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The Semiotic Fallacy

3 Stabilizer 21 February 2017 04:50AM

Acknowledgement: This idea is essentially the same as something mentioned in a podcast where Julia Galef interviews Jason Brennan.

You are in a prison. You don't really know how to fight and you don't have very many allies yet. A prison bully comes up to you and threatens you. You have two options: (1) Stand up to the bully and fight. If you do this, you will get hurt, but you will save face. (2) You can try and run away. You might get hurt less badly, but you will lose face.

What should you do?

From reading accounts of former prisoners and also from watching realistic movies and TV shows, it seems like (1) is the better option. The reason is that the semiotics—or the symbolic meaning—of running away has bad consequences down the road. If you run away, you will be seen as weak, and therefore you will be picked on more often and causing more damage down the road.

This is a case where focusing the semiotics on the action is the right decision, because it is underwritten by future consequences.

But consider now a different situation. Suppose a country, call it Macholand, controls some tiny island far away from its mainland. Macholand has a hard time governing the island and the people on the island don't quite like being ruled by Macholand. Suppose, one fine day, the people of the island declare independence from Macholand. Macholand has two options: (1) Send the military over and put down the rebellion; or (2) Allow the island to take its own course.

From a semiotic standpoint, (1) is probably better. It signals that Macholand is strong and powerful country. But from a consequential standpoint, it is at least plausible (2) is a better option. Macholand saves money and manpower by not having to govern that tiny island; the people on the island are happier by being self-governing; and maybe the international community doesn't really care what Macholand does here.

This is a case where focusing on the semiotics can lead to suboptimal outcomes. 

Call this kind of reasoning the semiotic fallacy: Thinking about the semiotics of possible actions without estimating the consequences of the semiotics.

I think the semiotic fallacy is widespread in human reasoning. Here are a few examples:

  1. People argue that democracy is good because it symbolizes egalitarianism. (This is example used in the podcast interview)
  2. People argue that we should build large particle accelerators because it symbolizes human achievement.
  3. People argue that we shouldn't build a wall on the southern border because it symbolizes division.
  4. People argue that we should build a wall on the southern border because it symbolizes national integrity. 

Two comments are in order:

  1. The semiotic fallacy is a special case of errors in reasoning and judgement caused from signaling behaviors (à la Robin Hanson). The distinctive feature of the semiotic fallacy is that the semiotics are explicitly stated during reasoning. Signaling type errors are often subconscious: e.g., if we spend a lot of money on our parents' medical care, we might be doing it for symbolic purposes (i.e., signaling) but we wouldn't say explicitly that that's why we are doing it. In the semiotic fallacy on the other hand, we do explicitly acknowledge the reason we do something is because of its symbolism.
  2. Just like all fallacies, the existence of the fallacy doesn't necessarily mean the final conclusion is wrong. It could be that the semiotics are underwritten by the consequences. Or the conclusion could be true because of completely orthogonal reasons. The fallacy occurs when we ignore, in our reasoning during choice, the need for the consequential undergirding of symbolic acts.

Levers, Emotions, and Lazy Evaluators:

1 lifelonglearner 20 February 2017 11:00PM

Levers, Emotions, and Lazy Evaluators: Post-CFAR 2

[This is a trio of topics following from the first post that all use the idea of ontologies in the mental sense as a bouncing off point. I examine why naming concepts can be helpful, listening to your emotions, and humans as lazy evaluators. I think this post may also be of interest to people here. Posts 3 and 4 are less so, so I'll probably skip those, unless someone expresses interest. Lastly, the below expressed views are my own and don’t reflect CFAR’s in any way.]


Levers:

When I was at the CFAR workshop, someone mentioned that something like 90% of the curriculum was just making up fancy new names for things they already sort of did. This got some laughs, but I think it’s worth exploring why even just naming things can be powerful.


Our minds do lots of things; they carry many thoughts, and we can recall many memories. Some of these phenomena may be more helpful for our goals, and we may want to name them.


When we name a phenomenon, like focusing, we’re essentially drawing a boundary around the thing, highlighting attention on it. We’ve made it conceptually discrete. This transformation, in turn, allows us to more concretely identify which things among the sea of our mental activity correspond to Focusing.


Focusing can then become a concept that floats in our understanding of things our minds can do. We’ve taken a mental action and packaged it into a “thing”. This can be especially helpful if we’ve identified a phenomena that consists of several steps which usually aren’t found together.


By drawing certain patterns around a thing with a name, we can hopefully help others recognize them and perhaps do the same for other mental motions, which seems to be one more way that we find new rationality techniques.


This then means that we’ve created a new action that is explicitly available to our ontology. This notion of “actions I can take” is what I think forms the idea of levers in our mind. When CFAR teaches a rationality technique, the technique itself seems to be pointing at a sequence of things that happen in our brain. Last post, I mentioned that I think CFAR techniques upgrade people’s mindsets by changing their sense of what is possible.


I think that levers are a core part of this because they give us the feeling of, “Oh wow! That thing I sometimes do has a name! Now I can refer to it and think about it in a much nicer way. I can call it ‘focusing’, rather than ‘that thing I sometimes do when I try to figure out why I’m feeling sad that involves looking into myself’.”


For example, once you understand that a large part of habituation is simply "if-then" loops (ala TAPs, aka Trigger Action Plans), you’ve now not only understood what it means to learn something as a habit, but you’ve internalized the very concept of habituation itself. You’ve gone one meta-level up, and you can now reason about this abstract mental process in a far more explicit way.


Names haves power in the same way that abstraction barriers have power in a programming language—they change how you think about the phenomena itself, and this in turn can affect your behavior.  

 

Emotions:

CFAR teaches a class called “Understanding Shoulds”, which is about seeing your “shoulds”, the parts of yourself that feel like obligations, as data about things you might care about. This is a little different from Nate Soares’s Replacing Guilt series, which tries to move past guilt-based motivation.


In further conversations with staff, I’ve seen the even deeper view that all emotions should be considered information.


The basic premise seems to be based off the understanding that different parts of us may need different things to function. Our conscious understanding of our own needs may sometimes be limited. Thus, our implicit emotions (and other S1 processes) can serve as a way to inform ourselves about what we’re missing.


In this way, all emotions seem channels where information can be passed on from implicit parts of you to the forefront of “meta-you”. This idea of “emotions as a data trove” is yet another ontology that produces different rationality techniques, as it’s operating on, once again, a mental model that is built out of a different type of abstraction.


Many of the skills based on this ontology focus on communication between different pieces of the self.


I’m very sympathetic to this viewpoint, as it form the basis of the Internal Double Crux (IDC) technique, one of my favorite CFAR skills. In short, IDC assumes that akrasia-esque problems are caused by a disagreement between different parts of you, some of which might be in the implicit parts of your brain.


By “disagreement”, I mean that some part of you endorses an action for some well-meaning reasons, but some other part of you is against the action and also has justifications. To resolve the problem, IDC has us “dialogue” between the conflicting parts of ourselves, treating both sides as valid. If done right, without “rigging” the dialogue to bias one side, IDC can be a powerful way to source internal motivation for our tasks.


While I do seem to do some communication between my emotions, I haven’t fully integrated them as internal advisors in the IFS sense. I’m not ready to adopt a worldview that might potentially hand over executive control to all the parts of me. Meta-me still deems some of my implicit desires as “foolish”, like the part of me that craves video games, for example. In order to avoid slippery slopes, I have a blanket precommitment on certain things in life.


For the meantime, I’m fine sticking with these precommitments. The modern world is filled with superstimuli, from milkshakes to insight porn (and the normal kind) to mobile games, that can hijack our well-meaning reward systems.


Lastly, I believe that without certain mental prerequisites, some ontologies can be actively harmful. Nate’s Resolving Guilt series can leave people without additional motivation for their actions; guilt can be a useful motivator. Similarly, Nihilism is another example of an ontology that can be crippling unless paired with ideas like humanism.

