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Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Singularity Swindle

First, men wanted to find the Garden of Eden, where milk, honey, spice and everything nice was to be found. It didn’t happen.

Then men wanted to reach the Kingdom of God, where sins would be forgotten and peace and love reigned forever. Didn’t happen.

Lately men want to achieve the Singularity, where Skynet does all the work and allow us to be free and idle to engage in polyamorous poetry readings with fat transexuals and a token negro here and there. This may or may not involve having our bodies hooked to the Matrix.

Probably not going to happen.

Don’t take my word about it though. Edge Magazine, which is about one of the best places out there for Academics to actually debate each other and reach the public, asked this year in their annual question about intelligent machines. Which is just code for the AI singularity.

Understandably, 80% of the articles contributed were total fluff, as most people don’t know crap about stuff besides their own discipline, and few of the people invited actually has any expertise on how the human brain works or if computers can ever do the same things.

A few academics though do know something about the human brain, and they had this to say:

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The Singularity—the fateful moment when AI surpasses its creators in intelligence and takes over the world—is a meme worth pondering. It has the earmarks of an urban legend: a certain scientific plausibility (“Well, in principle I guess it’s possible!”) coupled with a deliciously shudder-inducing punch line (“We’d be ruled by robots!”). Did you know that if you sneeze, belch, and fart all at the same time, you die? Wow. Following in the wake of decades of AI hype, you might think the Singularity would be regarded as a parody, a joke, but it has proven to be a remarkably persuasive escalation.

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What I think about machines thinking is that it won’t happen anytime soon. I don’t imagine that there is any in-principle limitation; carbon isn’t magical, and I suspect silicon will do just fine. But lately the hype has gotten way ahead of reality. Learning to detect a cat in full frontal position after 10 million frames drawn from Internet videos is a long way from understanding what a cat is, and anybody who thinks that we have “solved” AI doesn’t realize the limitations of the current technology.

To be sure, there have been exponential advances in narrow-engineering applications of artificial intelligence, such as playing chess, calculating travel routes, or translating texts in rough fashion, but there has been scarcely more than linear progress in five decade of working towards strong AI. For example, the different flavors ofintelligent personal assistants” available on your smart phone are only modestly better than ELIZA, an early example of primitive natural language processing from the mid-60s.

We still have no machine that can, say, read all that the Web has to say about war and plot a decent campaign, nor do we even have an open-ended AI system that can figure out how to write an essay to pass a freshman composition class, or an eighth-grade science exam.

Why so little progress, despite the spectacular increases in memory and CPU power? When Marvin Minksy and Gerald Sussman attempted the construction a visual system in 1966, did they envision super-clusters or gigabytes that would sit in your pocket? Why haven’t advances of this nature led us straight to machines with the flexibility of human minds?

Consider three possibilities:

(a) We will solve AI (and this will finally produce machines that can think) as soon as our machines get bigger and faster.
(b) We will solve AI when our learning algorithms get better. Or when we have even Bigger Data.
(c) We will solve AI when we finally understand what it is that evolution did in the construction of the human brain.

Ray Kurzweil and many others seem to put their weight on option (a), sufficient CPU power. But how many doublings in CPU power would be enough? Have all the doublings so far gotten us closer to true intelligence? Or just to narrow agents that can give us movie times?

In option (b), big data and better learning algorithms, have so far gotten us only to innovations such as machine translations, which provide fast but mediocre translations piggybacking onto the prior work of human translators, without any semblance of thinking. The machine translation engines available today cannot, for example, answer basic queries about what they just translated. Think of them more as idiot savants than fluent thinkers.

My bet is on option (c). Evolution seems to have endowed us with a very powerful set of priors (or what Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker might call innate constraints) that allow us to make sense of the world based on very limited data. Big Efforts with Big Data aren’t really getting us closer to understanding those priors, so while we are getting better and better at the sort of problem that can be narrowly engineered (like driving on extremely well-mapped roads), we are not getting appreciably closer to machines with commonsense understanding, or the ability to process natural language. Or, more to the point of this year’s Edge Question, to machines that actually think.

All the while Yudkowsky, who has made a good living out of claiming that we need to give him money RIGHT NOW or Skynet is gonna be sexist and discriminate against your favorite porn genders, goes off on a tangent and doesn’t talk about whether AI is actually feasible or not.

Speaking of which, I wanna give bonus points to this guy who doesn’t have any credentials, but I like how he thinks.

