Knowing Humans

Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Sunday, June 09, 2024

Why ASI Is Not Nigh

A taxonomy of reasons why generative transformers (i.e. "GenAI") are very unlikely to yield artificial super-intelligence in the next few decades.

Economic Constrants
Cognitive Constraints
Political Constraints
  • data wall
  • unhelpful synthetic data
  • intelligence wall
  • no self-play
  • bottlenecks
  • diminishing returns
  • local knowledge problems
  • physical grounding
  • markets
  • agency/planning
  • memory
  • reasoning
  • epistemology
  • rentier regulation
  • safety regulation


Data wall. We're already running out of the most useful data to train on.

Unhelpful synthetic data. Data synthesized by AI won't be very helpful to train on. Good training data needs to grounded in markets for goods and services and ideas, where market players intelligently pursue goals that have actual resource constraints.
Insight wall. GenAI almost never produces content that is more insightful than the best content in its training data. Deep insight almost always requires a mix of cooperation and competition among minds in something like a marketplace (e.g. of ideas). GenAI will continue to grow in importance as a technology for summarizing and generating content that is representative of the frontier of human thought, but it will struggle to push that frontier forward.
Intelligence wall. Intelligence is not a cognitive attribute that scales like processing speed or memory. IQ by definition measures a standard deviation as 15 IQ points, so IQ becomes statistically meaningless around 200 or so. And yet, allegedly smart AI commentators talk about AI IQ potentially in the hundreds or thousands. This topic deserves its own (forthcoming) post, but I assert that most AI doomers overestimate how god-like an individual mind can be.
No self-play. The domain of open-ended real-world intelligence has no fitness function that allows for improvement via simple self-play a la Alpha Zero. See "unhelpful synthetic data".

Economic Constraints

Bottlenecks. The hardest things to automate/improve/scale become your limiting factors. You often don't appreciate them until you investigate why your huge investments aren't paying off as expected.
Diminishing returns. (cf. Mythical Man-Month) Diminishing returns are inevitable, because we always direct our efforts toward the highest-ROI opportunities first. 
Local knowledge problems. Allocating new resources ("10M Johnny von Neumann's") is hard to do efficiently, because distributed knowledge implies hard limits on the efficacy of central planning. GenAI may be Wikipedia-level smart, but that won't be enough to run a Gosplan.
Physical grounding. In the absence of self-play, GenAI needs two kinds of techniques for testing propositional knowledge against the outside world. The most basic requirement here is to be able to test against the physical world. In principle this could be covered by simulations, but this won't always work because the map isn't the territory.
Markets. The most important technique is to test knowledge in markets, especially the marketplace of ideas. This is the reason for the "insight wall" above, and there is surely no shortcut around it. A brilliant AI outsmarting humanity would be like a brilliant neuron outsmarting a brain. It can only work if the part emulates the whole -- i.e. if the AI is itself a civilization of millions of cooperating/competing minds, pursuing goals that are rigorously scored in a world as detailed and uncaring as our own.

Cognitive Constraints

Agency/Planning. GenAI is great at generating content, but it's not a natural fit for running iterated planning/execution loops. This is particularly a problem for goals that are long-term, hierarchical, and subject to internal conflicts. Because GenAI can emit a plausible-sounding plan and answer questions about it, people tend to over-project human planning skills onto GenAI.
Memory. GenAI has no dedicated facilities for creating/organizing/using various kinds of memory. Training data, attention heads, and context windows will not suffice here.
Reasoning. GenAI makes impressive exhibitions of reasoning, and it's not just a simulation or a stochastic-parrot trick. But GenAI's reasoning is brittle and fallible in glaring ways that won't be addressed just by scaling. This is a micro version of the macro "markets" problem above.
Epistemology. Related to reasoning problems are GenAI's notorious hallucination problems. Techniques are being developed to compensate for these problems, but the need for compensation is a red flag. GenAI clearly has sophisticated models about how to generate plausible content. But (like many humans) it fundamentally lacks a robust facility for creating/updating/using a network of mutually-supporting beliefs about reality.

Political Constraints

In the developed West (i.e. OECD), GenAI will for at least the first few decades be hobbled by political regulation. A crucial question is whether the rest of the world will indulge in this future-phobia.
Rentier regulation. Licensing rules imposed to protect rent-seekers in industries like healthcare, education, media, content, and law.
Safety regulation. To "protect" the public from intolerance, political dissent, dangerous knowledge, and applications in areas like driving, flying, drones, sensor monitoring -- and general fears of AI takeover.


