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Call for information, examples, case studies and analysis: votes and shareholder resolutions v.s. divestment for social and environmental outcomes

1 Clarity 05 May 2016 12:08AM

Typology: since not elsewhere disambiguated, divestment will be considered a form of shareholder activism in this article.


The aim of this call for information is to identify under what conditions shareholder activism or divestment is more appropriate. Shareholder activism referrers to the action and activities around proposing and rallying support for a resolution at a company AGM such as reinstatement or impeachment of a director, or a specific action like renouncing a strategic direction (like investment in coal). In contrast, divestment infers to withdrawal of an investment in a company by shareholders, such as a tobacco or fossil fuel company. By identifying the important variables that determine which strategy is most appropriate, activists and shareholders will be able to choose strategies that maximise social and environmental outcomes while companies will be able to maximise shareholder value.


Very little published academic literature exists on the consequences of divestment. Very little published academic literature exists on the social and environmental consequences of shareholder activism other than the impact on the financial performance of the firm, and conventional metrics of shareholder value.


Controversy (1)


One item of non academic literature, a manifestos on a socially responsible investing blog (http://www.socialfunds.com/media/index.cgi/activism.htm) weighs up the option of divestment against shareholder activism by suggesting that divestment is appropriate as a last resort, if considerable support is rallied, the firm is interested in its long term financial sustainability, and responds whereas voting on shareholder resolutions is appropriate when groups of investors are interested in having an impact. It’s unclear how these contexts are distinguished. DVDivest, a divestment activist group (dcdivest.org/faq/#Wouldn’t shareholder activism have more impact than divestment?) contends in their manifesto the shareholder activism is better suited to changing one aspect of a company's operation whereas divestment is appropriate when rejected a basic business model. This answer too is inadequate as a decision model since one companies can operate multiple simultaneous business models, own several businesses, and one element of their operation may not be easily distinguished from the whole system - the business. They also identify non-responsiveness of companies to shareholder action as a plausible reason to side with divestment.


Controversy (2)


Some have claimed that resolutions that are turned down have an impact. It’s unclear how to enumerate that impact and others. The enumeration of impacts is itself controversially and of course methodologically challenging.


Research Question(s)


Population: In publicly listed companies

Exposure: is shareholder activism in the form of proxy voting, submitting shareholder resolutions and rallying support for shareholder resolution

Comparator: compared to shareholder activism in the form of divestment

Outcome: associated with outcomes  - shareholder resolutions (votes and resolutions) and/or indicators or eventuation of financial (non)sustainability (divestment) and/or media attention (both)



Potential EA application:

Activists could nudge corporations to do the rest of their activism for them. To illustrate: Telstra, Paypal UPS Disney, Coca Cola, Apple and plenty other corporations have objected to specific pieces of legislation and commanded political change in different instances, independently and in unison, in different places, as described [here](http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18183). This could be a way to leverage just a controlling share of influence in an organisation to leverage a whole organisations lobbying power and magnify impact.

Collaborative Truth-Seeking

6 Gleb_Tsipursky 04 May 2016 11:28PM

Summary: We frequently use debates to resolve different opinions about the truth. However, debates are not always the best course for figuring out the truth. In some situations, the technique of collaborative truth-seeking may be more optimal.

 

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Pete Michaud, Michael Dickens, Denis Drescher, Claire Zabel, Boris Yakubchik, Szun S. Tay, Alfredo Parra, Michael Estes, Aaron Thoma, Alex Weissenfels, Peter Livingstone, Jacob Bryan, Roy Wallace, and other readers who prefer to remain anonymous for providing feedback on this post. The author takes full responsibility for all opinions expressed here and any mistakes or oversights.

 

The Problem with Debates

 

Aspiring rationalists generally aim to figure out the truth, and often disagree about it. The usual method of hashing out such disagreements in order to discover the truth is through debates, in person or online.

 

Yet more often than not, people on opposing sides of a debate end up seeking to persuade rather than prioritizing truth discovery. Indeed, research suggests that debates have a specific evolutionary function – not for discovering the truth but to ensure that our perspective prevails within a tribal social context. No wonder debates are often compared to wars.

 

We may hope that as aspiring rationalists, we would strive to discover the truth during debates. Yet given that we are not always fully rational and strategic in our social engagements, it is easy to slip up within debate mode and orient toward winning instead of uncovering the truth. Heck, I know that I sometimes forget in the midst of a heated debate that I may be the one who is wrong – I’d be surprised if this didn’t happen with you. So while we should certainly continue to engage in debates, we should also use additional strategies – less natural and intuitive ones. These strategies could put us in a better mindset for updating our beliefs and improving our perspective on the truth. One such solution is a mode of engagement called collaborative truth-seeking.


Collaborative Truth-Seeking

 

Collaborative truth-seeking is one way of describing a more intentional approach in which two or more people with different opinions engage in a process that focuses on finding out the truth. Collaborative truth-seeking is a modality that should be used among people with shared goals and a shared sense of trust.

 

Some important features of collaborative truth-seeking, which are often not present in debates, are: focusing on a desire to change one’s own mind toward the truth; a curious attitude; being sensitive to others’ emotions; striving to avoid arousing emotions that will hinder updating beliefs and truth discovery; and a trust that all other participants are doing the same. These can contribute to increased  social sensitivity, which, together with other attributes, correlate with accomplishing higher group performance  on a variety of activities.

 

The process of collaborative truth-seeking starts with establishing trust, which will help increase social sensitivity, lower barriers to updating beliefs, increase willingness to be vulnerable, and calm emotional arousal. The following techniques are helpful for establishing trust in collaborative truth-seeking:

  • Share weaknesses and uncertainties in your own position

  • Share your biases about your position

  • Share your social context and background as relevant to the discussion

    • For instance, I grew up poor once my family immigrated to the US when I was 10, and this naturally influences me to care about poverty more than some other issues, and have some biases around it - this is one reason I prioritize poverty in my Effective Altruism engagement

  • Vocalize curiosity and the desire to learn

  • Ask the other person to call you out if they think you're getting emotional or engaging in emotive debate instead of collaborative truth-seeking, and consider using a safe word



Here are additional techniques that can help you stay in collaborative truth-seeking mode after establishing trust:

  • Self-signal: signal to yourself that you want to engage in collaborative truth-seeking, instead of debating

  • Empathize: try to empathize with the other perspective that you do not hold by considering where their viewpoint came from, why they think what they do, and recognizing that they feel that their viewpoint is correct

  • Keep calm: be prepared with emotional management to calm your emotions and those of the people you engage with when a desire for debate arises

    • watch out for defensiveness and aggressiveness in particular

  • Go slow: take the time to listen fully and think fully

  • Consider pausing: have an escape route for complex thoughts and emotions if you can’t deal with them in the moment by pausing and picking up the discussion later

    • say “I will take some time to think about this,” and/or write things down

  • Echo: paraphrase the other person’s position to indicate and check whether you’ve fully understood their thoughts

  • Be open: orient toward improving the other person’s points to argue against their strongest form

  • Stay the course: be passionate about wanting to update your beliefs, maintain the most truthful perspective, and adopt the best evidence and arguments, no matter if they are yours of those of others

  • Be diplomatic: when you think the other person is wrong, strive to avoid saying "you're wrong because of X" but instead to use questions, such as "what do you think X implies about your argument?"

  • Be specific and concrete: go down levels of abstraction

  • Be clear: make sure the semantics are clear to all by defining terms

  • Be probabilistic: use probabilistic thinking and probabilistic language, to help get at the extent of disagreement and be as specific and concrete as possible

    • For instance, avoid saying that X is absolutely true, but say that you think there's an 80% chance it's the true position

    • Consider adding what evidence and reasoning led you to believe so, for both you and the other participants to examine this chain of thought

  • When people whose perspective you respect fail to update their beliefs in response to your clear chain of reasoning and evidence, update a little somewhat toward their position, since that presents evidence that your position is not very convincing

  • Confirm your sources: look up information when it's possible to do so (Google is your friend)

  • Charity mode: trive to be more charitable to others and their expertise than seems intuitive to you

  • Use the reversal test to check for status quo bias

    • If you are discussing whether to change some specific numeric parameter - say increase by 50% the money donated to charity X - state the reverse of your positions, for example decreasing the amount of money donated to charity X by 50%, and see how that impacts your perspective

  • Use CFAR’s double crux technique

    • In this technique, two parties who hold different positions on an argument each writes the the fundamental reason for their position (the crux of their position). This reason has to be the key one, so if it was proven incorrect, then each would change their perspective. Then, look for experiments that can test the crux. Repeat as needed. If a person identifies more than one reason as crucial, you can go through each as needed. More details are here.  


Of course, not all of these techniques are necessary for high-quality collaborative truth-seeking. Some are easier than others, and different techniques apply better to different kinds of truth-seeking discussions. You can apply some of these techniques during debates as well, such as double crux and the reversal test. Try some out and see how they work for you.


Conclusion

 

Engaging in collaborative truth-seeking goes against our natural impulses to win in a debate, and is thus more cognitively costly. It also tends to take more time and effort than just debating. It is also easy to slip into debate mode even when using collaborative truth-seeking, because of the intuitive nature of debate mode.

 

Moreover, collaborative truth-seeking need not replace debates at all times. This non-intuitive mode of engagement can be chosen when discussing issues that relate to deeply-held beliefs and/or ones that risk emotional triggering for the people involved. Because of my own background, I would prefer to discuss poverty in collaborative truth-seeking mode rather than debate mode, for example. On such issues, collaborative truth-seeking can provide a shortcut to resolution, in comparison to protracted, tiring, and emotionally challenging debates. Likewise, using collaborative truth-seeking to resolve differing opinions on all issues holds the danger of creating a community oriented excessively toward sensitivity to the perspectives of others, which might result in important issues not being discussed candidly. After all, research shows the importance of having disagreement in order to make wise decisions and to figure out the truth. Of course, collaborative truth-seeking is well suited to expressing disagreements in a sensitive way, so if used appropriately, it might permit even people with triggers around certain topics to express their opinions.

 

Taking these caveats into consideration, collaborative truth-seeking is a great tool to use to discover the truth and to update our beliefs, as it can get past the high emotional barriers to altering our perspectives that have been put up by evolution. Rationality venues are natural places to try out collaborative truth-seeking.

 

 

 

Rationality Reading Group: Part Z: The Craft and the Community

1 Gram_Stone 04 May 2016 11:03PM

This is part of a semi-monthly reading group on Eliezer Yudkowsky's ebook, Rationality: From AI to Zombies. For more information about the group, see the announcement post.


Welcome to the Rationality reading group. This fortnight we discuss Part Z: The Craft and the Community (pp. 1651-1750). This post summarizes each article of the sequence, linking to the original LessWrong post where available.

Z. The Craft and the Community

312. Raising the Sanity Waterline - Behind every particular failure of social rationality is a larger and more general failure of social rationality; even if all religious content were deleted tomorrow from all human minds, the larger failures that permit religion would still be present. Religion may serve the function of an asphyxiated canary in a coal mine - getting rid of the canary doesn't get rid of the gas. Even a complete social victory for atheism would only be the beginning of the real work of rationalists. What could you teach people without ever explicitly mentioning religion, that would raise their general epistemic waterline to the point that religion went underwater?

313. A Sense That More Is Possible - The art of human rationality may have not been much developed because its practitioners lack a sense that vastly more is possible. The level of expertise that most rationalists strive to develop is not on a par with the skills of a professional mathematician - more like that of a strong casual amateur. Self-proclaimed "rationalists" don't seem to get huge amounts of personal mileage out of their craft, and no one sees a problem with this. Yet rationalists get less systematic training in a less systematic context than a first-dan black belt gets in hitting people.

