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We Don't Really Want Your Participation

43 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 September 2007 07:53PM

At the Singularity Summit yesterday, several speakers alleged that we should "reach out" to artists and poets to encourage their participation in the Singularity dialogue.  So at the end of one such session, a woman went up to the audience microphone and said:

"I am an artist.  I want to participate.  What should I do?"

And there was a brief, frozen silence.

I wanted to leap up and say:

No, no, I'm afraid you've misunderstood.  We're just calling for greater participation by artists.  We can get plenty of credit for being enlightened just by issuing the call. If we really cared what artists thought, we would find some artists and ask them questions, not call for artists to participate.  We don't actually want to hear from artists.  We think your opinions are stupid.

And if she'd asked me afterward, my real answer would have been:

You are not an artist, you are a human being; art is only one facet in which you express your humanity.  Your reactions to the Singularity should arise from your entire self.  It's perfectly all right to have a boringly normal and nonunique reaction like "I'm afraid," or "I don't think we should do this," or "I want to help, where do I send the check?"  The right answer is not always unusual.  Your natural reaction does not need to be unique, and that's why you don't need to try to come up with an "artist's viewpoint" on the Singularity.  I would call on you to participate as a human being, not an artist.  If your artistry has something to say, it will express itself naturally in your responses, without you needing to make a conscious effort to say something artist-like.

But I didn't say any of this, of course.  It would have been indecorous.

And while we're on the subject, I would feel rather patronized - like a dog commanded to perform a trick - if someone presented me with a painting and said, "Say something mathematical!"

Comments (24)

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Comment author: josh 10 September 2007 08:23:29PM 5 points [-]

I would say, "paint a picture", but then, I'm nice.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 September 2007 10:10:04PM 17 points [-]

I have no objection to someone presenting me with a painting so long as it is pretty. And I have no objection to a painting in a math class, whether it's Escher, Norman Rockwell, or Fred Gallagher. I may even be moved to make a mathematical comment about the painting.

What I would find patronizing is someone thrusting a painting at me and saying "Say something mathematical!" I think it is equally patronizing to ask an artist to saying something artistic about the Singularity or a poet to say something poetic about math. They are perfectly capable of expressing their own reactions, which may or may not - optionally, up to them - express their artistry or poetry. If you show me a painting, and I say "That's beautiful" just like the last 300 people you showed it to, I don't want anyone complaining, "But the whole reason I showed that to you is to find out whether rationalists had anything to say!"

Comment author: Tom_McCabe 10 September 2007 10:22:47PM 0 points [-]

How would an artist participate, other than just mailing in a check? Doesn't SIAI have something like $500K worth of checks, from this summer's fundraising alone? If the amount of research being done by SIAI stays the same, and the amount of money coming in goes up by a factor of 10, then the utility of every dollar goes down by a factor of 10; eventually it makes more sense to donate to other groups.

Comment author: g 11 September 2007 01:01:42AM 5 points [-]

Why would the amount of research being done stay the same, if the amount of money coming in goes up by a factor of 10?

I guess they might spend it on advocacy, or buying hardware, or something, but surely what it would take for your comment about utility to be correct would be for them to do *nothing* with it. Why would they do that?

Russell, I think you misunderstood Eliezer. (Perhaps he's now made himself clear enough that this comment is redundant.) He was, AIUI, making much the same point as the Anonymous Artist: it's stupid to say "We want contributions from artists" if you don't actually have some reason to think that artists' contributions would be of special value. In the absence of such reasons, saying that is just posturing.

But: Suppose you are trying to think about something you regard as very important and difficult, and you know that almost all the people you have thinking about it have a lot of mental features in common. Then it might be sensible to solicit contributions from people whose minds you expect to be different *even if you have no idea what distinctive contribution they might make*. In which case, the appropriate answer to the Anonymous Artist's question might be something like "You should come and talk to us and think as deeply as you know how about these matters, and tell us if there's something that seems to you to be missing from our thinking."

