Book review: The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values, by Brian Christian.

I was initially skeptical of Christian’s focus on problems with AI as it exists today. Most writers with this focus miss the scale of catastrophe that could result from AIs that are smart enough to subjugate us.

Christian mostly writes about problems that are visible in existing AIs. Yet he organizes his discussion of near-term risks in ways that don’t pander to near-sighted concerns, and which nudge readers in the direction of wondering whether today’s mistakes represent the tip of an iceberg.

Most of the book carefully avoids alarmist or emotional tones. It’s hard to tell whether he has an opinion on how serious a threat unaligned AI will be – presumably it’s serious enough to write a book about?

Could the threat be more serious than that implies? Christian notes, without indicating his own opinion, that some people think so:

A growing chorus within the AI community … believes, if we are not sufficiently careful, the this is literally how the world will end. And – for today at least – the humans have lost the game.

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Mainstream medicine has become increasingly standardized over the past few decades.

Standardization has some benefits: reduced inequality, improved procedures for minimizing mistakes, and increased predictability. Those attributes are often easier to verify than health effects.

Standardization is not so great for promoting innovation (standardizing a few building blocks may promote innovation, but that’s not what medicine has done). Yet medicine is an area where we have a relatively high need for more innovation.

It would be nice if one system of medicine provided everything that I want from medicine. Just like it would be nice if one company could provide all my transportation needs, or every type of food that I want, or an operating system with all the software that I want to use.

Alas, none of those seem close to being feasible this decade. Yet I get the impression that many more people expect it of medicine than is the case for food or transportation.

I’ve reached an age when it’s valuable to ask a good deal from medicine. So in addition to a standard doctor, I’ve engaged with a competing “brand” of medicine.

Specifically, the functional medicine practitioners at Chris Kresser’s Adapt180.

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Book review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett.

It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one’s understanding of other cultures.

The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.

Here are a few of the insights I got from the book, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten from visiting Asia frequently:

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TL;DR: loss of topsoil is a problem, but not a crisis. I’m unsure whether fixing it qualifies as a great opportunity for mitigating global warming.

This post will loosely resemble a review of the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery. If you want a real review, see Colby Moorberg’s review on Goodreads.

Depletion of topsoil has been an important cause of the collapse of large civilizations. Farmers are often tempted to maximize this year’s production, at the cost of declining crop yields. When declining yields leave an empire unable to feed everyone, farmers are unwilling to adopt techniques that restore the topsoil, because doing so will temporarily decrease production further. The Mayan civilization seems to have experienced three cycles of soil-driven boom and bust lasting around 1000 years per cycle.

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Book review: The End of Alzheimer’s Program, by Dale Bredesen.

This sequel to The End of Alzheimer’s is an attempt at a complete guide to a healthy lifestyle.

Alas, science is still too primitive to enable an impressive version of that. So what we end up with is this guide that would overwhelm anyone who tries to follow it thoroughly, while still lacking the kind of evidence that would convince a skeptic.

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Last month, I conceded defeat in my bet (with Robin Hanson) that US COVID-19 deaths would be less than 250,000.

My biggest mistake was thinking voters would care about results, and unite against a common enemy as they did in WWII. I should have been more aware of the tendency to treat natural deaths as more acceptable than deaths due to a hostile agent. Robin clearly did better at evaluating this.

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I said in my review of WEIRDest People that the Flynn effect seems like a natural consequence of thinking styles that became more analytical, abstract, reductionist, and numerical.

I’ll expand here on some questions which I swept under the rug, so that I could keep that review focused on the book’s most important aspects.

Cultural Bias

After reading WEIRDest People, I find that the goal of a culture-neutral IQ test looks strange (and, of course, WEIRD). At least as strange as trying to fix basketball to stop favoring tall people.

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Book review: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich.

Wow!

Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author’s future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich’s grand overview of humanity’s first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn’t quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books.

The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic.

However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book’s focus and value.

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