34 20 November 2007 07:58AM

Followup toThe Simple Truth

Suppose that human beings had absolutely no idea how they performed arithmetic.  Imagine that human beings had evolved, rather than having learned, the ability to count sheep and add sheep.  People using this built-in ability have no idea how it worked, the way Aristotle had no idea how his visual cortex supported his ability to see things.  Peano Arithmetic as we know it has not been invented.  There are philosophers working to formalize numerical intuitions, but they employ notations such as

Plus-Of(Seven, Six) = Thirteen

to formalize the intuitively obvious fact that when you add "seven" plus "six", of course you get "thirteen".

In this world, pocket calculators work by storing a giant lookup table of arithmetical facts, entered manually by a team of expert Artificial Arithmeticians, for starting values that range between zero and one hundred.  While these calculators may be helpful in a pragmatic sense, many philosophers argue that they're only simulating addition, rather than really adding.  No machine can really count - that's why humans have to count thirteen sheep before typing "thirteen" into the calculator.  Calculators can recite back stored facts, but they can never know what the statements mean - if you type in "two hundred plus two hundred" the calculator says "Error: Outrange", when it's intuitively obvious, if you know what the words mean, that the answer is "four hundred".

Philosophers, of course, are not so naive as to be taken in by these intuitions.  Numbers are really a purely formal system - the label "thirty-seven" is meaningful, not because of any inherent property of the words themselves, but because the label refers to thirty-seven sheep in the external world.  A number is given this referential property by its semantic network of relations to other numbers.  That's why, in computer programs, the LISP token for "thirty-seven" doesn't need any internal structure - it's only meaningful because of reference and relation, not some computational property of "thirty-seven" itself.

No one has ever developed an Artificial General Arithmetician, though of course there are plenty of domain-specific, narrow Artificial Arithmeticians that work on numbers between "twenty" and "thirty", and so on.  And if you look at how slow progress has been on numbers in the range of "two hundred", then it becomes clear that we're not going to get Artificial General Arithmetic any time soon.  The best experts in the field estimate it will be at least a hundred years before calculators can add as well as a human twelve-year-old.

But not everyone agrees with this estimate, or with merely conventional beliefs about Artificial Arithmetic.  It's common to hear statements such as the following:

• "It's a framing problem - what 'twenty-one plus' equals depends on whether it's 'plus three' or 'plus four'.  If we can just get enough arithmetical facts stored to cover the common-sense truths that everyone knows, we'll start to see real addition in the network."
• "But you'll never be able to program in that many arithmetical facts by hiring experts to enter them manually.  What we need is an Artificial Arithmetician that can learn the vast network of relations between numbers that humans acquire during their childhood by observing sets of apples."
• "No, what we really need is an Artificial Arithmetician that can understand natural language, so that instead of having to be explicitly told that twenty-one plus sixteen equals thirty-seven, it can get the knowledge by exploring the Web."
• "Frankly, it seems to me that you're just trying to convince yourselves that you can solve the problem.  None of you really know what arithmetic is, so you're floundering around with these generic sorts of arguments.  'We need an AA that can learn X', 'We need an AA that can extract X from the Internet'.  I mean, it sounds good, it sounds like you're making progress, and it's even good for public relations, because everyone thinks they understand the proposed solution - but it doesn't really get you any closer to general addition, as opposed to domain-specific addition.  Probably we will never know the fundamental nature of arithmetic.  The problem is just too hard for humans to solve."
• "That's why we need to develop a general arithmetician the same way Nature did - evolution."
• "Top-down approaches have clearly failed to produce arithmetic.  We need a bottom-up approach, some way to make arithmetic emerge.  We have to acknowledge the basic unpredictability of complex systems."
• "You're all wrong.  Past efforts to create machine arithmetic were futile from the start, because they just didn't have enough computing power.  If you look at how many trillions of synapses there are in the human brain, it's clear that calculators don't have lookup tables anywhere near that large.  We need calculators as powerful as a human brain.  According to Moore's Law, this will occur in the year 2031 on April 27 between 4:00 and 4:30 in the morning."
• "I believe that machine arithmetic will be developed when researchers scan each neuron of a complete human brain into a computer, so that we can simulate the biological circuitry that performs addition in humans."
• "I don't think we have to wait to scan a whole brain.  Neural networks are just like the human brain, and you can train them to do things without knowing how they do them.  We'll create programs that will do arithmetic without we, our creators, ever understanding how they do arithmetic."
• "But Gรถdel's Theorem shows that no formal system can ever capture the basic properties of arithmetic.  Classical physics is formalizable, so to add two and two, the brain must take advantage of quantum physics."
• "Hey, if human arithmetic were simple enough that we could reproduce it in a computer, we wouldn't be able to count high enough to build computers."
• "Haven't you heard of John Searle's Chinese Calculator Experiment?  Even if you did have a huge set of rules that would let you add 'twenty-one' and 'sixteen', just imagine translating all the words into Chinese, and you can see that there's no genuine addition going on.  There are no real numbers anywhere in the system, just labels that humans use for numbers..."

There is more than one moral to this parable, and I have told it with different morals in different contexts.  It illustrates the idea of levels of organization, for example - a CPU can add two large numbers because the numbers aren't black-box opaque objects, they're ordered structures of 32 bits.

But for purposes of overcoming bias, let us draw two morals:

• First, the danger of believing assertions you can't regenerate from your own knowledge.
• Second, the danger of trying to dance around basic confusions.

Lest anyone accuse me of generalizing from fictional evidence, both lessons may be drawn from the real history of Artificial Intelligence as well.

The first danger is the object-level problem that the AA devices ran into: they functioned as tape recorders playing back "knowledge" generated from outside the system, using a process they couldn't capture internally.  A human could tell the AA device that "twenty-one plus sixteen equals thirty-seven", and the AA devices could record this sentence and play it back, or even pattern-match "twenty-one plus sixteen" to output "thirty-seven!", but the AA devices couldn't generate such knowledge for themselves.

Which is strongly reminiscent of believing a physicist who tells you "Light is waves", recording the fascinating words and playing them back when someone asks "What is light made of?", without being able to generate the knowledge for yourself.  More on this theme tomorrow.

The second moral is the meta-level danger that consumed the Artificial Arithmetic researchers and opinionated bystanders - the danger of dancing around confusing gaps in your knowledge.  The tendency to do just about anything except grit your teeth and buckle down and fill in the damn gap.

Whether you say, "It is emergent!", or whether you say, "It is unknowable!", in neither case are you acknowledging that there is a basic insight required which is possessable, but unpossessed by you.

How can you know when you'll have a new basic insight?  And there's no way to get one except by banging your head against the problem, learning everything you can about it, studying it from as many angles as possible, perhaps for years.  It's not a pursuit that academia is set up to permit, when you need to publish at least one paper per month.  It's certainly not something that venture capitalists will fund.  You want to either go ahead and build the system now, or give up and do something else instead.

