AI, Futurology, Minds, Politics

A new meaning to the words “Thought crime”: a crime for which the only evidence is a scan of your brain.


Thought crime in 2084

Minds, Philosophy, Psychology

One person’s nit is another’s central pillar

If one person believes something is absolutely incontrovertibly true, then my first (and demonstrably unhelpful) reaction is that even the slightest demonstration of error should demolish the argument.

I know this doesn’t work.

People don’t make Boolean-logical arguments, they go with gut feelings that act much like Bayesian-logical inferences. If someone says something is incontrovertible, the incontrovertibility isn’t their central pillar — when I treated it as one, I totally failed to change their minds.

Steel man your arguments. Go for your opponent’s strongest point, but make sure it’s what your opponent is treating as their strongest point, for if you make the mistake I have made, you will fail.

If your Bayesian prior is 99.9%, you might reasonably (in common use of the words) say the evidence is incontrovertible; someone who hears “incontrovertible” and points out a minor edge case isn’t going to shift your posterior odds by much, are they?

They do? Are we thinking of the same things here? I don’t mean things where absolute truth is possible (i.e. maths, although I’ve had someone argue with me about that in a remarkably foolish way too), I mean about observations about reality which are necessarily flawed. Flawed, and sometimes circular.

Concrete example, although I apologise to any religious people in advance if I accidentally nut-pick. Imagine a Bible-literalist Christian called Chris (who thinks only 144,000 will survive the apocalypse, and no I’m not saying Chris is a Jehovah’s Witness, they’re just an example of 144k beliefs) arguing with Atheist Ann, specifically about “can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot move it?”:

P(A) = 0.999 (Bayesian prior: how certain Chris’s belief in God is)
P(B) = 1.0 (Observation: the argument has been made and Ann has not been struck down)
P(B|A) = 0.99979 (Probability that God has not struck down Ann for blasphemy, given that God exists — In the Bible, God has sometimes struck down non-believers, so let’s say about 21 million deaths of the 100 billion humans that have ever lived to cover the flood, noting that most were not in the 144k)

P(A|B) = P(B|A)P(A)/P(B) = 0.99979×0.999/1.0 = 0.99879021

Almost unchanged.

It gets worse; the phrase “I can’t believe what I’m hearing!” means P(B) is less than 1.0. If P(B) is less than 1.0 but all the rest is the same:

P(B) = 0.9 → P(A|B) = P(B|A)P(A)/P(B) = 0.99979×0.999/0.9 = 1.1097669

Oh no, it went up! Also, probability error, probability can never exceed 1.0! P>1.0 would be a problem if I was discussing real probabilities — if this was a maths test, this would fail (P(B|A) should be reduced correspondingly) — but people demonstrably don’t always update all their internal model at the same time: if we did, cognitive dissonance would be impossible. Depending on the level of the thinking (I suspect direct processing in synapses won’t do this, but that deliberative conscious thought can) we can sometimes fall into traps, so this totally explains another observation: some people can take the mere existence of people who disagree with them as a reason to believe even more strongly.

Minds, Politics

Baysean Brexit

I’ve decided to start making written notes every time I catch myself in a cognitive trap or bias. I tried just noticing them, but then I noticed I kept forgetting them, and that’s no use.

If you tell me Brexit will be good for the economy, then I automatically think you know too little about economics to be worth listening to. If you tell a Leaver that Brexit will be bad for the economy, then they automatically think you know too little about economics to be worth listening to.

Both of these are fixed points for Baysean inference, a trap from which it is difficult to escape. The prior is 100% that «insert economic forecast here» is correct, and it must therefore follow that anything contradicting the forecast is wrong.

That said, it is possible for evidence to change my mind (and hopefully the average Leaver’s). Unfortunately, like seeing the pearly gates, the only evidence I can imagine would be too late to be actionable — for both Leavers and Remainers — because that evidence is in the form “wait for Brexit and see what happens”.

Is there any way to solve this? Is it a problem of inferential distance, masquerading as a Baysean prior?

Feels like this also fits my previous post about the dynamic range of Bayesian thought.

Health, Minds, Psychology

Attention ec — ooh, a squirrel

List of my current YouTube subscriptions. It's very long.

I think the zeitgeist seems to be moving away from filling all our time with things and being hyper-connected, and towards rarer more meaningful connections.

It’s… disturbing and interesting at the same time, to realise that the attention-grabbing nature of all the things I enjoy has been designed to perfectly fit me, and all of us, by the same survival-of-the-fittest logic that causes natural evolution.