314. Epistemic Viciousness - An essay by Gillian Russell on "Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts" generalizes amazingly to possible and actual problems with building a community around rationality. Most notably the extreme dangers associated with "data poverty" - the difficulty of testing the skills in the real world. But also such factors as the sacredness of the dojo, the investment in teachings long-practiced, the difficulty of book learning that leads into the need to trust a teacher, deference to historical masters, and above all, living in data poverty while continuing to act as if the luxury of trust is possible.

315. Schools Proliferating Without Evidence - The branching schools of "psychotherapy", another domain in which experimental verification was weak (nonexistent, actually), show that an aspiring craft lives or dies by the degree to which it can be tested in the real world. In the absence of that testing, one becomes prestigious by inventing yet another school and having students, rather than excelling at any visible performance criterion. The field of hedonic psychology (happiness studies) began, to some extent, with the realization that you could measure happiness - that there was a family of measures that by golly did validate well against each other. The act of creating a new measurement creates new science; if it's a good measurement, you get good science.

316. Three Levels of Rationality Verification - How far the craft of rationality can be taken, depends largely on what methods can be invented for verifying it. Tests seem usefully stratifiable into reputational, experimental, andorganizational. A "reputational" test is some real-world problem that tests the ability of a teacher or a school (like running a hedge fund, say) - "keeping it real", but without being able to break down exactly what was responsible for success. An "experimental" test is one that can be run on each of a hundred students (such as a well-validated survey). An "organizational" test is one that can be used to preserve the integrity of organizations by validating individuals or small groups, even in the face of strong incentives to game the test. The strength of solution invented at each level will determine how far the craft of rationality can go in the real world.

317. Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate - The atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer/etc crowd, aka "the nonconformist cluster", seems to be stunningly bad at coordinating group projects. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that people are as reluctant to speak agreement out loud, as they are eager to voice disagreements - the exact opposite of the situation that obtains in more cohesive and powerful communities. This is not rational either! It is dangerous to be half a rationalist (in general), and this also applies to teaching only disagreement but not agreement, or only lonely defiance but not coordination. The pseudo-rationalist taboo against expressing strong feelings probably doesn't help either.

318. Tolerate Tolerance - One of the likely characteristics of someone who sets out to be a "rationalist" is a lower-than-usual tolerance for flawed thinking. This makes it very important to tolerate other people's tolerance - to avoid rejecting them because they tolerate people you wouldn't - since otherwise we must all have exactly the same standards of tolerance in order to work together, which is unlikely. Even if someone has a nice word to say about complete lunatics and crackpots - so long as they don't literally believe the same ideas themselves - try to be nice to them? Intolerance of tolerance corresponds to punishment of non-punishers, a very dangerous game-theoretic idiom that can lock completely arbitrary systems in place even when they benefit no one at all.

319. Your Price for Joining - The game-theoretical puzzle of the Ultimatum game has its reflection in a real-world dilemma: How much do you demand that an existing group adjust toward you, before you will adjust toward it? Our hunter-gatherer instincts will be tuned to groups of 40 with very minimal administrative demands and equal participation, meaning that we underestimate the inertia of larger and more specialized groups and demand too much before joining them. In other groups this resistance can be overcome by affective death spirals and conformity, but rationalists think themselves too good for this - with the result that people in the nonconformist cluster often set their joining prices way way way too high, like an 50-way split with each player demanding 20% of the money. Nonconformists need to move in the direction of joining groups more easily, even in the face of annoyances and apparent unresponsiveness. If an issue isn't worth personally fixing by however much effort it takes, it's not worth a refusal to contribute.

320. Can Humanism Match Religion's Output? - Anyone with a simple and obvious charitable project - responding with food and shelter to a tidal wave in Thailand, say - would be better off by far pleading with the Pope to mobilize the Catholics, rather than with Richard Dawkins to mobilize the atheists. For so long as this is true, any increase in atheism at the expense of Catholicism will be something of a hollow victory, regardless of all other benefits. Can no rationalist match the motivation that comes from the irrational fear of Hell? Or does the real story have more to do with the motivating power of physically meeting others who share your cause, and group norms of participating?

321. Church vs. Taskforce - Churches serve a role of providing community - but they aren't explicitly optimized for this, because their nominal role is different. If we desire community without church, can we go one better in the course of deleting religion? There's a great deal of work to be done in the world; rationalist communities might potentially organize themselves around good causes, while explicitly optimizing for community.

322. Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes - Many causes benefit particularly from the spread of rationality - because it takes a little more rationality than usual to see their case, as a supporter, or even just a supportive bystander. Not just the obvious causes like atheism, but things like marijuana legalization. In the case of my own work this effect was strong enough that after years of bogging down I threw up my hands and explicitly recursed on creating rationalists. If such causes can come to terms with not individually capturing all the rationalists they create, then they can mutually benefit from mutual effort on creating rationalists. This cooperation may require learning to shut up about disagreements between such causes, and not fight over priorities, except in specialized venues clearly marked.

323. Helpless Individuals - When you consider that our grouping instincts are optimized for 50-person hunter-gatherer bands where everyone knows everyone else, it begins to seem miraculous that modern-day large institutions survive at all. And in fact, the vast majority of large modern-day institutions simply fail to exist in the first place. This is why funding of Science is largely through money thrown at Science rather than donations from individuals - research isn't a good emotional fit for the rare problems that individuals can manage to coordinate on. In fact very few things are, which is why e.g. 200 million adult Americans have such tremendous trouble supervising the 535 members of Congress. Modern humanity manages to put forth very little in the way of coordinated individual effort to serve our collective individual interests.

324. Money: The Unit of Caring - Omohundro's resource balance principle implies that the inside of any approximately rational system has a common currency of expected utilons. In our world, this common currency is called "money" and it is the unit of how much society cares about something - a brutal yet obvious point. Many people, seeing a good cause, would prefer to help it by donating a few volunteer hours. But this avoids the tremendous gains of comparative advantage, professional specialization, and economies of scale - the reason we're not still in caves, the only way anything ever gets done in this world, the tools grownups use when anyone really cares. Donating hours worked within a professional specialty and paying-customer priority, whether directly, or by donating the money earned to hire other professional specialists, is far more effective than volunteering unskilled hours.

325. Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately - Wealthy philanthropists typically make the mistake of trying to purchase warm fuzzy feelings, status among friends, and actual utilitarian gains, simultaneously; this results in vague pushes along all three dimensions and a mediocre final result. It should be far more effective to spend some money/effort on buying altruistic fuzzies at maximum optimized efficiency (e.g. by helping people in person and seeing the results in person), buying status at maximum efficiency (e.g. by donating to something sexy that you can brag about, regardless of effectiveness), and spending most of your money on expected utilons (chosen through sheer cold-blooded shut-up-and-multiply calculation, without worrying about status or fuzzies).

326. Bystander ApathyThe bystander effect is when groups of people are less likely to take action than an individual. There are a few explanations for why this might be the case.

327. Collective Apathy and the Internet - The causes of bystander apathy are even worse on the Internet. There may be an opportunity here for a startup to deliberately try to avert bystander apathy in online group coordination.

328. Incremental Progress and the Valley - The optimality theorems for probability theory and decision theory, are for perfect probability theory and decision theory. There is no theorem that incremental changes toward the ideal, starting from a flawed initial form, must yield incremental progress at each step along the way. Since perfection is unattainable, why dare to try for improvement? But my limited experience with specialized applications suggests that given enough progress, one can achieve huge improvements over baseline - it just takes a lot of progress to get there.

329. Bayesians vs. BarbariansSuppose that a country of rationalists is attacked by a country of Evil Barbarians who know nothing of probability theory or decision theory. There's a certain concept of "rationality" which says that the rationalists inevitably lose, because the Barbarians believe in a heavenly afterlife if they die in battle, while the rationalists would all individually prefer to stay out of harm's way. So the rationalist civilization is doomed; it is too elegant and civilized to fight the savage Barbarians... And then there's the idea that rationalists should be able to (a) solve group coordination problems, (b) care a lot about other people and (c) win...

330. Beware of Other-Optimizing - Aspiring rationalists often vastly overestimate their own ability to optimize other people's lives. They read nineteen webpages offering productivity advice that doesn't work for them... and then encounter the twentieth page, or invent a new method themselves, and wow, it really works - they've discovered the true method. Actually, they've just discovered the one method in twenty that works for them, and their confident advice is no better than randomly selecting one of the twenty blog posts. Other-Optimizing is exceptionally dangerous when you have power over the other person - for then you'll just believe that they aren't trying hard enough.

331. Practical Advice Backed by Deep Theories - Practical advice is genuinely much, much more useful when it's backed up by concrete experimental results, causal models that are actually true, or valid math that is validly interpreted. (Listed in increasing order of difficulty.) Stripping out the theories and giving the mere advice alone wouldn't have nearly the same impact or even the same message; and oddly enough, translating experiments and math into practical advice seems to be a rare niche activity relative to academia. If there's a distinctive LW style, this is it.

332. The Sin of Underconfidence - When subjects know about a bias or are warned about a bias, overcorrection is not unheard of as an experimental result. That's what makes a lot of cognitive subtasks so troublesome - you know you're biased but you're not sure how much, and if you keep tweaking you may overcorrect. The danger of underconfidence (overcorrecting for overconfidence) is that you pass up opportunities on which you could have been successful; not challenging difficult enough problems; losing forward momentum and adopting defensive postures; refusing to put the hypothesis of your inability to the test; losing enough hope of triumph to try hard enough to win. You should ask yourself "Does this way of thinking make me stronger, or weaker?"

333. Go Forth and Create the Art! - I've developed primarily the art of epistemic rationality, in particular, the arts required for advanced cognitive reductionism... arts like distinguishing fake explanations from real ones and avoiding affective death spirals. There is much else that needs developing to create a craft of rationality - fighting akrasia; coordinating groups; teaching, training, verification, and becoming a proper experimental science; developing better introductory literature... And yet it seems to me that there is a beginning barrier to surpass before you can start creating high-quality craft of rationality, having to do with virtually everyone who tries to think lofty thoughts going instantly astray, or indeed even realizing that a craft of rationality exists and that you ought to be studying cognitive science literature to create it. It's my hope that my writings, as partial as they are, will serve to surpass this initial barrier. The rest I leave to you.

 


This has been a collection of notes on the assigned sequence for this fortnight. The most important part of the reading group though is discussion, which is in the comments section. Please remember that this group contains a variety of levels of expertise: if a line of discussion seems too basic or too incomprehensible, look around for one that suits you better!

This is the end, beautiful friend!

LINK: New clinical trial will try to restore dead brains

2 polymathwannabe 04 May 2016 08:05PM

"... in an effort to revive the brains of those being kept alive solely through life support. Stem cells will be injected directly into the brain..."

More at:

http://news.discovery.com/tech/biotechnology/dead-could-be-brought-back-to-life-in-medical-trial-160503.htm

Link: Thoughts on the basic income pilot, with hedgehogs

2 Jacobian 04 May 2016 05:47PM

I have resisted the urge of promoting my blog for many months, but this is literally (per my analysis) for the best cause.

We have also raised a decent amount of money so far, so at least some people were convinced by the arguments and didn't stop at the cute hedgehog pictures.

