and the field thinks it could win a status conflict with the other field. And even then you’d have to waste some time studying a field that your field doesn’t respect. Even if you win the fight you might lose prestige in your field.

This is unfortunate, because such conflicts seem especially useful clues to help us refine our important abstractions. By definition, abstractions draw inferences from reduced descriptions, descriptions which ignore relevant details. Usually that is useful, but sometimes that leads to errors when the dropped details are especially relevant. Intellectual progress would probably be promoted if we could somehow induce more people to pursue apparent conflicts between the abstractions from different fields.

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I Still Don’t Get Foom

Back in 2008 my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky and I discussed his “AI foom” concept, a discussion that we recently spun off into a book. I’ve heard for a while that Nick Bostrom was working on a book elaborating related ideas, and this week his Superintelligence was finally available to me to read, via Kindle. I’ve read it now, along with a few dozen reviews I’ve found online. Alas, only the two reviews on GoodReads even mention the big problem I have with one of his main premises, the same problem I’ve had with Yudkowsky’s views. Bostrom hardly mentions the issue in his 300 pages (he’s focused on control issues).

All of which makes it look like I’m the one with the problem; everyone else gets it. Even so, I’m gonna try to explain my problem again, in the hope that someone can explain where I’m going wrong. Here goes.

“Intelligence” just means an ability to do mental/calculation tasks, averaged over many tasks. I’ve always found it plausible that machines will continue to do more kinds of mental tasks better, and eventually be better at pretty much all of them. But what I’ve found it hard to accept is a “local explosion.” This is where a single machine, built by a single project using only a tiny fraction of world resources, goes in a short time (e.g., weeks) from being so weak that it is usually beat by a single human with the usual tools, to so powerful that it easily takes over the entire world. Yes, smarter machines may greatly increase overall economic growth rates, and yes such growth may be uneven. But this degree of unevenness seems implausibly extreme. Let me explain. Continue reading "I Still Don’t Get Foom" »

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Tegmark’s Vast Math

I recently had a surprise chance to meet Max Tegmark, and so I first quickly read his enjoyable new book The Mathematical Universe. It covers many foundations of physics topics that he correctly says are unfairly neglected. Since I’ve collected many opinions on foundation of physics over decades, I can’t resist mentioning the many ways I agree and disagree with him.

Let me start with what Tegmark presents as his main point, which is that the total universe is BIG, almost as big as it could possibly be. There’s a vast universe out there that we can’t see, and will never see. That is, not only does space extent far beyond our cosmological horizon, but out there are places where physics sits in very different equilibria of fundamental physics (e.g., has a different number of useful dimensions), and nearby are the different “many worlds” of quantum mechanics.

Furthermore, and this is Tegmark’s most unique point, there are whole different places “out there” completely causally (and spatially) disconnected from our universe, which follow completely different fundamental physics. In fact, all such mathematically describable places really exist, in the sense that any self-aware creatures there actually feel. Tegmark seems to stop short, however, of David Lewis, who said that all self-consistent possible worlds really exist.

Tegmark’s strongest argument for his distinctive claim, I think, is that we might find that the basic math of our physics is rare in allowing for intelligent life. In that case, the fact of our existence should make us suspect that many places with physics based on other maths are out there somewhere: Continue reading "Tegmark’s Vast Math" »

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SciCast Pays Big Again

Back in May I said that while SciCast hadn’t previously been allowed to pay participants, we were finally running a four week experiment to reward random activities. That experiment paid big and showed big effects; we saw far more activity on days when we paid cash.

In the next four weeks we’ll run another experiment that pays even more:

SciCast is running a new special! For four weeks, you can win prizes on some days of the week:

  • On Tuesdays, win a $25 Amazon gift card with activity.
  • On Wednesdays, win an activity badge for your profile.
  • On Thursdays, win a $25 Amazon gift card with accurate forecasting.
  • On Fridays, win an accuracy badge for your profile.

On each activity prize day, up to 80 valid forecasts and comments made that day will be randomly selected to win. On each accuracy prize day, your chance of winning any of 80 prizes is proportional to your forecasting accuracy. Be sure to use SciCast from July 22 to August 15!

So this time we’ll compare activity incentives to accuracy incentives. Will we get more activity on days when we reward activity, and more accuracy on days when we reward accuracy? Now our accuracy incentives are admittedly weak, in that we’ll evaluate the accuracy of each trade/edit via price changes over only a few weeks after the trade. But hey, its something. Hopefully we can do a better experiment next year.

SciCast now has 532 questions on science and technology, and you can make conditional forecasts on most of them. Come!

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Bets As Loyalty Signals

Why do men give women engagement rings? A standard story is that a ring shows commitment; by paying a cost that one would lose if the marriage fails, one shows that one places a high value on the marriage.

However, as a signal the ring has two problems. On the one hand, if the ring is easy to sell for its purchase price, then it detracts from the woman’s signal of the value she places on the marriage. Accepting a ring makes her look mercenary. On the other hand, if the ring can’t be sold for near its purchase price, and if the woman values the ring itself at less than its price, then the couple destroys value in order to allow the signal.

These are common problems with loyalty signals – either value is destroyed, or stronger signals on one side weakens signals from other sides. Value-destroying loyalty signals are very common in couples, clubs, churches, firms, professions, and nations. For example, we might give up poker nights for a spouse, pork food for a religion, casual clothes to be a manager, or old-world customs for a new nation.

