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Problems of ontology

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

If there was a theme to my week in browsing the internet, it would be arguments over ontology warping people’s thinking. I think it’s a legitimate subject for discourse, I guess, but the more I see it lead people astray the less useful it seems. Somehow intelligent, thoughtful people seem to think crazy things when they start worrying about what is “really real”, especially regarding morality. This is not a new debate of course, but it was reignited by the publication of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, which argued that morals are “true” in some sense and could be determined scientifically. On the off-chance I haven’t posted this before, I was sympathetic to this argument before I discovered a PhD thesis from Joshua Greene entitled The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it. Here’s a link to all 250+ pages of it (worth reading at least some of it), but you might just want to read this shorter article. The basic idea is quite simple: morality is a property of minds, not the natural world, and therefore is not “true” in some universal way. That doesn’t mean you should go out and kill your neighbor or rob a bank, but even if it did, the facts about morality would be the same. There is the Truth about morality, and, separately, What to Do About it. That’s the most frustrating objection I’ve heard to moral anti-realism, so I thought I’d get it out of the way before continuing.

This weeks troubles started with a post on Cosmic Variance about another moral realist, and why he was wrong. Good on Sean for setting the record straight, but I was surprised to see the moral realist he was arguing with was none other than Richard Carrier, who so spectacularly and elegantly defined naturalism as “no ontologically basic mental entities”. Naturalism is perhaps a discussion for another post, but I think I may have brought it up before. If not, here’s the link. If he was advocating moral realism, perhaps I should at least consider his view. After reading his argument, I was surprised by the subtle missteps in reasoning he made. I suspect it is due mainly to Carrier’s desire to recover what he sees as “beneficial” aspects of Christian doctrine such as an absolute moral force, as well as goodness, kindness, and other things I really would call unmitigated goods.

Carrier manages to agree with me on almost every philosophical fact, and yet calls his view realism, whereas I call myself an anti-realist. Situations such as these suggest that at least one of us is failing to make our beliefs pay rent in anticipated experience. I think Carrier’s desire to find a naturalistic source for the good bits of Christianity gives him the motive, but luckily I don’t have to speculate on exactly where he went wrong, since he provides an explicit discussion of his reasoning in his post on moral ontology. He uses a number of examples in his post, but I think the first is sufficient to explain his logic:

Take, for instance, the scariness of an enraged bear: a bear is scary to a person (because of the horrible harm it can do) but not scary to Superman, even though it’s the very same bear, and thus none of its intrinsic properties have changed. Thus the bear’s scariness is relative, but still real. It is not a product of anyone’s opinions, it is not a cultural construct, but a physical fact about bears and people. Thus the scariness of an enraged bear is not a property of the bear alone but a property of the entire bear-person system.

Certainly you cannot observe bear-scariness under a microscope or pick it up with a radio antenna, but, he claims, it’s not solely a mental phenomenon. Therefore, assuming we aren’t superman, we ought to believe bears are scary. Given this definition of ought, its only a few (completely valid) philosophical jumps to oughts for values. Given that we have certain goals, goals like happiness and fulfillment that are common to almost all intelligent agents, there are certain instrumental values we ought to have, like the rule of law, free expression, etc. Thus, he concludes, as there are values grounded in real life that we should hold, regardless of any other rational belief, morality is real. I don’t deeply disagree with this, although I feel it’s slightly misleading based on what moral realists usually believe.

But, as I said, I think the real problem comes when you try to use these beliefs about morality to constrain your expectations of the world. Although this is absolutely essential to the pursuit of rationalism, I think Carrier can be forgiven for not including it in his article since he usefully covered so much philosophical ground. I will also save this for my next post, but in case you’re reading this before I’ve posted it, ask yourself this; if a highly intelligent (and therefore not irrationally amoral) alien/robot suddenly came to our planet, what “morals” would you expect it to have by Carrier’s definition, assuming you have no previous information about its beliefs and goals?

Categories: memeplex Tags: , ,

Is Computer Science a science?

November 13, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot of my idle thinking relates to computers, what exactly they are in the broadest meaningful sense, and how they relate to the intelligent processes in our brains. Although I’m heading generally toward becoming an economist at the moment, computer science is a hobby and possible secondary specialty of mine. So I read this article in Scientific American with interest. The first paragraph summarizes it pretty well:

What kind of discipline is computer science? I thought it was a science when I received my BS. I believed its subdiscipline software engineering was engineering when I received my PhD. I’d heard, and would continue to hear, “This isn’t any kind of science/engineering I know!” from physicists and electrical engineers. I tried for years to prove them wrong. But now I think they’re right.

