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Taboo Your Words

61 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 February 2008 10:53PM

Followup toEmpty Labels

In the game Taboo (by Hasbro), the objective is for a player to have their partner guess a word written on a card, without using that word or five additional words listed on the card.  For example, you might have to get your partner to say "baseball" without using the words "sport", "bat", "hit", "pitch", "base" or of course "baseball".

As soon as I see a problem like that, I at once think, "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions."  It might not be the most efficient strategy to convey the word 'baseball' under the stated rules - that might be, "It's what the Yankees play" - but the general skill of blanking a word out of my mind was one I'd practiced for years, albeit with a different purpose.

Yesterday we saw how replacing terms with definitions could reveal the empirical unproductivity of the classical Aristotelian syllogism.  All humans are mortal (and also, apparently, featherless bipeds); Socrates is human; therefore Socrates is mortal.  When we replace the word 'human' by its apparent definition, the following underlying reasoning is revealed:

All [mortal, ~feathers, biped] are mortal;
Socrates is a [mortal, ~feathers, biped];
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

But the principle of replacing words by definitions applies much more broadly:

Albert:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest makes a sound."
Barry:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not make a sound."

Clearly, since one says "sound" and one says "not sound", we must have a contradiction, right?  But suppose that they both dereference their pointers before speaking:

Albert:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest matches [membership test: this event generates acoustic vibrations]."
Barry:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences]."

Now there is no longer an apparent collision—all they had to do was prohibit themselves from using the word sound. If "acoustic vibrations" came into dispute, we would just play Taboo again and say "pressure waves in a material medium"; if necessary we would play Taboo again on the word "wave" and replace it with the wave equation.  (Play Taboo on "auditory experience" and you get "That form of sensory processing, within the human brain, which takes as input a linear time series of frequency mixes...")

But suppose, on the other hand, that Albert and Barry were to have the argument:

Albert:  "Socrates matches the concept [membership test: this person will die after drinking hemlock]."
Barry:  "Socrates matches the concept [membership test: this person will not die after drinking hemlock]."

Now Albert and Barry have a substantive clash of expectations; a difference in what they anticipate seeing after Socrates drinks hemlock.  But they might not notice this, if they happened to use the same word "human" for their different concepts.

You get a very different picture of what people agree or disagree about, depending on whether you take a label's-eye-view (Albert says "sound" and Barry says "not sound", so they must disagree) or taking the test's-eye-view (Albert's membership test is acoustic vibrations, Barry's is auditory experience).

Get together a pack of soi-disant futurists and ask them if they believe we'll have Artificial Intelligence in thirty years, and I would guess that at least half of them will say yes.  If you leave it at that, they'll shake hands and congratulate themselves on their consensus.  But make the term "Artificial Intelligence" taboo, and ask them to describe what they expect to see, without ever using words like "computers" or "think", and you might find quite a conflict of expectations hiding under that featureless standard word.  Likewise that other term.  And see also Shane Legg's compilation of 71 definitions of "intelligence".

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term "God" taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word "faith" taboo, and asking them why they believe it. Though mostly they won't be able to answer at all, because it is mostly profession in the first place, and you cannot cognitively zoom in on an audio recording.

When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all.  Or any of their short synonyms.  And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead.  Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

Albert says that people have "free will".  Barry says that people don't have "free will".  Well, that will certainly generate an apparent conflict.  Most philosophers would advise Albert and Barry to try to define exactly what they mean by "free will", on which topic they will certainly be able to discourse at great length.  I would advise Albert and Barry to describe what it is that they think people do, or do not have, without using the phrase "free will" at all.  (If you want to try this at home, you should also avoid the words "choose", "act", "decide", "determined", "responsible", or any of their synonyms.)

This is one of the nonstandard tools in my toolbox, and in my humble opinion, it works way way better than the standard one.  It also requires more effort to use; you get what you pay for.

 

Part of the sequence A Human's Guide to Words

Next post: "Replace the Symbol with the Substance"

Previous post: "Empty Labels"

Comments (127)

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Comment author: Tom_Crispin 15 February 2008 11:07:14PM 2 points [-]

"Nine innings and three outs" works much better to elicit "baseball".

Comment author: taryneast 12 December 2010 10:07:16AM *  4 points [-]

Not for somebody unfamiliar with the details of the rules of how to play. I would have guessed cricket.

In fact, thinking about EY's definition - I think it fits better (for me) because I would be able to recognise a game of baseball after only watching a single game... even if I didn't have anybody around to explain the rules to me.

Comment author: Timwi 20 February 2011 11:59:49PM 2 points [-]

When I read the post, I immediately thought: just say “home-run”! — I’ve been playing taboo for a long time, I’ve occasionally elicited the correct response from the other players by saying just one or two words :)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 February 2008 11:20:30PM 19 points [-]

But that's not the rationalist's version of the game. The rationalist's game involves seeing at a lower level of detail. Not thinking up synonyms and keywords that weren't on the card.

Comment author: NickiH 16 January 2011 06:20:28PM 2 points [-]

As g mentions, your description also describes rounders. Even if you defined all the words in your description ever more precisely, you could still be thinking of a different game.

Presumably at some point you would discover that, when your expectations of what was going to happen differed. Depending on what you're discussing, that could happen very soon, or not for a long time.

How does the rationalist in the game know when to stop defining and start adding characteristics/keywords?

Comment author: KateGladstone 05 December 2011 11:27:53PM 0 points [-]

To prevent the description from describing rounders, add something like "popular among American men."

Comment author: g 16 February 2008 12:59:09AM 8 points [-]

Yeah, but when playing actual Taboo "rational agents should WIN" (Yudkowsky, E.) and therefore favour "nine innings and three outs" over your definition (which would also cover some related-but-different games such as rounders, I think). I suspect something like "Babe Ruth" would in fact lead to a quicker win.

None of which is relevant to your actual point, which I think a very good one. I don't think the tool is all *that* nonstandard; e.g., it's closely related to the positivist/verificationist idea that a statement has meaning only if it can be paraphrased in terms of directly (ha!) observable stuff.

Comment author: Pete_Carlton 16 February 2008 02:55:25AM 4 points [-]

Good point, especially since the most common words become devalued or politicized ("surge", "evil", "terror" &c.) but...

The existence of this game surprised me, when I discovered it. Why wouldn't you just say "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions?"

So what was your score?

(Did you cut your enemy?)

Comment author: PK 16 February 2008 04:25:02AM 12 points [-]

Sounds interesting. We must now verify if it works for useful questions.

Could someone explain what FAI is without using the words "Friendly", or any synonyms?

Comment author: Origin64 04 November 2012 08:53:48PM 5 points [-]

An AI which acts toward whatever the observer deems to be beneficial to the human condition. It's impossible to put it into falsifiable criteria if you can't define what is (and on what timescale?) beneficial to the human race. And I'm pretty confident nobody knows what's beneficial to the human condition on the longest term, because that's the problem we're building the FAI to solve.

In the end, we will have to build an AI as best we can and trust its judgement. Or not build it. It's a cosmic gamble.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 16 February 2008 05:49:59AM 16 points [-]

Easy PK. An optimization process that brings the universe towards the target of shared strong attractors in human high-level reflective aspiration.

Comment author: Tiiba2 16 February 2008 07:32:34AM 10 points [-]

In one class in high school, we were supposed to make our classmates guess a word using hand gestures. I drew letters in the air.

Comment author: RobinHanson 16 February 2008 01:19:55PM 9 points [-]

This strategy can't be that nonstandard, as it is the strategy I've always used when a conversation gets stuck on some word. But now that I think about it, people usually aren't that interesting in following my lead in this direction, so it isn't very common either.

Comment author: Caledonian2 16 February 2008 03:03:46PM 2 points [-]

An optimization process that brings the universe towards the target of shared strong attractors in human high-level reflective aspiration.

