Feb 092016
 

tumblr_o21tjdhKDn1uuik1zo1_1280Today there is a parade in my city (Denver) to celebrate a Super Bowl victory. I caught a few glimpses of the prep on the TV, and it strikes me how similar this sort of behavior is to the Ancient Roman practice of the Triumph. It made me very happy. Because a Triumph necessitated the previous murder of tons of people. We’ve managed to replace it with a civilized competition with structure and rules instead of carnage and destruction. This is a huge step forward.

I consider this a form of civilizational bio-hacking. There is an innate violence in our species. We long to destroy our enemies and see them driven before us (and hear the lamentation of their women, etc). It’s a wonderful feeling to revel in the shared rushed of crushing a foe and celebrating your mastery over them. In the absence of the tools needed to remove this sickness from our psyches, we found a way to get that rush while removing the harm.

It’s similar to the way that the introduction of easily-available pornography reduces sexual violence. Or how violent video games allow people to indulge their aggressive tendencies without actually harming people (at least for a little while).

So next time someone disparages the stupidness of sports, remind them that they fulfill a biological need with a clever hack that makes all of our lives comparatively better.

Jan 272016
 

THIS+IS+FINEI posted this on the /rational subreddit, but I’m mirroring it here as well. I want to finally talk about Three Bodies at Mitanni, now that the people I talk to most have access to it. :)

Lots of spoilers below!

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I’m still into themes of consciousness, specifically as discussed in Meditions on Moloch and Peter Watts’s Blindsight. I find them deliciously frightening. But what I really like about 3BM is that it makes me really freakin’ worried about myself.

Take Bayesians vs Barbarians which makes the case that, if an actual Rational Society was attacked by fanatics, the Rational survival action is to delegate the amount of people and resources necessary to defeat the fanatics and convert them to war-making purposes until victory is assured. People would likely be selected based on some combination of effective fight ability and lottery. This would include whatever self-modification is necessary in order to WIN as efficiently as possible.

I completely agree. I would hope such a lottery wouldn’t choose me, but if it did I would submit to warrior-modification for the good of my society. This IS what I want.

Which sounds suspiciously like the horror-punch of 3BM.

Which also leads me to realize that any time I give up any immediate pleasure for the promise of future utility (saving money to invest rather than spending on hedons; working on podcast or writing rather than going out with friends; etc) I am in effect saying “This is fine. This is what I want.” And it really is! A life of pure in-the-moment hedonism would suck, I want to make things that last, and to have future financial security! But, well, how far am I willing to push that before I become Mitanni-esque? Before I’m not really working for me anymore, I’m just benefitting “the system” and deluding myself that it’s for me?

Basically, anytime my core values are convincingly attacked like this, I feel really creepy and shivery, and I like that feeling.

Aug 042015
 

more-carved-book-sculptures-by-guy-laramee-oTldr: What really matters is connecting to our readers. And you can’t connect to people if they can’t even read your work.

There are three major Speculative Fiction periodicals in the USA that still print on dead trees – Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog. They’ve been around for a very long time, and due to their longevity and physical presence, they are considered the most prestigious to be published in. Most of the authors I know want to be published in them more than anywhere else, and send their new works to them first.

I respect this and I’m impressed when friends make sales to them.

But they are not my first choice for publication. None of them are even in my Top 3. Because when I get published in a print magazine NONE OF THE PEOPLE I LOVE CAN READ MY STORY!

It isn’t easy getting a copy of one of these magazines. I have to find a Barnes & Noble in my area (or one of the very rare non-B&N brick-and-mortar bookstores), root around in the neglected corners of their hidden magazine racks for a half hour (seriously, the SF lit stuff is almost impossible to find), only to find out that the June Issue of the magazine doesn’t actually come out in June!! (wtf print publications?) I’m too late! Then I find out I have to pay an amount approaching the cost of many eBooks for what is in effect a single short story, since I don’t care about any of the other stuff in there. And then on top of all that, I’m doing all this for a story I haven’t even read yet. I may not even LIKE it!

And no, I can’t buy an e-copy of a single issue, at least not without spending a half hour trying to figure out how to do that without buying a full-year’s subscription as well, and I’m not gonna be hassled into that.

So, how many authors am I willing to go through this process for? Exactly three: Chiang, Watts, and Dickinson.

I hate that I can’t recommend some of my favorite stories to my friends, because there’s no way for them to read them. I didn’t bother posting about “Three Bodies at Mitanni” at /r/rational,  because how would anyone there get to read it anyhow? I have the same problem with “Liking What You See”. I am insanely happy that I can recommend “The Things” to everyone, because that’s available online! I do so all the time, and it always makes me all excited inside, imagining what they’ll be feeling the first time they read it.