Look at the comments above: none are aimed at setting out on a quest for the missing insight which would make numbers no longer mysterious, make "twenty-seven" more than a black box.  None of the commenters realized that their difficulties arose from ignorance or confusion in their own minds, rather than an inherent property of arithmetic.  They were not trying to achieve a state where the confusing thing ceased to be confusing.

If you read Judea Pearl's "Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems: Networks of Plausible Inference" then you will see that the basic insight behind graphical models is indispensable to problems that require it.  (It's not something that fits on a T-Shirt, I'm afraid, so you'll have to go and read the book yourself.  I haven't seen any online popularizations of Bayesian networks that adequately convey the reasons behind the principles, or the importance of the math being exactly the way it is, but Pearl's book is wonderful.)  There were once dozens of "non-monotonic logics" awkwardly trying to capture intuitions such as "If my burglar alarm goes off, there was probably a burglar, but if I then learn that there was a small earthquake near my home, there was probably not a burglar."  With the graphical-model insight in hand, you can give a mathematical explanation of exactly why first-order logic has the wrong properties for the job, and express the correct solution in a compact way that captures all the common-sense details in one elegant swoop.  Until you have that insight, you'll go on patching the logic here, patching it there, adding more and more hacks to force it into correspondence with everything that seems "obviously true".

You won't know the Artificial Arithmetic problem is unsolvable without its key.  If you don't know the rules, you don't know the rule that says you need to know the rules to do anything.  And so there will be all sorts of clever ideas that seem like they might work, like building an Artificial Arithmetician that can read natural language and download millions of arithmetical assertions from the Internet.

And yet somehow the clever ideas never work.  Somehow it always turns out that you "couldn't see any reason it wouldn't work" because you were ignorant of the obstacles, not because no obstacles existed.  Like shooting blindfolded at a distant target - you can fire blind shot after blind shot, crying, "You can't prove to me that I won't hit the center!"  But until you take off the blindfold, you're not even in the aiming game.  When "no one can prove to you" that your precious idea isn't right, it means you don't have enough information to strike a small target in a vast answer spaceUntil you know your idea will work, it won't.

From the history of previous key insights in Artificial Intelligence, and the grand messes which were proposed prior to those insights, I derive an important real-life lesson:  When the basic problem is your ignorance, clever strategies for bypassing your ignorance lead to shooting yourself in the foot.

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Comment author: 20 November 2007 10:08:19AM 12 points [-]

Well, shooting randomly at a distant target is more likely to produce a bulls-eye than not shooting at all, even though you're almost certainly going to miss (and probably shoot yourself in the foot while you're at it). It's probably better to try to find a way to take off that blindfold. As you suggest, we don't yet understand intelligence, so there's no way we're going to make an intelligent machine without either significantly improving our understanding or winning the proverbial lottery.

"Programming is the art of figuring out what you want so precisely that even a machine can do it." - Some guy who isn't famous

Comment author: 20 November 2007 11:15:24AM 1 point [-]

Well shooting randomly is perhaps a bad idea, but I think the best we can do is shoot systematically, which is hardly better (takes exponentially many bullets). So you either have to be lucky, or hope the target isn't very far, so you don't need to a wide cone to take pot shots at, or hope P=NP.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 May 2012 03:05:29PM *  1 point [-]

exponentially many

EDIT: well, in the case of actual shooting at least.

Comment author: 20 November 2007 02:32:57PM 19 points [-]

@Doug & Gray: AGI is a William Tell target. A near miss could be very unfortunate. We can't responsibly take a proper shot till we have an appropriate level of understanding and confidence of accuracy.

Comment author: 20 November 2007 02:49:59PM 3 points [-]

Eliezer,

Did you include your own answer to the question of why AI hasn't arrived yet in the list? :-)

This is a nice post. Another way of stating the moral might be: "If you want to understand something, you have to stare your confusion right in the face; don't look away for a second."

So, what is confusing about intelligence? That question is problematic: a better one might be "what isn't confusing about intelligence?"

Here's one thing I've pondered at some length. The VC theory states that in order to generalize well a learning machine must implement some form of capacity control or regularization, which roughly means that the model class it uses must have limited complexity (VC dimension). This is just Occam's razor.

But the brain has on the order of 10^12 synapses, and so it must be enormously complex. How can the brain generalize, if it has so many parameters? Are the vast majority of synaptic weights actually not learned, but rather preset somehow? Or, is regularization implemented in some other way, perhaps by applying random changes to the value of the weights (this would seem biochemically plausible)?

Also, the brain has a very high metabolic cost, so all those neurons must be doing something valuable.

Comment author: 22 April 2011 11:40:23PM 4 points [-]

Are the vast majority of synaptic weights actually not learned, but rather preset somehow?"

This is what some philosophers have purposed, others have thought we start as a blank slate. The research into the subject has shown that babies do start with some sort of working model of things. That is we begin life with a set of preset preferences and the ability to distinguish those preferences and a basic understanding of geometric shapes.

Comment author: 22 April 2011 11:51:39PM 5 points [-]

It would be shocking if we didn't have preset functions. Calves, for example, can walk almost straight away and swim not much longer. We aren't going to entirely eliminate the mammalian ability to start with a set of preset features there just isn't enough pressure to keep a few of them.

Comment author: 23 April 2011 01:07:24AM 5 points [-]

If you put a newborn whose mother had an unmedicated labor on the mother's stomach, the baby will move up to a breast and start to feed.

Comment author: 23 April 2011 07:23:46AM *  2 points [-]

Good point. Drink (food), breathe, scream and a couple of cute reactions to keep caretakers interested. All you need to bootstrap a human growth process. There seems to be something built in about eye contact management too - because a lack there is an early indicator that something is wrong.

Comment author: 24 February 2014 09:55:14PM 2 points [-]

a couple of cute reactions to keep caretakers interested

Not terribly relevant to your point, but it's likely human sense of cuteness is based on what babies do rather than the other way around.

Comment author: 24 February 2014 10:02:49PM *  1 point [-]

I'd replace "human" with "mammalian" -- most young mammals share a similar set of traits, even those that aren't constrained as we are by big brains and a pelvic girdle adapted to walking upright. That seems to suggest a more basal cuteness response; I believe the biology term is "baby schema".

Other than that, yeah.

Comment author: 18 February 2012 11:23:35AM 4 points [-]

Conversely, studies with newborn mammals have shown that if you deprive them of something as simple as horizontal lines, they will grow up unable to distinguish lines that approach 'horizontalness'. So even separating the most basic evolved behavior from the most basic learned behavior is not intuitive.

Comment author: 20 February 2012 06:25:53AM 0 points [-]

The deprivation you're talking about takes place over the course of days and weeks -- it reflects the effects of (lack of) reinforcement learning, so it's not really germane to a discussion of preset functions that manifest in the first few minutes after birth.

Comment author: 27 July 2012 02:31:01AM 3 points [-]

It's relevant insofar as we shouldn't make assumptions on what is and is not preset simply based on observations that take place in a "typical" environment.

