Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Friday, October 31, 2008

Cultural clustering

Arnold Kling linked to an informative and entertaining lecture by Bill Bishop on political/cultural clustering in America. Bishop showed that neighborhoods are more polarized today than they were in the 1970s; there has been an increase in the percentage of neighborhoods where the difference in votes for the Republican or Democratic presidential candidate was greater than 20%. But of course people aren't checking the vote records of the neighborhoods before they move in. People are instead attracted to a similar culture. Surveys on questions such as the morality of physically disciplining children and on non-married cohabitation rates are great predictors of voting.

I was in San Francisco recently and the political polarization was obvious. There were Obama volunteers everywhere, selling T-shirts and badges and exhorting people to vote. I saw them every day and I never saw any pro-McCain advocacy at all (though I did spot a few old Ron Paul stickers).

He concluded that this is bad for national unity. Come to think of it, I had a very interesting conversation with a guy writing a book advocating the secession of California, so yeah, it's bad for national unity. But national unity is overrated. I prefer national discord.

On the plus side, cultural diversity is a good thing, right? People are always complaining about the homogenization of the world into an empty monoculture by America's cultural imperialism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Marriage is a small non-profit business

An article by Lori Gottlieb got a lot of attention earlier this year when she boldly made the case for accepting a less-than-ideal spouse. I don't have a strong opinion on that, but I did like this:
"Once you’re married, it’s not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it’s about whom you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business. And I mean this in a good way."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bribing good people

Most people think they're good people. Michael Moore and Naomi Klein lie and distort routinely, but think this is justified because they're right about the fundamentals ("fake but accurate"). Richard Dawkins also lied, probably for similar reasons.

Hitler probably thought he was a good person. (Or was he a sociopath? Presumably sociopaths don't think they're good in a moral sense because they don't care, though they have pride in their abilities. So Hitler might have thought he was the Neitzschean "great man", for what that's worth.)

One of my favorite posts of Eliezer Yudkowsky's is his reminder that our enemies are not evil mutants:
Realistically, most people don't construct their life stories with themselves as the villains. Everyone is the hero of their own story. The Enemy's story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad. If you try to construe motivations that would make the Enemy look bad, you'll end up flat wrong about what actually goes on in the Enemy's mind.

I can't reconcile the idea that most people don't think of themselves as evil with my understanding that some kinds of banal evil are so widespread. For example, I think politicians often act according to very self-interested incentives, rather than for the good of their electorates. Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens was recently convicted for accepting bribes. And it's not very surprising. From the population of a few hundred senators and congressmen, politicians are convicted of bribery every year (I think). Presumably they all think they're good people. How does that even work? These guys aren't poorly paid; they can hardly have stood to benefit significantly from increased wealth. Surely the cognitive dissonance from thinking you're good and accepting a bribe would not outweigh the benefit from the money?

I just don't get it. There is something wrong with my understanding of humanity.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

To overcome instinct is human

It is said that one should do the things that scare you in order to make you a better person. Implicit, of course, is that these character-building things should be scary but not actually harmful. Russian roulette is scary and harmful, whereas skydiving and talking to the pretty girl in the bar are potentially scary but not harmful. We should be more adventurous, but not harm ourselves, is the advice.

It seems to me that one good thing about overcoming fear is that it is exercising the uniquely human ability to consciously override what our subconscious instincts are telling us. Our ancient reptilian brain has various ill-thought-out ideas that are no longer useful. Among them: jumping from great heights is always a bad idea; and if you hit on the girl she might get her caveman friends to kick you out of the tribe. We should replace the unconscious judgement of harm - which is fear - with our conscious judgement that there is negligible harm.

It's not just fear. Our million-year-old programming would lead us to maximize our caloric input and minimize the brussels sprouts, so it requires conscious thought to have a good diet. Clearly, our conscious minds have a lot of work to do to override the bad ideas we're born with.

