Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why Not Thought Crime?

I was alarmed to find a quotation supporting child rapists falsely attributed to me & going viral on Twitter. … messages shaming me for supporting child rapists. … I tweeted a clarification about the falsehood to no avail. (more)

Galileo’s Middle Finger is one American’s eye-opening story of life in the trenches of scientific controversy. … Dreger began to realize how some fellow progressive activists were employing lies and personal attacks to silence scientists whose data revealed uncomfortable truths about humans. In researching one such case, Dreger suddenly became the target of just these kinds of attacks. (more)

In 1837 Abraham Lincoln wrote about lynching and “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country—the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice”. (more)

For a million years, humans lived under mob rule. We gossiped about rule violations, and then implemented any verdicts as a mob. Mob rule worked well enough in forager bands of population 20-50, but less well in farming era village areas of population 300-3000, and they work even worse today. Instead of a single unified conversation around a campfire, where everyone could be heard, larger mob conversations fragment into many separated smaller conversations. As the accused doesn’t have time or access to defend themselves in these many discussions, most in the mob only hear other voices. So mob rule comes down to whether most others are inclined to speak well or ill of the accused. And, alas, for an accused that many don’t like, mob members are often more eager to display personal outrage at anyone who might do what was accused, than they are to determine if the accused was actually guilty.

And so we developed law. When someone was accused of a violation, a legal authority authorized an open debate between the accused and a focal accuser. While such debates had many flaws, they had the great virtue of giving substantial and roughly equal time to an accuser and the accused. Where a mob might accept false accusations and false claims of innocence because they are not willing to listen to long detailed explanations, law listens more, and thus can eliminate many mistaken conclusions. Today, when an official prosecutor is assigned the task of convicting as many criminals as possible, the fact that this prosecutor declines to prosecute a particular accusation is often reasonably taken as exoneration.

However, we still use mob rule today for people accused of things that are widely socially disapproved, but not illegal. While the mob’s verdict is not enforced directly via law, punishments can still be severe, such as loss of jobs and friends, and even illicit violence. Which raises the obvious question: why not make mob-disapproved behaviors illegal, so that law can overcome the problem of error-prone fragmented mob conversations? If the official legal punishment were set to be comparable to what would have been the mob punishment, isn’t it a net win to use a more accurate process of determining guilt?

You might think that mobs shouldn’t be censuring so many things, but unless you are willing to more actively discourage such mobs, the real choice may be between mob and legal adjudication. Legal adjudication of an accusation does seem to cut the eagerness for mob rule on it, even if this doesn’t always eliminate mob activity. You might say that law has costs, and so should be reserved for big enough harms. But obviously mobs think these acts are big enough to bother to organize to censure them. The cost of making mobs seems at least comparable to the cost of using law. You might note that accusations are often hard to prove, but we make many things illegal that are hard to prove. If law can’t prove an accusation well enough to declare guilt, why trust an even more error-prone mob process to determine guilt? If you think that the errors of mobs declaring guilt are tolerable even when the law refuses to declare guilt, then you think law demands overly strong proofs. If so, we should change legal standards of proof to fix that.

It makes more sense to use mobs when society is honestly split into groups that differ on which acts should be approved or disapproved. For example, if one big group thinks people should be praised for promoting economic growth, while another similar sized group thinks people should be censured for promoting economic growth, then we may not want our legal system to take a side in this dispute. But mob rule today often censures people for things of which almost everyone disapproves. Like strong racism or sexism, or promoting rape. If over 99 percent of citizens disapprove of some behavior, maybe it is time to introduce official legal sanctions against that behavior.

At least twice in my life I’ve been subject to substantial mob rule censure. Fifteen years ago my DARPA-funded project was publicly accused by two senators of encouraging people to bet on the deaths of allies; the next morning the Secretary of Defense announced before Congress that my project was cancelled. In the last month, I was accused of promoting rape, and widely censured for that, receiving many hostile messages and threats, and having people and groups cut off public association with me.