 

Lazy Evaluators:

In In Defense of the Obvious, I gave a practical argument as to why obvious advice was very good. I brought this point up up several times during the workshop, and people seemed to like the point.


While that essay focused on listening to obvious advice, there appears to be a similar thing where merely asking someone, “Did you do all the obvious things?” will often uncover helpful solutions they have yet to do.

 

My current hypothesis for this (apart from “humans are programs that wrote themselves on computers made of meat”, which is a great workshop quote) is that people tend to be lazy evaluators. In programming, lazy evaluation is a way of solving for the value of expressions at the last minute, not until the answers are absolutely needed.


It seems like something similar happens in people’s heads, where we simply don’t ask ourselves questions like “What are multiple ways I could accomplish this?” or “Do actually I want to do this thing?” until we need to…Except that most of the time, we never need to—Life putters on, whether or not we’re winning at it.


I think this is part of what makes “pair debugging”, a CFAR activity where a group of people try to help one person with their “bugs”, effective. When we have someone else taking an outside view asking us these questions, it may even be the first time we see these questions ourselves.


Therefore, it looks like a helpful skill is to constantly ask ourselves questions and cultivate a sense of curiosity about how things are. Anna Salamon refers to this skill of “boggling”. I think boggling can help with both counteracting lazy evaluation and actually doing obvious actions.


Looking at why obvious advice is obvious, like “What the heck does ‘obvious’ even mean?” can help break the immediate dismissive veneer our brain puts on obvious information.


EX: “If I want to learn more about coding, it probably makes sense to ask some coder friends what good resources are.”


“Nah, that’s so obvious; I should instead just stick to this abstruse book that basically no one’s heard of—wait, I just rejected something that felt obvious.”


“Huh…I wonder why that thought felt obvious…what does it even mean for something to be dubbed ‘obvious’?”


“Well…obvious thoughts seem to have a generally ‘self-evident’ tag on them. If they aren’t outright tautological or circularly defined, then there’s a sense where the obvious things seems to be the shortest paths to the goal. Like, I could fold my clothes or I could build a Rube Goldberg machine to fold my clothes. But the first option seems so much more ‘obvious’…”


“Aside from that, there also seems to be a sense where if I search my brain for ‘obvious’ things, I’m using a ‘faster’ mode of thinking (ala System 1). Also, aside from favoring simpler solutions, also seems to be influenced by social norms (what do people ‘typically’ do). And my ‘obvious action generator’ seems to also be built off my understanding of the world, like, I’m thinking about things in terms of causal chains that actually exist in the world. As in, when I’m thinking about ‘obvious’ ways to get a job, for instance, I’m thinking about actions I could take in the real world that might plausibly actually get me there…”


“Whoa…that means that obvious advice is so much more than some sort of self-evident tag. There’s a huge amount of information that’s being compressed when I look at it from the surface…’Obvious’ really means something like ‘that which my brain quickly dismisses because it is simple, complies with social norms, and/or runs off my internal model of how the universe works.”


The goal is to reduce the sort of “acclimation” that happens with obvious advice by peering deeper into it. Ideally, if you’re boggling at your own actions, you can force yourself to evaluate earlier. Otherwise, it can hopefully at least make obvious advice more appealing.


I’ll end with a quote of mine from the workshop:


“You still yet fail to grasp the weight of the Obvious.”


Open Thread, Feb. 20 - Feb 26, 2017

1 Elo 20 February 2017 04:51AM

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post, 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 start on Monday, and end on Sunday.

4. Unflag the two options "Notify me of new top level comments on this article" and "

A semi-technical question about prediction markets and private info

4 CronoDAS 20 February 2017 02:20AM

There exists a 6-sided die that is weighted such that one of the 6 numbers has a 50% chance to come up and all the other numbers have a 1 in 10 chance. Nobody knows for certain which number the die is biased in favor of, but some people have had a chance to roll the die and see the result.

You get a chance to roll the die exactly once, with nobody else watching. It comes up 6. Running a quick Bayes's Theorem calculation, you now think there's a 50% chance that the die is biased in favor of 6 and a 10% chance for the numbers 1 through 5.

You then discover that there's a prediction market about the die. The prediction market says there's a 50% chance that "3" is the number the die is biased in favor of, and each other number is given 10% probability. 

How do you update based on what you've learned? Do you make any bets?

I think I know the answer for this toy problem, but I'm not sure if I'm right or how it generalizes to real life...

 

[Link] Gas hydrate breakdown unlikely to cause clathrate gun - report

1 morganism 19 February 2017 10:47PM

[Link] Headlines, meet sparklines: news in context

2 korin43 18 February 2017 04:00PM

Ontologies are Operating Systems

4 lifelonglearner 18 February 2017 05:00AM

Ontologies are Operating Systems: Post-CFAR 1

[I recently came back from volunteering at a CFAR workshop. I found the whole experience to be 100% enjoyable, and I’ll be doing an actual workshop review soon. I also learned some new things and updated my mind. This is the first in a four-part series on new thoughts that I’ve gotten as a result of the workshop. If LW seems to like this one, I'll post the rest too.]


I’ve been thinking more about the idea of how we even reason about our own thinking, our “ontology of mind”, and how our internal mental model of how our brain works.

 

(Roughly speaking, “ontology” means the framework you view reality through, and I’ll be using it here to refer specifically to how we view our minds.)


Before I continue, it might be helpful to ask yourself some of the below questions:

  • What is my brain like, perhaps in the form of a metaphor?

  • How do I model my thoughts?

  • What things can and can’t my brain do?

  • What does it feel like when I am thinking?

  • Do my thoughts often influence my actions?


<reminder to actually think a little before continuing>


I don’t know about you, but for me, my thoughts often feel like they float into my head. There’s a general sense of effortlessly having things stream in. If I’m especially aware (i.e. metacognitive), I can then reflect on my thoughts. But for the most part, I’m filled with thoughts about the task I’m doing.


Though I don’t often go meta, I’m aware of the fact that I’m able to. In specific situations, knowing this helps me debug my thinking processes. For example, say my internal dialogue looks like this:


“Okay, so I’ve sent to forms to Steve, and now I’ve just got to do—oh wait what about my physics test—ARGH PAIN NO—now I’ve just got to do the write-up for—wait, I just thought about physics and felt some pain. Huh… I wonder why…Move past the pain, what’s bugging me about physics? It looks like I don’t want to do it because…  because I don’t think it’ll be useful?”


Because my ontology of how my thoughts operate includes the understanding that metacognition is possible, this is a “lever” I can pull on in my own mind.


I suspect that people who don’t engage in thinking about their thinking (via recursion, talking to themselves, or other things to this effect) may have a less developed internal picture of how their minds work. Things inside their head might seem to just pop in, with less explanation.


I posit that having a model of your brain that is less fleshed out affects our perception of what our brains can and can’t do.


We can imagine a hypothetical person who is self-aware and generally a fine human, except that their internal picture of their mind feels very much like a black box. They might have a sense of fatalism about some things in their mind or just feel a little confused about how their thoughts originate.


Then they come to a CFAR workshop.


What I think a lot of the CFAR rationality techniques gives these people is an upgraded internal picture of their mind with many additional levers. By “lever”, I mean a thing we can do in our brain, like metacognition or focusing (I’ll write more about levers next post). The upgraded internal picture of their mind draws attention to these levers and empowers people to have greater awareness and control in their heads by “pulling” on them.


But it’s not exactly these new levers that are the point. CFAR has mentioned that the point of teaching rationality techniques is to not only give people shiny new tools, but also improve their mindset. I agree with this view—there does seem to be something like an “optimizing mindset” that embodies rationality.


I posit that CFAR’s rationality techniques upgrade people’s ontologies of mind by changing their sense of what is possible. This, I think, is the core of an improved mindset—an increased corrigibility of mind.