Or, of course, Josh's suggestion.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe 11 September 2007 01:44:36AM 1 point [-]

"Why would the amount of research being done stay the same, if the amount of money coming in goes up by a factor of 10?"

Number of publications. And lack of other strong Bayesian evidence. Money does not correlate well with thinking capacity; if you dump $20 million into a startup, its intelligent output will (on average) drop off rapidly.

"I guess they might spend it on advocacy, or buying hardware, or something, but surely what it would take for your comment about utility to be correct would be for them to do *nothing* with it. Why would they do that?"

I have no idea what SIAI's current budget is, or how they spend their money. I'm analyzing it using black-box efficiency, how much goes in versus how much comes out.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 September 2007 03:15:17AM 3 points [-]

Then it might be sensible to solicit contributions from people whose minds you expect to be different *even if you have no idea what distinctive contribution they might make*.

Yes, and it would be even more sensible not to pressure them to give an "artist's reaction" because then you'll just get something stereotypical and expectable.

Comment author: Doug_S. 11 September 2007 05:32:46AM 0 points [-]

And while we're on the subject, I would feel rather patronized - like a dog commanded to perform a trick - if someone presented me with a painting and said, "Say something mathematical!"

Well, the answer to that might be, "Give me some time, and I might find something interesting to say about it."

What can mathematics say about paintings? The ancient Greeks probably thought a lot about things like that; you could talk about proportion and perspective and things like that, I guess. You could perform more a detailed analysis if you digitize the image and break it up into elements that aren't obvious from a purely visual inspection, such as overall contrast levels.

I do like g's suggestion, though.

Comment author: g 11 September 2007 08:57:45AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, nothing in the original post mentions anyone soliciting "an artist's reaction" in any sense other than "a reaction from someone who happens to be an artist". But of course I wasn't there and you were; perhaps such words were in fact used.

Tom, you appear to have given an argument for never funding anything that has research as a major component. (You've basically proposed that the marginal utility of giving more money to SIAI is zero, and you've done so without appealing to any features that distinguish SIAI from other entities that do research.) Is that a conclusion you're happy to embrace, or is there some way in which your argument can work without leading to that conclusion?

Comment author: mitchell_porter2 11 September 2007 09:40:52AM 0 points [-]

If there's anyone out there who wants to do Singularity Art that isn't just science fiction, I would suggest two things: make technology your medium, and intelligence your theme.

Comment author: Henry_V 11 September 2007 01:13:15PM 2 points [-]

"What I would find patronizing is someone thrusting a painting at me and saying "Say something mathematical!" I think it is equally patronizing to ask an artist to saying something artistic about the Singularity or a poet to say something poetic about math."

It seems to me that the original invitation was for artists to participate in the discussion. To me this isn't absurd at all. No one was asking them (as far as I can tell) to "say something artistic." Rather, there was a recognition that those who self-identify as artists may have a different perspective, whether that perspective itself can be considered "artistic" in its own right or not.

It's not unlike a group of male advertisers sitting around a table considering whether they should solicit a female colleague's perspective on a particular ad campaign. That might be considered condescending, but its equally likely that her opinion may be of value, if not uniquely "feminine" in some way.

Nonetheless, as you suggest, a vague invitation to "participate" won't necessarily generate anything useful.

Comment author: Seven 11 September 2007 02:17:12PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Michael_Sullivan 11 September 2007 03:13:04PM 5 points [-]

"It's not unlike a group of male advertisers sitting around a table considering whether they should solicit a female colleague's perspective on a particular ad campaign. That might be considered condescending, but its equally likely that her opinion may be of value, if not uniquely "feminine" in some way."

Not "might" but *would* be considered condescending. It's classic privileged behavior to essentially ask the token X to speak for Xs. And Eliezer hits on exactly *why* it's privileged and condescending. Because if they really cared about her opinion, they would *already have specific questions to ask*, rather than merely "solicit her perspective" so they can check "woman" (or in the original case "artist") off on their checklist of countries heard from.