In both cases I’m confident that law-like debate would have exonerated me. My DARPA-funded project, Policy Analysis Market, was going to have bets on geopolitical instability in the Mideast, not terror attacks. (Over 500 media articles mentioned the project in the coming years, and articles that knew more liked it more.) And recently I asked why there is so little overlap between those who seek more income and sex redistribution. I didn’t advocate either one, and “redistribute” just mean “change the distribution” (look it up in any dictionary); there are as many ways to change the distribution of sex without rape as there are to change the distribution of income without using guillotines like in the French revolution. (Eight years ago I also compared another bad thing to rape, to say how bad that other thing might be, not to say rape is good.)

I would personally have been better off had these things been thought crimes, as I could have then more effectively defended myself against false accusations. And I’ve learned of many other cases of mob rule punishing people based on false accusations. So I am led to wonder: why not thought crime? It might not be the best of all possible worlds, but couldn’t it be better than the mob rule we now use?

Added 7a: When mobs have mattered, the choice has often been between sufficiently surpassing them or creating laws that substitute for what they would have done. See some history.

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Revival Prizes

Cryonics is the process of having your body frozen when current medicine gives up on you, and calls you “dead”, in the hope of being revived later using much better future medicine. Even though cryonics has been available for many decades, and often receives free international publicity, only ~3000 people have signed up as customers, and only ~400 people have been frozen. I’m one of those customers. While many customers hope to have their current physical body fixed and restored to youthful health, I’m mainly hoping to be revived as an em, which seems to me a vastly easier (if still very hard) task.

Imagine you plan to become a cryonics patient, and hope for an eventual successful revival. Along this path many important decisions will need to be made: level of financial investment into the whole process, timing and method of preservation, method and place of storage, strategies of financial asset investment, and final timing and method of revival and reintegration into society. Through most of this process you will not be available to make key decisions, though after success you might be able to give an evaluation of the choices that were made on your behalf. So you will need to delegate many of these choices to agents who make these choices for you. How can you set up your relation to such agents to give them the best possible incentives to make good choices?

Several US states allow you to deposit money into a “trust”, which then can grow indefinitely by reinvestment without paying taxes on investment gains, even after you are officially dead. The usual legal process is to assign an “administrator” to manage the trust. Usually, you write down your preferences in words, and then pay this agent a constant percentage of your current assets to follow your instructions. In theory they do what you wanted out of fear of being sued. Unfortunately, its hard to prove a violation, and few would have the incentive to bother. This gives your agent the incentive to minimize all spending except reinvestment of the assets, or to divert spending or investments to parties who pay them a kickback. Either way, not a great system.

Here’s an improvement. Pay the agent only some fraction of the money left over in the fund after you are successfully revived. A prize for revival. Then they never get anything until you get what you wanted. Of course this requires some legal way to determine that you have in fact been revived. Instead of, for example, being replaced with some crude simulation of you. This approach seems better than the previous one, but there’s still the problem that this prize incentive makes them want to wait too long. Why risk any chance of failure, and why pay a high cost for revival, if you can just wait longer to raise the chance of success and lower the cost? So this agent will get it done eventually, but may wait too long. And they might not revive you they way you wanted.

One simple fix is that, once you are revived, you rate the whole process on a 0 to 100 scale, and your agent only gets that percentage of the max possible prize. (Maybe also guarantee that they get some min faction.) The rest of the prize can’t go to you, or your incentives are bad. So the rest of the prize would have to go to some specified charity, perhaps a pool of assets to help all other cryonics customers still not yet revived. Your agent will then try to make choices so that you will rate them highly after you are revived. You can expect them to choose a revival process where they give themselves advantages in convincing you that they did a good job. Perhaps even mind control. So steel yourself to be skeptical. They might also discretely threaten to “accidentally” lose you if you don’t pay them the full prize. So beware of that.

You might be able to do just a bit better by committing to a schedule by which the maximum prize your agent could win declines as a fraction of the total assets remaining after revival. Such a decline would encourage the agent to not wait too long to revive you. But if you don’t know the relevant rates of future change, how can you robustly define such a prize fraction decline? One robust measure available is the number of people who have been successfully revived so far. Your schedule of decline might not even start until at least one person has been revived, and then decline as some function of the number revived so far. Perhaps the function could be a simple power law. So you could specify how eager you are to be one of the first people revived.

