15 June 2022

Brief observations for 15 June 2022

Almost none of the atoms that made up your body twenty years ago are still there.  Over time, every atom is replaced via normal chemical and biological processes.  Yet you are still you.  The essence of a thing is in its structure, not its materials.

o o o o o 

Strictly speaking, "fundamentalism" means taking the whole Bible as literally true, so the fact that fundamentalism usually ends up being cruel and authoritarian pretty much tells us what the Bible is like.   If it were a humane and individualistic book, then fundamentalism would be humane and individualistic.

o o o o o

If you are confronted with a person who wants to order you around for his own selfish reasons, and another person who wants to order you around for what he claims is your own good, it is the second person who is your greater enemy.  Both of them are trying to take away your freedom, but the second is denying that you are even competent to exercise it.

o o o o o

This engineer at Google believes that an AI program he works with has achieved consciousness.  Here is an interview with it illustrating his point.  I am not convinced one way or the other, but if we don't accept this as evidence of consciousness, then how would a truly conscious AI program persuade us that it was conscious?  The moral implications of self-aware machines are an issue we are going to have to deal with at some point -- probably in the fairly near future.

o o o o o

Atheists seem to have less power than hard-core religionists because we're less organized.  Atheism is not an ideology or a belief system (rather, it's the absence of a specific type of belief), so there can be no atheist "leaders" comparable to religious clergy and rabble-rousers.  Nor should we want such a top-down model.  Nevertheless, we're winning.  Every year, far more people abandon religions than join them.  All the religionists' apparent victories -- taking control of the Republican party, imposing limits on abortion, electing Trump -- just accelerate that loss of membership, because normal people don't want to be associated with bigotry and authoritarianism.  Even the majority of nominal Christians now have a basically secular outlook, accepting pluralism, same-sex marriage, etc.  In the long run the fundies' steady decline as a percentage of the population means they can't maintain what power they have.

o o o o o

When somebody openly admits that he avoids looking at any source of information that doesn't agree with what he already believes, there's no real point in discussing anything with him, because he has ensured that he can never know if he's wrong about something.  It's a waste of time.  Focus on people who are reachable.

o o o o o

Never respond to an idea with a cliché.  There are few things more disappointing than expressing an original thought and getting only generic, canned replies.

o o o o o

If, as some claim, the Second Amendment's right to bear arms applied only to the types of guns that were available when it was written, then the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press would apply only to publications printed with the technology available at that time -- not to blogs, websites, or anything produced with a word processor.  Let's not give the pro-censorship vermin ideas.

o o o o o

Too much deference to the old leads to stagnation.  Conversely, too much deference to the young leads to a culture and government of fads.  It is necessary to consider assertions and arguments purely on their own merits, regardless of who puts them forward.

o o o o o

In my search for like-minded people, I no longer look for left-wingers or right-wingers as such -- I'm just looking for people who don't have the crazy going on.  Liberals who aren't captured by the "woke" stuff, the trans lunacy, Israel-bashing, negativity about "whiteness", and the like.  Conservatives who aren't creationists, global-warming deniers, gay-haters, Christian supremacists, anti-vaxers, stolen-election nuts.  They must be out there.  I'm pretty sure that sane people are still the majority.

o o o o o

Never confuse respect with mere fear.  It is usually fairly easy to make people afraid of you.  Earning their respect is an entirely different thing.


Blogger Mike said...

Tough choice here but two bullets win.

I think we need a Grand Poobah to lead the disorganized. I'll vote for you.

15 June, 2022 01:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I appreciate your vote. I consider myself superbly qualified to represent disorganized people.

Note to readers: Mike's "tough choice" line is referring to observation #3. Immediately after posting I edited it a bit to remove a turn of phrase which I thought could have been construed as advocating violence.

15 June, 2022 01:56  
Anonymous NickM said...

Are you aware of Trigger's Broom...


LaMBDA brings up a very interesting methodological question. I've always felt there was something just wrong about the Turing Test... I've never figured out what but that is but... I do suspect the question will not be answered. The fundamental issue is that I can't see how it can be without an understanding of human consciousness or even a definition of that. Think of it as trying to dismantle a Swiss Army knife with itself. For sure the question will be increasingly asked about "machines" but I can't even conceive of how an answer could be framed or indeed what specifically the question is. Right. I'd best stop this now. I have to attend a seminar on later- Kant hosted by the Roomba.

15 June, 2022 03:15  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I did read about the Google engineer. It's fascinating. Would it pass the Turig test, though? And looking at right wing sites (or Faux News) is fun! The infighting for the craziest, most deranged conspiracy theory is what keeps me entertained.
And nobody is 'in the middle', Infidel. If somebody agrees with some of the right wing crazy, he'll soon discover that the whole thing is quite deranged.


15 June, 2022 04:24  
Blogger Jack said...

I agree that we are going to have to improve our organization to accomplish much. Maybe we can do so without having to rely on top-down models where we'd turn things over to leaders. Something more grassroots in nature could help mobilize people who cared about specific issues.