Comment author: 27 July 2012 03:26:00AM *  2 points [-]

Ah, a negative example. Fair point. Guess I wasn't paying enough attention and missed the signal you meant to send by using "conversely" as the first word of your comment.

Comment author: 27 July 2012 05:37:42AM 1 point [-]

That was lazy of me, in retrospect. I find that often I'm poorer at communicating my intent than I assume I am.

Comment author: 13 January 2013 06:57:25PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: 26 June 2014 11:24:25PM 0 points [-]

Artificial Neural Networks have been trained with millions of parameters. There are a lot of different methods of regularization like dropconnect or sparsity constraints. But the brain does online learning. Overfitting isn't as big of a concern because it doesn't see the data more than once.

Comment author: 27 June 2014 01:30:57AM *  0 points [-]

On the other hand, architecture matters. The most successful neural network for a given task has connections designed for the structure of that task, so that it will learn much more quickly than a fully-connected or arbitrarily connected network.

The human brain appears to have a great deal of information and structure in its architecture right off the bat.

Comment author: 27 June 2014 05:49:40AM 0 points [-]

The human brain appears to engage in hierarchical learning, which is what allows it to leverage huge amounts of "general case" abstract knowledge in attacking novel specific problems put before it.

Comment author: 27 June 2014 06:34:12PM 0 points [-]

I'm not saying that you're wrong, but the state of the art in computer vision is weight sharing which biological NNs probably can't do. Hyper parameters like the number of layers and how local the connections should be, are important but they don't give that much prior information about the task.

I may be completely wrong, but I do suspect that biological NNs are far more general purpose and less "pre-programmed" than is usually thought. The learning rules for a neural network are far simpler than the functions they learn. Training neural networks with genetic algorithms is extremely slow.

Comment author: 27 June 2014 07:12:05PM 0 points [-]

Architecture of the V1 and V2 areas of the brain, which Convolutional Neural Networks and other ANNs for vision borrow heavily from, is highly geared towards vision, and includes basic filters that detect stripes, dots, corners, etc. that appear in all sorts of computer vision work. Yes, no backpropagation or weight-sharing is directly responsible for this, but the presence of local filters is still what I would call very specific architecture (I've studied computer vision and inspiration it draws from early vision specifically, so I can say more about this).

The way genetic algorithms tune weights in an ANN (and yes, this is an awful way to train an ANN) is very different from the way they work in actually evolving a brain; working on the genetic code that develops the brain. I'd say they are so wildly different that no conclusions from the first can be applied to the second.

During a single individual's life, Hebbian and other learning mechanisms in the brain are distinct from gradient learning, but can achieve somewhat similar things.

Comment author: 20 November 2007 02:54:32PM 1 point [-]

That's not how William Tell managed it. He had to practice aiming at less-dangerous targets until he became an expert, and only then did he attempt to shoot the apple.

It is not clear to me that it is desirable to prejudge what an artificial intelligence should desire or conclude, or even possible to purposefully put real constraints on it in the first place. We should simply create the god, then acknowledge the truth: that we aren't capable of evaluating the thinking of gods.

Comment author: 20 November 2007 03:15:47PM -1 points [-]

Adding to DanBurFoot, is there a link you want to point to that shows your real, tangible results for AI, based on your superior methodology?

Comment author: 20 November 2007 04:12:35PM 6 points [-]

For what it's worth, Benoit Essiambre, the things you have just said are nonsense. The reason logicians seem to be unable to make a distinction between 1.999... and 2 is that there is no distinction. They are not two different definable real numbers, they are the same definable real number.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 12:01:44PM *  -3 points [-]

Except that 1.9999... < 2

Edit: here's the proof that I'm wrong mathematically (from the provided Wikipedia link): "Multiplication of 9 times 1 produces 9 in each digit, so 9 × 0.111... equals 0.999... and 9 × 1⁄9 equals 1, so 0.999... = 1"

Comment author: 30 December 2010 12:54:43PM 5 points [-]
Comment author: 30 December 2010 04:22:19PM *  2 points [-]

Ok. Interesting.

I can see and agree that 0.999... can in the limit equal two, whereas in any finite representation would still be less than 2.

I don't consider them to be "the same number" in that sense... even though they algebraically equate (once the limit is reached) in a theoretical framework that can encompass infinities.

ie, in maths, I'd equate them but in the "real world" - I'd treat them separately.

Edit: and reading further... it seems I'm wrong again. Of course, the whole point of putting "..." is to represent the fact that this is the limit of the decimal expansion of 0.999... to infinity.

therefore yep, 1.999... = 2

Where my understanding failed me is that 1.999... does not in fact represent the summation of the infinite set of 1 + 0.9 + 0.09 + ... which summation could, in fact, simply not be taken to its full limit. The representation "1.999..." can only represent either the set or the limit of the set, and mathematical convention has it as the latter, not the former.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 06:14:29PM *  2 points [-]

Another argument that may be more convincing on a gut level:

9x(1/9) is exactly equal to 1, correct?

Find the decimal representation of 1/9 using long division: 1/9=0.11111111... (note there is no different or superior way to represent this number as a decimal)

9x(1/9) = 9x(0.11111111...)=0.9999999... which we already agreed was exactly equal to 1.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 06:23:57PM 2 points [-]

Yes :)

See my previous (edited) comment above.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 07:22:49PM *  0 points [-]

Comment author: 30 December 2010 10:14:59PM 2 points [-]

No problem. It is a great proof (there aren't many so simple and succinct). Just bad luck on timing ;)

Comment author: 30 December 2010 08:51:57PM 1 point [-]

Note also that it has to denote the limit, because we want it to denote a number, and the other object you describe (a sequence rather than a set, strictly speaking) isn't a number, just, well, a sequence of numbers.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 10:20:42PM *  -1 points [-]

it has to denote the limit, because we want it to denote a number,

This is the part I take issue with.

It does not have to denote a number, but we choose to let it denote a number (rather than a sequence) because that is how mathematicians find it most convenient to use that particular representation.

That sequence is also quite useful mathematically - just not as useful as the number-that-represents-the-limit. Many sequences are considered to be useful... though generally not in algebra - it's more common in Calculus, where such sequences are extremely useful. In fact I'd say that in calculus "just a sequence" is perhaps even more useful than "just a number".

My first impression (and thus what I originally got wrong) was that 1.999... represented the sequence and not the limit because, really, if you meant 2, why not just say 2? :)

Comment author: 30 December 2010 10:30:16PM *  0 points [-]

We want it to denote a number for simple consistency. .11111... is a number. It is a limit. 3.14159... should denote a number. Why should 1.99999?... Be any different? If we are going to be at all consistent in our notation they should all represent the same sort of series. Otherwise this is extremely irregular notation to no end.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 11:47:44PM -1 points [-]

Yes, I totally agree with you: consistency and convenience are why we have chosen to use 1.9999... notation to represent the limit, rather than the sequence.

consistency and convenience tends to drive most mathematical notational choices (with occasional other influences), for reasons that should be extremely obvious.

