Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Variety Seems Social

We sometimes complain that we are bored, and so we need to “change up” our products, services, and life habits. We often says this is due to our general preference for variety. But we are actually quite selective in when we want variety. In many areas of our lives we have little variety, and that doesn’t bother us much.

Toothpaste and mouthwash have flavors, but I use the same flavors for months at a time. My breakfasts are mostly alone, and have only minor variations from day to day. Dinners I usually eat with my wife, and we rotate between maybe a dozen different standard dishes. I often eat lunch out with a half dozen colleagues, and we rotate between a half dozen or so places, and in each place I vary what I order. When we host someone who visits from out of town, we go to a wider range of places.

The clothes I sleep in vary very little, and the clothes I wear around the house vary less than the clothes I wear to the office, which vary less than the clothes I wear to special occasions. Under-clothes vary less than more visible clothes. In my home, when we’ve repainted, or bought new furnishings or wall fixings, we tend to change things more often in our more visible rooms. We change the yard the most often, and the living room and entryway the next most often.

Products like cars, couches and refrigerators vary more on the outsides that more people can see than they do on the insides that few people see. We more often rearrange visible things like the placement of furniture compared to less visible things like where clothes are located in our chests or closets, or where dishes sit in kitchen cabinets. Advertising can change the images and attitudes associated with products, even when products don’t physically change, and we have more ads for types of products whose use is more visible to more people.

The general pattern here seems to be that variety is social – we prefer variety more for things that have wider social scopes. It is as if we personally don’t care much for variety, but we need our larger social circles to see that we can afford and tolerate a great deal of variety.

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Seeking Super Factors

In a factor analysis, one takes a large high-dimensional dataset and finds a low dimensional set of variables that can explain as much as possible of the total variation in that dataset. A big advantage of factor analysis is that it doesn’t require much theoretical knowledge about the nature of the variables in the data or their relations – factors are mostly determined directly by the data.

Factor analysis has had some big successes in helping us to understand how humans differ. As many people know, intelligence is the main factor explaining variation in cognitive test performance, ideology is the main factor explaining variations in political positions, and personality types explain much of the variation in stable attitudes and temperament. These factors have allowed us to greatly advance our understanding of intelligence, ideology, and personality, even while remaining ignorant of their fundamental causes and natures.

However, people vary in far more ways than intelligence, ideology, and personality, and factor analyses have been applied to many of these other human feature categories. For example, there have been factors analyses of jobs, brands, faces, body shape, gait, accent, diet, clothing, writing styleleisure behavior, friendship networks, sleep habitsphysical health, mortality, demography, national cultures, and zip codes.

As my last post on media genre factors showed, factors found in different feature categories are often substantially correlated with one another. This suggests that if we put together a huge super-dataset describing many individual people in as many ways as possible, a factor analysis of this dataset may find important new super-factors that span many of these features domains. Such super-factors would be promising candidates to use in a wide range of social research, and social policy.

Now it remains logically possible that these super-factors will end up being simple linear combinations of the factors that we have already found in each of these feature categories. Maybe we already know most of what there is to know about how humans vary. But I’d bet strongly and heavily against this. The rate at which we have been learning new things about how humans vary doesn’t remotely suggest we’ve run out of new big things to learn. Yes, merely knowing the super-factors isn’t the same as understanding their origins. But just as we’ve seen with factor analysis in more specific areas, knowing the main factors can be a big help.

So I’d guess that the super-factors found in a super dataset of human details will be revolutionary developments. We will afterward see uncovering them as a seminal milestone in our progress in understanding human variation. A Nobel prize worthy level of seminality. All it will take is lots of tedious work to collect a super dataset, and then do some straightforward number crunching. A quest awaits; who will rise to the challenge?

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Media Genre More Basic Than Politics Or Personality?

While our personalities are correlated with whether we are liberal or conservative, it seems that neither one of these causes the other. Instead, their correlation is caused by something else that causes both, and that is caused in part by genetics:

The primary assumption within the recent personality and political orientations literature is that personality traits cause people to develop political attitudes. In contrast, … the covariance between personality and political preferences is not causal, but due to a common, latent genetic factor that mutually influences both. … Change in personality over a ten-year period does not predict change in political attitudes. .. Rather, political attitudes are often more stable than the key personality traits assumed to be predicting them. (more)

Amazingly, we know of another variable B that fits this bill, of being correlated with both personality A and political orientation C, and mediating their relation. In technical language, A and C are conditionally independent given B, so that P(C|AB) = P(C|B). This B is preferences for media genres!

