Saturday, 25 June 2011

Tortuga (and Other Rants)

Hello, world! I wanted to begin by saying thank you! to John for creating this blog and inviting me to update here about the camp from time to time.

I'm wobster109, and I'm another hapless aspiring rationalist, out for a summer of terrifying adventure, profound reflection, and anime-sappy friendship. This sounds like the premise for some strange reality show. I like to make music and write code. Some nights, I stay up until the next morning just to watch the sun rise.

Last night (Thursday night) was the rationalists' meet-up in Tortuga. I hear that there are two really famous meet-ups, and they are in New York City and Tortuga. So after afternoon session, some nine of us crowded into two cars and made our way down to Mountain View.

The trouble started right away. The van's air conditioning did not turn on. Neither did the radio, nor would the windows open. We pulled over into a parking lot and checked the headlights. Those were fine, but the turn signals were out. Undaunted, we pressed on, seven of us in that one car with the air conditioner out and the windows all shut. There we were, trundling merrily down the highway with the sliding backseat doors held open. To Andrew's credit, he managed the hour-long drive without getting pulled over. We landed in Tortuga just a little bit late, settling into the room as Mr. Eliezer spoke about artificial intelligences.

He asked us, suppose that there was an artificial intelligence that was shown to be very well calibrated. Suppose it gave many 90% confidence intervals, and it turned out that it was correct nine times out of ten. You observe this many times. Suppose now that it tells you with 99.9% confidence that [something very surprising]. For instance, it might tell you that you have a tail you're programmed to not be able to see. Would you believe it?

What's the craziest thing it could get you to believe? What's the least crazy thing that it could not get you to believe?

So we counted off into eight disjoint groups, talking about crazy AIs, and then talking about each other. I met some very cool people who liked programming (why are we so dense in programmers?) and liked baking and worked to be more effective. As the night wore on, people began disappearing. I thought they were going home, until I realized that many of us, the Rationality MegaCamp people, were disappearing as well.

Suddenly, Sam bursts in through the door in a state of utter undress, saying, "I invite you all to join us in the hot tub!" Apparently, people were sitting naked in a hot tub. Apparently, that sort of thing happens here as well, but that would be a story better told by someone else.

I didn't feel quite ready to sit around naked with everyone quite yet. I was eating a jar of raspberry jam and trying hard to convince the rationalists that I'm actually an artificial intelligence. At one point, the one guy said he gave me a 99.9% chance of being human, and I felt all pleased with myself that he actually gave me a 1/1000 chance of actually being an AI. That's quite high, given the world we live in.

It was late. We piled back into the van, prepared for a long and hot ride home. This time, everything worked perfectly, which goes to show that the van just needs a reboot from time to time. We get home around 2:30. The other car gets home around 4:30.

Morning meditation was a rampaging beast today. Everything was a swirly, sleepy haze. We're told that we should experience "pleasurable sensations," but how vague is that, and how necessary that it be vague lest we get the mis-impression that it works the same way for all of us! So I'm always bothered by my own suggestibility. Each morning, I question everything I perceive, saying, is this actually being perceived, or is it a figment of my mind? (Had I been a scientist in 1904 at an N-rays demonstration, would I too have perceived the screen brighten?)

And then, the asymmetry floats into my thoughts. "Pleasurable sensations," presumably, refers to tactile sensations. Why? Why not sounds, or visions? Why are human senses not symmetric? And suddenly, I've lost count of my breaths, and I need to start over, and then an annoying song starts looping in my head, and I begin to see storylines, and suddenly I'm asleep.

Well. Subjectivity and all, I'm fairly confident that was a touch amiss. I'm 80% confident, in fact. (That's a very high degree of confidence.)