Another old emotion is disgust. A New York Times article, about the research of sociologist Jonathan Haidt, says:
'The emotion of disgust probably evolved when people became meat eaters and had to learn which foods might be contaminated with bacteria, a problem not presented by plant foods. Disgust was then extended to many other categories, he argues, to people who were unclean, to unacceptable sexual practices and to a wide class of bodily functions and behaviors that were seen as separating humans from animals.'

Haidt found seven categories of disgust: food, animals, body products, sex, body envelope violations, death, and hygiene. He also noted a "domain of magical thinking" that cut across all seven categories - this is, for example, where we wouldn't want food that has been stirred by a very thoroughly cleaned fly swat.

Haidt found that all human societies share five domains of morality with different weightings and details. The five pillars are harm, fairness, respect for authority/hierarchy, in-group loyalty, and purity. The last, purity, is one motivated by disgust, and it leads to things like homosexuality and incest being considered immoral.

Again from NYT:
"Imagine visiting a town," Dr. Haidt writes, "where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex 'doggie style' in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass."

He sees the disgust evoked by such a scene as allied to notions of physical and religious purity. Purity is, in his view, a moral system that promotes the goals of controlling selfish desires and acting in a religiously approved way.

Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. "Educated liberals are the only group to say, 'I find that disgusting but that doesn't make it wrong,' " Dr. Haidt said.'

Since repugnance is an evolutionary adaption designed by random chance mutations to prevent food poisoning, to apply it to morality seems ill-considered. Surely the political liberals are correct to ignore disgust as moral guidance.

Furthermore, it is downright indecent (yes, ironic) to let this stupid instinct of disgust override our conscious minds, not just for our morality, but for our actions. It is beneath us. Magical thinking is a poor substitute for real thinking.

To take a trivial example, consider mushrooms. I've long disliked mushrooms, not because of the taste, but because fungi are weird and unfamiliar. How dumb is that? It was disgust motivated by culinary xenophobia. But one day I looked up mushrooms on, and found that they're a very, very healthy food. I was hurting myself by not eating them. I decided that this is unbecoming of a rational, intelligent being. That was a while ago, and now I eat mushrooms regularly, and they taste fine. Desensitization to disgust, like fear, happens pretty quickly.

Obviously, some things are disgusting *and harmful*, such as rotten meat. Don't eat rotten meat. We should replace our unthinking feeling of disgust with our conscious judgement of harm.

So, what I'm concluding from all this is: we should reject repugnance and purity, not just as guides to morality, but as guides to our own behavior when it runs counter to our interests. To let pointless, misguided instinct control our lives is beneath us.

This has policy implications for things such as gay marriage and polygamy and organ trading, and also has implications regarding social acceptance of polyamory and promiscuity.

If you're interested in Haidt's ideas, you might like his talk at TED about the personality differences between liberals and conservatives.

Blog Mission Statement

This blog is for random thoughts, interesting links, and all kinds of ideas, including really bad and controversial ideas that I don't support but are interesting to consider.

Also: the posts prior to 2008 should not be considered to reflect my current thinking. And nor should any current posts. It says at the top: don't take this blog too seriously.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What should I do with this blog?

Live-blogging the Singularity Summit was fun. I'd like to keep blogging.

I've long wondered exactly how to set up my online identity/ies. Should I write a programming blog? A political blog? A personal blog? Or some combination? A programming blog would be great for potential employers to see. A personal/political blog would be great for potential friends to see, but might be bad (or good) for employers to see. Combining it all would be most convenient for me.

No decision has meant almost no online presence at all (outside the usual Facebook, etc.), which is probably worse than any mistake I could make mixing up the details of my personal and professional life. So for the time being, I'll just use this blog for the kind of thoughts I might otherwise email to people.

Any suggestions or stories of educational mistakes are welcome.

Singularity Summit - wearable computer

During a break, I met this guy:

He has a wearable computer. In front of one of his eyes is a little computer monitor. He's been wearing one for fifteen years, he says. I had a very brief look at it and it looks great - it was some windowed environment, I guess some kind of Linux. He has a little device to control it.