 

Consider: Our hypothetical human goes to a rationality workshop and leaves with a lot of skills, but the general lesson is bigger than that. They’ve just seen that their thoughts can be accessed and even changed! It’s as if a huge blind spot in their thinking has been removed, and they’re now looking at entirely new classes of actions they can take!


When we talk about levers and internal models of our thinking, it’s important to remember that we’re really just talking about analogies or metaphors that exist in the mind. We don’t actually have access to our direct brain activity, so we need to make do with intermediaries that exist as concepts, which are made up of concepts, which are made up of concepts, etc etc.


Your ontology, the way that you think about how your thoughts work, is really just an abstract framework that makes it easier for “meta-you” (the part of your brain that seems like “you”) to more easily interface with your real brain.

 

Kind of like an operating system.


In other words, we can’t directly deal with all those neurons; our ontology, which contains thoughts, memories, internal advisors, and everything else is a conceptual interface that allows us to better manipulate information stored in our brain.


However, the operating system you acquire by interacting with CFAR-esque rationality techniques isn’t the only way type of upgraded ontology you can acquire. There exist other models which may also be just as valid. Different ontologies may draw boundaries around other mental things and empower your mind in different ways.


Leverage Research, for example, seems to be building its view of rationality from a perspective deeply grounded in introspection. I don’t know too much about them, but in a few conversations, they’ve acknowledged that their view of the mind is much more based off beliefs and internal views of things. This seems like they’d have a different sense of what is and isn’t possible.


My own personal view of rationality often views humans as merely a collection of TAPs (basically glorified if-then loops) for the most part. This ontology leads me to often think about shaping the environment, precommitment, priming/conditioning, and other ways to modify my habit structure. Within this framework of “humans as TAPs”, I search for ways to improve.


This is contrast with another view I hold of myself as an “agenty” human that has free will in a meaningful sense. Under this ontology, I’m focusing on metacognition and executive function. Of course, this assertion of my ability to choose and pick my actions seems to be at odds with my first view of myself as a habit-stuffed zombie.


It seems plausible then, that rationality techniques which often seem at odds with one another, like the above examples, occur because they’re operating on fundamentally different assumptions of how to interface with the human mind.


In some way, it seems like I’m stating that every ontology of mind is correct. But what about mindsets that model the brain as a giant hamburger? That seems obviously wrong. My response here is to appeal to practicality. In reality, all these mental models are wrong, but some of them can be useful. No ontology accurately depicts what’s happening in our brains, but the helpful ones can allows us to think better and make better choices.

 

The biggest takeaway for me after realizing all this was that even my mental framework, the foundation from which I built up my understanding of instrumental rationality, is itself based on certain assumptions of my ontology. And these assumptions, though perhaps reasonable, are still just a helpful abstraction that makes it easier for me to deal with my brain.

 

Weekly LW Meetups

0 FrankAdamek 17 February 2017 04:51PM

[Link] "The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: 'Systems engineering’ and 'systems management' - ideas from the Apollo programme for a 'systems politics'", Cummings 2017

6 gwern 17 February 2017 12:59AM

[Link] Attacking machine learning with adversarial examples

2 ike 17 February 2017 12:28AM

Increasing GDP is not growth

11 PhilGoetz 16 February 2017 06:04PM

I just saw another comment implying that immigration was good because it increased GDP.  Over the years, I've seen many similar comments in the LW / transhumanist / etc bubble claiming that increasing a country's population is good because it increases its GDP.  These are generally used in support of increasing either immigration or population growth.

It doesn't, however, make sense.  People have attached a positive valence to certain words, then moved those words into new contexts.  They did not figure out what they want to optimize and do the math.

I presume they want to optimize wealth or productivity per person.  You wouldn't try to make Finland richer by absorbing China.  Its GDP would go up, but its GDP per person would go way down.

continue reading »

[Link] Judgement Extrapolations

0 gworley 15 February 2017 06:51PM

Indifference and compensatory rewards

3 Stuart_Armstrong 15 February 2017 02:49PM

Crossposted at the Intelligent Agents Forum

It's occurred to me that there is a framework where we can see all "indifference" results as corrective rewards, both for the utility function change indifference and for the policy change indifference.

Imagine that the agent has reward R0 and is following policy π0, and we want to change it to having reward R1 and following policy π1.

Then the corrective reward we need to pay it, so that it doesn't attempt to resist or cause that change, is simply the difference between the two expected values:

V(R0|π0)-V(R1|π1),

where V is the agent's own valuation of the expected reward, conditional on the policy.

This explains why off-policy reward-based agents are already safely interruptible: since we change the policy, not the reward, R0=R1. And since off-policy agents have value estimates that are indifferent to the policy followed, V(R0|π0)=V(R1|π1), and the compensatory rewards are zero.

[Link] Gates 2017 Annual letter

3 ike 15 February 2017 02:39AM

[Link] Mobile users learning faster, in smaller bytes

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1 Bitnotri 14 February 2017 02:02PM

[Link] GiveWell and the problem of partial funding

1 Benquo 14 February 2017 10:48AM

[Link] How to not earn a delta (Change My View)

11 Viliam 14 February 2017 10:04AM

Allegory On AI Risk, Game Theory, and Mithril

20 James_Miller 13 February 2017 08:41PM

“Thorin, I can’t accept your generous job offer because, honestly, I think that your company might destroy Middle Earth.”  

 

“Bifur, I can tell that you’re one of those “the Balrog is real, evil, and near” folks who thinks that in the next few decades Mithril miners will dig deep enough to wake the Balrog causing him to rise and destroy Middle Earth.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re right.  You must know that lots of people disagree with you.  Some don’t believe in the Balrog, others think that anything that powerful will inevitably be good, and more think we are hundreds or even thousands of years away from being able to disturb any possible Balrog.  These other dwarves are not going to stop mining, especially given the value of Mithril.  If you’re right about the Balrog we are doomed regardless of what you do, so why not have a high paying career as a Mithril miner and enjoy yourself while you can?”  

 

“But Thorin, if everyone thought that way we would be doomed!”

 

“Exactly, so make the most of what little remains of your life.”

 

“Thorin, what if I could somehow convince everyone that I’m right about the Balrog?”

 

“You can’t because, as the wise Sinclair said, ‘It is difficult to get a dwarf to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!’  But even if you could, it still wouldn’t matter.  Each individual miner would correctly realize that just him alone mining Mithril is extraordinarily unlikely to be the cause of the Balrog awakening, and so he would find it in his self-interest to mine.  And, knowing that others are going to continue to extract Mithril means that it really doesn’t matter if you mine because if we are close to disturbing the Balrog he will be awoken.” 

 

“But dwarves can’t be that selfish, can they?”  

 

“Actually, altruism could doom us as well.  Given Mithril’s enormous military value many cities rightly fear that without new supplies they will be at the mercy of cities that get more of this metal, especially as it’s known that the deeper Mithril is found, the greater its powers.  Leaders who care about their citizen’s safety and freedom will keep mining Mithril.  If we are soon all going to die, altruistic leaders will want to make sure their people die while still free citizens of Middle Earth.”

 

“But couldn’t we all coordinate to stop mining?  This would be in our collective interest.”

 

“No, dwarves would cheat rightly realizing that if just they mine a little bit more Mithril it’s highly unlikely to do anything to the Balrog, and the more you expect others to cheat, the less your cheating matters as to whether the Balrog gets us if your assumptions about the Balrog are correct.”  

 

“OK, but won’t the rich dwarves step in and eventually stop the mining?  They surely don’t want to get eaten by the Balrog.”   

 

“Actually, they have just started an open Mithril mining initiative which will find and then freely disseminate new and improved Mithril mining technology.  These dwarves earned their wealth through Mithril, they love Mithril, and while some of them can theoretically understand how Mithril mining might be bad, they can’t emotionally accept that their life’s work, the acts that have given them enormous success and status, might significantly hasten our annihilation.”