So here’s my final proposal. You choose how much money to deposit in a trust, you write down your preferences as best you know them now, and you pick an agent who agrees to manage your trust, and make key storage and revival decisions. You agree to pay them some percent of current assets per year (preferably zero), and some max fraction of final remaining assets after revival to pay them as a prize. This max fraction follows some simple declining function of the number of people revived so far at that time. Perhaps a power law. And you have the discretion when revived to pay them less than this max value, with the remainder going to a specified charity. You initially choose the key parameters of this system to reflect your personal preferences, as best you can.

This is of course far from perfect. Problems remain, such as of kickbacks, theft, fake revival, and mind control. So there could be a place for a larger encompassing organization to watch out for and avoid such problems. And to publish stats on revivals and attempts so far. This larger organization could approve the basic range of reasonable options from which agents could choose at any one time, and have extra powers to monitor and overrule rogue agents. But it should mostly defer to the judgements of individual agents.

I can imagine a futarchy-based variation, where the “agent” is a pool of speculators who bet on shares of the final prize, conditional on making particular choices. This would cut the problem of random variation in the quality and even sanity of individual agents. But I can’t claim that futarchy is well enough tested now to make this a reasonable option if you are making these choices right now. However, I’d love to help a group do such testing, to see if it can become a viable option sooner.

Added 10:30a: It could also make sense to make your declining prize fraction function depend on the ratio of successful revivals so far to attempts that fail so badly as to make future revival seems impossible.

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Radical Markets

In 1997, I got my Ph.D. in social science from Caltech. The topic that drew me into grad school, and much of what I studied, was mechanism and institution design: how to redesign social practices and institutions. Economists and related scholars know a lot about this, much of which is useful for reforming many areas of life. Alas, the world shows little interest in these reforms, and I’ve offered our book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, as a partial explanation: most reforms are designed to give us more of what we say we want, and at some level we know we really want something else. While social design scholars would do better to work more on satisfying hidden motives, there’s still much useful in what they’ve already learned.

Oddly, most people who say they are interested in radical social change don’t study this literature much, and people in this area don’t much consider radical change. Which seems a shame; these tools are a good foundation for such efforts, and the topic of radical change has long attracted wide interest. I’ve tried to apply these tools to consider big change, such as with my futarchy proposal.

I’m pleased to report that two experts in social design have a new book, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society:

The book reveals bold new ways to organize markets for the good of everyone. It shows how the emancipatory force of genuinely open, free, and competitive markets can reawaken the dormant nineteenth-century spirit of liberal reform and lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation. … Only by radically expanding the scope of markets can we reduce inequality, restore robust economic growth, and resolve political conflicts. But to do that, we must replace our most sacred institutions with truly free and open competition—Radical Markets shows how.

While I applaud the ambition of the book, and hope to see more like it, the five big proposals of the book vary widely in quality. They put their best feet forward, and it goes downhill from there. Continue reading "Radical Markets" »

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Skip Value Signals

Consider the following two polls I recently held on Twitter:

As writers, these respondents think that readers won’t engage their arguments for factual claims on a policy relevant topics unless shown that the author shares the values of their particular political faction. But as readers they think they need no signal of shared values to convince them to engage such an argument. If these readers and writers are the same group, then they believe themselves to be hypocritical. They uphold an ideal that value signals should not be needed, but they do not live up to this ideal.

This seems to me part of a larger ideal worth supporting. The ideal is of a community of conversation where everything is open for discussion, people write directly and literally, and people respond mostly analytically to the direct and literal meanings of what people say. People make direct claims and explicit arguments, and refer to dictionaries for disputes about words mean. There’s little need for or acceptance of discussion of what people really meant, and any such claims are backed up by direct explicit arguments based on what people actually and directly said. Even when you believe there is subtext, your text should respond to their text, not to their subtext. Autists may be especially at home in such a community, but many others can find a congenial home there.

