NASA Goddard Talk Monday

This Monday at 3:30p I talk on interstellar colonization at the Engineering Colloquim of NASA Goddard:

Attempts to model interstellar colonization may seem hopelessly compromised by uncertainties regarding the technologies and preferences of advanced civilizations. However, if light speed limits travel speeds and reliability limits travel distances, then a selection effect may eventually determine behavior at the colonization frontier. Making weak assumptions about colonization technology, I use this selection effect to predict colonists’ behavior, including which oases they colonize, how long they stay there, how many seeds they then launch, how fast and far those seeds fly, and how behavior changes with increasing congestion. This colonization model might explain some astrophysical puzzles, predicting lone oases like ours, amid large quiet regions with vast unused resources. (more here; here)

Added: Slides, Audio

I’m also talking on helping now vs. later at the DC Less Wrong Meetup Sunday (tomorrow), 3p in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.

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Conspiracy Theory, Up Close & Personal

Hal Finney made 33 posts here on Overcoming Bias from ’06 to ’08. I’d known Hal long before that, starting on the Extropians mailing list in the early ‘90s, where Hal was one of the sharpest contributors. We’ve met in person, and Hal has given me thoughtful comments on some of my papers (including on this, this, & this). So I was surprised to learn from this article (key quotes below) that Hal is a plausible candidate for being (or being part of) the secretive Bitcoin founder, “Satoshi Nakamoto”.

Arguments for this conspiracy theory:

  • Hal lives a few miles from the guy Newsweek recently claimed was Nakamoto, and who admitted to being involved somehow.
  • Bitcoin is very carefully thought out and implemented, and Hal is one of the top few people in the open crypto world who have demonstrated this capacity. For example, Hal did most of the work behind PGP 2.0, perhaps the most successful open crypto predecessor to Bitcoin.
  • Hal is on record as the first guy besides Nakamoto to use Bitcoin software, he got the first coin transfer from Nakamoto, and he made some key software improvements.
  • Hal’s writing style is much closer to Nakamoto’s than anyone else who the many reporters digging into this have suspected of being Nakamoto.

The arguments against this conspiracy theory:

  • In a world has seven billion people, the prior on Hal being Nakamoto has be rather low.
  • Hal says he isn’t Nakamoto, and seems sincere.
  • Hal says Nakamoto understands C++ better than he does.
  • Hal’s son showed a reporter some gmails between Hal and Nakamoto. The reporter says:

The notion that Finney alone might have set up the two accounts and created a fake conversation with himself to throw off snoops like me, long before Bitcoin had any measurable value, seemed preposterous.

That last point seems pretty weak. We already know that the Bitcoin founder wants to be hidden. If Hal really created Bitcoin, he is plenty smart enough to think that Bitcoin might succeed, and to think of and implement the idea of creating fake conversations to cover his tracks. In this case Hal would also plausibly lie about his C++ skills, or maybe he got C++ help from someone else. In any case the probability of seeing those things conditional on Hal actually being Nakamoto seem pretty high.

It seems to me that the question comes down to your prior expectation on whether the person who did such a careful expert job on something so hard would be one of the few people in the field most known to be capable of and to have actually done such things, or whether it would be a new largely unknown person. And thinking about it that way I have to put a pretty large weight on it being someone known. And conditional on that it is hard for me not to think that yeah, there’s at least a 15% chance Hal was more involved than he’s said. And if so, my hat’s way off to you Hal!

But I also figure I’m not paying nearly as close attention to this bitcoin stuff as many others. Google doesn’t find me any other discussion of the Hal as Nakamoto theory, but surely if I wait a few weeks others who know more will weigh in, right? And since I can’t think of any actions of mine that depend on this issue, waiting is what I’ll do. Your move, internet.

Added 8a 26Mar: In the comments, Gwern points to further reasonable indicators against the Hal as Nakamoto theory.  I accept his judgement.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Conspiracy Theory, Up Close & Personal" »

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Social Science Exists

A student with a mathematical-physics background could easily convince himself that he has superior mathematics abilities than typical economists and superior statistical and computational skills than most economists. He might go on to conclude that, as a consequence of his superior mathematical and computational abilities, he should be able to enter economics and start contributing quickly and easily. He might also anticipate that he could easily adapt established models or techniques in physics to study economic phenomena and impress the profession.