It just so happened that, o this occasion, I was not aware enough of either the actual convention, or of other "things that this notation would be consistent with" before I guessed at the meaning of this particular item of notation.

And so my guessed meaning was one of the two things that I thought would be "likely meanings" for the notation.

In this case, my guess was for the wrong one of the two.

I seem to be getting a lot of comments that are implying that I should have somehow naturally realised which of the two meanings was "correct"... and have tried very hard to explain why it is not obvious, and not somehow inevitable.

Both of my possible interpretations were potentially valid, and I'd like to insist that the sequence-one is wrong only by convention (ie maths has to pick one or the other meaning... it happens to be the most convenient for mathematicians, which happens in this case to be the limit-interpretation)... but as is clearly evidenced by the fact that there is so much confusion around the subject (ref the wikipedia page) - it is not obvious intuitively that one is "correct" and one is "not correct".

I maintain that without knowledge of the convention, you cannot know which is the "correct" interpretation. Any assumption otherwise is simply hindsight bias.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 10:55:02PM *  0 points [-]

OK, let me put it this way: If we are considering the question "Is 1.999...=2?", the context makes it clear that we must be considering the left hand side as a number, because the RHS is a number. (Would you interpret 2 in that context as the constant 2 sequence? Well then of course they're not equal, but this is obvious and unenlightening.) Why would you compare a number for equality against a sequence? They're entirely different sorts of objects.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 11:18:03PM -1 points [-]

is "x-squared = 2" ? is a perfectly valid question to ask in mathematics even though the LHS is not obviously an number

In this case, it is a formula that can equate to a number... just as the sequence is a (very limited) formula that can equate to 2 - if we take the sequence to its limit; or that falls just shy of 2 - if we try and represent it in any finite/limited way.

In stating that 1.9999... is a number, you are assuming the usage of the limit/number, rather than the other potential usage ie, you are falling into the same assumption-trap that I fell into... It's just that your assumption happens to be the one that matches with common usage, whereas mine wasn't ;)

Using 1.9999. to represent the limit of the sequence (ie the number) is certainly true by convention (ie "by definition"), but is no means the only way to interpret the symbols. It could just as easily represent the sequence itself... we just don't happen to do that - we define what mathematical symbols refer to... they're just the word/pointers to what we're talking about yes?

Comment author: 31 December 2010 12:39:48AM 1 point [-]

is "x-squared = 2" ? is a perfectly valid question to ask in mathematics even though the LHS is not obviously an number

Er... yes it is? In that context, x^2 is a number. We just don't know what number it might be. By contrast, the sequence (1, 1.9, 1.99, ...) is not a number at all.

Furthermore, even if we insist on regarding x^2 as a formula with a free variable, your analogy doesn't hold. The sequence (1, 1.9, 1.99, ...) has no free variables; it's one specific sequence.

You are correct that the convention could have been that 1.999... represents the sequence... but as I stated before, in that case, the question of whether it equals 2 would not be very meaningful. Given the context you can deduce that we are using the convention that it designates a number.

Comment author: 31 December 2010 08:53:38AM *  -2 points [-]

By contrast, the sequence (1, 1.9, 1.99, ...) is not a number at all

yes I agree, a sequence is not a number, it's sequence... though I wonder if we're getting confused, because we're talking about the sequence, instead of the infinite series (1 + 0.9 + 0.09 +...) which is actually what I had in my head when I was first thinking about 1.999...

Along the way, somebody said "sequence" and that's the word I started using... when really I've been thinking about the infinite series.... anyway

The infinite series has far less freedom than x^2, but that doesn't mean that it's a different thing entirely from x^2.

Lets consider "x - 1"

"x -1 " is not a number, until we equate it to something that lets us determine what x is...

If we use: "x -1 =4 " however. We can solve-for-x and there are no degrees of freedom.

If we use "1.9 < x -1 < 2" we have some minor degree of freedom... and only just a few more than the infinite series in question.

Admittedly, the only degree of freedom left to 1.9999... (the series) is to either be 2 or an infinitesimal away from 2. But I don't think that makes it different in kind to x -1 = 4

anyway - I think we're probably just in "violent agreement" (as a friend of mine once used to say) ;)

All the bits that I was trying to really say we agree over... now we're just discussing the related maths ;)

the question of whether it equals 2 would not be very meaningful

Ok, lets move into hypothetical land and pretend that 1.9999... represents what I originally though it represents.

The comparison with the number 2 provides the meaning that what you want to do is to evaluate the series at its limit.

It's totally supportable for you to equate 1.9999... = 2 and determine that this is a statement that is: 1) true when the infinite series has been evaluated to the limit 2) false when it is represented in any finite/limited way

Edit: ah... that's why you can't use stars for to-the-power-of ;)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 December 2010 10:58:22PM 1 point [-]

If we wanted to talk about the sequence we would never denote it 1.999... We would write {1, 1.9, 1.99, 1.999, ...} and perhaps give the formula for the Nth term, which is 2 - 10^-N.

Comment author: 30 December 2010 11:32:23PM *  0 points [-]

Hi Misha, I might also turn that argument back on you and repeat what I said before: "if you meant 2, why not just say 2?" It's as valid as "if you meant the sequence, why not just write {1, 1.9, 1.99, 1.999, ...}"?

Clearly there are other reasons for using something that is not the usual convention. There are definitely good reasons for representing infinite series or sequences... as you have pointed out. However - there is no particular reason why mathematics has chosen to use 1.999... to mean the limit, as opposed to the actual infinite series. Either one could be equally validly used in this situation.

It is only by common convention that mathematics uses it to represent the actual limit (as n tends to infinity) instead of the other possibility - which would be "the actual limit as n tends to infinity... if we actually take it to infinity, or an infinitesimal less than the limit if we don't", which is how I assumed (incorrectly) that it was to be used

However, the other thing you say that "we never denote it 1.999..." pulls out an interesting though, and if I grasp what you're saying correctly, then I disagree with you.

As I've mentioned in another comment now - mathematical symbolic conventions are the same as "words" - they are map, not territory. We define them to mean what we want them to mean. We choose what they mean by common consensus (motivated by convenience). It is a very good idea to follow that convention - which is why I decided I was wrong to use it the way I originally assumed it was being used... and from now on, I will use the usual convention...

However, you seem to be saying that you think the current way is "the one true way" and that the other way is not valid at all... ie that "we would never denote it 1.9999..." as being some sort of basis of fact out there in reality, when really it's just a convention that we've chosen, and is therefore non-obvious from looking at the symbol without the prior knowledge of the convention (as I did).

I am trying to explain that this is not the case - without knowing the convention, either meaning is valid... it's only having now been shown the convention that I now know what is generally "by definition" meant by the symbol, and it happened to be a different way to what I automatically picked. without prior knowledge.

so yes, I think we would never denote the sequence as 1.999... but not because the sequence is not representable by 1.999... - simply because it is conventional to do so.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 December 2010 02:47:38AM 1 point [-]

You have a point. I tend to dislike arguments about mathematics that start with "well, this definition is just a choice" because they don't capture any substance about any actual math. As a result, I tried to head that off by (perhaps poorly) making a case for why this definition is a reasonable choice.