A simple way to promote these norms is to skip value signals. Just make your claims, but avoid adding extra signals of shared values. If people who respond leap to the conclusion that you must hold opposing values, calmly correct them, pointing out that you neither said nor implied such a thing. Have your future behavior remain consistent with that specific claim, and with the larger claim that you follow these norms. Within a context, the more who do this, and the more who support them, then the more reluctant others will become to publicly accuse people of saying things that they did not directly say. Especially due to missing value signals.

Of course this is unlikely to become the norm in all human conversation. But it can be the norm within particular intellectual communities. Being a tenured professor who has and needs little in the way of grants or other institutional support, I am in an especially strong position to take such a stance, to promote these norms in my conversation contexts. To make it a bit easier for others to follow. And so I do. You are welcome.

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Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy

Hostile questioners tried to trap Jesus into taking an explicit and dangerous stand on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. … Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. (more)

Long ago, Jesus avoided political entanglements by appealing to a key distinction long made between “official” worlds like work, commerce, war, governance, and law, and “personal” worlds like friends, lovers, parenting, hobbies, religion, conversation, and art. Economists have long been identified with that official world, of work and money and material things. But over the last century economists have increasingly moved outside that official world, looking at mating, conversation, and much more. This has often irritated academics who study personal worlds; they’ve seen economists as having “imperialist” ambitions to “conquer” other academic areas.

Economists studying personal worlds have also bothered a public that hears of economic concepts applied to personal worlds, but using words originally associated with official worlds.  For example, “marriage markets”, “dollar value of a life”, “price of fame,” “below optimal crime”, or my recent “sex redistribution”. This can seem to violate common norms separating official and personal worlds, which I’ll call “world norms”, such as that money should stay out of friendship, or governments stay out of conversation. And this can make economics seem “creepy.” Continue reading "Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy" »

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A Pullable Thread of the Social Fabric

Political polarization has been long increasing in the U.S., where it also seems unusually high for a rich nation. As one side has dominated the heights of tech, culture, media, law, and academia, and our urban centers of wealth, the other has felt neglected and dissed. So they elected Trump, at least partly knowing his faults, to send a clear signal of their unhappiness.

And so a key question has become: has electing Trump somewhat satisfied his supporters’ desire for recognition, or are they instead emboldened to demand more? This is closely related to the question: is the other side now inclined more toward appeasement, or toward doubling-down on the conflict? Had the other side given them Trump, that could be seen as appeasement, plausibly inducing more conciliation from the Trump side. But I expect Trump supporters now mostly see the other side as having offered little appeasement, and instead escalating the conflict. From which I weakly predict that polarization will get worse before it gets better.

My tweet summarizing my recent post on Two Types of Envy induced a hostile tweet storm, one that offers weak clues on future polarization. In the post I riffed on recent attention to “incel” complaints that they suffer a lack of sex, and noted that one could see this as a concern about sex inequality comparable to the concern others express regarding income inequality. I noted that while the two groups focus on different axes of inequality, they each organize to induce envy and identity with a deprived status, to hint at the possibility of violence, and to lobby for “redistribution”, meaning a change in the distribution along their axis. And I was struck by the puzzling lack of overlap between the two groups.

A few engaged this in a more appeasement-like mode, accepting that many people are unhappy and expressing a willingness to consider redistribution policies like better training, legalizing prostitution, targeted cash transfers, or stronger promotion of monogamy. But the vast majority were quite hostile, rude, and insulting, wishing terrible things upon me and saying they’d work to get me fired and arrested. Though I’ve repeatedly denied supporting any redistribution policies, for income or sex, most presumed that not only did I support sex redistribution, I instead supported raping women! Most who admitted I didn’t support rape demanded I provide a detailed redistribution plan to critique. And most who admitted that I wasn’t supporting any policy still called me evil for even comparing sex and income inequality.

Those who argue against redistributing income often complain of the direct coercion that distribution can involve, and say the poor are largely responsible for their own problems. Some even say the world would be better off if the poor just died and didn’t leave descendants. People arguing against sex redistribution made the same arguments. In addition, they said that this is all about men repressing women, that sex is about people while income is about things, that you can’t die from a lack of sex, and that no one really cares much about sex so complainers must really have other agendas. Some said sex inequality is impossible because sex isn’t a commodity, or that it exists but policy can’t influence it because feelings and personal choices are involved.