Research has consistently demonstrated that political liberalism is predicted by the personality trait Openness to Experience and conservatism by trait Conscientiousness. … Increased preferences for Dark/Alternative and Aesthetic/Musical media genres, as well as decreased preferences for Communal/Popular media genres, mediated the association between Openness to Experience and liberalism. In contrast, greater preferences for Communal/Popular and Thrilling/Action genres, as well as lower preferences for Dark/Alternative and Aesthetic/Musical genres mediated the link between Conscientiousness and conservatism. (more)

So media genre preference is actually a plausible candidate for something closer to whatever causes personality and political orientation, and is caused in part by genes. This makes intuitive sense to me, because I personally feel more aware of, confident in, and comfortable with my media genre preferences than in my personality types or my political orientation.

These authors (Xiaowen Xu & Jordan Peterson) took a survey of 543 US people, and did a factor analysis on their media preferences. They found five factors. The strongest media factor is:

  • Cerebral/Nonfiction: e.g., educational, arts & humanities TV; nonfiction, academic, reference, current events, biography, science, medical books.

This factor doesn’t correlate with political orientation, but it does correlate with the openness personality factor, which has a subfactor of intellect, so this all makes sense.

The other four media factors split nicely into a 2×2 matrix along two dimensions. One dimension is “highbrow” vs. “lowbrow.” (Cerebral/Nonfiction is also “highbrow”.) The other dimension is personality/politics: two factors correlate with both liberals and those with open personalities, and two factors correlate with both conservatives and those with conscientious personalities. Here are these four media factors:


  • Open/Liberal: Aesthetic/Musical: e.g., world, jazz, opera, folk, classical, funk, gospel, blues, new age music; foreign film, poetry book.
  • Consc/Conser: Communal/Popular: e.g., daytime talk, reality, game, soaps, kids TV; made for TV movies; music TV; family films; pop music.


  • Open/Liberal: Dark/Alternative: e.g., horror, science fiction, fantasy, cult, erotic, animation, & independent film; punk, alt, & metal music; sketch comedy.
    Consc/Conser: Thrilling/Action: e.g., action, sports & spy TV; war, western, action film; computer & adventure book.

(My personal tastes favor Cerebral/Nonfiction first, then Dark/Alternative weak second.)

While personality and political variables come from factor analyses of survey answers to relatively abstract attitude and opinion question, media genre variables seem more closely related to concrete real-life choices that people make. And it makes sense to me that our genes (and culture) more directly cause our inclinations to take concrete actions, and that abstract attitudes and opinions result more indirectly, from our trying to rationalize those actions. So it makes sense to me that media genre preferences are closer to more direct genetic (and cultural) causality.

A few more results from the paper: Older people prefer Dark/Alternative less and Cerebral/Nonfiction more, while women prefer Communal/Popular more and Thrilling/Action less. These can explain the personality correlates of age and gender. Agreeableness is higher for those who like highbrow genres (except Aesthetic/Musical has no effect), and less for those who like lowbrow genres. Extraversion is higher for those who like conservative genres, though it doesn’t correlate directly politics directly because personality factors are highly correlated in this dataset. Neuroticism is less for those who like Cerebral/Nonfiction and Thrilling/Action.

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Masking Design Competence

Most real organizations have many design problems. This is most explicit in engineering type organizations, but such issues are nearly as common in all organizations. Any organization must make many choices regarding the design and marketing of their product or service, in how it will be financed, sourced, produced, tested, stored, transferred, priced, evaluated, etc.

For most such design problems, most organizations have some standard ideal design criteria. The organization is supposed to search in the space of possible designs for ones expected to do well according to the ideal criteria. And then adopt those better designs. In profit-oriented firms, many key criteria are closely aligned with firm profit.

According to the usual ideal norm in organizations, everything should be arranged to promote good designs according to the ideals. For example, the people who most influence a design choice should be those with the most relevant info and the strongest incentives to get it right. People should be hired and promoted according to their ability to help make good design choices. Designs should be changed when circumstances suggest that the ideal design has changed. And so on.

