Wicked problems

[ 31/May/23 Mike wrote:
An amazing presentation in this morning’s plenary about space exploration, bringing us up-to-date on the latest tools of exploration and their findings, including some of the Webb space telescope’s awe-inspiring discoveries.
Heady stuff, but in some aspects also naïve, single vision, monological gaze accessible stuff. But what a gaze!!
Of course, it need not be from just that; in fact, if it is, it will kill us.
The speaker remarked on the trope, “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we … whatever?”
For example, “if we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we stop killing each other?” That’s easy: the tech to send a man to the moon addresses mostly complicated, artefact, problem spaces; our killing each other mostly involves complex, organic, complex to wicked problem spaces.
There are far deeper and richer exploratory frontiers in the latter than the former. Yes, tools change us, but how, and to what?
As my new FB friend Eric Schaetzle just quoted Iain McGilchrist as writing:
“Greek tragedy concerns the effects of hubris, the vain delusion whereby man sees himself as being god-like. The result is inevitably catastrophic. Indeed our term ‘catastrophe’ (from Greek katastrephein, to overturn) refers specifically to the dramatic downfall of the victim of hubris in Greek tragedy … Pride and arrogance, believing we know it all, are the opposite of the religious disposition of humility, reverence and compassion. And without them, neither we, nor the whole far greater, astonishing, living world, over which for better or worse we now have the power we so much craved, can thrive.”
UNQUOTE. Source: McGilchrist, Iain . The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 1989 and p. 1998). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition.]

While in a sense I can agree with everything you wrote, there is another sense in which there does seem to be a relatively simple answer in several parts.

The reason we keep killing each other comes down essentially to our tendencies to over simplify.

Part of solving that comes from accepting that evolution is a process that starts simple, then rapidly gets extremely complex.

It starts being mostly about competition, then rapidly changes to be mostly about cooperation (with a competitive façade).

Evolution instills within us multiple levels of preference for the simple over the complex, which is nothing at all like living in a simple world, though it does have the effect of creating that illusion within most people. The multiple subconscious levels of tendency to simplify create experiential “realities” for people that are in fact simple, even though they are based upon an “objective reality” that is, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, fundamentally uncertain and irreducibly complex. In many people, that preference for simplicity overrides all other forms of logic and training, and under stress leads to individuals literally experiencing reality as sets of binaries (Friend/Foe, Good/Evil, Right/Wrong, etc), with no trace of gradation or uncertainty or complexity left. That is a core part of the problem space that we are all susceptible to, at multiple levels, and McGilchrist is as guilty of it in his writings as any of us, even as he distinguishes some levels of complexity, he over simplifies other essential aspects, leading to invalid conclusions.

After that, the single largest contributor to the problem space seems to be a reliance on the myth of money. Money can be a very valuable myth, if employed appropriately, but it only works if everyone has at least enough to survive. That makes a very strong case for having a universal income as the prime mechanism for money creation. That single change in the system is not a universal panacea, but it would buy us enough time to be able to do some serious work on some of the other really difficult areas.

Any potential service not performed (for lack of money) is real wealth lost, even if inside of the myth of money it is money saved. Similarly with any good lost to waste because it didn’t get to someone who could consume it before it degraded beyond use.

Going into space is essential. If we do not master space travel, then we go the way of the dinosaurs, it is not a matter of “if”, only a matter of “when”. There are so many classes of existential level risk that demand very powerful space borne technology, but without acceptance of the need for fundamental cooperation, and for the acceptance and respect of any diversity that is not an actual and unreasonable threat to existence, then the technology is a greater threat than the threat it is created to counter.

The war in Ukraine needs to stop.


All wars need to stop.

We cannot survive all out war. Our technologies are too powerful.

We need cooperation in diversity.

We need acceptance of any diversity that is demonstrating appropriate levels of responsibility.

We all need to accept that freedom without responsibility is self terminating, necessarily.

We all need to accept that freedom is an essential part of being human, and that it results in both mistakes, and diversity (things we never contemplated or expected – eternally).

Mistakes and diversity must be accepted as a necessary aspect of freedom, no logical escape from that, not at any level or class of abstraction or logic that I have explored (and I have explored far more than most).

The overly simplistic notions that are wrong and pose the greatest risk right now seem to be:
evolution is all about competition;
market competition can solve all problems;
there is a right way to be in this world.

None of those ideas is survivable, if taken at scale.

We must all accept uncertainty – it is the most fundamental aspect of humility – and it can be deeply uncomfortable, in places most of us would rather not look, in places we find terrifying.

We must all accept that responsibility demands more of us than following any set of rules and laws (and that does not give any of us license to ignore any set of rules or laws with impunity); and that is hard – it demands more than most are willing to contemplate. The more deeply one considers it, the harder it gets.

And it is doable.

