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Sympathetic Minds

25 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 January 2009 09:31AM

Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

"Mirror neurons" are neurons that are active both when performing an action and observing the same action—for example, a neuron that fires when you hold up a finger or see someone else holding up a finger.  Such neurons have been directly recorded in primates, and consistent neuroimaging evidence has been found for humans.

You may recall from my previous writing on "empathic inference" the idea that brains are so complex that the only way to simulate them is by forcing a similar brain to behave similarly.  A brain is so complex that if a human tried to understand brains the way that we understand e.g. gravity or a car—observing the whole, observing the parts, building up a theory from scratch—then we would be unable to invent good hypotheses in our mere mortal lifetimes.  The only possible way you can hit on an "Aha!" that describes a system as incredibly complex as an Other Mind, is if you happen to run across something amazingly similar to the Other Mind—namely your own brain—which you can actually force to behave similarly and use as a hypothesis, yielding predictions.

So that is what I would call "empathy".

And then "sympathy" is something else on top of this—to smile when you see someone else smile, to hurt when you see someone else hurt.  It goes beyond the realm of prediction into the realm of reinforcement.

And you ask, "Why would callous natural selection do anything that nice?"

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In Praise of Boredom

23 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 January 2009 09:03AM

If I were to make a short list of the most important human qualities—

—and yes, this is a fool's errand, because human nature is immensely complicated, and we don't even notice all the tiny tweaks that fine-tune our moral categories, and who knows how our attractors would change shape if we eliminated a single human emotion—

—but even so, if I had to point to just a few things and say, "If you lose just one of these things, you lose most of the expected value of the Future; but conversely if an alien species independently evolved just these few things, we might even want to be friends"—

—then the top three items on the list would be sympathy, boredom and consciousness.

Boredom is a subtle-splendored thing.  You wouldn't want to get bored with breathing, for example—even though it's the same motions over and over and over and over again for minutes and hours and years and decades.

Now I know some of you out there are thinking, "Actually, I'm quite bored with breathing and I wish I didn't have to," but then you wouldn't want to get bored with switching transistors.

According to the human value of boredom, some things are allowed to be highly repetitive without being boring—like obeying the same laws of physics every day.

Conversely, other repetitions are supposed to be boring, like playing the same level of Super Mario Brothers over and over and over again until the end of time.  And let us note that if the pixels in the game level have a slightly different color each time, that is not sufficient to prevent it from being "the same damn thing, over and over and over again".

Once you take a closer look, it turns out that boredom is quite interesting.

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Changing Emotions

22 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 January 2009 12:05AM

Previously in series:  Growing Up is Hard

    Lest anyone reading this journal of a primitive man should think we spend our time mired in abstractions, let me also say that I am discovering the richness available to those who are willing to alter their major characteristics.  The variety of emotions available to a reconfigured human mind, thinking thoughts impossible to its ancestors...
    The emotion of -*-, describable only as something between sexual love and the joy of intellection—making love to a thought?  Or &&, the true reverse of pain, not "pleasure" but a "warning" of healing, growth and change. Or (^+^), the most complex emotion yet discovered, felt by those who consciously endure the change between mind configurations, and experience the broad spectrum of possibilities inherent in thinking and being.

        —Greg Bear, Eon

So... I'm basically on board with that sort of thing as a fine and desirable future.  But I think that the difficulty and danger of fiddling with emotions is oft-underestimated.  Not necessarily underestimated by Greg Bear, per se; the above journal entry is from a character who was receiving superintelligent help.

But I still remember one time on the Extropians mailing list when someone talked about creating a female yet "otherwise identical" copy of himself.  Something about that just fell on my camel's back as the last straw.  I'm sorry, but there are some things that are much more complicated to actually do than to rattle off as short English phrases, and "changing sex" has to rank very high on that list.  Even if you're omnipotent so far as raw ability goes, it's not like people have a binary attribute reading "M" or "F" that can be flipped as a primitive action.

Changing sex makes a good, vivid example of the sort of difficulties you might run into when messing with emotional architecture, so I'll use it as my archetype:

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Growing Up is Hard

28 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 January 2009 03:55AM

Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species is the best book I've ever read on the evolution of intelligence.  Deacon somewhat overreaches when he tries to theorize about what our X-factor is; but his exposition of its evolution is first-class.

Deacon makes an excellent case—he has quite persuaded me—that the increased relative size of our frontal cortex, compared to other hominids, is of overwhelming importance in understanding the evolutionary development of humanity.  It's not just a question of increased computing capacity, like adding extra processors onto a cluster; it's a question of what kind of signals dominate, in the brain.

People with Williams Syndrome (caused by deletion of a certain region on chromosome 7) are hypersocial, ultra-gregarious; as children they fail to show a normal fear of adult strangers.  WSers are cognitively impaired on most dimensions, but their verbal abilities are spared or even exaggerated; they often speak early, with complex sentences and large vocabulary, and excellent verbal recall, even if they can never learn to do basic arithmetic.

Deacon makes a case for some Williams Syndrome symptoms coming from a frontal cortex that is relatively too large for a human, with the result that prefrontal signals—including certain social emotions—dominate more than they should.

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