Most ancient societies had policies that influenced the distribution of sex. Some strongly promoted monogamy, and as a result reduced sex inequality. Which to me suggests that policy can in fact influence sex inequality, and that many people have cared about this kind of inequality. Even if the exact package of sex, romance, respect, etc. that people care about is complex and hard to define. You may think you have good moral arguments why such policies are bad. But as with income inequality, you should admit that people who feel envious and empowered to push policy may not be much influenced by your moral arguments.

Perhaps I’m too close to this to be a good judge, but the extremity and one-sidedness of this reaction seems to me more than typical in what are framed as left responses to right proposals, such as regarding immigration. And this weakly suggests to me that this issue could be an especially potent “loose thread” of our social fabric, that could be pulled toward our unraveling. This hasn’t yet been a big issue on the right, but were they to embrace it, the left seems even less likely than usual to seek compromise or offer appeasement. If so, a big question becomes: how inclined is the right today to embrace a cause just to pick a fight, just to show their defiance? Another is: how inclined is the left to go out of their way to goad the right into such a position to start a fight?

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Aaronson on Caplan

Scott Aaronson just reviewed Caplan’s Case Against Education. He seems to accept most of Caplan’s specific analysis and claims:

It’s true that a large fraction of what passes for education doesn’t deserve the name—even if, as a practical matter, it’s far from obvious how to cut that fraction without also destroying what’s precious and irreplaceable. He’s right that there’s no sense in badgering weak students to go to college … we should support vocational education … Nor am I scandalized by the thought of teenagers apprenticing themselves to craftspeople. … From adolescence onward, I think that enormous deference ought to be given to students’ choices.

And yet he can’t endorse Caplan’s recommendation:

I’m not sure I want to live in the world of Caplan’s “complete separation of school and state.” … There’s not a single advanced country on earth that’s done what he advocates; the trend has everywhere been in the opposite direction. … Show me a case where this has worked. … In any future I can plausibly imagine where the government actually axes education, the savings go to things like enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.

You gotta distinguish Caplan’s favorite option, which is extreme, from the obvious cautious advice based on his book. Maybe huge school cuts haven’t been tried, but small cuts are being tried all the time, and the data Caplan points to suggests that we suffer little harm from those. Its overwhelmingly obvious that most such small cuts are not mainly spent “enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.” They are put toward all other government spending, and rebated to taxpayers. So the obvious advice here is to try somewhat bigger cuts, and slowly increase them as as long as things seem to be going okay.

Aaronson is also reluctant to cut school funding for fear of destroying innovation:

OK, but if professors are at least good at producing more people like themselves, able to teach and do research, isn’t that something, a base we can build on that isn’t all about signalling? And more pointedly: if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself, then shouldn’t we be really damned careful with it, lest we slaughter the golden goose? …

It’s easy to look at most basic research, and say: this will probably never be useful for anything. But then if you survey the inventions that did change the world over the past century—the transistor, the laser, the Web, Google—you find that almost none would have happened without what Caplan calls “ivory tower self-indulgence.” What didn’t come directly from universities came from entities (Bell Labs, DARPA, CERN) that wouldn’t have been thinkable without universities, and that themselves were largely freed from short-term market pressures by governments. …

I work in theoretical computer science: … the stuff we use cutting-edge math for might itself be dismissed as “ivory tower self-indulgence.” Except then the cryptographers building the successors to Bitcoin, or the big-data or machine-learning people, turn out to want the stuff we were talking about at conferences 15 years ago. … There’s also math that struck me as boutique scholasticism, until … someone else finally managed to explain … [that its] almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something.”

Yes of course, where government supports most basic research, most good work is funded by government. But this hardly implies that basic research is crucial, or that enough wouldn’t happen without government support. And as US governments spends roughly 25 times as much on schools as on basic research, we could double basic research funding while cutting school funding by only 5%, and have plenty left over. And even today 56% of U.S. basic research is funded outside of government.

More important, my reading of the innovation literature is that high prestige academics tend to vastly exaggerate the economic value of their work. Most economically-relevant innovation is not driven by basic research, and observed variations in basic research funding don’t much predict variations in rates of innovation. Cuts to government funding would move some basic researchers to private funding, and some to other activities. This wouldn’t hurt economic growth much, and might even help it.

