Archive for May, 2010

Will the Real Heroes Please Stand Up?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I had a great conversation with Justin Shovelain recently, and we happened to chat about some advantages SIAI has compared to the average non-profit; everyone involved is on the high end of intelligence, and there are good arguments that the likely impact is exceptionally large, which can appeal to donors who truly care about impact. SIAI has a number of disadvantages, like the many inferential steps required to realize the importance of the work, but we weren’t discussing those just then.

Another strength is that this is not a “niche” concern. Helping impoverished third-world farmers raise capital is a great thing, but it’s relatively easy to stop caring about something so distant. In contrast, it’s somewhat harder to look at everybody around you and know we’ll all be dead if these kinds of efforts don’t succeed, and then decide it’s not really that important.

Obviously, this kind of thing pushes me towards existential risk reduction. There’s something else though, which is my long-standing desire to “be a hero”. Watching movies, playing games, reading books; my heroes were mostly fictional people, rising to great and noble heights when everything was at stake. Like most folks, I’d love to emulate my heroes. Now that everything is at stake, I figured that now is the time.

Though I’m thankful for this desire overall, it’s caused some surprising trouble. One problem is that most of my heroes aren’t real people with real human psychologies, another is that I often wind up needlessly trying to replicate unimportant details.

A week and a half ago I had some useful thoughts about this, which have remained useful past the 3 day period in which many seemingly good ideas sputter and fade. After thinking about how best to convey them, I’ve decided that just copying from my journal is probably most effective. This was written for me – hence the numerous phrasings and points of emphasis – but I don’t think I could say it better for others. I did add a little extra spacing.

I believe that many readers don’t have a strong desire to emulate fictional heroes, but someone may, and perhaps many readers can take something from this regardless.


While I’ve long known of the danger to our entire world from existential risk, I seem to have perceived this as “the real world is a video game world, for which video game personas are appropriate”. However, I recall thinking back to when I first read about these things, and I recall the perception being slightly different. Hmm….how to say. I believe it is that recently, I have tried to adapt myself into a video game persona. Before, it was more of a realization that we play versions of the video game characters.

That there really is the danger, and here we are in our apartments (suggesting imagery of the ‘Ton), trying to save the world. It wasn’t “Let’s try to be Paul Denton”. It was more “We ARE Paul Denton”. (By the way, Paul wouldn’t be that bad to be, as he’s rather human. He dates, etc.) A realization that the world really is in danger, and WE ARE THE ONES WHO MAY NEED TO STOP IT. Perhaps this: we don’t need to adapt ourselves to become video game characters. We don’t have to gain their style or lifestyle, because we are EQUIVALENTLY heroes, just as much as they. We are the heroes of the real world. Or perhaps, that we don’t have to change ourselves to live like they do in order to feel like our story is just as cool, in order to feel like we are finally being heroes. Rather, we are ALREADY being heroes by the fact of what we are attempting to do. We are ALREADY “them”, and our story is already and immediately as cool. Hah, I keep trying at this. A thought, which I think I may actually have voiced back then: We are not approximations of them, in which case we would never be quite as cool, or quite as heroic. Rather, all those stories were approximations of the heroes we are and will be. Hah, I think that gives it pretty well, but to lay it down with yet another angle: who makes things cool? Who is worth emulating? What is being emulated? Who are the real heroes?? Are THEY the real heroes, and we strive to be heroic by replicating their actions and lifestyle? Or are WE the real heroes, for which all those stories of fictional heroes were merely exaggerated caricatures of the heroes we would become, exciting tales which create the before-bed snack on which real heroes are raised? Specifically to me, will my life be exciting because of how close I will get to approximating Morgan Everett, or Paul Denton, or Dowd, or JC? Or will it be exciting because I live the the story of _____ ______, who may go on to perform real heroism, to make a real difference, and hence be an actual, real hero? Are these exciting fictions the things to which we aspire, or are they mere training and spark, the things which eventually inspire a real human being to step beyond the simple and assumed boundaries of a passive life? Not into a life of austerity, or loneliness, or desolation, but a life of applying the multifold abilities we have and will develop, to accomplish something big and real in the world.

Who are the real heroes? We are.

The fictional heroes are not there for us to emulate, they are there to inspire us to become ourselves.


(A quick note: by ‘we’ I mean anyone and everyone who steps up to contribute to existential risk reduction, not just the people who have started helping already.)

Recovered from Hack

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Thanks for sticking around through the period of inactivity and website downtime. I put up the material from prior posts, though I usually didn’t take the time to restore the formatting to its previous appearance. Unfortunately, all the previous comments were destroyed in the rebuild. For those who might be browsing backwards, I entered the dates that the posts were originally made. To err on the side of safety, the most recent post, which featured the introduction to Fallout 3, has not been restored.