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Smart people often manage to avoid the cognitive errors that bedevil less well-endowed minds. But there are some kinds of foolishness that seem only to afflict the very intelligent. Worrying about the dangers of unfriendly AI is a prime example. A preoccupation with the risks of superintelligent machines is the smart person’s Kool Aid.

This is not to say that superintelligent machines pose no danger to humanity. It is simply that there are many other more pressing and more probable risks facing us this century. People who worry about unfriendly AI tend to argue that the other risks are already the subject of much discussion, and that even if the probability of being wiped out by superintelligent machines is very low, it is surely wise to allocate some brainpower to preventing such an event, given the existential nature of the threat.

Not coincidentally, the problem with this argument was first identified by some of its most vocal proponents. It involves a fallacy that has been termed “Pascal’s mugging,” by analogy with Pascal’s famous wager. A mugger approaches Pascal and proposes a deal: in exchange for the philosopher’s wallet, the mugger will give him back double the amount of money the following day. Pascal demurs. The mugger then offers progressively greater rewards, pointing out that for any low probability of being able to pay back a large amount of money (or pure utility) there exists a finite amount that makes it rational to take the bet—and a rational person must surely admit there is at least some small chance that such a deal is possible. Finally convinced, Pascal gives the mugger his wallet.

This thought experiment exposes a weakness in classical decision theory. If we simply calculate utilities in the classical manner, it seems there is no way round the problem; a rational Pascal must hand over his wallet. By analogy, even if there is there is only a small chance of unfriendly AI, or a small chance of preventing it, it can be rational to invest at least some resources in tackling this threat.

It is easy to make the sums come out right, especially if you invent billions of imaginary future people (perhaps existing only in software—a minor detail) who live for billions of years, and are capable of far greater levels of happiness than the pathetic flesh and blood humans alive today. When such vast amounts of utility are at stake, who could begrudge spending a few million dollars to safeguard it, even when the chances of success are tiny?

Why do some otherwise very smart people fall for this sleight of hand? I think it is because it panders to their narcissism. To regard oneself as one of a select few far-sighted thinkers who might turn out to be the saviors of mankind must be very rewarding. But the argument also has a very material benefit: it provides some of those who advance it with a lucrative income stream. For in the past few years they have managed to convince some very wealthy benefactors not only that the risk of unfriendly AI is real, but also that they are the people best placed to mitigate it. The result is a clutch of new organizations that divert philanthropy away from more deserving causes. It is worth noting, for example, that Give Well—a non-profit that evaluates the cost-effectiveness of organizations that rely on donations—refuses to endorse any of these self-proclaimed guardians of the galaxy.

But whenever an argument becomes fashionable, it is always worth asking the vital question—Cui bono? Who benefits, materially speaking, from the growing credence in this line of thinking? One need not be particularly skeptical to discern the economic interests at stake. In other words, beware not so much of machines that think, but of their self-appointed masters.

Nerds and women

The past year and most likely the next fews have been full of news stories on how the IT industry has declared a War on Women or something. And while the nerds in the IT industry actually have a lot of reasons to declare a war on women, the fact is they haven’t. What they do is get together in reddit or other places on the internet to loudly proclaim how Feminist they are and how true these news stories are. We need more women!

I guess it’s their math skills which are telling them that bringing more women in their companies will shift the gender ratio and make it more likely to get a girlfriend. Hey, women say they want to work in tech! That’s good, right??

No, kids. It doesn’t work like that. The Women in Tech propaganda campaign has only got stared because women hate nerds. With a passion. It’s one of the few things where most women can agree on. And why do women hate hate hate nerds? “Why, oh why do they hate us?” some might be thinking. It’s not that hard really. See this:

To put it mildly, nerds are generally not the smoothest men around. To put it less mildly, nerds are generally very much disgusting. They are all that women find unattractive. Many a nerd has a story about coming up with the courage to ask a pretty girl out only to have her puke or laugh or run away. Well I’m sorry but nerds are (on average, of course) icky. Which is why women like to blame everything on nerds. Nerds are icky so no women will be caught dead defending them. So any attack on nerds triggers a signalling spiral in where all girls end up competing to see who hates nerds more, because no women wants to be thought as being nice to nerds. Cree-pyyyy. Remember that much of women’s mechanism of attraction depends on pre-selection. A man walking in with a hot girl to his side automatically becomes more attractive to women. By extension, a women who is nice to a nerd automatically becomes lower-status in the eyes of other women.