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Two Types of Envy

I’ve long puzzled over the fact that most of the concern I hear expressed on inequality is about the smallest of (at least) seven kinds: income inequality between the families of a nation at a time (IIBFNAT). Expressed concern has greatly increased over the last half decade. While most people don’t actually know that much about their income ranking, many seem to be trying hard to inform those who rank low of their low status. Their purpose seems to be to induce envy, to induce political action to increase redistribution. They hope to induce these people to identify more with this low income status, and to organize politically around this shared identity.

Many concerned about IIBFNAT are also eager to remind everyone of and to celebrate historical examples of violent revolution aimed at redistribution (e.g., Les Misérables). The purpose here seems to be to encourage support for redistribution by reminding everyone of the possibility of violent revolution. They remind the poor that they could consider revolting, and remind everyone else that a revolt might happen. This strengthens an implicit threat of violence should redistribution be insufficient.

Now consider this recent news:

Shortly before the [recent Toronoto van] attack, a post appeared on the suspect’s Facebook profile, hailing the commencement of the “Incel Rebellion”. …There is a reluctance to ascribe to the “incel” movement anything so lofty as an “ideology” or credit it with any developed, connected thinking, partly because it is so bizarre in conception. … Standing for “involuntarily celibate”,… it [has] mutate[d] into a Reddit muster point for violent misogyny. …

It is quite distinctive in its hate figures: Stacys (attractive women); Chads (attractive men); and Normies (people who aren’t incels, i.e. can find partners but aren’t necessarily attractive). Basically, incels cannot get laid and they violently loathe anyone who can. Some of the fault, in their eyes, is with attractive men who have sex with too many women. …

Incels obsess over their own unattractiveness – dividing the world into alphas and betas, with betas just your average, frustrated idiot dude, and omegas, as the incels often call themselves, the lowest of the low, scorned by everyone – they then use that self-acceptance as an insulation.

Basically, their virginity is a discrimination or apartheid issue, and only a state-distributed girlfriend programme, outlawing multiple partners, can rectify this grand injustice. … Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer, uploaded a video to YouTube about his “retribution” against attractive women who wouldn’t sleep with him (and the attractive men they would sleep with) before killing six people in 2014.  (more)

One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met. As with income inequality, most folks concerned about sex inequality might explicitly reject violence as a method, at least for now, and yet still be encouraged privately when the possibility of violence helps move others to support their policies. (Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.)

Strikingly, there seems to be little overlap between those who express concern about income and sex inequality. Among our cultural elites, the first concern is high status, and the later concern low status. For example, the article above seems not at all sympathetic to sex inequality concerns.

Added 27Apr: Though the news article I cite focuses on male complaints, my comments here are about sex inequality in general, applied to both men and women. Not that I see anything particular wrong with focusing on men sometimes. Let me also clarify that personally I’m not very attracted to non-insurance-based redistribution policies of any sort, though I do like to study what causes others to be so attracted.

Added 10p: 27Apr: A tweet on this post induced a lot of discussion on twitter, much of which accuses me of advocating enslaving and raping women. Apparently many people can’t imagine any other way to reduce or moderate sex inequality. (“Redistribute” literally means “change the distribution.”)  In the post I mentioned cash compensation; more cash can make people more attractive and better able to afford legalized prostitution. Others have mentioned promoting monogamy and discouraging promiscuity. Surely there are dozens of other possibilities; sex choices are influenced by a great many factors and each such factor offers a possible lever for influencing sex inequality. Rape and slavery are far from the only possible levers!

Many people are also under the impression that we redistribute income mainly because recipients would die without such redistribution. In rich nations this can account for only a tiny fraction of redistribution. Others say it is obvious that redistribution is only appropriate for commodities, and sex isn’t a commodity. But we take from the rich even when their wealth is in the form of far-from-commodity unique art works, buildings, etc.

Also, it should be obvious that “sex” here refers to a complex package that is desired, which in individual cases may or may not be satisfied by sexbots or prostitutes. But whatever it is the package that people want, we can and should ask how we might get more of it to them.

