Tag Archives: Personal

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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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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My Little Finger

Adam Smith:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Last night my father died. And I am sad. This wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things. But, you see, this was MY little finger. And more.

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Me Talking Thrice

  1. This Thursday March 6 at 4pm I speak at Duke University in the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE) Seminar, in room 330 Gross (room TBD), on Shall We Vote On Values But Bet On Beliefs? (slides)
  2. This last Sunday I talked to the DC Philosophy Cafe on Em Econ (audio).
  3. Last week I did another interview with Adam Ford, on Futurism (video).
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I Was Wrong

On Jan 7, 1991 Josh Storrs Hall made this offer to me on the Nanotech email list:

I hereby offer Robin Hanson (only) 2-to-1 odds on the following statement:
“There will, by 1 January 2010, exist a robotic system capable of the cleaning an ordinary house (by which I mean the same job my current cleaning service does, namely vacuum, dust, and scrub the bathroom fixtures). This system will not employ any direct copy of any individual human brain. Furthermore, the copying of a living human brain, neuron for neuron, synapse for synapse, into any synthetic computing medium, successfully operating afterwards and meeting objective criteria for the continuity of personality, consciousness, and memory, will not have been done by that date.”
Since I am not a bookie, this is a private offer for Robin only, and is only good for $100 to his $50. –JoSH

At the time I replied that my estimate for the chance of this was in the range 1/5 to 4/5, so we didn’t disagree. But looking back I think I was mistaken – I could and should have known better, and accepted this bet.

I’ve posted on how AI researchers with twenty years of experience tend to see slow progress over that time, which suggests continued future slow progress. Back in ’91 I’d had only seven years of AI experience, and should have thought to ask more senior researchers for their opinions. But like most younger folks, I was more interested in hanging out and chatting with other young folks. While this might sometimes be a good strategy for finding friends, mates, and same-level career allies, it can be a poor strategy for learning the truth. Today I mostly hear rapid AI progress forecasts from young folks who haven’t bothered to ask older folks, or who don’t think those old folks know much relevant.

I’d guess we are still at least two decades away from a situation where over half of US households use robots do to over half of the house cleaning (weighted by time saved) that people do today.

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Announcing: SciCast

A year ago I announced that our IARPA-funded DAGGRE prediction market on world events had finally implemented my combinatorial prediction market tech (which I was prevented from showcasing nine years earlier), with a new-improved tech for efficient exact computation in near-tree-shaped networks.

Now we announce: DAGGRE is dead, and SciCast is born. Still funded by IARPA, SciCast focuses on predicting science and technology, it has a cleaner interface developed by Inkling, and it has been reimplemented from scratch to support ten times as many users and questions. We also now have Bruce D’Ambrosio’s firm Tuuyi on board to develop and implement even more sophisticated algorithms.

But wait, there’s more. We’ve got formal partnerships with AAAS and IEEE, have a thousand folks pre-registered to participate, and we hope to attract thousands of expert users, folks who really know their sci/tech. We’ve seeded SciCast with over a hundred questions, many contributed by top experts, and hope to soon have thousands of questions, mostly submitted by users.

Alas, we aren’t allowed to pay our participants money or prizes. But if you have sci/tech issues you want forecasted, if you want to prove your insight into the future of sci/tech, or if you want to influence the perceived consensus on sci/tech, join us at SciCast.org!

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Me in The Futurist

The Jan/Feb ’14 issue of The Futurist has an article by me on “When the Economy Transcends Humanity”:

What will our economy, workplaces, and society look like when we can copy our brains and build virtual workers to do our jobs? An economist looks at the next great era, a world dominated by robots. (more; ungated)

It doesn’t break new ground, but may be more accessible. You’ll notice the editor liked to sprinkle popular movie references movies; does that really help accessibility?

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Wyden Puff Piece Errors

In the latest New Yorker, Ryan Lizza writes on “State of Deception: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?” Which would be an interesting topic. Alas Lizza says little about it. Instead he summarizes the history of NSA spying on US citizens, supported via misleading statements and tortured legal interpretations, and talks the most about one Senator Ron Wyden’s heroic fight against the NSA.

Even though Wyden hasn’t actually succeeded at much. Lizza tells us that Wyden attached sunset provisions to the Patriot Act (which he supported), and asked the question at a Senate hearing where the NSA head’s answer was later shown to be misleading. Lizza speculates that Wyden’s many secret memos “repeatedly challenging the NSA’s contention that [a particular] program was effective” caused the NSA to drop that program. Oh and Wyden voted against some bills that passed, introduced bills that didn’t pass, and argued with Obama.