Real organizations also have complex Machiavellian politics. Coalitions form that promote their members at the expense of rivals. Members are chosen for their loyalty and ability to help the coalition. Coalitions sometimes reform, dropping some factions and adding others. Members must show loyalty to their coalitions by visibly promoting design choices that benefit their coalition, even when that comes at the expense of the organization’s ideal design criteria.

This conflict between design choices that meet ideals and those that help coalitions drives may of the illusions and hypocrisies in organizations. For example, people are often placed in positions of power for reasons other than their superior design competence, such as their info and abilities regarding key decisions. This creates a demand to give those people the illusion of design competence.

For example:

When I started at Lockheed Research in 1985, my mentor was a veteran who explained his secret for getting funding from the other Lockheed divisions:

Find an idea for a project we could do for them, but don’t tell them the idea. Instead break the idea into a few key parts, describe the parts to them, and let them put the parts together into the total idea. They will be much more willing to fund a project that is their idea.

A related strategy is to design a solution but then weaken it to a space of nearby solutions. Tell your manager “I think something in this space should work but I can’t figure out what” and let him reinvent your particular solution point. He then owns the design more, and can claim more credit for design competence.

As another example, as I’ve mentioned before people often pretend to ask people for advice as if they wanted info, but in fact they are seeking allies. In general, boards of advisors are rarely actually asked for their advice; they are mainly chosen to add prestige to an organization.

Meetings in organizations often take the appearance of searching for design proposals and evaluating proposals presented. But in fact proposals have usually been selected beforehand, and the meeting is to create an appearance of support form them, and for the story presented about who deserves credit. If a problem is presented for which a solution isn’t offered, that is probably because they don’t don’t see a solution with which they’d want to be associated, and would rather someone else take on that failure area.

Powerful people can also create the appearance of more design competence than they actually have by pushing vague design philosophies that others can then claim to adhere to without actually greatly constraining their choices. Also, powerful people can claim that complex organizational considerations require them to keep the reasons for their design choices secret. Others can then just assume they must have great design competence regarding such considerations.

It helps to have a culture of assuming that the people with the best credentials in terms of education and prior organization and positional prestige have the most design competence. Since these people happen to the those that are most useful for coalitions to put into positions of power, the conflict between power and apparent design competitions is reduced.

Can readers think of more examples? If so, I’ll add good ones to this post.

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Assimilated Futures

I’ve long said that it is backwards to worry that technology will change faster than society can adapt, because the ability of society adapt is one of the main constraints on how fast we adopt new technologies. This insightful 2012 post by Venkatesh Rao elaborates on a related theme:

Both science fiction and futurism … fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives. … The future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening. …

Futurists, artists and edge-culturists … like to pretend that they are the lonely, brave guardians of the species who deal with the “real” future and pre-digest it for the rest of us. But … the cultural edge is just as frozen in time as the mainstream, … people who seek more stimulation than the mainstream, and draw on imagined futures to feed their cravings rather than inform actual future-manufacturing. …

When you are sitting on a typical modern jetliner, you are traveling at 500 mph in an aluminum tube that is actually capable of some pretty scary acrobatics. … Yet a typical air traveler never experiences anything that one of our ancestors could not experience on a fast chariot or a boat. Air travel is manufactured normalcy. …

This suggests that only those futures arrive for which there is human capacity to cope. This conclusion is not true, because a future can arrive before humans figure out whether they have the ability to cope. For instance, the widespread problem of obesity suggests that food-abundance arrived before we figured out that most of us cannot cope. And this is one piece of the future that cannot be relegated to specialists. …

Successful products are precisely those that do not attempt to move user experiences significantly, even if the underlying technology has shifted radically. In fact the whole point of user experience design is to manufacture the necessary normalcy for a product to succeed and get integrated. … What we get is a Darwinian weeding out of those manifestations of the future that break the continuity of technological experience. …

What about edge-culturists who think they are more alive to the real oncoming future? … The edge today looks strangely similar to the edge in any previous century. It is defined by reactionary musical and sartorial tastes and being a little more outrageous than everybody else in challenging the prevailing culture of manners. … If it reveals anything about technology or the future, it is mostly by accident. . …

At a more human level, I find that I am unable to relate to people who are deeply into any sort of cyberculture or other future-obsessed edge zone. There is a certain extreme banality to my thoughts when I think about the future. Futurists as a subculture seem to organize their lives as future-experience theaters. These theaters are perhaps entertaining and interesting in their own right, as a sort of performance art, but are not of much interest or value to people who are interested in the future in the form it might arrive in, for all.