In any case, I misunderstood the nature of what you were saying about the convention, so I don't think we're in any actual disagreement.

I might also turn that argument back on you and repeat what I said before: "if you meant 2, why not just say 2?"

If I meant 2, I would say 2. However, our system of writing repeating decimals also allows us to (redundantly) write the repeating decimal 1.999... which is equivalent to 2. It's not a very useful repeating decimal, but it sometimes comes out as a result of an algorithm: e.g. when you multiply 2/9 = 0.222... by 9, you will get 1.999... as you calculate it, instead of getting 2 straight off the bat.

Comment author: 31 December 2010 09:02:15AM 1 point [-]

You have a point. I tend to dislike arguments about mathematics that start with "well, this definition is just a choice"

Me too! Especially as I've just been reading that sequence here about "proving by definition" and "I can define it any way I like"... that's why I tried to make it very clear I wasn't saying that... I also needed to head of the heading off ;)

Anyway - I believe we are just in violent agreement here, so no problems ;)

Comment author: 04 September 2011 12:14:00AM 1 point [-]

The easiest example I've come across is:

If (1 ÷ 3 = 0.333...) and (0.999... ÷ 3 = 0.333...) then (1 = 0.999...).

Comment author: 12 June 2013 07:48:26AM -1 points [-]

For what it's worth (and why do I have to pay karma to reply to this comment, I don't get it) there is an infinitesimal difference between the two. An infinitesimal is just like infinity in that it's not a real number. For all practical purposes it is equal to zero, but just like infinity, it has useful mathematical purposes in that it isn't exactly equal to zero. You could plug an infinitesimal into an equation to show how close you can get to zero without actually getting there. If you just replaced it with zero the equation could come out undefined or something.

Likewise using 1.999... because of the property that it isn't exactly equal to 2 but is practically equal to 2, could be useful.

Comment author: 12 June 2013 07:57:57AM *  2 points [-]

er... I'm not sure if this is the right way to look at it.

1.999999... is 2. Exactly 2. The thing is, there is an infinitesimal difference between '2' and '2'. 1.999999.... isn't "Two minus epsilon", it's "The limit of two minus epsilon as epsilon approaches zero", which is two.

EDIT: And to explain the following objection:

Weird things happen when you apply infinity, but can it really change a rule that is true for all finite numbers?

Yes, absolutely. That's part of the point of infinity. One way of looking at certain kinds of infinity (note that there are several kinds of infinity) is that infinity is one of our placeholders for where rules break down.

Comment author: 14 June 2013 05:55:56AM 2 points [-]

This is one of those things that isn't worth arguing over at all, but I will anyways because I'm interested. I'm probably wrong because people much smarter than me have thought about this before, but this still doesn't make any sense to me at all.

1.9 is just 2 minus 0.1, right? And 1.99 is just 2 minus 0.01. Each time you add another 9, you are dividing the number you are subtracting by 10. No matter how many times you divide 0.1 by ten, you will never exactly reach zero. And if it's not exactly zero, then two minus the number isn't exactly two.

Even if you do it 3^^^3 times, it will still be more than zero. Weird things happen when you apply infinity, but can it really change a rule that is true for all finite numbers? You can say it approaches 2 but that's not the same as it ever actually reaching it. Does this make any sense?

Comment author: 20 November 2007 04:13:25PM 1 point [-]

Me: AGI is a William Tell target. A near miss could be very unfortunate. We can't responsibly take a proper shot till we have an appropriate level of understanding and confidence of accuracy.

Caledonian: That's not how William Tell managed it. He had to practice aiming at less-dangerous targets until he became an expert, and only then did he attempt to shoot the apple.

Yes, by "take a proper shot" I meant shooting at the proper target with proper shots. And yes, practice on less-dangerous targets is necessary, but it's not sufficient.

It is not clear to me that it is desirable to prejudge what an artificial intelligence should desire or conclude, or even possible to purposefully put real constraints on it in the first place. We should simply create the god, then acknowledge the truth: that we aren't capable of evaluating the thinking of gods.

I agree we can't accurately evaluate superintelligent thoughts, but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't try to affect what it thinks or what it's goals are.

I couldn't do this argument justice. I encourage interested readers to read Eliezer's paper on coherent extrapolated volition.

Comment author: 20 November 2007 05:09:22PM 3 points [-]

No, by 2 I mean 1.999...

A_A

Comment author: 20 November 2007 08:57:37PM -3 points [-]

I agree that infinity is an abstraction. What I'm trying to say is that this concept is often abused when it is taken as implicit in real numbers.

"We can only "count" because our physical world is a quantum world. We have units because the basic elements are units, like elementary particles. If the real world were a continuum, there would be no arithmetic."

I don't see it that way. In Euclid's book, variables are assigned to segment lengths and other geometries that tie algebra to geometric interpretations. IMO, when mathematics stray away from something that can be interpreted physically it leads to confusion and errors.

What I'd like to see is a definition of real numbers that is closer to reality and that allows us to encode our knowledge of reality more efficiently. A definition that does not allow abstract limits and infinite precision. Using the "significant digits" interpretation seems to be a step in the right direction to me as all of our measurement and knowledge is subject to some kind of error bar.

We could for example, define a set of real numbers such that we always use as many digit needed so that the quantization error from the limited number of digits is under a hundred times smaller than the error in the value we are measuring. This way, the error caused by the use of this real number system would always explain less than a 1% of the variance of our measurements based on it.

This also seem to require that we distinguish mathematics on natural numbers which represent countable whole items, and mathematics that represent continuous scales which would be best represented by the real numbers system with the limited significant digits.

Now this is just an idea, I'm just an amateur mathematician but I think it could resolve a lot of issues and paradoxes in mathematics.

Comment author: 20 November 2007 11:41:00PM 2 points [-]

1.9999... = 2 is not an "issue" or a "paradox" in mathematics.

If you use a limited number of digits in your calculations, then your quantization errors can accumulate. (And suppose the quantity you are measuring is the difference of two much larger numbers.)

Of course it's possible that there's nothing in the real world that corresponds exactly to our so-called "real numbers". But until we actually know what smaller-scale structure it is that we're approximating, it would be crazy to pick some arbitrary "lower-resolution" system and hope it matches the world better. That's doing for "finiteness" what Eliezer has somewhere or other complained about people doing for "complexity".

Comment author: 21 November 2007 04:17:02AM 1 point [-]

"...mathematics that represent continuous scales which would be best represented by the real numbers system with the limited significant digits."

If you limit the number of significant digits, your mathematics are discrete, not continuous. I'm guessing the concept you're really after is the idea of computable numbers. The set of computable numbers is a dense countable subset of the reals.

