Monday, November 24, 2014

Confusion about AI

I like Brockman's I think of it as smart people talking to smart people, and I usually find the discussions very interesting. But I was unable to read the recent conversation on the Myth of AI, started by Jaron Lanier, and mostly focussed on Bostrom's Superintelligence. I expect Bostrom's work to be very important, but I haven't found time to read it yet. Superintelligence talks about the likely emergence of super-human intelligences, and what there is to look forward to, as well as what we should worry about. I consider these to be very important issues, though I don't think they're going to make a huge difference in the next 10-20 years. But further out it is indeed going to be crucial that we spend time planning out how to make these intelligences not act in a way that is inimical to our interests. It's not that there's any reason to expect them to be out to get us, it's just that they'll have goals, and if we don't make the right moves ahead of time, we'll be in the way of their achieving their goals.
Anyway, starting out with Lanier, the discussion seemed ill-informed. The opening quote has him saying "The idea that computers are people has a long and storied history." This conflates so many threads that it's hard to know where to start. It's like trying to have a discussion about free speech with someone whose opening point is a complaint about the Supreme Court having decided that "companies are people". As far as I can tell, the Court decided that corporations are one of the ways that people act in concert, and that they don't lose their free speech rights when they use that kind of organizational structure to speak publicly. The fact that this decision applies just as much to giant mega-corporations and to unions as to the two-person public outreach institute that was the actual subject of the case at issue is more due to the Court's belief in consistency.
The point of AI isn't that "computers are people", it's that thinking and acting can be reduced to computational processes (it all comes down to atoms and meat, after all) and so there's no reason to believe that we won't eventually be able to build machines out of silicon that do the same thing, and aren't subject to the same constraints as apply to biological mechanism made out of Carbon.
I was very happy to read Luke Muehlhauser's review (hat tip to Yvain). Luke agrees that the discussants at Edge are confused, and had the patience to analyze some of the misconceptions, and point back to the actual subjects of disagreement.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

License to Work

The Institute for Justice has a new study out comparing the onerous regulations each state puts on entry to various occupations. In the past, they've focused on occupations that are pretty clearly not safety related, so people would see that the goal is fire-walling existing jobs rather than protecting the public. This study focusses on occupations that are favorable to low and medium income people—that is, on entry-level jobs. They've won several cases on occupational freedom for flower arrangers, interior decorators, and tour guides as a few examples.
The tremendous variation between states in how much training, and in the exams required makes it clear that there's no consensus on curriculum and no common core of knowledge across states. By the way, California come out as having the second most onerous licensing regime. People who care about making it easier for low income people to get started should find it easy to oppose California's extensive regulations on everything from landscapers to makeup artists.
Another point that I think IJ ought to make more explicitly is that the public should distrust arguments based on the jobs that would be protected. I think it's commonly the case that entrenched interests easily get popular support by talking about their members who will lose their jobs if some new approach is allowed. IJ's ads should remind us that whenever entrenched interests are able to erect barriers to entry, it means higher prices and less innovation. This applies to restaurants fighting food trucks, teachers fighting charter schools, and taxi cartels fighting new transportation models (Uber and self-driving cars). In each case, we can easily see the incumbents who might lose their jobs, but locking in the existing model means less innovation, and fewer chances to discover more effective ways of teaching, more efficient uses of our roads and ways to reduce the number of cars required, and a larger variety of food and more convenient places to eat.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism shows that, contrary to the accepted viewpoint, fascism came from the left, not the right. Starting a calm discussion about fascism is not an easy task. Most of the time when people use the terms nazi or fascist, the only content is an indication of opprobrium, and this is common enough that it wouldn't be a surprise if most who hear the term don't know much about those who originally adopted the term.

Goldberg shows that the rhetoric of people who called themselves fascists in Europe and the U.S. was quite similar to that of socialists and progressives of the time. The policies that were promoted (if you omit the genocide and racism that were unique to the Nazis, and stick to the political program that was common to Mussolini, Franco, and the Americans who were friendly to the fascist proposals) were socialized medicine, a government retirement program, nationalization of industry to whatever extent required, and letting the government lead.

The term was first turned into a general purpose epithet by the communists, who were upset about the competition they were getting from people with a very similar program to their own. Both were on the left, and urging more government power in service to the common people. The Soviet communists used the term to brand all their opponents regardless of their point of view as "too far right". After the west joined together to fight the Nazis in World War II, it was hard for anyone to defend fascism, even those who were pushing for the same ideas (the progressive ends, not the genocidal one, for the most part.)