Essentially the author thinks computer science belongs in the realm of philosophy, and is not very amenable to normal scientific inquiry. I’ve thought quite a bit about this sort of claim, but more in the context of economics. Although I haven’t quite formulated my argument for why economics is a science, I’m pretty sure of how I feel about the subject. While its calm tone may help (by avoiding my metacontrarian reflex), the Scientific American article was more thought-provoking than what I’m used to reading, and I’m less certain of my feelings on its conclusion.

The core of the argument is computer scientists’ inability to formulate predictive hypotheses about the world, and the notion that computers somehow inhabit an abstract “virtual” reality divorced from our own. While it’s hard for me to really grasp the concepts involved here, I think both claims are most likely false. The first makes me think of the way Stephen Wolfram approaches the idea of computation in his February 2010  TED talk. He was also quoted saying something similar in the July 2008 edition of Philosophy of Computing and Information:

4. What do you consider the most neglected topics and/or contributions in late 20th century studies of computation and/or information?

Computer and information science have tended to define themselves in a rather engineering-based way–concentrating on creating and studying systems that perform particular specified tasks.

But there’s a whole different approach that’s much closer to natural science: to just investigate the computational universe of possible programs, and see what’s out there.

One might have thought that most programs that one would encounter this way would not do anything very interesting. But the discovery that launched what I’ve done for the past quarter century is that that’s not the case. Even remarkably simple programs–that one would quickly encounter in sampling programs from the computational universe–can show immensely rich and complex behavior.

There’s a whole new kind of science that can be done by studying those programs.

The idea that computation is something we can sample just like a vernal pool ecosystem or a statistical representation of demographics is fascinating, and I can’t see anything wrong with it on face. I must admit to being attracted to the idea of mapping concepts into spaces (eg “mind design space“, or the original concept of “phase space“), so I might be a bit biased, but if Wolfram is correct then Computer Science really is a naturalistic science in some ways, even more so than mathematics or logic.

Of course the idea that computation space can be sampled suggests that computation really is a property of the universe, which gets into the second main claim made in Steve Wartik’s article, that computing is more like philosophy; necessarily separate from the everyday world we inhabit. This is a way complicated topic, far too complicated for me to address with my limited knowledge of the field, but I’ll try to say a little about how I feel and delve deeper into it another time.

Although my grasp of computation theory is tenuous at best, here’s my understanding of the situation: in the late 1930’s, many mathematicians and logicians were scrambling in the wake of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. While those still tie my head in knots, I understand that they did more than just destroyed once and for all the idea that mathematics (or any system) can be provably complete and consistent; they advanced our understanding of the limits of formal systems in general, and in doing so gave mathematicians more direction in their studies of such system. Around this time, Alonzo Church, Alan Turing, and two other mathematicians/logicians were working on systems to define functions and the methods of calculating them. Church’s was called lambda calculus, Turing’s the Turing machine, and a third developed by JB Rosser and Stephen Kleene was known as recursion functions. In 1939, Rosser claimed that the 3 systems were equivalent; all were different representations of the same underlying set of rules. This lead to the concept of a universal Turing machine, which would theoretically be able to run any calculation that any other programmable computer could run. This is the Thesis, that in some way all (turing-complete) computers are equivalent systems. This, again, points to computation being some deep and underlying property of the universe.

But where the whole line of inquiry gets really interesting is in the so called “strong” version of the Church-Turing thesis; that the universe itself is Turing computable. While this has not been formally proven, the fact that all known laws of physics have effects that are computable by approximation on a digital computer is evidence for it, and for the corresponding interpretation of physics as “digital“. This is a rich vein of interesting stuff I would like to explore further, but suffice to say if the strong version of the Church-Turing thesis were true, it would mean that the universe is a property of computation, instead of the other way around, and thus the study of computation is one of the most valid pursuits of the ultimate truth of reality. It could be simulated on the most powerful computer imaginable, on my laptop, or even on a billiard ball computer given enough time, memory, and energy, and it would make no difference. This gets into highly metaphysical territory very quickly, and lends some credence to Stephen Landsburg’s claims about the reality of mathematical objects. All of my explanations gloss over so much for the sake of some semblance of brevity, even without considering how little I know about the computation theory. But if the universe really is a giant computer, I think it’s safe to say that the study of the process behind that computer is as scientific a discipline as any.