We need to feel the fear and do it anyway; and do so in a way that embodies the deepest levels of humility we can find, and we must continue the search for deeper levels – eternally.

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Risk and simplification

[ 27/May/23 ]

If there is one major driver of most of the many classes of existential risk we face right now, it is an addiction to simplicity, and a refusal to deal with the necessary levels of complexity present.

It manifests in our economic systems in thinking that competition can solve all problems, when the reality is deeply more complex, and is much more closely approximated by saying that any level of competition without a cooperative base is necessarily self destructive in the long term.

An almost exact analogy of that can be seen in the understanding most have of evolution (if they have one at all) that it is all about competition. The reality again is, that every new level of complexity demands a new level of cooperation if it is to survive long term, and for cooperation to survive it requires an evolving ecosystem of cheat detection and mitigation systems.

And of course, competition is always present in evolution, but at our level it is much more accurate to characterise evolution as being mostly about the mechanisms of cooperation required for survival.
So much economic and political dogma is simply too simplistic to survive, and the current high risk AI scenarios are in a very real sense just another manifestation of that.

And the only practical way to get most people to distinguish complexity is to reduce the stress they are under – for the vast majority of humanity that demands economic reform.

Some for of universal income seems to be the only practical way forward; and with the productive power of modern systems, it is easily doable. And it is a deeply complex subject, with economic, political, cultural and psychological components that must be managed appropriately.

Yes – hard loosing a loved Dad – and staying alive is its own reward!

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Language, Imprecision and philosophy

Language imprecision and philosophy

[ 27/May/23 Walter posted:
Notes on philosophy:
Terms in the language (despite dictionaries) are not precisely defined, they are understood and used differently than their definitions, etc.
So languages ​​are not suitable for philosophical problems!?
Yes, No, ?]

Once again, trying to over simplify an extremely complex reality into a simple binary. In a very few contexts there is undoubted utility in doing so, but rarely are those contexts in the realm of philosophical enquiry.

It does seem to be beyond any shadow of remaining reasonable doubt that reality is more complex than any entity can model in detail in anything remotely approaching real time. Thus all entities (human and nonhuman, biological and artificial) are dealing with multiple levels of simplification (whether they are conscious of that fact or not).

In we humans, much of that processing and simplification happens subconsciously, much of it starting at the molecular level within our sensory systems. Much of our ability to make distinctions seems to be genetically controlled. As an example, my wife is face-blind, she cannot recognise faces easily (as most of us can). I found out very early that I hear in different frequency ranges to most people. I discovered as a very young child that the piano keyboard stops making music 8 notes from the top of the keyboard, and just makes “thunk” sounds. It took me a few years to work out that most people must be able to hear music in a range that I cannot. Conversely, I can hear rats, mice and chicks, in ultrasonic ranges that most others cannot. It took me longer to work out that I am tetrachromatic, and see in different frequency ranges to most (not until I did a colour blindness test for my skipper’s ticket in 1978).

Every individual “see”s and experiences reality in ways that are different to others. In most cases those differences are small enough that the terms we develop as labels for those experiences are sufficiently similar that language works, and for some of us, that is not as common as for others.

Language seems to be a metamodeling ability of human brains, that is shared to some degree by many animal species. We can train some dogs to have very large vocabularies of nouns, and reasonable vocabs of verbs (check out the youtube video of Neil degrasse Tyson with the border collie Chaser). I have had birds with reasonable vocabs as well.

It seems that evolution’s tendency to punish the slow much more harshly than the slightly inaccurate has instantiated multiple levels of tendency to prefer simple binaries over more complex and fundamentally uncertain sets of distinctions (many of those levels being subconscious and undistinguished in most people). Thus everyone experiences reality as being much more simple than it really is (if one takes the time to look closely).

How we experience and use language is part of that.

Becoming aware of it is part of developing wisdom.

Philosophy, to me, is being in the enquiry as to the nature of this experience of being that we have, in the face of all the impediments to “seeing” what is actually going on, that are obviously (and not so obviously) present (Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Rationality from AI to Zombies is a reasonable catalogue of many of them, but he misses many that can be found in psychological and neurological literature, and some in advanced mathematics and non-binary logics). The imprecision of language is just one of many such classes of “thing”.

Language is what we have, with all its imprecisions and uncertainties.

We each have our personal approximations to whatever reality might actually be, with all their faults and foibles.
We are each, limited and fallible individuals.

An essential step on the path to philosophical wisdom is accepting that the simple binary conceptions of our childhood (like true/false, right/wrong, good/evil) seem to be very crude and often inappropriate approximations to the infinite complexity and uncertainty of things that actually seem to exist in this thing we call “reality”.

Philosophy, it seems to me, is about accepting all those things, and and in the face of them, embarking on the eternal journey of becoming “less wrong” in our models and understandings, as experience and circumstance and contemplation allows. And language (with all its many imperfections) is an essential tool on that journey.