If you are one of these people, let me try to disabuse you of these notions. Your mathematical abilities are actually not that much better than most economists (if they are better at all). You will have to spend a lot of time acclimating to the subject and the path to actually making contributions will be long and difficult. In all likelihood, there are very few (perhaps zero) off-the-shelf models or techniques in physics (or engineering, or chemistry, …) that will produce meaningful economic results. (more; HT Justin Wolfers)

Yup! I often meet scientist types who talk about some problem they are working on, which turns out to be a social problem related to ones that social scientists have explored. But they won’t believe this unless you show them work that uses methods and concepts with which they are familiar. They just can’t believe there are useful methods and concepts that they don’t already know.

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Me On Fox Friday

Friday I’ll appear on The Independents, which airs on Fox Business TV at 9pm EST, discussing “The Rise Of The Machines.”

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Computing Cost Floor Soon?

Anders Sandberg has posted a nice paper, Monte Carlo model of brain emulation development, wherein he develops a simple statistical model of when brain emulations [= “WBE”] would be feasible, if they will ever be feasible:

The cumulative probability gives 50% chance for WBE (if it ever arrives) before 2059, with
the 25% percentile in 2047 and the 75% percentile in 2074. WBE before 2030 looks very unlikely and only 10% likely before 2040.

My main complaint is that Sandberg assumes a functional form for the cost of computing vs. time that requires this cost to soon fall to an absolute floor, below which it will never fall, relative to the funding ever available for a brain emulation project. His resulting distribution has costs approaching this floor by about 2040:

SandbergTimingModel

As a result, Sandberg finds a big chance (how big he doesn’t say) that brain emulations will never be possible – for eons to follow it will always be cheaper to compute new mind states via floppy proteins in huge messy bio systems born in wombs, than to compute them via artificial devices made in factories.

That seems crazy implausible to me. I can see physical limits to physical parameters, and I can see the rate at which computing costs fall slowing down. But having the costs of artificial computing soon stop falling forever is much harder to see, especially with such costs remaining far higher than the costs of natural bio devices that seem pretty far from optimized. And having the amount of money available to fund a project never grow seems to say that economic growth will halt as well.

Even so, I applaud Sandberg for his efforts so far, and hope that his or others’ successor models will be more economically plausible. It is an important question, worthy of this and more attention.

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Academic Stats Prediction Markets

In a column, Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken note that academia has a problem:

Unfortunately, statistics—and the scientific process more generally—often seems to be used more as a way of laundering uncertainty, processing data until researchers and consumers of research can feel safe acting as if various scientific hypotheses are unquestionably true.

They consider prediction markets as a solution, but largely reject them for reasons both bad and not so bad. I’ll respond here to their article in unusual detail. First the bad:

Would prediction markets (or something like them) help? It’s hard to imagine them working out in practice. Indeed, the housing crisis was magnified by rampant speculation in derivatives that led to a multiplier effect.

Yes, speculative market estimates were mistaken there, as were most other sources, and mistaken estimates caused bad decisions. But speculative markets were the first credible source to correct the mistake, and no other stable source had consistently more accurate estimates. Why should the most accurate source should be blamed for mistakes made by all sources?

Allowing people to bet on the failure of other people’s experiments just invites corruption, and the last thing social psychologists want to worry about is a point-shaving scandal.

What about letting researchers who compete for grants, jobs, and publications write critical referee reports and publish criticism, doesn’t that invite corruption too? If you are going to forbid all conflicts of interest because they invite corruption, you won’t have much left you will allow. Surely you need to argue that bet incentives are more corrupting that other incentives. Continue reading "Academic Stats Prediction Markets" »

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Socializers Clump

Imagine that this weekend you and others will volunteer time to help tend the grounds at some large site – you’ll trim bushes, pull weeds, plant bulbs, etc. You might have two reasons for doing this. First, you might care about the cause of the site. The site might hold an orphanage, or a historical building. Second, you might want to socialize with others going to the same event, to reinforce old connections and to make new ones.

Imagine that instead of being assigned to work in particular areas, each person was free to choose where on the site to work. These different motives for being there are likely to reveal themselves in where people spend their time grounds-tending. The more that someone wants to socialize, the more they will work near where others are working, so that they can chat while they work, and while taking breaks from work. Socializing workers will tend to clump together.