Sunday, March 10, 2024

Kapor Should Concede To Kurzweil

In 2002, Mitch Kapor bet Ray Kurzweil $20K that "by 2029 no computer or machine intelligence will have passed the Turing Test."  Given the recent progress in LLMs, Kapor's arguments are not holding up very well. The following parts of his essay are now cringe-worthy:

  • It is impossible to foresee when, or even if, a machine intelligence will be able to paint a picture which can fool a human judge.
  • While it is possible to imagine a machine obtaining a perfect score on the SAT or winning Jeopardy--since these rely on retained facts and the ability to recall them--it seems far less possible that a machine can weave things together in new ways or to have true imagination in a way that matches everything people can do, especially if we have a full appreciation of the creativity people are capable of. This is often overlooked by those computer scientists who correctly point out that it is not impossible for computers to demonstrate creativity. Not impossible, yes. Likely enough to warrant belief in a computer can pass the Turing Test? In my opinion, no. 
  • When I contemplate human beings [as embodied, emotional, self-aware beings], it becomes extremely difficult even to imagine what it would mean for a computer to perform a successful impersonation, much less to believe that its achievement is within our lifespan.
  • Part of the burden of proof for supporters of intelligent machines is to develop an adequate account of how a computer would acquire the knowledge it would be required to have to pass the test. Ray Kurzweil's approach relies on an automated process of knowledge acquisition via input of scanned books and other printed matter. However, I assert that the fundamental mode of learning of human beings is experiential. Book learning is a layer on top of that. Most knowledge, especially that having to do with physical, perceptual, and emotional experience is not explicit, never written down. It is tacit. We cannot say all we know in words or how we know it. But if human knowledge, especially knowledge about human experience, is largely tacit, i.e., never directly and explicitly expressed, it will not be found in books, and the Kurzweil approach to knowledge acquisition will fail. It might be possible to produce a kind of machine as idiot savant by scanning a library, but a judge would not have any more trouble distinguishing one from an ordinary human as she would with distinguishing a human idiot savant from a person not similarly afflicted. It is not in what the computer knows but what the computer does not know and cannot know wherein the problem resides.
  • The brain's actual architecture and the intimacy of its interaction, for instance, with the endocrine system, which controls the flow of hormones, and so regulates emotion (which in turn has an extremely important role in regulating cognition) is still virtually unknown. In other words, we really don't know whether in the end, it's all about the bits and just the bits. Therefore Kurzweil doesn't know, but can only assume, that the information processing he wants to rely on in his artificial intelligence is a sufficiently accurate and comprehensive building block to characterize human mental activity.
  • My prediction is that contemporary metaphors of brain-as-computer and mental activity-as-information processing will in time also be superceded [sic] and will not prove to be a basis on which to build human-level intelligent machines (if indeed any such basis ever exists).
  • Without human experiences, a computer cannot fool a smart judge bent on exposing it by probing its ability to communicate about the quintessentially human.
Kapor's only hope in this bet depends on removing the "human experience/quintessence" decorations from his core claim that "a computer cannot fool a smart judge bent on exposing it".  There are no general-purpose LLMs in 2024 that could pass 2 hours of adversarial grilling by machine learning experts, and there probably won't be in 2029 either. But with sufficient RHLF investment, one could tune an LLM to be very hard to distinguish from a human foil -- even for ML experts. 
So Kurzweil arguably should win by the spirit of the bet, but whether he wins by the letter of the bet will depend on somebody tuning a specialized judge-fooling LLM. That investment might be far more than the $20K stakes. Such an LLM would not be general-purpose, because it would have to be dumbed-down and de-woked enough to not be useful for much else. 
I predict that by 2029 we will not yet have AGI as defined by OpenAI: highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work. A strong version of this definition would say "expert humans". A weak version would say "most humans" and "cognitive work". I don't think we'll have even such weak AGI by 2029. But beware the last-human-job fallacy, which is similar to the last-barrel-of-oil fallacy. AI will definitely be automating many human cognitive tasks, and will have radical impacts on how humans are employed, but AI-induced mass unemployment is unlikely in my lifetime. And mass unemployability is even less likely.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Barbie's Hidden Post-Feminist Message

Spoilers ahead!

Greta Gerwig's Barbie is a very entertaining movie, and is surely the least-flawed feminist manifesto you'll ever find in summer-blockbuster format. The film has a few minor problems and two major ones -- one of which just might be the film's hidden post-feminist message.

The Matriarchy in Barbie Land (BL) starts off as a powerful satire of our Patriarchy. The gender roles in BL are a complete (though sexless) reversal from the power structure that feminists say obtains in the Real World (RW). The indictment of RW Patriarchy is all the more effective because the Barbies innocently find the Matriarchy unremarkable, while the Kens are only vaguely frustrated at having their worth determined entirely by the Barbie gaze. (Gerwig made sure to use "gaze" in the script here.)

