Kaj Sotala http://kajsotala.fi It is the autumn of humanity, and we are moments between raindrops Thu, 04 Jan 2018 09:55:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 15620479 Papers for 2017 http://kajsotala.fi/2018/01/papers-for-2017/ http://kajsotala.fi/2018/01/papers-for-2017/#respond Thu, 04 Jan 2018 09:53:02 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1490 I had three new papers either published or accepted into publication last year; all of them are now available online:

  • How Feasible is the Rapid Development of Artificial Superintelligence? Physica Scripta 92 (11), 113001.
    • Abstract: What kinds of fundamental limits are there in how capable artificial intelligence (AI) systems might become? Two questions in particular are of interest: 1) How much more capable could AI become relative to humans, and 2) how easily could superhuman capability be acquired? To answer these questions, we will consider the literature on human expertise and intelligence, discuss its relevance for AI, and consider how AI could improve on humans in two major aspects of thought and expertise, namely simulation and pattern recognition. We find that although there are very real limits to prediction, it seems like AI could still substantially improve on human intelligence.
    • Links: published version (paywalled), free preprint.
  • Disjunctive Scenarios of Catastrophic AI Risk. AI Safety and Security (Roman Yampolskiy, ed.), CRC Press. Forthcoming.
    • Abstract: ​ Artificial intelligence (AI) safety work requires an understanding of what could cause AI to become unsafe. This chapter seeks to provide a broad look at the various ways in which the development of AI sophisticated enough to have general intelligence could lead to it becoming powerful enough to cause a catastrophe. In particular, the present chapter seeks to focus on the way that various risks are disjunctive—on how there are multiple different ways by which things could go wrong, any one of which could lead to disaster. We cover different levels of a strategic advantage an AI might acquire, alternatives for the point where an AI might decide to turn against humanity, different routes by which an AI might become dangerously capable, ways by which the AI might acquire autonomy, and scenarios with varying number of AIs. Whereas previous work has focused on risks specifically only from superintelligent AI, this chapter also discusses crucial capabilities that could lead to catastrophic risk and which could emerge anywhere on the path from near-term “narrow AI” to full-blown superintelligence.
    • Links: free preprint.
  • Superintelligence as a Cause or Cure for Risks of Astronomical Suffering. Informatica 41 (4).
    • (with Lukas Gloor)
    • Abstract: Discussions about the possible consequences of creating superintelligence have included the possibility of existential risk , often understood mainly as the risk of human extinction. We argue that suffering risks (s-risks) , where an adverse outcome would bring about severe suffering on an astronomical scale, are risks of a comparable severity and probability as risks of extinction. Preventing them is the common interest of many different value systems. Furthermore, we argue that in the same way as superintelligent AI both contributes to existential risk but can also help prevent it, superintelligent AI can both be a suffering risk or help avoid it. Some types of work aimed at making superintelligent AI safe will also help prevent suffering risks, and there may also be a class of safeguards for AI that helps specifically against s-risks.
    • Links: published version (open access).

In addition, my old paper Responses to Catastrophic AGI Risk (w/ Roman Yampolskiy) was republished, with some minor edits, as the book chapters “Risks of the Journey to the Singularity” and “Responses to the Journey to the Singularity”, in The Technological Singularity: Managing the Journey (Victor Callaghan et al, eds.), Springer-Verlag.

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Fixing science via a basic income http://kajsotala.fi/2017/12/fixing-science-via-a-basic-income/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/12/fixing-science-via-a-basic-income/#comments Fri, 08 Dec 2017 14:10:26 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1480 I ran across Ed Hagen’s article “Academic success is either a crapshoot or a scam”, which pointed out that all the methodological discussion about science’s replication crisis is kinda missing the point: yes, all of the methodological stuff like p-hacking is something that would be valuable to fix, but the real problem is in the incentives created by the crazy publish-or-perish culture:

In my field of anthropology, the minimum acceptable number of pubs per year for a researcher with aspirations for tenure and promotion is about three. This means that, each year, I must discover three important new things about the world. […]

Let’s say I choose to run 3 studies that each has a 50% chance of getting a sexy result. If I run 3 great studies, mother nature will reward me with 3 sexy results only 12.5% of the time. I would have to run 9 studies to have about a 90% chance that at least 3 would be sexy enough to publish in a prestigious journal.