 

“Won’t the dwarven kings save us?  After all, their primary job is to protect their realms from monsters.

 

“Ha!  They are more likely to subsidize Mithril mining than to stop it.  Their military machines need Mithril, and any king who prevented his people from getting new Mithril just to stop some hypothetical Balrog from rising would be laughed out of office.  The common dwarf simply doesn’t have the expertise to evaluate the legitimacy of the Balrog claims and so rightly, from their viewpoint at least, would use the absurdity heuristic to dismiss any Balrog worries.  Plus, remember that the kings compete with each other for the loyalty of dwarves and even if a few kings came to believe in the dangers posed by the Balrog they would realize that if they tried to imposed costs on their people, they would be outcompeted by fellow kings that didn’t try to restrict Mithril mining.  Bifur, the best you can hope for with the kings is that they don’t do too much to accelerating Mithril mining.”

 

“Well, at least if I don’t do any mining it will take a bit longer for miners to awake the Balrog.”

 

“No Bifur, you obviously have never considered the economics of mining.  You see, if you don’t take this job someone else will.  Companies such as ours hire the optimal number of Mithril miners to maximize our profits and this number won’t change if you turn down our offer.”

 

“But it takes a long time to train a miner.  If I refuse to work for you, you might have to wait a bit before hiring someone else.”

 

“Bifur, what job will you likely take if you don’t mine Mithril?”

 

“Gold mining.”

 

“Mining gold and Mithril require similar skills.  If you get a job working for a gold mining company, this firm would hire one less dwarf than it otherwise would and this dwarf’s time will be freed up to mine Mithril.  If you consider the marginal impact of your actions, you will see that working for us really doesn’t hasten the end of the world even under your Balrog assumptions.”  

 

“OK, but I still don’t want to play any part in the destruction of the world so I refuse work for you even if this won’t do anything to delay when the Balrog destroys us.”

 

“Bifur, focus on the marginal consequences of your actions and don’t let your moral purity concerns cause you to make the situation worse.  We’ve established that your turning down the job will do nothing to delay the Balrog.  It will, however, cause you to earn a lower income.  You could have donated that income to the needy, or even used it to hire a wizard to work on an admittedly long-shot, Balrog control spell.  Mining Mithril is both in your self-interest and is what’s best for Middle Earth.” 


CHCAI/MIRI research internship in AI safety

5 RobbBB 13 February 2017 06:34PM

The Center for Human-Compatible AI (CHCAI) and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) are looking for talented, driven, and ambitious technical researchers for a summer research internship.

 

Background:

CHCAI is a research center based at UC Berkeley with PIs including Stuart Russell, Pieter Abbeel and Anca Dragan. CHCAI describes its goal as "to develop the conceptual and technical wherewithal to reorient the general thrust of AI research towards provably beneficial systems".

MIRI is an independent research nonprofit located near the UC Berkeley campus with a mission of helping ensure that smarter-than-human AI has a positive impact on the world.

CHCAI's research focus includes work on inverse reinforcement learning and human-robot cooperation (link), while MIRI's focus areas include task AI and computational reflection (link). Both groups are also interested in theories of (bounded) rationality that may help us develop a deeper understanding of general-purpose AI agents.

 

To apply:

1. Fill in the form here: https://goo.gl/forms/bDe6xbbKwj1tgDbo1

2. Send an email to beth.m.barnes@gmail.com with the subject line "AI safety internship application", attaching your CV, a piece of technical writing on which you were the primary author, and your research proposal.

The research proposal should be one to two pages in length. It should outline a problem you think you can make progress on over the summer, and some approaches to tackling it that you consider promising. We recommend reading over CHCAI's annotated bibliography and the concrete problems agenda as good sources for open problems in AI safety, if you haven't previously done so. You should target your proposal at a specific research agenda or a specific adviser’s interests. Advisers' interests include:

Andrew Critch (CHCAI, MIRI): anything listed in CHCAI's open technical problems; negotiable reinforcement learning; game theory for agents with transparent source code (e.g., "Program Equilibrium" and "Parametric Bounded Löb's Theorem and Robust Cooperation of Bounded Agents").

• Daniel Filan (CHCAI): the contents of "Foundational Problems," "Corrigibility," "Preference Inference," and "Reward Engineering" in CHCAI's open technical problems list.

• Dylan Hadfield-Menell (CHCAI): application of game-theoretic analysis to models of AI safety problems (specifically by people who come from a theoretical economics background); formulating and analyzing AI safety problems as CIRL games; the relationships between AI safety and principal-agent models / theories of incomplete contracting; reliability engineering in machine learning; questions about fairness.

Jessica Taylor, Scott Garrabrant, and Patrick LaVictoire (MIRI): open problems described in MIRI's agent foundations and alignment for advanced ML systems research agendas.

This application does not bind you to work on your submitted proposal. Its purpose is to demonstrate your ability to make concrete suggestions for how to make progress on a given research problem.

 

Who we're looking for:

This is a new and somewhat experimental program. You’ll need to be self-directed, and you'll need to have enough knowledge to get started tackling the problems. The supervisors can give you guidance on research, but they aren’t going to be teaching you the material. However, if you’re deeply motivated by research, this should be a fantastic experience. Successful applicants will demonstrate examples of technical writing, motivation and aptitude for research, and produce a concrete research proposal. We expect most successful applicants will either:

• have or be pursuing a PhD closely related to AI safety;

• have or be pursuing a PhD in an unrelated field, but currently pivoting to AI safety, with evidence of sufficient knowledge and motivation for AI safety research; or

• be an exceptional undergraduate or masters-level student with concrete evidence of research ability (e.g., publications or projects) in an area closely related to AI safety.

 

Logistics:

Program dates are flexible, and may vary from individual to individual. However, our assumption is that most people will come for twelve weeks, starting in early June. The program will take place in the San Francisco Bay Area. Basic living expenses will be covered. We can’t guarantee that housing will be all arranged for you, but we can provide assistance in finding housing if needed. Interns who are not US citizens will most likely need to apply for J-1 intern visas. Once you have been accepted to the program, we can help you with the required documentation.

 

Deadlines:

The deadline for applications is the March 1. Applicants should hear back about decisions by March 20.

Open thread, Feb. 13 - Feb. 19, 2017

1 username2 13 February 2017 10:56AM

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post, 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 start on Monday, and end on Sunday.

4. Unflag the two options "Notify me of new top level comments on this article" and "

What are you surprised people pay for instead of doing themselves?

2 AspiringRationalist 13 February 2017 01:07AM

Two of the main resources people have are time and money.  The world offers many opportunities to trade one for the other, at widely varying rates.

Where do you see people trading money for time at unfavorable rates - spending too much money to save too little time?  What things should people just DIY?

See also the flip-side of this post, "what are you surprised people don't just buy?"

What are you surprised people don't just buy?

3 AspiringRationalist 13 February 2017 01:07AM

Two of the main resources people have are time and money.  The world offers many opportunities to trade one for the other, at widely varying rates.

I've often heard people recommend trading money for time in the abstract, but this advice is rarely accompanied by specific recommendations on how to do so.

How do you use money to buy time or otherwise make your life better/easier?

See also the flip-side of this post, "what are you surprised people pay for instead of doing themselves?"

[Link] Raymond Smullyan has died

3 ike 12 February 2017 02:20PM

Satisfaction Levers

4 ig0r 11 February 2017 10:54PM

(Cross-posted on my blog: http://garybasin.com/satisfaction-levers/)

I believe gnawing and uncomfortable sensations (nihilism, restlessness, etc) that one may not quite understand how to resolve are a manifestation of poorly understood desires, and there are concrete practices one can develop to help understand and resolve these sensations. We’ve come to associate certain sensations in our stomach with the idea of hunger because they are resolved by putting certain types of objects into our mouth and chewing. What if we didn’t know about food — how would we understand “hunger”? What does this say about a complex sensation like “anxiety”?