For that reason I generally go with the online publications first, whenever I can. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If I get published in one of these, I can actually link to it. I can tell my friends, my family, my podcast listeners, and even the sometimes the guys on /r/rational, that I have written something, and here it is! Come take a look! :) I can’t do that with the Big Three paper publications.

Perhaps even more to the point – paper disappears quickly. It’s on the shelves for one month, and then it’s gone forever. The internet offers some modicum of permanency. Your story will still be available for people to read after two months, or two years, or even fifteen years later!

So yes. I respect the prestige of the paper publications. I am honored to have been in one. But I think that given another decade, maybe two at the absolute outside, paper and subscriptions will lose their luster. More and more authors choose to have their works appear in the free-to-read online publications whenever they can. Because for most of us, what really matters is connecting to our readers. And you can’t connect to people if they can’t even read your work.

All of which is to say – now that the rights for the story I sold to Asimov’s have reverted to me, I’ve put it online so that people can read it.

 

Although I will give print publications this – they are willing to look at works longer than 7,500 words. It is really hard trying to find a home for anything longer than that online. :(

Aug 012015
 

THIS+IS+FINEI just read “Three Bodies At Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson.

Oh my god.

At first you think it’s about Hanson-style Ems. Then you think it’s about p-zombies. Then you think it’s about pathological altruism. Then you make the connection to Meditations on Moloch. Then you realize it’s the story-fication of the picture to the left. And then, in the end, you realize it isn’t about any of those things. Or rather, it isn’t *just* about those things. It is about you.

This is Rational Fiction by a Rationalist that is a Cautionary Tale About Rationalism. And it’s really fucking good. Seth Dickinson continues to be one of the most important writers of our generation.

I only wish it was available in a format that people in my generation could ACTUALLY READ. Right now you can only get it by tracking down a June 2015 dead-tree copy of Analogy Science Fiction (the special 1000th issue!).

But if you get a chance, I highly recommend it. Hopefully Seth will make it available online someday.

Jul 022015
 

lainRecent comments about the previous post regarding valuing how brain-states are achieved are deserving of reflection and reply.

 

 

Rowan:

how is the process of playing Doom without cheat codes distinguished from the process of repeatedly pushing a button connected to certain electrodes in your head that produce the emotions associated with playing Doom without cheat codes? (Or just lying there while the computer chooses which electrodes to stimulate on your behalf?)

If it’s just the emotions without the experiences that would cause those emotions, I think that’s a huge difference. That is once again just jumping right to the end-state, rather than experiencing the process that brings it about. It’s first-order control, and that efficiency and directness strips out all the complexity and nuance of a second-order experience.

See Incoming Fireball -> Startled, Fear
Strafe Right -> Anticipation, Dread
Fireball Dodged -> Relief
Return Fire -> Vengeance!!

Is strictly more complicated than just

Startled, Fear
Anticipation, Dread
Relief
Vengeance!!

I think the key difference being that in the first case, the player is entangled in the process. While these things are designed to produce a specific and very similar experiences for everyone (which is why they’re popular to a wide player base), it takes a pre-existing person and combines them with a series of elements that is supposed to lead to an emotional response. The exact situation is unique(ish) for each person, because the person is a vital input. The output (of person feeling X emotions) is unique and personalized, as the input is different in every case.

When simply conjuring the emotions directly via wire, the individual is removed as an input. The emotions are implanted directly and do not depend on the person. The output (of person feeling X emotions) is identical and of far less complexity and value. Even if the emotions are hooked up to a random number generator or in some other way made to result in non-identical outputs, the situation is not improved. Because the problem isn’t so much “identical output” as it is that the Person was not an input, was not entangled in the process, and therefore doesn’t matter.

 

Billy:

I may be misunderstanding how you use the term “wireheading”, but a sufficiently advanced machine could stimulate the right parts of your brain at the right time to give you the experience of watching a movie, and there would be no way to distinguish between the “real” experience and the “wired” experience. (Or substitute any of your other examples.)

So before we start, I want to state that I don’t think there’s anything bad about simulated experiences per se. “Wireheading” is commonly defined as directly activating the end-state that is desired. In the classic example, by running a wire to the joy-parts of the brain and stimulating them. What you seem to be describing is more of a Matrix-style full sensory replacement.

I actually don’t have much of a problem with simulated-realities. Already a large percentage of the emotions felt by middle-class people in the first world are due to simulated realities. We induce feelings via music, television/movies, video games, novels, and other art. I think this has had some positive effects on society – it’s nice when people can get their Thrill needs met without actually risking their lives and/or committing crimes. In fact, the sorts of people who still try to get all their emotional needs met in the real world tend to be destructive and dramatic and I’m sure everyone knows at least one person like that, and tries to avoid them.