I do not have the time or money to run 9 new studies every year.

I could instead choose to investigate phenomena that are more likely to yield strong positive results. If I choose to investigate phenomena that are 75% likely to yield such results, for instance, I would only have to run about 5 studies (still too many) for mother nature to usually grace me with at least 3 positive results. But then I run the risk that these results will seem obvious, and not sexy enough to publish in prestigious journals.

To put things in deliberately provocative terms, empirical social scientists with lots of pubs in prestigious journals are either very lucky, or they are p-hacking.

I don’t really blame the p-hackers. By tying academic success to high-profile publications, which, in turn, require sexy results, we academic researchers have put our fates in the hands of a fickle mother nature. Academic success is therefore either a crapshoot or, since few of us are willing to subject the success or failure of our careers to the roll of the dice, a scam.

The article then suggests that the solution would be to have better standards for research, and also blames prestigious journal publishers for exploiting their monopoly on the field. I think that looking at the researcher incentives is indeed the correct thing to do here, but I’m not sure the article goes deep enough with it. Mainly, it doesn’t ask the obvious question of why researchers have such a crazy pressure to publish: it’s not the journals that set the requirements for promotion or getting to the tenure track, that’s the universities and research institutions. The journals are just exploiting a lucrative situation that someone else created.

Rather my understanding is that the real problem is that there are simply too many PhD graduates who want to do research, relative to the number of researcher positions available. It’s a basic fact of skill measurement that if you try to measure skill and then pick people based on how well they performed on your measure, you’re actually selecting for skill + luck rather than pure skill. If the number of people you pick is small enough relative to the number of applicants, anyone you pick has to be both highly skilled and highly lucky; simply being highly skilled isn’t enough to make it to the top. This is the situation we have with current science, and as Hagen points out, it leads to rampant cheating when people realize that they have to cheat in order to make the cut. As long as this is the situation, there will remain an incentive to cheat.

This looks hard to fix; two obvious solutions would be to reduce the number of graduate students or to massively increase the number of research jobs. The first is politically challenging, especially since it would require international coordination and lots of nations view the number of graduating PhDs as a status symbol. The second would be expensive and thus also politically challenging. One thing that some of my friends also suggested was some kind of a researchers’ basic income (or just a universal basic income in general); for fields in which doing research isn’t much more expensive than covering the researchers’ cost of living, a lot of folks would probably be happy to do research just on the basic income.

A specific suggestion that was thrown out was to give some number of post-docs a 10-year grant of 2000 euros/month; depending on the exact number of grants given out, this could fund quite a number of researchers while still being cheap in comparison to any given country’s general research and education expenses. The existence of better-paid and more prestigious formal research positions like university professorships would still exist as an incentive to actually do the research, and historically quite a lot of research has been done by people with no financial incentive for it anyway (Einstein doing his research on the side while working at the patent office maybe being the most famous example); the fact that most researchers are motivated by the pure desire to do science is already shown by the fact that anyone at all decides to go to academia today. A country being generous handing out these kinds of grants also has the potential to be made into an international status symbol, creating the incentive to actually do this. Alternatively, this could just be viewed as yet another reason to just push for a universal basic income for everyone.

EDIT: Jouni Sirén made the following interesting comment in response to this article: “I think the root issue goes deeper than that. There are too many PhD graduates who want to do research, because money and prestige are insufficient incentives for a large part of the middle class. Too many people want a job that is interesting or meaningful, and nobody is willing to support all of them financially.” That’s an even deeper reason than the one I was thinking of!

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Book review: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment http://kajsotala.fi/2017/12/book-review-the-upside-of-your-dark-side-why-being-your-whole-self-not-just-your-good-self-drives-success-and-fulfillment/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/12/book-review-the-upside-of-your-dark-side-why-being-your-whole-self-not-just-your-good-self-drives-success-and-fulfillment/#comments Mon, 04 Dec 2017 13:02:01 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1477 The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. By Todd Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener. Avery, 2014.