Since the press is largely of the left, the public discourse gradually accepted the idea that the fascists were extremists on the right, though their policy goals were not actually much different from those of the communists or progressives.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm pushing this book because it bashes the left. I'm a libertarian, and don't feel more sympathy for the programs of either the modern left or right. See the Advocates for Self Governments' WSPQ to learn more about my ideas if you aren't familiar with them. The point of the book, and the reason it's worth talking about is simply to understand the historical context of modern political discourse.

Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Hitler, and Mussolini used leftist, progressive rhetoric to gain and wield power. I could only find a few examples of dictators who should reasonably be called extreme right-wingers (Pinochet, Papadopoulos, Syngman Rhee). There are many others whose rhetoric was anti-communist, and possibly even pro-business, but their actual rule is usually absolutist, kleptocratic, nepotistic (confiscating businesses and allowing family or friends to run them for their own benefit), but not any more friendly to private enterprise than the leftist dictators.

A large part of the rhetoric of fascism is the idea that the people are unified behind the leaders' favorite program, and that the leaders' main goal is to give the people what they want. A favorite tactic of fascists is to continually manufacture new crises, because these often work to bring people together in support of their goals. Unfortunately, this tactic has been co-opted by leaders from all parties, as our own unending wars on poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism show.

Goldberg describes the fascist bargain with business this way:

The state says to the industrialist, "You may stay in business and own your factories. In the spirit of cooperation and unity, we will even guarantee you profits and a lack of serious competition. In exchange, we expect you to agree with—and help implement—our political agenda." The moral and economic content of the agenda depends on the nature of the regime. [...] It's fine to say that incestuous relationships between corporations and governments are fascistic. The problem comes when you claim that such arrangements are inherently right-wing.

American presidents on the left and right have been making this kind of offer to business for at least several decades. It's more visible with the current president's handling of the health care law, but past administrations of all stripes have made the same kinds of deals with telecomm, banking, and transportation industries. Communists tend to nationalise businesses, while fascists and progressives co-opt them. The latter isn't more right wing than the former.

There's a lot of meat in Liberal Fascism, as long as you won't have an aversive reaction to a calm discussion of the commonalities between the programs of communists and of historical and modern progressives.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Math Awareness Month

Sorry I didn't post about this earlier in the month. I heard about Math Awareness Month at the Gathering for Gardner in Atlanta last month, and bookmarked their site, but didn't realize how awesome it would be. Every day this month, (advent calendar style), the site reveals another treasure. I've read a few of them, but Vi Hart on hexaflexagons is enormous amounts of fun even if you're not a fan of math. Her penultimate presentation on the dangers of flexagons, and the final one on edible HexaMexigons are hilarious. Visit the site every day for the rest of the month and share your favorites.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Obviousness in Software

Bob Purvey (a friend who is both a software engineer and a registered Patent Agent) has written a fairly short paper to explain why the patent office doesn't do a good job screening out "obvious" software patents. He observes that the approach they use for patents on pharmaceuticals seems to do a much better job, and shows how it would apply in software.
One of the reasons this is relevant is that whenever the software industry tries to get the federal government to reform the patent laws (since they're so obviously broken as applied to software), congress is counter-lobbied by the drug companies who argue that patents are crucial to their business model, and without the present system, new drug discovery would whither away. Congress, of course, doesn't understand either industry, so they collect contributions from both sides and do nothing. If the software industry had a more focussed proposal, it would be more likely to get the kind of change that would be useful to it.
Purvey's argument is that when deciding whether an application for a patent on a new drug or medical technique is novel, the examiner is expected to consider whether a Person with Ordinary Skill in the Art (POSITA) would think of that solution, given a suitable description of the problem. If the approach described is one of a handful that the POSITA would think to try, ("obvious to try") then it's obvious enough to be ineligible for a patent. If it's one of a thousand approaches (in the drug business, this is now common in drug discovery) that you'd have to try, with an unknown likelihood of success then it doesn't count as obvious.
The patent office often grants patents on well-known software techniques applied in new contexts. Purvey argues that the "obvious to try" standard would invalidate those patents because software people are trained in abstraction, and it's obvious to all skilled practitioners that previously known techniques are likely to apply in the new context once you describe the problem correctly. The fact that the patent applicant described the problem with non-standard terminology doesn't invalidate the standard tools, and that should be an acceptable argument when suing to invalidate a patent.
As Purvey showed, that's an accepted standard in drug patent trials. A prominent (pharma) case he talked about in the paper hinged on showing that the patent application used non-standard terminology to describe something that was an obvious combination of published techniques. If lawyers attempting to invalidate a patent brought this standard into play more frequently, more patents would be invalidated quickly. And this is an approach that shouldn't have to wait for new action from legislators.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken is a fascinating exploration of how we could make reality better by adapting various lessons that designers of today's best alternate reality games (ARGs) have learned and applied to make their games more fun. In order to do so, McGonigal has to spend a good amount of time explaining what makes games fun, sticky, and great arenas for training us to be better at collaboration. I found it very informative, since I'm currently helping develop Ingress, a MMO, real-world, ARG. If you're interested in games, or would like your life to be filled with more fun and more purposive action, I recommend the book.