Finally, many people seem to be reacting primarily to some impression they’ve gained that self-identified “incels” are mostly stupid rude obnoxious arrogant clueless smelly people. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t care; I’m focused on the issue that they help raise, not their personal or moral worth.

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Mysterious Motivation

Our lives are full of evidence that we don’t understand what motivates us. Kevin Simler and I recently published a book arguing that even though we humans are built to readily and confidently explain our motivations regarding pretty much everything we do, we in fact greatly misjudge our motives in ten big specific areas of life. For example, even though we think we choose medical treatments mainly to improve our health, we more use medicine to show concern about others, and to let them show concern about us. But a lot of other supporting evidence also suggests that we don’t understand our motivations. 

For example, when advertisers and sales-folk try to motivate us to buy products and services, they pay great attention to many issues that we would deny are important to us. We often make lists of the features we want in friends, lovers, homes, and jobs, and then find ourselves drawn to options that don’t score well on these lists. Managers struggle to motivate employees, and often attend to different issues to what employees say motivate them. 

While books on how to write fiction say motivation is central to characters and plot, most fiction attempts focused on the motives we usually attribute to ourselves fall flat, and feel unsatisfying. We are bothered by scenes showing just one level of motivation, such as a couple simply enjoying a romantic meal without subtext, as we expect multiple levels. 

While most people see their own lives as having meaning, they also find it easy to see lives different from theirs are empty and meaningless, without motivation. Teens often see this about most adult lives, and adults often see retired folks this way. Many see the lives of those with careers that don’t appeal to them, such as accounting, as empty and meaningless. Artists see non-artists this way. City dwellers often see those who live in suburbia this way, and many rural folks see city folks this way. Many modern people see the lives of most everyone before the industrial era as empty. We even sometimes see our own lives as meaningless, when our lives seem different enough from the lives we once had, or hoped to have.  

Apparently, an abstract description of a life can easily seem empty. Lives seem meaningful, with motivation, when we see enough concrete details about them that we can relate to, either via personal experience or compelling stories. I think this is so why many have call the world I describe in Age of Em a hell, even though to me it seems an okay world compared to most in history. They just don’t see enough relatable detail.  

Taken together, this all suggests great error in our abstract thinking about motivations. We find motivation in our own lives and in some fictional lives. And if our subconscious minds can pattern-match with enough detail of a life description, we might see it as similar enough to what we would find motivating to agree that such a life is likely motivating. But without sufficiently detailed pattern-matching, few abstract life descriptions seem motivating or meaningful to us. In the abstract, we just don’t understand why people with such lives get up in the morning, or don’t commit suicide. 

Motivation is pretty central to human behavior. If you don’t know the point of what you do, how can you calculate whether to do more or less, or something different? And how can you offer useful advice to others on what to do if you don’t know why they do what they do? So being told that you don’t actually understand your motives and those of others should be pretty shocking, and grab your attention. But in fact, it usually doesn’t.

It seems that, just as we are built to assume that we automatically know local norms, without needing much thought, we are also built to presume that we know our motives. We make decisions and, if asked, we have motives to which we attribute our behavior. But we don’t care much about abstract patterns of discrepancies between the two. We care about specific discrepancies, which could make us vulnerable to specific accusations that our motives violate norms in specific situations. Otherwise, as long as we believe that our behavior is achieving our actual motives, we don’t much care what those motives are. Whatever we want must be a good thing to want, and following intuition is good enough to get it; we don’t need to consciously think about it.  

I guess I’m weird, because I find the idea that I don’t know my motives, or what would motivate myself or others, quite disturbing.

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Prediction Machines

One of my favorite books of the dotcom era was Information Rules, by Shapiro and Varian in 1998. At the time, tech boosters were saying that all the old business rules were obsolete, and anyone who disagreed “just doesn’t get it.” But Shapiro and Varian showed in detail how to understand the new internet economy in terms of standard economic concepts. They were mostly right, and Varian went on to become Google’s chief economist.

Today many tout a brave new AI-driven economic revolution, with some touting radical change. For example, a widely cited 2013 paper said:

47% of total US employment is in the high risk category … potentially automatable over … perhaps a decade or two.