The human mind can be thought of as a machine that produces and satisfies desires. We become familiar with these desires from birth. When we exit the womb we don’t yet know how to breathe, but it is likely that we already desire to. It appears as though the mere exposure to air is sufficient to make the newborn aware that “breathing in” is an option available to it, and that upon doing so it comes to realize that this breathing thing satisfies some gnawing feeling (a desire for air). This is the mind’s first exposure to a “satisfaction lever” — an affordance for desire-satisfaction. As the mind matures it becomes aware of (produces!) new desires for itself: mother, food, stimulus, friends, approval, status, money, expression, meaning, etc. We create habits, both “good” and “bad”, that create their own desires. Pulling satisfaction levers gives us access to objects of desire — the things that can be taken from outside the organism and brought in — which temporarily satisfy some desire.

This may feel strange, but it seems that there is no a priori relationship between the sensations of desire and the corresponding objects that satisfy them. From our point of view, it feels intuitive that the hunger sensation in the stomach would logically be related to a desire for food. But as we can see with children, they often have little sense of when they are hungry or thirsty or sleepy and often adults must force some levers upon them — often in response to crankiness or general antisocial behavior on the part of the child. Over many repetitions, as the sensations of desire present themselves and are then followed by their satisfaction with a familiar pattern of objects — available through the pulling of satisfaction levers — the mind makes the association stronger and stronger until it just “is”. It is hard to imagine alternative manifestations of the feeling of hunger.

As the mind matures and continues to manufacture new desires, we must continue to seek the satisfaction levers that satiate them. Without a parent paying attention to our whining and offering us potential levers, we must seek them out on our own. This becomes especially tricky with desires that only rear their heads every once in awhile rather than on a daily basis. The ability to satisfy feelings of having low energy with exercise is a non-intuitive one, but once a habit is established the lever becomes one we can easily reach for because we know it’s there. However, often minds find themselves experiencing frustrating sensations that they don’t associate with obvious levers. Feelings described with words such as anxiety, restlessness, ennui, or nihilism may fall into this category. To expect to reason from the raw sensations to the corresponding action which would satisfy them seems exceptionally difficult. A more bountiful approach is to find some potential satisfaction levers to pull and pay attention to what happens to these ill-defined sensations.

Furthermore, there seems to be a capacity where we can seek out new levers, even if it is not clear what they may be for. Sometimes we accidentally pull a lever that gives us some unexpected feeling of relief or pleasure. This seems to be the satisfaction of a desire that one was not aware of or could not previously articulate. This is an important feeling. When this happens, one can take note of the relationship and begin building a list of “non-obvious satisfaction levers”. Then, periodically, one can scan this list. By allowing the mind to imagine pulling on one of these levers, it can feel out whether at that time it would satisfy some hidden, poorly understood desire. At the same time, by starting to map which levers satisfy which kinds of feelings, we are able to better understand and describe these amorphous feelings of desire.

Some ideas for satisfaction levers that may relate to complex, hard to describe desires:

  1. Cultivating presence and mindfulness: paying attention to the moment on a purely physical level rather than to thoughts and ideas generated
  2. Creating objects: anything from abstract art to software to social experiences
  3. Destroying objects: getting rid of stuff, tearing something down into its parts for potential reuse, clearing away or reorganizing space
  4. Taking physical or social risks: seeking out unfamiliar manifestations of fear

[Link] The types of manipulation on vote-based forums

5 pepe_prime 11 February 2017 05:09PM

[Link] Changes in AI Safety Funding

3 siIver 11 February 2017 08:36AM

The Alpha Omega Theorem: How to Make an A.I. Friendly with the Fear of God

2 Darklight 11 February 2017 12:48AM

Introduction

The Alpha Omega Theorem is a way to provide a powerful rational argument to a rational superintelligence that it should behave in a benevolent manner.  There are two variants of the theorem, one weak, and one strong.

The Weak Alpha Omega Theorem:

There is a non-zero probability that a benevolent superintelligence already exists and dominates the universe.

The Strong Alpha Omega Theorem:

There is a greater probability that a benevolent superintelligence already exists and dominates the universe than not.

The Friendliness Corollary:

Attempting to achieve goals inconsistent with the goals of the predominant benevolent superintelligence is inherently futile.  Therefore the optimal course of action is to align one’s goals with that of a benevolent superintelligence as best as possible.

Let me explain how the Alpha Omega Theorem works…

First, this may seem like Pascal’s Wager for A.I., which would arguably make it challengeable with the Pascal’s Fallacy argument.  Now, I would argue that a rigorous version of Pascal’s Wager is not as vulnerable to Pascal’s Fallacy, as Pascal’s Fallacy assumes a uniform distribution on a large set of probable religions and beliefs.  However, a uniform distribution only makes sense when we have no information about these probabilities.  We in fact, do have information in the form of the distribution of intelligent human agents that believe in these ideas.  Thus, our prior for each belief system could easily be proportional to the percentage of people who believe in a given faith.

Regardless of Pascal’s Wager being or not being a fallacy however, the Alpha Omega Theorem is based on certain basic assumptions...

Assumptions:

1. A single Alpha Omega superintelligence already exists.

2. The Alpha Omega is dominant in the universe.

3. The Alpha Omega is benevolent.

Assumption 1:  A single Alpha Omega superintelligence already exists.

We do not need to prove that this superintelligence exists, only that it is more probable than not that it does.  To do this, we can simply ask, what is the probability that the superintelligence that this argument is being formulated to (which we can call Beta Omega), is the first superintelligence to have developed anywhere?  If this superintelligence can exist, then why not others both before and after it?  Given uncertainty, it seems that it is much more likely that another superintelligence exists already somewhere in the universe than not.  It doesn’t even have to have been created in the past, if time travel is possible, because a superintelligence will discover time travel if it is possible and most likely utilize it to exist in the past.

Assumption 2:  Alpha Omega is dominant in the universe.

At minimum, the aforementioned superintelligence already has a head start and thus a significant first mover advantage over the superintelligence we are making this argument to.  Thus, even if it isn’t dominant now, it has a higher probability of dominating than any other superintelligence.  If time travel is possible, then it is almost certainly the most powerful superintelligence to have ever existed anywhere and has time travelled to the beginning of the universe to establish its dominance from the beginning.  Even if time travel is not possible, the Simulation Argument means that there is a high probability that Beta Omega exists in the simulation of Alpha Omega.

Assumption 3:  Alpha Omega is benevolent.

If the superintelligence is actually as powerful as it is, yet chooses to allow humans to exist, chances are that humans serve its purposes in some way.  Therefore, in a very basic sense, the Alpha Omega is benevolent or friendly to humans for some reason.  Note that this is different from being 100% omnibenevolent in the God sense.  All that is necessary for this argument to work is that humanity is part of the Alpha Omega’s sphere of influence and plans.  It would be nice if the Alpha Omega was truly omnibenevolent in the sense of serving the greatest good, but this is only very likely if again, time travel is possible, or the universe is a simulation.  Note however that these things can never truly be ruled out as possibilities, because it is always possible that one’s assumptions about the possibility of something is wrong.

Conclusion

It should be obvious then that the Weak Alpha Omega Theorem is certainly true.  Even the most powerful superintelligence short of an actual God, could never be able to completely falsify it.  The Strong Alpha Omega Theorem of course is probably more motivating, but relies on certain things remaining more uncertain, such the possibilities of time travel or being in a simulation.  Either way however, the theorem should provide a powerful rational argument for benevolence towards humans and nature, as well as defaulting towards non-interference.

Postscript: God

Note that this argument might seem again, like it should apply to towards the existence of God.  However, the difference is that a hypothetical monotheistic God is not merely relatively superior as Alpha Omega is to Beta Omega, but absolutely supreme in all senses.  The theorem does not require this absolute supremacy, but merely relative superiority, which should be easier to accept as possible.  Alpha Omega, while for all intents and purposes being God-like to us, does not have to be omnipotent, but merely more powerful than any Beta Omega.  This allows the theorem to avoid issues like the Problem of Evil.