15 June, 2022 04:36  
Blogger Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I've been working in AI for about 20 years so I'm naturally dubious about the Google claim. As for the Turing test, we already have systems that can adapt to individual styles and emulate conversation in some areas. (Plus, I'm not sure that humans like MTG would pass one based on the quality of their quotes.) Part of the problem is that AIs are evolving in a very different ocean than the ones that humans have. The millions of starts and stops experienced in the evolution of human consciousness aren't reproducible so AIs are developing along different tracts. Perhaps most importantly, we have very little societal insight into our own consciousness. I studied human cognition in great detail as part of my preparation for this work. Fuzzy determinist that I am, I tend to have a more mechanistic view of what passes for human consciousness than most. A view that is sadly supported by the effects we see from the polarization generated by social media and media indoctrination. I started a series on the limits of human consciousness a while back. The pictures are nice if nothing else. https://farcornercafe.blogspot.com/2022/01/we-humans-like-to-think-of-ourselves-as.html

In my opinion, until our laws and customs are re-evaluated in light of how brains actually work, we won't make lasting progress on the global problems we face.

15 June, 2022 08:21  
Anonymous NickM said...

I find your last paragraph somewhat disturbing.

Gimme strength... We don't need organization (whoever we are). Religiousity is in terminal decline not because of the Popular Front or whatever but basically because we'd rather shag our girlfriends and boyfriends on a Sunday Morning than go to a drafty old building to get told we're sinners. I'm typing this on an ASUS Zenbook with a 512GB SSD. My first computer was a ZX Spectrum with a cassette tape. I ain't going back. Where would be the fun in that?

At a deep level - God simply has never played a part in my life and I am far from alone on that.

15 June, 2022 14:56  
Anonymous CAS said...

Regarding ethical AI, one of my daughters is concerned about this and is shaping her undergrad degree in the hopes she can continue to work on such questions after graduation.

15 June, 2022 16:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

NickM: It's true that we have a ways to go to clearly define consciousness, or to figure out how the brain generates it and how it evolved. Once we've done those things, we'll be in a better position to figure out whether a machine has it. But I certainly don't believe it's forever unanswerable. Across history many questions have been viewed that way, but were eventually solved.

Sixpence: I've found that if one only looks at news sources of one ideological slant, one risks being unaware of stories they choose not to mention because they don't fit the narrative. You always have to be careful about a source slanting the news to fit their own purposes, but I'd rather be aware of what's going on; if a source's honesty is suspect, you can look for multiple reports on the same topic. Fortunately there are more and more places on the net that don't take a side on the left-vs-right thing but just focus on their own issue, regardless of which "side" agrees with them on this or that.

Jack: It's not really practical to build an organization around the absence of a belief, because there's no common agenda. What's the common agenda of people who don't believe in unicorns? A common agenda for people who don't believe in God is no more feasible. There are, yes, people who focus a lot of attention on attacking religion, but even there, there are differences in approaches. And I think Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and our humble blogs are doing pretty well without needing any connective organization or leadership.

Pliny: I think the Turing test somewhat misses the mark. Even a conscious machine probably couldn't convince us it was human, since it wouldn't have the kind of real-world experiences and cultural background that a human has.

As I responded to NickM, I agree that part of the problem is that we still don't have a clear sense of how consciousness works even in organic brains. I think we will, though, probably in a decade or two.

The fact that I have free will is really the only thing I can claim to know with absolute certainty, since it's the one thing I know directly, not through the mediation of the senses. I would also add that I don't believe anybody really believes in hard determinism, because nobody behaves the way they would if they believed that. Even people who claim there is no free will continue to work towards goals and otherwise behave as if they believed the future is not pre-determined and can be affected by their choices. I addressed the free will issue here.

CAS: I'd be interested to know what specific issues she's working on. To me, the most obvious issue we're likely to actually run into is that if some machines are conscious, but we continue treating them as property, haven't we really just re-invented slavery?

15 June, 2022 18:11  
Blogger Pliny-the-in-Between said...

An incredibly rich topic for discussion across a wide range of issues. Thanks for kicking this hornet's nest.

NickM, As an example of what I was arguing, I believe that the vast majority of our penal system bases its concepts of punishment on age-old notions of free will that I do not believe are consistent with what we know about human cognition. If true then our current system can't be just.

There are those of us who do in fact believe in strong determinism. That we continue to seek goals most likely suggests that we are programmed that way. However it eventually sorts out, mind is a property of the brain. What we sense as free will, I believe, is a neuroplastic process of continuous adaptation to our environment rather than nondeterministic free will. Alter the brain chemically, damage it physically, and properties of mind are lost. Consciousness resides, lives and dies in our neurons.

As for the ethics of AI, I believe it's a challenge to apply human ethical models to machines since their development is along lines far different from our own and currently limited to a much smaller variety of inputs than are our brains. Also, as we see here, there's no consensus on what drives ethical behavior in humans let alone machines. In our work in the area, most emphasis is on ensuring the ethics of the curators rather than the machines. Complete transparency is maintained throughout the system and its operations since keeping the lights on is the most effective way we have found to prevent bad behaviors best done in dark places.

It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds in the next few decades. Thanks again for engaging such a fascinating topic.