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

Perhaps you meant something different? A “Total Recall” style system has the potential to become nightmarish. Right now when someone watches a movie, they bring their whole life with them. The movie is interpreted in light of one’s life experience. Every viewer has a different experience (some people have radically different experiences, as me and my SO recently discovered when we watched Birdman together. In fact, this comparing of the difference of experiences is the most fun part of my bi-weekly book club meetings. It’s kinda the whole point.). The person is an input in the process, and they’re mashed up into the product. If your proposed system would simply impose a memory or an experience onto someone else wholesale* without them being involved in the process, then it would be just as bad as Rowan’s “series of emotions” process.

I have a vision of billions of people spending all of eternity simply reliving the most intense emotional experiences ever recorded, in perfect carbon copy, over and over again, and I shudder in horror. That’s not even being a person anymore. That’s overwriting your own existence with the recorded existence of someone(s) else. :(

Jun 302015
 

IDDQDBased on yesterday’s post, already two people asked why not just wirehead with a large and complex set of emotions.

I’m old enough to have played the original Doom when it came out (sooo old!). It had a cheat-code that made you invincible, commonly called god-mode. The first thing you notice is that it’s super cool to be invincible and just mow down all those monsters with impunity! The next thing you notice is that after a while (maybe ten minutes?) it loses all appeal. It becomes boring. There is no game anymore, once you no longer have to worry about taking damage. It becomes a task. You start enabling other cheats to get through it faster. Full-ammo cheats, to just use the biggest, fastest gun nonstop and get those monsters out of your way. Then walk-through-wall cheats, so you can just go straight to the level exit without wandering around looking for keys. Over, and over, and over again, level after level. It becomes a Kafka-esque grotesquery. Why am I doing this? Why am I here? Is my purpose just to keep walking endlessly from Spawn Point to Exit, the world passing around me in a blur, green and blue explosions obscuring all vision? When will this end?

It was a relief to be finished with the game.

That was my generation’s first brush with the difference between goal-oriented objectives, and process-oriented objectives. We learned that the point of a game isn’t to get to the end, the point is to play the game. It used to be that if you wanted to be an awesome guitarist, you had to go through the process of playing guitar a LOT. There was no shortcut. So one could be excused for confusing “I want to be a rock star” with “I want to be playing awesome music.” Before cheat codes, getting to the end of the game was fun, so we thought that was our objective. After cheat-codes we could go straight to the end any time we wanted, and now we had to choose – is your objective really just to get to the end? Or is it to go through the process of playing the game?

Some things are goal-oriented, of course. Very few people clean their toilets because they enjoy the process of cleaning their toilet. They want their toilet to be clean. If they could push a button and have a clean toilet without having to do the cleaning, they would.

Process-oriented objectives still have a goal. You want to beat the game. But you do not want first-order control over the bit “Game Won? Y/N”. You want first-order control over the actions that can get you there – strafing, shooting, jumping – resulting in second-order control over if the bit finally gets flipped or not.

First-order control is god mode. Your goal is completed with full efficiency. Second-order control is indirect. You can take actions, and those actions will, if executed well, get you closer to your goal. They are fuzzier, you can be wrong about their effects, their effects can be inconsistent over time, and you can get better at using them. You can tell if you’d prefer god-mode for a task by considering if you’d like to have it completed without going through the steps.

Do you want to:

Have Not Played The Game, And Have It Completed?  or Be Playing The Game?

Have A Clean Toilet, Without Cleaning It Yourself? or Be Cleaning The Toilet?

Be At The End of a Movie? or Be Watching The Movie?

Have A #1 Single? or Be Creating Amazing Music?

If the answer is in the first column, you want first-order control. If it is in the second column, you want second-order control.

Wireheading, even variable multi-emotional wireheading, assumes that emotions are a goal-oriented objective, and thus takes first-order control of one’s emotional state. I contest that emotions are a process-oriented objective. The purpose is to evoke those emotions by using second-order control – taking actions that will lead to those emotions being felt. To eliminate that step and go straight to the credits is to lose the whole point of being human.

Jun 292015
 

Terminator thumbs upI don’t mean that humans are machines that happen to feel emotions. I mean that humans are designed to be machines whose output is the feeling of emotions—“emotion-feeling” is the thing of value that we produce.

Humanity has wondered what the purpose of life is for so long that it’s one of history’s oldest running jokes. And while everyone is fairly concerned with the question, transhumanist singularitarian are particularly worried about it because an incorrect answer could lead to a universe forever devoid of value, when a superhuman AI tries to make things better by maximizing that (less than perfect) answer. I’m not here to do anything as lofty as proposing a definition of the purpose of life that would be safe to give to a superhuman AI. I expect any such attempt by me would end in tears, and screaming, and oh god there’s so much blood, why is there so much blood? But up until very recently I couldn’t even figure out why I should be alive.