[Link] White House announces a series of workshops on AI, expresses interest in safety

9 AspiringRationalist 04 May 2016 02:50AM

Paid research assistant position focusing on artificial intelligence and existential risk

6 crmflynn 02 May 2016 06:27PM

Yale Assistant Professor of Political Science Allan Dafoe is seeking Research Assistants for a project on the political dimensions of the existential risks posed by advanced artificial intelligence. The project will involve exploring issues related to grand strategy and international politics, reviewing possibilities for social scientific research in this area, and institution building. Familiarity with international relations, existential risk, Effective Altruism, and/or artificial intelligence are a plus but not necessary. The project is done in collaboration with the Future of Humanity Institute, located in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. There are additional career opportunities in this area, including in the coming academic year and in the future at Yale, Oxford, and elsewhere. If interested in the position, please email allan.dafoe@yale.edu with a copy of your CV, a writing sample, an unofficial copy of your transcript, and a short (200-500 word) statement of interest. Work can be done remotely, though being located in New Haven, CT or Oxford, UK is a plus.

My Kind of Moral Responsibility

2 Gram_Stone 02 May 2016 05:54AM

The following is an excerpt of an exchange between Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci, from the transcript for Rationally Speaking Podcast episode 132:

Massimo: [cultivating virtue and 'doing good' locally 'does more good' than directly eradicating malaria]

Julia: [T]here's lower hanging fruit [in the developed world than there is in the developing world]. By many order of magnitude, there's lower hanging fruit in terms of being able to reduce poverty or disease or suffering in some parts of the world than other parts of the world. In the West, we've picked a lot of the low hanging fruit, and by any sort of reasonable calculation, it takes much more money to reduce poverty in the West -- because we're sort of out in the tail end of having reduced poverty -- than it does to bring someone out of poverty in the developing world.

Massimo: That kind of reasoning brings you quickly to the idea that everybody here is being a really really bad person because they spent money for coming here to NECSS listening to us instead of saving children on the other side of the world. I resist that kind of logic.

Massimo (to the audience): I don't think you guys are that bad! You see what I mean?

I see a lot of people, including bullet-biters, who feel a lot of internal tension, and even guilt, because of this apparent paradox.

Utilitarians usually stop at the question, "Are the outcomes different?"

Clearly, they aren't. But people still feel tension, so it must not be enough to believe that a world where some people are alive is better than a world where those very people are dead. The confusion has not evaporated in a puff of smoke, as we should expect.

After all, imagine a different gedanken where a virtue ethicist and a utilitarian each stand in front of a user interface, with each interface bearing only one shiny red button. Omega tells each, "If you press this button, then you will prevent one death. If you do not press this button, then you will not prevent one death."

There would be no disagreement. Both of them would press their buttons without a moment of hesitation.

So, in a certain sense, it's not only a question of which outcome is better. The repugnant part of the conclusion is the implication for our intuitions about moral responsibility. It's intuitive that you should save ten lives instead of one, but it's counterintuitive that the one who permits death is just as culpable as the one who causes death. You look at ten people who are alive when they could be dead, and it feels right to say that it is better that they are alive than that they are dead, but you juxtapose a murderer and your best friend who is not an ascetic, and it feels wrong to say that the one is just as awful as the other.

The virtue-ethical response is to say that the best friend has lived a good life and the murderer has not. Of course, I don't think that anyone who says this has done any real work.

So, if you passively don't donate every cent of discretionary income to the most effective charities, then are you morally culpable in the way that you would be if you had actively murdered everyone that you chose not to save who is now dead?

Well, what is moral responsibility? Hopefully we all know that there is not one culpable atom in the universe.

Perhaps the most concrete version of this question is: what happens, cognitively, when we evaluate whether or not someone is responsible for something? What's the difference between situations where we consider someone responsible and situations where we don't? What happens in the brain when we do these things? How do different attributions of responsibility change our judgments and decisions?

Most research on feelings has focused only on valence, how positiveness and negativeness affect judgment. But there's clearly a lot more to this: sadness, anger, and guilt are all negative feelings, but they're not all the same, so there must be something going on beyond valence.

One hypothesis is that the differences between sadness, anger, and guilt reflect different appraisals of agency. When we are sad, we haven't attributed the cause of the inciting event to an agent; the cause is situational, beyond human control. When we are angry, we've attributed the cause of the event to the actions of another agent. When we are guilty, we've attributed the cause of the event to our own actions.

(It's worth noting that there are many more types of appraisal than this, many more emotions, and many more feelings beyond emotions, but I'm going to focus on negative emotions and appraisals of agency for the sake of brevity. For a review of proposed appraisal types, see Demir, Desmet, & Hekkert (2009). For a review of emotions in general, check out Ortony, Clore, & Collins' The Cognitive Structure of Emotions.)

So, what's it look like when we narrow our attention to specific feelings on the same side of the valence spectrum? How are judgments affected when we only look at, say, sadness and anger? Might experiments based on these questions provide support for an account of our dilemma in terms of situational appraisals?

In one experiment, Keltner, Ellsworth, & Edwards (1993) found that sad subjects consider events with situational causes more likely than events with agentic causes, and that angry subjects consider events with agentic causes more likely than events with situational causes. In a second experiment in the same study, they found that sad subjects are more likely to consider situational factors as the primary cause of an ambiguous event than agentic factors, and that angry subjects are more likely to consider agentic factors as the primary cause of an ambiguous event than situational factors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, watching someone commit murder, and merely knowing that someone could have prevented a death on the other side of the world through an unusual effort, makes very different things happen in our brains. I expect that even the utilitarians are biting a fat bullet; that even the utilitarians feel the tension, the counterintuitiveness, when utilitarianism leads them to conclude that indifferent bystanders are just as bad as murderers. Intuitions are strong, and I hope that a few more utilitarians can understand why utilitarianism is just as repugnant to a virtue ethicist as virtue ethics is to a utilitarian.

My main thrust here is that "Is a bystander as morally responsible as a murderer?" is a wrong question. You're always secretly asking another question when you ask that question, and the answer often doesn't have the word 'responsibility' anywhere in it.

Utilitarians replace the question with, "Do indifference and evil result in the same consequences?" They answer, "Yes."

Virtue ethicists replace the question with, "Does it feel like indifference is as 'bad' as 'evil'?" They answer, "No."

And the one thinks, in too little detail, "They don't think that bystanders are just as bad as murderers!", and likewise, the other thinks, "They do think that bystanders are just as bad as murderers!".

And then the one and the other proceed to talk past one another for a period of time during which millions more die.

As you might expect, I must confess to a belief that the utilitarian is often the one less confused, so I will speak to that one henceforth.

As a special kind of utilitarian, the kind that frequents this community, you should know that, if you take the universe, and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, then you will not find one agentic atom. If you only ask the question, "Has the virtue ethicist done the moral thing?", and you silently reply to yourself, "No.", and your response is to become outraged at this, then you have failed your Art on two levels.

On the first level, you have lost sight of your goal. As if your goal is to find out whether or not someone has done the moral thing, or not! Your goal is to cause them to commit the moral action. By your own lights, if you fail to be as creative as you can possibly be in your attempts at persuasion, then you're just as culpable as someone who purposefully turned someone away from utilitarianism as a normative-ethical position. And if all you do is scorn the virtue ethicists, instead of engaging with them, then you're definitely not being very creative.

On the second level, you have failed to apply your moral principles to yourself. You have not considered that the utility-maximizing action might be something besides getting righteously angry, even if that's the easiest thing to do. And believe me, I get it. I really do understand that impulse.

And if you are that sort of utilitarian who has come to such a repugnant conclusion epistemically, but who has failed to meet your own expectations instrumentally, then be easy now. For there is no longer a question of 'whether or not you should be guilty'. There are only questions of what guilt is used for, and whether or not that guilt ends more lives than it saves.

All of this is not to say that 'moral outrage' is never the utility-maximizing action. I'm at least a little outraged right now. But in the beginning, all you really wanted was to get rid of naive notions of moral responsibility. The action to take in this situation is not to keep them in some places and toss them in others.

Throw out the bath water, and the baby, too. The virtue ethicists are expecting it anyway.

 


Demir, E., Desmet, P. M. A., & Hekkert, P. (2009). Appraisal patterns of emotions in human-product interaction. International Journal of Design, 3(2), 41-51.

Keltner, D., Ellsworth, P., & Edwards, K. (1993). Beyond simple pessimism: Effects of sadness and anger on social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 740-752.

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1990). The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. (1st ed.).

Open Thread May 2 - May 8, 2016

4 Elo 02 May 2016 02:43AM

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post (even in Discussion), then it goes here.


Notes for future OT posters:

1. Please add the 'open_thread' tag.

2. Check if there is an active Open Thread before posting a new one. (Immediately before; refresh the list-of-threads page before posting.)

3. Open Threads should be posted in Discussion, and not Main.

4. Open Threads should start on Monday, and end on Sunday.

A Second Year of Spaced Repetition Software in the Classroom

23 tanagrabeast 01 May 2016 10:14PM

This is a follow-up to last year's report. Here, I will talk about my successes and failures using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) in the classroom for a second year. The year's not over yet, but I have reasons for reporting early that should become clear in a subsequent post. A third post will then follow, and together these will constitute a small sequence exploring classroom SRS and the adjacent ideas that bubble up when I think deeply about teaching.

Summary

I experienced net negative progress this year in my efforts to improve classroom instruction via spaced repetition software. While this is mostly attributable to shifts in my personal priorities, I have also identified a number of additional failure modes for classroom SRS, as well as additional shortcomings of Anki for this use case. My experiences also showcase some fundamental challenges to teaching-in-general that SRS depressingly spotlights without being any less susceptible to. Regardless, I am more bullish than ever about the potential for classroom SRS, and will lay out a detailed vision for what it can be in the next post.

continue reading »

May 2016 Media Thread

1 ArisKatsaris 01 May 2016 09:27PM

This is the monthly thread for posting media of various types that you've found that you enjoy. Post what you're reading, listening to, watching, and your opinion of it. Post recommendations to blogs. Post whatever media you feel like discussing! To see previous recommendations, check out the older threads.

Rules:

  • Please avoid downvoting recommendations just because you don't personally like the recommended material; remember that liking is a two-place word. If you can point out a specific flaw in a person's recommendation, consider posting a comment to that effect.
  • If you want to post something that (you know) has been recommended before, but have another recommendation to add, please link to the original, so that the reader has both recommendations.
  • Please post only under one of the already created subthreads, and never directly under the parent media thread.
  • Use the "Other Media" thread if you believe the piece of media you want to discuss doesn't fit under any of the established categories.
  • Use the "Meta" thread if you want to discuss about the monthly media thread itself (e.g. to propose adding/removing/splitting/merging subthreads, or to discuss the type of content properly belonging to each subthread) or for any other question or issue you may have about the thread or the rules.

Hedge drift and advanced motte-and-bailey

17 Stefan_Schubert 01 May 2016 02:45PM

Motte and bailey is a technique by which one protects an interesting but hard-to-defend view by making it similar to a less interesting but more defensible position. Whenever the more interesting position - the bailey - is attacked - one retreats to the more defensible one - the motte -, but when the attackers are gone, one expands again to the bailey. 

In that case, one and the same person switches between two interpretations of the original claim. Here, I rather want to focus on situations where different people make different interpretations of the original claim. The originator of the claim adds a number of caveats and hedges to their claim, which makes it more defensible, but less striking and sometimes also less interesting.* When others refer to the same claim, the caveats and hedges gradually disappear, however, making it more and more motte-like.

A salient example of this is that scientific claims (particularly in messy fields like psychology and economics) often come with a number of caveats and hedges, which tend to get lost when re-told. This is especially so when media writes about these claims, but even other scientists often fail to properly transmit all the hedges and caveats that come with them.

