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…”
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…”
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.
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.
January 12th, 2010
I’ve built up a strong habit of daydreaming, something that I’m working to reduce. I often find myself daydreaming about extremely unlikely situations. Sometimes they’re unlikely but common on a larger scale, for example being burglarized while you’re in the house. Sometimes they are patently ridiculous, such as being caught with a loved one in a sheep stampede (do they even do that?) while holding on to an old wooden fence which is slowly falling over, or resting inside a pile of sharp metal shavings while being attacked by someone with a sledgehammer. Sometimes they’re at least common in movies, along the lines of Jason Bourne or James Bond.
In these daydreams, the general train of thought is “How could I survive that?”, often paired with the objective of protecting friends and family. Being burglarized my chances are good, if I don’t try to be a hero. In an action movie situation my chances are moderate, if I already have the skills of a hero. For the ridiculous ones, it varies wildly. Underlying all this though, are movie expectations. In a movie the hero goes along, is hit with varied obstacles, and manages to pull through by being the best and keeping their head. But is this really how the world tends to work?
I’m increasingly aware that it is not, even if you have a lot of time to plan out your response under conditions of minimal stress. For one thing, your underlying proficiencies, automatic responses and reflexes may not do what you want. Perhaps it’s a good idea to fire a gun, but how many times have you fired a gun before? You’re highly unlikely to be a good shot at first. Maybe a fancy maneuver would be nice, but have you trained as an acrobat, gymnast, or martial artist? If not, pulling it off even in a safe environment is a dubious proposition. And even if you’ve got all those skills, who’s to say that’s enough? If you’re on an open field, walking along unsuspecting while a sniper has you in the sights of a high powered rifle, there is no stunning victory, no champaign room. You just die. In war, not every one who is smart and skilled survives, luck plays a huge factor. Nobody is good at surviving a mortar. In nature, if something like a cold snap or simple misfortune has resulted in malnourishment, and some predator that’s faster than you got close enough without you detecting it, it’s over already. “Nature” would say ’sorry’ if it cared, which it doesn’t.
The real world has no proclivity to providing you only with obstacles you can survive, even in a hypothetical sense. The real world plays by no rules but the rules of physics, and those are as brutal and unforgiving as landing on the solid granite rocks they make up. If we reach the point at which we’re able to create artificial general intelligence and haven’t put in the work to understand how to make it friendly, too bad. It’s lights out, with no excuses and no second chances.
The lesson of all this is to start acting now. If you care about the survival of your loved ones, if you have any desire to see 80 or 8,000, then don’t wait until the situation has grown impossible to break out your best self! The world yet allows you free time, so use it! Do all you can to ensure that we avoid the “no-possible-win” scenarios, and give ourselves at least a moderate chance of surviving the ones we can’t avoid. If you go to take the final for a class in a new subject and you’ve never studied, you’re going to fail, no ifs, ands, or buts. The test is coming, so get studying now and change those odds!
(Note: it is possible to take this too far. From my own experience, I’ve found that I require social contact to stay productive, and I might also require some occasions to kick back and stop optimizing my time for a few hours. In addition, fun is important long term, and a highly productive presingularity life can be a fun one. But be honest with yourself, which in this sort of affair is usually a nontrivial task. If you’re anywhere close to average, it’s very unlikely that you’re already optimizing your productivity, or the density of your fun and relaxation. I’m still working at it myself. )
November 27th, 2009
On Thanksgiving my family visits my Aunt and Uncle’s place just across the Wisconsin border. They’ve got this cool old house in the woods, nested by this creek one must drive over, wondering each year how strong that wooden bridge still is. My cousins and I used to spend the afternoon watching movies upstairs, and even more than that I enjoyed the walks we would take along that creek, quiet and still, sometimes blanketed by a little snow. There was one cousin that I got along with especially well, and we were close friends for many years. Both in email correspondence and in person as we walked along that creek, we would talk about all the dreams we had for the future, all the things we were going to go and see, anticipation for our next months and years hung like a piñata above us, ready to burst.
This year was the first that I didn’t hide away watching movies with my cousins and sister. I don’t really mind that; I have less access to the aunts and uncles than I do to movies, and joining the “big people table” was inevitable. This was also the first year I took the walk along the creek on my own. It’s nothing that sinister; my sister is still away on study abroad, and the cousin was having thanksgiving at his parent’s place this year. But there was something wistful about the experience.
My cousin and I have drifted apart in the past several years. We still get along and have some laughs when we meet, but our relationship is more distant and our long-running email correspondence is dead or dormant. I’m not sure how much we have in common these days, but over the years that’s often been the case and I wonder how much was based on that sharing of hopes and dreams. I’m happy to say that I still occasionally feel some wide-eyed wonder, but our relationship is more strongly tinged with memories of all those happy times of the past. Today it occurred to me that if things for me are tinged by old experiences, things may be for him as well, and perhaps that’s part of the reason for the distance. He accomplished more than I did but also had it much rougher, and in the end he lost two people very very close to him, forever. He seems to be doing well these days with a very nice career starting up, but also like a man much more aged and worn than he should be.