“To be happy” is obviously right out, because then wireheading is the ultimate good, rather than the go-to utopia-horror example. Everything else one can do seems like no more than a means to an end. Producing things, propagating life, even thinking. They all seem like endeavors that are useful, but a life of maximizing those things would suck. And the implication is that if we can create a machine that can do those things better than we can, it would be good to replace ourselves with that machine and set it to reproduce itself infinitely. Imagining such a future, I disagree.

I recently saw a statement to the effect of “Art exists to produce feelings in us that we want, but do not get enough of in the course of normal life.” That’s what makes art valuable – supplementing emotional malnutrition. Such a thing exists because “to feel emotions” is the core function of humanity, and not fulfilling that function hurts like not eating does.

The point is not to feel one stupid emotion intensely, forever. It is to feel a large variety of emotions, changing over time, in a wide variety of intensities. This is why wireheading is bad. This is why (for many people) the optimal level of psychosis is non-zero. This is why intelligence is important – a greater level of intelligence allows a species to experience far more complex and nuanced emotional states. And the ability to experience more varieties of emotions is why it’s better to become more complex rather than simply dialing up happiness. It’s why disorders that prevent us from experiencing certain emotions are so awful (with the worst obviously being the ones that prevent us from feeling the “best” desires)

It’s why we like funny things, and tragic things, and scary things. Who wants to feel the way they feel after watching all of Evangelion?? Turns out – everyone, at some point, for at least a little bit of time!

It is why all human life has value. You do not matter based on what you can produce, or how smart you are, or how useful you are to others. You matter because you are a human who feels things.

My utility function is to feel a certain elastic web of emotions, and it varies from other utility functions by which emotions are desired in which amounts. My personality determines what actions produce what emotions.

And a machine that could feel things even better than humans can could be a wonderful thing. Greg Egan’s Diaspora features an entire society of uploaded humans, living rich, complex lives of substance. Loving, striving, crying, etc. The society can support far more humans than is physically possible in meat-bodies, running far faster than is possible in realspace. Since all these humans are running on computer chips, one could argue that one way of looking at this thing is not “A society of uploaded humans” but “A machine that feels human emotions better than meat-humans do.” And it’s a glorious thing. I would be happy to live in such a society.

Feb 192015
 

Technicolor_Alien_Brain_by_ClaireJonesFrom Echopraxia (note that “Bicamerals” are humans that have self-modified to network their brains and thus reach post-human levels of intelligence) –

“You could look into the eyes of any cat or dog and see a connection there, a legacy of common subroutines and shared emotions. The Bicamerals had cut away all that kinship in the name of something their stunted progenitors called Truth

Those lines hit me right in the awe-sense. Yes. YES! I admire the HELL out of those people! That is true dedication to overcoming biases and gaining a correct model of reality. That is what a true love of Truth looks like. It is inspiring. It is amazing.

It is also scary, because it means cutting out parts of what makes us human. It is Peter Watts’ contention (if I read his book right) that it is even worse, akin to killing oneself, as you’d no longer be recognizable afterwards. If our species were to go down this path, it would be genocide, replacement by alien beings.

But it also seems to be his argument that such creatures would make humans obsolete. Never again would we be players on the stage of reality. We would become no better than pets, or chess pieces. The real players would be incomprehensible and unopposable. And that’s the true horror, for anyone who thinks such self-modification is inevitable. If you want to matter, you must leave behind your humanity. If you believe the change is radical enough to destroy your very self for all significant purposes, it means your choices are literally either meaninglessness or suicide.

On the one hand, I want to say “bring it on.” I’m very different from who I was ten years ago, and unrecognizably different from who I was twenty-five years ago. Evolution already killed (almost) all of us once, at puberty. It can do it again. I might as well beat it to the punch, and reincarnate in a form of my choosing.

On the other hand, I value myself a lot. The thought of killing myself, replacing myself with something not-me in order to affect the future, is fucking terrifying. Every practical concern in my body says “No. No. NO. NO!”

But… then that lure of the Truth comes out. Human brains can only know so much. These brains are better. All the hard-edged fiction I’ve ever read asks me “How much are you willing to sacrifice for your [loved one/planet/goal]?” I was raised to value the truth above all else, and to some extent I do. So when the heavens open up and the Lord asks me “How much does the Truth matter to you? How much are you willing to sacrifice for the Truth?” my lips reply “ALL OF IT.” and my soul cries “Yes, Yes, Yes!”

I don’t know if I’d make that decision IRL. And Peter Watts certainly is against it. But the emotions it stirs are awesome, and I hope the Noosphere deems  this work to be worthy of remembrance.

Nov 052014
 

I voted. Not because I expect my vote to make a difference, but because I think that when making a decision, you are also deciding for all entities that run a decision algorithm that’s similar enough to your own. It would be stupid if all entities sufficiently like myself opted out of voting because they individually wouldn’t make a difference.
Also because it was super-convenient. Colorado is awesome like that.