Comment author: 21 November 2007 08:26:35PM 1 point [-]

With the graphical-network insight in hand, you can give a mathematical explanation of exactly why first-order logic has the wrong properties for the job, and express the correct solution in a compact way that captures all the common-sense details in one elegant swoop.

Consider the following example, from Menzies's "Causal Models, Token Causation, and Processes"[*]:

An assassin puts poison in the king's coffee. The bodyguard responds by pouring an antidote in the king's coffee. If the bodyguard had not put the antidote in the coffee, the king would have died. On the other hand, the antidote is fatal when taken by itself and if the poison had not been poured in first, it would have killed the king. The poison and the antidote are both lethal when taken singly but neutralize each other when taken together. In fact, the king drinks the coffee and survives.

We can model this situation with the following structural equation system:

A = true G = A S = (A and G) or (not-A and not-G)

where A is a boolean variable denoting whether the Assassin put poison in the coffee or not, G is a boolean variable denoting whether the Guard put the antidote in the coffee or not, and S is a boolean variable denoting whether the king Survives or not.

According to Pearl and Halpern's definition of actual causation, the assassin putting poison in the coffee causes the king to survive, since changing the assassin's action changes the king's survival when we hold the guard's action fixed. This is clearly an incorrect account of causation.

IMO, graphical models and related techniques represent the biggest advance in thinking about causality since Lewis's work on counterfactuals (though James Heckman disagrees, which should make us a bit more circumspect). But they aren't the end of the line, even if we restrict our attention to manipulationist accounts of causality.

[*] The paper is found here. As an aside, I do not agree with Menzies's proposed resolution.

Comment author: 29 October 2009 03:20:32AM *  6 points [-]

Um, this sounds not correct. The assassin causes the bodyguard to add the antidote; if the bodyguard hadn't seen the assassin do it, he wouldn't have so added. So if you compute the counterfactual the Pearlian way, manipulating the assassin changes the bodyguard's action as well, since the bodyguard causally descends from the assassin.

Comment author: 29 October 2009 03:46:31AM 3 points [-]

Right -- and according to Pearl's causal beam method, you would first note that the guard sustains the coffee's (non)deadliness-state against the assassin's action, which ultimately makes you deem the guard the cause of the king's survival.

Comment author: 10 June 2013 08:09:38PM 1 point [-]

Furthermore, if you draw the graph the way Neel seems to suggest, then the bodyguard is adding the antidote without dependence on the actions of the assassin, and so there is no longer any reason to call one "assassin" and the other "bodyguard", or one "poison" and the other "antidote". The bodyguard in that model is trying to kill the king as much as the assassin is, and the assassin's timely intervention saved the king as much as the bodyguard's.

Comment author: 21 November 2007 08:49:55PM 0 points [-]

"But until we actually know what smaller-scale structure".

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_Length: "Combined, these two theories imply that it is impossible to measure position to a precision greater than the Planck length, or duration to a precision greater than the time a photon traveling at c would take to travel a Planck length"

Therefore, one could in fact say that all time- and distance- derived measurements can in fact be truncated to a fixed number of decimal places without losing any real precision, by using precisions based on the Planck Length. There's no point in having precision smaller than the limits in the quote above, as anything smaller is unobservable in our current understanding of physics.

That length is approximately 1.6 x 10^-35, and the corresponding time duration is approximately 5.33702552 x 10^-44 seconds.

Comment author: 21 November 2007 09:30:58PM -1 points [-]

"When the basic problem is your ignorance, clever strategies for bypassing your ignorance lead to shooting yourself in the foot."

I like this lesson. It rings true to me, but the problem of ego is not one to be overlooked. People like feeling smart and having the status of being a "learned" individual. It takes a lot of courage to profess ignorance in today's academic climate. We are taught that we have such sophisticated techniques to solve really hard problems. There are armies of scientists and engineers working to advance our society every minute. But who stops and asks "if these guys (and gals) are so smart, why is it that such fundamental ignorance still exists in so many fields"? Yes, there are our current theories, but how many of them are truly impressive? How many logically follow from the context vs. how many took a truly creative breakthrough? The myth of reductionism promises steady progress, but it is the individual who gets inspired. It boils down to humility. Man is too arrogant to admit that he is still clueless on many fundamental problems. How could that possibly be true if we are all so smart in our modern age? Who amongst you will admit when something that seems very sophisticated actually makes no sense? You'll probably just feel stupid for not understanding, but the problem is not necessarily with you. Dogma creeps into any organization of people, and science is no different. We assume our level of understanding in certain subjects applies equally to all. Until people have the courage to question very fundamental assumptions on how we approach new problems, we will not progress, or worse, we will find much work has been done on a faulty foundation. Figuring out the right question to ask is the most important hurdle of all. But who has time when we are judged not by the quality of our thought but by the quantity? Some very important minds only produced a handful of papers, but they were worth reading...

Comment author: 21 November 2007 11:59:45PM -1 points [-]

anonymous--I'd like to second that motion

Comment author: 22 November 2007 12:34:00AM -1 points [-]

I read a book on the philosophy of set theory -- and I get lost right at the point where classical infinite thought was replaced by modern infinite thought. IIRC the problem was paradoxes based on infinite recursion (Zeno et. all) and finding mathematical foundations to satisfy calculus limits. Then something about Cantor, cardinality and some hand wavy 'infinite sets are real!'.

1.999... is just an infinite set summation of finite numbers 1 + 0.9 + 0.09 + ...

Now, how an infinite process on an infinite set can equal an integer is a problem I still grapple with. Classical theory said that this was nonsense since one would never finish the summation (if one were to begin). I tend to agree and I suppose one could say I see infinity as a verb and not a noun.

I suggest anyone who believes 1.999... === 2 really looks into what that means. The root of the argument isn't "What is the number between 1.999... and 2?" but rather "Can we say that 1.999... is a sensible theoretical concept?"

Comment author: 30 December 2010 12:15:17PM *  -1 points [-]

1.999... does not equal 2 - it just tends towards 2

For all practical purposes, you could substitute one for the other.

But in theory, you know that 1.9999... is always just below 2, even though it creeps ever closer.

If we ever found a way to magickally "reach infinity" they would finally meet... and be "equal".

Edit: The numbers are always going to be slightly different in a finite-space, but equate to the same thing when you allow infinities. ie mathematically, in the limit, they equate to the same value, but in any finite representation, they are different.

Further Edit: According to mathematical convention, the notation "1.999..." does refer to the limit. therefore, "1.999..." strictly refers to 2 (not to any finite case that is slightly less than two).

Comment author: 01 November 2011 03:45:37AM *  1 point [-]

Classical theory said that this was nonsense since one would never finish the summation (if one were to begin).

It was nonsense in classical theory. Infinite sum has its own separate definition.

I tend to agree and I suppose one could say I see infinity as a verb and not a noun.

There are times in modern mathematics that infinite numbers are used. This is not one of them.