Singularity - the rest

A few things I remember from the rest of the conference:

Pete Estep began his talk by replying to a quote by a Singularity skeptic:
"There's too much fixation on death avoidance. That's a shame, because in the future, as computers become stupendously powerful and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting."

He wondered why someone would not be excited about avoiding death, and surmised that evolution has had to deal with hominids being aware of death for millions of years and thus we come up with "baseless fantasies" and rationalizations for it.

Pete Diamandis spoke about his work as the founder and chairman of the X-Prize Foundation. They've set up numerous prizes in the areas of space flight, education/global development, fuel economy, and other areas.

He notes that prizes are very efficient. The X-Prize for private space travel was $10 million, but much more than that was spent by the teams that competed for the prize. He says that about 10% of charity should be prizes. I think he said that that would amount to $30 billion annually

He wants to do a prize for a manned mission to Mars. It would have to be one way only - that's the only way it makes sense, he boldly stated.

Ray Kurzweil replied to some of the other speakers. One interesting thing was a reply to Marshall Brain about the potential unemployment of robots replacing some jobs. He says that if in 1900 he'd told America (paraphrased): "30% of you work in factories and 30% of you work in agriculture, that's going to be 3%/3% in a hundred'd have been alarmed about your jobs. But it turns out that you become web designers and social networking entrepreneurs and all kinds of other new jobs that didn't exist."

Out of power

I'm out of laptop power. That's all for now.

Singularity Summit - John Horgan and Ray Kurzweil

John Horgan and Ray Kurzweil are debating. Horgan thinks the Singularity will not happen. He's saying people have long been too optimistic about technological progress - Artificial Intelligence, fusion, infectious disease, cancer, gene therapy, neuroscience. There have been very optimistic progress on these and very little real progress or results. Specifically on neuroscience, sure we have a lot more data, but we have no new treatments for mental illness.

Ray Kurzweil is replying. He's saying that sure there's no shortage of bad predictions. And he adds that the exponential growth curves that he likes to talk about (see his books or website) do not apply to everything, but are proceeding as expected in the fields they're supposed to. He accuses Horgan of oversimplifying. He's giving examples of technological progress - heart disease is way down; Google made an Arabic-English translator that compared favorably with human translators, which was especially impressive because the Google team didn't speak Arabic themselves; Kurzweil predicted the importance of the internet in the 80s based on the observed exponential growth. And he says don't be so impatient; human genome data is less than a decade old.

Singularity Summit - Cynthia Brazeal

Cynthia Brazeal is talking about robots, particularly companion robot in the home for social purposes (like pets). She works on Kismet at MIT, a robot that emulates human emotions and can interact with humans on an emotional level in a somewhat realistic way.

She's showing a video of a virtual robot watching a human. The human moves his face and the robot imitates the face shape (specifically, the shape of the mouth). In this way, a robot can learn to display emotions in a human way without being programmed for specific actions.

Now she's showing a Leo (a robot in the real world - not a virtual robot) that forms beliefs about the beliefs of others. They set up a situation where the robot watches two humans see a snack put into one of two boxes. One human leaves and the snack is moved to the other box. The other human returns and tries to open the box that he believes has the snack. Leo infers that the human's purpose is to get the snack, and he helps the human get the snack from the correct box.

Low laptop battery

My laptop battery is running low and there's no place to recharge here.

Singularity Summit - Marshall Brain

Marshall Brain is talking about the effect of widespread AI and robotics, even if the AI is not strong AI but merely has decent vision and natural language understanding (which we are very close to or have already achieved depending on your standard). The fields of transportation (robot cars and robot FedEx delivery guys), education (robot teachers - particularly at lower levels like kindergarden), construction (a robot with decent vision can lay bricks and use a nailgun), and retail (e.g. McDonalds) will be transformed.

This will be disruptive as robots take over a lot of jobs. He confidently predicts that tens of millions of people will lose their jobs and predicts this being an enormous problem. (He didn't address it, but presumably he doesn't expect people to able to retrain for other jobs, at least not in a reasonable timeframe. This seems plausible; not everyone is smart enough to do the smart jobs.)