It is easy to make the distinction explicit. Most futurists are interested in the future beyond the [manufactured normalcy field]. I am primarily interested in the future once it enters the Field, and the process by which it gets integrated into it. This is also where the future turns into money, so perhaps my motivations are less intellectual than they are narrowly mercenary. …

This also explains why so few futurists make any money. They are attracted to exactly those parts of the future that are worth very little. They find visions of changed human behavior stimulating. Technological change serves as a basis for constructing aspirational visions of changed humanity. Unfortunately, technological change actually arrives in ways that leave human behavior minimally altered. .. The mainstream never ends up looking like the edge of today. Not even close. The mainstream seeks placidity while the edge seeks stimulation. (more)

Yes, I’m a guilty-as-charged futurist focused on changes far enough distant that there’s little money to be made understanding them now. But I share Rao’s emotional distance from the future-obsessed cultural edge. I want to understand the future not as morality tale to validate my complaints against today’s dominant culture; I instead want to foresee the assimilated future. That is, I want to see how future people will actually see their own world, after they’ve found ways to see it banally as a minimal change from the past.

Cultural futurists have complained that the future I describe in my upcoming book The Age of Em is too conservative in presuming the continuation of supply and demand, inequality, big organizations, status seeking, and so on. Don’t I know that tech will change everything, and soon? No, actually I don’t know that.

Added: To be clear, eventually fundamentals may well change. But the rate of such changes is low enough that in a medium term future most fundamental features probably haven’t changed yet.

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Max & Miller’s Mate

Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind was very influential on me, and so I spent several posts on his book Spent. He has a new book out, coauthored with Tucker Max, called Mate: become the man women want. It is a how-to book, on how men can attract women.

The book’s voice is less academic and more like a drill sergeant — stern older men giving harsh but needed instructions to younger men. They don’t mind using some crude language, and they don’t argue much for their claims, expecting readers to accept what they say on authority. Fortunately, most of what they say seems to be pretty well-grounded in the literature.

The world view they present has mating quite thoroughly infused with signaling. Pretty much everything you do with actual or potential mates is used as a reliable signal of your hidden features. Makes me wonder in what other self-help books it would be okay to present as strong a signaling view. Perhaps there are career advice books that infuse signaling as throughly into their view of the work world. But I expect people wouldn’t tolerate advice books on school, religion, arts, and charity that are this signaling heavy. Even if the advice was solid.

Though heavy on signaling, Max & Miller don’t consider self-deception. They talk simply about men just looking inside themselves to see what they want, and tell men to take what women seem to want at face value. But perhaps talking about self-deception to their target audience (young men who feel they are failing at mating) would just confuse more than help.

At several points Max & Miller warn their readers that women never evolved general ways to see and appreciate things like wealth and intelligence; women instead evolved to appreciate more specific signals like nice clothes and wit. So don’t go trying to show off your IQ score or bank balance.

They don’t advise women to fix this oversight, but instead advise men to fix how they show off. I suspect the idea is that humans are just more general and flexible on how to achieve their goals than on what exactly are their goals. And I suspect this is right. While one can imagine a creature that just wants “whatever helps me have many descendants”, humans are just not those creatures.

Two suggestive implication follow from this fact. First, if descendants of humans are ever blocked in their growth or expansion into the universe due to their failing to be sufficiently flexible or general, that failing will more likely come from their preferences, rather than their engineering or science. Second, as human incomes fall toward subsistence, our primary preferences for survival trump others, inducing effectively more general and flexible preferences. So subsistence income descendants have a better chance of avoiding generality failures.

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Beware Intuitive Econ

Economists have two standard very simple models of product competition: firms can compete on price or compete on quantity.