[followed by DB replied – K.I.S.S keep it simple stupid life is to serious to be serious …]

I prefer the formulation that:
all models are probably wrong in multiple dimensions, and the objective is to be as accurate as possible as consistently as possible within the constraints of time, energy, information and computation available. And that is going to be highly dimensional between different contexts.

The really difficult thing for our species, is that our use of concepts and technology has, in many contexts, pushed us beyond the bounds of the heuristics embodied in our genetics and cultures that worked as reasonable approximations for our ancestors.

We are well past the point where simple is optimal for survival.

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Mike, Daniel, Nate – AI and the Superorganism

Mike’s facebook post about Daniel’s interview with Nate on AI and The Superorganism

[ 23/May/23 ]

I love that interview, and align with so much of it, but it seems to me that Daniel is over simplifying what is actually going on (particularly in the last 5 minutes).

What he is calling the ability to see wholes, does have that as an attribute, but to me it seems to be something else too, or much more usefully described as something else entirely, which is an ability to see the necessary strategic constraints required for long term survival, which necessarily includes cooperation and respect for diversity; but also contains so much uncertainty and unknowability, that discerning levels of “cheating strategy” can be extremely difficult, and deeply uncertain.

I kind of agree with him, but it is deeply more complex and difficult than he seems to be appreciating – just reading his body language. And I really like Daniel, and Nate – they are both moving in directions that much more closely align to what is necessary than the vast bulk of humanity.

Evolution starts simple, and gets deeply complex quickly.

Of course there is competition in evolution, but competition always tends to destroy complexity, and complexity can only survive if new levels of cooperation emerge and stabilize and do in fact mediate the risks from competition. And that sounds simple, but the recursive layers of strategic ecosystems required to make it work are just mind numbingly complex.

I kind of like both Bohm and Krishnamurti, both independently and together, but I don’t see them actually getting to the strategic complexity present. They seem to sense it, but then (understandably) over simplify it.

If there is one message I have, it is cooperation and respect – with everything that is not an actual and unreasonable threat to someone else that is behaving responsibly. And there will always, necessarily, be uncertainties in making such judgement calls (all levels, all domains).

And I don’t like simple binaries, and they do have there uses, and there are places where polarities are useful, and reality seems to actually be so deeply more dimensional, with so many layers and degrees of influence.

And of course, we need to simplify, in practice, and we also need to be conscious that there will be contexts where our simplifications fail, and we need to be alert for those contexts, even as we use the simplifications (our best guesses, our favoured heuristics, …).

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[ 21/May/23 Mike posted a quote “What makes you think human beings are sentient and aware? There’s no evidence for it.”… ]

Agree that the quote is wrong, an over simplification; and it points in the direction that we are rarely as conscious or free in our choices as we would like to believe.

And it is more complex than “beliefs guide being” and that is one influence of many on what makes us us.

And the more stressed we each are, the more simplistic the models we employ, and consequently the less nuanced the distinctions we are capable of making. One cannot distinguish novelty or uncertainty under stress.

Most people can distinguish and deal with novelty when there is no stress involved, when they feel safe and secure.

[followed by]

Yes and no – it is more than a species thing.

It is true of all sapience.

It is a necessary fundamental aspect for any computational entity (human or non-human, biological or non-biological) that has real time constraints to act within, in situations that are deeply complex or fundamentally uncertain (which is basically all of reality, if one is prepared to look deeply enough).

So it seems very probable that all of our models and understandings are wrong, but not equally so, the probabilities can vary substantially with contexts. As I said at the start, reality tends to punish the slow much more harshly than the slightly inaccurate – so we all necessarily have multiple levels of bias to prefer the simple over the complex if we can get away with it.

The levels of “self deception” that can instantiate can be substantial, and can take a great deal of “work” to bring to awareness.

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Comment on Daniel’s page

Comment on Daniel’s page

[ 20/May/23 ]

My dad died almost 26 years ago. For many years we worked together every day – my closest friend. When I “left home”, I bought the house next door.

It was hard not having him there, and he is always there in a sense. When I get to a hard place – I ask what would dad say? Several of his pet sayings are with me most days “All things in moderation, particularly moderation”, “A job started is a job half done”, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

His trust gave me so much room to make mistakes and grow; to learn to trust my own judgement, and to let others make theirs.

He is a part of me – every day! And I miss him.

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The Singularity

What is the Singularity? How do you think it will affect humanity, and what can we do to prepare?

[ 22/May/23 ]

In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which a function takes an infinite value.

In more common speech the term has many meanings, one of which is a peculiar, exceptional, or unusual feature or characteristic.

We are in a time of exponential changes in several different areas.

In terms of computation and intelligence, we are rapidly approaching the point at which artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence in most meaningful dimensions (it already does in many more dimensions than many thought possible even a decade ago).