Since this happens over and over again, people probably do expect their hedges to drift to some extent. Indeed, it would not surprise me if some people actually want hedge drift to occur. Such a strategy effectively amounts to a more effective, because less observable, version of the motte-and-bailey-strategy. Rather than switching back and forth between the motte and the bailey - something which is at least moderately observable, and also usually relies on some amount of vagueness, which is undesirable - you let others spread the bailey version of your claim, whilst you sit safe in the motte. This way, you get what you want - the spread of the bailey version - in a much safer way.

Even when people don't use this strategy intentionally, you could argue that they should expect hedge drift, and that omitting to take action against it is, if not ouright intellectually dishonest, then at least approaching that. This argument would rest on the consequentialist notion that if you have strong reasons to believe that some negative event will occur, and you could prevent it from happening by fairly simple means, then you have an obligation to do so. I certainly do think that scientists should do more to prevent their views from being garbled via hedge drift. 

Another way of expressing all this is by saying that when including hedging or caveats, scientists often seem to seek plausible deniability ("I included these hedges; it's not my fault if they were misinterpreted"). They don't actually try to prevent their claims from being misunderstood. 

What concrete steps could one then take to prevent hedge-drift? Here are some suggestions. I am sure there are many more.

  1. Many authors use eye-catching, hedge-free titles and/or abstracts, and then only include hedges in the paper itself. This is a recipe for hedge-drift and should be avoided.
  2. Make abundantly clear, preferably in the abstract, just how dependent the conclusions are on keys and assumptions. Say this not in a way that enables you to claim plausible deniability in case someone misinterprets you, but in a way that actually reduces the risk of hedge-drift as much as possible. 
  3. Explicitly caution against hedge drift, using that term or a similar one, in the abstract of the paper.

* Edited 2/5 2016. By hedges and caveats I mean terms like "somewhat" ("x reduces y somewhat"), "slightly", etc, as well as modelling assumptions without which the conclusions don't follow and qualifications regarding domains in which the thesis don't hold.

2016 LessWrong Diaspora Survey Results

21 ingres 01 May 2016 08:26AM

Foreword:

As we wrap up the 2016 survey, I'd like to start by thanking everybody who took
the time to fill it out. This year we had 3083 respondents, more than twice the
number we had last year. (Source: http://lesswrong.com/lw/lhg/2014_survey_results/)
This seems consistent with the hypothesis that the LW community hasn't declined
in population so much as migrated into different communities. Being the *diaspora*
survey I had expectations for more responses than usual, but twice as many was
far beyond them.

Before we move on to the survey results, I feel obligated to put a few affairs
in order in regards to what should be done next time. The copyright situation
for the survey was ambiguous this year, and to prevent that from happening again
I'm pleased to announce that this years survey questions will be released jointly
by me and Scott Alexander as Creative Commons licensed content. We haven't
finalized the details of this yet so expect it sometime this month.

I would also be remiss not to mention the large amount of feedback we received
on the survey. Some of which led to actionable recommendations I'm going to
preserve here for whoever does it next:

- Put free response form at the very end to suggest improvements/complain.

- Fix metaethics question in general, lots of options people felt were missing.

- Clean up definitions of political affilations in the short politics section.
  In particular, 'Communist' has an overly aggressive/negative definition.

- Possibly completely overhaul short politics section.

- Everywhere that a non-answer is taken as an answer should be changed so that
  non answer means what it ought to, no answer or opinion. "Absence of a signal
  should never be used as a signal." - Julian Bigelow, 1947

- Give a definition for the singularity on the question asking when you think it
  will occur.

- Ask if people are *currently* suffering from depression. Possibly add more
  probing questions on depression in general since the rates are so extraordinarily
  high.

- Include a link to what cisgender means on the gender question.

- Specify if the income question is before or after taxes.

- Add charity questions about time donated.

- Add "ineligible to vote" option to the voting question.

- Adding some way for those who are pregnant to indicate it on the number of
  children question would be nice. It might be onerous however so don't feel
  obligated. (Remember that it's more important to have a smooth survey than it
  is to catch every edge case.)

And read this thread: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nfk/lesswrong_2016_survey/,
it's full of suggestions, corrections and criticism.

Without further ado,

Basic Results:

2016 LessWrong Diaspora Survey Questions (PDF Format)

2016 LessWrong Diaspora Survey Results (PDF Format, Missing 23 Responses)

2016 LessWrong Diaspora Survey Results Complete (Text Format, Null Entries Included)

2016 LessWrong Diaspora Survey Results Complete (Text Format, Null Entries Excluded)

Our report system is currently on the fritz and isn't calculating numeric questions. If I'd known this earlier I'd have prepared the results for said questions ahead of time. Instead they'll be coming out later today or tomorrow.

2016 LessWrong Diaspora Survey Public Dataset

(Note for people looking to work with the dataset: My survey analysis code repository includes a sqlite converter, examples, and more coming soon. It's a great way to get up and running with the dataset really quickly.)

In depth analysis:

Effective Altruism and Charitable Giving Analysis

Mental Health Stats By Diaspora Community (Including self dxers)

How Diaspora Communities Compare On Mental Health Stats (I suspect these charts are subtly broken somehow, will investigate later)

Political Opinions By Political Affiliation

Blogs And Media Demographic Clusters

More coming soon!

Survey Analysis Code

Some notes:

1. FortForecast on the communities section, Bayesed And Confused on the blogs section, and Synthesis on the stories section were all 'troll' answers designed to catch people who just put down everything. Somebody noted that the three 'fortforecast' users had the entire DSM split up between them, that's why.

2. Lots of people asked me for a list of all those cool blogs and stories and communities on the survey, they're included in the survey questions PDF above.

Public TODO:

1. Fix the report system or perform the calculations manually.

2. Add more in depth analysis, fix the ones that decided to suddenly break at the last minute or I suspect were always broken.

3. Finish public data release function and release public dataset.

4. See if I can make sense of the calibration questions.

5. Add a compatibility mode so that the current question codes are converted to older ones for 3rd party analysis that rely on them.

If anybody would like to help with these, write to jd@fortforecast.com

The 'why does it even tell me this' moment

5 Romashka 01 May 2016 08:15AM

Edited based on the outline kindly provided by Gram_Stone, whom I thank.

There is a skill of reading and thinking which I haven't learned so far: of looking for implications as one goes through the book, simply putting it back on shelf until one's mind has run out of the inferences, perhaps writing them down. I think it would be easier to do with books that [have pictures]

- invite an attitude (like cooking shows or Darwin's travel accounts or Feynman's biography: it doesn't have to be "personal"),

- are/have been regularly needed (ideally belong to you so you can make notes on the margins),

- are either outdated (so you "take it with a grain of salt" and have the option of looking for a current opinion) or very new,

- are not highly specialized,

- are well-structured, preferably into one- to a-few-pages-long chapters,

- allow reading those chapters out of order*,

- (make you) recognize that you do not need this knowledge for its own sake,

- can be shared, or at least shown to other people, and talked about, etc. (Although I keep imagining picture albums when I read the list, so maybe I missed something.)

These features are what attracts me to an amateur-level Russian plant identification text of the 1948.** It was clearly written, and didn't contain many species of plants that the author considered to be easily grouped with others for practical purposes. It annoyed me when I expected the book to hold certain information that it didn't (a starting point - I have to notice something to want to think). This is merely speculation, but I suspect that the author omitted many of the species that they did because the book was intended to convey agricultural knowledge of great economic importance to the Soviet population of the time (although some included details were clearly of less import, botanists know that random bits trivia might help recognizing the plant in the field, which established a feeling of kinship - the realisation that the author's goal was to teach how to use the book, and how to get by without it on hand). I found the book far more entertaining to read when I realized that I would have to evaluate it in this context, even though one might think that this would actually make it more difficult to read. I was surprised that something as simple as glancing at a note on beetroot production rates could make me do more cognitive work than any cheap trick that I'd ever seen a pedagogical author try to perform purposefully.

There may be other ways that books could be written to spontaneously cause independent thought in their audiences. Perhaps we can do this on purpose. Or perhaps the practice of making inferences beyond what is obviously stated in books can be trained.

* which might be less useful for people learning about math.

** Ф. Нейштадт. Определитель растений. - Учпедгиз, 1948. - 476 с. An identification key gives you an algorithm, a branching path which must end with a Latin name, which makes using it leisurely a kind of game. If you cannot find what you see, then either you've made a mistake or it isn't there.

[LINK] Updating Drake's Equation with values from modern astronomy

6 DanArmak 30 April 2016 10:08PM

A paper published in AstrobiologyA New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe (PDF), A. Frank and W.T. Sullivan.

From the abstract:

Recent advances in exoplanet studies provide strong constraints on all astrophysical terms in the Drake equation. [...] We find that as long as the probability that a habitable zone planet develops a technological species is larger than ~ 10-24, humanity is not the only time technological intelligence has evolved.

They say we now know with reasonable certainty the total number of stars ever to exist (in the observable universe), and the average number of planets in the habitable zone. But we still don't know the probabilities of life, intelligence, and technology arising. They call this cumulative unknown factor fbt.

Their result: for technological civilization to arise no more than once, with probability 0.01, in the lifetime of the observable universe, fbt should be no greater than ~ 2.5 x 10-24.


Discussion

It's convenient that they calculate the chance technological civilization ever arose, rather than the chance one exists now. This is just the number we need to estimate the likelihood of a Great Filter.

They state their result as "[if we set fbt ≤ 2.5 x 10-24, then] at in a statistical sense were we to rerun the history of the Universe 100 times, only once would a lone technological species occur". But I don't know what rerunning the Universe means. I also can't formulate this as saying "if we hadn't already observed the Universe to be apparently empty of life, we would expect it to contain or to have once contained life with a probability of 1024", because that would ignore the chance that another civilization (if it counterfactually existed) would have affected or prevented the rise of life on Earth. Can someone help reformulate this? 

I don't know if their modern values for star and planet formation have been used in previous discussions of the Fermi paradox or the Great Filter. (The papers they cite for their values date from 2012, 2013 and 2015.) I also don't know if these values should be trusted, or what concrete values had been used previously. People on top of the Great Filter discussion probably already updated when the astronomical data came in.

Weekly LW Meetups

1 FrankAdamek 29 April 2016 03:50PM

New meetups (or meetups with a hiatus of more than a year) are happening in:

Irregularly scheduled Less Wrong meetups are taking place in:

The remaining meetups take place in cities with regular scheduling, but involve a change in time or location, special meeting content, or simply a helpful reminder about the meetup:

Locations with regularly scheduled meetups: Austin, Berkeley, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Buffalo, Canberra, Columbus, Denver, Kraków, London, Madison WI, Melbourne, Moscow, Mountain View, New Hampshire, New York, Philadelphia, Research Triangle NC, Seattle, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Vienna, Washington DC, and West Los Angeles. There's also a 24/7 online study hall for coworking LWers and a Slack channel for daily discussion and online meetups on Sunday night US time.

continue reading »

Double Corrigibility: better Corrigibility

4 Stuart_Armstrong 28 April 2016 02:46PM

A putative new idea for AI control; index here.

Corrigibility was an attempt to allow an AI to safely change its values, without seeking to provoke or avoid the change. The idea is that, when the AI's utility changes from u to v at time t, it maximises a meta-utility U such that

  • U≤t = u
  • U>t = v + E(u|u→u) - E(v|u→v).

Here u→u designates the event that u remains unchanged, while u→v designates the change.

As has been shown, adding those expectation terms means the AI will not seek to provoke or resist such a utility change - it is indifferent to the change. Those expectation terms can be designated compensatory rewards.

What it is not indifferent to, though, is changes to E. If the AI knows that change u→v is coming, then it has incentives to change E to E' with a high E'(u|u→u) and a low E'(v|u→v). Its ability to rewire is limited by the fact that E' will serve as its future expectation estimator, so it won't mangle it completely, but it certainly can twist it a bit.