Will we send 50 million people on perpetual vacation?

Singularity Summit - Ben Goertzel

Ben Goertzel is speaking about OpenCog, an open source effort to create Artificial General Intelligence.

He showed a video of an AI dog in a virtual world being taught to behave in certain ways by watching two human-controlled characters interact. Also they're working on natural language processing. They gave OpenCog some Wikipedia articles and he's showing how its reasoning module has created new knowledge by analyzing the connections between the concepts it learned from Wikipedia (if that sounds vague, it was; I'd like to see the specifics of this).

He's looking forward to AI scientists who can read hundreds of thousands of research papers, overcoming the time and memory limits of human scientists.

Unreliable internet connection

I lost my internet connection for a while. That might happen again.

During the break I met yet another YCombinator entrepreneur. Man I love the SF Bay Area.

Singularity Summit - James Miller

James Miller is giving a talk on the implications of the upcoming Singularity, including immortality in utopia. He opened by saying that we attendees of the conference have risked death in a car accident to be here. If we believe that if we survive for another fifty years then we'll live forever in utopia, then this wasn't a rational decision. Assume the Singularity will happen in our lifetimes, and assume people will begin to see it coming:

People won't want to die. Construction workers get paid more because it's a dangerous job; expect their wages to increase much more. Expect increased spending on national defence. Expect cryonics to become much more popular.

He asked the audience how many of them were signed up for cryonics. I think about a dozen raised their hands. That is a huge number, he said. Only about 1300 in the world are signed up for cryonics.

Some kinds of education are not such great investments. Why learn a language if you expect universal translators in ten years?

Suppose you knew that one of these three things would happen:
-Everyone in the world would die.
-Everyone in the world would win more than $1 billion (not in an inflation way; assume equivalent value would be created).
-Civilization changes so much that money has no value.

(These are the likely outcomes of the Singularity.)

If everyone knew that one of those three things would happen, no-one rational would save for their retirement. So savings would fall, and interest rates would rise.

He suggests we all attempt to profit from these predictions.

In response to a question, he said that it made sense for him to risk death to come to the conference because speaking at the conference raised his social status, which correlates with life expectancy, which was greeted with laughter and applause.

Singularity Summit - Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson is giving a talk. She's training to be an astronaut!

The Personal Genome Project sequenced her genome. It's online as an experiment to see what happens when you put your genome online. She's a director at 23andMe, a genome sequencing company. She's talking about the future of genetic testing. We'll have personalized drugs appropriate to your genome.

Should we have personalized laws? Maybe we will find a gene showing propensity to alcohol (presumably she means addiction or violence). Should regulations be heavier on people with this gene? (Or, I would add, maybe regulations should be lighter on the rest of us.)

Singularity Summit - Nova Spivack

Nova Spivack, CEO of Twine, is giving a talk on how to build a super-intelligence through collective intelligence (I think?). That is, just as a super-organism is made up of many organisms (consider bees, ants, etc.), so might a super-intelligence be made of many intelligences. Consider humanity as a super organism/intelligence.

Nova is a cool name.

Singularity Summit - Vernor Vinge

I arrived right on time. Vernor Vinge is being interviewed by Bob Pisani. He says that, unlike some other ambitious projects humanity might attempt (e.g. the space program), there are hundreds of thousands of people already working on the Singularity whether they know it or not. I guess he means people who are working on any kind of computer intelligence or biomedical enhancement.

He's talking about the billion-year trend to co-operation and positive sum games. Would a super-intelligence destroy us? Maybe it wouldn't want to for the specific reason that humanity is a great fallback system for it. If it dies but humanity survives, its kind will be recreated by us. (Of course, this makes some serious assumptions about the goals of the super-intelligence.)

Blogging the Singularity Summit tomorrow

I intend to live-blog the Singularity Summit tomorrow.

(But that is not a promise. I might be too busy listening to the presentations and talking to people. I'm very poor at multi-tasking.)