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 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf2VxeIm1no

CGPGrey: This Video Will Make You Angry — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rE3j_RHkqJc

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.


Mathematical Universe v. Boltzmann Brains

I’m a fan of the Mathematical Universe idea. Or rather, I was. I think I came up with the idea independently of (and before) Max Tegmark, based on one of my old LiveJournal blog-post dated “2007-01-12” (from context, I think that’s YYYY-MM-DD, not YYYY-DD-MM).

Here’s what I wrote then, including typos and poor rhetorical choices:

Ouch, my mind hurts. I've been thinking about The Nature of Reality again. This time, what I have is the idea that from the point of view of current science, the universe can be described as a giant equation: each particle obeys the laws of physics, which are just mathematical formula. Add to this that an mathematical system can exist before anyone defines it (9*10 was still equal to 90 before anybody could count that high), and you get reality existing because its underlying definitions do not contradict each-other.

This would mean that there are a lot of very simple, for lack of a better word, "universes" along the lines of the one containing only Bob and Sarah, where Sarah is three times the age of Bob now, and will be twice his age in 5 years' time. But it would also mean that there are an infinite number of universes which are, from the point of view of an external observer looking at the behaviour of those within them, completely indistinguishable from this one; this would be caused by, amongst other things, the gravitational constant being represented by an irrational number, and the difference between the different universes' gravitational constants varies by all possible fractions (in the everyday sense) of one divided by Graham's number.

Our universe contains representations of many more simple ones (I've described a simple one just now, and you get hundreds of others "universes" of this type in the mathematics books you had at school); you cannot, as an outside observer, interfere with such universes, because all you end up with is another universe. The original still exists, and the example Sarah is still 15. In this sense of existence, the Stargate universe is real because it follows fundamental rules which do not contradict themselves. These rules are of course not the rules the characters within it talk about, but the rules of the Canadian TV industry. There may be another universe where the rules the characters talk about do apply, but I'm not enough of a Stargate nerd to know if they are consistent in that way.

The point of this last little diversion, is that there could be (and almost certainly is) a universe much more complex than this one, which contains us as a component. The question, which I am grossly unqualified to contemplate but tried anyway (hence my mind hurting), is what is the most complex equation possible? (Apart from "God" in certain senses of that word). All I feel certain of at the moment, is that it would "simultaneously" (if you can use that word for something outside of time but containing it) contain every possible afterlife for every possible subset of people.

Tomorrow I will be in Cambridge.

Since writing that, I found out about Boltzmann brains. Boltzmann brains are a problem, because if they exist at all then it is (probably) overwhelmingly likely that you are one, and if you are one then it’s overwhelmingly likely that the you’re wrong about everything leading up to the belief that they exist, so any belief in them has to be irrational even if it’s also correct.

Boltzmann brains appear spontaneously in systems which are in thermal equilibrium for long enough (“long enough” being 101050 years from quantum fluctuations), but if you have all possible universes then you have a universe, an infinite number of universes, where Boltzmann brains are the most common form of brain — Therefore, all the problems that apply to Boltzmann brains must also apply to the Mathematical Universe.

AI, Minds, Philosophy, Politics

A.I. safety with Democracy?

Common path of discussion:

Alice: A.I. can already be dangerous, even though it’s currently narrow intelligence only. How do we make it safe before it’s general intelligence?

Bob: Democracy!

Alice: That’s a sentence fragment, not an answer. What do you mean?

Bob: Vote for what you want the A.I. to do 🙂

Alice: But people ask for what they think they want instead of what they really want — this leads to misaligned incentives/paperclip optimisers, or pathological focus on universal instrumental goals like money or power.

Bob: Then let’s give the A.I. to everyone, so we’re all equal and anyone who tells their A.I. to do something daft can be countered by everyone else.

Alice: But that assumes the machines operate on the same speed we do. If we assume that an A.G.I. can be made by duplicating a human brain’s connectome in silicon — mapping synapses to transistors — then even with no more Moore’s Law an A.G.I. would be out-pacing our thoughts by the same margin a pack of wolves outpaces continental drift (and the volume of a few dozen grains of sand).

Because we’re much too slow to respond to threats ourselves, any helpful A.G.I. working to stop a harmful A.G.I. would have to know what to do before we told it; yet if we knew how to make them work like that, then we wouldn’t need to, as all A.G.I. would stop themselves from doing anything harmful in the first place.

Bob: Balance of powers, just like governments — no single A.G.I can get too big, because all the other A.G.I. want the same limited resource.

Alice: Keep reading that educational webcomic. Even in the human case (and we can’t trust our intuition about the nature of an arbitrary A.G.I.), separation of powers only works if you can guarantee that those who seek power don’t collude. As humans collude, an A.G.I. (even one which seeks power only as an instrumental goal for some other cause) can be expected to collude with other similar A.G.I. (“A.G.I.s”? How do you pluralise an initialism?)

There’s probably something that should follow this, but I don’t know what as real conversations usually go stale well before my final Alice response (and even that might have been too harsh and conversation-stopping, I’d like to dig deeper and find out what happens next).

I still think we ultimately want “do what I meant not what I said“, but at the very least that’s really hard to specify and at worst I’m starting to worry that some (too many?) people may be unable to cope with the possibility that some of the things they want are incoherent or self-contradictory.

Whatever the solution, I suspect that politics and economics both have a lot of lessons available to help the development of safe A.I. — both limited A.I. that currently exists and also potential future tech such as human-level general A.I. (perhaps even super-intelligence, but don’t count on that).