This book was written by a pair of psychologists who thought that the excessive focus on good and positive feelings in positive psychology was a little overblown, and that the value of so-called “negative” feelings or aspects of personality was being neglected. They do think that it’s good for us to be happy most of the time, but that it will be even better for us if we have a flexibility that allows us to switch to non-happy states of mind when it’s beneficial. They suggest an 80:20 ratio as a rough rule of thumb: be happy 80% of the time and non-happy 20% of the time. They call this philosophy “wholeness”: a person is whole if they are able to flexibly tap into all aspects of their being when it’s warranted.

The authors offer a number of examples about the value of so-called negative states. Too much comfort makes us oversensitive to inevitable discomfort. Anger motivates us to act, fix injustices, and defend ourselves and our loved ones; guilt tells us when we’ve screwed up and motivates us to improve our behavior; anxiety helps us catch mistakes and take safeguards against risks. Happy people are less persuasive, can be too trusting, and are lazier thinkers. Intentionally trying to become happy easily backfires and makes us less happy; and there are situations where happiness feels inappropriate and will make others respond worse to you. Sometimes it’s better to act on instinct or engage in mind-wandering than to always be mindful and think things through consciously. The “dark triad” traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are all useful in moderation and provide benefits such as fearlessness and self-assuredness.

The following paragraph from the final chapter is a pretty good summary of the book’s message:

The basic idea is that psychological states are instrumental. That is, they are useful for a specific purpose, such as finding your car keys, being physically safe in a parking garage, negotiating a business deal, or arguing with your child’s teacher. Rather than viewing your thoughts and feelings as reactions to external events, we argue that you ought to view these states as tools to be used as circumstances warrant. Simply put, quit labeling your inner states as good or bad or positive or negative, and start thinking of them as useful or not useful for any given situation.

While I liked the book’s message and agreed with many of its points, I felt like it was mostly trying to tell a story that sounds plausible to a layman, rather than making a particularly rigorous argument. The authors tend to base their claims on isolated studies with no mention of their replication status; some of their example studies draw on paradigms and methods that have been seriously challenged (social priming and implicit association tests); occasionally they made claims that I thought contradicted things I knew from elsewhere; and some of the cited empirical results seem to have alternative interpretations that are more natural than the ones offered in the book. It’s plausible that they are drawing on much more rigorous academic work and that the argument has been dumbed down for a popular audience: even granting them the benefit of doubt, the book still feels way too much like a collection of examples that have been cherry-picked to make the wanted points.

Regardless, the book’s general message feels almost certainly correct – after all, why would we have evolved negative states if they weren’t sometimes useful? – so if anyone feels like they’ve been overwhelmed with too many messages of positivity, I would recommend this book for inspiration and an alternative viewpoint, if not for any of its specific details.

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Meditation and mental space http://kajsotala.fi/2017/11/meditation-and-mental-space/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/11/meditation-and-mental-space/#respond Mon, 06 Nov 2017 13:05:03 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1467 One effect that I often notice after my meditation practice has been interrupted and I then manage to resume it again, is an increase in a kind of mental resilience.

That is, when I have a lower resilience, feeling bad for any reason feels much more like an emergency. It’s something that forces itself into my consciousness, takes over, and refuses to go away. I would like to ignore it, but I can’t; as long as it’s there, it’s hard to think of anything else.

When my resilience is higher, it’s like my mind has more room for thoughts and emotions. Something might be making me feel bad, but something else might also be making me feel good, and there’s space for those two to intermingle. It becomes much easier to accept that I’m feeling a little bad, but I don’t need to do anything about it. I can just go on and do something else, and the nasty feeling might go away on its own – or if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

Interestingly, being on antidepressants can also give me a similar effect.

Of course, in itself this kind of an effect isn’t too surprising, given that it’s one of the explicit goals of the practice. Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated notes that two of the goals of mindfulness practice are an increase in the amount of “conscious power” (roughly, the amount of things that can be consciously processed at a time), as well as learning to more intentionally shift the focus of attention, so that it won’t just automatically go to the most painful or pleasant thing and become preoccupied with that, but can rather be controlled in a more useful manner. Still, it’s nice to see that the practice is bearing fruit.

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Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/anti-tribalism-and-positive-mental-health-as-high-value-cause-areas/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/anti-tribalism-and-positive-mental-health-as-high-value-cause-areas/#respond Tue, 17 Oct 2017 10:19:29 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1462 I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.

