Book review: How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion by Daniel H. Wilson
This book combines good analyses of recent robotics research with an understanding of movie scenarios about robot intentions (“how could millions of dollars of special effects lead us astray?”) to produce advice of unknown value about how humans might deal with any malicious robots of the next decade or two.
It focuses mainly on what an ordinary individual or small groups can do to save themselves or postpone their demise, and says little about whether a major uprising can be prevented.
The book’s style is somewhat like the Daily Show’s style, mixing a good deal of accurate reporting with occasional bits of obvious satire (“Robots have no emotions. Sensing your fear could make a robot jealous”), but it doesn’t quite attain the Daily Show’s entertainment value.
Its analyses of the weaknesses of current robot sensors and intelligence should make it required reading for any science fiction author or movie producer who wants to appear realistic (I haven’t been paying enough attention to those fields recently to know whether such people still exist). But it needs a bit of common sense to be used properly. It’s all too easy to imagine a gullible movie producer following its advice to have humans build a time machine and escape to the Cretaceous without pondering whether the robots will use similar time machines to follow them.
Book review: How Is Quantum Field Theory Possible? by Sunny Y. Auyang
This book contains some good ideas, but large parts of it are too hard for me to get anything out of, both due to an assumption that the reader knows a good deal about quantum mechanics and due to a style which probably requires rereading most parts multiple times in order to decipher even those parts which don’t require an understanding of quantum mechanics.
I was impressed by her explanation of how we should understand the uncertainty of position and momentum measurements. She says the quantum entities have genuine deterministic properties, but we shouldn’t try to think of position and momentum as properties of any persistent entities. They are properties associated with specific measurements. The properties of persistent entities such as atoms are mostly stranger than what we can measure, and measurements only give us indirect evidence of those properties.
Her descriptions of coordinate systems used in quantum physics seem inconsistent with the impressions I got from Smolin’s Trouble with Physics. Smolin implies (but doesn’t clearly state) that quantum theory retains Newtonian background dependent coordinates. Auyang’s descriptions of quantum coordinate systems seem very different. It’s clear that I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s needed to understand these issues.
Book review: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier
This very eloquent and mostly thoughtful book about the world’s poorest countries will offend ideologues of all stripes. Collier’s four different explanations for poverty traps (war, presence of natural resources, bad neighbors blocking trade routes, and corruption) clearly place him as a fox rather than a hedgehog without being complex enough that they can rationalize any result (although they can probably rationalize more results than an ideal set of explanations would). He blames both villains in poor countries and thoughtless voters in wealthy countries.
Collier sees that globalization has benefited most nations, but provides plausible mechanisms by which globalization can harm some (e.g. through enabling capital flight).
Collier mostly thinks like a good economist, but his prior work for the World Bank biases him to be overly optimistic about improving such institutions. He recognizes the incentives that cause bureaucrats to be too risk averse, but then makes a cryptic claim that the British government understands the problem and is spending money to fix it. He vaguely implies that this is a venture capital-like fund, but fails to say whether they replicated the key venture capital feature of providing unusually large rewards to employees who produce unusually good results. His silence on this subject leads me to suspect that he’s asking us to blindly trust institutions that have a long track record of avoiding results-oriented incentives.
He also shows misplaced faith in authority when he tries to calculate the value to the world of rescuing a failed state by using George Bush’s calculation that the benefits of installing a good government in Iraq exceeded the expected $100 billion cost. That might be a good argument if Bush had been spending his own money to help Iraq, but his willingness to spend other peoples’ money doesn’t say much.
Collier says it is “surely irresponsible” to leave Somalia with no government. Yet most evidence I’ve seen says Somalia improved by most standard criteria such as life expectancy when it had no government. I don’t know how reliable that evidence is, but Collier’s apparent assumption that we don’t need to look at the evidence makes his opinion suspect.
The book’s biggest shortcoming is the absence of anything resembling footnotes. Collier implies this is too make the book more readable, but he could have put a section of notes at the end referencing individual pages without altering the main text in any way. Instead he only gives a fairly large list of papers he’s written. But I can’t tell without tracking down and reading a large fraction of them which of them if any support his controversial claims (e.g. that giving money to the poorest countries helps them a bit but that doubling it would reach a limit beyond which further money would be wasted).
But his advice is good enough that its value doesn’t depend much on those controversial claims being right. Following his advice to condition aid on results (e.g. sending money to countries when they stop wars, cutting it off if they have a coup or resume war) would provide incentives that would make aid beneficial.
I had previously suspected that large countries have tended to escape poverty more easily in the past few decades because “aid” organizations had enough money to prop up small corrupt governments but not enough to affect a government such as India’s. Collier presents a good alternative theory: being a large country pretty much guarantees access to the sea, and by increasing the number of neighbors, increases the chance of having a neighbor which is open to trade.
Another good tidbit is this point on Fair Trade: farmers “get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty.”
One way to find evidence concerning whether a politicized theory is being exaggerated or being stated overconfidently is to look at how experts from a very different worldview thought about the theory. I had been under the impression that theories about global warming were recent enough that it was hard to find people who studied it without being subject to biases connected with recent fads in environmental politics.
I now see that Arrhenius predicted in 1896 that human activity would cause global warming, and estimated a sensitivity of world temperature to CO2 levels that differ from current estimates by about a factor of 2. The uncertainty in current estimates is large enough that they disagree with Arrhenius by a surprisingly small amount. This increases my confidence in that part of global warming theory.
Arrhenius disagreed with modern theorists about how fast CO2 level would rise (he thought it would take 3000 years to rise 50% or to double, depending on whether you believe Nature or Wikipedia), and about whether warming is good. That slightly weakens my confidence in forecasts of CO2 levels and of harm from warming (although as a Swede Arrhenius might have overweighted the benefits of warming in arctic regions).