Don’t Watch The News

May 27, 2004

I’ve had a number of anti-war folks ask me lately whether I’ve revised my opinion that eliminating Saddam was a good idea. I note that none of them have revised there opinions and have a theory as to why they are asking. They are watching the news reports of bad events rather than actually examining any statistics about conditions in Iraq. This sample bias, exacerbated by the political bias of the media they read, make it difficult for them to come to objective conclusions on the matter. Nissim Taleb wrote a great article about the problem of sample bias in a recent issue of Edge magazine.

Take an example of this probabilistic maladjustment. Say you are flying to New York City. You sit next to someone on the plane, and she tells you that she knows someone whose first cousin worked with someone who got mugged in Central Park in 1983. That information is going to override any form of statistical data that you will acquire about the crime rate in New York City. This is how we are. We’re not made to absorb abstract information. The first step is to make ourselves aware of it. But so far we don’t have a second step. Should newspapers and television sets come with a warning label?
The second one is a journalist. On the day when Saddam was caught, the bond market went up in the morning, and it went down in the afternoon. So here we had two headlines — “Bond Market Up on Saddam News,” and in the afternoon, “Bond Market Down on Saddam News” — and then they had in both cases very convincing explanations of the moves. Basically if you can explain one thing and its opposite using the same data you don’t have an explanation. It takes a lot of courage to keep silent.
We are not made for type-2 randomness. How can we humans take into account the role of uncertainty in our lives without moralizing? As Steve Pinker aptly said, our mind is made for fitness, not for truth — but fitness for a different probabilistic structure. Which tricks work? Here is one: avoid the media. We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. It is a very dangerous thing, because the probabilistic mapping we get from watching television is entirely different from the actual risks that we exposed to. If you watch a building burning on television, it’s going to change your attitude toward that risk regardless of its real actuarial value, no matter your intellectual sophistication.

Transhumanism and Dualism

May 27, 2004

At the Foresight conference there were a lot of people enthusiastic about human enhancement and perhaps even about uploading themselves onto silicon. Many of these people also consider themselves atheists and scientists who disbelieve that there is something called a soul that is independent of the mechanics of their physical bodies.

Paul Bloom has done work that shows that most people tacitly believe in souls even if they claim otherwise. Uploaders fit the bill here. If they truly believed that their existence was physical and they valued their own lives, they would be extremely conservative about mucking with the engineering of their brains. Instead they insist on viewing their brains as some sort of prosthetic to be enhanced with technology. As we learn more about how we construct souls, we will understand better what sorts of enhancements are acceptable to those who oppose murder or suicide.

Another Saddam 9/11 link

May 27, 2004

From OpinionJournal we now have confirmation either that one of Saddam’s top officers was present at Al Queada’s 9/11 planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur or that someone with the same name was present at both meetings.

This matters because if Shakir was an officer in the Fedayeen, it would establish a direct link between Iraq and the al Qaeda operatives who planned 9/11. Shakir was present at the January 2000 al Qaeda “summit” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at which the 9/11 attacks were planned. The U.S. has never been sure whether he was there on behalf of the Iraqi regime or whether he was an Iraqi Islamicist who hooked up with al Qaeda on his own.
The reason to care goes beyond the prewar justification for toppling Saddam and relates directly to our current security. U.S. officials believe that American civilian Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Iraq recently by Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, who is closely linked to al Qaeda and was given high-level medical treatment and sanctuary by Saddam’s government. The Baathists killing U.S. soldiers are clearly working with al Qaeda now; Saddam’s files might show us how they linked up in the first place.

So they found a sarin shell.

May 18, 2004

Lilek’s summarizes well:

So they found a sarin shell? Eh. Halliburton put it there, it was old, and besides everyone knew Saddam had WMD, and we gave him the sarin anyway, and it would be news if we found 400 shells, but if they were old undeclared shells they wouldn’t count because they weren’t a threat to us anyway – do you know that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi? Why aren’t we invading them? Not that we should, that would TOTALLY be about oil, anyway , did you read Doonesbury today? He had this giant hand talking in a press conference. This big giant floating hand. I think it was a reprint. I like when he has that bald dude who’s in charge of some Iraqi city. Bald dude is like, wasted.

Josh is Angry

May 18, 2004

Josh says in backchannel that he is angry. From the context it is clear that he is angry that Bush is in power and wants to debate the issues in public. He articulates the challenge thus:

no discussion about the pros and cons of the bush administration will be without a discussion of domestic issues as well as international ones. the crucial difference between the way you think now and the way i think now has nothing to do with intellectual dishonesty or low iq, (fucker) but that i care deeply about the actual domestic state of this country,

Since, in our discussions, my focus has been almost exclusively about Iraq, I interpret Josh as saying that he is not really interested in whether taking out Saddam was a good policy but rather whether George Bush is a good or bad President. Since abstract goodness or badness are metaphysical questions and metaphysical questions are not really coherently answerable, I’d like to constrain this discussion to something more manageable. If Josh wants a debate about whether Bush or Kerry would be a superior President over the next four years, that is an option, but even that seems overly broad without agreement about what would make one superior to the other. So I challenge Josh either to provide some basis of comparison between the two possible future Presidents or to constrain the discussion to respective mertis of Bush and Kerry’s policies on some specific issue.

But before we do any of that, I would like to resolve the question of intellectual honesty. Josh, do you believe that the Bush administration claimed that Saddam was an imminent threat to the United States.