A few days ago I had an idea for a more efficient loyalty signal. Imagine that when he was twenty a man made a $5000 bet that he would never marry before the age of fifty. Then when he is thirty-five and wants to marry, he can send a strong signal of his desire to marry just by his willingness to lose this bet. Since the bet is lost to a third party, it doesn’t hinder the bride’s ability to signal her loyalty. And assuming the bet is made at fair odds, the lost bets are on average paid to versions of this man in alternative scenarios where he doesn’t marry by fifty. So he retains the value, which is not destroyed.

Today this approach probably suffers from being weird, so doing this would also send an unwelcome signal of weirdness. But it is only a signal of one’s weirdness when one made the bet – maybe one can credibly claim to be less weird later when marrying. And the bet would remain potent as a signal of devotion.

There are many related applications. For example, a young person who bet that they would never join a religion might later credibly signal their devotion to that religion, and perhaps avoid having to eat and dress funny to show such devotion. Also, someone who bet that they would never change countries might signal their loyalty when they moved to a new nation. To let my future self signal his devotion to his political party, perhaps I should bet today that I’ll never join a political party. Do I have any takers?

Added 20July: Of course the need to lose a bet to get married would discourage some from getting married. But the same harm happens for any expectation of needing to send a loyalty signal if one gets married. This effect isn’t particular to bets as loyalty signals; it happens for all kinds of loyalty signals.

Mechanically one way to implement marriage bets as loyalty signals would be for parents to buy their sons male spinster insurance, which pays money to the son when he is fifty if he never marries, and otherwise gives him a nice visible cheap pin/brooch when he gets married. His new wife can wear the pin to brag about his devotion. The pin might be color coded to indicate how much money he sacrificed.

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More Stories As Religion

Most people who say they are atheist or agnostic still believe in supernatural powers:

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power. While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. …

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

This is plausibly reinforced by fiction, which (as I’ve said) serves similar functions to religion:

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show. (more)

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Boston Talks This Week

Monday: Why is Abstraction both Statusful and Silly? 7:00p, 98 Elm St Apt 1, Somerville.
Tuesday: Shall We Vote On Values, But Bet On Beliefs? noon, 206 Lake Hall, Northeastern Univ.
Wednesday: Factoring Geopolitical Risk Into Decision-Making, 12:20p, Global ICON Conf.

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Near-Far Work Continues

I haven’t posted as much on near-far theory (= “construal level theory”) lately, but that’s more because my interests have wandered; research progress has continued. Here are four recent papers.

People who use more abstract language seem more powerful:

Power can be gained through appearances: People who exhibit behavioral signals of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power. In the current article, we examine power signals within interpersonal communication, exploring whether use of concrete versus abstract language is seen as a signal of power. Because power activates abstraction, perceivers may expect higher power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power. Across a variety of contexts and conversational subjects in 7 experiments, participants perceived respondents as more powerful when they used more abstract language (vs. more concrete language). Abstract language use appears to affect perceived power because it seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking. (more)

Sounds evoke far mode when they are novel, slow, and reverberate more:

Psychological distance and abstractness primes have been shown to increase one’s level of construal. We tested the idea that auditory cues which are related to distance and abstractness (vs. proximity and concreteness) trigger abstract (vs. concrete) construal. Participants listened to musical sounds that varied in reverberation, novelty of harmonic modulation, and metrical segmentation. In line with the hypothesis, distance/abstractness cues in the sounds instigated the formation of broader categories, increased the preference for global as compared to local aspects of visual patterns, and caused participants to put more weight on aggregated than on individualized product evaluations. The relative influence of distance/abstractness cues in sounds, as well as broader implications of the findings for basic research and applied settings, is discussed. (more)

Employees want concrete feedback from direct leaders and abstract vision from higher leaders:

Three studies tested the hypothesis, derived from construal-level theory, that hierarchical distance between leaders and followers moderates the effectiveness of leader behaviors such that abstract behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across large hierarchical distances, whereas concrete behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across small hierarchical distances. In Study 1 (N = 2,206 employees of a telecommunication organization), job satisfaction was higher when direct supervisors provided employees with concrete feedback and hierarchically distant leaders shared with them their abstract vision rather than vice versa. Study 2 orthogonally crossed hierarchical distances with communication type, operationalized as articulating abstract values versus sharing a detailed story exemplifying the same values; construal misfit mediated the interactive effects of hierarchical distance and communication type on organizational commitment and social bonding. Study 3 similarly manipulated hierarchical distances and communication type, operationalized as concrete versus abstract calls for action in the context of a severe professional crisis. Group commitment and participation in collective action were higher when a hierarchically proximate leader communicated a concrete call for action and a hierarchically distant leader communicated an abstract call for action rather than vice versa. These findings highlight construal fit’s positive consequences for individuals and organizations. (more)

Tasks look easier when they are far away:

Psychological distance can reduce the subjective experience of difficulty caused by task complexity and task anxiety. Four experiments were conducted to test several related hypotheses. Psychological distance was altered by activating a construal mind-set and by varying bodily distance from a given task. Activating an abstract mind-set reduced the feeling of difficulty. A direct manipulation of distance from the task produced the same effect: participants found the task to be less difficult when they distanced themselves from the task by leaning back in their seats. The experiments not only identify psychological distance as a hitherto unexplored but ubiquitous determinant of task difficulty but also identify bodily distance as an antecedent of psychological distance. (more)

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