Miscellaneous

Book review: The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, by Robin Hanson.

This book analyzes a possible future era when software emulations of humans (ems) dominate the world economy. It is too conservative to tackle longer-term prospects for eras when more unusual intelligent beings may dominate the world.

Hanson repeatedly tackles questions that scare away mainstream academics, and gives relatively ordinary answers (guided as much as possible by relatively standard, but often obscure, parts of the academic literature).

Assumptions

Hanson’s scenario relies on a few moderately controversial assumptions. The assumptions which I find most uncertain are related to human-level intelligence being hard to understand (because it requires complex systems), enough so that ems will experience many subjective centuries before artificial intelligence is built from scratch. For similar reasons, ems are opaque enough that it will be quite a while before they can be re-engineered to be dramatically different.

Hanson is willing to allow that ems can be tweaked somewhat quickly to produce moderate enhancements (at most doubling IQ) before reaching diminishing returns. He gives somewhat plausible reasons for believing this will only have small effects on his analysis. But few skeptics will be convinced.

Some will focus on potential trillions of dollars worth of benefits that higher IQs might produce, but that wealth would not much change Hanson’s analysis.

Others will prefer an inside view analysis which focuses on the chance that higher IQs will better enable us to handle risks of superintelligent software. Hanson’s analysis implies we should treat that as an unlikely scenario, but doesn’t say what we should do about modest probabilities of huge risks.

Another way that Hanson’s assumptions could be partly wrong is if tweaking the intelligence of emulated Bonobos produces super-human entities. That seems to only require small changes to his assumptions about how tweakable human-like brains are. But such a scenario is likely harder to analyze than Hanson’s scenario, and it probably makes more sense to understand Hanson’s scenario first.

Wealth

Wages in this scenario are somewhat close to subsistence levels. Ems have some ability to restrain wage competition, but less than they want. Does that mean wages are 50% above subsistence levels, or 1%? Hanson hints at the former. The difference feels important to me. I’m concerned that sound-bite versions of book will obscure the difference.

Hanson claims that “wealth per em will fall greatly”. It would be possible to construct a measure by which ems are less wealthy than humans are today. But I expect it will be at least as plausible to use a measure under which ems are rich compared to humans of today, but have high living expenses. I don’t believe there’s any objective unit of value that will falsify one of those perspectives [1].

Style / Organization

The style is more like a reference book than a story or an attempt to persuade us of one big conclusion. Most chapters (except for a few at the start and end) can be read in any order. If the section on physics causes you to doubt whether the book matters, skip to chapter 12 (labor), and return to the physics section later.

The style is very concise. Hanson rarely repeats a point, so understanding him requires more careful attention than with most authors.

It’s odd that the future of democracy gets less than twice as much space as the future of swearing. I’d have preferred that Hanson cut out a few of his less important predictions, to make room for occasional restatements of important ideas.

Many little-known results that are mentioned in the book are relevant to the present, such as: how the pitch of our voice affects how people perceive us, how vacations affect productivity, and how bacteria can affect fluid viscosity.

I was often tempted to say that Hanson sounds overconfident, but he is clearly better than most authors at admitting appropriate degrees of uncertainty. If he devoted much more space to caveats, I’d probably get annoyed at the repetition. So it’s hard to say whether he could have done any better.

Conclusion

Even if we should expect a much less than 50% chance of Hanson’s scenario becoming real, it seems quite valuable to think about how comfortable we should be with it and how we could improve on it.

Footnote

[1] – The difference matters only in one paragraph, where Hanson discusses whether ems deserve charity more than do humans living today. Hanson sounds like he’s claiming ems deserve our charity because they’re poor. Most ems in this scenario are comfortable enough for this to seem wrong.

Hanson might also be hinting that our charity would be effective at increasing the number of happy ems, and that basic utilitarianism says that’s preferable to what we can do by donating to today’s poor. That argument deserves more respect and more detailed analysis.

Connectomes are not sufficient by themselves to model brain behavior. Brain modeling has been limited more by the need for good information about the dynamic behavior of individual neurons.

The paper Whole-brain calcium imaging with cellular resolution in freely behaving Caenorhabditis elegans looks like an important step toward overcoming this limitation. The authors observed the behavior of many individual neurons in a moving nematode.

They still can’t reliably map the neurons they observed to standard C. elegans neuron names:

The neural position validation experiments presented here, however, have led us to conclude that worm-to-worm variability in neuronal position in the head is large enough to pose a formidable challenge for neuron identification.

But there are enough hints about which neurons do what that I’m confident this problem can be solved if enough effort is devoted to it.

My biggest uncertainty concerns applying this approach to mammalian brains. Mammalian brains aren’t transparent enough to be imaged this way. Are C. elegans neurons similar enough that we can just apply the same models to both? I suspect not.

I recently got Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones.

I had previously tried passive earplugs and headphones that claimed 30 dB noise reduction, and got little value out of them.

