Scott Aaronson on order and chaos

Yup:

One of my first ideas was to write about the Second Law of Thermodynamics [in response to Edge.org’s Annual Question], and to muse about how one of humanity’s tragic flaws is to take for granted the gargantuan effort needed to create and maintain even little temporary pockets of order. Again and again, people imagine that, if their local pocket of order isn’t working how they want, then they should smash it to pieces, since while admittedly that might make things even worse, there’s also at least 50/50 odds that they’ll magically improve. In reasoning thus, people fail to appreciate just how exponentially more numerous are the paths downhill, into barbarism and chaos, than are the few paths further up. So thrashing about randomly, with no knowledge or understanding, is statistically certain to make things worse: on this point thermodynamics, common sense, and human history are all in total agreement. The implications of these musings for the present would be left as exercises for the reader.

Or, in cartoon form:

different

So apparently this is why we have positive psychology but not evidence-based psychological treatment

Here’s Marty Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association (APA):

APA presidents are supposed to have an initiative and… I thought mine could be “evidence-based treatment and prevention.” So I went to my friend, Steve Hyman, the director of [National Institute of Mental Health]. He was thrilled and told me he would chip in $40 million dollars if I could get APA working on evidence-based treatment.

So I told CAPP [which owns the APA] about my plan and about NIMH’s willingness. I felt the room get chillier and chillier. I rattled on. Finally, the chair of CAPP memorably said, “What if the evidence doesn’t come out in our favor?”

…I limped my way to [my friend’s] office for some fatherly advice.

“Marty,” he opined, “you are trying to be a transactional president. But you cannot out-transact these people…”

And so I proposed that Psychology turn its… attention away from pathology and victimology and more toward what makes life worth living: positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. I never looked back and this became my mission for the next fifteen years. The endeavor… caught on.

My post title is sort-of joking. Others have pushed on evidence-based psychology while Seligman focused on positive psychology, and Seligman certainly wouldn’t say that we “don’t have” evidence-based psychological treatment. But I do maintain that evidence-based psychology is not yet as well-developed as evidence-based medicine, even given EBM’s many problems.

Books, music, etc. from December 2016

Books

  • Goodale & Milner, Sight Unseen, 2e. Pretty thrilling if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter (as I was). Unfortunately, its presentation of the evidence is very one-sided.
  • Bloom, Against Empathy. Probably one of the best not-explicitly-EA books to give someone if you want to nudge them toward EA.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Mackenzie, Hell or High Water (2016)
  • Stanton & MacLane, Finding Dory (2016)
  • Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
  • Chazelle, La La Land (2016)

Media I’m looking forward to, January 2017 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

Favorite podcasts of 2016

(Unordered.)

* = added after original publication of this list

Top favorites

  • Vox’s The Weeds (policy analysis)
  • Crimetown (true crime)
  • Planet Money (economics)
  • Homecoming (drama)
  • StartUp Podcast (stories about startups)
  • In the Dark (true crime)
  • More Perfect (stories about the Supreme Court)
  • Radiolab (stories about science-ish stuff)
  • Casefile (true crime)
  • Reply All (stories about the internet)
  • Serial, Season 2 (story of Bowe Bergdahl)
  • This American Life (stories about all kinds of stuff)

[Read more…]

Karpathy on nukes

OpenAI deep learning researcher Andrej Karpathy on Rhodes’ Making of the Atomic Bomb:

Unfortunately, we live in a universe where the laws of physics feature a strong asymmetry in how difficult it is to create and to destroy. This observation is also not reserved to nuclear weapons – more generally, technology monotonically increases the possible destructive damage per person per dollar. This is my favorite resolution to the Fermi paradox.

As I am a scientist myself, I was particularly curious about the extent to which the nuclear scientists who conceived and designed the bomb influenced the ethical/political discussions. Unfortunately, it is clearly the case that the scientists were quickly marginalized and, in effect, told to shut up and just help build the bomb. From the very start, Roosevelt explicitly wanted policy considerations restricted to a small group that excluded any scientists. As some of the more prominent examples of scientists trying to influence policy, Bohr advocated for establishing an “Open World Consortium” and sharing information about the bomb with the Soviet Union, but this idea was promptly shut down by Churchill. In this case it’s not clear what effect it would have had and, in any case, the Soviets already knew a lot through espionage. Bohr also held the seemingly naive notion that scientists should continue publishing all nuclear research during the second world war as he felt that science should be completely open and rise above national disputes. Szilard strongly opposed this openness internationally, but advocated for more openness within the Manhattan project for sake of efficiency. This outraged Groves who was obsessed with secrecy. In fact, Szilard was almost arrested, suspected to be a spy, and placed under a comical surveillance that mostly uncovered his frequent visits to a chocolate store.