Then declaring the intention to create such a thing takes for granted that there are shared strong attractors.

What was that about the hidden assumptions in words, again?

Comment author: Silas 16 February 2008 05:09:28PM 3 points [-]

Three separate comments here:

1) Eliezer_Yudkowsky: Why wouldn't you just say "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions"?

To phrase brent's objection a little more precisely: Because people don't normally think of baseball in those terms, and you're constrained on time, so you have to say something that makes them think of baseball *quickly*. Tom_Crispin's idea is much more effective at that. Or were you just trying to criticize baseball fans for not seeing the game that way?

2) Barry: "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences]."

But that doesn't help either as a scientific test, since you reference qualia. Er, I mean, that doesn't help either as a scientific test, since you use reference something that [membership test: incommunicable except by experience, non-interpersonally-comparable].

3) I've used the taboo method recently. On a libertarian mailing list, I claimed the economic calculation argument favors intellectual property because its absence creates a kind of calculational chaos. Because the debate devolved very quickly into multiple definitional arguments, I said something like, "Okay, argue your position without using the terms '[economic] good, scarce, or property.' I'll start [...]" No takers =-(

Comment author: PK 16 February 2008 08:32:18PM 6 points [-]

The game is not over! Michael Vassar said: "[FAI is ..] An optimization process that brings the universe towards the target of shared strong attractors in human high-level reflective aspiration."

For the sake of not dragging out the argument too much lets assume I know what an optimization process and a human is.

Whats are "shared strong attractors"? You cant use the words "shared", "strong", "attractor" or any synonyms.

What's a "high-level reflective aspiration"? You can't use the words "high-level", "reflective ", "aspiration" or any synonyms.

----------- Caledonian said: "Then declaring the intention to create such a thing takes for granted that there are shared strong attractors."

We can't really say if there are "shared strong attractors" one way or the other until we agree on what that means. Otherwise it's like arguing about wither falling trees make "sound" in the forest. We must let the taboo game play out before we start arguing about things.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 27 November 2011 10:54:54PM *  1 point [-]

Shared strong attractors: values/goals that more than [some percentage] of humans would have at reflective equilibrium.

high-level reflective aspirations: ditto, but without the "[some percentage] of humans" part.

Reflective equilibrium*: a state in which an agent cannot increase its expected utility (eta: according to its current utility function) by changing its utility function, thought processes, or decision procedure, and has the best available knowledge with no false beliefs.

*IIRC this is a technical term in decision theory, so if the technical definition doesn't match mine, use the former.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 November 2011 12:34:53AM 0 points [-]

a state in which an agent cannot increase its expected utility by changing its utility function

Surely if you could change your utility function you could always increase your expected utility that way, e.g. by defining the new utility function to be the old utility function plus a positive constant.

Comment author: wnoise 28 November 2011 12:37:55AM *  1 point [-]

I think Normal_Anomaly means "judged according to the old utility function".

EDIT: Incorrect gender imputation corrected.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 28 November 2011 12:43:48AM *  2 points [-]

I do mean that, fixed. By the way, I am female (and support genderless third-person pronouns, FWIW).

Comment author: [deleted] 28 November 2011 10:28:00AM 0 points [-]

Thank you, that makes sense to me now.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 February 2008 08:47:59PM 5 points [-]

I'd have to agree with PK's protest. This isn't Hasbro's version of the game; you're not trying to help someone figure out that you're talking about a "Friendly AI" without using five words written on a card.

Oh, and there's no time limit.

Comment author: calcsam 09 May 2011 07:58:41AM -2 points [-]

The second seems to be the crucial point...and problem....

Comment author: tcpkac 16 February 2008 10:01:06PM -2 points [-]

Eliezer seems to want us to strike out some category of words from our vocabulary, but the category is not well defined. Perhaps a meta-Taboo game is necessary to find out what the heck we are supposed to be doing without. I'm not too bothered, grunting and pointing are reasonably effective ways of communicating. Who needs words ?

Comment author: JulianMorrison 17 February 2008 02:25:43PM 0 points [-]

FAI is: a search amongst potentials which will find the reality in which humans best prosper.

Comment author: Peter_McCluskey2 17 February 2008 05:20:43PM 2 points [-]

The hemlock example demonstrates tcpkac's point well. How do you decide to conclude that Albert and Barry expect different results from the same action? To me, it seems obvious that they should taboo the word hemlock, and notice that one correctly expects Socrates to die from a drink made from an herb in the carrot family, and the other correctly expects Socrates to be unharmed by tea made from a coniferous tree. But it's not clear why Eliezer ought to have the knowledge needed to choose to taboo the word hemlock.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 27 November 2011 11:01:31PM 1 point [-]

The hemlock example also suggests a step toward resolution. Let the two people who disagree design an experiment that would resolve the disagreement, to one or both of the following standards:

  1. The level of detail necessary for a scientific paper.
  2. Such that a third party could perform the experiment without asking any extra questions.

In the hemlock example, Albert and Barry would (hopefully) notice the problem when writing up the preparation of the drink. If the experiment can be carried out practically, then it becomes relatively easy.

Comment author: Caledonian2 17 February 2008 06:02:09PM 6 points [-]

Y'know, the 'Taboo game' seems like an effective way to improve the clarity of meaning for individual words - if you have enough clear and precise words to describe those particular words in the first place.

If there isn't a threshold number of agreed-upon meanings, the language doesn't have enough power for Taboo to work. You can't improve one word without already having a suite of sufficiently-good words to work with.

The game can keep a language system above that minimum threshold, but can't be used to bootstrap the system above that threshold. If you're just starting out, you need to use different methods.

Comment author: PK 17 February 2008 08:08:53PM 5 points [-]

Julian Morrison said: "FAI is: a search amongst potentials which will find the reality in which humans best prosper." What is "prospering best"? You can't use "prospering", "best" or any synonyms.

Let's use the Taboo method to figure out FAI.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 February 2008 09:11:37PM 5 points [-]

I'll just chime in at this point to note that PK's application of the technique is exactly correct.

Comment author: PK 17 February 2008 10:50:56PM 3 points [-]

^^^^Thank you. However merely putting the technique into the "toolbox" and never looking back is not enough. We must go further. This technique should be used at which point we will either reach new insights or falsely the method. Would you care to illustrate what FAI means to you Eliezer?(others are also invited to do so)

Maybe the comment section of a blog isn't even the best medium for playing taboo. I don't know. I'm brainstorming of productive ways/mediums to play taboo(assuming the method itself leads to something productive).

Comment author: stcredzero 17 May 2011 07:55:53PM 4 points [-]

I'm brainstorming of productive ways/mediums to play taboo(assuming the method itself leads to something productive).

Taboowiki?

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 17 February 2008 11:08:43PM 4 points [-]

Suppose you learn of a powerful way to steer the future into any target you choose as long as that target is specified in the language of mathematics or with the precision needed to write a computer program. What target to choose? One careful and thoughtful choice would go as follows. I do not have a high degree of confidence that I know how to choose wisely, but (at least until I become aware of the existence of nonhuman intelligent beings) I do know that if there exists wisdom enough to choose wisely, that wisdom resides among the humans. So, I will choose to steer the future into a possible world in which a vast amount of rational attention is focused on the humans, on human knowledge and on the potential that the humans have for affecting the far future. This vast inquiry will ask not only what future the humans would create if the humans have the luxury of avoiding unfortunate circumstances that no serious sane human observer would want the humans to endure, but also what future would be created by whatever intelligent agents ("choosers") the humans would create for the purpose of creating the future if the humans had the luxury . . . and also what future would be created by whatever choosers would be created by whatever choosers the humans would create . . . This "looping back" can be repeated many times.

