Category Archives: Age

Seek Superstar Slavery

The latest Review of Economic Studies has a great article (ungated here) by Marko Tervio.  I'll summarize.

CEOs, actors, directors, musicians, authors, and athletes make big bucks because:

  1. Desired abilities are rare and lasting.
  2. It is very expensive to try someone new.
  3. Everyone can see which trials worked or not.
  4. Winners are free to demand more money or walk.

Given these conditions, a few proven winners make big bucks, and few new folks get tried.  After all, a new trial who wins will soon demand as much as other winners.  Here winners avoid retirement to keep milking their gravy train, and small biases in weak signals on new guys to try can magnify into great social injustice. 

Condition 4 is crucial.  When long term deals are allowed, more folks are tried, because a few successes can pay for lots of failures.  Folks being tried get paid more, and there are more better winners who retire earlier and are paid less even when free to walk.  Distorted signals about who to try matter less.  Such long term deal gains were realized, for example, in the US movie studio system of the 1920-40s, the old US American baseball club system, and even now via exclusive long-term music album deals.

Over the last century, however, legislatures and courts have consistently moved to limit and prohibit such long term contracts, thereby increasing inequality and decreasing productivity.  France even forbids artists from selling the full value of their paintings.  The key tipping factor here seems to me to be a public displeased by seeing gains by admired musicians, actors, athletes, artists etc. going to less admired others.  The word "slavery" is often invoked. For example, music fans can be outraged to see their favorite musicians shackled to ungenerous album deals. 

So our vast wage inequality of superstar CEOs, artists, athletes, etc. is caused not by a lack of sensible regulation to limit random cruelties of unfettered markets, but by a public preferring its heroes unshackled, even if those heros had preferred otherwise. Now maybe insuring heroes against financial variations imposes a negative externality on wider admiring publics, one large enough to justify preventing long term deals.  But for now count me as skeptical; I'd rather allow CEO and other superhero "slavery," for their good and ours. 

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I’ll Be Different

A young colleague recently said he didn't want to end up like older folks he knew who didn't keep up with new music fashions.  Some of us older folks suggested he probably would become like us, and he would probably like it.  He was horrified.

People often wonder what it will be like for them to be old, or married, or with a successful career, etc.  They usually conclude they just can't know, and must wait and see.  Yet all around them are other folks who are old, married, etc. – why not just accept those experiences as a good predictions of such futures? 

People usually respond that they are too different from these other folks for their experiences to be a good guide.  A paper in the latest Science suggests otherwise

Two experiments revealed that (i) people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself and (ii) people do not believe this.

We mistakenly prefer an "inside" view, imagining how we'd respond to particular details, but in fact the "outside" view of others' reactions is more reliable.  

This seems to me more than a simple cognitive error.  It seems folks feel that they would not be motivated enough to exercise, marry, work, etc. if they thought their future was going to be much like the futures of others around them.  Are they right?  More from that paper:

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Kid’s Rights

Scott Aaronson confesses:

Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?

The above is a question that’s interested me for as long as I can remember, though I avoided blogging about it until now.  See, unlike many libertarian economist Ayn-Rand types, I don’t actually like asking social or political questions the very asking of which marks you as eccentric and Aspbergerish. I’d rather apply myself to proving lower bounds, popularizing quantum mechanics, or other tasks that are (somewhat) more respected by the society I depend on for my dinner. And I’d rather pick battles, like evolution or climate change, where truth and justice have well-connected allies on their side and a non-negligible chance of winning.  For years, I’ve been studying the delicate art of keeping my mouth shut when what I have to say will be deeply unpopular—and despite lapses, I’ve actually made a great deal of progress since (let’s say) the age of 14.

There are times, though, when a question strikes such an emotional chord with me that I break down and ask it in spite of everything.  Such a case was provoked by this story in the New York Times a few weeks ago (registration required), about a 17-year-old girl who was jailed for creating a MySpace page. …

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Formative Youth

Followup toAgainst Maturity

"Rule of thumb:  Be skeptical of things you learned before you could read.  E.g., religion."
        — Ben Casnocha

Looking down on others is fun, and if there's one group we adults can all enjoy looking down on, it's children.  At least I assume this is one of the driving forces behind the incredible disregard for… but don't get me started.

Inconveniently, though, most of us were children at one point or another during our lives.  Furthermore, many of us, as adults, still believe or choose certain things that we happened to believe or choose as children.  This fact is incongruent with the general fun of condescension – it means that your life is being run by a child, even if that particular child happens to be your own past self.