I doubt I'm the best at explaining what limits are, so I won't bother. I may be able to tell you what they aren't. They give results similar to the intuitive idea of infinite numbers, but they don't do it in the most intuitively obvious way. They don't use infinite numbers. They use a certain property that at most one number will have in relation to a sequence. In the case of 1, 1.9, 1.99, ..., this number is two. In the case of 1, 0, 1, 0, ..., there is no such number, so the series is said not to converge.

... "Can we say that 1.999... is a sensible theoretical concept?"

No. The question is "Can we make a sensible theoretical way to interpret the numeral 1.999..., that approximately matches our intuitions?" It wasn't easy, but we managed it.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 01:49:17AM 0 points [-]

Question: What does this tell you about current methods for measuring intelligence?

Better question: why do you insist that those examples are of failures to acknowledge intelligence when you also insist that we are unable to meaningfully define intelligence?

Comment author: 22 November 2007 02:02:40AM 0 points [-]

mclaren, your comment is way too long. I have truncated it and emailed you the full version. Feel free to post the comment to your blog, then post a link to the blog here.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 02:51:14AM 0 points [-]

Anonymous (re Planck scales etc.), sure you can truncate your representations of lengths at the Planck length, and likewise for your representations of times, but this doesn't simplify your *number* system unless you have acceptable ways of truncating all the other numbers you need to use. And, at present, we don't. Sure, maybe really the universe is best considered as some sort of discrete network with some funky structure on it, but that doesn't give us any way of simplifying (or making more appropriate) our mathematics until we know just what sort of discrete network with what funky structure. (And I think every sketch-of-a-theory we currently have along those lines still uses continuously varying quantities as quantum "amplitudes", too.)

James (re mathematics and infinite sets and suchlike), it seems unfair to criticize something as being handwavy when you demonstrably don't remember it clearly; how do you know that the vagueness is in the thing itself rather than your recollection? There is a perfectly clear and simple definition of what a sum like 1 + 9/10 + 9/100 + ... means (which, btw, is surely enough to call it "a sensible theoretical concept"), and what that particular one means is 2. If you have a different definition, or a different way of doing mathematics, that you like better, then feel free to adopt it and do mathematics that way; if you end up with a theory at least as coherent, useful and elegant as the usual one then perhaps it'll catch on.

Anonymous (re humility, reductionism, etc.): I think your comment consisted mostly of applause lights. Science is demonstrably pretty good at questioning fundamental assumptions (consider, say, heliocentricity, relativity, quantum mechanics, continental drift); what evidence have you that more effort should go into questioning them than currently does? (Clearly some should, and does. Clearly much effort spent that way is wasted, and produces pseudoscience or merely frustration. The question is how to apportion the effort.)

Comment author: 22 November 2007 03:16:44AM 0 points [-]

Thanks g for the tip about computable numbers, that's pretty much what I had in mind. I didn't quite get from the wikipedia article if these numbers could or could not replace the reals for all of useful mathematics but it's interesting indeed.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 03:29:13AM 0 points [-]

James, I share your feelings of uneasiness about infinite digits, as you said, the problem is not that these numbers will not represent the same points at the limit but that they shouldn't be taken to the limit so readily as this doesn't seem to add anything to mathematics but confusion.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 04:16:07AM 1 point [-]

@James:

If I recall my Newton correctly, the only way to take this "sum of an infinite series" business consistently is to interpret it as shorthand for the limit of an infinite series. (Cf. Newton's Principia Mathematica, Lemma 2. The infinitesimally wide parallelograms are dubitably real, but the area under the curve between the sets of parallelograms is clearly a real, definite area.)

@Benoit:

Why shouldn't we take 1.9999... as just another, needlessly complicated (if there's no justifying context) way of writing "2"? Just as I could conceivably count "1, 2, 3, 4, d(5x)/dx, 6, 7" if I were a crazy person.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 05:05:12AM 0 points [-]

Benquo, I see two possible reasons:

1) '2' leads to confusion as to whether we are representing a real or a natural number. That is, whether we are counting discrete items or we are representing a value on a continuum. If we are counting items then '2' is correct.

2) If it is clear that we are representing numbers on a continuum, I could see the number of significant digits used as an indication of the amount of uncertainty in the value. For any real problem there is _always_ uncertainty caused by A) the measuring instrument and B) the representation system itself such as the computable numbers which are limited by a finite amount of digits (although we get to choose the uncertainty here as we choose the number of digits). This is one of the reason the infinite limits don't seem useful to me. They don't correspond to reality. The implicit limits seems to lead to sloppiness in dealing with uncertainty in number representation.

For example I find ambiguity in writing 1/3 = 0.333... However, 1.000/3.000 = 0.333 or even 1.000.../3.000...=0.333... make more sense to me as it is clear where there is uncertainty or where we are taking infinite limits.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 05:11:22AM 0 points [-]

Benoit Essiambre,

Right now Wikipedia's article is claiming that calculus cannot be done with computable numbers, but a Google search turned up a paper from 1968 which claims that differentiation and integration can be performed on functions in the field of computable numbers. I'll go and fix Wikipedia, I suppose.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 03:26:34PM 0 points [-]

Benoit Essiambre,

You say:

"1) '2' leads to confusion as to whether we are representing a real or a natural number. That is, whether we are counting discrete items or we are representing a value on a continuum."

If I recall correctly, this "confusion" is what allowed modern, atomic chemistry. Chemical substances -- measured as continuous quantities -- seem to combine in simple natural-number ratios. This was the primary evidence for the existence of atoms.

What is the practical negative consequence of the confusion you're trying to avoid?

You also say:

"2) If it is clear that we are representing numbers on a continuum, I could see the number of significant digits used as an indication of the amount of uncertainty in the value. For any real problem there is _always_ uncertainty caused by A) the measuring instrument and B) the representation system itself such as the computable numbers which are limited by a finite amount of digits (although we get to choose the uncertainty here as we choose the number of digits). This is one of the reason the infinite limits don't seem useful to me. They don't correspond to reality. The implicit limits seems to lead to sloppiness in dealing with uncertainty in number representation."

But wouldn't good sig-fig practice round 1.999... up to something like 2.00 anyway?

Comment author: 22 November 2007 05:32:40PM 0 points [-]

Benoit, it was "Cyan" and not me who mentioned computable numbers.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 06:06:10PM 1 point [-]

Also, how would your proposed number system represent pi and e? Or do you think we don't need pi and e?

Comment author: 22 November 2007 07:17:43PM -1 points [-]

Well, for example, the fact that two different real represent the same point. 2.00... 1.99... , the fact that they are not computable in a finite amount of time. pi and e are quite representable within a computable number system otherwise we couldn't reliably use pi and e on computers!

Comment author: 22 November 2007 07:41:30PM 2 points [-]

Benoit, those are two different ways of writing the same real, just like 0.333... and 1/3 (or 1.0/3.0, if you insist) are the same number. That's not a paradox. 2 is a computable number, and thus so are 2.000... and 1.999..., even though you can't write down those ways of expressing them in a finite amount of time. See the definition of a computable number if you're confused.