That which best grabs the attention, thrives. That which isn’t so powerful, doesn’t.

And when we develop strategies to defend ourselves against certain attention-grabbers, the attention-grabbers which use different approaches that we have not yet defended against take the place of those we have protected ourselves from.

A memetic arms race, between mental hygiene and thought germs.

I’ve done stuff in the last three months, but that stuff hasn’t included “finish editing next draft of my novel”. I could’ve, if only I’d made time for that instead of drinking from the (effectively) bottomless well of high quality YouTube content (see side-image for my active subscriptions; I also have to make a conscious effort to not click on the interesting clips from TV shows that probably shouldn’t even be on YouTube in the first place). Even though I watch most content sped up to a factor of 1.5 or 2, I can barely find time for all the new YouTube content I care about and do my online language courses and make time for the other things like finding a job.

Editing my novel? It’s right there, on my task list… but I barely touch it, even though it’s fulfilling to work on it, and fun to re-read. I don’t know if this is ego depletion or akrasia or addiction, but whatever it is, it’s an undesirable state.

I’m vulnerable to comments sections, too. Of course, I can do something about those — when I notice myself falling into a trap, I can block a relevant domain name in my hosts file. I have a lot of stuff in that file these days, and even then I slip up a bit because I can’t edit my iPhones hosts file.

Now that I know there’s a problem, I’m working on it… just like everyone else. The irony is, by disconnecting from the hyper-connected always-on parts of the internet, we’re not around to help each other when we slip up.

CGPGrey: Thinking About Attention — Walk with Me —

CGPGrey: This Video Will Make You Angry —

Elsewhere on this blog: Hyperinflation in the attention economy: what succeeds adverts?

Psychology, Software, Technology

Social media compulsion

He flashed up a slide of a shelf filled with sugary baked goods. “Just as we shouldn’t blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we can’t blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them,” he said. “Of course that’s what tech companies will do. And frankly: do we want it any other way?”The Guardian (website); ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia

I can, in fact, blame bakers. It’s easy: I do it in the same way I blame cigarette manufacturers. In all three cases (sugar/fat/flavour combinations, nicotine, social rewards) they exploit chemical pathways in our brains to get us to do something not in our best interests. They are supernormal stimuli — and given how recent the research is, I can forgive the early tobacconists and confectioners, but tech doesn’t get the luxury of ignorance-as-an-excuse.

I want my technology to be a tool which helps me get stuff done.

A drill is something I pick up, use to make a hole, then put down and forget about until I want to make another hole.

I don’t want a drill which is cursed so that if I ever put it down, I start to feel bad about not making more holes in things, and end up staying up late at night just to find yet one more thing I can drill into.

If I saw in a shop a drill which I knew would do that, I wouldn’t get it even if it was free, never broke, the (included) battery lasted a lifetime, etc. — the cost to the mind wouldn’t be worth it.

The same is true for the addictive elements of social media: I need to be connected to my friends, but I’d rather spend money than risk addiction.


Voting: do or do not?

The four boxes of liberty is an idea that proposes: “There are four boxes to be used in the defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury and ammo. Please use in that order.”Wikipedia; ‘Four boxes of liberty’

Voting certainly has an effect on your society, and is certainly a way to keep your leaders in check. On the other hand, it’s also used as a way to bully society, at least in the UK and USA (I’m not sure about, for example, countries like Germany which have more than two main parties).

Consider: Who did you vote for?

The winner? “Then it’s your fault.”

The loser? “Suck it up, you lost.”

A minor party? “You wasted your vote.”

Spoiled your ballot? *blank stare of non-comprehension*

Didn’t vote? “You lost the right to an opinion.”

Not allowed to vote? “Nobody cares what you think.”

I’m not sure what to think about that.

I’m glad of one thing though: to be in a place and time where I have never needed to seriously worry about people reaching for the ammo box. I hope I never have to worry about that.


Open borders

There are endless straw-men arguments about borders, at least from the loudest voices on the topic. Those loudest voices are, from my point of view, all on one side: The side of wanting more restrictions imposed.

I am aware that the loudest voices do not represent all, and I don’t want to nut-pick, so here is also a link to YouTuber Lindybeige who also thinks the arguments are straw men but whose position is so different to mine that they think my position is one of the straw men. (TLDW: He’s inviting people to come up with a number between 0 and ∞ as an answer to “how many immigrants should there be?”)