Five years later, we haven’t yet seen changes remotely this big. And a new book is now a worthy successor to Information Rules:

In Prediction Machines, three eminent economists recast the rise of AI as a drop in the cost of prediction. With this single, masterful stroke, they lift the curtain on the AI-is-magic hype and show how basic tools from economics provide clarity about the AI revolution and a basis for action by CEOs, managers, policy makers, investors, and entrepreneurs.

As with Information Rules, these authors mostly focus on guessing the qualitative implications of such prediction machines. That is, they don’t say much about likely rates or magnitudes of change, but instead use basic economic analysis to guess likely directions of change. (Many example quotes below.) And I can heartily endorse almost all of these good solid guesses about change directions. A change in the cost of prediction is a fine way to frame recent tech advances, and if you want to figure out what they imply for your line of business, this is the book for you.

However, the book does at times go beyond estimating impact directions. It says “this time is different”, suggests “extraordinary changes over the next few years”, says an AI-induced recession might result from a burst of new tech, and the eventual impact of this tech will be similar to that of computers in general so far:

Everyone has had or will soon have an AI moment. We are accustomed to a media saturated with stories of new technologies that will change our lives. … Almost all of us are so used the the constant drumbeat of technology news that we numbly recite that the only thing immune to change is change itself. Until have our AI moment. Then we realize that this technology is different. p.2

In various ways, prediction machines can “use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve the kinds of problem now [as of 1955] reserve for humans, and improve themselves.” We do not speculate on whether this process heralds the arrival of general artificial intelligence, “the Singularity”, or Skynet. However, as you will see, this narrower focus on prediction still suggests extraordinary changes over the next few years. Just as cheap arithmetic enabled by computers proved powerful in using in dramatic change in business and personal lives, similar transformations will occur due to cheap prediction. p.39

Once an AI is better than humans at a particular task, job losses well happen quickly. We can be confident that new jobs will arise with a few ears and people will have something to do, but that will be little comfort for those looking for work and waiting for those new jobs to appear. An AI-induced recession is not out of the question. p.212

And they offer a motivating example that would require pretty advanced tech:

At some point, as it turns the knob, the AI’s prediction accuracy crosses a threshold, changing Amazon’s business model. The prediction becomes sufficiently accurate that it becomes more profitable for Amazon to ship you the goods that it predicts you will want rather than wait for you to order them. p.16

I can’t endorse any of these suggestions about magnitudes and rates of change. I estimate much smaller and slower change. But the book doesn’t argue for any of these claims, it more assumes them, and so I won’t bother to argue the topic here either. The book only mentions radical scenarios a few more times:

But is this time different? Hawking’s concern, shared by many, is that this time might be unusual because AI may squeeze out the last remaining advantages humans have over machines. How might an economist approach this question? … If you favor free trade between countries, then you … support developing AI, even if it replaces some jobs. Decades of research into the effect of trade show that other jobs will appear, and overall employment will not plummet. p.211

For years, economists have faced criticism that the agents on which we see our theories are hyper-rational and unrealistic models of human behavior. True enough, but when it comes to superintelligence, that means we have glen on the right track. … Thus economics provides a powerful way to understand how a society of superintelligent AIs will evolve. p.222

Yes, research is underway to make prediction machines work in broader settings, but the break-through that will give rise to general artificial intelligence remains undiscovered. Some believe that AGI is so far out that we should not spend cycles worrying about it. … As with many AI-related issues, the future is highly uncertain. Is this the end of the world as we know it? not yet, but it is the end of this book. Companies are deploying AIs right now. In applying the simple economics that underpin lower-cost prediction and higher-value complements to prediction, your business can make ROI-optimizing choices and strategic decision with regard to AI. When we move beyond prediction machines to general artificial intelligence or even superintelligence, whatever that may be, then we will be at a different AI moment. That is something everyone agrees upon. p.223

As you can see, they don’t see radical scenarios as coming soon, nor see much urgency regarding them. A stance I’m happy to endorse. And I also endorse all those insightful qualitative change estimates, as illustrated by these samples: Continue reading "Prediction Machines" »

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