Category Archives: Future

Interlude with the Confessor (4/8)

(Part 4 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

The two of them were alone now, in the Conference Chair's Privilege, the huge private room of luxury more suited to a planet than to space.  The Privilege was tiled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with a most excellent holo of the space surrounding them: the distant stars, the system's sun, the fleeing nova ashes, and the glowing ember of the dwarf star that had siphoned off hydrogen from the main sun until its surface had briefly ignited in a nova flash.  It was like falling through the void.

Akon sat on the edge of the four-poster bed in the center of the room, resting his head in his hands.  Weariness dulled him at the moment when he most needed his wits; it was always like that in crisis, but this was unusually bad.  Under the circumstances, he didn't dare snort a hit of caffeine – it might reorder his priorities.  Humanity had yet to discover the drug that was pure energy, that would improve your thinking without the slightest touch on your emotions and values.

"I don't know what to think," Akon said.

The Ship's Confessor was standing stately nearby, in full robes and hood of silver.  From beneath the hood came the formal response:  "What seems to be confusing you, my friend?"

"Did we go wrong?" Akon said.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep the despair out of his voice.  "Did humanity go down the wrong path?"

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Value is Fragile

Followup toThe Fun Theory Sequence, Fake Fake Utility Functions, Joy in the Merely Good, The Hidden Complexity of WishesThe Gift We Give To Tomorrow, No Universally Compelling Arguments, Anthropomorphic Optimism, Magical Categories, …

If I had to pick a single statement that relies on more Overcoming Bias content I've written than any other, that statement would be:

Any Future not shaped by a goal system with detailed reliable inheritance from human morals and metamorals, will contain almost nothing of worth.

"Well," says the one, "maybe according to your provincial human values, you wouldn't like it.  But I can easily imagine a galactic civilization full of agents who are nothing like you, yet find great value and interest in their own goals.  And that's fine by me.  I'm not so bigoted as you are.  Let the Future go its own way, without trying to bind it forever to the laughably primitive prejudices of a pack of four-limbed Squishy Things -"

My friend, I have no problem with the thought of a galactic civilization vastly unlike our own… full of strange beings who look nothing like me even in their own imaginations… pursuing pleasures and experiences I can't begin to empathize with… trading in a marketplace of unimaginable goods… allying to pursue incomprehensible objectives… people whose life-stories I could never understand.

That's what the Future looks like if things go right.

If the chain of inheritance from human (meta)morals is broken, the Future does not look like this.  It does not end up magically, delightfully incomprehensible.

With very high probability, it ends up looking dull.  Pointless.  Something whose loss you wouldn't mourn.

Seeing this as obvious, is what requires that immense amount of background explanation.

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31 Laws of Fun

So this is Utopia, is it?  Well
I beg your pardon, I thought it was Hell.
        — Sir Max Beerholm, verse entitled
        In a Copy of More's (or Shaw's or Wells's or Plato's or Anybody's) Utopia

This is a shorter summary of the Fun Theory Sequence with all the background theory left out – just the compressed advice to the would-be author or futurist who wishes to imagine a world where people might actually want to live:

  1. Think of a typical day in the life of someone who's been adapting to Utopia for a while.  Don't anchor on the first moment of "hearing the good news".  Heaven's "You'll never have to work again, and the streets are paved with gold!" sounds like good news to a tired and poverty-stricken peasant, but two months later it might not be so much fun.  (Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun.)
  2. Beware of packing your Utopia with things you think people should do that aren't actually fun.  Again, consider Christian Heaven: singing hymns doesn't sound like loads of endless fun, but you're supposed to enjoy praying, so no one can point this out.  (Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun.)
  3. Making a video game easier doesn't always improve it.  The same holds true of a life.  Think in terms of clearing out low-quality drudgery to make way for high-quality challenge, rather than eliminating work.  (High Challenge.)
  4. Life should contain novelty – experiences you haven't encountered before, preferably teaching you something you didn't already know.  If there isn't a sufficient supply of novelty (relative to the speed at which you generalize), you'll get bored.  (Complex Novelty.)