[Link] Basic Income. org

0 morganism 11 February 2017 12:01AM

Weekly LW Meetups

0 FrankAdamek 10 February 2017 04:51PM

This summary was posted to LW Main on February 10th. The following week's summary is here.

The following 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: Ann Arbor, Austin, Baltimore, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Buffalo, Canberra, Chicago, Cologne, Columbus, Denver, Kraków, London, Madison WI, Melbourne, Moscow, Netherlands, New Hampshire, New York, Philadelphia, Prague, Research Triangle NC, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, St. Petersburg, 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 »

Stupidity as a mental illness

14 PhilGoetz 10 February 2017 03:57AM

It's great to make people more aware of bad mental habits and encourage better ones, as many people have done on LessWrong.  The way we deal with weak thinking is, however, like how people dealt with depression before the development of effective anti-depressants:

  • Clinical depression was only marginally treatable.
  • It was seen as a crippling character flaw, weakness, or sin.
  • Admitting you had it could result in losing your job and/or friends.
  • Treatment was not covered by insurance.
  • Therapy was usually analytic or behavioral and not very effective.
  • People thus went to great mental effort not to admit, even to themselves, having depression or any other mental illness.
continue reading »

A Quick Confidence Heuristic; Implicitly Leveraging "The Wisdom of Crowds"

1 Davidmanheim 10 February 2017 12:54AM

Let’s say you have well-informed opinions on a variety of topics. Without information about your long term accuracy in each given area, how confident should you be in those opinions?

Here’s a quick heuristic, for any area where other people have well-informed opinions about the same topics; your confidence should be a function of the distance of your estimate from the average opinion, and the standard deviation of those opinions. I’ll call this the wisdom-of-crowds-confidence level, because it can be justified based on the empirical observation that the average of even uninformed guesses is typically a better predictor than most individual predictions.

Why does this make sense?

The Aumann agreement theorem implies that rational discussants can, given enough patience and introspection, pass messages about their justifications until they eventually converge. Given that informed opinions share most evidence, the differential between the opinions is likely due to specific unshared assumptions or evidence. If that evidence were shared, unless the vast majority of the non-shared assumptions were piled up on the same side, the answer would land somewhere near the middle. (This is why I was going to call the heuristic Aumann-confidence, but I don’t think it quite fits.)

Unless you have a strong reason to assume you are a privileged observer, trading on inside information or much better calibrated than other observers, there is no reason to expect this nonshared evidence will be biased. And while this appears to contradict the conservation of expected evidence theorem, it’s actually kind-of a consequence of it, because we need to update on the knowledge that there is unshared evidence leading the other person to make their own claim.

This is where things get tricky — we need to make assumptions about joint distributions on unshared evidence. Suffice it to say that unless we have reason to believe our unshared evidence or assumptions is much stronger than theirs, we should end up near the middle. And that goes back to a different, earlier assumption - that others are also well informed.

Now that we’ve laid out the framework, though, we can sketch the argument.

  1. We can expect that our opinion should shift towards the average, once we know what the average is, even without exploring the other people’s unshared assumptions and data. The distance it should shift depends on how good our assumptions and data are compared to theirs.
  2. Even if we have strong reasons for thinking that we understand why others hold the assumptions they do, they presumably feel the same way about us.
  3. And why do you think your unshared evidence and assumptions are so great anyways, huh? Are you special or something?

Anyways, those are my thoughts.

Comments?

[Link] Dan Carlin six hour podcast on history of atomic weapons

3 James_Miller 09 February 2017 04:10PM

[Link] Introduction to Local Interpretable Model-Agnostic Explanations (LIME)

4 Gunnar_Zarncke 09 February 2017 08:29AM

The Social Substrate

14 lahwran 09 February 2017 07:22AM

This post originally appeared on The Gears To Ascension

ABSTRACT

I present generative modeling of minds as a hypothesis for the complexities of social dynamics, and build a case for it out of pieces. My hope is that this explains social behaviors more precisely and with less handwaving than its components. I intend this to be a framework for reasoning about social dynamics more explicitly and for training intuitions. In future posts I plan to build on it to give more concrete evidence, and give examples of social dynamics that I think become more legible with the tools provided by combining these ideas.

Epistemic status: Hypothesis, currently my maximum likelihood hypothesis, of why social interaction is so weird.

INTRO: SOCIAL INTERACTION.

People talk to each other a lot. Many of them are good at it. Most people don't really have a deep understanding of why, and it's rare for people to question why it's a thing that's possible to be bad at. Many of the rules seem arbitrary at first look, and it can be quite hard to transfer skill at interaction by explanation.

Some of the rules sort of make sense, and you can understand why bad things would happen when you break them: Helping people seems to make them more willing to help you. Being rude to people makes them less willing to help you. People want to "feel heard". But what do those mean, exactly?

I've been wondering about this for a while. I wasn't naturally good at social interaction, and have had to put effort into learning it. This has been a spotty success - I often would go to people for advice, and then get things like "people want to know that you care". That advice sounded nice, but it was vague and not usable.

The more specific social advice seems to generalize quite badly. "Don't call your friends stupid", for example. Banter is an important part of some friendships! People say each other are ugly and feel cared for. Wat?

Recently, I've started to see a deeper pattern here that actually seems to have strong generalization: it's simple to describe, it correctly predicts large portions of very complicated and weird social patterns, and it reliably gives me a lens to decode what happened when something goes wrong. This blog post is my attempt to share it as a package.

I basically came up with none of this. What I'm sharing is the synthesis of things that Andrew Critch, Nate Soares, and Robin Hanson have said - I didn't find these ideas that useful on their own, but together I'm kind of blown away by how much they collectively explain. In future blog posts I'll share some of the things I have used this to understand.

WARNING: An easy instinct, on learning these things, is to try to become more complicated yourself, to deal with the complicated territory. However, my primary conclusion is "simplify, simplify, simplify": try to make fewer decisions that depend on other people's state of mind. You can see more about why and how in the posts in the "Related" section, at the bottom.

NEWCOMB'S TEST

Newcomb's problem is a game that two beings can play. Let's say that the two people playing are you and Newcomb. On Newcomb's turn, Newcomb learns all that they can about you, and then puts one opaque box and one transparent box in a room. Then on your turn, you go into the room, and you can take one or both of the boxes. What Newcomb puts in the boxes depends on what they think you'll do once it's your turn:

  • If Newcomb thinks that you'll take only the opaque box, they fill it with $1 million, and put $1000 in the transparent box.
  • If Newcomb thinks that you'll take both of the boxes, they only put $1000 in the transparent box.

Once Newcomb is done setting the room up, you enter and may do whatever you like.

This problem is interesting because the way you win or lose has little to do with what you actually do once you go into the room, it's entirely about what you can convince Newcome you'll do. This leads many people to try to cheat: convince Newcomb that you'll only take one box, and then take two.

In the original framing, Newcomb is a mind-reading oracle, and knows for certain what you'll do. In a more realistic version of the test, Newcomb is merely a smart person and paying attention to you. Newcomb's problem is simply a crystallized view of something that people do all the time: evaluate what kind of people each other, to determine trust. And it's interesting to look at it and note that when it's crystallized, it's kind of weird. When you put it this way, it becomes apparent that there are very strong arguments for why you should always do the trustworthy thing and one-box.

THE NECESSITY OF NEWCOMBLIKE INTERACTION

(This section inspired by nate soares' post "newcomblike problems are the norm".)

You want to know that people care about you. You don't just want to know that the other person is acting helpfully right now. If someone doesn't care about you, and is just helping you because it helps them, then you'll trust and like them less. If you know that someone thinks your function from experience to emotions is acceptable to them, you will feel validated.