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You can never be universally inclusive http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/you-can-never-be-universally-inclusive/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/you-can-never-be-universally-inclusive/#respond Sat, 14 Oct 2017 11:29:35 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1457 A discussion about the article “We Don’t Do That Here” (h/t siderea) raised the question about the tension between having inclusive social norms on the one hand, and restricting some behaviors on the other hand.

At least, that was the way the discussion was initially framed. The thing is, inclusivity is a bit of a bad term, since you can never really be universally inclusive. Accepting some behaviors is going to attract people who like engaging in those behaviors while repelling people who don’t like those behaviors; and vice versa for disallowing them.

Of course, you can still create spaces that are more inclusive than others, in being comfortable to a broader spectrum of people. But the way you do that, is by disallowing behaviors that would, if allowed, repel more people that the act of disallowing them does.

If you use your social power to shut up people who would otherwise be loudly racist and homophobic and who then leave because they don’t want to be in a place where those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, then that would fit the common definition of “inclusive space” pretty well.

That said, the “excluding racists and homophobes” thing may make it sound like you’re only excluding “bad” people, which isn’t the case either. Every set of rules (including having no rules in the first place) is going to repel some completely decent people.

Like, maybe you decide to try to make a space more inclusive by having a rule like “no discussing religion or politics”. This may make the space more inclusive towards people of all kinds of religions and political backgrounds, since there is less of a risk of anyone feeling unwelcome when everyone else turns out to disagree with their beliefs.

But at the same time, you are making the space less inclusive towards people who are perfectly reasonable and respectful people, but who would like to discuss religion or politics. As well as to people who aren’t so good at self-regulation and will feel uncomfortable about having to keep a constant eye on themselves to avoid saying the wrong things.

And maybe these people would feel more comfortable at a different event with different rules, which was more inclusive towards them. Which is fine. Competing access needs:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

I wrote a while ago that I think this concept extends to a lot of activist/social justice community challenges and a lot of the difficulty of designing good messages. For example, body positivity: some people need to hear “love your body! no matter who you are you are soooo sexy” and some people really hate being told that they’re ‘sexy’. Or some gay people might need a space where it’s against the rules to ask “well, what if it actually is morally wrong to be gay?” but other gay people (like me of a few years ago) might need a space where they can ask that so there can be a serious discussion and they can become convinced that they’re okay.

Every set of rules is going to be bad for someone, so a better question than “how to make this space inclusive” is “who do we want to make this space inclusive towards”. You’re always going to exclude some people who aren’t jerks or bad people, but would just prefer a different set of rules. And you just have to accept that.

See also: The Unit of Caring on Safe Spaces and Competing Access Needs.

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What are your plans for the evening of the apocalypse? http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/what-are-your-plans-for-the-evening-of-the-apocalypse/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/what-are-your-plans-for-the-evening-of-the-apocalypse/#respond Sat, 07 Oct 2017 15:14:41 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1449 If everyone found out for sure that the world would end in five years, what would happen?

My guess is that it would take time before anything big happened. Finding out about the end of the world, that’s the kind of a thing that you need to digest for a while. For the first couple of days, people might go “huh”, and then carry on with their old routines while thinking about it.

A few months later, maybe there still wouldn’t be all that much change. Sure, people would adjust their life plans, start thinking more near-term, some would decide not to go to college after all. But a lot of people already don’t plan much beyond a couple of years; five years is a long time, and you’ll still need to pay your bills until the Apocalypse hits. So many people might just carry on with their jobs as normal; if they were already doing college, well, you need to pass the time until the end of the world somehow. Might as well keep studying.

Of course, some people would have bigger reactions, right from day one. Quit their unsatisfying job, that kind of thing. People with a lot of savings might choose this moment to start living off them. And as the end of the world got closer and closer, people might get an increasingly relaxed attitude to work; though there might also be a feeling of, we’re all in this together, let’s make our existing institutions work until the end. I could imagine doctors and nurses in a hospital, who had decided that they want to make sure the hospital runs for as long as it can, and to make sure that nobody has to die before they really have to.

But I could also imagine, say, the waiter at some restaurant carrying on, serving customers even on the night of the apocalypse. (Be sure to make a reservation, we expect to have no free tables that evening.) Maybe out of principles, maybe out of professional pride, but maybe just out of habit.