Notice that the AI is now no longer indifferent to the change of utility. It can benefit from rewiring E this way only if a change is coming up. Notice that E' probably can't rewire itself any more, so the rewired AI will be indifferent, but not before rewiring.

 

Double corrigibility

To solve this problem, we need to turn to corrigibility a second time. Let ρ be the AI's current expectation/probability estimator. Let ρ' be one that it can conceivably change into. Let C be a random variable designating the sum total of all compensatory rewards. Now, to guarantee that C is finite would require bounds on all the utility functions and some discount rate. In practice, if often will be finite. That's because E(C)=E(u0|u0→u0)-E(un |un-1→un, H), where u0 is the AI's first utility, un its last, and H intermediate history. So some milder restrictions on the ui should suffice to bound C.

Then, whenever the AI takes an action that changes ρ to ρ', it gets the special meta-compensatory reward

  • Eρ(C|ρ→ρ)-Eρ(C|ρ→ρ').

This prevents it from deriving any advantage to C via changes to ρ. Or, more precisely, it prevents it from deriving any expected advantage, that it can figure out using its current ρ.

Note that it doesn't prevent improvements to ρ in general, it just removes the incentives to change it to affect compensatory rewards.

Since any action a might have an indirect effect on ρ, the "utility maximising" for a given u must be changed to:

  • Eρ(u|a) + Σρ' Pρ(ρ→ρ'|a) (Eρ(C|ρ→ρ)-Eρ(C|ρ→ρ')),

where Pρ is the probability estimate corresponding to ρ; the probability term can be rewritten as Eρ(Iρ→ρ') for Iρ→ρ' the indicator function for ρ→ρ'. In fact the whole line above can be rewritten as

  • Eρ(u|a) + Eρ(Eρ(C|ρ→ρ)-Eρ(C|ρ→ρ') | a).

For this to work, Eρ needs to be able to say sensible things about itself, and also about Eρ', which is used to estimate C if ρ→ρ'.

If we compare this with various ways of factoring out variables, we can see that it's a case where we have a clear default, ρ, and are estimating deviations from that.

Is the average ethical review board ethical from an utilitarian standpoint?

3 ChristianKl 27 April 2016 12:11PM
Many people argue that Facebook's study of how the emotions of it's users changed depending on the emotional content of messages in their facebook feed wouldn't have been approved by the average ethical review board because facebook didn't seek informed consent for the experiment.

Is the harm that the average ethical review board prevents less than the harm that they cause by preventing research from happening? Are principles such as requiring informed consent from all research participants justifiable from an utilitarian perspective?

JFK was not assassinated: prior probability zero events

17 Stuart_Armstrong 27 April 2016 11:47AM

A lot of my work involves tweaking the utility or probability of an agent to make it believe - or act as if it believed - impossible or almost impossible events. But we have to be careful about this; an agent that believes the impossible may not be so different from one that doesn't.

Consider for instance an agent that assigns a prior probability of zero to JFK ever having been assassinated. No matter what evidence you present to it, it will go on disbelieving the "non-zero gunmen theory".

Initially, the agent will behave very unusually. If it was in charge of JFK's security in Dallas before the shooting, it would have sent all secret service agents home, because no assassination could happen. Immediately after the assassination, it would have disbelieved everything. The films would have been faked or misinterpreted; the witnesses, deluded; the dead body of the president, that of twin or an actor. It would have had huge problems with the aftermath, trying to reject all the evidence of death, seeing a vast conspiracy to hide the truth of JFK's non-death, including the many other conspiracy theories that must be false flags, because they all agree with the wrong statement that the president was actually assassinated.

But as time went on, the agent's behaviour would start to become more and more normal. It would realise the conspiracy was incredibly thorough in its faking of the evidence. All avenues it pursued to expose them would come to naught. It would stop expecting people to come forward and confess the joke, it would stop expecting to find radical new evidence overturning the accepted narrative. After a while, it would start to expect the next new piece of evidence to be in favour of the assassination idea - because if a conspiracy has been faking things this well so far, then they should continue to do so in the future. Though it cannot change its view of the assassination, its expectation for observations converge towards the norm.

If it does a really thorough investigation, it might stop believing in a conspiracy at all. At some point, the probability of a miracle will start to become more likely than a perfect but undetectable conspiracy. It is very unlikely that Lee Harvey Oswald shot at JFK, missed, and the president's head exploded simultaneously for unrelated natural causes. But after a while, such a miraculous explanation will start to become more likely than anything else the agent can consider. This explanation opens the possibility of miracles; but again, if the agent is very thorough, it will fail to find evidence of other miracles, and will probably settle on "an unrepeatable miracle caused JFK's death in a way that is physically undetectable".

But then note that such an agent will have a probability distribution over future events that is almost indistinguishable from a normal agent that just believes the standard story of JFK being assassinated. The zero-prior has been negated, not in theory but in practice.

 

How to do proper probability manipulation

This section is still somewhat a work in progress.

So the agent believes one false fact about the world, but its expectation is otherwise normal. This can be both desirable and undesirable. The negative is if we try and control the agent forever by giving it a false fact.

To see the positive, ask why would we want an agent to believe impossible things in the first place? Well, one example was an Oracle design where the Oracle didn't believe its output message would ever be read. Here we wanted the Oracle to believe the message wouldn't be read, but not believe anything else too weird about the world.

In terms of causality, if X designates the message being read at time t, and B and A are event before and after t, respectively, we want P(B|X)≈P(B) (probabilities about current facts in the world shouldn't change much) while P(A|X)≠P(A) is fine and often expected (the future should be different if the message is read or not).

In the JFK example, the agent eventually concluded "a miracle happened". I'll call this miracle a scrambling point. It's kind of a breakdown in causality: two futures are merged into one, given two different pasts. The two pasts are "JFK was assassinated" and "JFK wasn't assassinated", and their common scrambled future is "everything appears as if JFK was assassinated". The non-assassination belief has shifted the past but not the future.

For the Oracle, we want to do the reverse: we want the non-reading belief to shift the future but not the past. However, unlike the JFK assassination, we can try and build the scrambling point. That's why I always talk about messages going down noisy wires, or specific quantum events, or chaotic processes. If the past goes through a truly stochastic event (it doesn't matter whether there is true randomness or just that the agent can't figure out the consequences), we can get what we want.

The Oracle idea will go wrong if the Oracle conclude that non-reading must imply something is different about the past (maybe it can see through chaos in ways we thought it couldn't), just as the JFK assassination denier will continue to be crazy if can't find a route to reach "everything appears as if JFK was assassinated".

But there is a break in the symmetry: the JFK assassination denier will eventually reach that point as long as the world is complex and stochastic enough. While the Oracle requires that the future probabilities be the same in all (realistic) past universes.

Now, once the Oracle's message has been read, the Oracle will find itself in the same situation as the other agent: believing an impossible thing. For Oracles, we can simply reset them. Other agents might have to behave more like the JFK assassination disbeliever. Though if we're careful, we can quantify things more precisely, as I attempted to do here.

Suggest best book as an introduction to computational neuroscience

2 BiasedBayes 26 April 2016 09:16PM

Im trying to find a best place to start learning the field. I have no special math background. Im very eager to learn. Thanks alot!

 

Exercise in rationality: popular quotes, revisited

1 jennabouche 25 April 2016 11:35PM

A friend recently shared an image of Lincoln with the quote, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt."

 

Correcting that idea, I replied with the following: "Speak! Reveal your foolishness, and open yourself so that others may enlighten you and you can learn. Fear the false mantle of silence-as-wisdom; better to briefly be the vocal fool than forever the silent fool."

 

The experience led me to thinking that it might be fun, cathartic, andor a good mental exercise/reminder to translate our culture's more irrational memes into a more presentable package.

 

Post your own examples if you like, and if I think of/see more I'll post here.

Sphere packing and logical uncertainty

3 sanxiyn 25 April 2016 06:02AM

Trying posting here since I don't see how to post to https://agentfoundations.org/.

Recently sphere packing was solved in dimension 24, and I read about it on Quanta Magazine. I found the following part of the article (paraphrased) fascinating.

Cohn and Kumar found that the best possible sphere packings in dimensions 24 could be at most 0.0000000000000000000000000001 percent denser than the Leech lattice. Given this ridiculously close estimate, it seemed clear that the Leech lattice must be the best sphere packings in dimension 24.

This is clearly a kind of reasoning under logical uncertainty, and seems very reasonable. Most humans probably would reason similarly, even when they have no idea what the Leech lattice is.

Is this kind of reasoning covered by already known desiderata for logical uncertainty?

Open Thread April 25 - May 1, 2016

2 Elo 25 April 2016 06:02AM

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post (even in Discussion), then it goes here.


Notes for future OT posters:

1. Please add the 'open_thread' tag.

2. Check if there is an active Open Thread before posting a new one. (Immediately before; refresh the list-of-threads page before posting.)

3. Open Threads should be posted in Discussion, and not Main.

4. Open Threads should start on Monday, and end on Sunday.

[Link] Mutual fund fees

3 James_Miller 23 April 2016 10:09PM

An easy win for rationalists is to avoid actively managed mutual funds.  As a NYT article points out:   

 

"High fees, often hidden from view, are still enriching many advisers and financial services companies at the expense of ordinary people who are struggling to salt away savings....even for retirement accounts that are to be covered by the rules, many advisers are not required to act in their clients’ best interests. This means that they are legally entitled to look out for themselves first and recommend investments with higher fees, to the detriment of those who have asked for help....even when fund managers succeed in outperforming their peers in one year, they cannot easily repeat the feat in successive years, as many studies have shown. That’s why low-cost index funds, which merely mirror the performance of the market and don’t try to beat it, make a great deal of sense as a core investment....With fees included, the average actively managed fund in each of 29 asset categories — from those that invest in various sizes and styles of stocks to those that hold fixed-income instruments like government or municipal bonds — underperformed its benchmark over the decade through December. In other words, index funds outperformed the average actively managed fund in every single category....Investors who believe they have found honest and skillful advisers may still want to understand all of this. Not everyone truly has your best interest at heart."

My Custom Spelling Dictionary

3 Gram_Stone 23 April 2016 09:56PM

I looked at my custom spelling dictionary in Google Chrome, and thought custom spelling dictionaries in general might be a good place for you to look if you wonder what kinds of terms you'll have to explain to people to help them understand what you mean. If something's on your list, then you would probably have to provide an explanation of its usage to a given random individual from the world population.

Here's my list:

anthropogenic

attentional

attentionally

automaticity

beisutsukai

bulletpoint

ceteris

combinatorially

commentariat

credences

curation

disanalogies

Eliezer

epistemic

evolutionarily

formidability

fortiori

gedanken

Gwern

hierarch

impactful

indexical

interpretable

Kahneman

LW

LWers

maladaptive

metacognition

metacognitive

metamemory

MIRI

Newcomblike

normatively

paribus

percepts

prefrontal

pseudonymity

pseudonymously

relatable

situational

superintelligence

underconfidence

underconfident

unobservable

unsimplified

updateless

whistleblow

 

Share yours, too, if you'd like. Maybe something interesting or useful will come out of it. Maybe there will be patterns.

What is up with carbon dioxide and cognition? An offer

21 paulfchristiano 23 April 2016 05:47PM

One or two research groups have published work on carbon dioxide and cognition. The state of the published literature is confusing.

Here is one paper on the topic. The authors investigate a proprietary cognitive benchmark, and experimentally manipulate carbon dioxide levels (without affecting other measures of air quality). They find implausibly large effects from increased carbon dioxide concentrations.

