Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.
As a former google employee I was deeply saddened, but unsurprised, to learn that Google had released new rules discouraging political debates within the company. I always felt this was one of the things which made the company great and helped make the world better. This action represents a key step undermining an important that helped keep the company from being evil. However, the blame doesn’t lie with executives or most google employees but with the broader political climate and a small number of extremists.
The fundamental problem Google faced (as our country does) is that productive dialog of this kind requires a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints as valid and for belief in the system to persist even when you lose. Despite some idiotic news coverage this isn’t a victory of corporate greed over the policy of not being evil but reflects the inherent difficulty of figuring out what is evil. While some people might think that working with the government to develop some military application is evil others could quite reasonably believe that refusing to work with the military only costs more lives. As long as people understand there really are (in this case) good people on both sides and don’t see a loss as a fundamental failure of the system this kind of internal discussion is productive. Unfortunately, however, in recent years there has been an increasing willingness of some employees to appeal their losses to the media imposing huge PR risks (and probably making the discussions less open/frank). Ultimately, the net result isn’t that the people who want google to eschew military applications or work in China get their way but that now they don’t even get (as much of a) change to make their case and change minds.
To see why it’s essentially impossible for Google to encourage such frank discussion in the current political environment just consider the Damore affair. Damore didn’t get the science exactly right and offered speculations that fell short of full academic rigor but Google can’t possibly enforce a neutral rule that people who make claims about STEM gender differences without a fully footnoted bibliography get fired. They’d need to also fire every person who says that the paucity of female programmers reflects discrimination (or implies it by demands to rectify the situation). While I favor calling out both Damore and everyone who assumes, without strong evidentiary support, that the gender gap must be primarily caused by discrimination (without substantial evidence) that would draw even more fire. I don’t cheer Damore on but I also don’t see any way to formulate a neutral rule that merely specified a standard of evidence on the subject without disastrous consequences.
While I think one can say a lot in favor of discouraging any discussion on issues of race, gender etc.. at the office I’d note that this is incompatible with the oft-pushed idea that we should be having a conversation about these ideas and suggests that Google was misguided to encourage employees to discuss corporate policy regarding gender balance in the first place.
Or Using Smartphones and Smart Speakers to Solve All Violent Crime
We are at the point, or very near it, that our technology could virtually eliminate unsolved violent crime. For instance, suppose we all constantly captured audio with all our smart devices and uploaded it to the cloud. Our devices could update the uploaded buffer when we log into our devices later and fail to report an emergency1. Unlike biological memory this could be reliably used in court and captured even by murder victims.
Why don’t we use this kind of tech to take a bite out of crime? Well, for the moment it still might strain our bandwidth and storage resources but 5G and ever cheaper storage make this a temporary issue but even people who can afford those resources aren’t so inclined. Now one might think it’s out of fear of technical loss of privacy. What if amazon, google or some hacker figures out how to access our buffered audio?
But that’s not really a convincing worry since it’s pretty easy to secure the buffered audio more securely than our devices themselves are secured. I mean anyone who can hack our cell phones and smart speakers can just enable listening in directly while we could split the secrets to decrypt the audio between multiple big tech companies. The real problem is that we are creating a record that can be subpoenaed and used against us or our intimates without our permission.
What we need to solve this problem is some digital legal analog of biological memory. That is a class of digital records that, like biological memory, need not be produced if the creator chooses not to. Of course, it’s actually a bit more subtle because we can all be compelled to testify but when we do so we not only maintain our 5th amendment protections we can also simply lie or evade. In conjunction this prevents fishing expeditions that a digital record would allow (e.g. I’m sure my husband did something unsavory during the last 48 hours let’s subpoena his audio record so we can use it against him in the divorce).
One possibility is to only use such records as a supercharger for testimony (unless the individual who created it has died). In other words the only access to such data would be by allowing it’s creator to review the tape and indicate what happened in a deposition that would be checked for perjury/accuracy by a third party (special master?) against the actual tape. Maybe it’s not the best solution but we need something that lets us treat our digital memories like our organic ones with respect to our control over their revelation.
One might naturally worry about the friends and family members who commit a great deal of violent crime scheming to impersonate you to clear the incriminating information but if we always keep a sufficiently long buffer so as to make the failure to report us missing during that time suspicious we can at least minimize the risk. ↩
There is a rumor going around that apple may try and replace Intel chips in it’s computers with their own in-house chip. Now, it’s certainly conceivable that apple will offer a cheap low-end laptop based on the chips it uses for the iPhone and iPad. Indeed, that’s probably a great opportunity. However, the idea that apple might switch completely to their own in-house Silicon is such a bad business idea that I have to assume they won’t try.