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The Fun Theory Sequence

(A shorter gloss of Fun Theory is "31 Laws of Fun", which summarizes the advice of Fun Theory to would-be Eutopian authors and futurists.)

Fun Theory is the field of knowledge that deals in questions such as "How much fun is there in the universe?", "Will we ever run out of fun?", "Are we having fun yet?" and "Could we be having more fun?"

Fun Theory is serious business.  The prospect of endless boredom is routinely fielded by conservatives as a knockdown argument against research on lifespan extension, against cryonics, against all transhumanism, and occasionally against the entire Enlightenment ideal of a better future.

Many critics (including George Orwell) have commented on the inability of authors to imagine Utopias where anyone would actually want to live.  If no one can imagine a Future where anyone would want to live, that may drain off motivation to work on the project.  But there are some quite understandable biases that get in the way of such visualization.

Fun Theory is also the fully general reply to religious theodicy (attempts to justify why God permits evil).  Our present world has flaws even from the standpoint of such eudaimonic considerations as freedom, personal responsibility, and self-reliance.  Fun Theory tries to describe the dimensions along which a benevolently designed world can and should be optimized, and our present world is clearly not the result of such optimization – there is room for improvement.  Fun Theory also highlights the flaws of any particular religion's perfect afterlife – you wouldn't want to go to their Heaven.

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Higher Purpose

Previously in series: Interpersonal Entanglement
Followup toSomething to Protect, Superhero Bias

Long-time readers will recall that I've long been uncomfortable with the idea that you can adopt a Cause as a hedonic accessory:

"Unhappy people are told that they need a 'purpose in life', so they should pick out an altruistic cause that goes well with their personality, like picking out nice living-room drapes, and this will brighten up their days by adding some color, like nice living-room drapes."

But conversely it's also a fact that having a Purpose In Life consistently shows up as something that increases happiness, as measured by reported subjective well-being.

One presumes that this works equally well hedonically no matter how misguided that Purpose In Life may be – no matter if it is actually doing harm – no matter if the means are as cheap as prayer.  Presumably, all that matters for your happiness is that you believe in it.  So you had better not question overmuch whether you're really being effective; that would disturb the warm glow of satisfaction you paid for.

And here we verge on Zen, because you can't deliberately pursue "a purpose that takes you outside yourself", in order to take yourself outside yourself.  That's still all about you.

Which is the whole Western concept of "spirituality" that I despise:  You need a higher purpose so that you can be emotionally healthy.  The external world is just a stream of victims for you to rescue.

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Investing for the Long Slump

I have no crystal ball with which to predict the Future, a confession that comes as a surprise to some journalists who interview me.  Still less do I think I have the ability to out-predict markets.  On every occasion when I've considered betting against a prediction market – most recently, betting against Barack Obama as President – I've been glad that I didn't.  I admit that I was concerned in advance about the recent complexity crash, but then I've been concerned about it since 1994, which isn't very good market timing.

I say all this so that no one panics when I ask:

Suppose that the whole global economy goes the way of Japan (which, by the Nikkei 225, has now lost two decades).

Suppose the global economy is still in the Long Slump in 2039.

Most market participants seem to think this scenario is extremely implausible.  Is there a simple way to bet on it at a very low price?

If most traders act as if this scenario has a probability of 1%, is there a simple bet, executable using an ordinary brokerage account, that pays off 100 to 1?

Why do I ask?  Well… in general, it seems to me that other people are not pessimistic enough; they prefer not to stare overlong or overhard into the dark; and they attach too little probability to things operating in a mode outside their past experience.

But in this particular case, the question is motivated by my thinking, "Conditioning on the proposition that the Earth as we know it is still here in 2040, what might have happened during the preceding thirty years?"