If the reported effects are real and the suggested interpretation is correct, I think it would be a big deal. To put this in perspective, carbon dioxide concentrations in my room vary between 500 and 1500 ppm depending on whether I open the windows. The experiment reports on cognitive effects for moving from 600 and 1000 ppm, and finds significant effects compared to interindividual differences.

I haven't spent much time looking into this (maybe 30 minutes, and another 30 minutes to write this post). I expect that if we spent some time looking into indoor CO2 we could have a much better sense of what was going on, by some combination of better literature review, discussion with experts, looking into the benchmark they used, and just generally thinking about it.

So, here's a proposal:

  • If someone looks into this and writes a post that improves our collective understanding of the issue, I will be willing to buy part of an associated certificate of impact, at a price of around $100*N, where N is my own totally made up estimate of how many hours of my own time it would take to produce a similarly useful writeup. I'd buy up to 50% of the certificate at that price.
  • Whether or not they want to sell me some of the certificate, on May 1 I'll give a $500 prize to the author of the best publicly-available analysis of the issue. If the best analysis draws heavily on someone else's work, I'll use my discretion: I may split the prize arbitrarily, and may give it to the earlier post even if it is not quite as excellent.

Some clarifications:

  • The metric for quality is "how useful it is to Paul." I hope that's a useful proxy for how useful it is in general, but no guarantees. I am generally a pretty skeptical person. I would care a lot about even a modest but well-established effect on performance. 
  • These don't need to be new analyses, either for the prize or the purchase.
  • I reserve the right to resolve all ambiguities arbitrarily, and in the end to do whatever I feel like. But I promise I am generally a nice guy.
  • I posted this 2 weeks ago on the EA forum and haven't had serious takers yet.
(Thanks to Andrew Critch for mentioning these results to me and Jessica Taylor for lending me a CO2 monitor so that I could see variability in indoor CO2 levels. I apologize for deliberately not doing my homework on this post.)

The Validity of the Anthropic Principle

1 casebash 23 April 2016 09:12AM

In my last post, I wrote about how the anthropic principle was often misapplied, that it could not be used within a single model, but only for comparing two or more models. This post will explain why I think that the anthropic principle is valid in every case where we aren't making those mistakes.

There have been many probability problems discussed on this site and one popular viewpoint is that probabilities cannot be discussed as existing by themselves, but only as existing in relation to a series of bets. Imagine that there are two worlds: World A has 10 people and World B has 100. Both worlds have a prior probability of 50% of being correct. Is it the case that World B should instead be given a 10:1 odds due to there being ten times the number of people and the anthropic principle? This sounds surprising, but I would say yes as you’d have to be paid 10 times as much from each person in World A who is correct in order for you to be indifferent between the two worlds. What this means is that if there is a bet that gains or loses you money according to whether you are in world A or world B, you should bet as though the probability of you being in world B is 10 times as much. That doesn’t quite show that the probability is 10:1, but it is rather close. I can’t actually remember the exact process/theorem in order to determine probabilities from betting odds. Can anyone link it to me?

Another way to show that the anthropic principle is probably correct is to note that if world A had 0 people instead, then there would be 100% of observing world B rather than world A. This doesn’t prove much, but it does prove that anthropic effects exist on some level. 

Suppose now that world A has 1 person and world B has 1 million people. Maybe you aren’t convinced that you are more likely to observe world B. Let’s consider an equivalent formulation where world A has 1 person who is extremely unobservant and only has a 1 in a million chance of noticing the giant floating A in world A and the other world has a single person, but this time with a 100% chance of noticing the giant floating B in their world. I think it is clear that it is more likely for you to notice a giant floating B than an A.

One more formulation is to have world A have 10 humans and 90 cyborgs and world B to have 100 humans. We can then ask about the probability of being in world B given that you are a human observing the world. It seems clear here that you have 10 times the probability of being in world B than world A given that you are a human. It seems that this should be equivalent to the original problem since the cyborgs don’t change anything. 

I admit that none of this is fully rigorous philosophical reasoning, but I thought that I’d post it anyway a) to get feedback b) to see if anyone denied the use of the anthropic principle in this way (not the way described in my last post), which would provide me with more motivation to try making all of this more formal.

Update: I thought it was worth adding that applying the anthropic principle to two models is really very similar to null hypothesis testing to determine if it is likely that a coin is biased. If there are a million people in one possible world, but only one in another, it would seem to be an amazing coincidence for you to be that one.

Sleepwalk bias, self-defeating predictions and existential risk

5 Stefan_Schubert 22 April 2016 06:31PM

Connected to: The Argument from Crisis and Pessimism Bias

When we predict the future, we often seem to underestimate the degree to which people will act to avoid adverse outcomes. Examples include Marx's prediction that the ruling classes would fail to act to avert a bloody revolution, predictions of environmental disasters and resource constraints, y2K, etc. In most or all of these cases, there could have been a catastrophe, if people had not acted with determination and ingenuity to prevent it. But when pressed, people often do that, and it seems that we often fail to take that into account when making predictions. In other words: too often we postulate that people will sleepwalk into a disaster. Call this sleepwalk bias.

What are the causes of sleepwalk bias? I think there are two primary causes:

Cognitive constraints. It is easier to just extrapolate existing trends than to engage in complicated reasoning about how people will act to prevent those trends from continuing.

Predictions as warnings. We often fail to distinguish between predictions in the pure sense (what I would bet will happen) and what we may term warnings (what we think will happen, unless appropriate action is taken). Some of these predictions could perhaps be interpreted as warnings - in which case, they were not as bad as they seemed.

However, you could also argue that they were actual predictions, and that they were more effective because they were predictions, rather than warnings. For, more often than not, there will of course be lots of work to reduce the risk of disaster, which will reduce the risk. This means that a warning saying that "if no action is taken, there will be a disaster" is not necessarily very effective as a way to change behaviour - since we know for a fact that action will be taken. A prediction that there is a high probability of a disaster all things considered is much more effective. Indeed, the fact that predictions are more effective than warnings might be the reason why people predict disasters, rather than warn about them. Such predictions are self-defeating - which you may argue is why people make them.

In practice, I think people often fail to distinguish between pure predictions and warnings. They slide between these interpretations. In any case, the effect of all this is for these "prediction-warnings" to seem too pessimistic qua pure predictions.

 


 

The upshot for existential risk is that those suffering from sleepwalk bias may be too pessimistic. They fail to appreciate the enormous efforts people will make to avoid an existential disaster.

Is sleepwalk bias common among the existential risk community? If so, that would be a pro tanto-reason to be somewhat less worried about existential risk. Since it seems to be a common bias, it would be unsurprising if the existential risk community also suffered from it. On the other hand, they have thought about these issues a lot, and may have been able to overcome it (or even overcorrect for it)

Also, even if sleepwalk bias does indeed affect existential risk predictions, it would be dangerous to let this notion make us decrease our efforts to reduce existential risk, given the enormous stakes, and the present neglect of existential risk. If pessimistic predictions may be self-defeating, so may optimistic predictions.

 


 

[Added 24/4 2016] Under which circumstances can we expect actors to sleepwalk? And under what circumstances can we expect that people will expect them to sleepwalk, even though they won't? Here are some considerations, inspired by the comments below. Sleepwalking is presumably more likely if:

  1. The catastrophe is arriving too fast for actors to react.
  2. It is unclear whether the catastrophe will in fact occur, or it is at least not very observable for the relevant actors (the financial crisis, possibly AGI).
  3. The possible disaster, though observable in some sense, is not sufficiently salient (especially to voters) to override more immediate concerns (climate change).
  4. There are conflicts (World War I) and/or free-riding problems (climate change) which are hard to overcome.
  5. The problem is technically harder than initially thought.

1, 2 and, in a way, 3, have to do with observing the disaster in time to act, whereas 4 and 5 have to do with ability to act once the problem is identified.

On the second question, my guess would be that people in general do not differentiate sufficiently between scenarios where sleepwalking is plausible and those where it is not (i.e. predicted sleepwalking has less variance than actual sleepwalking).  This means that we sometimes probably underestimate the amount of sleepwalking, but more often, if my main argument is right, we overestimate it. An upshot of this is that it is important to try to carefully model the amount of sleepwalking that there will be regarding different existential risks.

One weird trick to turn maximisers into minimisers

1 Stuart_Armstrong 22 April 2016 04:47PM

A putative new idea for AI control; index here.

A simple and easy design for a u-maximising agent that turns into a u-minimising one.

Let X be some boolean random variable outside the agent's control, that will be determined at some future time t (based on a cosmic event, maybe?). Set it up so that P(X=1)=ε, and for a given utility u, consider the utility:

  • u# = (2/ε)Xu - u.

Before t, the expected value of (2/ε)X is 2, so u# = u. Hence the agent is a u-maximiser. After t, the most likely option is X=0, hence a little bit of evidence to that effect is enough to make u# into a u-minimiser.

This isn't perfect corrigibility - the agent would be willing to sacrifice a bit of u-value (before t) in order to maintain its flexibility after t. To combat this effect, we could instead use:

  • u# = Ω(2/ε)Xu - u.

If Ω is large, then the agent is willing to pay very little u-value to maintain flexibility. However, the amount of evidence of X=0 that it needs to become a u-minimiser is equally proportional to Ω, so X better be a clear and convincing event.

Weekly LW Meetups

0 FrankAdamek 22 April 2016 03:58PM

This summary was posted to LW Main on April 22nd. The following week's summary is here.

New meetups (or meetups with a hiatus of more than a year) are happening in:

Irregularly scheduled Less Wrong meetups are taking place in:

The remaining meetups take place in cities with regular scheduling, but involve a change in time or location, special meeting content, or simply a helpful reminder about the meetup:

Locations with regularly scheduled meetups: Austin, Berkeley, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Buffalo, Canberra, Columbus, Denver, Kraków, London, Madison WI, Melbourne, Moscow, Mountain View, New Hampshire, New York, Philadelphia, Research Triangle NC, Seattle, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Vienna, Washington DC, and West Los Angeles. There's also a 24/7 online study hall for coworking LWers and a Slack channel for daily discussion and online meetups on Sunday night US time.

continue reading »

[link] Simplifying the environment: a new convergent instrumental goal

4 Kaj_Sotala 22 April 2016 06:48AM

http://kajsotala.fi/2016/04/simplifying-the-environment-a-new-convergent-instrumental-goal/

Convergent instrumental goals (also basic AI drives) are goals that are useful for pursuing almost any other goal, and are thus likely to be pursued by any agent that is intelligent enough to understand why they’re useful. They are interesting because they may allow us to roughly predict the behavior of even AI systems that are much more intelligent than we are.

Instrumental goals are also a strong argument for why sufficiently advanced AI systems that were indifferent towards human values could be dangerous towards humans, even if they weren’t actively malicious: because the AI having instrumental goals such as self-preservation or resource acquisition could come to conflict with human well-being. “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.

I’ve thought of a candidate for a new convergent instrumental drive: simplifying the environment to make it more predictable in a way that aligns with your goals.

The Web Browser is Not Your Client (But You Don't Need To Know That)

20 Error 22 April 2016 12:12AM

(Part of a sequence on discussion technology and NNTP. As last time, I should probably emphasize that I am a crank on this subject and do not actually expect anything I recommend to be implemented. Add whatever salt you feel is necessary)1


If there is one thing I hope readers get out of this sequence, it is this: The Web Browser is Not Your Client.

It looks like you have three or four viable clients -- IE, Firefox, Chrome, et al. You don't. You have one. It has a subforum listing with two items at the top of the display; some widgets on the right hand side for user details, RSS feed, meetups; the top-level post display; and below that, replies nested in the usual way.