McGonigal starts out by describing several ways in which games are well designed to draw us in and keep us entertained. One of the more important ways in which games keep us in a state of flow is by arranging challenges so we can always be working just at the comfortable edge of our abilities and constantly trying to get better at whatever we're doing. The psychology literature (follow the previous link) has shown that these are crucial to the kind of happiness that is satisfying over the long-term rather than merely momentarily entertaining.

McGonigal describes ARGs as antiescapist games; games you play to get more out of your real life, as opposed to games you play to escape it.

She describes quite a few games she has designed, some for entertaining other people, some to entertain herself or help herself through a tough period in her life, and some to get people to work together on a collective goal. There are games in each of these categories that are worth learning about, and if you're interested, you should read the book. My favorite is probably SuperBetter, which is an approach to self-help disguised as a game.

While in the midst of writing this book, McGonigal had a serious concussion, and struggled to recover. After a month or two of enforced rest that didn't lead to the hoped-for recovery, she took her game design skills and made a game out of doing a little bit of the right kind of retraining every day. Game design taught her that she should set herself a series of goals that were reachable, but not trivial; that she should enlist friends to provide reinforcement, and that she should find ways to reward herself for sticking to the plan, and for every little bit of progress. The right reward structure keeps you coming back for more. She's shared that approach and the rules framework she devised so others with analogous challenges can follow the same path.

Reality is Broken offers 14 relatively concrete Fixes for Reality. These are lessons from the way modern games are designed that can be applied to the real world to make life more fun and business more productive, to help us achieve important goals collectively, and to help us apply the things we learn while playing to our daily lives and relationships. I don't think she hit all 14 out of the park, but probably 80% are worth paying attention to, which is a pretty high achievement level.

Along the way, McGonigal introduced me to new terms for emotions that I recognized immediately, but didn't have words for before. Fiero (from an Italian word for pride) is a term for the feeling you get from triumph over adversity. It's the feeling that first led to end-zone celebrations, though nowadays those are often more about taunting than celebrating. Another useful term is naches, which is a Yiddish word for pride in the accomplishments of those we've coached or mentored. There's a substantial portion of the Ingress player base that gets their rewards by helping other people get better at the game.

Reality is Broken is a very entertaining presentation of the idea that while modern ARGs are packaged and enjoyed as games, they serve a serious purpose in helping us enjoy our real lives, and some of the ways they do so could be usefully applied outside of the world of games.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind argues that our political leanings are strongly tied to our moral intuitions, and explains that people in each of the main political categories have different fundamental tenets that they each believe in strongly. There's some overlap between the various groups, but Haidt presents evidence that there's a lot of consistency within each group. If you hope to convince people on the opposite side of these divides of anything important, it's crucial to understand the foundations their reasoning is based on. If you believe the people you argue with are confused or evil, rather than reasoning from different premises, your arguments will fail to sway them.

In part one, Righteous Mind argues that intuition comes first, and strategic reasoning second. People enter a discussion of morality with instincts that tell them the answers. Most of the arguments they make are driven by their instincts, and little follows from intellectual considerations. Haidt relies heavily on the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. It's possible for the rider to decide which direction they go, but the elephant makes the first choice, and the driver has to convince the elephant if they're to end up somewhere else.

The second part covers the common foundations of our moral instincts. Most philosophers have concluded that morality is based on fairness or avoidance of harm. Haidt's research has shown that across cultures, there are actually six relatively consistent value frameworks that different political camps choose among. He says "The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors."