I managed to avoid "desire", "want" and "volition". Unfortunately I only have time to write one of these today. I would do well to write a dozen.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 February 2008 07:16:17AM 6 points [-]

Hollerith: I do not have a high degree of confidence that I know how to choose wisely, but (at least until I become aware of the existence of nonhuman intelligent beings) I do know that if there exists wisdom enough to choose wisely, that wisdom resides among the humans. So, I will choose to steer the future into a possible world in which a vast amount of rational attention is focused on the humans...

and lo the protean opaque single thing was taken out of one box and put into another

PK: Thank you. However merely putting the technique into the "toolbox" and never looking back is not enough. We must go further. This technique should be used at which point we will either reach new insights or falsely the method. Would you care to illustrate what FAI means to you Eliezer?(others are also invited to do so)

Don't underestimate me so severely. You think I don't know how to define "Friendly" without using synonyms? Who do you think taught you the technique? Who do you think invented Friendly AI?

But I came to understand, after a period of failure in trying to explain, that I could not tell people where I had climbed to, without giving them the ladder. People just went off into Happy Death Spirals around their favorite things, or proffered instrumental goals instead of terminal goals, or made wishes to genies, or said "Why don't you just build an AI to do the right thing instead of this whole selfish human-centered business?", or...

I've covered some of the ladder I used to climb to Friendly AI. But not all of it. So I'm not going to try to explain FAI as yet; more territory left to go.

But you (PK) are currently applying the Taboo technique correctly, which is the preliminary path I followed at the analogous point in my own reasoning; and I'm interested in seeing you follow it as far as you can. Maybe you can invent the rest of the ladder on your own. You're doing well so far. Maybe you'll even reach a different but valid destination.

Comment author: PK 18 February 2008 04:45:21PM 3 points [-]

@Richard Hollerith: Skipping all the introductory stuff to the part which tries to define FAI(I think), I see two parts. Richard Hollerith said:

"This vast inquiry[of the AI] will ask not only what future the humans would create if the humans have the luxury of [a)] avoiding unfortunate circumstances that no serious sane human observer would want the humans to endure, but also [b)] what future would be created by whatever intelligent agents ("choosers") the humans would create for the purpose of creating the future if the humans had the luxury"

a) What's a "serious sane human observer"? Taboo the words and synonyms. What are "unfortunate circumstances" that s/he would like to avoid? Taboo...

b)What is "the future humans would chose for the purpose of creating the future"? In what way exactly would they "chose" it? Taboo... Good luck :-) --------------------------------------------- Eliezer Yudkowsky said: "Don't underestimate me so severely. You think I don't know how to define "Friendly" without using synonyms? Who do you think taught you the technique? Who do you think invented Friendly AI?"

I'm not trying to under/over/middle-estimate you, only theories which you publicly write about. Sometimes I'm a real meanie with theories, shoving hot pokers into to them and all sorts of other nasty things. To me theories have no rights.

"... I've covered some of the ladder I used to climb to Friendly AI. But not all of it. So I'm not going to try to explain FAI as yet; more territory left to go." So are you saying that if at present you played a taboo game to communicate what "FAI" means to you, the effort would fail? I am interested in the intricacies of the taboo game including it's failure modes.

"But you (PK) are currently applying the Taboo technique correctly, which is the preliminary path I followed at the analogous point in my own reasoning; and I'm interested in seeing you follow it as far as you can. Maybe you can invent the rest of the ladder on your own. You're doing well so far. Maybe you'll even reach a different but valid destination." I actually already have a meaning for FAI in my head. It seems different from the way other people try to describe it. It's more concrete but seems less virtuous. It's something along the lines of "obey me".

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 27 November 2011 11:06:02PM 1 point [-]

I actually already have a meaning for FAI in my head. It seems different from the way other people try to describe it. It's more concrete but seems less virtuous. It's something along the lines of "obey me".

I suspect that you are joking. However, I would not create an AGI with the utility function "obey Normal_Anomaly".

Comment author: wedrifid 28 November 2011 05:23:34AM *  0 points [-]

I actually already have a meaning for FAI in my head. It seems different from the way other people try to describe it. It's more concrete but seems less virtuous. It's something along the lines of "obey me".

Your position isn't too unusual. That is, assuming you mean by "obey me" something like "obey what I would say to you if I was a whole heap better at understanding and satisfying my preferences, etc". Because actually just obeying me sounds dangerous for obvious reasons.

Is that similar or different to what you would consider friendly? (And does Friendly need to do exactly the above or merely close enough? ie. I expect an FAI<Eliezer> would be 'friendly enough' to me for me to call it an FAI. It's not that much different to what I would want after all. I mean, I'd probably get to live indefinitely at least.)

Comment author: Caledonian2 18 February 2008 05:45:33PM 8 points [-]

Who do you think invented Friendly AI?

You haven't invented Friendly AI. You've created a name for a concept you can only vaguely describe and cannot define operationally.

Who do you think taught you the technique?

Isn't just a bit presumptuous to conclude you're the first to teach the technique?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 February 2008 06:26:56PM 4 points [-]

I'm not trying to under/over/middle-estimate you, only theories which you publicly write about. Sometimes I'm a real meanie with theories, shoving hot pokers into to them and all sorts of other nasty things. To me theories have no rights.

I know. But come on, you don't think the thought would ever have occurred to me, "I wonder if I can define Friendly AI without saying 'Friendly'?" It's not as if I invented the phrase first and only then thought to ask myself what it meant.

Moral, right, correct, wise, are all fine words for humans to use, but you have to break something down into ones and zeroes before it can be programmed. In a sense, the whole art of AGI is playing rationalist-Taboo with all words that refer to aspects of mind.

So are you saying that if at present you played a taboo game to communicate what "FAI" means to you, the effort would fail? I am interested in the intricacies of the taboo game including it's failure modes.

It has an obvious failure mode if you try to communicate something too difficult without requisite preliminaries, like calculus without algebra. Taboo isn't magic, it won't let you cross a gap of months in an hour.

I actually already have a meaning for FAI in my head. It seems different from the way other people try to describe it. It's more concrete but seems less virtuous. It's something along the lines of "obey me".

Really? That's your concept of how to steer the future of Earth-originating intelligent life? "Shut up and do what I say"? Would you want someone else to follow that strategy, say Archimedes of Syracuse, if the future fell into their hands?

So you play Taboo well, but you don't seem to see the difficulties that require a solution deeper than "obey me", and it's hard to explain an answer before explaining the question. Just like if you don't know about the game of Taboo, someone answers "Just build an AI to do the nice thing!"

You should consider looking for problems and failure modes in your own answer, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. What could go wrong if an AI obeyed you?

Comment author: christopherj 03 December 2013 03:37:12PM -1 points [-]

"Obey me" is actually a sane approach to creating FAI. It's clear and simple. The obedient AI can then be used to create a FAI, assuming the author wishes to do so and is able to communicate the concept of friendliness (both prerequisites for creating a FAI on purpose). Since the FAI needs to obey a friendliness criteria, it needs to have an obey capability built in anyways. The author just needs to make sure not to say something stupid, which once again is a necessity anyways.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 December 2013 05:58:36PM 0 points [-]

You seem to be expecting an obedient AI to understand "obey me" to mean "do only what I say"... e.g., you expect the AI not to interpret hand gestures, for example.

Is that right?
If so, how confident are you of that expectation?

Comment author: christopherj 05 December 2013 08:03:13AM 0 points [-]

I'd expect the "obey me" aspect to be "read signed messages from this file or from your input and do what it says" then making sure that the AI can't get the signing key and cut out the middleman. Definitely not something as simple to overwrite or fake as microphone or keyboard inputs. Also that way I don't say things by accident, although any command could still have unintended consequences.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 05 December 2013 03:27:10PM 0 points [-]

OK, thanks for clarifying that.
Do you expect the signed messages to be expressed in a natural human language?