The Farmville skinner box

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t play many Facebook games. It’s not that I’m above it, so much as I’ve found better games to waste my time on. That and I’m a solipsistic hermit who prefers games where success is not reliant on inviting friends to your farm, restaurant, zombie trap or whatever. But I like that there are games on Facebook that some people find fun.

But are they really “fun”? I’ve noticed quite a bit of discussion about how social games in general, and Farmville in particular, are over hyped time wasters that are of little to no value for anyone playing them. With a number of qualifications, I agree with this. In fact I think that’s true of most video games, including most of the games I play. But usually these articles go further, implying something sinister is going on. We’re being exploited by Zynga and other game companies! Something must be done! (see this article for a good example of the sentiment).

As far as I’m concerned, this is all complete and utter bullshit. It’s a rehash of every tired old cliché about how much time young people waste these days. About how our culture has become rotten to the core, and how we, the old guard, are the only ones who appreciate it. It’s been said of the internet, music, and even books way back when. We’re going to say it about whatever media comes along when we start getting old. It’s a seductive us-and-them trap to be sure, and one that people have been falling into at least since the rise of mass media, probably for all of human history.

All of this has been bothering me since I first read the criticisms of Farmville and other social games, but today I read a great post on playthisthing.com that really crystallized things. It looks at just about every major game genre and identifies the “disingenuous design practices” that make it little more than a Skinner Box (machine that encourages an arbitrary behavior by rewarding you for it).

Social games and MMORPGs should be obvious, but what about classic arcade games? Surely no-one could call Pac-Man evil!

Disingenuous Design Practices: stacking difficulty in a probabalistic manner through edge of screen spawns, exponential spawn functions, non-essential time limits, interface kills (whoops wrong button! Insert Coin), roundDown collision detection and simply setting killer objects to be faster or more agile than you.

How about Tetris and Bejeweled?

Disingenuous Design Practices: Saturated color contrast, chunk-lite SFX and lateral number incrementation via score are designed to make your dopamine receptors squeal like a piggy while putting up the absolute minimum in content or design.

jRPGs, FPSs and classic console games get taken down too. Thing is, video games are about being rewarded for doing useless things. I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but really, video games are just dopamine hacks (although there are other explanations for some gaming behavior) . Lovely, wonderful dopamine hacks that won’t harm your lungs as much as smoking or your bank balance as much as gambling. Sometimes they help you socialize, or kill boredom, or even learn things, but usually they are unproductive wastes of time. Which is OK; when was the last time you listened to someone who told you all your time has to be productive, and you should never relax or have fun? You find different reasons to keep playing different types of games because you derive value from them for different reasons.

The question of what is “fun” is surprisingly complicated. You (and Farmville’s critics) may wonder how something you consider a chore and gain little subjective pleasure from can be considered “fun”. As the skinner box demonstrates, just because you keep doing it doesn’t mean its fun. But as with so called “classic” games, something that seems like an unpleasant chore to some can be rewarding in and of itself for others. Fun comes in all shapes and sizes, and you need to ask yourself what fun really is when you’re questioning whether or not the jRPG nerd or the guy playing WOW is really having it grinding out level after level.

Today there are no widely accepted definitions of fun that are both rigorous and meaningful. However you can find a pretty good one here if you’re willing to do some reading. Yudkowskian fun theory accepts that, as with much of humanity’s shared value systems, fun is not just one simple concept manifesting in different ways. It’s a number of things, including complex novelty, improvement over time, and having direct control of your future in a given area. Based on Yudkowsky’s definition of fun, games like Farmville aren’t too bad in the scope of things. There are certainly more fun-optimal activities you could be pursuing, but there are many, many less eudaimonic things you might do, a number of which you’ll probably do anyway for skinner box related reasons.

It comes down to this: just because something is hacking your brain’s reward system doesn’t mean it’s fun. But it also doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and your intuitions really aren’t as bad as you might think at telling the two apart. So go waste yourself some time! Your brain will thank you later for the dopamine hit at least.

Categories: memeplex Tags: , ,

Dumb objections to mind uploading

February 12, 2010 4 comments

As the old adage goes, only 2 things are certain in life: death and taxes. But I believe in cheating the former (and the latter too if I can find a clever enough lawyer). Not through Chinese medicine, Yogic meditation, an afterlife in heaven or any other mystical nonsense; I intend to use science. It’s not going to be easy, as death is pretty well programmed in to us, and there’s a world full of microorganisms and malicious beasties just waiting to find a home in or extract energy from my corpse. I think we’re making progress on that front, since we’ve identified most of what makes us age and medical science is advancing at a pretty good clip, but even if Aubrey De Gray and SENS accomplish all of their goals, I could still get hit by a bus, and no amount of clever medical science can protect me from that. Having accidental death as my only risk is pretty good, but I think we can do better.