(Josh, if you want to have this debate in the comments section, that is fine. Personally I would prefer if you responded in your own blog because MT does not allow links to comments.)

Human Dignity/Integrity

May 18, 2004

Do you want to be healthier and live longer (do you want immortality)? Do you want to be smarter and remember more? Do you want to feel happier and more optimistic? Do you want to be able to communicate telepathically with other people or with your computer? Do you want to be more physically attractive? Do you want more spiritual satisfaction? Do you want more intellectual satisfaction? Dp you want to feel more apart of your community? Do you want to coordinate better with colleagues? Do you want these things for your kids/friends/community/country/world?

I know I do (according to my definition of all these things). More specifically, I want to be able to choose freelywhich technologies I accept and reject. However we live in a world in which:

  • People transmit biota (viruses/bacteria) to each other unintentionally so as people adopt various technologies to accomplish the above, I have to wonder about what organisms are being created, how they mutate and whether they are contagious. Suppose someone infects themselves with a mood-changing virus…
  • Democratic governments feel entitled to vaccinate people to protect them from various diseases. I don’t want Patriot Act 2015 to include a rule requiring everyone to be vaccinated against the risk they will engage in sociopathic behavior (e.g. Columbine or suicide bombings). That puts the government on the track of pushing all sorts of public safety “enhancements.” Brave New World, here we come? Note: Already we are seeing schools where kids that fail to take Ritalin are punished (just for being “natural”).
  • People really hate people who don’t go with the group. They are hostile to people of different religions, political persuasions, skin color, lifestyle etc. How much social pressure will there be to go along with whatever modification the group chooses?
  • We have a political system that relies on some clear definition of human/non-human. Technologies that blur this distinction put our political system and social institutions at risk. Perhaps you believe that a fetus is a person or perhaps not. How do you feel about an anencephalic baby? What are the rights of a clone that I created just to use for spare parts? What are the rights of an intelligent machine to which I have copied/downloaded my brain state? Can it vote? How do you feel about requiring an IQ test in order to vote? Can I produce lots of copies of myself to vote during an election that then all die the next day?
  • We currently believe in individual “free-will.” Technologies that allow modification of preferences make the definition of free-will less clear. People who run Microsoft Windows are more likely to run Microsoft Office. Are there substantive differences betweeen viruses, viral marketing, and viral memes?
  • We currently think our thoughts are private. The technologies that allow telepathy will also allow a third party to watch what is happening in our brains from a distance. Do you want to be required to wear a special hat to protect you from this invasion of your privacy?

The problem with all of these enhancement technologies is that they rapidly make our whole social structure obsolete. Unless we have working alternatives, we may not like the net result of losing the definition of “human.”

Note: There may not be a choice here. We just need to start planning now.

Basement Bio/nano-tech

May 18, 2004

Does the NSA want effective private sector cryptography that woud enable any random foreign government or terrorist to hide their communication? Does the Department of Energy want a commercial infrastructure for private sector breeder reactors that produce more nuclear fuel as part of the power generation process than they consume (fuel of sufficient quality that it is also usable in nuclear weapons)? If there was commercial nuclear power in the 1930’s who would have produced and used nuclear weapons first? Perhaps we don’t want widespread commercialization of bio and nano-technology because, although the private sector will optimize their use for good, that technology would be too easily used by our enemies.

At the Foresight conference last weekend Eric Drexler claimed that the National Nanotech Initiative and Richard Smalley were actively trying to inhibit private sector nanotech research. If he is correct, perhaps thoughts like those above are motivating them. It would be bad if people were producing human viruses in the same manner that they are producing computer viruses.

However, given that the capital costs of bio/nanotech are so cheap (two scientists recently designed a “good” sexually transmitted virus that disables HIV for less than $200k), it is not clear that these harmful viruses won’t be produced by teen-agers and terrorists in basements in Eastern Europe and perhaps Pakistan anyway. One could argue that crypto is low cost as well except that the R&D is really hard and mathematical and the failure of crypto affects only its users and not everyone else. Basement bio/nano-tech is more like spam. Easy to do badly possible to do well. With bad guys trying lots of different things both for fun and perhaps even to increase demand for products in which they are invested.

So, we face the choice of increased commercialization of bio/nano-tech at the cost of increased likelihood that it will be used for evil and gaining the benefits that such technologies will deliver (greater health, happiness, and wealth). Or we don’ eat the apple of commercial bio/nano-tech and remain in our present less-than-edenic-but-not-as-bad-as-it-could-be state. And as with most choices the real issue is not whether but when and how best to prepare.

In most sorts of fights it is better to be on offense than defense. In that spirit we should start thinking now about what bio/nano-tech we would like to procure and what we would like to resist. We should be able to produce a new treatment as easily as they can produce a new disease and we should shift into a psychology of active improvement because it puts us in the mindset of being the ones choosing the changes and forces the bad guys to try to hit a moving target (as the population modifies its genes and biota at highly varying rates).

As a matter of attitude the shift to a psychology of happiness is definitely a good start. We may also need medicine of health that make people feel and be better rather than simply a medicine of cure. We probably need to loosen up on rules about illegal drugs and perhaps restrict the FDA to regulating cure treatments rather than improvement treatments. We should expect that many of these treatments are custom and so perhaps people will demand Personal Producers, desktop machines that produce custom drugs, genes, and nanotech for each persons individual needs.

(Yes I know that this contradicts the Human Dignity argument I’ve been making. Will follow up shortly).