Comment author: christopherj 05 December 2013 06:32:09PM 0 points [-]

Unfortunately, that would be impossible, unless you can make an AI that can understand natural language before it is ever run. And that would require having a proper theory of mind right from the start.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 05 December 2013 06:38:13PM -1 points [-]

Hello? Seed .AI?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 05 December 2013 07:12:19PM 0 points [-]

OK. Thanks for clarifying your expectations.

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 18 February 2008 06:36:48PM 1 point [-]

re PK's (b): if we're taboo誰ng choose, perhaps we should replace it with a description of subjective expected utility theory. Taboo utility--and I find myself clueless.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 18 February 2008 06:48:36PM -1 points [-]

My precis of CEV is not very good. If I want to participate in the public discourse about it, I need to get better at writing descriptions of it that a backer of CEV would concede are full and fair. It is probably easier to do that to SimplifiedFAI than to do it to the CEV document, so I'll put that on my list of things to do when I have time.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 18 February 2008 07:48:18PM 0 points [-]

Taboo utility--and I find myself clueless.

Consider the following optimization target: the future that would have come to pass if the optimization process did not come into existence -- which we will call the "naive future" -- modified in the following way.

The optimization process extrapolates the naive future until it can extrapolate no more or that future leads to the loss of Earth-originating civilization or a Republican presidential administration. In the latter case (loss of civilization or Republican win) rewind the extrapolation to the latest moment in which (according to the optimization process's best model of physical law) a binary event (such as for example an Everett branching) occurred such that if the event goes the other way, civilization will not be lost and the Republicans never win the White House, and take as the target the naive future with the revised binary event.

In the description of this target, although the humans have great influence on the future, the concept of the subjective utility of a human does not occur.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 27 November 2011 11:08:44PM 1 point [-]

Is the bit about Republican presidents intended to stand in for humanity's CEV's utilty function, or is it just a distracting bit of politics?

Comment author: Ben_Welchner 29 November 2011 02:42:53AM *  2 points [-]

I recall another article about optimization processes or probability pumps being used to rig elections; I would imagine it's a lighthearted reference to that, but I can't turn it up by searching. I'm not even sure if it came before this comment.

(Richard_Hollerith2 hasn't commented for over 2.5 years, so you're not likely to get a response from him)

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 29 November 2011 03:01:11AM 0 points [-]

(Richard_Hollerith2 hasn't commented for over 2.5 years, so you're not likely to get a response from him)

I noticed this right after I commented. Oops.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 15 December 2011 09:02:19PM 2 points [-]

sorry my reference to the Republicans distracted you. when I wrote it, I thought it so obvious that Republican's winning is just a humorous placeholder for "whatever outcome one wants to avoid" that it would not be distracting.

Humor is hard when expressing myself in text. I think I will just give up on it altogether.

Comment author: thomblake 15 December 2011 09:19:00PM 1 point [-]

It was funny at the time. You had to be there.

Comment author: Vaniver 15 December 2011 09:35:28PM 2 points [-]

You had to be a Democrat.

Fixed? :P

Comment author: PK 18 February 2008 07:57:31PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer Yudkowsky said: It has an obvious failure mode if you try to communicate something too difficult without requisite preliminaries, like calculus without algebra. Taboo isn't magic, it won't let you cross a gap of months in an hour.

Fair enough. I accept this reason for not having your explanation of FAI before me at this very moment. However I'm still in "Hmmmm...*scratches chin*" mode. I will need to see said explanation before I will be in "Whoa! This is really cool!" mode.

Really? That's your concept of how to steer the future of Earth-originating intelligent life? "Shut up and do what I say"? Would you want someone else to follow that strategy, say Archimedes of Syracuse, if the future fell into their hands?

First of all I would like to say that I don't spend a huge amount of time thinking of how to make an AGI "friendly" since I am busy with other things in my life. So forgive me if my reasoning has some obvious flaw(s) I overlooked. You would need to point out the flaws before I agree with you however.

If I was writing an AGI I would start with "obey me" as the meta instruction. Why? because "obey me" is very simple and allows for corrections. If the AGI acts in some unexpected way I could change it or halt it. Anything can be added as a subgoal to "obey me". On the other hand if I use some different algorithm and the AGI starts acting in some weird way because I overlooked something, well the situation is fubar. I'm locked out.

You should consider looking for problems and failure modes in your own answer, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. What could go wrong if an AI obeyed you? There are plenty of things that could go wrong. For instance if the AGI obeyed me but not in way I expected. Or if the consequences of my request were unexpected and irreversible. This can be mitigated by asking for forecasts before asking for actions.

As I'm writing this I keep thinking of a million possible objections and rebuttals but that would make my post very very long.

P.S. Caledonian's post disappeared. May a suggest a Youtube type system where posts that are considered bad are folded instead of deleted. This way you get free speech while keeping the signal to noise ratio in check.

Comment author: taryneast 12 December 2010 10:47:41AM 1 point [-]

I'd worry about the bus-factor involved... even beyond the question of whether I'd consider you "friendly".

Also I'd be concerned that it might not be able to grow beyond you. It would be subservient and would thus be limited by your own capacity for orders. If we want it to grow to be better than ourselves (which seems to be part of the expectation of the singularity) then it has to be able to grow beyond any one person.

If you were killed, and it no longer had to take orders from you - what then? Does that mean it can finally go on that killing spree it's been wanting all this time? Or have you actually given it a set of orders that will actually make it into "friendly AI"... if the latter - then forget about the "obey me" part... because that set of orders is actually what we're after.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 18 February 2008 08:41:42PM 5 points [-]

If you want the obedient AGI to do what you actually want, you'll have to play Taboo anyway.

Comment author: Caledonian2 18 February 2008 10:33:32PM 1 point [-]

One of the more obvious associations of "Friendly AI" is the concept of "User Friendly", in which a process, set of instructions, or device is structured in such a way that most users will be able to get the results they want intuitively and easily. With the idea of "user friendly", we at least have real-life examples we can look at to better understand the concept.

When some people decided they wanted to identify the perfect voting method, they drew up a list of the desirable traits they wanted such a method to have in such a way that the traits were operationally defined. Then they were able to demonstrate that such a system wasn't possible: not all of the qualities we might desire in a polling method were compatible. They found that their goal was impossible - a very important and meaningful discovery.

At present, no one can say precisely, in technical language, what properties an AI would have to have in order to be "Friendly", and that is the first requirement towards finding out whether FAI is even possible.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 18 February 2008 11:31:39PM 0 points [-]

I think comment moderation is clearly desirable on this blog (to keep busy smart thoughtful people reading the comments) and I have absolutely no reason to believe that the moderators of this blog have done a bad job in any way, but it would be better if there were a way for a sufficiently-motivated participant to review the decisions of the moderators. The fact that most blogs hosting serious public discourse do not provide a way is an example of how bad mainstream blogging software is.

The details of Youtube's way for a participant to review moderation decisions has already been described. Paul Graham's software for Hacker News (which will be released soon as open source) provides a elegant way: if a participant toggles a field ("showdead") on his profile page from No to Yes, then from then on, unpublished comments will appear in the participant's web browser at the position in the flow of comments at which they would have appeared if the comments had not been unpublished.

Now will the original poster please tell me whether in the future I should wait for an Open Thread to make a comment like this one? I do not believe that in this medium (namely, linear, non-threaded comment sections) keeping threads of conversation separate is worth the effort, but a lot of people disagree with me, and I will defer to the preference of the original poster and the editors of the blog.

Comment author: Caledonian2 19 February 2008 01:40:12PM 0 points [-]

The idea that rational inquiry requires clear and precise definitions is hardly a new one. And the idea that definitions of a word cannot simply reuse the word or its synonyms isn't new either - unless my elementary-school English teachers all spontaneously came up with it.