Here is the concrete Wyden accomplishement for which Lizza gives the most detail:

Three months later, the Defense Department started a new program with the Orwellian name Total Information Awareness. T.I.A. was based inside the Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office, which was headed by Admiral John Poindexter. In the nineteen-eighties, Poindexter had been convicted, and then acquitted, of perjury for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He wanted to create a system that could mine a seemingly infinite number of government and private-sector databases in order to detect suspicious activity and preëmpt attacks. The T.I.A. system was intended to collect information about the faces, fingerprints, irises, and even the gait of suspicious people. In 2002 and 2003, Wyden attacked the program as a major affront to privacy rights and urged that it be shut down.

In the summer of 2003, while Congress debated a crucial vote on the future of the plan, Wyden instructed an intern to sift through the Pentagon’s documents about T.I.A. The intern discovered that one of the program’s ideas was to create a futures market in which anonymous users could place bets on events such as assassinations and terrorist attacks, and get paid on the basis of whether the events occurred. Wyden called Byron Dorgan, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, who was also working to kill the program. “Byron, we’ve got what we need to win this,” he told him. “You and I should make this public.” Twenty-four hours after they exposed the futures-market idea at a press conference, Total Information Awareness was dead. Poindexter soon resigned.

It was Wyden’s first real victory on the Intelligence Committee. (more)

That “futures market” program mentioned was called the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). As I was a chief architect, I happen to know that this discussion is quite misleading:

  1. TIA was a DARPA research project to develop methods for integrating masses of info; it wasn’t an actual program to handle such info masses.
  2. I’ve been told by several sources that TIA research didn’t stop, it just moved elsewhere. PAM, in contrast, did stop.
  3. PAM was not part of TIA; the only relation is that both were among the score of research programs under Poindexter in the DARPA management hierarchy.
  4. Though Wyden called it “Terrorism Futures,” PAM was mainly about forecasting geopolitical instability in the MidEast. The basis for the claim that it was about terrorism was a single website background screen containing a concept sample screen which included a small miscellaneous section listing the events “Arafat assassinated” and “North Korea missile strike.”

All those errors in just two paragraphs of a 12,500 word article. Makes me wonder how many more errors are in the rest.

It is hard to believe that Lizza’s article didn’t get a lot of input from Wyden. So Wyden is likely responsible for most of these errors. Thus to fight the NSA’s spying supported by lying, Wyden eagerly lied about an unrelated research program, in order to kill a research program with a symbolic tangential relation to NSA spying. Which wasn’t actually killed. Seems a bit underwhelming as a reason to make Wyden the main actor in a story on NSA spying. I see better candidates.

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Snowden: Hero

Six in 10 Americans … say Snowden’s actions harmed U.S. security, increasing 11 percentage points from July. … Clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe disclosures have harmed national security. … More than half of poll respondents — 52 percent — say he should be charged with a crime. … And 55 percent say he was wrong to expose the NSA’s intelligence-gathering efforts. … Most poll respondents think the NSA’s surveillance program intrudes on some Americans’ privacy rights — 68 percent say this — while 54 percent see intrusions on their own privacy, 49 percent count foreign governments as victims and 48 percent say this of foreign citizens. Among those who say surveillance programs intrude on their privacy rights or those of other Americans, a clear majority say such actions are unjustified. (more)

Though several legislative efforts are underway to curb the NSA’s surveillance powers, the wholesale move by private companies to expand the use of encryption technology may prove to be the most tangible outcome of months of revelations based on documents that Snowden provided to The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. In another major shift, the companies also are explicitly building defenses against U.S. government surveillance programs in addition to combating hackers, criminals or foreign intelligence services. (more)

The most limited estimates say that only 1% of the files that Snowden downloaded have been released publicly so far. At the other end of the spectrum, we may only have seen .25% of the files get released. The worst secrets may yet come forward in time. (more)

Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights. Yeah the NSA lied, went beyond its authority, and hurt us and others. But, we say, the guy who exposed that should be punished for making us look bad. Even though he acted alone, seems personally beyond reproach, suffered substantially and gained little, carefully minimized incidental harm, and showed great competence and self-control in the process.

Geez. I gotta say that Edward Snowden seems one of the best candidates for a classic hero that I’ve seen in a long time. Six years ago I wrote:

In a park near my home is a plaque that reads:

We honor all those who fought for our community.

There is probably a similar plaque near you. I would be more proud to live in a community with a plaque that read:

We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong.

The Snowden story isn’t over, and maybe it will all look very different later. But for now, he sure looks like someone who such a plaque would rightly honor. Edward, my hat is way way off to you sir.

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