Books, music, etc. from November 2016

Books

  • Tye, Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Pretty good. I probably disagree with it in >100 places, but that’s to be expected for any book-length treatment on something as difficult to study as consciousness.
  • Haffner, Defying Hitler: Good. I wish it had been continued past 1933.
  • Pistorius, Ghost Boy: Scary but inspiring.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Tiernan & Vernon, Sausage Party (2016)
  • Various, Adventure Time, Season 7 (2015-2016)
  • Allen, Café Society (2016)
  • Various, Atlanta: Season 1 (2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (2016)
  • Gray, Straight Outta Compton (2015)
  • Various, You’re the Worst, Season 3 (2016)
  • Katis, Kilo Two Bravo (2014)
  • Coimbra, A Wolf at the Door (2013)

Media I’m looking forward to, December 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

15 classical music traditions, compared

Other Classical Musics argues that there are at least 15 musical traditions around the world worthy of the title “classical music”:

According to our rule-of-thumb, a classical music will have evolved… where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms… our definition does imply acceptance of a ‘classical/ folk-popular’ divide. That distinction is made on the assumption that these categories simply occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, because almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and periodically renews itself from them…

In one of the earliest known [Western] definitions, classique is translated as ‘classical, formall, orderlie, in due or fit ranke; also, approved, authenticall, chiefe, principall’. The implication there was: authority, formal discipline, models of excellence. A century later ‘classical’ came to stand also for a canon of works in performance. Yet almost every non-Western culture has its own concept of ‘classical’ and many employ criteria similar to the European ones, though usually with the additional function of symbolizing national culture…

By definition, the conditions required for the evolution of a classical music don’t exist in newly-formed societies: hence the absence of a representative tradition from South America.

I don’t understand the book’s criteria. E.g. jazz is included despite not having been created by “a quasi-priesthood of professionals” funded by “a wealthy class of connoisseurs,” and despite having been invented relatively recently, in the early 20th century.

[Read more…]

Henry Kissinger on smarter-than-human AI

Henry Kissinger, speaking with The Economist:

It is undoubtedly the case that modern technology poses challenges to world order and world order stability that are absolutely unprecedented. Climate change is one of them. I personally believe that artificial intelligence is a crucial one, lest we wind up… creating instruments in relation to which we are like the Incas to the Spanish, [such that] our own creations have a better capacity to calculate than we do. It’s a problem we need to understand on a global basis.

For reference, here is Wikipedia on the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire.

Henry Kissinger also addressed artificial intelligence in a recent interview with The Atlantic, though in this case he probably was not referring to smarter-than-human AI:

A military conflict between [China and the USA], given the technologies they possess, would be calamitous. Such a conflict would force the world to divide itself. And it would end in destruction, but not necessarily in victory, which would likely prove too difficult to define. Even if we could define victory, what in the wake of utter destruction could the victor demand of the loser? I am speaking of not merely the force of our weapons, but the unknowability of the consequences of some of them, such as cyberweapons. Traditional arms-control negotiations necessitated that each side tell the other what its capabilities were as a prelude to limiting those capacities. Yet with cyber, each country will be extremely reluctant to let others know its capabilities. Thus, there is no self-evident negotiated way to contain cyberwarfare. And artificial intelligence compounds this problem. Machines that can learn from their own experience and communicate with one another on their own raise both a practical and a moral imperative to find a way to keep mankind from destroying itself. The United States and China must strive to come to an understanding about the nature of their co-evolution.

Books, music, etc. from October 2016

Books

  • Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking [good]
  • Lieberman, Social [a mixed bag; insufficiently skeptical]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Hood, Eye in the Sky (2015)
  • Poekel, Christmas Again (2014)
  • Corbett, The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
  • Black, The Nice Guys (2016)
  • Various, Black Mirror: Season 3 (2016)

Media I’m looking forward to, November 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

Movies & TV

(only including movies and TV series or miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • Villeneuve, Arrival (Nov 2016)
  • BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (Nov 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Daldry & Caron, The Crown, S1 (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Villeneuve, Blade Runner sequel (Oct 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • Aronofsky, [Untitled] (Dec 2017)
  • Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

How German nuclear scientists reacted to the news of Hiroshima

As part of Operation Epsilon, captured German nuclear physicists were secretly recorded at Farm Hall, a house in England where they were interned. Here’s how the German scientists reacted to the news (on August 6th, 1945) that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, taken from the now-declassified transcripts (pp. 116-122 of this copy):

Otto Hahn (co-discoverer of nuclear fission): I don’t believe it… They are 50 years further advanced than we.