The noise cancelling headphones suppress a good deal more train (BART) noise, enough that I’m now able to read nonfiction while on the train.

It won’t help with the situations where noise bothers me most (multiple conversations nearby) because it mainly eliminates predictable noises. It makes speech sound more distant without affecting the speech volume a lot. But reducing the cost of train and plane travel is valuable enough that I feel foolish about not having tried them earlier.

I tried O2Amp glasses to correct for my colorblindness. They’re very effective at enabling me to notice some shades of red that I’ve found hard to see. In particular, two species of wildflowers (Indian Paintbrush and Cardinal Larkspur) look bright orange through the glasses, whereas without the glasses my vision usually fills in their color by guessing it’s similar to the surrounding colors unless I look very close.

But this comes at the cost of having green look much duller. The net effect causes vegetation to be less scenic.

The glasses are supposed to have some benefits for observing emotions via better recognition of blood concentration and oxygenation near the skin. But this effect seems too small to help me.

O2Amp is a small step toward enhanced sensory processing that is likely to become valuable someday, but for now it seems mainly valuable for a few special medical uses.

Just after my last post about Kratom, I noticed changes in my reaction to Kratom. I experienced hangover-like withdrawal symptoms. I cut back my typical dose to 1/4 teaspoon, occasionally 1/2 teaspoon. I still feel most of the benefits at those doses that I originally felt with 1 teaspoon. Plus the effects seem to last all day now. I’ve sometimes felt the stimulant effect last until I go to bed, but it doesn’t seem to have interfered with my sleep. I intend to continue taking it once or twice a week, but only when I have nothing important to do the next day.

Kratom

I’ve been experimenting with an herb known as Kratom for the past few months. I’ve been using about a teaspoon of getkratom.com‘s Bali Kratom. It produces as stimulant effect lasting 6 to 8 hours. I feel more alert, positive, and ambitious while on it. I’m probably less able to focus on one task but better at switching tasks.

It has been reported to be addictive, but I haven’t felt that it’s any more addictive than chocolate. One important caveat is that if I use it two days in a row, the effects are dramatically reduced on the second day. That’s probably what leads to addiction – people are tempted to use it every day, which creates a temptation to use much larger quantities. I’ve been restricting my use to once or twice a week, and I’ll try not to increase that frequency.

Some of the ideas in the 10,000 Year Explosion have got me wondering whether the spread of the Ashkenazi culture played an important role in starting the industrial revolution.

The Ashkenazi developed a unique culture that was isolated for many centuries from the mainstream. Then around 1800, western Europe allowed Jews to interact much more with the rest of society (The 10,000 Year Explosion suggests that it started in 1791 in France).

At about the same time, the same region experienced a sudden shift in values that increased the status of merchants, which is what you’d expect if Ashkenazi culture that had previously been shunned became partially accepted. Those values may have contributed significantly to the industrial revolution.

The 10,000 Year Explosion explains why the Ashkenazi had some unique values that were somewhat unlikely to have been duplicated elsewhere, which would help explain why the industrial revolution didn’t start somewhere other than northern Europe.

This isn’t a complete explanation of the industrial revolution – for one thing, it doesn’t explain why England developed faster than France.

A completely unrelated idea of how agricultural diversity helped British farming productivity around the same time: Agricultural biodiversity crucial to the agricultural “revolution”.

Most experts were surprised at the news that human DNA seems to contain less than 25000 genes.
Since then signs have emerged that the rest of the DNA (often called junk DNA is quite active, with about 80% of the DNA being transcribed into RNA even though only 1-2% constitutes protein-coding genes.
There’s a lot of mystery about what, if anything, most of that RNA does, but it’s not all junk. One such RNA molecule, HOTAIR, appears to control expression of some genes. RNA has an ability to fold into shapes that may rival proteins in their diversity, so there’s no good reason to think that creating proteins comes close to describing the set of functions that RNA performs.

Book review: Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams by Paul Martin.
This book makes convincing claims that most people give too little thought to an activity that occupies a large fraction of our life.
It has lots of little pieces of information which can be read as independent essays. Here are some claims I found interesting:

  • “sleepiness is responsible for far more deaths on the roads than alcohol or drugs”.
  • Tired people rate their abilities higher than people who slept well do.
  • Poor sleep contributes to poor health a good deal more than medical diagnoses suggest, but hospitals are designed in ways that hinder patients’ sleep.
  • Idle time was apparently a status symbol up to a century ago, now being busy is a status symbol. This should have economic implications that someone ought to explore in depth.
  • People in a vegetative state have REM sleep. This sounds like cause to re-evaluate the label we apply to that state.

While the book has many references, it doesn’t connect specific claims to references, and I’m sometimes left wondering why I should believe a claim. How can boredom be a modern concept? When he says “no person has ever gone completely without sleep for more than a few days”, how does he know he can dismiss people who claim to have not slept for years?

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.