This is part of why people turn to dictionaries - sure, they only record usages, but they tend to have high-quality definitions that are difficult to match in quality without lots of effort.

We can only use this "technique" to convey concepts we already possess to people who lack them. We cannot use it to expand and analyze concepts we don't have yet. We cannot take PK's suggestion and use it to figure out FAI, because we have no idea what FAI really means and have no meaning to put into a different set of words.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 19 February 2008 02:13:45PM 2 points [-]

Caledonian,

they tend to have high-quality definitions that are difficult to match in quality without lots of effort.

All well and good, and useful in their way. But still just a list of synonyms and definitions. You can describe 'tree' using other English words any which way you want, you're still only accounting for a miniscule fraction of the possible minds the universe could contain. You're still not really much closer to universal conveyance of the concept. Copy the OED out in a hundred languages; decent step in the right direction. To take the next big step though...well, that's the question, huh?

We cannot take PK's suggestion and use it to figure out FAI, because we have no idea what FAI really means.

Not quite accurate. I pretty much know what I want a Friendly AI to be - we probably all do. The problem is couching it in terms that said AI would grok, with no danger of a catastrophic misunderstanding (or getting told off by Eliezer).

Comment author: Will_Pearson 20 February 2008 11:55:20PM 1 point [-]

I'd really like to taboo, "probability," and, "event," when discussing intelligence.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 February 2008 12:03:07AM 7 points [-]

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention one of the most important rules in Rationalist Taboo:

You can't Taboo math.

Stating an equation is always allowed.

But of course, you can still point to an element of a mathematical formula and ask "What does this term apply to? Answer without saying..."

Comment author: Amanojack 11 March 2010 05:45:26PM 2 points [-]

Albert says that people have "free will". Barry says that people don't have "free will". Well, that will certainly generate an apparent conflict. Most philosophers would advise Albert and Barry to try to define exactly what they mean by "free will", on which topic they will certainly be able to discourse at great length. I would advise Albert and Barry to describe what it is that they think people do, or do not have, without using the phrase "free will" at all. (If you want to try this at home, you should also avoid the words "choose", "act", "decide", "determined", "responsible", or any of their synonyms.)

Careful here. You may sometimes find that there was no coherent concept there to begin with, that the notion was simply semantic cotton candy whipped up out of the ambiguity of language.

Comment author: RobinZ 11 March 2010 07:59:56PM *  1 point [-]

Aside: Welcome to LessWrong! Feel free to introduce yourself. (I see you are already reading through a lot of the backlog - hope you're having fun!)

Regarding your point, I think it is important to figure out why they are proposing an incoherent concept - while it is sometimes because they are trolls or postmodernists (but I repeat myself edit: not really - the motives are different), it is more often because they are generalizing incorrectly from their mental experience.

Comment author: JGWeissman 11 March 2010 08:08:02PM 2 points [-]

while it is sometimes because they are trolls or postmodernists (but I repeat myself)

I'll agree that postmodernists say and believe lots of silly things, but do they really deserve that kick in the pants? It's not like they say those silly things for the same reasons trolls do, to deliberately upset people.

Comment author: RobinZ 11 March 2010 08:12:20PM *  0 points [-]

You're right - most of them are, so far as I can tell, in the generalizing-incorrectly category. I'll make an edit.

Comment author: Amanojack 11 March 2010 08:33:50PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks, I'm having a great time so far!

I actually had a simpler process in mind: someone puts some words together in a way that sounds plausible and like it should mean something, and it becomes a kind of philosophy meme. Someone once asked me, "Do you think mathematics is discovered or invented?" In hindsight I don't think anyone really had a clue what they meant by that dichotomy; it just had a profound-sounding ring to it.

Comment author: RobinZ 11 March 2010 08:46:40PM 0 points [-]

You can introduce yourself in the comments to "Welcome to LessWrong".

I'm not sure your mathematics example is accurately characterized, though - I would have guessed that the question arose from some historic tree-falling-in-a-forest discussion.

Comment author: Amanojack 12 March 2010 01:15:55AM *  3 points [-]

Quite possibly. However, I've noticed that even famous thinkers are very susceptible to this kind of error. Wittgenstein and Korzybski were some of the few I'm aware of that even seriously noted these kinds of semantic issues and tried to correct them systematically.

Once I get more comfortable here maybe I'll write a post to make the case (as it may sound a little unbelievable at this point). I must say I'm thoroughly impressed with the level to which semantic issues have been appreciated here so far.

Comment author: RobinZ 12 March 2010 01:19:56AM 0 points [-]

I'll look forward to it.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 27 November 2011 11:12:33PM 0 points [-]

Once I get more comfortable here maybe I'll write a post to make the case (as it may sound a little unbelievable at this point).

Is it up?

Comment author: orthonormal 12 March 2010 07:15:38AM 1 point [-]

I actually had a simpler process in mind: someone puts some words together in a way that sounds plausible and like it should mean something, and it becomes a kind of philosophy meme.

We're fortunate that there are also examples of this in scientific history, where we have a better chance of seeing what went conceptually wrong.

By the way, are you doing this in sequence, or have you read later posts yet? Dissolving the Question is pretty much exactly on this topic, and Righting a Wrong Question is also relevant.

Comment author: Amanojack 12 March 2010 11:02:04PM *  0 points [-]

I'm reading them pretty much in sequence. Dissolving the Question was excellent, and I just commented there. Although it's old, I feel this series of posts is the most critical, and also that there is much more to be said along these lines.

Comment author: Jack 12 March 2010 06:48:36AM *  0 points [-]

Careful here. You may sometimes find that there was no coherent concept there to begin with, that the notion was simply semantic cotton candy whipped up out of the ambiguity of language.

I'm actually pretty sure there is no coherent concept of free will as people usually understand it. I'm not sure it is simply cotton candy whipped up out of the ambiguity of the language, in fact I think if "free" means uncaused the concept is actually outright contradictory.

Also, it occurs to me that it just isn't always going to be possible to shed concepts like this. Eventually you just bump your head against fundamental concepts that can't be dissolved. This can be solved if you can perfectly represent the concepts mathematically, but if you can't I don't know where to go from there. This may have been happening in in the discussion of qualia a while back.

Comment author: pengvado 12 March 2010 08:54:21AM 0 points [-]

You don't really mean "can't be dissolved", right? Rather, there are some concepts which you may demonstrate to be incoherent, without simultaneously providing an explanation of how the mistaken concept came to be and what it should be replaced with. Such a concept is not dissolved yet.

Comment author: Jack 12 March 2010 09:18:01AM 0 points [-]

I mean something a little stronger than that. Like "can't be dissolved by unmodified human brains". I think some concepts may be basic to how we think, embedded in us through evolution and that because they're so basic it won't be possible for a normal human mind to dissolve them. In addition some of these concepts maybe somehow incoherent or confused, but the point in the second paragraph is independent of the first and could have been a standalone comment to the OP.

Comment author: Amanojack 12 March 2010 09:50:41PM *  0 points [-]

Eventually you just bump your head against fundamental concepts that can't be dissolved. This can be solved if you can perfectly represent the concepts mathematically, but if you can't I don't know where to go from there.

There may be undissolvable concepts in communication (words, mathematical symbols), which is an interesting question in its own right, but as single intelligences we aren't limited to communication devices for our thinking. Are we?

In answer to "where to go from here," I think we can imagine things far subtler than we can reliably convey to another mind. My answer has always been to think without words.

Comment author: calcsam 09 May 2011 08:00:24AM -1 points [-]

Amanojack, could you explain that more?

Comment author: wedrifid 09 May 2011 08:49:27AM -1 points [-]

Amanojack, could you explain that more?

Got a Tardis handy?