Comment author: Michael3 11 September 2007 03:13:12PM 2 points [-]

Actually, we need an artists contribution. We need a vision of what we're trying to accomplish with the Singularity. Right now, I picture the community as some nerd, absorbed in a Rubik's cube of technology, walking oblivious towards the edge of a cliff. We will explore AI, nanotech or biotech until it blows up in our faces.

Way back when, written science fiction was some kind of vision of the future. A limited one, but at least an attempt to say what we wanted, or what technology would do to us. Now, there's almost nothing. Go into the SF section of a bookstore and it's alt-history, various type of war stories, thrillers and lots of fantasy novels.

The only two "near-term" SF things I've read recently are Accellerando by Charles Stross, and Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. We need a lot more of that. I'd even like to see someone make a decent SF movie based on this kind of material. It's hopeless to get that through a studio, but perhaps you could open-source produce it and distribute it over the net. Seems like it's time for that kind of thing to start happening.

So I'd welcome all the artists! Please come and dream for us.

Comment author: AlexanderRM 27 October 2014 04:21:50AM 0 points [-]

I'm 7 years late on this, but if anyone else has this problem with the current state of SF (or you have email notifications, is that a thing?), might I recommend Schild's Ladder or Incandescence by Greg Egan? I wouldn't quite call them the "artists perspective", since there's a lot of physics involved*, but they also have quite a lot of focus on the characters and more specifically the interpersonal interactions in the age when there are no other problems left, sometimes in a quite beautiful way. (well, most of the time there are no other problems left: Every actual story focuses on people experiencing some sort of incredibly unusual event. But we do see the background of what sort of issues people in these societies experience in their normal lives)

On the other hand, I enjoyed Incandescence just fine despite not knowing enough about relativity to have any idea if the characters were on the right track. Knowing the science already might actually be a spoiler. Still, being able to at least enjoy pages-long discussions of physics is definitely a plus- if you *do enjoy it, his books are amazing.

On a more general note, be aware that "go into the SF section of the bookstore and it's all X, Y and Z" isn't necessarily a good indicator that nothing of a given type is being written; that just means that the majority of what's being written, or at least of what is popular, is like that. A bit like Sturgeon's Law, I think.

Comment author: Joshua_Fox2 11 September 2007 06:40:00PM 5 points [-]

Artists, better than anyone, can teach a mass audience, if that is important to you.

Terminator and Matrix, for example, recently raised Singularity awareness, not in the best way. An good artist who wants to help and has a strong understanding of the issues can raise awareness in a more enlighted way.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe 11 September 2007 07:24:29PM 1 point [-]

"Tom, you appear to have given an argument for never funding anything that has research as a major component."

The utility of funding a specific project goes to zero as the amount of money that project requires per unit of output goes to infinity. Funding one project has an opportunity cost, in the utility equation, of not funding other projects. So at some point, it will make sense (doing the opposite would have a negative expected utility) to contribute to some other project than SIAI. I don't have a clear idea of where that point is, but we've gotten a lot closer in the past two years.

Comment author: Henry_V 11 September 2007 08:56:37PM 3 points [-]

"Not "might" but *would* be considered condescending."

By whom?

I considered not using that example but decided to anyway. Whether it *would* be considered condescending depends on the audience. You feel that way for instance, but I know women who would not consider it so.

How the meeting got started is not particularly relevant (IMHO). Suppose three males were assigned the task, for instance. In any case, I'm willing to go on record by suggesting that there are real differences in the way that women and men approach certain topics, based in part on physiology, and in part on different cultural experiences (see "Black like Me").

The primary point being that the inviters were not looking for "a female perspective" but "a perspective from a female---who may in all expectation see things differently than we do".

