On insecurity as a friend

There’s a common narrative about confidence that says that confidence is good, insecurity is bad. It’s better to develop your confidence than to be insecure. There’s an obvious truth to this.

But what that narrative does not acknowledge, and what both a person struggling with insecurity and their well-meaning friends might miss, is that that insecurity may be in place for a reason.

You might not notice it online, but I’ve usually been pretty timid and insecure in real life. But this wasn’t always the case. There were occasions earlier in my life when I was less insecure, more confident in myself.

I was also pretty horrible at things like reading social nuance and figuring out when and why someone might be offended. So I was given, repeatedly, the feedback that my behavior was bad and inappropriate.

Eventually a part of me internalized that as “I’m very likely to accidentally offend the people around me, so I should be very cautious about what I say, ideally saying nothing at all”.

This was, I think, the correct lesson to internalize at that point! It shifted me more into an observer mode, allowing me to just watch social situations and learn more about their dynamics that way. I still don’t think that I’m great at reading social nuance, but I’m at least better at it than I used to be.

And there have been times since then when I’ve decided that I should act with more confidence, and just get rid of the part that generates the insecurity. I’ve been about to do something, felt a sense of insecurity, and walked over the feeling and done the thing anyway.

Sometimes this has had good results. But often it has also led to things blowing up in my face, with me inadvertently hurting someone and leaving me feeling guilty for months afterwards.

Turns out, that feeling of insecurity wasn’t a purely bad thing. It was throwing up important alarms which I chose to ignore, alarms which were sounding because it recognized my behavior as matching previous behavior which had had poor consequences.

Yes, on many occasions that part of me makes me way too cautious. And it would be good to moderate that caution a little. But the same part which generates the feelings of insecurity is the same part which is constantly working to model other people and their experience, their reactions to me. The part that is doing its hardest to make other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this.

Just carving out that part would be a mistake. A moral wrong, even.

The answer is not to get rid of it. The answer is to integrate its cautions better, to keep it with me as a trusted friend and ally – one which feels safe enough about getting its warnings listened to, that it will not scream all the time just to be heard.

New paper: Long-Term Trajectories of Human Civilization

Long-Term Trajectories of Human Civilization (free PDF). Foresight, forthcoming, DOI 10.1108/FS-04-2018-0037.

Authors: Seth D. Baum, Stuart Armstrong, Timoteus Ekenstedt, Olle Häggström, Robin Hanson, Karin Kuhlemann, Matthijs M. Maas, James D. Miller, Markus Salmela, Anders Sandberg, Kaj Sotala, Phil Torres, Alexey Turchin, and Roman V. Yampolskiy.

Abstract
Purpose: This paper formalizes long-term trajectories of human civilization as a scientific and ethical field of study. The long-term trajectory of human civilization can be defined as the path that human civilization takes during the entire future time period in which human civilization could continue to exist.
Approach: We focus on four types of trajectories: status quo trajectories, in which human civilization persists in a state broadly similar to its current state into the distant future; catastrophe trajectories, in which one or more events cause significant harm to human civilization; technological transformation trajectories, in which radical technological breakthroughs put human civilization on a fundamentally different course; and astronomical trajectories, in which human civilization expands beyond its home planet and into the accessible portions of the cosmos.
Findings: Status quo trajectories appear unlikely to persist into the distant future, especially in light of long-term astronomical processes. Several catastrophe, technological transformation, and astronomical trajectories appear possible.
Value: Some current actions may be able to affect the long-term trajectory. Whether these actions should be pursued depends on a mix of empirical and ethical factors. For some ethical frameworks, these actions may be especially important to pursue.

An excerpt from the press release over at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute:

Society today needs greater attention to the long-term fate of human civilization. Important present-day decisions can affect what happens millions, billions, or trillions of years into the future. The long-term effects may be the most important factor for present-day decisions and must be taken into account. An international group of 14 scholars calls for the dedicated study of “long-term trajectories of human civilization” in order to understand long-term outcomes and inform decision-making. This new approach is presented in the academic journal Foresight, where the scholars have made an initial evaluation of potential long-term trajectories and their present-day societal importance.

“Human civilization could end up going in radically different directions, for better or for worse. What we do today could affect the outcome. It is vital that we understand possible long-term trajectories and set policy accordingly. The stakes are quite literally astronomical,” says lead author Dr. Seth Baum, Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a non-profit think tank in the US.

The group of scholars including Olle Häggström, Robin Hanson, Karin Kuhlemann, Anders Sandberg, and Roman Yampolskiy have identified four types of long-term trajectories: status quo trajectories, in which civilization stays about the same, catastrophe trajectories, in which civilization collapses, technological transformation trajectories, in which radical technology fundamentally changes civilization, and astronomical trajectories, in which civilization expands beyond our home planet.

Available here: https://kajsotala.fi/assets/2018/08/trajectories.pdf

Finland Museum Tour 1/??: Tampere Art Museum

I haven’t really been to museums as an adult; not because I’d have been particularly Anti-Museum, but just because museums never happened to become a Thing That I Do. I vaguely recall having been to a few museums with my parents when I was little, an occasional Japan exhibition as a teen when Japan was a Thing, and a few visits to various museums with school. I think my overall recollection of those visits afterwards could be summarized as being around 5.5 on the BoardGameGeek rating scale grade of “5/10: Slightly boring, take it or leave it” and “6/10: Ok – will play if in the mood”. (The BGG rating scale is my favorite of the ones that I’ve seen, but I digress.)

So I’m not sure, but it’s at least possible that between becoming an adult and yesterday, I didn’t visit a single museum.

For the last year or so however, I’ve had a definite feeling of being stuck in a rut, life-wise. Up until summer last year, I used to have a lot of anxiety; I’m still not totally free of it, but I’ve reduced the amount of it enough that escaping from it is no longer my main driving motivation, the way that it used to be. Meaning that I’m more free to focus on things that I actually enjoy.

But once you have spent most of your adult life feeling a desperate need to escape from a constant level of background anxiety, anxiety which was preventing you from doing anything slow-paced as that would have been insufficient to drown out the suffering… then it’s hard to know *what* you really enjoy anymore. Because you haven’t really been looking for enjoyable things, you have been looking for things that would make the pain go away.

What I was left with, even after getting rid of most of the anxiety, was some level of anhedonia – a difficulty deriving any pleasure from something. And most of my old routines were built around doing things that were mainly palliatives for anxiety, rather than being particularly enjoyable.

Then one day, I happened to see a news article saying something about how the national Museum Card – a single card that you can buy for a year, that gives you free access to various museums around the country – had brought more visitors to museums. And it crossed my mind that visiting museums is a Thing That People Do, which I wasn’t doing, and that I probably hadn’t been able to properly appreciate museums as a kid.

Also, that it would be a fun adventure to go around the country and visit all the various museums that the card gives you access to (currently 278 of them). That kind of an adventure was also Something That People Did, but which hadn’t really been the Kind Of Thing That I Would Do.

So I happened to mention this idea in a conversation with my good friend Tiina, who then mentioned that she also had a museum card, and that company would be welcome. That wasn’t quite an agreement to visit *all* the museums in the country, but still good enough to get started!

Our first visit, today, was to Tampere Art Museum. I had no particular reason for picking this place in particular: me and Tiina would be traveling elsewhere later in the day, so I let her as a Tampere local choose a place from which we could easily get to the bus station afterwards. I also found the notion of starting out with an art museum intriguing. Some of the other museums in Tampere, such as the Espionage Museum, Game Museum or Lenin Museum had topics that were intrinsically interesting. But just a generic “art museum” was probably closest to my inner stereotype of the kind of a dull museum that I wasn’t really able to appreciate as a kid. This time, I was determined to have an open mind and enjoy my experience, whatever it might be.

And I did.

The museum had two exhibitions. The first, Tuomo Rosenlund and Mika Hannu’s “Paikan muisti” (“The Memory of Place”) consisted of black-and-white drawings of different places in the city of Tampere, together with poems and writing about the history of those places.

I feel like I have recently done a number of things to help me connect with more intuitive parts of my mind, ranging from various psychotherapy-style practices like Focusing, to shaman drumming and mild vision trances. Looking at the various drawings, the thought came to me to let my subconscious complete them. I asked it to do so and it obliged, and in my mind’s eye, the black-and-white drawings were flooded with color and texture and depth, and I could experience myself standing in the depicted places, imagining myself into locations that I had never seen before. Not as vividly as actually being there, but as strongly as in a particularly vivid memory.

That felt enjoyable, like a pleasant meditation exercise.

And then there was the exhibition by J.A. Juvani, a visual artist who – as I learned – is the national Young Artist of the Year.

The essence of his pieces, as I experienced them, was that of pure, raw, unashamed sexuality; lust and desire shaded in colors of queer and kink. Furthermore, it was an obviously personal essence; an expression of the artist’s own sexuality, an expression of intimacy that drew you in, erotic even to someone like me who doesn’t ordinarily think of himself as being physically attracted to men.

One of his displays was a looping video, on a large screen right in front of the stairs leading to the second floor, placed so that you couldn’t avoid seeing it when you came up. At the end of the very suggestive video, he would be staring you right in the eyes; and as I stared back, I felt my breathing growing deeper and faster, as if he was propositioning to me in the flesh right there, me finding him too appealing to say no to.

What probably got me was the rawness – this was not the nice, unreal kind of erotica where everything is pink and nobody’s position ever feels uncomfortable, but the kind of primal lust that felt real and totally uninterested in Photoshopping any aspect of the experience. It was much more interested in just having a good, visceral, _physical_ fuck right then and there.

And it brought up partially forgotten memories. Memories of a same kind of pure, two-sided lust between people, with a force that I realized I probably hadn’t experienced since my teen years, in that roller-coaster relationship with my first girlfriend that was all shades of dysfunctional but never lacking in intensity.

There was a book on Juvani’s work on sale; I skimmed it, and his descriptions of his life, the casual sex, the friend who had visited “for a tea and a blowjob” further brought back memories of those first teenage sex experiences, when everything was novel and exciting and innocent and powerful; before I had accumulated the sexual traumas and problems that sometimes make me almost averse over the thought of having sex, even with a willing and desirable partner.

And there was a sense of catharsis, feeling somehow more *pure* as a result; the same kind of feeling that I may get from writing something that I’ve managed to really immerse myself in, or from really intensive fiction. A feeling of having connected with deeper, more emotional parts of my mind, and becoming more whole as a result.

It was a good experience. I’m glad that I went.

Is the Star Trek Federation really incapable of building AI?

In the Star Trek universe, we are told that it’s really hard to make genuine artificial intelligence, and that Data is so special because he’s a rare example of someone having managed to create one.

But this doesn’t seem to be the best hypothesis for explaining the evidence that we’ve actually seen. Consider:

  • In the TOS episode “The Ultimate Computer“, the Federation has managed to build a computer intelligent enough to run the Enterprise by its own, but it goes crazy and Kirk has to talk it into self-destructing.
  • In TNG, we find out that before Data, Doctor Noonian Soong had built Lore, an android with sophisticated emotional processing. However, Lore became essentially evil and had no problems killing people for his own benefit. Data worked better, but in order to get his behavior right, Soong had to initially build him with no emotions at all. (TNG: “Datalore“, “Brothers“)
  • In the TNG episode “Evolution“, Wesley is doing a science project with nanotechnology, accidentally enabling the nanites to become a collective intelligence which almost takes over the ship before the crew manages to negotiate a peaceful solution with them.
  • The holodeck seems entirely capable of running generally intelligent characters, though their behavior is usually restricted to specific roles. However, on occasion they have started straying outside their normal parameters, to the point of attempting to take over the ship. (TNG: “Elementary, Dear Data“) It is also suggested that the computer is capable of running an indefinitely long simulation which is good enough to make an intelligent being believe in it being the real universe. (TNG: “Ship in a Bottle“)
  • The ship’s computer in most of the series seems like it’s potentially quite intelligent, but most of the intelligence isn’t used for anything else than running holographic characters.
  • In the TNG episode “Booby Trap“, a potential way of saving the Enterprise from the Disaster Of The Week would involve turning over control of the ship to the computer: however, the characters are inexplicably super-reluctant to do this.
  • In Voyager, the Emergency Medical Hologram clearly has general intelligence: however, it is only supposed to be used in emergency situations rather than running long-term, its memory starting to degrade after a sufficiently long time of continuous use. The recommended solution is to reset it, removing all of the accumulated memories since its first activation. (VOY: “The Swarm“)

There seems to be a pattern here: if an AI is built to carry out a relatively restricted role, then things work fine. However, once it is given broad autonomy and it gets to do open-ended learning, there’s a very high chance that it gets out of control. The Federation witnessed this for the first time with the Ultimate Computer. Since then, they have been ensuring that all of their AI systems are restricted to narrow tasks or that they’ll only run for a short time in an emergency, to avoid things getting out of hand. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that your AI having more intelligence is generally useful, so e.g. starship computers are equipped with powerful general intelligence capabilities, which sometimes do get out of hand.

Dr. Soong’s achievement with Data was not in building a general intelligence, but in building a general intelligence which didn’t go crazy. (And before Data, he failed at that task once, with Lore.)

The Federation’s issue with AI is not that they haven’t solved artificial general intelligence. The Federation’s issue is that they haven’t reliably solved the AI alignment problem.