I suspect that most of us therefore underestimate the degree to which our youths were formative – because to admit that your youth was formative is to admit that the course of your life was not all steered by Incredibly Deep Wisdom and uncaused free will.

To give a concrete example, suppose you asked me, "Eliezer, where does your altruism originally come from?  What was the very first step in the chain that made you amenable to helping others?"

Then my best guess would be "Watching He-Man and similar TV shows as a very young and impressionable child, then failing to compartmentalize the way my contemporaries did."  (Same reason my Jewish education didn't take; I either genuinely believed something, or didn't believe it at all.  (Not that I'm saying that I believed He-Man was fact; just that the altruistic behavior I picked up wasn't compartmentalized off into some safely harmless area of my brain, then or later.))

It's my understanding that most people would be reluctant to admit this sort of historical fact, because it makes them sound childish – in the sense that they're still being governed by the causal history of a child.

But I find myself skeptical that others are governed by their childhood causal histories so much less than myself – especially when there's a simple alternative explanation: they're too embarrassed to admit it.

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Pretending to be Wise

Followup toAgainst Maturity

"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral."
        — Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert John F. Kennedy, misquoter

A special case of adulthood-signaling worth singling out, is the display of neutrality or suspended judgment, in order to signal maturity, wisdom, impartiality, or just a superior vantage point.

An example would be the case discussed yesterday of my parents, who respond to theological questions like "Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?" with "Oh, when I was your age, I also used to ask that sort of question, but now I've grown out of it."

Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says:  "It doesn't matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it."  Of course it matters who started the fight.  The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, he should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch.  Let a parent try punching the principal, and we'll see how far "It doesn't matter who started it" gets in front of a judge.  But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it, it is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.

A similar dynamic, I believe, governs the occasions in international diplomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smaller groups to stop that fighting right now.  It doesn't matter to the Great Power who started it – who provoked, or who responded disproportionately to provocation – because the Great Power's ongoing inconvenience is only a function of the ongoing conflict.  Oh, can't Israel and Hamas just get along?

This I call "pretending to be Wise".  Of course there are many ways to try and signal wisdom.  But trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses – refusing to sum up evidence – refusing to pass judgment – refusing to take sides – staying above the fray and looking down with a lofty and condescending gaze – which is to say, signaling wisdom by saying and doing nothing – well, that I find particularly pretentious.

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Against Maturity

I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism.  It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer.  It was in Hebrew.  We were given a transliteration, but not a translation.  I asked what the prayer meant.  I was told that I didn't need to know – so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words.  (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)

Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was.  So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me.  They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."

They were right about that last part, anyway.

Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning.  They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid.  I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.

My father shot me down flat.  (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me.  This seems to have worked out just fine.  He did buy me books, though.)

But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older."  He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math.  He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was.  He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.

You see the pattern developing here.  "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification.  They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me.  And it gets worse…

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The Level Above Mine

Followup toThe Proper Use of Humility, Tsuyoku Naritai

(At this point, I fear that I must recurse into a subsequence; but if all goes as planned, it really will be short.)

I once lent Xiaoguang "Mike" Li my copy of "Probability Theory: The Logic of Science".  Mike Li read some of it, and then came back and said:

"Wow… it’s like Jaynes is a thousand-year-old vampire."

Then Mike said, "No, wait, let me explain that -" and I said, "No, I know exactly what you mean."  It’s a convention in fantasy literature that the older a vampire gets, the more powerful they become.

I’d enjoyed math proofs before I encountered Jaynes.  But E.T. Jaynes was the first time I picked up a sense of formidability from mathematical arguments.  Maybe because Jaynes was lining up "paradoxes" that had been used to object to Bayesianism, and then blasting them to pieces with overwhelming firepower – power being used to overcome others.  Or maybe the sense of formidability came from Jaynes not treating his math as a game of aesthetics; Jaynes cared about probability theory, it was bound up with other considerations that mattered, to him and to me too.

For whatever reason, the sense I get of Jaynes is one of terrifying swift perfection – something that would arrive at the correct answer by the shortest possible route, tearing all surrounding mistakes to shreds in the same motion.  Of course, when you write a book, you get a chance to show only your best side.  But still.

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A Prodigy of Refutation

Followup toMy Childhood Death Spiral, Raised in Technophilia

My Childhood Death Spiral described the core momentum carrying me into my mistake, an affective death spiral around something that Eliezer1996 called "intelligence".  I was also a technophile, pre-allergized against fearing the future.  And I’d read a lot of science fiction built around personhood ethics – in which fear of the Alien puts humanity-at-large in the position of the bad guys, mistreating aliens or sentient AIs because they "aren’t human".