I’m guessing there would be gradual changes to society, with occasional tipping points when a lot of people decided to stop whatever they had been doing and that created a chain reaction of others doing so as well. But it seems really hard to guess for how long things would remain mostly normal.

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Meaningfulness and the scope of experience http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/meaningfulness-and-the-scope-of-experience/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/10/meaningfulness-and-the-scope-of-experience/#comments Thu, 05 Oct 2017 11:24:47 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1444 I find that the extent to which I find life meaningful, seems strongly influenced by my scope of experience [1, 2].

Say that I have a day off, and there’s nothing in particular that I need to get done or think about. This makes it easy for the spatial scope of my experience to become close. My attention is most strongly drawn to the sensations of my body, nearby sounds, tempting nearby things like the warmth of the shower that I could take, the taste of a cup tea that I could prepare, or the pleasant muscle fatigue that I’d get if I went jogging in the nearby forest. The temporal scope of my experience is close as well; these are all things that are nearby in time, in that I could do them within a few minutes of having decided to do them.

Say that I don’t have a day off, and I’m trying to focus on work. My employer’s website says that our research focuses on reducing risks of dystopian futures in the context of emerging technologies; this is a pretty accurate description of what I try to do. Our focus is on really large-scale stuff, including the consequences of eventual space colonization; this requires thinking in the scale of galaxies, a vast spatial scope. And we are also trying to figure out whether there is anything we can do to meaningfully influence the far future, including hundreds if not thousands of years from now; that means taking a vast temporal scope.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is much easier to feel that things are meaningful when the scope of my experience is close, than when it is far.


My favorite theory of meaning actually comes from a slightly surprising direction: the literature on game design and analysis. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define meaningful play in a game as emerging when the relationships between actions and outcomes are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game. In other words:

The consequences of your actions in a game have to be discernable: you need to have some idea of what happened as a result of your actions. If you shoot at an opponent and the opponent dies, that’s pretty clear and discernable. If you press a button and a number changes but you have no idea of what that number means or why it’s relevant, that’s not very clear nor discernable. If you don’t know what happens as a result of your actions, you might as well be randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards.

The consequences of your actions have to be integrated into the larger context of the game: they need to affect the game experience at some later point in the game. If you move a piece in a game of chess, then that move will directly shape the whole rest of the game, making the moves deeply integrated. But if every game of chess included three opening moves after which the board was reset to the initial position, throwing away everything that happened during those three moves, then those moves would not be integrated to the gameplay. People would just make some moves at random as fast as possible, to get on with the actual opening moves of the game.

As Salen & Zimmerman write: “Whereas discernability of game events tells players what happened (I hit the monster), integration lets players know how it will affect the rest of the game (If I keep on hitting the monster I will kill it. If I kill enough monsters, I’ll gain a level.).”

My own model is that regardless of whether we’re playing a game or living our ordinary lives, our minds will automatically keep looking for actions whose outcomes are discernable and integrated, relative to the current scope of experience.

When the scope is close, it is easy to find such actions. Taking a shower, making a cup of tea, going out for a jog; the consequences of these actions will manifest as concrete and enjoyable bodily sensations, clearly discernable both within the temporal and spatial scope. And because the scope is so close, almost everything I do will affect the whole scope, so it will feel tightly integrated.  I imagine getting a taste of tea, and think no farther out in time; thus, getting up from bed, going to the kitchen, preparing the tea, and sitting down to drink it, feels like a tight chain of actions where each step gives rise to the next, culminating in the warmth of the tea cup pressing against my lips, the sensation of taste on my tongue.

When the scope is far, it is much different. What action could one even think of, whose consequences were discernable on a scale spanning entire galaxies? Or whose consequences could be traced out for tens, maybe hundreds of years? It’s hard to imagine anything. An intellectual analysis may suggest things that could plausibly result as a consequence of our actions, but unless one can really visualize those and translate them into emotional terms, it’s still going to feel hard to connect them to the small-scale things happening in our daily lives.

I find that my mind will automatically look for objectives that makes sense within a given scope. When my scope is relatively close, things like finding a romantic partner and maybe having children feel strongly appealing; they would have a strong impact within the entire scope. When my scope gets more remote, such things seem to lose their appeal: what is one more family going to matter? It is highly unlikely to change the course of history. Better to ignore those things, as my chances to make a lasting impact are remote already; better to concentrate on finding something that would inch those chances ever-so-slightly upwards.