Whole Brain Emulation (WBE), sometimes called uploading (although its possible uploading will require emulating a much smaller chunk of the brain), is the one and only solution. For those unfamiliar with the concept, WBE would involve scanning the brain at a sufficiently high-resolution and making a working copy of it inside a computer of some sort. Assuming the brain runs at a speed of about 10^16 operations per second, which is our best conservative guess right now but is still just an estimate, we’ll have computers fast enough to run one some time in the next 20 years or so. Even if we take 30 more years on top of that to figure out how to model the brain well, WBE should be viable well within my expected lifespan.

All of this involves some uncertainty of course; the brain might be more complicated than we thought. Roger Penrose thinks it runs on quantum mechanics, which doesn’t make sense when you really think about it for various reasons including the fact that the brain isn’t good at the sorts of things a quantum computer would be, but there are other technical challenges to WBE. Still, based on our best science I think it’s safe for me to give at least 50 percent odds that I’ll be able to be around in 200 years time if I want to be. Or perhaps I should say, I or someone/something that remembers being me will be around then. The implications of this are staggering, and will require a whole separate post just to begin exploring. But leaving aside the technical concerns, which I’ll leave to the neuroscienctists and computer scientists, people have a lot of philosophical problems with mind uploading. This is more the purview of armchair philosophers such as myself. While most of these arguments are just flat out wrong, a few give me pause and seem to require deeper consideration. I’m going to spend the rest of this post going over the less interesting objections, and then devote separate posts to the ones I find more compelling.

As I see it, most philosophical objections to the possibility of uploading fall into three broad categories. The first of these is the “brain runs on magic” argument. Essentially they say that even a perfectly accurate simulation of every atom/quark/string (pick your smallest level) in the brain or body running in real time would not be human. This often (though not always) comes along with a belief in an immortal soul, and when it really comes down to it, is the belief that the brain operates outside the laws of nature, ie that it runs on magic. If this is what you think, I can’t really argue against with except just to say that you’re wrong. It’s an a priori belief that cannot be touched by evidence or logic. You’ll probably even continue to hold said belief even after we develop WBE, insisting that there’s something “wrong” with the people living in the computer, even though you can discern no difference in any interaction with them. Fortunately, if you’re this kind of person, I don’t need to convince you, just outlive you.

Some slightly more sensible arguments fall into the category of “the brain is not/is not like a computer”. These arguments are also wrong, but they at least allow us to have a real debate. Partly, it depends on your definition of computer. Take a look in your dictionary, and chances are you’ll find a definition along the lines of “a machine (ie physical system) that stores and processes information”. By this definition (unless you’re in the above “the brain is magic” camp), the brain must be some sort of computer. Still, critics of the brain/computer metaphor are right to a point; the brain may be a computer, but it’s nothing like the computer you’re reading this on. Although in the most abstract sense both take in input and produce output, they do it in very different ways. Digital computers are very good at performing serial operations on abstract symbols very rapidly, and brains are not. They also store memory in clean separate compartments that are easy to access if their location is known. Conversely, brains perform very slow but massively parallel operations on highly contextual information. The memory in brains is error prone, but is also stored in a bafflingly decentralized way, and can be accessed at amazing speeds using context sensitive “search” terms. So while the brain and the digital computer are more alike than say, the brain and the cells that make it up or the computer and the silicon in its transistors, there are important differences.

Many critics stop here, having shown that the brain does not work like today’s computers, and say “so now I have proven that AI and mind uploading are impossible, QED”. This is an incredibly narrow minded and unimaginative conclusion. I read a comment a while back (the source of which I’ve managed to lose) by a guy named Mark Gubrud that succinctly responds to this argument:

It is obvious that the brain is neither a Turing machine nor any type of digital computer like the one I’m typing this reply on. What is not obvious is that a digital computer can’t do an effective simulation of a brain. (Is a jet engine a Turing machine? Can a computer simulate a jet engine?)

Your argument seems to rest ultimately on some unstated belief in the supernatural or extra-physical (or perhaps some quantum voodoo). Do you believe the brain is a physical system? Do you believe its behaves according to the laws of physics? If so, it can be simulated by a sufficiently powerful digital computer. Even if it uses nonlocal quantum effects, which is quite unlikely, it could be simulated by a quantum computer. I know you must have heard these arguments before, so why do you ignore them?