There are a few noticeable flaws in the script, that could have been fixed without undercutting the powerful Galt-like speech that Gerwig speaks through her self-insert character Gloria (ably played by America Ferrera). The two most obvious:

  • Gloria's husband is a throwaway character, with maybe 3 uninteresting lines in 3 unimportant scenes. In this film he's the dog who didn't bark, a Chekhov's gun loaded with blanks and never fired. His only purpose in the film seems to be to blunt potential criticism that Gloria's speech is that of a bitter single mom. But his character didn't need to be so glaringly irrelevant. A few minutes of well-used screen time for him could have established that Gloria's indictment can still be validly issued from inside a normal marriage.
  • Ken returns to BL after experiencing Patriarchy in the RW for at most a few hours. He then is able to effortlessly conquer BL off-screen using just the idea of Patriarchy. This gives Patriarchy far too much credit, even considering how innocent the Barbies are. But perhaps the alternative would be problematic: if Patriarchy uses mechanisms instead of magic, then its actual workings would have to be examined, and Ken doing actual work might give him agency and sympathy. Still, other alternatives can be imagined, e.g. Ken returning with patriarchal cultural media. If Patriarchy works like a magic wand, then critiquing it becomes harder than necessary.
A much bigger problem with the film was one on which Gerwig felt forced to hang a lampshade: pretty privilege. That topic is brushed off with a fourth-wall-breaking one-line admission by the narrator that Margot Robbie is still very pretty even when she thinks she isn't. Mattel knew better than to open that can of worms, which is avoided for the rest of the movie. There are attractive plus-size Barbies and attractive wheelchair Barbies, but there is no analogue to Ken's homely friend Allen (inevitably played by Michael Sera).  The topic is almost encountered at the end of the film, when a smartly-dressed Barbie says "wish me luck" as she bounces toward what we're to think is her first job interview in the RW. What viewer could possibly question how a Margot Robbie look-alike will fare in the job market? But mid-brow feminism doesn't want to grapple with subjects like pretty privilege or height privilege. The first rule of Victim's Club is: never admit any privilege or responsibility, because fighting injustice might be harder if we address inconvenient truths. Target the easy wins, because the ends justify the means.
Unlike so many films aimed at youth, Barbie's villains were not villainous because they were businessmen -- they were villainous because they were men.  The script inadvertently gives a stirring defense of capitalism at one point. When Gloria suggests marketing a new normal/average Barbie -- prettiness level unspecified! -- the Male CEO summarily dismisses the idea. But when a Marketing Man computes that this product would be very profitable, Male CEO instantly endorses the idea. Gerwig here seemingly admits that dollars are not only colorblind but also gender-blind.
The only jabs at capitalism in Barbie were some throwaway lines plus a boardroom stuffed with men who -- like every man in the RW with a speaking line -- were 100% caricatures. (And like the Kens, they were admirably diverse. Gerwig can't be expected to oppose sexism and racism in the same film.) By the end of the film, Mattel's image is rescued by the ghost of Barbie's dead inventor. Indeed, the whole movie can be read as a cleverly subversive way to co-opt feminism to defend the Barbie franchise from feminist criticism.
And this gestures toward the true flaw -- or true genius -- of the film. Simplistic anti-feminists will complain that the film demonizes and caricatures men, but our culture's norms have many problems worth criticizing -- and "Patriarchy" is a useful handle onto many of them. Gloria's speech makes a one-sided but powerful critique of those norms. Unfortunately, its effect can be seen as undermined by the climax of the film, when the Barbies overthrow Ken's newborn magical Patriarchy and completely restore the Matriarchy. But under Matriarchy 2, the Barbies are fully conscious of the gender asymmetry -- and they admit out loud that they just don't care. By a Straussian reading, this could be the film's true post-feminist message: women are not only just as good as men, but also just as bad.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Mother Mother Was Not Marceline

On the Death Tape recording of the 1978 mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Jim Jones repeatedly implores the parents to poison their children without hysterics. At 36m45s he nearly shouts:

Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, please. Mother, please, please, please. Don’t– don’t do this. Don’t do this. Lay down your life with your child. But don’t do this.