Werner Heisenberg (leading figure of the German atomic bomb effort): I don’t believe a word of the whole thing. They must have spent the whole of their £500,000,000 in separating isotopes: and then it is possible.

In a margin note, the editor points out: “Heisenberg’s figure of £500 million is accurate. At the then-official exchange rate it is equal to $2 billion. President Truman’s account of the expense, released on August 6, stated: ‘We spent $2,000,000,000 on the greatest scientific gamble in history — and won.’ …Isotope separation accounted for a large share but by no means the whole of that…”

Hahn: I didn’t think it would be possible for another 20 years.

Karl Wirtz (head of reactor construction at a German physics institute): I’m glad we didn’t have it.

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (theoretical physicist): I think it is dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.

Heisenberg: One can’t say that. One could equally well say “That’s the quickest way of ending the war.”

Hahn: That’s what consoles me.

Heisenberg: I don’t believe a word about the bomb but I may be wrong…

Hahn: Once I wanted to suggest that all uranium should be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I always thought that one could only make a bomb of such a size that a whole province would be blown up.

Weizsäcker: How many people were working on V1 and V2?

Kurt Diebner (physicist and organizer of the German Army’s fission project): Thousands worked on that.

Heisenberg: We wouldn’t have had the moral courage to recommend to the government in the spring of 1942 that they should employ 120,000 men just for building the thing up.

Weizsäcker: I believe the reason we didn’t do it was because all the physicists didn’t want to do it, on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded.

Hahn: I don’t believe that but I am thankful we didn’t succeed.

There is much more of interest in these transcripts. It is fascinating to eavesdrop on leading scientists’ unfiltered comments as they realize how badly their team was beaten to the finish line, and that the whole world has stepped from one era into another.

Books, music, etc. from September 2016

Books

  • Hanson, The Age of Em [dense; interesting; a worthy project even if very speculative]
  • Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided [fun]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior (2014)
  • Potrykus, Buzzard (2014)
  • Benson & Moorhead, Spring (2014)
  • Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
  • Koreeda, Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Media I’m looking forward to, October 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

Movies & TV

(only including movies and TV series or miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • Malick, Voyage of Time (Oct 2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (Nov 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Daldry & Caron, The Crown (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (TBD 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Villeneuve, Blade Runner sequel (Oct 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • *Aronofsky, [Untitled] (Dec 2017)
  • Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

Technology forecasts from The Year 2000

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson is pretty optimistic about our ability to forecast the long-term future:

Some say that there is little point in trying to foresee the non-immediate future. But in fact there have been many successful forecasts of this sort.

In the rest of this section, Hanson cites eight examples of forecasting success. Two of his examples of “success” are forecasts of technologies that haven’t arrived yet: atomically precise manufacturing and advanced starships. Another of his examples is The Year 2000:

A particularly accurate book in predicting the future was The Year 2000, a 1967 book by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener (Kahn and Wiener 1967). It accurately predicted population, was 80% correct for computer and communication technology, and 50% correct for other technology (Albright 2002).

As it happens, when I first read this paragraph I had already begun to evaluate the technology forecasts from The Year 2000 for the Open Philanthropy Project, relying on the same source Hanson did for determining which forecasts came true and which did not (Albright 2002).

However, my assessment of Kahn & Wiener’s forecasting performance is much less rosy than Hanson’s. For details, see here.

Hanson on intelligence explosion, from Age of Em

Economist Robin Hanson is among the most informed critics of the plausibility of what he calls a “local” intelligence explosion. He’s written on the topic many times before (most of it collected here), but here’s one more take from him on it, from Age of Em:

…some people foresee a rapid local “intelligence explosion” happening soon after a smart AI system can usefully modify its own mental architecture…

In a prototypical local explosion scenario, a single AI system with a supporting small team starts with resources that are tiny on a global scale. This team finds and then applies a big innovation in AI software architecture to its AI system, which allows this team plus AI combination to quickly find several related innovations. Together this innovation set allows this AI to quickly become more effective than the entire rest of the world put together at key tasks of theft or innovation.