Changing your browser has the exact same effect on your Less Wrong experience as changing your operating system, i.e. next to none.

For comparison, consider the Less Wrong IRC, where you can tune your experience with a wide range of different software. If you don't like your UX, there are other clients that give a different UX to the same content and community.

That is how the mechanism of discussion used to work, and does not now. Today, your user experience (UX) in a given community is dictated mostly by the admins of that community, and software development is often neither their forte nor something they have time for. I'll often find myself snarkily responding to feature requests with "you know, someone wrote something that does that 20 years ago, but no one uses it."

Semantic Collapse

What defines a client? More specifically, what defines a discussion client, a Less Wrong client?

The toolchain by which you read LW probably looks something like this; anyone who's read the source please correct me if I'm off:

Browser -> HTTP server -> LW UI application -> Reddit API -> Backend database.

The database stores all the information about users, posts, etc. The API presents subsets of that information in a way that's convenient for a web application to consume (probably JSON objects, though I haven't checked). The UI layer generates a web page layout and content using that information, which is then presented -- in the form of (mostly) HTML -- by the HTTP server layer to your browser. Your browser figures out what color pixels go where.

All of this is a gross oversimplification, obviously.

In some sense, the browser is self-evidently a client: It talks to an http server, receives hypertext, renders it, etc. It's a UI for an HTTP server.

But consider the following problem: Find and display all comments by me that are children of this post, and only those comments, using only browser UI elements, i.e. not the LW-specific page widgets. You cannot -- and I'd be pretty surprised if you could make a browser extension that could do it without resorting to the API, skipping the previous elements in the chain above. For that matter, if you can do it with the existing page widgets, I'd love to know how.

That isn't because the browser is poorly designed; it's because the browser lacks the semantic information to figure out what elements of the page constitute a comment, a post, an author. That information was lost in translation somewhere along the way.

Your browser isn't actually interacting with the discussion. Its role is more akin to an operating system than a client. It doesn't define a UX. It provides a shell, a set of system primitives, and a widget collection that can be used to build a UX. Similarly, HTTP is not the successor to NNTP; the successor is the plethora of APIs, for which HTTP is merely a substrate.

The Discussion Client is the point where semantic metadata is translated into display metadata; where you go from 'I have post A from user B with content C' to 'I have a text string H positioned above visual container P containing text string S.' Or, more concretely, when you go from this:

Author: somebody
Subject: I am right, you are mistaken, he is mindkilled.
Date: timestamp
Content: lorem ipsum nonsensical statement involving plankton....

to this:

<h1>I am right, you are mistaken, he is mindkilled.</h1>
<div><span align=left>somebody</span><span align=right>timestamp</span></div>
<div><p>lorem ipsum nonsensical statement involving plankton....</p></div>

That happens at the web application layer. That's the part that generates the subforum headings, the interface widgets, the display format of the comment tree. That's the part that defines your Less Wrong experience, as a reader, commenter, or writer.

That is your client, not your web browser. If it doesn't suit your needs, if it's missing features you'd like to have, well, you probably take for granted that you're stuck with it.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Mechanism and Policy

One of the difficulties forming an argument about clients is that the proportion of people who have ever had a choice of clients available for any given service keeps shrinking. I have this mental image of the Average Internet User as having no real concept for this.

Then I think about email. Most people have probably used at least two different clients for email, even if it's just Gmail and their phone's built-in mail app. Or perhaps Outlook, if they're using a company system. And they (I think?) mostly take for granted that if they don't like Outlook they can use something else, or if they don't like their phone's mail app they can install a different one. They assume, correctly, that the content and function of their mail account is not tied to the client application they use to work with it.

(They may make the same assumption about web-based services, on the reasoning that if they don't like IE they can switch to Firefox, or if they don't like Firefox they can switch to Chrome. They are incorrect, because The Web Browser is Not Their Client)

Email does a good job of separating mechanism from policy. Its format is defined in RFC 2822 and its transmission protocol is defined in RFC 5321. Neither defines any conventions for user interfaces. There are good reasons for that from a software-design standpoint, but more relevant to our discussion is that interface conventions change more rapidly than the objects they interface with. Forum features change with the times; but the concepts of a Post, an Author, or a Reply are forever.

The benefit of this separation: If someone sends you mail from Outlook, you don't need to use Outlook to read it. You can use something else -- something that may look and behave entirely differently, in a manner more to your liking.

The comparison: If there is a discussion on Less Wrong, you do need to use the Less Wrong UI to read it. The same goes for, say, Facebook.

I object to this.

Standards as Schelling Points

One could argue that the lack of choice is for lack of interest. Less Wrong, and Reddit on which it is based, has an API. One could write a native client. Reddit does have them.

Let's take a tangent and talk about Reddit. Seems like they might have done something right. They have (I think?) the largest contiguous discussion community on the net today. And they have a published API for talking to it. It's even in use.

The problem with this method is that Reddit's API applies only to Reddit. I say problem, singular, but it's really problem, plural, because it hits users and developers in different ways.

On the user end, it means you can't have a unified user interface across different web forums; other forum servers have entirely different APIs, or none at all.2 It also makes life difficult when you want to move from one forum to another.

On the developer end, something very ugly happens when a content provider defines its own provision mechanism. Yes, you can write a competing client. But your client exists only at the provider's sufferance, subject to their decision not to make incompatible API changes or just pull the plug on you and your users outright. That isn't paranoia; in at least one case, it actually happened. Using an agreed-upon standard limits this sort of misbehavior, although it can still happen in other ways.

NNTP is a standard for discussion, like SMTP is for email. It is defined in RFC 3977 and its data format is defined in RFC 5536. The point of a standard is to ensure lasting interoperability; because it is a standard, it serves as a deliberately-constructed Schelling point, a place where unrelated developers can converge without further coordination.

Expertise is a Bottleneck

If you're trying to build a high-quality community, you want a closed system. Well kept gardens die by pacifism, and it's impossible to fully moderate an open system. But if you're building a communication infrastructure, you want an open system.

In the early Usenet days, this was exactly what existed; NNTP was standardized and open, but Usenet was a de-facto closed community, accessible mostly to academics. Then AOL hooked its customers into the system. The closed community became open, and the Eternal September began.3 I suspect, but can't prove, that this was a partial cause of the flight of discussion from Usenet to closed web forums.

I don't think that was the appropriate response. I think the appropriate response was private NNTP networks or even single servers, not connected to Usenet at large.

Modern web forums throw the open-infrastructure baby out with the open-community bathwater. The result, in our specific case, is that if we want something not provided by the default Less Wrong interface, it must be implemented by Less Wrongers.

I don't think UI implementation is our comparative advantage. In fact I know it isn't, or the Less Wrong UI wouldn't suck so hard. We're pretty big by web-forum standards, but we still contain only a tiny fraction of the Internet's technical expertise.

The situation is even worse among the diaspora; for example, at SSC, if Scott's readers want something new out of the interface, it must be implemented either by Scott himself or his agents. That doesn't scale.

One of the major benefits of a standardized, open infrastructure is that your developer base is no longer limited to a single community. Any software written by any member of any community backed by the same communication standard is yours for the using. Additionally, the developers are competing for the attention of readers, not admins; you can expect the reader-facing feature set to improve accordingly. If readers want different UI functionality, the community admins don't need to be involved at all.

A Real Web Client

When I wrote the intro to this sequence, the most common thing people insisted on was this: Any system that actually gets used must allow links from the web, and those links must reach a web page.

I completely, if grudgingly, agree. No matter how insightful a post is, if people can't link to it, it will not spread. No matter how interesting a post is, if Google doesn't index it, it doesn't exist.

One way to achieve a common interface to an otherwise-nonstandard forum is to write a gateway program, something that answers NNTP requests and does magic to translate them to whatever the forum understands. This can work and is better than nothing, but I don't like it -- I'll explain why in another post.

Assuming I can suppress my gag reflex for the next few moments, allow me to propose: a web client.

(No, I don't mean write a new browser. The Browser Is Not Your Client.4)

Real NNTP clients use the OS's widget set to build their UI and talk to the discussion board using NNTP. There is no fundamental reason the same cannot be done using the browser's widget set. Google did it. Before them, Deja News did it. Both of them suck, but they suck on the UI level. They are still proof that the concept can work.

I imagine an NNTP-backed site where casual visitors never need to know that's what they're dealing with. They see something very similar to a web forum or a blog, but whatever software today talks to a database on the back end, instead talks to NNTP, which is the canonical source of posts and post metadata. For example, it gets the results of a link to http://lesswrong.com/posts/message_id.html by sending ARTICLE message_id to its upstream NNTP server (which may be hosted on the same system), just as a native client would.

To the drive-by reader, nothing has changed. Except, maybe, one thing. When a regular reader, someone who's been around long enough to care about such things, says "Hey, I want feature X," and our hypothetical web client doesn't have it, I can now answer:

Someone wrote something that does that twenty years ago.

Here is how to get it.



  1. Meta-meta: This post took about eight hours to research and write, plus two weeks procrastinating. If anyone wants to discuss it in realtime, you can find me on #lesswrong or, if you insist, the LW Slack.

  2. The possibility of "universal clients" that understand multiple APIs is an interesting case, as with Pidgin for IM services. I might talk about those later.

  3. Ironically, despite my nostalgia for Usenet, I was a part of said September; or at least its aftermath.

  4. Okay, that was a little shoehorned in. The important thing is this: What I tell you three times is true.

Expect to know better when you know more

3 Stuart_Armstrong 21 April 2016 03:47PM

A seemingly trivial result, that I haven't seen posted anywhere in this form, that I could find. It simply shows that we expect evidence to increase the posterior probability of the true hypothesis.

Let H be the true hypothesis/model/environment/distribution, and ~H its negation. Let e be evidence we receive, taking values e1, e2, ... en. Let pi=P(e=ei|H) and qi=P(E=ei|~H).

The expected posterior weighting of H, P(e|H), is Σpipi while the expected posterior weighting of ~H, P(e|~H), is Σqipi. Then since the pi and qi both sum to 1, Cauchy–Schwarz implies that

 

  • E(P(e|H)) ≥ E(P(e|~H)).

Thus, in expectation, the probability of the evidence given the true hypothesis, is higher than or equal to the probability of the evidence given its negation.

This, however, doesn't mean that the Bayes factor - P(e|H)/P(e|~H) - must have expectation greater than one, since ratios of expectation are not the same as expectations of ratio. The Bayes factor given e=ei is (pi/qi). Thus the expected Bayes factor is Σ(pi/qi)pi. The negative logarithm is a convex function; hence by Jensen's inequality, -log[E(P(e|H)/P(e|~H))] ≤ -E[log(P(e|H)/P(e|~H))]. That last expectation is Σ(log(pi/qi))pi. This is the Kullback–Leibler divergence of P(e|~H) from P(e|H), and hence is non-negative. Thus log[E(P(e|H)/P(e|~H))] ≥ 0, and hence

 

  • E(P(e|H)/P(e|~H)) ≥ 1.

Thus, in expectation, the Bayes factor, for the true hypothesis versus its negation, is greater than or equal to one.

Note that this is not true for the inverse. Indeed E(P(e|~H)/P(e|H)) = Σ(qi/pi)pi = Σqi = 1.

In the preceding proofs, ~H played no specific role, and hence

 

  • For all K,    E(P(e|H)) ≥ E(P(e|K))    and    E(P(e|H)/P(e|K)) ≥ 1    (and E(P(e|K)/P(e|H)) = 1).

Thus, in expectation, the probability of the true hypothesis versus anything, is greater or equal in both absolute value and ratio.