Princess Mononoke – The World of the Dead

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

April 11th, 2010


Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

April 6th, 2010
There are currently about 6,800,000,000 people in the world. There were up to 1,800,000 people at Barack Obama’s inauguration. That’s a pretty big number. The picture below probably contains over half of them.
Take a look. (You can click on the picture for a larger version.) Assuming it contained everyone who attended the event, and assuming population growth utterly and suddenly halted, you’d be looking at about 0.026% of the people who would be affected by an existential disaster.

(At Least) It’s Not The End Of The World

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

April 2nd, 2010
From the Super Furry Animals

“We can live it large,
cause we’re only old once.
Let’s make a difference.

Turn all the hate in the world,
into a Mockingbird.
Make it fly away…”

“Greatest Game Ever”

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

March 30th, 2010

I’m referring of course to Deus Ex, the combination first-person shooter, role-playing game developed in 2000 by Ion Storm. Conveniently, it’s the length of a shooter game rather than an RPG. It’s been ranked the “greatest game ever” here and there, gained 40 “Game Of The Year” awards, and frequently makes “Top 20/50/100 List”s. The game exhibits high quality all around, and has been especially noted for its gameplay and the degree of player freedom in choosing how to overcome obstacles. In terms of raw fun, it’s actually my #2 pick, being beaten out by the vast role-playing game Morrowind.
The game is a lot of fun, but here I’m discussing it for motivational purposes (surprise, surprise), speaking to any game players out there.  Why might a video game motivate a person to help save the world? Deus Ex doesn’t present any factual arguments for the morality of it, nor does it highlight issues which would contribute to such arguments. Rather, Deus Ex provides an exciting and exceptionally realistic futuristic world, realistic enough that excitement elicited by the game is generally also appropriate for the real world. (Though of course, not “realistic” enough be used for actual prediction.) So to be more specific, I suggest that Deus Ex can be motivationally useful for those who don’t naturally find real life and our own story all that exciting.
By realism I mean two things: realistic and engaging characters, and unusually knowledgeable futurism. For a rough indicator of this, the primary dialogue writer for the game, Sheldon Pacotti, has two bachelor degrees: one in mathematics from MIT, and another in English Literature from Harvard. There was a overarching design goal to create an immersive simulation, and the dialogue is the opposite side of the spectrum from “oh yeah, and this is why you have to kill 100 enemies”. The game is well populated by ”normal people”, and their dialogue is often just as interesting and thought out as that of the primary characters. The plentiful notes, emails, and book pages in the game are similarly well-written, and the game’s story is continually present in your experience. While I don’t think it’s of primary importance to folks here, the story also includes an intelligent and stimulating probe into the nature and ideal of government.
The game’s primary characters are at the high end of human ability, but with few exceptions not superhuman. In those cases, superhumanity is derived from technological augmentation or the “superhuman” intelligence of those at the ultimate far end of the human spectrum. I find this valuable, as in reality it’s not just going to be people with “superpowers” who save the world, it will mostly be through the hard-working efforts of merely intelligent folks. Some of the activities most useful for existential risk reduction are well profiled, including technical implementation of various projects, study of larger world structure, group organization, and financing. (Unfortunately, public and scientific awareness efforts are not included.) The activities of the player’s character center on physical adventure, but your underlying ability and ultimate success rely critically and obviously on other people’s expertise at those tasks. Success depends on your own efforts as well, but the story is such that you would often be dead in the water without the other characters.
For tech, the game takes place in the 2050s, and centers widely around molecular nano-technology. It’s not treated entirely as phlogiston, and the game presents surprising detail on how MNT realizes the technologies. I don’t have the technical background to propose or evaluate real life designs for nano-structures, but having studied some neuroscience, biochemistry, a little nanotech and a lot of electrical engineering, most of the explanations in Deus Ex still seem plausible. In terms of AI, Deus Ex is at least partially at SL4, and includes the concept of Singletons, though necessarily not by name. The AIs are inhuman and are laudably (if not completely) lacking in  anthropomorphization.
There are some necessary qualifiers to all that. Throughout, aspects of the story are affected by gameplay considerations. Generally for that reason, some of the technology is too powerful, too weak, and/or rather implausible, though less so if you hadn’t read some of Robert Freitas’s recent work. The world research atmosphere is the most unrealistic aspect, regarding where the research is distributed, the scale of significant research projects, and the likely extent of technological asymmetries. That might actually be realistic for a project involving recursive intelligence improvement, but Deus Ex is a little light on that concept. The difficulties of Friendly AI are not properly accounted for, which is the obvious norm in futurism. To some extent there’s also the common flaw of oddly talkative antagonists, as realism and storytelling don’t always make good bed mates.
There are also some elements with mixed pro and con. The story involves numerous conspiracy theories, which I don’t expect to actually be true. This does make the story more interesting, and is entertainingly similar to the Bayesian Conspiracy, which we should all probably “attempt to gain entry to”. The story has a strong dystopian and cyber-punk flavor, which as a design choice is more stylistic than realistic.  If we don’t exert some control however, we may actually be nearing an apex in human living standards. I’m referring to increasing technology becoming more and more labor-saving and less and less labor-augmenting, a reverse in past trends which would drive down wages and living standards. My current best source is this. In general, there’s a very significant chance life is going to get worse, and if you can keep from getting depressed about it, I find it motivating to keep that in mind.
In summary, Deus Ex is an unusually sophisticated game, with exceptionally intelligent futurism and widely acclaimed gameplay. For myself, its motivational value lies in presenting an engaging and uncommonly plausible dramatization of our future, the general challenge and adventure that lies in store. If you enjoy video games in your free time and haven’t played Deus Ex yet, put this one on your list.