Early in the Dotcom internet revolution, I remember some people, including even Bill Gates I think, forecasting that since it becomes easier to find and compare prices on the internet, products sold on the internet would have stronger price competition. And since price competition tends to be stronger than quantity competition, that would bring down prices and be good for consumers. Yay internet!

This argument makes intuitive sense, but is dead wrong. And that is the warning of this post: beware simple econ arguments based on intuitions that haven’t been verified in concrete models.

Even in price competition, quantity must also be chosen; price competition is where quantities are chosen indirectly, as a result of the prices. Similarly, even in quantity competition price must also be chosen; quantity competition is where prices are chosen indirectly, as a result of the quantities.

Economists have long had simple models where both price and quantity are chosen explicitly and directly by firms. In these models, what matters is which of these parameters becomes expensive to change first, and which parameters can keep changing more cheaply closer to the last minute of sale.

For concrete examples, consider selling TVs and plumbing services. A TV firm must decide at least weeks before a sale how many TVs they are going to make and deliver then, but they might change the price they offer for such TVs in the last few days before a sale. In contrast, a plumber might pick a price to charge to include in ads many days before customers see such ads and call to get help, but at the last minute the plumber can say “sorry, I don’t have any more openings on my schedule today.”

In models where firms must commit to quantities early, but can keep changing their prices easily until near the last minute, outcomes are close to those in simple models of quantity competition. But if firms must commit to prices early, but can keep changing quantity until near the last minute, outcomes are close to those in simple models of price competition.

So whether firms compete on price or quantity depends more on which of these they must commit to earliest, not which is easier to change at the last minute. Knowing this, once you heard that it would be easier to change prices at the last minute for products sold on internet, you should have predicted that the internet would increase quantity competition and reduce price competition. Which it in fact has.

Economics is general and robust enough to predict things like how selling products on the internet changes competition. But you have to use it right.

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Intelligence Futures

For many purposes, such as when choosing if to admit someone to a college, we care about both temporary features, who they are now, and permanent features, who they have the ultimate potential to become. One of those features is intelligence; we care about how smart they are now, and about how smart they have the potential to become.

A standard result in intelligence research is that intelligence as measured late in life, such as at age fifty, is a much better indicator of ultimate potential than is intelligence measured at early ages. That is, environments have a stronger influence over measured intelligence of the young, relative to the old.

So if you want a measure of an ultimate potential, such as to use in college admissions, then instead of using current tests like SAT scores, you’d do better to use a good prediction of future test scores, such as predictions of related tests at age fifty.

Now of course colleges could try to do this prediction themselves. They could collect a dataset of people where they have late life test scores and also many possible early predictors of those future test scores, and then fit a statistical model to all that. But such data is hard to collect, this approach limits you to predictors available in your dataset, and the world changes, so that models that work on old data may not predict new data.

Let me propose a prediction market solution: create prediction markets on late life test scores. To make sure people try hard enough later, collect a fund to pay out to the person later in proportion to their late life test score. Then open (and subsidize) a market today in that future test score, and post any associated info that this person will allow. Speculators could then use that info, and anything else they could figure out, to guess the future test score. Finally, use market prices as estimate of future test scores, and thus of ultimate potential, in college admissions.

This approach could of course also be used by employers and other individuals or organizations that care about potential. A single market on a future test score could inform many audiences at once. And this approach could also be used for any other measures of potential where late life measures are more reliable than early life measures.

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Forsee The Speakularity

James Somers at Nautilus on the “Speakularity“:

We are going to start recording and automatically transcribing most of what we say. Instead of evaporating into memory, words spoken aloud will calcify as text, into a Record that will be referenced, searched, and mined. .. Think of all the reasons that you search through your email. Suddenly your own speech will be available in just the same way. “Show me all conversations with Michael before January of last year … What was the address of that restaurant Mum recommended? …” Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a co-author of a forthcoming book on evolutionary psychology, has speculated that we might all get in the habit of peppering our speech with keywords, to help us look it up later. …

Much of what is said aloud would be published and made part of the Web. An unfathomable mass of expertise, opinion, wit, and culture—now lost—would be as accessible as any article or comment thread is today. ..

It won’t reshape the basic ways we live and love. It won’t turn our brains to mush, or make us supermen. . .. People talk a lot—on average, about 40 percent of their waking lives. .. anyone who’s ever recorded someone knows that self-conscious monitoring of your own speech is just too mentally expensive to carry on for very long. … After a short while, you go back to normal.