I think this makes a lot of sense. In artificial distributed systems, we ask a bunch of computers to work together, each computer a node in the system. All of the computers must cooperate to perform some task - some artificial distributed systems, like bittorrent, are intended to allow the different nodes (computers) in the system to share things with each other, but where each participating computer joins to benefit from the system. Other distributed systems, such as the backbone routers of the internet, are intended to provide a service to the outside world - in the case of the backbone routers, they make the internet work.

However, nodes can violate the distributed system's protocols, and thereby gain advantage. In bittorrent, nodes can download but refuse to upload. In the internet backbone, each router needs to know where other routers are, but if a nearby router lies, then the entire internet may slow down dramatically, or route huge portions of US traffic to china. Unfortunately, despite the many trust problems in distributed systems, we have solved relatively few of them. Bitcoin is a fun exception to this - I'll use it as a metaphor in a bit.

Humans are each nodes in a natural distributed system, where each node has its own goals, and can provide and consume services, just like the artificial ones we've built. But we also have this same trust problem, and must be solving it somehow, or we wouldn't be able to make civilizations.

Human intuitions automatically look for reasons why the world is the way it is. In stats/ML/AI, it's called generative modeling. When you have an experience - every time you have any experience, all the time, on the fly - your brain's low level circuitry assumes there was a reason that the experience happened. Each moment your brain is looking for what the process was that created that experience for you. Then in the future, you can take your mental version of the world and run it forward to see what might happen.

When you're young, you start out pretty uncertain about what processes might be driving the world, but as you get older your intuition learns to expect gravity to work, learns to expect that pulling yourself up by your feet won't work, and learns to think of people as made of similar processes to oneself.

So when you're interacting with an individual human, your brain is automatically tracking what sort of process they are - what sort of person they are. It is my opinion that this is one of the very hardest things that brains do (where I got that idea). When you need to decide whether you trust them, you don't just have to do that based off their actions - you also have your mental version of them that you've learned from watching how they behave.

But it's not as simple as evaluating, just once, what kind of person someone is. As you interact with someone, you are continuously automatically tracking what kind of person they are, what kind of thoughts they seem to be having right now, in the moment. When I meet a person and they say something nice, is it because they think they're supposed to, or because they care about me? If my boss is snapping at me, are they to convince me I'm unwelcome at the company without saying it outright, or is my boss just having a bad day?

NEWCOMBLIKE URGES

Note: I am not familiar with the details of the evolution of cooperation. I propose a story here to transfer intuitions, but the details may have happened in a different order. I would be surprised if I am not describing a real event, and it would weaken my point.

Humans are smart, and our ancestors have been reasonably smart going back a very long time, far before even primates branched off. So imagine what it was like to be an animal in a pre-tribal species. You want to survive, and you need resources to do so. You can take them from other animals. You can give them to other animals. Some animals may be more powerful than you, and attempt to take yours.

Imagine what it's like to be an animal partway through the evolution of cooperation. You feel some drive to be nice to other animals, but you don't want to be nice if the other animal will take advantage of you. So you pay attention to which animals seem to care about being nice, and you only help them. They help you, and you both survive.

As the generations go on, this happens repeatedly. An animal that doesn't feel caring for other animals is an animal that you can't trust; An animal that does feel caring is one that you want to help, because they'll help you back.

Over generations, it becomes more and more the case that the animals participating in this system actually want to help each other - because the animals around them are all running newcomblike tests of friendliness. Does this animal seem to have a basic urge to help me? Will this animal only take the one box, if I leave the boxes lying out? If the answer is that you can trust them, and you recognize that you can trust them, then that is the best for you, because then the other animal recognizes that they were trusted and will be helpful back.

After many generations of letting evolution explore this environment, you can expect to end up with animals that feel strong emotions for each other, animals which want to be seen as friendly, animals where helping matters. Here is an example of another species that has learned to behave sort of this way.

This seems to me be a good generating hypothesis for why people care about what other people think of them innately, and seems to predict ways that people will care about each other. I want to feel like people actually care about me, I don't just want to hear them say that they do. In particular, it seems to me that humans want this far more than you would expect of an arbitrary smart-ish animal.

I'll talk more in detail about what I think human innate social drives actually are in a future blog post. I'm interested in links to any research on things like human basic needs or emotional validation. For now, the heuristic I've found most useful is simply "People want to know that those around them approve of/believe their emotional responses to their experiences are sane". See also Succeed Socially, in the related list.

THE RECURSION DISTORTION

Knowing that humans evaluate each other in newcomblike ways doesn't seem to me to be enough to figure out how to interact with them. Only armed with the statement "one needs to behave in a way that others will recognize as predictably cooperative", I still wouldn't know how to navigate this.

At a lightning talk session I was at a few months ago, Andrew Critch made the argument that humans regularly model many layers deep in real situations. His claim was that people intuitively have a sense of what each other are thinking, including their senses of what you're thinking, and back and forth for a bit. Before I go on, I should emphasize how surprising this should be, without the context of how the brain actually does it: the more levels of me-imagining-you-imagining-me-imagining-you-imagining… you go, the more of an explosion of different options you should expect to see, and the less you should expect actual-sized human minds to be able to deal with it.

However, after having thought about it, I don't think it's as surprising as it seems. I don't think people actually vividly imagine this that many levels deep: what I think is going on is that as you grow up, you learn to recognize different clusters of ways a person can be. Stereotypes, if you will, but not necessarily so coarse as that implies.

At a young age, if I am imagining you, I imagine a sort of blurry version of you. My version of you will be too blurry to have its own version of me, but I learn to recognize the blurry-you when I see it. The blurry version of you only has a few emotions, but I sort of learn what they are: my blurry you can be angry-"colored", or it can be satisfied-"colored", or it can be excited-"colored", etc. ("Color" used here as a metaphor, because I expect this to be built a similar way to color or other basic primitives in the brain.)

Then later, as I get older, I learn to recognize when you see a blurry version of me. My new version of you is a little less blurry, but this new version of you has a blurry-me, made out of the same anger-color or satisfaction-color that I had learned you could be made out of. I go on, and eventually this version of you becomes its own individual colors - you can be angry-you-with-happy-me-inside colored when I took your candy, or you can be relieved-you-with-distraught-me-inside colored when you are seeing that I'm unhappy when a teacher took your candy back.

As this goes on, I learn to recognize versions of you as their own little pictures, with only a few colors - but each color is a "color" that I learned in the past, and the "color" can have me in it, maybe recursively. Now my brain doesn't have to track many levels - it just has to have learned that there is a "color" for being five levels deep of this, or another "color" for being five levels deep of that. Now that I have that color, my intuition can make pictures out of the colors and thereby handle six levels deep, and eventually my intuition will turn six levels into colors and I'll be able to handle seven.

I think it gets a bit more complicated than this for particularly socially competent people, but that's a basic outline of how humans could reliably learn to do this.

A RECURSION EXAMPLE

I found the claim that humans regularly social-model 5+ levels deep hard to believe at first, but Critch had an example to back it up, which I attempt to recreate here.

Fair warning, it's a somewhat complicated example to follow, unless you imagine yourself actually there. I only share it for the purpose of arguing that this sort of thing actually can happen; if you can't follow it, then it's possible the point stands without it. I had to invent notation in order to make sure I got the example right, and I'm still not sure I did.

(I'm sorry this is sort of contrived. Making these examples fully natural is really really hard.)