And that’s all there is to it. It’s not hard. But notwithstanding that nerds tend to be smarter than average, their high-ish g doesn’t compensate their tendency to take everything at face value. Feminism today teaches boys at school that women are holy so they must not be displeased. Mere attention by a nerd makes a women seriously displeased. But nerds are animals too and want to mate. So you have one ancient instinct telling you to do whatever it takes to put your dick inside a woman. But there’s another part of  your brain telling you that you must obey the state religion.

This was a conundrum that Scott Aaronson, the guy from the video above, took very seriously. And the conclusion he reached was if anything completely logical. I want to have sex. But my mere expression of that biological drive makes me go against the state religion. What to do? Go to a psychiatrist and ask to be castrated. Kill the instinct, so that I can respect the state religion, i.e. Feminism. Fortunately for him castrating unattractive men is not yet public policy of USG, so he could keep his testicles. Eventually he achieved professional status, making him just attractive enough to get a wife and beget children. Yet this still didn’t make him doubt the state religion. Well to some extent it did, and he tried to be a smartass and make a public announcement about how much he keeps the faith in the state religion in spite of almost sacrificing his genetic fitness for it. He thought he’d be praised for his faith; but women aren’t stupid. No, it wasn’t hard to notice the not-so-subtle displays of doubt against Feminism, and if anything he was publicly shamed for not going through and actually castrating himself. This guy actually had the nerve to marry and have sex with a woman? Eww, cree-pyyyy.

Nobody came to his rescue, because women just won’t defend unattractive men, and non-nerds were naturally found his displays of feminist-faith-despite-all-odds to be revolting. He Aaronson did find one defender, namely Scott Alexander, the patron saint of feminist nerds.

Now Alexander may dispute this epithet as he has been very vocal about his opposition to feminists. But of course he doesn’t have a clue: see how his article was an almost comical example of Godwins law: feminists are bad to Jews! They’re like Hitler!

Leaving that sad attempt at out-victimizing women, the interesting part (the only interesting part) is how SA defined himself:

I’m an asexual heteroromantic guy

Aaronson must have thought: “damn, why didn’t I think of that one!”. Scott Aaronson actually went to a psychiatrist to attempt to physically alter his body to castrate him so he wouldn’t approach women. Scott Alexander though has achieved it all by himself by sheer autosuggestion. He got his brain to stop seeking sex with women, so he wouldn’t be at fault with the state religion. After all women aren’t against nerds per se; they are against being objects of nerds sexual desire, which affects their sexual market value. If all nerds were asexual, women would be most willing to be friends with them and let them carry their shopping bags. Which is why he makes it a public statement: oh please holy women, let me talk. I do not want to have sex with you. Talking with me will not affect your SMV. I am not cree-pyyyy. Please let me talk.


Exceptional Immigrants and Paul Graham

Apparently this blog still has an audience for short posts, so I’ll put my two cents on a recent controversy which has been lacking common sense.

A lot of ink has been spilled about Paul Graham’s essay where he begs for increased immigration into the US. His argument is that Silicon Valley need more geniuses, so please give us 1 million more Indians a year. Or something.

Now Graham is a good writer, and tends to make sense, but he doesn’t make any here. You can read Sonic Harm’s slightly incoherent rant to get a measure of how pissed people are.

The thing is, there is no need to refute Graham’s argument. Graham’s knows he’s made an unfalsifiable point, so there’s no point asking for data to rebuke his point. Graham says that Silicon Valley runs on geniuses, and these are evenly distributed around the earth. You disagree? Racist! You don’t think Silicon Valley runs on geniuses? Ignorant! You disagree with both? Ignorant Racist. QED.

There’s a much better way to answer his point. Doesn’t he represent the engineers? The get-things-done crowd? The people who actually make things unlike the evil politicians? Well, why don’t you make an actual proposal for a new immigration policy?

It isn’t that hard. We had a discussion among the Elders and it came up pretty quick: make a new immigrant visa for genius programmers, only available for people who are to be paid 200k+ per year. I say ramp it up; if these guys are so good, make it 500k+. Graham and his guys will make sure that only the real geniuses get through the interviews, and if they’re that good, surely 500k isn’t too much. The future of the nation depends on them, right? Then pay.

Why didn’t Graham propose this? Because he’s full of shit, obviously. All he wants is code fodder for his Incubator. And if he doesn’t, all he needs to do is make a concrete proposal on how to get quality, and not quantity.