Saying a sufficiently powerful computer can’t be intelligent, or that it can’t simulate a brain, because it is not like a brain makes about as much sense as saying an airplane can’t fly because it isn’t sufficiently like a bird. Even the computers we have today, which will be orders of magnitude weaker than the ones we will have even if Moore’s Law only holds for another decade or so, can already accurately simulate all sorts of things they bear little resemblance to. Unfortunately, as with airplanes, I believe people will continue to dismiss the possibility of human minds running on a computational substrate until they actually see a working instance of one.

Finally, there’s an argument that gets into even less firm philosophical territory; the notion that, even accepting all the above, an accurate upload of you is in some important sense not you. I think this argument is also wrong, but it gets down to the meaning of identity, which is something I’ll admit I haven’t totally figured out, and also shades into some of the more compelling objections to uploading that I’m going to devote later posts to. I believe that there is a “hard problem” of consciousness, of what first person experience actually means and where it comes from, even though I think the concept of P-zombies is total BS, and fairly amusing BS at that. I’ll have to discuss this in more detail later, but I think it requires a rethink of just what identity means. We need to start understanding the message in John K Clark’s (marginally) famous quote:

“But I am not an object. I am not a noun, I am an adjective.  I am the way matter behaves when it is organized in a John K Clark-ish way.  At the present time only one chunk of matter in the universe behaves that way; someday that could change.”

Expect more on all this in due time.

Gathering and Compressing information

January 31, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot of what we call “fun” seems to be based on fairly simple principles. Ok, so there’s still a fair bit of complexity there. But after I read this interview with AI designer Jurgen Schmidhuber and watched his excellent presentation at this year’s singularity summit I’ve started to view a surprising number of things I do through a different lens. There’s all sorts of deep and strange ideas in that interview, but the one that stuck with me the longest is the notion that much of what we consider deeply and fundamentally human is reducible to our brains rewarding us for gathering and efficiently compressing information.

I’ve been aware for a while that many video games I play, particularly RPGs, are little more than cheap hacks of the dopamine system my brain has evolved to encourage me to do things. It’s just gambling without the high monetary cost, or cigarettes without the lung cancer.

I’ve also known that a lot of our behavior is explained by evolutionary psychology for a while too.

But Schmidhuber is making an even more bizarre claim, and making it in a very compelling way.Essentialy, he’s saying that many of our drives are based simply on gathering and compressing information. Compression here means something a little different from what your computer does when it compresses a .zip or .rar file, but its the same basic idea; removing unnecessary information to make a given thing fit in a smaller box. Computers do it by finding redundant sequences of bits and representing them in more efficient ways, and humans do it by making connections and forming “understanding”. There’s a diverse array of examples of this discussed in the interview. Music is appealing to us because we can recognize novel patterns that are somewhat, but not too familiar to us, and music that is either too formulaic or too discordant is unappealing. Art is interesting because we can find compressible visual or cultural themes. Dancing is much the same as music; repetitive yet novel sequences that initially seem bizarre and random but show deep patterns. We laugh at jokes because we make interesting and surprising connections between various semantic pieces. The list goes on, and Schmidhuber makes the case for the truth of this better than I can so if you don’t understand, go check out that video. You can find exceptions and complications that culture and emotions have introduced to all of these things, but it really is remarkable how often that basic principle of novel compression shows up.

Schmidhubers theory has interesting implications for what it means to be the complex biological robots we call homo sapiens. What is the first objection people raise when the question of machines being “conscious” or “intelligent” comes up? It’s usually something along the lines of “Well they might be fancy calculators, but they’ll never [be creative, appreciate beauty, laugh at our jokes, etc]”. There’s all sorts of things wrong with that argument, which I’ll probably have to write a separate post on sometime. Suffice to say even if you believe those things are deeply weird and complicated, you have no reason to doubt a sufficiently powerful and well programmed computer would be able to do them (unless you believe the brain runs on magic). If, however, many of those precious deeply complex human characteristics are really fairly simple processes, what does it imply about us? As sympathetic as I am to the notion that we are just complicated computers of one type or another, I was somewhat skeptical at first. But ever since I read through that interview, I’m noticing more and more often how true it is.

I’ll leave this as an exercise to the reader; now that you’ve been exposed to this idea, start looking at your daily activities through the lens of information compression. I think you’ll be surprised at how often it fits. Not so high and mighty now eh Mr deeply mysterious human?

Schmidhuber makes a compelling argument for this. Music is appealing to us because we can recognize novel patterns that are somewhat, but not too familiar to us, and music that is either too formulaic or too discordant is unappealing.