That’s part of the ethos you acquire from science fiction – to define your in-group, your tribe, appropriately broadly.  Hence my email address,

So Eliezer1996 is out to build superintelligence, for the good of humanity and all sentient life.

At first, I think, the question of whether a superintelligence will/could be good/evil didn’t really occur to me as a separate topic of discussion.  Just the standard intuition of, "Surely no supermind would be stupid enough to turn the galaxy into paperclips; surely, being so intelligent, it will also know what’s right far better than a human being could."

Until I introduced myself and my quest to a transhumanist mailing list, and got back responses along the general lines of (from memory):

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Raised in Technophilia

Followup toMy Best and Worst Mistake

My father used to say that if the present system had been in place a hundred years ago, automobiles would have been outlawed to protect the saddle industry.

One of my major childhood influences was reading Jerry Pournelle’s A Step Farther Out, at the age of nine.  It was Pournelle’s reply to Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, who were saying, in the 1960s and 1970s, that the Earth was running out of resources and massive famines were only years away.  It was a reply to Jeremy Rifkin’s so-called fourth law of thermodynamics; it was a reply to all the people scared of nuclear power and trying to regulate it into oblivion.

I grew up in a world where the lines of demarcation between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys were pretty clear; not an apocalyptic final battle, but a battle that had to be fought over and over again, a battle where you could see the historical echoes going back to the Industrial Revolution, and where you could assemble the historical evidence about the actual outcomes.

On one side were the scientists and engineers who’d driven all the standard-of-living increases since the Dark Ages, whose work supported luxuries like democracy, an educated populace, a middle class, the outlawing of slavery.

On the other side, those who had once opposed smallpox vaccinations, anesthetics during childbirth, steam engines, and heliocentrism:  The theologians calling for a return to a perfect age that never existed, the elderly white male politicians set in their ways, the special interest groups who stood to lose, and the many to whom science was a closed book, fearing what they couldn’t understand.

And trying to play the middle, the pretenders to Deep Wisdom, uttering cached thoughts about how technology benefits humanity but only when it was properly regulated – claiming in defiance of brute historical fact that science of itself was neither good nor evil – setting up solemn-looking bureaucratic committees to make an ostentatious display of their caution – and waiting for their applause.  As if the truth were always a compromise.  And as if anyone could really see that far ahead.  Would humanity have done better if there’d been a sincere, concerned, public debate on the adoption of fire, and commitees set up to oversee its use?

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My Best and Worst Mistake

Followup toMy Childhood Death Spiral

Yesterday I covered the young Eliezer’s affective death spiral around something that he called "intelligence".  Eliezer1996, or even Eliezer1999 for that matter, would have refused to try and put a mathematical definition – consciously, deliberately refused.  Indeed, he would have been loath to put any definition on "intelligence" at all.

Why?  Because there’s a standard bait-and-switch problem in AI, wherein you define "intelligence" to mean something like "logical reasoning" or "the ability to withdraw conclusions when they are no longer appropriate", and then you build a cheap theorem-prover or an ad-hoc nonmonotonic reasoner, and then say, "Lo, I have implemented intelligence!"  People came up with poor definitions of intelligence – focusing on correlates rather than cores – and then they chased the surface definition they had written down, forgetting about, you know, actual intelligence.  It’s not like Eliezer1996 was out to build a career in Artificial Intelligence.  He just wanted a mind that would actually be able to build nanotechnology.  So he wasn’t tempted to redefine intelligence for the sake of puffing up a paper.

Looking back, it seems to me that quite a lot of my mistakes can be defined in terms of being pushed too far in the other direction by seeing someone else stupidity:  Having seen attempts to define "intelligence" abused so often, I refused to define it at all.  What if I said that intelligence was X, and it wasn’t really X?  I knew in an intuitive sense what I was looking for – something powerful enough to take stars apart for raw material – and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of being distracted from that by definitions.

Similarly, having seen so many AI projects brought down by physics envy – trying to stick with simple and elegant math, and being constrained to toy systems as a result – I generalized that any math simple enough to be formalized in a neat equation was probably not going to work for, you know, real intelligence.  "Except for Bayes’s Theorem," Eliezer2000 added; which, depending on your viewpoint, either mitigates the totality of his offense, or shows that he should have suspected the entire generalization instead of trying to add a single exception.

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