The third part shows that common feelings about morality bind communities together and blinds members of those communities to the goals, tastes, and priorities of their neighbors. He argues that religion evolved because of its contribution to social cohesion in contrast to the common atheist accusation that it's mostly religion is a memetic parasite that wins at the cost of its carriers.

Haidt is a master at presenting short vignettes that adherents to one viewpoint will say shows immoral behavior and others will be fine with. Whatever your outlook, he knows some stories that your group will be the only one to approve of, and other stories that you'll find to be disturbing while people with other political views won't be bothered. This technique seems to have been the core of the research underlying the book. He uses it to good effect in teasing apart the most basic drivers of people's instincts about right and wrong.

The underlying drives presented in the book. The names represent virtues and the adaptive challenge in the evolutionary environment that they protected us from. Haidt often refers to them just by the name of the virtue, and so will I.

  • care/harm
  • fairness/cheating
  • liberty/oppression
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation
Liberals rely on caring, then fairness and liberty. Conservatives rely on all six, somewhat equally. Libertarians rely most on liberty, and a little on fairness. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes. Liberals also have a streak of sanctity, but it usually applies to nature and cleanliness rather than religious faith. Notice that there is no foundation used by the left that is not also important to the right. Liberals reject altogether some of the values that matter to Conservatives. To Liberals, loyalty and respect for authority can be outright negatives.

If you have trouble seeing how virtues other than the ones you believe in can be seen as fundamental, you're going to miss most of the point of the book.

When Haidt's research team asked liberals and conservatives to predict one another's responses to his Moral Foundations survey, they found that conservatives were the best able to understand other's motivations. Liberals seem to assume that where others hold values more weakly than liberals do (because there are other values they hold more strongly) that those with whom they disagree hold the opposite position from them rather than understanding that value but having another, higher priority. Many Liberals, when asked to describe Conservative values, say that they are actively pursuing evil ends. Conservatives, since they use all 6 metrics, can recognize when others are relying on particular values. Libertarians are most handicapped by this standard (having only one prime value), but their advantage is that, being in the minority, they are more used to talking to people with different points of view.

Part three of the book argues first, that humans are uniquely social creatures (He cites Tomasello, an expert on chimpanzee cognition, who said "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.") Bees and ants sacrifice themselves for the hive, but individual cooperation is extremely rare if you exclude sex and other instinctive behavior. Second, that religion is mostly used to bind us into communities. He argues that we have a built-in "hive switch" that makes us bind more tightly and unthinkingly into groups. The release of oxytocin binds people to their groups, not to humanity as a whole. Finally, he argues that the New Atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris, primarily) miss the main point of religion, which is to bind people into groups. The fact that they naturally divide everyone into insider and enemy is a consequence of human psychology. The rituals "that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems human [societies] face: cooperation without kinship." Haidt uses these points to support his conclusion that treating people who disagree with us (or merely act differently) as repugnant is a deep-seated reaction.

Haidt says he grew up a liberal, and it was partly due to his studies of different political approaches that led him to a conservative viewpoint. It was also as a result of his studies that he came to see that libertarians have a distinct approach that is straightforward to describe in his framework. The descriptions of the liberal progress narrative (a quote from Christian Smith's Moral, Believing Animals) and the conservative mindset (a description of the "Reagan narrative" from Westen's The Political Brain) are masterful in their contrasts. Smith wrote

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism…But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitations, and repression.
Westen's description is
Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and Faith at every step of the way. … Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to "understand" them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals, … Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle … and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles. … Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism.
Haidt points out that these are very much descriptions of the American liberal and conservative viewpoints. In other countries, the narrative would be different, and in some, the constellation of values wouldn't align the same way. But in all the countries he's studied, the same 6 underlying values keep coming up in different combinations, and his story problems elicit the same distinctions, when adjusted for local customs and unique traditions.

Haidt believes that the crucial value that liberals misunderstand is moral capital (he's careful to draw a distinction from social capital). He cites Bertrand Russell to make the point: "Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence of tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible." Haidt then says

If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

I found this to be a very helpful book, explaining how different factions see the world, and it's presented in a way that's sympathetic to everyone's views. If you want to argue constructively with people it helps tremendously to be able to understand where they're coming from. Having more of an understanding of other points of view also makes it much easier to hear what someone else's concerns are so you can address those directly. When we misunderstand one another we often talk past one another, not realizing that the other party has different values, rather than misunderstanding our position. Too much of politics today is based on ascribing bad motives to the opposition.