Part of what determines a singularity is the nature of the “function” involved.

It seems clear to me that the reality that we all exist within is more complex than any computational entity can deal with in detail, and contains many different classes of fundamental uncertainty and unknowability. It also seems clear that evolution punishes slowness much more harshly than slight inaccuracies (most of the time); and thus we all contain multiple levels of bias (both subconscious and conscious) to over simplify our experience understandings of reality. This leads many people to have overly simplistic “functions”, that do deliver “singularities”. If one can deal with the depths of the complexity and strategy present in evolutionary biology, then one will see that every new level of complexity requires a new level of cooperation to emerge, and to survive long term cooperation requires evolving ecosystems of “cheat” detection and mitigation systems. The overly simplistic notion that competition can solve all problems is not simply wrong, it necessarily leads to destruction – the reality is deeply more complex and nuanced, and necessarily based in cooperating diversity.

So it very much depends on how complex the models are that one is using to understand existence, and the ability of those models to approximate highly dimensional probability landscapes that involve fundamental uncertainties and unknowables, as to whether of not one “sees” a mathematical singularity.

And there is no doubt that we will experience changes that few expect, and some of those will be disruptive to some people and organisations.

And if enough people can see the fundamental need for cooperation, then there is potential for benefits beyond anything experienced in human history, and there are also risks greater than any in recorded human history. Achieving the benefits demands the greatest degrees of cooperation and responsibility and respect for diversity (both human and natural) that we can create, each to the best of our limited and fallible abilities. And it cannot be naïve cooperation, or it will be exploited and destroyed. Nothing even remotely simple in the levels of difficulty present, and it does seem to me to clearly be the only future with any significant long term probability of survival.

If we fail to develop the levels of cooperation and responsibility required to safely wield the sorts of technologies that can actually mitigate all of the classes of risk we have already identified, then at some point one of them will happen. And for cooperation to work, it has to be all levels, no cheating – any level! Those who have built their life around cheating will find the transition difficult, and it is doable.

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To Beth on Geoff Hinton

[ 18/May/23 ]

Hi Beth,

I have great respect for Geoff Hinton, he is one of the leaders in the AI community, but I don’t see that AGI is necessarily a threat to humanity, and we do need to do a lot better than we have been.

Human beings are more complex than most people have ever considered the possibility of. This has been a subject that has fascinated me for over 50 years. I started 2nd year Biochem at age 17 (was the youngest in the class by a couple of years, and usually in the top 5 in tests). I then got quite deeply into evolutionary biology, evolutionary strategy, and reasonably deeply into how brains work.

Recent research shows that brains are capable of searching “pattern space” at about 10^50 patterns per second. That is a big number – even for advanced AGIs. Most people might get stuck in patterns, but they are capable of becoming unstuck.

We co-exist with bacteria, fungi, and all manner of less complex life forms. There is no reason for us to fear AGI, provided we are not being an active threat towards it.

And the algorithm behind GPT4 is a long way short of producing full AGI, and it could be a useful part of a very complex package, but only a part. Real intelligence requires a lot more than that.

I give us a better than even chance of coexisting with AGI for the rest of eternity, and there are a large set of risks to be mitigated that are not related directly to AI, and AGI could be a very useful part of that process.

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Biggest problem

Biggest problem in the world

[ 15/May/23 ]

Looking for overly simplistic answers to irreducibly complex issues and looking for certainty when facing fundamental uncertainty; rather than accepting the need for personal responsibility in all things, each to the best of our limited and fallible abilities.

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On money again

[ 15/May/23 Dirk posted a Classical Liberty quote:
If printing money wasn’t dangerous then we should’ve made everyone billionaires a long time ago.
Deep down, we all know it is dangerous.]

Money is a useful myth – it works only as long as we believe in it.
All that really exists, at any point in time, is the goods, and potential services, present at that point in time. Most goods degrade at some rate, and require energy for storage. Any potential for service not utilized is lost.

Money is a token of value, but in and of itself it is useless.

It only works because we believe it will work, and we accept it for our goods and services, and others give us goods and services in exchange for it.

Any time there is more money trying to buy goods and services than goods or services in existence, money devalues. That is true if the money if fiat, gold, or rare shells or feathers or whatever.

The idea that we can save money, independent of goods and services in existence, is insanity. The money creation systems we have in existence today are most of the problem. Some sort of universal income would make a lot more sense than the existing system. And it is a deeply complex problem space.

We have the technical ability to deliver abundance of all essentials to everyone, and to deliver reasonable degrees of freedom, but freedom without responsibility is always destructive, and too few are interested in deeply exploring the levels of responsibility required with the levels of technology currently available (let alone those available on the near horizon).

An overly simplistic understanding of money, and its involvement in the systems that make our technological society possible, is deeply dangerous.

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