That is, even though an entire world economy outside of this team, including other AIs, works to innovate, steal, and protect itself from theft, this one small AI team becomes vastly better at some combination of (1) stealing resources from others, and (2) innovating to make this AI “smarter,” in the sense of being better able to do a wide range of mental tasks given fixed resources. As a result of being better at these things, this AI quickly grows the resources that it controls and becomes more powerful than the entire rest of the world economy put together, and so it takes over the world. And all this happens within a space of days to months.

Advocates of this explosion scenario believe that there exists an as-yet-undiscovered but very powerful architectural innovation set for AI system design, a set that one team could find first and then keep secret from others for long enough. In support of this belief, advocates point out that humans (1) can do many mental tasks, (2) beat out other primates, (3) have a common IQ factor explaining correlated abilities across tasks, and (4) display many reasoning biases. Advocates also often assume that innovation is vastly underfunded today, that most economic progress comes from basic research progress produced by a few key geniuses, and that the modest wage gains that smarter people earn today vastly underestimate their productivity in key tasks of theft and AI innovation. In support, advocates often point to familiar myths of geniuses revolutionizing research areas and weapons.

Honestly, to me this local intelligence explosion scenario looks suspiciously like a super-villain comic book plot. A flash of insight by a lone genius lets him create a genius AI. Hidden in its super-villain research lab lair, this genius villain AI works out unprecedented revolutions in AI design, turns itself into a super-genius, which then invents super-weapons and takes over the world. Bwa-ha-ha.

Many arguments suggest that this scenario is unlikely (Hanson and Yudkowsky 2013). Specifically, (1) in 60 years of AI research high-level architecture has only mattered modestly for system performance, (2) new AI architecture proposals are increasingly rare, (3) algorithm progress seems driven by hardware progress (Grace 2013), (4) brains seem like ecosystems, bacteria, cities, and economies in being very complex systems where architecture matters less than a mass of capable detail, (5) human and primate brains seem to differ only modestly, (6) the human primate difference initially only allowed faster innovation, not better performance directly, (7) humans seem to have beat other primates mainly via culture sharing, which has a plausible threshold effect and so doesn’t need much brain difference, (8) humans are bad at most mental tasks irrelevant for our ancestors, (9) many human “biases” are useful adaptations to social complexity, (10) human brain structure and task performance suggest that many distinct modules contribute on each task, explaining a common IQ factor (Hampshire et al. 2012), (11) we expect very smart AI to still display many biases, (12) research today may be underfunded, but not vastly so (Alston et al. 2011; Ulku 2004), (13) most economic progress does not come from basic research, (14) most research progress does not come from a few geniuses, and (15) intelligence is not vastly more productive for research than for other tasks.

(And yes, the entire book is roughly this succinct and dense with ideas.)

Books, music, etc. from August 2016

Books

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Various, BoJack Horseman, Season 3 (2016)
  • Trey Parker, South Park, Season 19 (2015)
  • Steven Zaillian, The Night Of (2016)

Media I’m looking forward to, September 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round

Movies & Miniseries

(only including movies and miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • C.K. & Adlon, Better Things (Sep 2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (Sep 2016)
  • Dardenne brothers, The Unknown Girl (Oct 2016)
  • Malick, Voyage of Time (Oct 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (TBD 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

Rockefeller’s chief philanthropy advisor

Frederick T. Gates was the chief philanthropic advisor to oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, arguably the richest person in modern history and one of the era’s greatest philanthropists. Here’s a brief profile from Rockefeller biography Titan (h/t @danicgross):

Like Rockefeller himself, Gates yoked together two separate selves—one shrewd and worldly, the other noble and high-flown…

After graduating from the seminary in 1880, Gates was assigned his first pastorate in Minnesota. When his young bride, Lucia Fowler Perkins, dropped dead from a massive internal hemorrhage after sixteen months of marriage, the novice pastor not only suffered an erosion of faith but began to question the competence of American doctors — a skepticism that later had far-reaching ramifications for Rockefeller’s philanthropies…

Eventually Gates became Rockefeller’s philanthropic advisor, and:

What Gates gave to his boss was no less vital. Rockefeller desperately needed intelligent assistance in donating his money at a time when he could not draw on a profession of philanthropic experts. Painstakingly thorough, Gates combined moral passion with great intellect. He spent his evenings bent over tomes of medicine, economics, history, and sociology, trying to improve himself and find clues on how best to govern philanthropy. Skeptical by nature, Gates saw a world crawling with quacks and frauds, and he enjoyed grilling people with trenchant questions to test their sincerity. Outspoken, uncompromising, he never hesitated to speak his piece to Rockefeller and was a peerless troubleshooter.

For some details on Rockefeller’s philanthropic successes, see here.