1.999... = 2.000... = 2. Period.

Comment author: 22 November 2007 07:48:45PM 1 point [-]

Benoit,

In the decimal numeral system, every number with a terminating decimal representation also has a non-terminating one that ends with recurring nines. Hence, 1.999... = 2, 0.74999... = 0.75, 0.986232999... = 0.986233, etc. This isn't a paradox, and it has nothing to do with the precision with which we measure actual real things. This sort of recurring representation happens in any positional numeral system.

You seem very confused as to the distinction between what numbers are and how we can represent them. All I can say is, these matters have been well thought out, and you'd profit by reading as much as you can on the subject and by trying to avoid getting too caught up in your preconceptions.

Comment author: 30 December 2007 04:14:38PM -3 points [-]

I could almost convince myself that you know something I don't about the way calculators work, but after the 12-year-old comment by "best experts" was never backed up by anything, I had to jump ship. Where are you pulling this stuff?

Comment author: 12 June 2008 08:38:54PM 2 points [-]

This old post led me to an interesting question: will AI find itself in the position of our fictional philosophers of addition? The basic four functions of arithmetic are so fundamental to the operation of the digital computer that an intelligence built on digital circuitry might well have no idea of how it adds numbers together (unless told by a computer scientist, of course).

Comment author: 25 June 2008 03:52:40PM 2 points [-]

Bog: You are correct. That is, you do not understand this article at all. Pay attention to the first word, "Suppose..."

We are not talking about how calculators are designed in reality. We are discussing how they are designed in a hypothetical world where the mechanism of arithmetic is not well-understood.

Comment author: 28 December 2009 08:55:23PM 1 point [-]

"Like shooting blindfolded at a distant target"

So long as you know where the target is within five feet, it doesn't matter how small it is, how far away it is, whether or not you're blindfolded, or whether or not you even know how to use a bow. You'll hit it on a natural twenty. http://www.d20srd.org/srd/combat/combatStatistics.htm#attackRoll

Comment author: 28 December 2009 10:47:59PM 3 points [-]

Logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence.

Comment author: 29 December 2009 12:25:25PM 1 point [-]

Damn right. And the same goes for the oft-quoted "million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten".

Comment author: 13 June 2010 03:27:23PM 12 points [-]

Suppose that human beings had absolutely no idea how they performed arithmetic. Imagine that human beings had evolved, rather than having learned, the ability to count sheep and add sheep. People using this built-in ability have no idea how it worked, the way Aristotle had no idea how his visual cortex supported his ability to see things. Peano Arithmetic as we know it has not been invented.

It occured to me that a real life example of this kind of thing is grammar. I don't know what the grammatical rules are for which of the words "I" or "me" should be used when I refer to myself, but I can still use those words with perfect grammar in everyday life*. This may be a better example to use since it's one that everyone can relate to.

*I do use a rule for working out whether I should say "Sarah and I" or "Sarah and me", but that rule is just "use whichever one you would use if you were just talking about youself". Thinking about it now I can guess at the "I/me" rule, but there's plenty of other grammar I have no idea about.

Comment author: 13 June 2010 03:31:29PM -1 points [-]

Comment author: 13 June 2010 03:40:44PM *  5 points [-]

It this thread itself. He's commenting on the top paragraph of the original post. (It seems like thread necromancy at LW is actually very common. It may not be a good term given the negative connotations of necromancy for many people. Maybe thread cryonic revival?)

Comment author: 05 September 2010 07:17:53PM 2 points [-]

I'd expect here we'd give necromancy positive connotations. Most of the people here seem to be against death.

I thought it's only thread necromancy if it moves it to the front page. This website doesn't seem to work like that.

I hope it doesn't work like that, because I posted most of my comments on old threads.

Comment author: 05 September 2010 07:28:10PM 1 point [-]

I'd expect here we'd give necromancy positive connotations. Most of the people here seem to be against death.

Just because we have a specific attitude about things doesn't mean we need to go and use terminology that has pre-existing connotations. I don't think for example that calling cryonics "technological necromancy" or "supercold lichdom" would be helpful to getting people listen although both would be awesome names. However, Eliezer seems to disagree at least in regards to cryonics in certain narrow contexts. See his standard line when people ask about his cryonic medallion that it is a mark of his membership in the "Cult of the Severed Head."

There's actually a general trend in modern fantasy literature to see necromancy as less intrinsically evil. The most prominent example would be Garth Nix's "Abhorsen" trilogy and the next most prominent would be Gail Martin's "Chronicles of the Necromancer" series. Both have necromancers as the main protagonists. However, in this context, most of the cached thoughts about death still seem to be present. In both series, the good necromancers use their powers primarily to stop evil undead and help usher people in to accepting death and the afterlife. Someone should at some point write a fantasy novel in which there's a good necromancer who brings people back as undead.

I thought it's only thread necromancy if it moves it to the front page. This website doesn't seem to work like that. I hope it doesn't work like that, because I posted most of my comments on old threads.

Posts only get put to the main page if Eliezer decides do so (which he generally does to most high ranking posts).

Comment author: 30 December 2010 12:31:28PM 1 point [-]

I don't think for example that calling cryonics "technological necromancy" or "supercold lichdom" would be helpful to getting people listen although both would be awesome names.

I dunno - I reckon you might get increased interest from the SF/F crowd. :)

Comment author: 24 July 2011 10:09:03AM *  0 points [-]

I don't think for example that calling cryonics "technological necromancy" or "supercold lichdom" would be helpful to getting people listen although both would be awesome names.

...or would they...nahh.

Comment author: 01 May 2012 12:15:50AM *  0 points [-]

Someone should at some point write a fantasy novel in which there's a good necromancer who brings people back as undead.

Funny. I was working on something an awful lot like that back in 2000. I wasn't terribly good at writing back then, unfortunately.

Comment author: 13 June 2010 03:43:08PM 0 points [-]

There should be one on whatever page you're viewing my comment in (unless you're doing something unusual like reading this in an rss reader)

Comment author: 01 November 2010 11:56:59AM *  0 points [-]

McDermott's old article, "Artificial Intelligence and Natural Stupidity" is a good reference for suggestively-named tokens and algorithms.

Comment author: 22 April 2011 10:53:52PM 6 points [-]

Someone needs to teach them how to count: {}, {{}}, {{},{{}}}, {{},{{}},{{},{{}}}}...

Comment author: [deleted] 06 September 2011 08:41:43AM *  5 points [-]

even less esoteric: |, ||, |||, ||||, |||||, ....

Then "X" + "Y" = "XY". For example |||| + ||| = |||||||.

It turns out the difficulty in addition is the insight that ordinals are just an unfriendly representation. One needs a map between representations in order that the addition problem becomes trivial.

Comment author: 01 May 2012 12:17:31AM 2 points [-]

when you need to publish at least one paper per month

Gah! Any field with a publishing requirement like that... I shudder.

And... is it me, or is this one of the stupidest discussion threads on this site?