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Failed Utopia #4-2

Followup toInterpersonal Entanglement

    Shock after shock after shock –
    First, the awakening adrenaline jolt, the thought that he was falling.  His body tried to sit up in automatic adjustment, and his hands hit the floor to steady himself.  It launched him into the air, and he fell back to the floor too slowly.
    Second shock.  His body had changed.  Fat had melted away in places, old scars had faded; the tip of his left ring finger, long ago lost to a knife accident, had now suddenly returned.
    And the third shock –
    "I had nothing to do with it!" she cried desperately, the woman huddled in on herself in one corner of the windowless stone cell.  Tears streaked her delicate face, fell like slow raindrops into the décolletage of her dress.  "Nothing!  Oh, you must believe me!"
    With perceptual instantaneity – the speed of surprise – his mind had already labeled her as the most beautiful woman he'd ever met, including his wife.

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Interpersonal Entanglement

Previously in seriesSympathetic Minds

Today I shall criticize yet another Utopia.  This Utopia isn't famous in the literature.  But it's considerably superior to many better-known Utopias – more fun than the Christian Heaven, or Greg Egan's upload societies, for example.  And so the main flaw is well worth pointing out.

This Utopia consists of a one-line remark on an IRC channel:

<reedspacer> living in your volcano lair with catgirls is probably a vast increase in standard of living for most of humanity

I've come to think of this as Reedspacer's Lower Bound.

Sure, it sounds silly.  But if your grand vision of the future isn't at least as much fun as a volcano lair with catpersons of the appropriate gender, you should just go with that instead.  This rules out a surprising number of proposals.

But today I am here to criticize Reedspacer's Lower Bound – the problem being the catgirls.

I've joked about the subject, now and then – "Donate now, and get a free catgirl or catboy after the Singularity!" – but I think it would actually be a terrible idea.  In fact, today's post could have been entitled "Why Fun Theorists Don't Believe In Catgirls."

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Sympathetic Minds

Previously in seriesIn Praise of Boredom
Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

"Mirror neurons" are neurons that are active both when performing an action and observing the same action – for example, a neuron that fires when you hold up a finger or see someone else holding up a finger.  Such neurons have been directly recorded in primates, and consistent neuroimaging evidence has been found for humans.

You may recall from my previous writing on "empathic inference" the idea that brains are so complex that the only way to simulate them is by forcing a similar brain to behave similarly.  A brain is so complex that if a human tried to understand brains the way that we understand e.g. gravity or a car – observing the whole, observing the parts, building up a theory from scratch – then we would be unable to invent good hypotheses in our mere mortal lifetimes.  The only possible way you can hit on an "Aha!" that describes a system as incredibly complex as an Other Mind, is if you happen to run across something amazingly similar to the Other Mind – namely your own brain – which you can actually force to behave similarly and use as a hypothesis, yielding predictions.

So that is what I would call "empathy".

And then "sympathy" is something else on top of this – to smile when you see someone else smile, to hurt when you see someone else hurt.  It goes beyond the realm of prediction into the realm of reinforcement.

And you ask, "Why would callous natural selection do anything that nice?"

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In Praise of Boredom

Previously in seriesSeduced by Imagination

If I were to make a short list of the most important human qualities –

– and yes, this is a fool's errand, because human nature is immensely complicated, and we don't even notice all the tiny tweaks that fine-tune our moral categories, and who knows how our attractors would change shape if we eliminated a single human emotion –

– but even so, if I had to point to just a few things and say, "If you lose just one of these things, you lose most of the expected value of the Future; but conversely if an alien species independently evolved just these few things, we might even want to be friends" –

– then the top three items on the list would be sympathy, boredom and consciousness.

Boredom is a subtle-splendored thing.  You wouldn't want to get bored with breathing, for example – even though it's the same motions over and over and over and over again for minutes and hours and years and decades.

Now I know some of you out there are thinking, "Actually, I'm quite bored with breathing and I wish I didn't have to," but then you wouldn't want to get bored with switching transistors.

According to the human value of boredom, some things are allowed to be highly repetitive without being boring – like obeying the same laws of physics every day.

Conversely, other repetitions are supposed to be boring, like playing the same level of Super Mario Brothers over and over and over again until the end of time.  And let us note that if the pixels in the game level have a slightly different color each time, that is not sufficient to prevent it from being "the same damn thing, over and over and over again".

Once you take a closer look, it turns out that boredom is quite interesting.

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