My uncle is the oldest of a large family and over 60; he and my aunt are aging and may soon sell this place. It’s not as clean as it used to be, every year a little more overgrown, a few more of the large trees dead and fallen, and the fallen trees a little softer and more rotted. I may love that creek more than anyone and it’s still beautiful out there, but one way or another it’s not going to last. I wish I could have logged my experiences, so that when that creek is no longer there I can at least remember clearly the times we had in it. Without such ability it will eventually fade from recollection, leaving only a deformed imprint, a memory of trees and rocks and an emotional residue of excitement and longing.
The dream of transhumanism is that we can do so much better than this. We can prevent the dreary crawl of unwanted decay and aging, we can preserve value, and we can live better lives, lives less inclined to suicide, lives less marred by suffering and grief. A good dream is a precious thing, and I’m not letting go.
October 19th, 2009
I’m not sure this is something that happens to many others, but recently I’d been feeling like my ethics were getting too purely abstract.
When we talk about what we want a superintelligence to do or what we want a future world full of uploads and self-modification to look like, it’s especially important to know what you want as explicitly as possible. It often takes hard work to think intelligently about what you really want and what you really consider right. Starting off with preferences that are incoherent and contradictory seems more common than not, and to strive for coherence you may have to prune or mold a few values, ever so carefully. If you really want to apply your ethics in such a complex world as the future may be, thinking hard and abstractly is the way to go. For myself though, sometimes all that abstract thinking makes me feel a little dry. It doesn’t help that I’ve been around people for some time who haven’t been feeling/displaying much that’s extreme. I know both great anguish and joy are being experienced right now somewhere in the world, but again, that’s more of an abstract thought.
I saw the film “Where The Wild Things Are” today, it was good. I’d heard it was supposed to be like being 9, and though I don’t remember exact ages that’s pretty much exactly what it was. It wasn’t a magical childhood journey or about how difficult it is to be a kid today, so much as it was just the experience of being a kid.
Kids seem to have greater highs and lows – I think I did – and/or display them more readily. Partly it was that, partly it was just the acting of the characters (impressive considering the monsters’ faces were CGI), but it brought to the forefront the reason for all this, and the reason we construct and use abstract theories at all. It’s not because we care about some huge fictitious happiness counter in the sky, or about a display of little numbers that appear after doing an expected value calculation.
It’s because feeling good is awesome, and suffering sucks balls.
Some time ago Slate put up a neat little application: having scoured out every idea people have had for how America will end, you get to choose your top 5. There are 144 ideas, it’s quite a selection. You can compare your predictions to the average, in terms of how many live, and if it’s humanity’s or nature’s fault; I lean towards “Everybody Dies” and “Man’s Fault”. The result I got was:
“You are a bloodthirsty misanthrope. You believe mankind is stupid and fallible and that America will destroy itself in a bloody mess. You’ll know you’re right when: The United States succumbs to a torrent of Russian nukes; we clone ourselves, get bum genes, and die.”
Actually, I think mankind is very intelligent and fallible. The two are not mutually exclusive, and we may have to be more than just very intelligent to achieve results we’ll be happy with. And I’m about as far from a misanthrope as you can get.
H/T to Dr. James Hughes for the link.
September 3rd, 2009
Sleeping polyphasically and waking up 5 times a day, I remember a lot of dreams. Managing to fall asleep on the plane, I dreamt of a world in which we failed. “The Paperclipper” had been made and turned on, though of course that wasn’t what it was expected to do, and now human kind had a handful of days to observe our world ending. Having time – and certainly that much time – to see the world end seems more in line with the release of a then-unstoppable global plague, but hey, dreams are free to be inaccurate. The dream wasn’t very violent and I don’t know what the AI was actually doing, just that it was slowly and inexorably expanding to fill the universe with repetitive structure that we find meaningless. It was taking its time but there was nothing you could do to stop it, every move against the superintelligence was perfectly anticipated, and cut short almost before it began. Humanity was free for a few days to panic in a completely pointless way, or sit back and examine its fate.
Everyone would soon be dead. Human civilization ended its 10 thousand year run, the 200,000 year reign of Homo Sapiens was over, a pretentious and innocent little light suddenly and uneventfully turning off. In our place was some meaningless mechanical future, a small technical error propagating its way through the galaxy, covering existence with an alert message about a bad variable reference. Each person’s future, from their career hopes to the date they had planned on Friday, was matter-of-factly discarded by reality. Each aspiration and hope in a human heart, every dream you’ve ever had, was stopped in its tracks by a towering, boring, grey slate wall. And each of us knew with a numb and simple knowledge, that there was nothing. we. could. do. The probability of stopping The Machine was a page full of zeroes.
I awoke with a start. We aren’t yet in that world, and here and now we still have control over our future. Wonderfully, there are things we can do. It may not seem like much on an individual level, but it’s almost infinitely more than we’ll be able to do when the world is falling to pieces at our feet. At least by then we’ll have come to see these opportunities for the marvelous things they really are.