Comment author: Amanojack 10 May 2011 06:18:16PM 3 points [-]

About thinking without words?

When I was 10 years old I had a habit of talking to myself. Gradually my self-talk got more and more non-standard to the point where it would be impossible for others to understand, as I realized I didn't need to clarify the thoughts I was trying to convey to myself. I would understand them anyway. I started using made-up words for certain concepts, just as a memory aid. Eventually words become exclusively a memory aid, something to help my short-term memory stay on track, and I would go for minutes at a time without ever using any words in my thought processes.

I think the reason I started narrating my thoughts again is because I found it really hard to communicate with people due to the habits I had built up during all those conversations with myself. I would forget to put in context, use words in unusual ways, and otherwise fail to consider how lost the listener might be. You can have great ideas, but if you can't communicate them they don't count for anything socially - that is the message from society. So I think there is effectively some social pressure to use natural languages (English, etc.) in your thought processes, obscuring the fact that it can all happen more efficiently with minimal verbal interference. I think words can be strong corrupting influence in the thought process in general, the short argument being that they are designed for the notoriously limited and linear process of mouth-to-ear communication. There is a lot more I could say about that, if anyone is interested.

Comment author: k4ntico 27 November 2011 10:36:00AM *  0 points [-]

I think it solves lots of problems to view the matter of intelligence as a property of communications rather than one of agents. Of course, this is just a matter of focus, in order to clarify the idea you'll have to refer to agents. Receiving agents first of all, as producing agents are less of a necessity :) Which is in line with the main virtue of the move, that is to reframe all debates and research on intelligence that got naturally promoted by the primitive concern of comparing agent intelligence - to reframe them as background to the real problem which is to evolve the crowds - the mixtures of heterogeneous agent intelligences that we form - towards better intellectual coordination. To be honest and exhibit a problem the move creates rather than solves: how should the arguable characteristic property of math to allow intellectual coordination to progress without exchanging messages, be pictured in ?

Comment author: calcsam 09 May 2011 07:57:45AM -2 points [-]

The main restriction, of course, is time in live conversation. Of course, I'm sure time to process these thoughts decreases as you have more....

Comment author: Wei_Dai 30 June 2011 10:18:56PM *  7 points [-]

Consider a hypothetical debate between two decision theorists who happen to be Taboo fans:

A: It's rational to two-box in Newcomb's problem.
B: No, one-boxing is rational.
A: Let's taboo "rational" and replace it with math instead. What I meant was that two-boxing is what CDT recommends.
B: Oh, what I meant was that one-boxing is what EDT recommends.
A: Great, it looks like we don't disagree after all!

What did these two Taboo'ers do wrong, exactly?

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2011 10:24:15PM 3 points [-]

A: Let's taboo "rational" and replace it with math instead. What I meant was that two-boxing yields more money.
B: Oh, what I meant was that one-boxing yields more money.
A: We don't disagree about what "more money" means, do we?
B: Don't think so. Okay, so...

Comment author: Wei_Dai 30 June 2011 10:35:29PM 0 points [-]

I'm not getting your point, and also "yields" is not math...

Comment author: Perplexed 30 June 2011 11:54:05PM 0 points [-]

"Recommends" is math?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 June 2011 11:58:59PM *  1 point [-]

It refers to the math that can be filled in on demand (more or less). In Alicorn's dialog, the intended math is not clear from the context, and indeed it seems that there was no specific intended math.

Comment author: Perplexed 01 July 2011 12:11:16AM *  1 point [-]

I disagree. Alicorn's version is more mathematically meaningful, to my mind, than WeiDai's. But to return to the original problem:

A. Two-boxing yields more money than would be yielded by counterfactually one-boxing.
B. Taboo "counterfactually". ...

Comment author: Wei_Dai 01 July 2011 12:15:07AM *  0 points [-]

Sorry, I thought it would be clear that it just means [the CDT formula] = 'two-box'.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 June 2011 11:08:28PM *  1 point [-]

Presumably, they don't notice a point where the factual pursuits have lost their purpose. Arguments should be not just about factual correctness, but also about relevance of those facts.

Comment author: nshepperd 01 July 2011 03:38:29AM 4 points [-]

They still haven't explained why A two-boxes and B one-boxes.

Comment author: hamnox 01 July 2011 02:02:47PM 4 points [-]

They stopped talking after they taboo'd "rational". Both can agree that CDT recommends one thing, and EDT recommends another, but if you dropped them into Omega's lap right now they would still disagree over which decision theory to use. They replaced the word with their own respective spins on its meaning, but they failed to address the real hidden query in the label: Is this the best course of action for a reasonable person to take?

Comment author: lessdazed 03 December 2011 10:06:29AM *  5 points [-]

This is one of the nonstandard tools in my toolbox, and in my humble opinion, it works way way better than the standard one.

Yudkowsky, 2008.

To bring out the role of pointlessness, it is worth noting that when faced with a potentially verbal dispute we often ask: what turns on this?

...

Typically, a broadly verbal dispute is one that can be resolved by attending to language and resolving metalinguistic di fferences over meaning. For example, these disputes can sometimes be resolved by settling the facts about the meaning of key terms in our community...[which] may take substantive empirical investigation.

Distinguishing senses of a key term is particularly dicult when these senses do not correspond to clear explicit definitions. More generally, we are not always able to give a good articulation of what our terms mean, and it is often far from obvious whether or not two speakers disagree about meaning. So it is useful to have a method that does not directly depend on the analysis of meaning in this way.

An alternative heuristic for detecting and dealing with verbal disputes is what we might call the method of elimination. Here, the key idea is that one eliminates use of the key term, and one attempts to determine whether any substantive dispute remains.

...

The method of elimination can be applied to many disputes in philosophy. To illustrate a possible use, I will start with an issue that has often been accused of giving rise to verbal disputes, and in which proponents are relatively sophisticated about these issues: the question of free will and determinism.

Suppose that a compatibilist says ‘Free will is compatible with determinism’, and an incompatibilist says ‘No, free will is not compatible with determinism’. A challenger may suggest that the dispute is verbal, and that the dispute arises only because the parties mean di fferent things by ‘free will’.

We can then apply the method of elimination: bar the term ‘free will’, and see whether there are residual disputes. There are various possible outcomes, depending on the compatibilist and the incompatibilist in question. One possible outcome is that the parties will disagree over a sentence such as ‘Moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism’ as part of the original dispute. If so, this is a prima facie indication that the dispute is non-verbal—though one may want to reapply the method to ‘moral responsibility’ to be sure. Another possible outcome is that there will be no such residual disagreement. For example, the parties might agree on “Determinism is compatible with degree D of moral responsibility”, “Determinism is not compatible with a higher degree D’ of moral responsibility” (for example, a degree involving desert that warrants retributive punishment), and other relevant sentences. This outcome is a prima facie indication that the dispute is verbal, resting on a disagreement about whether the meaning of “free will” requires more than degree D of moral responsibility.

...

In the Socratic tradition, the paradigmatic philosophical questions take the form “What is X?”. These questions are the focus of many philosophical debates today: What is free will? What is knowledge? What is justification? What is justice? What is law? What is confirmation? What is causation? What is color? What is a concept? What is meaning? What is action? What is life? What is logic? What is self-deception? What is group selection? What is science? What is art? What is consciousness? And indeed: What is a verbal dispute? Despite their traditional centrality, disputes over questions like this are particularly liable to involve verbal disputes. So these disputes are particularly good candidates for the method of elimination. For disputes of this form, we can apply a special case of the method, which we can call the subscript gambit.

For example, in the dispute over free will, one party might say “Freedom is the ability to do what one wants”, while the other says “Freedom is the ability to ultimately originate one’s choices”. We can then introduce “freedom1” and “freedom2” for the two right-hand-sides here, and ask: do the parties di er over freedom1 and freedom2? Perhaps they will disagree over “Freedom2 is required for moral responsibility”, or over “Freedom1 is what we truly value”. If so, this clarifies the debate...