I’m going to write something most of you will consider madness: I think the borders should be open. Totally open. No restrictions.

You may be flabbergasted by this. Possibly even as speechless as I was when someone I had previously respected had gone on an anti-immigration rant — he hated immigration and wanted the UK population to fall (he’s British, voted UKIP and Leave, and I don’t think he ever really grasped that that meant people like me moving out of areas like his, but no matter). One of his arguments was, and this is just paraphrasing despite my best effort to quote him: “Clearly a quadrillion people couldn’t fit in this country, so we shouldn’t accept any immigrants.”

(As an aside: not only are there not a quadrillion people in total, not only is population growth going down so there may never be, but if you extrapolate growth from current annual changes to the point where there are a quadrillion, then a quadrillion people happens about the same time humanity’s energy use is enough to make a new Earth-mass planet in about 6-7 days by matter-antimatter pair production — bonus irony points as the guy had recently become Christian and that’s a nicely biblical timeframe).

Quite a lot of the newspapers think my position is somehow common amongst their political opponents — it isn’t, and I’m sad about that. Most of the politicians seem to be happy to point to a random unimportant group (currently refugees, previously single mothers, before them the disabled, who in turn followed after ethnic groups including Irish and Jewish) and blame all their own failings on that group, so the majority blaming immigrants isn’t going to change until some other conveniently weak scapegoat emerges. (In the UK many Leave politicians seem to want to blame Remainers, but that’s not likely to work with such a narrow margin… at least, I hope it’s not likely to work).

Are these papers nut-picking when they talk about me, or not? (I don’t think I’m mad, just eccentric and independently minded, but who would call themselves mad?) Depends how well I can justify myself.

So, analogy time: Right now, anyone British can move freely across the England-Scotland border, and anyone American can freely move across the California-Nevada border. The laws are different in both these examples. Imagine that Scotland declared independence from the UK and California from the USA: Now the default is nobody with Scottish/Californian citizenship can cross the border to England/Nevada respectively — further arrangements have to be made first, before any crossings are allowed again, and even then at the whims of the governments on the other sides of those borders.

What’s changed? What about the situation means that it is now important to stop people crossing that border? Anything that applies to an existing border applies to that border, and vice-versa.

Military? You can spot an army, and use your own to defend yourself.

Criminals fleeing from you? Extradition is a thing. Even if it wasn’t, the USA already has different state-level and federal-level laws, and Scotland already has a different legal system from England-and-Wales. I don’t know if/how extradition gets involved in a dispute between states, nor between Scotland and England; only that in an extradition beyond the UK border, a Scottish judge doesn’t do exactly the same thing as an English one.

Criminals entering your country? Ditto, and if you’re sharing police records internationally this should be easy to do: use the current A.I.-driven surveillance (already present at UK border controls!) in normal CCTV cameras. Although, for some things, you might explicitly want to let them come without fear of extradition — Gay men fleeing nations where it’s illegal, for example.

Voting dominated by migrants? Same as the EU: tied to citizenship, not residency.

Service-tourism? (E.g. unemployment benefits, NHS)? Same as Germany: Demonstrate you can support yourself (“pay for your own health insurance” seems to be the main one) in order to get the ID card you need for basically all civil functions.

Locals not being able to get things because of all the migrants? (E.g. school places, hospital beds, jobs, houses)? The fear represents a total misunderstanding of economics, as migrants supply both sides of supply and demand equally, just like natives.

Overcrowding? Same as literally every country larger than a city-state: the same (free-market and other) economics that also stops the entire population of countries like the USA or the UK moving internally to “where the jobs are”. Yes, there is some movement, but this leads to the next criticism…

Brain drain in the countries people leave? Yeah, the best and the brightest move, while those who stay behind are those unable or unwilling to move. Generally asked in bad-faith, because those asking show no other interest in the well-being of these places, but that doesn’t mean I can dismiss it without thinking about it.

Actually, I’ll go further: every reason one country* would want immigration is also a reason it would want to prevent emigration. (*This applies to any geographic region, including a city within a country; Detroit, for a famous example.)

Is that your problem, as an immigration nation? I don’t know — but it’s a thing. Perhaps it’s a good thing, because it will force shrinking nations to make themselves more attractive to reduce departures? I can’t predict it, and this is just a thought.

It’s also where I’m going to stop this blog post and get on with updating my CV. I’m busy looking for work in a foreign country.