On the other hand, the more someone cares about the cause itself, the more they will look for places that others have neglected, so that their efforts can create maximal value. These will tend to be places places away from where socially-motivated workers are clumped. Volunteers who want more to socialize will tend more to clump, while volunteers who want more to help will tend more to spread out.

This same pattern should also apply to conversation topics. If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about. Like say the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics. You’ll seek topics that are important and yet little discussed, where more discussion seems likely to result in progress, and where you and your fellow discussants have a comparative advantage of expertise.

You can use this clue to help infer the conversation motives of the people you talk with, and of yourself. I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.

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Hidden Asset Taxes Must Be Huge

Paul Krugman:

Piketty’s big idea is that we are in the early stages of returning to a society dominated by great dynastic fortunes, by inherited wealth. … Imagine a wealthy family that has managed, somehow or other, to guarantee that a large fraction of its income is used to accumulate more wealth. Can this family thereby acquire a dominant position in society?

The answer depends on the relationship between r, the rate of return on assets, and g, the overall rate of economic growth. If r is less than g, dynasties are doomed to erode: even if all income from a very large fortune is devoted to accumulation, the family’s wealth will grow more slowly than the economy, and it will slowly slide into obscurity. But if r is greater than g, dynastic wealth can indeed grow to gigantic size. …

Piketty tells us something remarkable: historically, r has almost always exceeded g – but there was an exceptional period in the 20th century, a period of rapid labor force growth and technological progress, when r was less than g. And he asserts that the kind of society we consider normal, in which high incomes reflect personal achievement rather than inherited wealth, is in fact an aberration driven by this exceptional period. … A couple of questions:

1. How much of the decline in r relative to g in the 20th century reflected fast growth, and how much reflected policies that either taxed or in effect confiscated inherited wealth? In other words, how much was destiny, how much wars and political upheaval? Piketty stresses both factors, but never gives us a relative quantitative assessment. (more from Piketty here, here)

This rate of return on assets r that Krugman and Piketty discuss is something like the ratio of rental to purchase price of land. I don’t have access to Piketty’s book, but I’ve been pondering this question for a few months, and I’ve concluded that the usual estimates of asset returns r must fail to include many taxes that in practice reduce the actual rate of return r that growing dynasties can achieve. And I think that once we include all hidden taxes, the actual rate of return r that dynasties could achieve in practice must have usually be no more than the economic growth rate g. Let me explain.

Some taxes are explicit, like property taxes. Other taxes are implicit in the property destruction and transfer that result from wars, political upheavals, and legal corruption, and in the costs of reasonable efforts to prevent such losses. Finally, there are implicit taxes resulting from local legal limits on who one may use to manage a dynastic fund. For example, if a dynasty must give its eldest living male wide discretion over spending and investment choices, and if such males often turn out to be spent-thrift fools, this will greatly limit this dynasty’s ability to grow over the long run. An ideal might be to delegate dynasty management to a reputed professional trust that is legally obligated to follow explicit instructions to grow the fund as fast as possible over the long run. But, as I’ve discussed before, most societies have put substantial legal obstacles before solutions like this.

I argue that the net effect of all these hidden taxes on dynastic funds must have been to usually reduce asset returns to below growth rates. My argument is simple: If asset returns had typically been above growth rates, then if any dynastic funds had chosen to grow at the maximum possible rate, then even if those funds had started small they would have come to dominate investments worldwide. And they would have done so on a timescale short compared to the time period over which historical records suggest that asset returns have exceeded growth rates. By competing with each other, such dominating dynastic funds would then have increased the supply of investment so much as to drive down asset returns to or below the sustainable level, which is the economic growth rate.

I conclude that consistently across space and time, the net effects of all forms of taxes on dynastic investment funds, including taxes implicit in limiting who one may trust not to pilfer those funds, has been to reduce real assets returns to below growth rates. Perhaps well below.

Of course, if the main hidden tax in history has been pilfering by dynasty managers, that can result in a world where such pilferers spend a large fraction of world income, without much social value to show for it. One might easily dislike such a scenario, and want to prevent it. But instead of adding more explicit taxes to prevent the growth of dynastic funds, it seems to me better to cut the pilfering tax. Because this should encourage much more investment overall, which seems a good thing. This includes investment in helping and protecting the future, including protection from disasters, including existential risks. Which also seem like good things.

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Why Neglect Social Results?