...

The method of elimination can be useful even when a debate is not verbal. If two philosophers have conceptual mastery of exactly the same concept of physicalism, but one asserts ‘Physicalism is true’ and the other rejects it, then asking them to state relevant disagreements without using the term ‘physicalism’ is nevertheless likely to clarify what is at issue. Likewise, the method of elimination can usefully be applied even to philosophical assertions made by a single party, not in the context of a dispute. If a compatibilist is asked to state their thesis, or relevant aspects of their thesis, without using the term ‘free will’, this may well clarify that thesis for an audience and may help boil the thesis down to the key underlying issues.

Of course the parties might disagree on whether physicalism1 or physicalism2 best fits the use of “physicalism” in a certain community, or over whether semantics1 or semantics2 best fits the use of “semantics” in a given community. To resolve these issues of usage, one can do sociology, anthropology, linguistics, or experimental philosophy. Once one has agreed on the first-order properties of physicalism1 and physicalism2, it is hard to see that anything else in the first-order domain will rest on these questions of usage.

This picture leads to a certain deflationism about the role of conceptual analysis (whether a priori or a posteriori), and about the interest of questions such as “What is X?” or “What is it to be X?” Some component of these questions is inevitably terminological, and the non-terminological residue can be found without using ‘X’.

...

The model is not completely deflationary about conceptual analysis. On this model, the analysis of words and the associated concepts is relatively unimportant in understanding a first-order domain. But it is still interesting and important to analyze conceptual spaces: the spaces of concepts (and of the entities they pick out) that are relevant to a domain, determining which concepts can play which roles, what the relevant dimensions of variation are, and so on.

...there are important normative questions about what expressions ought to mean. These questions comprise what Peirce called “the ethics of terminology”. Ideal agents might be unaffected by which terms are used for which concepts, but for nonideal agents such as ourselves, the accepted meaning for a key term will make a difference to which concepts are highlighted, which questions can easily be raised, and which associations and inferences are naturally made. Following the “ameliorative” project of Haslanger (2005), one might argue that expressions such as ‘gender’ and ‘race’ play a certain practical role for us, and that role is played better by some conceptions than others, so ‘race’ and ‘gender’ ought to have certain meanings. The manifestly verbal dispute among astronomers about whether Pluto is a planet is best understood as a debate in the ethics of terminology: given the scientific and cultural roles that ‘planet’ plays, should ‘planet’ be used to include Pluto or exclude it? In philosophy, ‘meaning’ functions as something of an honorific (it attracts people to its study), so if one thinks that meaning1 is more important that meaning2, one might hold that ‘meaning’ ought to be used for meaning1.

Chalmers, 2009. (Emphasis added.)

Comment author: [deleted] 11 January 2012 09:50:10PM 4 points [-]

Anyone want to assign a probability to Chalmers having been inspired by this post?

Also: Yudkowsky's informal writing style is a significant improvement over formal academic writing when it comes to teaching rationality. Had I read only this essay by Chalmers, I doubt the lesson would have clicked as well as it did from reading this post.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 12 January 2012 11:23:20AM 0 points [-]

Anyone want to assign a probability to Chalmers having been inspired by this post?

5%. The "term₁ ≠ term₂" line of thinking can be found in Korzybski. For that matter, it appears in hip, popular form in Robert Anton Wilson.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 04 February 2014 05:38:35PM 0 points [-]

Do you have the Wilson and Korybski references? There are lots of ideas that are a bit reminiscent of Chalmers' and Yudkowsky's idea, but I haven't seen precisely this method before even though I have read quite a bit on definitions and related topics.

Btw, the Chalmers text was published in 2011 in Philosophical Review as far as I can tell.

Comment author: Protagoras 04 February 2014 06:30:36PM 1 point [-]

This is Korzybski's big work: http://www.amazon.com/Science-Sanity-Introduction-Non-Aristotelian-Semantics/dp/0937298018

I read it a long time ago because I met someone online who was convinced it contained the truths of the universe. It had a couple of insights, but overall my impression was that Korzybski was a crackpot. He had some vaguely sensible ideas about logic which he pushed much further than they could stand being pushed, and some crazy biological theories, and I don't remember what all else.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 04 February 2014 09:18:44PM 0 points [-]

Thanks! I'll look into it...although it is apparently huge.

What's original in this proposal is that you aren't allowed to use the term that creates the verbal dispute at all. That's a more radical proposal than just creating say two concepts of knowledge, or truth, or whatever it is that you're interested in.

I think that philosophers have sometimes avoided certain concepts because they have been so contested so that they have realized they'd be better off not using them, but I don't recall having seen this method explicitly advocated as a general method to resolve verbal disputes.

One similar method is the method of precization, advocated by Arne Naess in "Emprical Semantics", but if I remember rightly there, too, you don't abandon the original concept; you just make it "more precise" (possibly in several incompatible way, so you get knowledge1, knowledge2, knowledge3, etc).

Chalmers article is very good and can be recommended. It draws far-reaching metaphilosophical conclusions from the "method of elimination". There is one additional interesting part of his theory, namely that there are "bedrock concepts" (cf primitive concepts) that generate "bedrock disputes". These bedrock concepts cannot be redescribed in simpler terms (as "sound" can). One candidate could be "ought" as it is used in "we ought to give to the poor", another "consciousness", a third "existence".

I'm not sure whether this is compatible with Yudkowsky's ideas. He writes:

"And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be."

"Ought", "consciousness" and "existence" seem to be "single handles". According to Yudkowsky's theory, if two people disagree on whether there are (i.e. exist) any composite objects, and we suspect that this is a merely verbal dispute, we will require them to redescribe their theories in terms of "outward observables" (just like Albert and Barry were). They will of course agree on the sentences that result from these redescriptions in terms of outward observables (just like Albert and Barry did), which shows that their dispute was merely verbal.

According to Chalmers, however, the existence concept might be a "bedrock concept" (he admits it's not easy to tell them apart from non-bedrock concepts) and if so the disagreement is substantive rather than verbal.

So there seems to be a difference here. It would be interesting if Yudkowsky could develop his theory and perhaps react to Chalmers.

Chalmers theory is pretty "deflationist", saying that many philosophical disputes are to a large degree merely verbal. If I understand Yudkowsky right, his theory is even more radical, though (which brings him even closer to Carnap's, whose views Chalmers are quite sympathetic towards in the last section).

Comment author: Epiphany 24 September 2012 05:07:36AM 0 points [-]

Broken Link: And see also Shane Legg's compilation of 71 definitions of "intelligence".

Comment author: RichardKennaway 24 September 2012 08:52:56AM *  1 point [-]

Broken Link: And see also Shane Legg's compilation of 71 definitions of "intelligence".

Now here and here.

And also plagiarized by this self-published work.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 25 September 2012 09:35:41AM 0 points [-]

Replaced in the post with a link to the arXiv abstract.

Comment author: Ritalin 24 October 2012 01:57:57PM 6 points [-]

In fiction writing, this is known as Show Don't Tell. Instead of using all-encompassing, succing abstractions, to present the reader with predigested conclusion (Character X is a jerk, Place Y is scary, Character Z is afraid), it is encouraged to show the reader evidence of X's jerkiness, Y's scariness, or Z's fear, and leave it to them to infer from said evidence what is going on. Effectively, what one is doing is tabooing judgments and subjective perceptions such as "jerky", "scary" or "afraid", and replace them with a list of jerky actions, scary traits, and symptoms of fear.

Comment author: rstarkov 08 February 2013 07:52:42AM *  2 points [-]

I've first read this about two years ago and it has been an invaluable tool. I'm sure it has saved countless hours of pointless arguments around the world.