Lessons Learned – Matt and Kim

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

March 25th, 2010
A second great music video from Matt and Kim, kind of eclectic here. Somehow it makes me very happy about human beings and life in general. I couldn’t find a quicker loading version, but it’s worth starting and coming back to after it loads.

A long time ago…

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

March 14th, 2010
I was a much bigger Star Wars fan before the continuity collapsed under its own weight, but I still get chills from the scene of Luke Skywalker looking out over the desert at the twin sunset. I gathered a few Star Wars soundtracks over the years, partly hoping for this song; little surprise I finally get it from YouTube.
I love to look backwards in time and think of how a younger me would react, if I told him all the things he was going to do, and how much he’s going to change. (Of course I wouldn’t actually try that, knowing that I apparently failed to do it.) I like the same thing on a larger scale: going back in time and having our society explain things to the society of several hundred years ago. Like Tony Robbins has said, we tend to overestimate what we can do in a year but underestimate what we can do in a decade. Steady change compounded over time can have a huge effect, as all readers are assuredly aware. I had a lot of generally unreasonable shorter term expectations and plans that didn’t pan out, but the total change since a few years ago would make my head spin. Looking back I seem childish, petty, and much less capable. Hopefully I can say the same thing a few years from now.
Dropping into fiction for a moment, what does Luke expect as he stands there in that sunset, gazing out at those suns? On some nowhere little planet, working on some remote moisture farm, how much could he anticipate everything to follow? Who would he meet, what friends would he make, what would they teach him? What strange situations will he encounter, what distant worlds would he find himself on? What adventures would he be a part of? What kind of impact would he make? What tragedies would he face and what triumphs would he accomplish? How would he grow, who would he become, and what would he become capable of? This little world in which he’s lived all his years, how long will it persist, and years down the line, how normal will that sort of life still seem to him? But he can’t know any of that, and he’s got to go back inside and clean droids.
So how about us?

Might as well throw this in too:
LUKE: I can’t get involved! I’ve got work to do! It’s not that I like
the Empire. I hate it! But there’s nothing I can do about it right
now. It’s such a long way from here.

BEN: You must do what you feel is right, of course.

Things To Get Rid Of

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

March 8th, 2010
Foreign Policy has an interesting photo essay up on their website, covering all 33 of the world’s ongoing conflicts.

This blog has a lot of focus on existential risk and FAI, but that’s a straightforward outcome of being concerned with stepping up and doing the greatest good. It would be naive to say that one person can change everything, but even just a few lives saved would be worth the effort. Happily, it looks like we can do a lot better than that, if you factor in probability to calculate the expected-lives-saved/improved. If you’re looking to actually help as many as possible and not (just) receive warm fuzzies, that’s the thing to do.
Unfortunately many efforts – such as exisential risk reduction –  result in a potentially huge payoff many years down the line, but little direct payoff until then. I find it helpful to try and spread out the expected reward: quite truthfully, each moment that’s honestly spent towards saving or improving lives moves the expected outcome to a slightly better place. Each such moment, even if it’s on a necessary amount of R&R, is a moment well spent, a moment of accomplishment and a benefit to others.

Where the Hell is Matt?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

March 5th, 2010
This is pretty cool, you can find out more at Matt’s website.

For those who don’t follow LessWrong: the human mind suffers terribly from scope insensitivity. I.e. experiments in which people pay much more to save one child, than they do to save 8. The brain just doesn’t multiply well, and the world is a huge place.