Now we can turn to the posterior probability P(H|e). For e=ei, this is P(H)*P(e=ei|H)/P(e=ei). We can compute the expectation of P(e|H)/P(e) as above, using the non-negative Kullback–Leibler divergence of P(e) from P(e|H), and thus showing it has an expectation greater than or equal to 1. Hence:

 

  • E(P(H|e)) ≥ P(H).

Thus, in expectation, the posterior probability of the true hypothesis is greater than or equal to its prior probability.

Roughly you

4 JDR 21 April 2016 03:28PM

Since, like everyone, I generalise from single examples, I expect most people have some older relative or friend who they feel has added some wisdom to their life - some small pieces of information which seem to have pervasively wormed their way into more of their cognitive algorithms than you would expect, coloring and informing perceptions and decisions. For me, this would most be my grandfather. Over his now 92 years he has given me gems such as "always cut a pear before you peel it" (make quick checks of the value of success before committing to time consuming projects) and whenever someone says "that's never happened before", finishing their sentence with "said the old man when his donkey died" (just because something hasn't happened before doesn't mean it wasn't totally predictable).

Recently, though, I've been thinking about something else he has said, admittedly in mock seriousness: "If I lose my mind, you should take me out back and shoot me". We wouldn't, he wouldn't expect us to, but it's what he has said.

The reason I've been thinking of this darker quotation is that I've been spending a lot of time with people who have "lost their minds" in the way that he means. I am a medical student, and on a rotation in old age psychiatry, so have been talking to patients most of whom have some level of dementia, often layered with psychotic conditions such as intractable schizophrenia, some of whom increasingly can't remember their own pasts let alone their recent present. They can become fixed in untrue beliefs, their emotional become limited, or lose motivation to complete even simple tasks.

It can be scary. In some ways, such illness represents death by degrees. These people can remain happy and have a good quality of life, but it's certain that they are not entirely the people they once were. In fact, this is a question we have asked relatives when deciding whether someone is suffering from early dementia: "Overall, in the way she behaves, does this seem like your mother to you? Is this how your mother acts?". Sometimes, the answer is "No, it's like she is a different person", or "Only some of the time". It's a process of personality-approximation, blurring, abridging and changing the mind to create something not quite the same. What my grandfather fears is becoming a rough estimate of himself - though again, for some, that re-drawn person might be perfectly happy with who they are when they arrive.

Why is this of interest to LessWrong? I think it is because quite a few people here (me included) have at least thought about bidding to live forever using things like cryogenics and maybe brain-download. These things could work at some point; but what if they don't work perfectly? What if the people of the future can recover some of the information from a frozen brain, but not all of it? What if we had to miss off a few crucial memories, a few talents, maybe 60 points of IQ? Or even more subtle things - it's been written a few times that the entirety of who a person is in their brain, but that's probably not entirely true - the brain is influenced by the body, and aspects of your personality are probably influenced by how sensitive your adrenals are, the amount of fat you have, and even the community of bacteria in your intestines. Even a perfect neural computer-you wouldn't have these things; it would be subtle, but the created immortal agent wouldn't completely be you, as you are now. Somehow, though, missing my precise levels of testosterone would seem an acceptable compromise for the rest of my personality living forever, but missing the memory of my childhood, half my intelligence or my ability to change my opinion would leave me a lot less sure.

So here's the question I want to ask, to see what people think: If I offered you partial immortality - immortality for just part of you - how rough an approximation of "you" would you be willing to accept?

Rationality Reading Group: Part Y: Challenging the Difficult

2 Gram_Stone 20 April 2016 10:32PM

This is part of a semi-monthly reading group on Eliezer Yudkowsky's ebook, Rationality: From AI to Zombies. For more information about the group, see the announcement post.


Welcome to the Rationality reading group. This fortnight we discuss Part Y: Challenging the Difficult (pp. 1605-1647). This post summarizes each article of the sequence, linking to the original LessWrong post where available.

Y. Challenging the Difficult

304. Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want to Become Stronger) - Don't be satisfied knowing you are biased; instead, aspire to become stronger, studying your flaws so as to remove them. There is a temptation to take pride in confessions, which can impede progress.

305. Tsuyoku vs. the Egalitarian Instinct - There may be evolutionary psychological factors that encourage modesty and mediocrity, at least in appearance; while some of that may still apply today, you should mentally plan and strive to pull ahead, if you are doing things right.

306. Trying to Try - As a human, if you try to try something, you will put much less work into it than if you try something.

307. Use the Try Harder, Luke - A fictional exchange between Mark Hamill and George Lucas over the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker attempts to lift his X-wing with the force.

308. On Doing the Impossible - A lot of projects seem impossible, meaning that we don't immediately see a way to do them. But after working on them for a long time, they start to look merely extremely difficult.

309. Make an Extraordinary Effort - It takes an extraordinary amount of rationality before you stop making stupid mistakes. Doing better requires making extraordinary efforts.

310. Shut Up and Do the Impossible! - The ultimate level of attacking a problem is the point at which you simply shut up and solve the impossible problem.

311. Final WordsThe conclusion of the Beisutsukai series.

 


This has been a collection of notes on the assigned sequence for this fortnight. The most important part of the reading group though is discussion, which is in the comments section. Please remember that this group contains a variety of levels of expertise: if a line of discussion seems too basic or too incomprehensible, look around for one that suits you better!

The next reading will cover Part Z: The Craft and the Community (pp. 1651-1750). The discussion will go live on Wednesday, 4 May 2016, right here on the discussion forum of LessWrong.

Gratitude Thread :-)

1 Gleb_Tsipursky 19 April 2016 03:11AM

Hi folks! Building up on the recent experiment and the #LessWrongMoreNice meme, this thread is devoted to any and all expressions of gratitude. Special rules for communication and voting apply here. Please play along!

 

A lot of research shows that expressing gratitude improves mental and physical health, qualities that most of us want to increase. So in this thread, please express anything you are grateful for, big or small, one-time or continuing, and feel free to post stuff that you would not normally post to Less Wrong. Encourage and support others in what they post in comments, and upvote posts that you like, while downvoting those that don't express the spirit of this thread.

 

If you want to discuss this thread, please do so in response to this open thread comment.

 

I'm grateful to you for following the spirit of this thread!

Open thread, Apr. 18 - Apr. 24, 2016

2 MrMind 18 April 2016 07:19AM

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post (even in Discussion), then it goes here.


Notes for future OT posters:

1. Please add the 'open_thread' tag.

2. Check if there is an active Open Thread before posting a new one. (Immediately before; refresh the list-of-threads page before posting.)

3. Open Threads should be posted in Discussion, and not Main.

4. Open Threads should start on Monday, and end on Sunday.

Monthly Outreach Thread

0 Gleb_Tsipursky 17 April 2016 11:18PM

Please share about any outreach that you have done to convey rationality-style ideas broadly, whether recent or not, which you have not yet shared on previous Outreach threads. The goal of having this thread is to organize information about outreach and provide community support and recognition for raising the sanity waterline, a form of cognitive altruism that contributes to creating a flourishing world. Likewise, doing so can help inspire others to emulate some aspects of these good deeds through social proof and network effects.

Does immortality imply eternal existence in linear time?

0 turchin 17 April 2016 11:17PM

The question is important, as it’s often used as an argument against idea of immortality, on the level of desirability as well as feasibility. It may result in less interest in radical life extension as "result will be the same", we will die. Religion, on the other hand is not afraid to "sell" immortality, as it has God, who will solve all contradiction in immortality implementation. As a result, religion win on the market of ideas. 

 

Immortality (by definition) is about not dying. The fact of eternal linear existence follows from it, seems to be very simple and obvious theorem:

 

“If I do not die in the time moment N and N+1, I will exist for any N”. 

 

If we prove that immortality is impossible, then any life would look like: Now + unknown very long time + death. So, death is inevitable, and the only difference is the unknown time until it happens.

 

It is an unpleasant perspective, by the way. 

 

So we have or “bad infinity”, or inevitable death. Both look unappealing.  Both also look logically contradictory. "Infinite linear existence" requires infinite memory of observer, for example. "Death of observer" is also implies an idea of the ending of stream of experiences, which can't be proved empirically, and from logical point of view is unproved hypothesis.

 

But we can change our point of view if we abandon the idea of linear time.

 

Physics suggests that near black holes closed time-like curves could be possible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Closed_timelike_curve (Idea of "Eternal recurrence" of Nietzsche is an example of such circle immortality.)

 

If I am in such a curve, my experiences may recur after, say, one billion years. In this case, I am immortal but have finite time duration.

 

It may be not very good, but it is just a starting point in considerations that would help lead us away from the linear time model.

 

There may be other configurations in non-linear time. Another obvious one is the merging of different personal timelines. 

 

Another is the circular attractor.

 

Another is a combination of attractors, merges and circular timelines, which may result in complex geometry.

 

Another is 2 (or many)- dimensional time, with another perpendicular time arrow. It results in a time topology. Time could also include singularities, in which one has an infinite number of experiences in finite time.

 

We could also add here idea of splitting time in quantum multiverse.

 

We could also add an idea that there is a possible path between any two observer-moment, and given that infinitely many such paths exist in splitting multiverse, any observer has non zero probability to become any other observer, which results in tangle of time-like curves in the space of all possible minds.

 

Timeless physics ideas also give us another view on idea of “time” in which we don’t have “infinite time”, but not because infinity is impossible, but because there is no such thing as time.

 

TL;DR: The idea of time is so complex that we can’t state that immortality results in eternal linear existence. These two ideas may be true or false independently.

 

Also I have a question to the readers: If you think that superintelligence will be created, do you think it will be immortal, and why?

Using humility to counteract shame

8 Vika 15 April 2016 06:32PM

"Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame."

Uncle Iroh, "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

Shame is one of the trickiest emotions to deal with. It is difficult to think about, not to mention discuss with others, and gives rise to insidious ugh fields and negative spirals. Shame often underlies other negative emotions without making itself apparent - anxiety or anger at yourself can be caused by unacknowledged shame about the possibility of failure. It can stack on top of other emotions - e.g. you start out feeling upset with someone, and end up being ashamed of yourself for feeling upset, and maybe even ashamed of feeling ashamed if meta-shame is your cup of tea. The most useful approach I have found against shame is invoking humility.

What is humility, anyway? It is often defined as a low view of your own importance, and tends to be conflated with modesty. Another common definition that I find more useful is acceptance of your own flaws and shortcomings. This is more compatible with confidence, and helpful irrespective of your level of importance or comparison to other people. What humility feels like to me on a system 1 level is a sense of compassion and warmth towards yourself while fully aware of your imperfections (while focusing on imperfections without compassion can lead to beating yourself up). According to LessWrong, "to be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors", which seems more like a possible consequence of being humble than a definition.

Humility is a powerful tool for psychological well-being and instrumental rationality that is more broadly applicable than just the ability to anticipate errors by seeing your limitations more clearly. I can summon humility when I feel anxious about too many upcoming deadlines, or angry at myself for being stuck on a rock climbing route, or embarrassed about forgetting some basic fact in my field that I am surely expected to know by the 5th year of grad school. While humility comes naturally to some people, others might find it useful to explicitly build an identity as a humble person. How can you invoke this mindset?

One way is through negative visualization or pre-hindsight, considering how your plans could fail, which can be time-consuming and usually requires system 2. A faster and less effortful way is to is to imagine a person, real or fictional, who you consider to be humble. I often bring to mind my grandfather, or Uncle Iroh from the Avatar series, sometimes literally repeating the above quote in my head, sort of like an affirmation. I don't actually agree that humility is the only antidote to shame, but it does seem to be one of the most effective.

(Cross-posted from my blog. Thanks to Janos Kramar for his feedback on this post.)

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