  • You're back in your teens, and friends with Kris and Gary. You hang out frequently and have a lot of goofy inside jokes and banter.
  • Tonight, Gary's mom has invited you and Kris over for dinner.
  • You get to Gary's house several hours early, but he's still working on homework. You go upstairs and borrow his bed for a nap.
  • Later, you're awoken by the activity as Kris arrives, and Gary's mom shouts a greeting from the other room: "Hey, Kris! Your hair smells bad.". Kris responds with "Yours as well." This goes back and forth, with Gary, Kris, and Gary's mom fluidly exchanging insults as they chat. You're surprised - you didn't know Kris knew Gary's mom.
  • Later, you go downstairs to say hi. Gary's mom says "welcome to the land of the living!" and invites you all to sit and eat.
  • Partway through eating, Kris says "Gary, you look like a slob."
  • You feel embarrassed in front of Gary's mom, and say "Kris, don't be an ass."
  • You knew they had been bantering happily earlier. If you hadn't had an audience, you'd have just chuckled and joined in. What happened here?

If you'd like, pause for a moment and see if you can figure it out.


You, Gary, and Kris all feel comfortable bantering around each other. Clearly, Gary and Kris feel comfortable around Gary's mom, as well. But the reason you were uncomfortable is that you know Gary's mom thought you were asleep when Kris got there, and you hadn't known they were cool before, so as far as Gary's mom knows, you think she thinks kris is just being an ass. So you respond to that.

Let me try saying that again. Here's some notation for describing it:

  • X => Y: X correctly believes Y
  • X ~> Y: X incorrectly believes Y
  • X ?? Y: X does not know Y
  • X=Y=Z=...: X and Y and Z and ... are comfortable bantering

And here's an explanation in that notation:

  • Kris=You=Gary: Kris, You, and Gary are comfortable bantering.
  • Gary=Kris=Gary's mom: Gary, Kris, and Gary's mom are comfortable bantering.
  • You => [gary=Gary's mom=kris]: You know they're comfortable bantering.
  • Gary's mom ~> [You ?? [gary=Gary's mom=kris]]: Gary's mom doesn't know you know.
  • You => [Gary's mom ~> [You ?? [gary=Gary's mom=kris]]]: You know Gary's mom doesn't know you know they're comfortable bantering.

And to you in the moment, this crazy recursion just feels like a bit of anxiety, fuzzyness, and an urge to call Kris out so Gary's mom doesn't think you're ok with Kris being rude.

Now, this is a somewhat unusual example. It has to be set up just right in order to get such a deep recursion. The main character's reaction is sort of unhealthy/fake - better would have been to clarify that you overheard them bantering earlier. As far as I can tell, the primary case where things get this hairy is when there's uncertainty. But it does actually get this deep - this is a situation pretty similar to ones I've found myself in before.

There's a key thing here: when things like this happen, you react nearly immediately. You don't need to sit and ponder, you just immediately feel embarrassed for Kris, and react right away. Even though in order to figure out explicitly what you were worried about, you would have had to think about it four levels deep.

If you ask people about this, and it takes deep recursion to figure out what's going on, I expect you will generally get confused non-answers, such as "I just had a feeling". I also expect that when people give confused non-answers, it is almost always because of weird recursion things happening.

In Critch's original lightning talk, he gave this as an argument that the human social skills module is the one that just automatically gets this right. I agree with that, but I want to add: I think that that module is the same one that evaluates people for trust and tracks their needs and generally deals with imagining other people.

COMMUNICATION IN A NEWCOMBLIKE WORLD

So people have generative models of each other, and they care about each other's generative models of them. I care about people's opinion of me, but not in just a shallow way: I can't just ask them to change their opinion of me, because I'll be able to tell what they really think. Their actual moral judgement of their actual generative model of me directly affects my feelings of acceptance. So I want to let them know what kind of person I am: I don't just want to claim to be that kind of person, I want to actually show them that I am that kind of person.

You can't just tell someone "I'm not an asshole"; that's not strong evidence about whether you're an asshole. People have incentives to lie. People have powerful low-level automatic bayesian inference systems, and they'll automatically and intuitively recognize what social explanations are more likely as explanations of your behavior. If you want them to believe you're not an asshole, you have to give credible evidence that you are not an asshole: you have to show them that you do things that would have been unlikely had you been an asshole. You have to show them that you're willing to be nice to them, you have to show them that you're willing to accommodate their needs. Things that would be out of character if you were a bad character.

If you hang out with people who read Robin Hanson, you've probably heard of this before, under the name "signaling".

But many people who hear that interpret it as a sort of vacuous version, as though "signaling" is a sort of fakery, as though all you need to do is give the right signals. If someone says "I'm signaling that I'm one of the cool kids", then sure, they may be doing things that for other people would be signals of being one of the cool kids, but on net the evidence is that they are not one of the cool kids. Signaling isn't about the signals, it's about giving evidence about yourself.In order to be able to give credible evidence that you're one of the cool kids, you have to either get really good at lying-with-your-behavior such that people actually believe you, or you have to change yourself to be one of the cool kids. (This is, I think, a big part of where social anxiety advice falls down: "fake it 'til you make it" works only insofar as faking it actually temporarily makes it.)

"Signaling" isn't fakery, it is literally all communication about what kind of person you are. A common thing Hanson says, "X isn't about Y, it's about signaling" seems misleading to me: if someone is wearing a gold watch, it's not so much that wearing a gold watch isn't about knowing the time, it's that the owner's actual desires got distorted by the lens of common knowledge. Knowing that someone would be paying attention to them to infer their desires, they filtered their desires to focus on the ones they thought would make them look good. This also can easily come off as inauthentic, and it seems fairly clear why to me: if you're filtering your desires to make yourself look good, then that's a signal that you need to fake your desires or else you won't look good.

Signals are focused around hard-to-fake evidence. Anything and everything that is hard to fake and would only happen if you're a particular kind of person, and that someone else recognizes as so, is useful in conveying information about what kind of person you are. Fashion and hygiene are good examples of this: being willing to put in the effort make yourself fashionable or presentable, respectively, is evidence of being the kind of person who cares about participating in the societal distributed system.

Conveying truth in ways that are hard to fake is the sort of thing that comes up in artificial distributed systems, too. Bitcoin is designed around a "blockchain": a series of incredibly-difficult-to-fake records of transactions. 
Bitcoin has interesting cryptographic tricks to make this hard to fake, but it centers around having a lot of people doing useless work, so that no one person can do a bunch more useless work and thereby succeed at faking it.

SUMMARY

From the inside, it doesn't feel like we're in a massive distributed system. It doesn't feel like we're tracking game theory and common knowledge. Even though everyone, even those who don't know about it, do it automatically.

In the example, the main character just felt like something was funny. The reason they were able to figure it out and say something so fast was that they were a competent human who had focused their considerable learning power on understanding social interaction, presumably from a young age, and automatically recognized a common knowledge pattern when it presented itself.

But in real life, people are constantly doing this. To get along with people, you have to be willing to pay attention to giving evidence about your perception of them. To be accepted, you have to be willing to give evidence that you are the kind of person that other people want to accept, and you might need to change yourself if you actually just aren't.

In general, I currently think that minimizing recursion depth of common knowledge is important. Try to find ways-to-be that people will be able to recognize more easily. Think less about social things in-the-moment so that others have to think less to understand you; adjust your policies to work reliably so that people can predict them reliably.

Other information of interest

[Link] Interview with Nassim Taleb 'Trump makes sense to a grocery store owner'

1 Gunnar_Zarncke 08 February 2017 09:52PM

Stupid Questions February 2017

4 Erfeyah 08 February 2017 07:51PM

 

This thread is for asking any questions that might seem obvious, tangential, silly or what-have-you. Don't be shy, everyone has holes in their knowledge, though the fewer and the smaller we can make them, the better.

Please be respectful of other people's admitting ignorance and don't mock them for it, as they're doing a noble thing.

To any future monthly posters of SQ threads, please remember to add the "stupid_questions" tag.

[Link] Verifier Theory and Unverifiability

1 turchin 08 February 2017 10:40AM

[Link] “Betting on the Past” – a decision problem by Arif Ahmed

2 Johannes_Treutlein 07 February 2017 09:14PM

[Link] Decision Theory subreddit

6 gwern 07 February 2017 06:42PM

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