The naive implication of this would be, “keep your scopes close, and you’ll be happy”. But of course, it’s not that simple.

For one, most of us can’t just focus on small pleasures and not worry at all about things like earning an income, what we’ll be doing next year, or whatever it is that we need to think about at work. The necessities of everyday life force us to think long term and in a larger context, which forces us to attend to a broader scope of experience.

Even if we did have the opportunity to keep our scope small, the effect would be to make ourselves happy by ignoring everything else that’s going on in the world. It’s easy to be happy, if you can just the ignore the suffering of your neighbor; a small scope easily gets very self-centered. (Of course, a large scope can be centered on the self as well; it’s just that it’s big enough to also contain other beings, regardless of who happens to be in the center.)

Even if you widen your scope to contain family and friends, that scope will only contain a small fraction of everybody who exists. You don’t necessarily want to only think about what happens to those you personally have reason to care about, if it means neglecting the well-being of everyone else.

Of course, it also makes no sense to burden yourself with things that you realistically can’t affect. Better to exclude those from your scope.

Except… how certain are you of not being able to affect them? The only thing that guarantees that you can’t knowingly affect somebody, is if you make the decision to never think about them. If you do keep them in your scope, even only occasionally, then you might come up with something that lets you help them after all.

So the right thing is not to stick with a certain scope, but to learn to adjust the scope if needed. Draw it closer when you are feeling overwhelmed, or when you are at risk of neglecting yourself or your loved ones; broaden it out when you have the resources to deal with the larger scope, and its demands. When you are operating in a larger scope, see if you can find ways to visualize your impact in a way that makes your current actions feel more integrated to the whole context, so as to experience their meaningfulness.

It’s easier said than done.

Exercise: see if you can consciously manipulate the scope of your experience. Try pulling it close, both spatially and temporally: focus only on your immediate surroundings and let your attention be drawn to things that you could be doing right away. Then try gradually expanding the scope, maybe all the way up to the level of galaxies and multiverses and millions of years, but also stopping at more intermediate points: e.g. your own life in a few years, or your country or your planet in the same time. How do those changes make a difference to what you feel, and what you feel like doing?

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Nobody does the thing that they are supposedly doing http://kajsotala.fi/2017/09/nobody-does-the-thing-that-they-are-supposedly-doing/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/09/nobody-does-the-thing-that-they-are-supposedly-doing/#comments Sat, 23 Sep 2017 10:32:37 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1437 I feel like one of the most important lessons I’ve had about How the World Works, which has taken quite a bit of time to sink in, is:

In general, neither organizations nor individual people do the thing that their supposed role says they should do. Rather they tend to do the things that align with their incentives (which may sometimes be economic, but even more often they are social and psychological). If you want to really change things, you have to change people’s incentives.

But I feel like I’ve had to gradually piece this together from a variety of places, over a long time; I’ve never read anything that would have laid down the whole picture. I remember that Freakonomics had a few chapters about how incentives cause unexpected behavior, but that was mostly about economic incentives, which are just a small part of the whole picture. And it didn’t really focus on the “nothing in the world works the way you’d naively expect” thing; as I recall, it was presented more as a curiosity.

On the other hand, Robin Hanson has had a lot of stuff about “X is not about Y“, but that has mostly been framed in terms of prestige and signaling, which is the kind of stuff that’s certainly an important part of the whole picture (the psychological kind of incentives), but again just a part of the picture. (However, his upcoming book goes into a lot more detail on why and how the publicly-stated motives for human or organizational behavior aren’t actually the true motives.)

And then in social/evolutionary/moral psychology there’s a bunch of stuff about social-psychological incentives, of how we’re motivated to denounce outgroups and form bonds with our ingroups; and how it can be socially costly to have accurate beliefs about outgroups and defend them to your ingroup, whereas it would be much more rewarding to just spread inaccuracies or outright lies about how terrible the outgroups are, and thus increase your own social standing. And how even well-meaning ideologies will by default get hijacked by these kinds of dynamics and become something quite different from what they claimed to be.