After meditation was the last session of. . . was it cognitive behavioral therapy? That's what I think it was. It was where a psychology fellow came and talked to us about something, but I honestly can't quite remember what. I really was listening, I really was! It all kind of blurred together in a haze of. . . something along the lines of thinking positively. Is that what it was? That's the entirety of my impression of it. He was very nice, and he tried very hard to engage us. Many of the speakers we've had are very nice, and they all try very hard to engage us. But then we give them our rationalists' flack, with our cries of that's not rigorously demonstrable! Your methodology is flawed! Citation needed! Yet that's exactly how I feel. People come telling us things, and it sounds familiar and unspecific, and I think to myself, this isn't making any specific predictions. Or else, they come telling us things, and it's very specific and surprising, and I think to myself, one could easily imagine to see such an effect. I have no doubt (very little doubt) that the speakers are genuine in what they say, that they truly believe what they are teaching us, and that they have a nontrivial likelihood of being right, but I'm annoyed nonetheless. Because we as people cannot distinguish the vague from the from the useful, the imagined from the real, the conjecture from the applause light, then real people living real lives suffer. People mistake stuff that sounds halfway plausible for real science, and in most cases, it's harmless, but they end up with a flawed algorithm for determining what to believe. That makes them vulnerable.

I've become spoiled by all this interacting with rationalists. Why is this so? Although we have interesting and intellectual discussions, that can't be the entire reason, because there are others with whom I have very nice conversations as well, and there are times where we simply play games or talk about nonsense. I'd guess that it has something to do with how very even-tempered everyone is, how my dear fellow MegaCampers are so unfazed about things. This sort of group is often called "non-judgemental," but Mr. Eliezer writes (to the best of my understanding) that we don't spring into indignation, and we don't launch emotional attacks on others for expressing beliefs. That's definitely true of these guys, for there is little, if anything, that they would refuse to think about. But I also feel that we tend towards being exceptionally emotionally stable. I have yet to see anyone get unreasonably upset or have unexplained moments of angst or sit around brooding over the state of things in general. They're just so reasonable about everything; I very nearly forget that there is a world out there to be dealt with.

So when Will and Divia explained "empathizing," which they use to mean understanding the other person's emotions, I was the tiniest touch skeptical. Use specific observations instead of sweeping generalizations. Ok. Cite my own emotions instead of laying blame. Fair enough. You want me to guess at their emotions? Didn't they just express their emotions? How is that going to help towards a solution? "Well," Divia patiently explained, "if you ask someone if they're worried because they aren't prepared for a presentation, they will be focused on the not-prepared instead of the freaking-out."

"But," I persisted, "if it were happening in real life, I'd say, here's piece of paper, quick write an outline." And then I realized that these would be real life people. Oh. Thomas had earlier expressed that he'd be very annoyed if someone spoke to him this way, and I imagined that I would be terribly impatient as well, but then there are lots of very commonplace things that frustrate me a great deal. Meanwhile, Thomas was looking at his handout, laughing and generating sentences such as "are you NERVOUS about the PREDATORY ANIMALS? Are you OVERWHELMED by the SEXUAL EXPRESSION?" And what's-his-face (sorry, dear visitor from Thursday! I've forgotten your name. But I do remember which high school you went to, and how you got into math in middle school!), in response to a hypothetical scenario, he generated the sentence "are you lonely because you are unloved?" We all burst into cackles. That sounded like an easy way to get a fist in the stomach.

I might be curious to try this naked hot tub truth-or-dare thing at some point in time. Lincoln said that he wouldn't ask anything or dare anything that would make one sad, but that he would also try to push at one's boundaries, so that even if they were every so slightly sad in the meantime, it would be worthwhile in retrospect. It was quite a friendly sentiment.

Phew, in retrospect, I do quite a bit of complaining. In that case, I'll go the whole of next post without saying a single unpleasant thing about anything or anyone. But only the next one though, or else it would be selectively filtered, and we can't have something as unscientific as that, can we? Anyways, to close off, here have a random snatch of a song that I'm quite fond of:

The good old days, the honest man;
The restless heart, the Promised Land
A subtle kiss that no one sees;
A broken wrist and a big trapeze. . . .

--- The Killers, "Read My Mind"

Peace and happiness,

1 comment: