In 1986, Drexler predicted (in Engines of Creation) that we’d have molecular assemblers in 30 years. They would roughly act as fast, atomically precise 3-d printers. That was the standard meaning of nanotech for the next decade, until more mainstream authorities co-opted the term.

What went wrong with that forecast?

In my review of Where Is My Flying Car? I wrote:

Josh describes the mainstream reaction to nanotech fairly well, but that’s not the whole story. Why didn’t the military fund nanotech? Nanotech would likely exist today if we had credible fears of Al Qaeda researching it in 2001.

I recently changed my mind about that last sentence, partly because of what I recently read about the Manhattan Project, and partly due to the world’s response to COVID.

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Book review: Now It Can Be Told: The Story Of The Manhattan Project, by Leslie R. Groves.

This is the story of a desperate arms race, against what turned out to be a mostly imaginary opponent. I read it for a perspective on how future arms races and large projects might work.

What Surprised Me

It seemed strange that a large fraction of the book described how to produce purified U-235 and plutonium, and that the process of turning those fuels into bombs seemed anticlimactic.

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Approximately a book review: Eric Drexler’s QNR paper.

[Epistemic status: very much pushing the limits of my understanding. I’ve likely made several times as many mistakes as in my average blog post. I want to devote more time to understanding these topics, but it’s taken me months to produce this much, and if I delayed this in hopes of producing something better, who knows when I’d be ready.]

This nearly-a-book elaborates on his CAIS paper (mainly chapters 37 through 39), describing a path for AI capability research enables the CAIS approach to remain competitive as capabilities exceed human levels.

AI research has been split between symbolic and connectionist camps for as long as I can remember. Drexler says it’s time to combine those approaches to produce systems which are more powerful than either approach can be by itself.

He suggests a general framework for how to usefully combine neural networks and symbolic AI. It’s built around structures that combine natural language words with neural representations of what those words mean.

Drexler wrote this mainly for AI researchers. I will attempt to explain it to a slightly broader audience.

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This post is mostly a response to the Foresight Institute’s book Gaming the Future, which is very optimistic about AI’s being cooperative. They expect that creating a variety of different AI’s will enable us to replicate the checks and balances that the US constitution created.

I’m also responding in part to Eliezer’s AGI lethalities, points 34 and 35, which say that we can’t survive the creation of powerful AGI’s simply by ensuring the existence of many co-equal AGI’s with different goals. One of his concerns is that those AGI’s will cooperate with each other enough to function as a unitary AGI. Interactions between AGI’s might fit the ideal of voluntary cooperation with checks and balances, yet when interacting with humans those AGI’s might function as an unchecked government that has little need for humans.

I expect reality to be somewhere in between those two extremes. I can’t tell which of those views is closer to reality. This is a fairly scary uncertainty.

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[Epistemic status: mostly writing to clarify my intuitions, with just a few weak attempts to convince others. It’s no substitute for reading Drexler’s writings.]

I’ve been struggling to write more posts relating to Drexler’s vision for AI (hopefully to be published soon), and in the process got increasingly bothered by the issue of whether AI researchers will see incentives to give AI’s broad goals that turn them into agents.

Drexler’s CAIS paper convinced me that our current trajectory is somewhat close to a scenario where human-level AI’s that are tool-like services are available well before AGI’s with broader goals.

Yet when I read LessWrong, I sympathize with beliefs that developers will want quite agenty AGI’s around the same time that CAIS-like services reach human levels.

I’m fed up with this epistemic learned helplessness, and this post is my attempt to reconcile those competing intuitions.

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Problem

The US, and to a lesser extent much of the developed world, has concentrated interest groups (e.g. big pharma), which have incentives to increase medical spending. The main check on pro-expense interest groups used to be patients’ desire to spend less of their money. We’ve carefully eliminated that incentive for most patients. That leaves us with a situation in which spending increases to absorb much of the increase in disposable income.

I originally started writing this post in reaction to Aduhelm’s conspicuously bloated price. But it now seems that the system has enough sanity to avoid major waste there.

I’m also interested in the situation with statins. There’s reasonably good evidence that they saves the lives of a small fraction of people who take statins, but also some reason to doubt that cholesterol best describes what problem they fix (I don’t have a good link for these doubts. Here are some mediocre ones: 1, 2, 3).

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The Amish

Book review: The Amish, by Donald B. Kraybill.

It feels appropriate to review this book right after The Dawn of Everything (TDOE). There are strange contrasts between the cultural views of the two books.

TDOE clearly exaggerated the extent to which European civilization disapproved of freedom and equality, yet Amish culture shows an important kernel of truth behind that exaggeration.

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Book review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

This book is about narratives of human progress. I.e. the natural progression from egalitarian bands of maybe 20 people, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states, with increasing inequality and domination by centralized bureaucracy. That progress is usually presumed to be driven by changes in occupations from foragers, to gardeners, to farmers, to industry.

Western intellectuals focus on debates between two narratives: Hobbesians, who see this mostly as advances from a nasty state of nature, and those following in Rousseau’s footsteps, who imagine early human societies as somewhat closer to a Garden of Eden. Both narratives suggest that farming societies were miserable places that were either small advances or unavoidable tragedies, depending on what you think they replaced.

Graeber and Wengrow dispute multiple aspects of these narratives. The book isn’t quite organized enough for me to boil their message down to a single sentence. But I’ll focus on what I consider to be the most valuable thread: we should be uncertain about whether humanity made (is making?) a big mistake by accepting oppression as an inevitable price of material wealth.

The Dawn of Everything asks us to imagine that humans could build (and may have been building) sophisticated civilizations without domination by powerful states, and maybe without depending on farming.

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