But again, that’s just one piece of the whole story. And you can find more isolated pieces of the whole story scattered around in a variety of articles and books, also stuff like the iron law of oligarchy, rational irrationality, public choice theory, etc etc. But no grand synthesis.

There’s also a relevant strand of this in the psychology of motivation/procrastination/habit-formation, on why people keep putting off various things that they claim they want to do, but then don’t. And how small things can reshape people’s behavior, like if somebody ends up as a much more healthy eater just because they don’t happen to have a fast food restaurant conveniently near their route home from work. Which isn’t necessarily so much about incentives themselves, but an important building block in understanding why our behavior tends to be so strongly shaped by things that are entirely separate from consciously-set goals.

Additionally, the things that do drive human behavior are often things like maintaining a self-concept, seeking feelings of connection, autonomy and competence, maintaining status, enforcing various moral intuitions, etc., things that only loosely align one’s behavior with one’s stated goals. Often people may not even realize what exactly it is that they are trying to achieve with their behavior.

“Experiental pica” is a misdirected craving for something that doesn’t actually fulfill the need behind the craving. The term originally comes from a condition where people with a mineral deficiency start eating things like ice, which don’t actually help with the deficiency. Recently I’ve been shifting towards the perspective that, to a first approximation, roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire, with that deeper desire being something like social connection, feeling safe and accepted, or having a feeling of autonomy or competence. That is, most of the things that people will give as reasons for why they are doing something will actually miss the mark, and also that many people are engaging in things that are actually relatively inefficient ways of achieving their true desires, such as pursuing career success when the real goal is social connection. (This doesn’t mean that the underlying desire would never be fulfilled, just that it gets fulfilled less often than it would if people were aware of their true desires.)

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To save the world, make sure to go beyond academia http://kajsotala.fi/2017/09/to-save-the-world-make-sure-to-go-beyond-academia/ http://kajsotala.fi/2017/09/to-save-the-world-make-sure-to-go-beyond-academia/#comments Fri, 08 Sep 2017 15:50:20 +0000 http://kajsotala.fi/?p=1431 There were several interesting talks at the GoCAS workshop on existential risk to humanity. The one that was maybe the most thought-provoking was the last one (video here), by Seth Baum, who discussed the difficulty of translating the results of academic research into something that actually does save the world.

He gave two examples. First, climate change: apparently in the economics literature, there has been an extended debate about the optimal level of a carbon tax; however, in the US, all of this debate and finding exactly the optimal level is kind of irrelevant, given that there is no carbon tax and there is considerable opposition to creating one. So the practical work that needs to be done, has been various organizations that are working to get support for politicians that care about climate change. Also valuable are some seemingly unrelated efforts like work to stop gerrymandering, because it turns out that if you didn’t have gerrymandering, it would be easier to elect politicians who are willing to implement things like a carbon tax.

His other example was nuclear disarmament. Academia has produced various models of nuclear winter and of how that might be an x-risk; however, in practice this isn’t very relevant, because the people who are in charge of nuclear weapons already know that nuclear war would be terribly bad. For them, the possibility of nuclear winter might make things slightly worse, but the possibility of nuclear war is already so bad that such smaller differences are irrelevant. This is a problem, because nuclear disarmament and reducing the size of the nuclear stockpile could help avert nuclear winter, but the decision-makers are thinking that nuclear war is so bad that we must be sure to prevent it, and one of the ways to prevent it is to have a sufficiently large nuclear arsenal to serve as a deterrent.

His suggestion was that the thing that would actually help in disarmament, would be to make various countries – particularly Russia – feel geopolitically more secure. The US basically doesn’t need a nuclear arsenal for anything else than deterring a nuclear strike by another power; for any other purpose, their conventional military is already strong enough to prevent any attacks. But Russia is a different case: they have a smaller military, smaller population, smaller economy, and they border several countries that they don’t have good relations with. For them, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is an actual guarantee for them not getting invaded. Similarly for Pakistan, maybe Israel. The key for actually getting these countries disarm would be to change their conditions so that they would feel safe in doing so.

He emphasized that he wasn’t saying that academic research was useless, just that the academic research should be focused and it should be used in a way that actually helps achieve change. I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of my x-risk/s-risk research for a while, so this was very thought-provoking, though I don’t yet know what actual updates I should do as a result of the talk.

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