Tag Archives: Coordination

Tower Of Babel Still

If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying? This perennial question was famously addressed in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. … The real puzzle is that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages arises not where people are most spread out, but where they are most closely packed together. Papua New Guinea is a classic case. That relatively small land mass – only slightly larger than California – is home to between 800 and 1000 distinct languages, or around 15 per cent of all languages spoken on the planet. This linguistic diversity is not the result of migration and physical isolation of different populations. Instead, people living in close quarters seem to have chosen to separate into many distinct societies, leading lives so separate that they have become incapable of talking to one another. Why? …

Languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity. … distinct languages are an effective way to prevent eavesdropping or the loss of important information to a competitor. In support of this idea, I have found anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, for no other reason than to distinguish themselves from neighbouring groups. …

Today, around 1.2 billion people – about 1 in 6 of us – speak Mandarin. Next come Spanish and English with about 400 million speakers each, and Bengali and Hindi follow close behind. (more)

Today much larger communities speak the same “language” in the sense of speaking English or Mandarin. But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns. People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

The world fails dramatically to coordinate on language, both at the basic English-like level, and at these higher levels. Sometimes a nation will push hard to get everyone in the nation to speak the same basic language, in order to strengthen national solidarity. But beyond that, there is very little government effort to try to coordinate on language. Which just shows how hard is coordination, and how little of government is about coordination.

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The Alms Expert Opening

Around 1800 in England and Russia, the three main do-gooder activities were medicine, school, and alms (= food/shelter for the weak, such as the old or crippled). Today the three spending categories of medicine, school, and alms make up ~40% of US GDP, a far larger fraction than in 1800. …

Foragers who personally taught kids, cared for sick folks, and gave food/shelter to weak folks, credibly signaled their loyalty to allies, at least when such needy were allies. Weak group selection helped encourage such aid as ways to signal loyalty. … [Today,] votes supporting spending taxes on medicine, school and alms are interpreted as showing loyal “caring” for one’s community. (more)

Today, two of these three classic charities have very powerful associated “professions”: doctors and teachers. These professions are powerful because they are seen as representing the good in those causes – doctors are our official authorities on what is good for patients, and teachers are our official authorities on what is good for students. So we tend to back these experts when they fight with other related organizations, such as when docs fight with insurance companies, or when teachers fight with mayors. This allows such experts to be very well paid and pampered relative to other professionals.

The missing group here is alms experts: we have no strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor, crippled, etc. While there are of course people who specialize in such roles, they are not united together under a single recognized label to leverage public sympathy, and they do not speak as a unit, or negotiate as a unit with related organizations.

But, given the example of docs and teachers, it seems plausible that if alms experts were to create an encompassing profession of “feeders”, and if they as a unit publicly challenged other related organizations, like charities or government funders, this feeding profession could often get their way. Of course they’d probably mostly use their power to benefit themselves. To guess if they would help the world, ask yourself if organized docs and teachers help the world.

Even so, there does seem to be an as yet largely unused opening for a feeding profession.

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Hail John Watkins

In the 1900 Ladies Home Journal, railroad engineer John Watkins offered unusually insightful predictions for a hundred years hence. His example seems a great place to learn lessons on sources of insight, and systematic biases, in forecasting. Yet while many have commented recently on Watkin’s forecasts, I haven’t seen any drawing lessons.

I see these as Watkins main mistakes:

  1. Overestimating coordination capacities. Watkins said we’d cut underused letters like C,X,Q from our alphabet, eliminate mosquitoes and house-flies by ending their breeding grounds, put all city traffic below or above ground, and accept many American republics into the USA union. All of these require far more coordination than we seem capable of.
  2. Underestimating wealth indulgence and signaling. Watkins said we’d adopt an engineer’s efficiency attitude toward food preparation and personal fitness. People unable to walk ten miles at a stretch would be weaklings, and we’d use central cooking instead of personal kitchens. But rich folks don’t want to work that hard, and humans have long asserted wealth and autonomy via personalized vs. communal dining. Institutional communal food, such as in dorms, ships, military bases, boarding-house, etc., has long been avoided a sign of low status.

Added 10a: The institutional food that is cheapest, and lowest in status, makes you eat where they say, when they say, and what they say. Yes of course a restaurant is “institutional” in some ways, but it costs more because it offers customers more flexibility in time, location, and food.

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Shulman On Superorgs

It has come to my attention that some think that by now I should have commented on Carl Shulman’s em paper Whole Brain Emulation and the Evolution of Superorganisms. I’ll comment now in this (long) post.

The undated paper is posted at the Singularity Institute, my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky’s organization dedicated to the proposition that the world will soon be ruled by a single powerful mind (with well integrated beliefs, values, and actions), so we need to quick figure out how to design values for a mind we’d like. The main argument is that someone will soon design an architecture to let an artificial mind quickly grow from seriously stupid to super wicked smart. (Yudkowsky and I debated that recently.) Shulman’s paper offers an auxiliary argument, that whole brain emulations would also quickly lead to one or a few such powerful integrated “superorganisms.”

It seems to me that Shulman actually offers two somewhat different arguments, 1) an abstract argument that future evolution generically leads to superorganisms, because their costs are generally less than their benefits, and 2) a more concrete argument, that emulations in particular have especially low costs and high benefits. Continue reading "Shulman On Superorgs" »

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