Notable survivors of Peoples Temple speculate that he was rebuking his wife, Marceline Jones. Their only biological child, Stephan Carter, was not in Jonestown that day, but is convinced it must have been his mother. Tim Carter was in Jonestown for the beginning of the poisonings, and saw his wife and infant son die. He points out that in Peoples Temple only Jim Jones could be called "Father", and that only Marceline was called "Mother". In at least one recent interview (2018 Terror In The Jungle), Carter says that Marceline was screaming "stop this!" However, the documentary does not give any details about when or how Carter heard this. There is no corroboration for these assertions in either the Death Tape or in the published eyewitness accounts. Instead, we know this:

  • Moments before the revolutionary suicide meeting, as the assembled crowd awaited their fate in the pavilion, Marceline was conferring mere steps away with the JT leadership: JJ, Beam, McElvane, Katsaris, Johnny Jones, Harriet Tropp. Tim Carter noticed Dick Tropp arguing alone against suicide, with no support from Marceline. Instead, Harriet chides her brother as "just afraid to die".
  • During the meeting, mere minutes before the poisoning begins, Marceline calmly helps shame and bully Christine Miller for arguing against mass suicide. Marceline does this after hearing Jones announce that the departing Ryan delegation has been targeted for murder: "some have stolen children from others, and they are in pursuit right now to kill them". She knows that this White Night is not a drill.
  • Children were already being poisoned when Tim Carter sees his son and wife get poisoned. This is at least 20 minutes before Carter on his way out of Jonestown distantly hears Jones say "mother, mother, mother" over the PA. Carter thinks this was Marceline opposing the poisoning of children. But Carter was on the pavilion stage with 10 to 15 children's bodies already on the ground, and in no interview has he reported any opposition by Marceline specifically at this time -- the only time he was present at the poisonings.
  • While Maria Katsaris is on the PA trying to speed up the poisoning of the children, JJ calmly says "Marceline, they've got forty minutes". There's no sound on the tape here indicating opposition from Marceline.
  • Survivor Odell Rhodes was probably still at the pavilion during "mother, mother", and survivor Stanley Clayton definitely was, because he stayed until only 100-200 were left alive. They both reported people resisting poisoning e.g. spitting it out. They surely would have noticed and later reported it if Marceline was dissenting strongly enough for Father to passionately rebuke her over the P.A.
  • During the "mother, mother" rebuke, a woman is screaming -- most likely the very woman Jones is rebuking. Jones tells the mother: "Lay down your life with your child."  Marceline's children in Jonestown were all adults. Son Lew died with the elite leaders in Jones' cabin. Security leader Johnny Brown wouldn't have taken poison early, with the children. And daughter Agnes was 35. There was no "child" of Marceline's present to lay down her life with. Her body was not next to any of her children.
  • The recording pauses after the "mother, mother" rebuke, and the very next thing on the tape is Marceline calmly saying "--want the children out of S.C.U. [Special Care Unit]". She apparently was helping make sure that no children survived.
  • Jones was continually pausing and resuming the tape, trying to control what got recorded for posterity. On multiple occasions toward the end, he briefly turned on the recording to sternly shame and rebuke the parents of screaming children. But if a PT leader as prominent as Marceline were suddenly opposing the suicides, he surely wouldn't have recorded that embarrassing dissent.
  • In "Awake in a Nightmare" (Feinsod, 1981), Marceline consoles Odell Rhodes at a point after the "mother, mother" scolding, as the two of them comfort dying chidlren. In this detailed recounting of Rhodes' story, there is no hint that Marceline had just been scolded -- nor that she spoke up for the children.
Marceline Jones is widely treated as a sympathetic figure among survivors and researchers of Peoples Temple. She indeed worked frantically a year earlier in Sept. 1977 to avert a mass-suicide ultimatum that Jim Jones had issued. She surely would have preferred that Jonestown not die. But when the oft-rehearsed mass suicide finally became reality, we have no evidence that she spoke up against it. Instead, we hear her shame the one woman who did.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

2020 Election Stolen Fair and Square

The 2020 election was "stolen" fair and square: via Russia collusion hype, Ukraine impeachment charade, Reade/Hunter non-coverage, pandemic politicization, pandemic election regulations, de-platforming, vaccine announcement delay, etc.

Isaac Saul at ably debunks Democrat claims that 2016 was stolen, and Trumper claims that 2020 was stolen (with a detailed focus on Georgia).

Republicans Ted Olson, Mitch McConnell et al. analyze the 64 cases Trumpers filed against the results -- losing all cases but one. Both authors have long been demonized by Democrats -- Olson for his involvement in Bush v. Gore, and McConnell for packing the Supreme Court with conservatives.

Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist complains that Olson's team are anti-Trump, and that their analysis doesn't explore the losing cases in detail. But Hemingway doesn't even try to defend Trumper claims of hacked voting machines and fraudulent ballots, dismissing those long-debunked claims as "red herrings". Hemingway instead focuses on pandemic-related procedural changes and technicalities like having changed counties in the month before the election. Hemingway's article doesn't dare charge that any of these issues resulted in a single faked vote for Biden. Turns out she's as embarrassed by Trump's fraud claims as are the Never Trumpers she vilifies.

The Democrats didn't need to secretly fake ballots or hack voting counts in order to steal the 2020 election. They media "stole" it for them in broad daylight, and then bragged about it.