Hanson also thinks “normal” would be the operative word once ubiquitous speech transcription arrives. He’s not convinced that it would change the world as much as some seem to think it would. “As soon as you see just how different our world is from 1,000 years ago, it’s really hard to get very worked up about this,” he says.

There was almost no privacy 1,000 years ago, he explains. Living quarters were dense. Rooms were tiny … Other people could overhear your lovemaking. When you traveled, you hardly ever went by yourself; you roamed around in little groups. Most people lived in small towns, where most everybody knew everybody else and gossiped about them. The differences in how we lived between then and now were huge. And yet we adapted. “I gotta figure the changes we’re looking at are small by comparison,” he says. …

Having a Record will just give us a new dimension on which to map a capacity we’ve always had. People who are constantly being recorded will adapt to that fact by becoming expert at knowing what’s in the transcript and what’s not. They’ll be like parents talking around children. They’ll become masters of plausible deniability. They’ll use sarcasm, or they’ll grimace or grin or lean their head back or smirk, or they’ll direct their gaze, so as to say a thing without saying it.

It sounds exhausting, but of course we already fluidly adapt to the spectrum of private, small-group, and public conversations—just go to a workplace. Or go to a party. We are constantly asking and answering subtle questions about our audience, and tuning our speech based on the answers. (Is Jack in earshot? Is Jack’s wife in earshot?)

“There’s no way this means that everything we say is now in the open,” Hanson argues. “There’s a layer of what we say that’s in the open … but we’re always talking at several levels at once.” … Our brains adapted to writing, to libraries, and to the Web. They will adapt to the Record. And people will, anyway, continue to be less concerned with how they sound than with how they look. (more)

Even if this change is smaller than changes to which we’ve already adapted, still it will be a real change. The biggest open question is what fraction of our speech will go directly into a public record. I find it hard to believe this would be the majority, but then I wouldn’t have predicted how much people are willing to say publicly on Twitter or Facebook.

Even for speech that isn’t directly made public, we would all know that everyone who heard a conversation had a private record, from which they could choose to privately share selected quotes. Of course we already worry about people quoting things we say in private to others, but direct recordings would be more believable and thus more worrisome. Laws prohibiting such recordings could reduce such problems, but would hardly eliminate them.

The big obvious change to predict is that we will be less clear and direct, even in private, when saying things that might make us look bad when quoted later. Already twitter speak tends to be more sarcastic, ironic, and loaded with local references that make it harder for outsiders to clearly understand. Expect most ordinary speech to move in this direction.

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News of What?

Today’s New York Times has a 7000 word article by Amy Harmon on cryonics, brain scanning, and brain emulation. Now these are subjects of great interest to me; my first book comes out in spring on the third topic. And 7000 words is space to say a great deal, even if you add the constraint that what you say must be understandable to the typical NYT reader.

So I’m struck by the fact that I have almost nothing to say in response to anything particular said in this article. Ms. Harmon gives the most space to one particular young cryonics patient who got others to donate to pay for her freezing. This patient hopes to return via brain emulation. Ms. Harmon discusses some history of the Brain Preservation Prize, highlighting Ken Hayworth personally, and quotes a few experts saying we are nowhere close to being able to emulate brains. At one point she says,

The questions the couple faced may ultimately confront more of us with implications that could be preposterously profound.

Yet she discusses no such implications. She discusses no arguments on if emulation would be feasible or desirable or what implications it might have. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that her priorities accurately reflect the priorities of New York Times readers. But those priorities are so different from mine as to highlight the question: what exactly do news readers want?

For a topic like this, it seems readers want colorful characters described in detail, and quotes from experts with related prestige. They don’t want to hear about arguments for or against the claims made, or to discuss further implications of those claims. It seems they will enjoy talking to others about the colorful characters described, and perhaps enjoy taking a position on the claims those characters make. But these aren’t the sort of topics where anyone expects to care about the quality or care of the arguments one might. It is enough to just have opinions.

Added 14Sep: Amy posted a related article that is a technical review of brain emulation tech. I’m glad it exists, but I also have nothing particular to say in response.

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