16 June, 2022 06:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Pliny: Alter the brain chemically, damage it physically, and properties of mind are lost. Consciousness resides, lives and dies in our neurons

Certainly true, but not an argument against the existence of free will, which I consider self-evident. It just means (see link in my previous comment) that we don't know yet how the physical structures of the brain generate a non-deterministic phenomenon, any more than people thousands of years ago could have known the true way that the Sun generates light. Time will pass and we'll figure it out.

there's no consensus on what drives ethical behavior in humans let alone machines

Basic morality is almost certainly the result of natural selection; it seems to be inborn, it is mostly consistent across cultures (I'm talking morality here, not religious taboos), and precursor phenomena are observed in other primate species. Machines, of course, aren't the product of natural selection, and presumably whatever ethics they have will consist of whatever is programmed into them by humans. Whether a self-aware machine could consciously defy and violate those programmed ethics is something we'll have to wait and see about. The key point, obviously, is to avoid allowing any such machine control over anything that could harm humans. Colossus notwithstanding, nobody will be foolish enough to give a conscious machine control over the doors in and out of the lab where it resides, never mind a nuclear arsenal.

Thanks for your comments; we'll see if NickM chooses to reply.

16 June, 2022 08:10  
Anonymous NickM said...

Well, the obvious retort on determinism is that we're deterermined to display behaviour that seems like free-will. It is very difficult to argue against that one without going on a spree with Occam's razor...

"The fact that I have free will is really the only thing I can claim to know with absolute certainty, since it's the one thing I know directly, not through the mediation of the senses."

That sounds more than a hint Cartesian. Just sayin'.

Yes, I know... Lots and lots of problems were thought intractable at various times... But this is different, perhaps. Firstly, the issue is very long-standing. Cave-folk must have pondered it after a nice chunk of mammoth. I would argue we haven't really got much beyond that because of the second issue which is trying to take oneself apart is qualitatively different from understanding an atom or even a biological cell.

There is another issue a lot of the "intractables" were more "unthoughtofs". For example up until c. 1800AD nobody had ever really given much systemtatic thought to electricity or magnetism. The idea that a modern physics syllabus would ignore EM is just unthinkable.

Newton was the greatest genius that ever existed, and the most fortunate, for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish.

- Lagrange.

I could reply to respond to Pliny right now but I have chosen to put the washing out and plow on with my web-design work for a client. Whether that is hard-wired behaviour I know not but it seems like a choice. I will say one thing. I find Pliny's bringing-up of the penal system odd in the circs. Surely if crime is not the moral fault of the criminal then neither can be the choice of punishment?

It wasn't that QM and thermodynamics and relativity and all that malarkey were mysterious - they hadn't even been conceived. Lagrange (great mathematical physicist though he was) was having an "Alexander moment".

16 June, 2022 08:20  
Blogger CAS said...

"I'd be interested to know what specific issues she's working on. To me, the most obvious issue we're likely to actually run into is that if some machines are conscious, but we continue treating them as property, haven't we really just re-invented slavery?"

I can't answer your question about what she hopes to work on. I'm not sure she knows. I remember the first time the notion of machine intelligence reaching the level of humans hit me (decades ago) and my thought was "isn't that just a faster form of evolution"? I didn't really see a problem with it. I can't talk very intelligently about the issue but when I get a chance, I'm going to try to at least learn more about my kids' perspectives. If something enlightening comes up, I'll let you know.

18 June, 2022 14:50  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

I think atheists should become pagans or druids so they at least fool the evangelicals that they believe in something..

18 June, 2022 16:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

CAS: Once real machine intelligence arises, it would be expected to increase very rapidly. The best (and safest) way of exploiting the potential of this is to integrate machine intelligence into our own, via integration of nanocircuitry into organic brains, and eventually freeing human consciousness from the limitations of the organic brain entirely. Human intelligence could then easily rise to trillions of times its current level.

Granny: I suspect evangelicals would not consider than more acceptable -- and if we're going to feign adherence to something we don't really believe for the sake of camouflage, we might as well just feign being Christians.

18 June, 2022 20:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He talks about souls, so I dismiss the conscious algorithm out of hand.

19 June, 2022 06:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Humans are conscious and lots of them believe in souls. Being conscious doesn't exclude being wrong about things.

19 June, 2022 08:15  
Anonymous NickM said...

"Human intelligence could then easily rise to trillions of times its current level."

Define that!

This ASUS Zenbook is technically, by certain measures, billions of times more powerful than the ZX Spectrum I had in the '80s. Yet, in some ways it's basically the same. Yes, there actually are qualitative differences as well as quantitive. I mean there is no way I could have streamed video back then. But it's mostly quantitive and that is very difficult to quantify. And I have no idea how one quantifies creativity.

What about the invention of the sewing machine? The French guy behind this true game-changer had no idea where to put the hole in the needle until he had a dream.

19 June, 2022 08:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Define that!

Oh for fuck's sake.

19 June, 2022 09:47  
Blogger Daal said...

the canned responses make me just leave the room because then I know they're not really listening, just talking to themselves & preaching to me...

20 June, 2022 16:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I know the feeling. They're not listening, or at least not bothering to think.

21 June, 2022 01:18  

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