For many decades I’ve heard people argue about the possibility of ems, i.e., brain emulations (also called “uploads”). Many like to talk about whether ems are possible, when they might happen, and if ems would be conscious, or whether they would “be me.”  People also love to read fiction set in worlds where there are ems. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a short article on the social implications of a world of emulations — what that would actually be like. But that didn’t kick-start much interest in the subject – most discussion is still on possibility, timing, consciousness, identity, and story settings.

Over the years I’ve also heard many people argue about the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Twelve years ago I wrote a short article “How to live in a simulation,” on how you should live your life differently to take this possibility into account. That article also didn’t kick-start much interest in social implications. Today, most discussion of the simulation possibility continues to focus on using it as a setting for fiction, on the chances that it is true, on clues for inferring if it is true, and on what it implies for identity, consciousness, physics, etc. There remains almost no discussion of life strategies conditional on a simulation.

I just now noticed how similar are these situations, a similarity that cries out for explanation. I see three somewhat related candidate explanations:

  1. The sorts of people who most like these topics are techies, who mostly don’t believe that social and human sciences exist, and thus aren’t interested in hearing about  applications of such sciences.
  2. People are mainly interested in these sorts of topics as ways to stretch and stress-test their basic concepts. So only people with a library of grand social concepts are interested in using these topics to stretch and stress-test such concepts. There aren’t many such people.
  3. I personally did a poor job of introducing these topics. Had someone more prestigious or articulate done the job, there might well be much larger conversations now about these topics.

Whatever the explanation, this bodes poorly for interest in my more elaborated book-length discussion of the social implications of ems. However, I will soldier on nonetheless.

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Leadership Fantasies

Predictions about leadership in 2030:

The management consulting firm Hay Group worked with the German futurists at Z-Punkt to identify six mega trends such as globalization, technology convergence and the individualization of careers that will shape the kind of leaders companies will need in the future. I spoke with Georg Vielmetter, Hay Group’s regional director of leadership and talent, about the newly released study “Leadership 2030” that he co-authored. …

I think that positional power and hierarchical power will become smaller. Power will shift to stakeholders, reducing the authority of the people who are supposed to lead the organization. … The time of the alpha male — of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever — this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself. …

Such a leader doesn’t doesn’t put himself at the very center. He knows he needs to listen to other people. He knows he needs to be intellectually curious and emotionally open. He knows that he needs empathy to do the job, not just in order to be a good person. … We will see a significant decline in physical loyalty between people and organizations. It will be very difficult for leaders to formally bind people to their organizations, so they should not try. This is a battle that leaders can only lose. … What is clear is that leaders in the future need to have a full understanding, and also an emotional understanding, of diversity. That’s for sure. (more)

I call bull. Here’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, in Power:

Most books by well-known executives and most lectures and courses about leadership should be stamped CAUTION: THIS MATERIAL CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL SURVIVAL. That’s because leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top. Meanwhile, the teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptions about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying or abusive way— in short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved. There is no doubt that the world would be a much better, more humane place if people were always authentic, modest, truthful, and consistently concerned for the welfare of others instead of pursuing their own aims. But that world doesn’t exist.

More from Pfeffer last November:

Today’s work world is increasingly populated by millennials with values presumably different from more-senior employees—more egalitarian, less competitive, more meritocratic, less accepting of hierarchy, and more tolerant of all forms of diversity. And if that’s true, surely companies are changing, which means we need new theories about power and influence to reflect these new cultural realities. Strategically expressing anger, building a power base, or eliminating rivals are considered outmoded ways of getting ahead. Certainly, the reasoning goes, in a world where reputations get created and transmitted quickly and anonymously through ubiquitous social networks, people who resort to such bad behavior will suffer swift retribution.

The typical Silicon Valley recruitment pitch, or something to this effect, reinforces this view: “We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.”

Unfortunately there’s not much evidence of change but plenty of testimony to the contrary: the power struggles that beset the founding of Twitter (TWTR), the turnover among CEOs at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and the experiences of former Stanford MBA students working in the supposedly egalitarian world of high tech who have lost their jobs or been thrown out of companies they founded notwithstanding their intelligence and good job performance. Meanwhile, relationships with bosses still go a long way to predict people’s career success; organizational gossip lives on; and career derailment still awaits those who fail to master political dynamics. (more)

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