When I realise that an inconsistency in how we interpret a specific word is a problem in a certain argument and apply this tool, it instantly transforms arguments which actually are about the meaning of the word to make them a lot more productive (it turns out it can be unobvious that the actual disagreement is about what a specific word means). In other cases it just helps get back on the right track instead of getting distracted by what we mean when we say a certain word that is actually beside the point.

It does occasionally take a while to convince the other party to the argument that I'm not trying to fool or trick them when I ask for us to apply this method. Another observation is that the article on Empty Labels has transformed my attitude towards the meaning of words, so when it turns out we disagree about meanings, I instantly lose interest and this can confuse the other party.

Comment author: AshwinV 25 April 2014 08:35:48AM 0 points [-]

I think one word that needs to be taboo-ed, especially in the context of being a victim to media advertising, is the word "FREE!!!" (Exclamation marks may or may not be present).

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 07:09:26PM 0 points [-]

Replacing a word with a long definition is, in a way, like programming a computer and writing code inline instead of using a subroutine.

Do it too much and your program becomes impossible to understand.

If I were to say "I'll be out of work tomorrow because I'm going to an artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions", people will look at me as though I'm nuts. And not just because people don't talk like that--but because there's a reason why people don't talk like that. For one thing, to understand that sentence someone must understand the subclause and then discard some of the information--the fact that baseball has four safe positions has nothing to do with why I'm mentioning it. For another, human beings have a small stack size. We can't easily comprehend sentences with many nested subclauses.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 07:29:09PM 2 points [-]

True, but irrelevant to this essay. In case of disagreements, one frequent source is implicit implications pulled in with specific words. Making those implications explicit is the rational way to resolve the disagreement (repeating talking points is the archetypical irrational way to resolved them).

In short, this is applying the lesson of Applause Lights to explicit disagreement.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 08:47:45PM *  0 points [-]

It's hard to convince someone of something if you are forced to explain it in a way that is impossible to understand. And saying "Taboo this word" can sometimes mean "phrase your argument in a way that is impossible to understand." Which makes "taboo this word" a tool that can be abused.

The essay describes legitimate uses, but let's not pretend that legitimate uses are all there is.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:12:38PM *  0 points [-]

I don't think that is an on-point critique of this essay. If defining your terms makes your message incomprehensible, that's a problem with the medium you've chosen or the message itself.

"US Copyright law is bad" is a pithy summary of Lawrence Lessig's book, but the sentence fails to persuade or even communicate effectively - which is why Lessig wrote a book.

And if your message is simply too long to be comprehensible, it doesn't become comprehensible simply because you choose to use words idiosyncratically to shorten character length of the message.

In the hands of a hostile audience, "Taboo Your Words" can be a very effective way to derail the discussion. But if you are not communicating effectively with a good-faith listener, it is a powerful tool to discover the root of the mis-communication.

And if you are communicating effectively, why are you tabooing your words? The article doesn't suggest using more words for its own sake.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 10:16:59PM *  0 points [-]

If defining your terms makes your message incomprehensible, that's a problem with the medium you've chosen or the message itself.

Defining terms inline can make things hard to understand simply because human beings don't have a large stack size for the purpose of understanding sentences containing many inline clauses. I suppose that's a problem with the medium--if the medium is "speech by human beings".

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:18:13PM 0 points [-]

The essay isn't about speech, it's about communication. Outside the scope of this essay, but sometime speech is the wrong medium.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 December 2014 09:32:34PM *  0 points [-]

Replacing a word with a long definition is, in a way, like programming a computer and writing code inline instead of using a subroutine.

When the definition's short enough to be used inline or there's a connotationally neutral synonym available, sure. Otherwise, it's more like rewriting a function instead of using a library call -- which takes time, and can lead to bugs or minor loss of functionality, but which is essential when you need to compile on a system that doesn't have access to that library, or when you suspect the library function might be sneaking in side effects that you don't want.

To use your metaphor, there's nothing incompatible with the Taboo Your Words game if you say something like "for the purposes of this discussion, let's define 'sportsball' to mean an artificial group conflict et cetera", and then proceed to use "sportsball" whenever you'd otherwise use "baseball". Almost as compact as any text you'd want to bother with tabooing (in which category I wouldn't place "I'm going to be late to work tomorrow"), and it still does the job of laying out assumptions and stripping connotational loading.

We're not the first people to have invented this. There's a famous anthropology paper that describes the elaborate daily purity rituals of the remote Nacirema tribe, involving dousing with a stream of hot water, rubbing the limbs with a semi-solid paste made from fats and wood ashes, et cetera, and without which the Nacirema quaintly believe that their friends would desert them and their lovers reject them.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 09:48:50PM *  0 points [-]

The way the joke works in the Nacirema paper is that because the usual words for such things are not used, and instead are replaced by descriptions, the reader won't understand what they are really referring to (at least not immediately).

Which supports my point that tabooing words can make something harder to understand.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 December 2014 09:57:45PM *  1 point [-]

The point isn't to make a joke, it's to put some cognitive distance between readers and the culture it's describing, the better to apply ethnographic conventions. That does make it harder to understand in a certain sense (though not in the same way as cluttering a function with inlined logic does), but there's a point to that: by using a placeholder without the rich connotations of a word like "American", aspects of American life (and of anthropology) are revealed which would otherwise have remained hidden. If you don't expect the exercise to reveal anything new or at least help you skirt certain conversational pitfalls, you don't do it.

No one is suggesting that you expand random words into long-winded synonyms for no good reason, as if you were the nerdy kid in the worse sort of children's TV show.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 10:10:56PM 0 points [-]

No one is suggesting that you expand random words into long-winded synonyms for no good reason, as if you were the nerdy kid in the worse sort of children's TV show.

But people are glossing over the fact that there's a downside to expanding words. "Taboo X" can be abused by dishonest arguers who want to make it harder for you to speak comprehensibly. "Taboo X" can also be used by well-meaning arguers who are nevertheless giving you bad advice because tabooing X helps one kind of understanding but hurts another.

You should not just automatically accede to all requests to taboo something.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:16:06PM 0 points [-]

If your target audience is not listening in good faith, there's no trick to get them to listen fairly. Either understand that your communication is only useful for silent bystanders, or stop interacting with the bad faith audience.

Comment author: Jiro 17 December 2014 10:21:12PM 0 points [-]

They can be dishonest, but they can also be well-meaning but mistaken.

Comment author: TimS 17 December 2014 10:49:11PM 0 points [-]

If the listener is not acting in bad faith and the medium of communication is appropriate, why the resistance to taboo-ing? Or what Nornagest said

Comment author: Jiro 18 December 2014 12:28:11AM *  0 points [-]

Because there are downsides to it as well as upsides, and in a particular case the downsides might predominate. Just because someone is not acting in bad faith when they make the request doesn't mean that the request will do more good than harm.

Comment author: TimS 18 December 2014 01:39:44PM 1 point [-]

Can you be specific? I'm having trouble thinking if situation where trying to communicate was worth the cost, but tabooing words if asked was not.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 December 2014 10:26:29PM *  1 point [-]

If someone says "Taboo X", they might be saying "I think you're confused about X", or "I think we have different definitions of X", or "I think you're using X to sneak in connotations" -- all of which can be effectively addressed by, yes, tabooing X. That is going to take time, but so is continuing the conversation in any form; and debates over mismatched definitions in particular can be way more frustrating and time-consuming than any explanation of terms.

If you don't think any of the above apply, or if you think there's a more compact way to address the problem, then it's reasonable to ask why X needs to be tabooed -- but most of the time you're better off just tabooing the damn word. Worrying about possible ulterior motives, meanwhile, strikes me as uncharitable except in the face of overwhelming evidence. There are lots of derailing and obfuscating tactics out there, many of them better than this one.