Comment author: g 11 September 2007 11:25:32PM 1 point [-]

Tom, I can't quite work out whether you're basing what you say on actual information about how much SIAI is spending and what it's doing, or just arguing on general principles that there's always *some* point at which diminishing returns mean you should put your money somewhere else.

If the former, then (1) I think you're focusing on specifics of the particular case, which seems kinda off-topic (I thought the point here was about how much sense it makes to solicit contributions from groups like "artists", "women", "people with PhDs", etc., without having a specific plan for what sort of contributions you want from them), and (2) I don't think it's possible to make further progress with that discussion without having the actual figures, which I don't.

If the latter, then you're probably right, but the point at which it stops being worth funding something depends a lot on the specifics and I'm not sure what the relevance is here. I mean, did anyone claim that everyone ought to be donating exclusively to SIAI or anything like that?

(Perhaps the subtext is that you think SIAI isn't a good thing to be contributing to at all. I'm taking no position on that, not least because I haven't thought through the difficult issues involved; I thought the interesting discussion here was about the general issue, not the Singularity-related specifics.)

Comment author: Frank_L 12 September 2007 06:05:43AM 0 points [-]

Here are some delineations between art and math taken from http://mathematicalpoetry.blogspot.com

Delineation #1: Mathematical truths are discovered Artistic truths are mediated. . Delineation#2: Mathematicians generally agree on what is mathematically correct. Artists generally have no idea what is artistically correct. . Delineation#3 Math illuminates the supportive skeletal structure of thought whereas Art illuminates the metaphoric wind, which blows through that structure. . Delineation#4 Science reveals the body of GGod and Art reveals GGod's mind -- or is it the converse? . Delineation#5 Pure Mathematics has no expression for metaphor however; it does provide us a structure that can be used for it. . Delineation#6 In general, the mathematician is not interested in finding truths through nonsense as opposed to the artist who is.

Comment author: Michael_Sullivan 12 September 2007 03:59:33PM -1 points [-]

The primary point being that the inviters were not looking for "a female perspective" but "a perspective from a female---who may in all expectation see things differently than we do".

Clearly it depends on the context, and how the questions get asked. Too often I see this kind of thing play out as "Oh let's find a chick to give us the woman's seal of approval". I was trying to be clear about when such a request would and would not play that way. The equivalent to what was discussed in the OP (a call for the participation of artists) would be sending out a general office email asking for (random) women to comment on the ad campaign. That's condescending and classic privileged behavior. Just asking some particular women they respect the very same kind of questions that they might put to a male colleague, isn't.

Comment author: Baruta07 10 November 2012 12:30:40AM 0 points [-]

You know, now I actually want to go up to my art teacher with a painting and ask her to "Say something mathematical".

Comment author: Yosarian2 02 January 2013 03:39:31AM 1 point [-]

I don't think there's anything wrong with asking an artist to create a work of art on a specific subject. A lot of great writing comes from a specific prompt.

If I was asked that question, I would say something along the lines of "could you create a work of art that might help people see transhumanism as something less scary" or something along those lines. Art can be a great means of communication, although, like Eliezer said in a different blog, it should still be a quality piece of art in it's own right.

Comment author: christopherj 02 October 2013 08:00:09AM *  0 points [-]

At the Singularity Summit yesterday, several speakers alleged that we should "reach out" to artists and poets to encourage their participation in the Singularity dialogue.

They would have unique skills in propaganda and raising awareness that other professions lack. Their contributions could directly result in increased financial support, less opposition, and more active participation from the public. Likewise they could raise some awareness of the risks of non-friendly AI. Indeed, this would be the major form of participation for artists and poets as said profession, in almost every topic. Much like you wouldn't expect journalists to help particle physicists by offering them advice, but rather by reporting to the public.

As for direct participation, I would expect artists to have special expertise in certain limited subjects relevant to friendly AI, such as our values of beauty, novelty, and creativity.