I mean suppose for a moment that apple thought they could outdo Intel and AMD in designing high end processors. What should apple do? Well they could design processors in-house just for their own computers limiting their potential profits and assuming substantial risk if they turn out to be wrong. Alternatively, they could spin off a new processor design company (perhaps with some kind of cooperation agreement) which could sell their processors to all interested parties while limiting their risk exposure. Now, I think the later option is clearly preferable and as it seems pretty implausible to think Intel and AMD are so badly run as to make such a venture attractive so it would be even less attractive to try and compete with Intel in house.
Now why doesn’t this same argument apply to apple’s choice to design it’s own ARM chips for the iPhone? First, apple was able to buy state of the art IP to start from which wouldn’t be available in they were designing a high performance desktop/laptop CPU. Secondly, because of the high degree of integration in mobile devices there were real synergies apple could realize by designing the chip and phone in combination, e.g., implementing custom hardware to support various iphone functions. Considering desktops and highend laptops there are no such pressures. There is plenty of space to put any dedicated hardware in another chip and no special apple specific features that would be particularly valuable to implement in the CPU.
On the other hand a cheap(er) laptop that could run iPad apps could be a great deal. Just don’t expect them to replace Intel chips on the high end systems.
A new Bloomberg report claims Apple is working on its own CPUs for the Mac, with the intent to ultimately replace the Intel chips in its computers with those it designs in-house. According to Bloomberg’s sources, the project (which is internally called Kalamata) is in the very early planning stages, but it has been approved by executives at the company.
In hindsight it often turns out the biggest effect of a new technology is very different than what people imagined beforehand. I suggest that this may well be the case for self-driving cars.
Sure, the frequently talked about effects like less time wasted in commutes or even the elimination of personal car ownership are nice but I think self-driving cars might have an even larger effect by eliminating the constraint of proximity in schooling and socialization for children.
While adults often purchase homes quite far from their workplaces proximity is a huge constraint on which schools students attend. In a few metropolises with extensive public transport systems its possible for older children to travel to distant schools (and, consequently, these cities often have more extensive school choice) but in most of the United States busing is the only practical means to transport children whose parents can’t drive them to school. While buses need not take children to a nearby school they are practically limited by the need to pick children up in a compact geographic area. A bus might be able to drive from downtown Chicago to a school in a suburb on the north side of the city but you couldn’t, practically, bus students to their school of choice in the metropolitan area. Even in cases where busing takes students to better schools in remote areas attending a school far from home has serious costs. How can you collaborate with classmates, play with school friends, attend after school activities or otherwise integrate into the school peer group without a parent to drive you?
This all changes with self-driving cars. Suddenly proximity poses far less of a barrier to schooling and friendship. By itself this doesn’t guarantee change but it creates an opportunity to create a school system that is based on specialization and differing programs rather than geographic region.
Of course, we aren’t likely to see suburban schools opening their doors to inner city kids at the outset. Everyone wants the best for their children and education, at least at the high end, is a highly rivalrous good (it doesn’t really matter how well a kid scores objectively on the SAT only that he scores better than the other kids). However, self-driving cars open up a whole world of possibility for specialty schools catering to students who excel at math and science, who have a particular interest in theater or music or who need special assistance. As such schools benefit wealthy influential parents they will be created and, by their very nature, be open to applicants from a wide geographic area.
No, this won’t fix the problem of poor educational outcomes in underprivileged areas but it will offer a way out for kids who are particularly gifted/interested in certain areas. This might be the best that we can hope for if, as I suspect, who your classmates are matters more than good technology or even who your teachers are.
I should probably give credit to this interesting point suggesting that school vouchers aren’t making schools better because they don’t result in school closures for inspiring this post (and because I think its an insightful point).
This is an interesting piece but I couldn’t disagree more with the title or the author’s obvious feeling that there must be a cynical explanation for techie’s distrust of government regulation.
Silicon valley types are simply classical pragmatic libertarians. They aren’t Ayn Rand quoting objectivists who believe government intervention is in principle unacceptable. Rather, they, like most academic economists, simply tend to feel that well-intentioned government regulation often has serious harmful side effects and isn’t particularly likely to accomplish the desired goals.
I think this kind of skepticism flows naturally from a certain kind of quantitative results oriented mindset and I expect you would find the same kind of beliefs (to varying degrees) among the academic physicists, civil engineers and others who share the same educational background and quantitative inclination as silicon valley techies. I’m sure that the particular history of poorly understood tech regulation like the original crypto wars in the 90s plays a role but I suspect it just amplified existing tendencies.
But by the 1990s, with the advent of the World Wide Web and the beginning of the tech industry’s march to the apex of the world’s economy, another Silicon Valley political narrative took root: techies as unapologetic libertarians, for whom the best government is a nearly nonexistent one.