onsdag 17 januari 2018

Two excellent contemporary writers

Two of my favorite contemporary writers, operating however in very different genres, are Ted Chiang and Scott Alexander:
  • Ted Chiang is a science fiction writer specializing in short stories. When I read his collection Stories of Your Life and Others I said to myself "wow, this guy is almost better than Greg Egan" (but let me withhold final judgement on that comparison). The book opens with Tower of Babylon, which explores a beautiful alternative cosmology more in line with what people believed in ancient times, and continues with Understand, which, albeit lacking somewhat in realism, gives what is probably the best account I've read on what it might be like to attain superintelligence - an impossible topic, yet important in view of possible future transhumanistic developments. Among the other stories in the book is the title one, Story of Your Life, which was later adapted to the Hollywood movie Arrival; I recommend both reading the story and seeing the movie (the plots diverge somewhat in interesting respects) and then listening to the podcast Very Bad Wizards discussing them.

  • Scott Alexander blogs about science, philosophy, future technologies and related topics. He often penetrates quite deeply into his chosen topic, and his posts are often longish to very long. Several of his blog posts have influenced me significantly, such as...
Excellence is writing may however be more or less genre-specific; I suspect that most good authors of university-level mathematics textbooks suck as poets, and vice versa. Another example is that when last month Ted Chiang tried his luck at writing an essay on AI futurology with the title Silicon Valley is Turning into its Own Worst Fear, his brilliance does not shine through. The gist of Chiang's argument is that superintelligent AI and capitalism are similar in that they both relentlessly optimize for something that is not entirely well-aligned with human well-being, and that since superintelligent AI does not at present exist while capitalism does, only capitalism poses a real danger. This last conclusion is a non sequitur.

And now, finally... get ready for my excuse for discussing Chiang and Alexander in the same blog post! Scott Alexander's blog post Maybe the Real Superintelligent AI is Extremely Smart Computers from earlier this week is a masterful exposition of the errors in Chiang's arguments. When I first saw Chiang's essay, I saw mostly the same errors that Alexander saw, but would never have been able to explain them quite as pedagogically as he does. Do read it (Alexander's blog post, that is), as I have nothing to add to it.

lördag 13 januari 2018

Science Magazine on existential risk

I recommend reading the news article on existential risk research featured in Science Magazine this week. Several prominent researchers are interviewed, including physicist Max Tegmark, who should by now be well known to regular readers of this blog. Like philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose work (including his excellent 2014 book Superintelligence) is discussed in the article, he emphasizes a possible future breakthrough in artificial intelligence (AI) as one of the main existential risks to humanity. Tegmark explains, as Bostrom has done before him and as I have done in an earlier blog post, that the trial-and-error method that has served humanity so well throughout history is insufficient in the presence of catastrophic risks of this magnitude:
    Scientists have an obligation to be involved, says Tegmark, because the risks are unlike any the world has faced before. Every time new technologies emerged in the past, he points out, humanity waited until their risks were apparent before learning to curtail them. Fire killed people and destroyed cities, so humans invented fire extinguishers and flame retardants. With automobiles came traffic deaths—and then seat belts and airbags. "Humanity's strategy is to learn from mistakes," Tegmark says. "When the end of the world is at stake, that is a terrible strategy."
The alternative to trial-and-error is to raise the level of foresight, and partly for this reason it is excellent that existential risk research in general and AI safety work in particular gets the kind of media exposure that the Science Magazine article exemplifies.

On the other hand, this line of research is controversial in some circuits, whence today's media logic dictates that its adversaries are heard. Recently, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has become the perhaps most visible such adversary, and he gets to have his say in the Science Magazine article. Unfortunately, he seems to have nothing to offer beyond recycling the catchy oneliners he used when I met him face to face at the EU Parliament in Brussels in October last year - oneliners whose hollowness I later exposed in my blog post The AI meeting in Brussels last week and at greater length in my paper Remarks on artificial intelligence and rational optimism. Pinker's poor performance in these discussions gives the impression (which I will not contradict) that proponents of the position "Let's not worry about apocalyptic AI risk!" do not have good arguments for it. The impression is reinforced by how even leading AI researchers like Yann LeCun, when trying to defend that position, choose to revert to arguments on about the same level as those employed by Pinker. To me, that adds to the evidence that apocalyptic AI risk does merit taking seriously. Readers who agree with me on this and want to learn more can for instance start by reading my aforementioned paper, which offers a gentle introduction and suggestions for further reading.

fredag 5 januari 2018

Emma Frans årets folkbildare!

Kom ihåg vad jag skrev här på bloggen redan i juli 2014, långt innan Emma Frans nådde den nivå av berömmelse hon har idag:
    Emma Frans är ofta först bland svenskspråkiga skribenter med spännande nyheter om beteendevetenskap och annan forksning, och om någon vill utnämna Emmas selektion till Sveriges bästa vetenskapsblogg just nu så har jag inget att invända.
Just hennes blogg har varit halvt om halvt vilande det senaste året, men Emma arbetar desto mer med folkbildning via en rad andra kanaler, och idag har Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning (VoF) tillkännagivit att hon utsetts till Årets folkbildare 2017. I skrivande stund är deras webbplats svår att nå på grund av den överlastning av trafik som tillkännagivandet givit upphov till, men på föreningens ordförande Peter Olaussons blogg Faktoider hittar vi följande uttalande:
    Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning (VoF) har utsett Emma Frans, doktor i medicinsk epidemiologi, till Årets folkbildare 2017. Emma Frans tilldelas utmärkelsen för sin förmåga att på ett pedagogiskt och humoristiskt sätt sprida kunskap och förklara myter och missförstånd kring vetenskap.

    – Emma Frans har fått särskilt mycket uppmärksamhet det senaste året och det förtjänar hon. Hon är den första folkbildaren som började sin verksamhet på sociala medier och det är fortfarande där hon har sin starkaste plattform. Sociala medier har visat sig vara vår tids främsta kanal för förvillande – där behövs källkritik och folkbildning mer än någon annanstans, säger Peter Olausson, ordförande för Vetenskap och Folkbildning.

    – Men det är inte tillräckligt att behärska en kanal. Emma Frans är verksam på Twitter, och en stor tidning, och nu även i bokform. Det är så en modern folkbildare behöver arbeta: I olika kanaler med olika möjligheter och framför allt olika målgrupper.

    [...]

    Doktor Emma Frans gav under 2017 ut boken Larmrapporten - Att skilja vetenskap från trams, på Volante förlag. I boken redogör Frans på ett pedagogisk sätt för hur vi som individer kan navigera genom den djungel av information som florerar runt omkring oss dagligen. Med hjälp av lustiga anekdoter tagna ur vardagslivet beskrivs begrepp som placeboeffekten och cherry picking. Även avdelningar rörande källkritik, informationsinhämtning och statistik avhandlas med hjälp av tydliga exempel, ofta hämtade från verkligheten.

    Genom att Emma Frans uttrycker sig lättbegripligt och ofta med en stor portion humor, utan att tumma på det vetenskapliga förhållningssättet, är hon en god folkbildare i den digitala tidsåldern.

Jag instämmer i allt detta, och kan tillägga att jag funnit Emmas bok så bra, med dess närmast unika kombination av lättillgänglighet och vederhäftighet, att jag avser använda den på den kurs inom lärarutbildningen på Göteborgs universitet som jag är engagerad i.

Grattis Emma!