Vernor Vinge on the Turing Test, Artificial Intelligence

Preface

the_imitation_game_bOn the coat-tails of a the blockbuster film “The Imitation Game” I saw quite a bit of buzz on the internet about Alan Turing, and the Turing Test.  The title of the movie refers to the idea of the Turing Test may someday show that machines would ostensibly be (at least in controlled circumstances) indistinguishable from humans.
Vernor Vinge is a mathematician and science fiction author who is well known for many Hugo Award-winning novels and novellas*   and his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity”, in which he argues that the creation of superhuman artificial intelligence will mark the point at which “the human era will be ended”, such that no current models of reality are sufficient to predict beyond it.

 

Alan Turing and the Computability of Intelligence

Adam Ford: Alan Turing is considered the “Father of Theoretical Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence” – his view about the potential of AI contrasts with much of the skepticism that has subsequently arose.  What is at the root of this skepticism?

Vinge_Singularity_Omni_face250x303Vernor Vinge: The emotional source of the skepticism is the ineffable feeling that many (most?)  people have against the possibility that self-awareness could arise from simple, constructed devices.

 

AF: Many theorists feel that the combined talents of pure machines and humans will always produce more creative and therefore useful output – what are your thoughts?

VV: When it comes to intelligence, biology just doesn’t have legs. _However_ in the near term, teams of people plus machines can be much smarter than either — and this is one of the strongest reasons for being optimistic that we can manage the new era safely, and project that safety into the farther future.

 

AF: Is the human brain essentially a computer?

VV: Probably yes, but if not the lack can very likely be made up for with machine improvements that we humans can devise.

 

AF: Even AI critics John Searle and Hubert Dreyfus (i.e. “What Computers (Still) Can’t Do”) agree that a brain simulation is possible in theory, though they argue that merely mimicking the functioning brain would in itself be an admission of ignorance (concerning intelligence) – what are your thoughts?

VV: The question of whether there is self-awareness behind a mimick may be the most profound issue, but for almost all practical purposes it isn’t relevant: in a few years, I think we will be able to make machines that can run circles around any human mind by all externally measured criteria. So what if no one is really home inside that machine?

Offhand, I can think of only one practical import to the answer, but that _is_ something important: If such minds are self-aware in the human sense, then uploads suddenly become very important to us mortality-challenged beings.

For reductionists interested in _that_ issue, some confidence might be achieved with superintelligence architectures that model those structures in our minds that reductionists come to associate with self-awareness. (I can imagine this argument being carried on by the uploaded supermind children of Searle and Moravec — a trillion years from now when there might not be any biological minds around whatsoever.)

 

AF: Do you think Alan Turing’s reasons for believing in the potential of AI are different from your own and other modern day theorists?  If so in what ways?

VV: My guess is there is not much difference.

 

AF: Has Alan Turing and his work influenced your writing? If it has, how so?

VV: I’m not aware of direct influence. As a child, what chiefly influenced me was the science-fiction I was reading! Of course, those folks were often influenced by what was going in science and math and engineering of the time.

Alan Turing has had a multitude of incarnations in science fiction…   I think that besides being a broadly based math and science genius, Turing created accessible connections between classic philosophical questions and current issues.

 

AF: How do you think Alan Turing would respond to the specific concept of the Technological Singularity as described by you in your paper “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era“?

VV: I’d bet that Turing (and many AI pioneers) had extreme ideas about the consequences of superhuman machine intelligence. I’m not sure if Turing and I would agree about the potential for Intelligence Amplification and human/machine group minds.

I’d be _very_ interested in his reaction to modern analysis such as surveyed in Bostrom’s recent _Superintelligence_ book.

 

AF: In True Names, agents seek to protect their true identity. The guardian of the Coven’s castle is named ‘Alan Turing’ – what was the reason behind this?

It was a tip of the hat in Turing’s direction. By the time I wrote this story I had become quite aware of Alan Turing (contrasting with my childhood ignorance that I mentioned earlier).

 

AF: Your first novella Bookworm Run! was themed around brute forcing simpler-than-human-intelligence to super-intelligence (in it a chimpanzee’s intelligence is amplified).  You also explore the area of intelligence amplification in Marooned in Realtime.
Do you think it is possible for a Singularity to bootstrap from brute forcing simple cognitive models? If so do you think Super-Intelligence will be achieved through brute-forcing simple algorithms?

VV: I view “Intelligence Amplification” (IA) as a finessing of the hardest questions by building on top of what already exists. Thus even UI design lies on the path to the Singularity. One could argue that Intelligence Amplification is the surest way of insuring humanity in the super-intelligence (though some find that a very scary possibility in itself).

 

The Turing Test and Beyond

AF: Is the Turing Test important? If so, why, and how does it’s importance match up to tracking progress in Strong AI?

VV: In its general form, I regard the Turing Test as a marvelous, zen-like, bridge between reductionism and the inner feelings most people have about their own self-awareness.  Bravo Dr. Turing!

 

AF: Is a text conversation is ever a valid test for intelligence? Is blackbox testing enough for a valid test for intelligence?

VV: “Passing the Turing Test” depends very much on the setup:
a) The examining human (child? adult? fixated or afflicted adult? –see Sherry Turkle’s examples of college students who passed a chatbot).
b) The duration of the test.
c) The number of human examiners participating.
d) Restrictions on the examination domain.

In _The Emperor’s New Mind_, Penrose has a (mostly negative) critique of the Turing Test. But at the end he says that if the test was very broad, lasting years, and convincing to him (Penrose), then it might be meaningful to talk about a “pass grade”.

 

AF: The essence of Roger Penrose’s argument (in the Emperor’s New Mind)
–  It is impossible for a Turing machine to enumerate all possible Godel sentences. Such a program will always have a Godel sentence derivable from its program which it can never discover
–  Humans have no problem discovering these sentences and seeing the truth of them
And he concludes that humans are not reducible to turing machines.  Do you agree with Roger’s assessment  – Are humans not reducible to turing machines?

VV: This argument depends on comparing a mathematical object (the Turing Machine) with whatever kind of object the speaker considers a “human mind” to be.  As a logical argument, it leaves me dubious.

 

AF: Are there any existing interpretations of the Turing Test that you favour?

VV: I think Penrose’s version (described above) is the most important.

In conversation, the most important thing is that all sides know which flavor of the test they are talking about 🙂

 

AF: You mentioned it has been fun tracking Turing Test contests, what are your thoughts on attempts at passing the Turing Test so far?

VV: So far, it seems to me that the philosophically important thresholds are still far away. Fooling certain people, or fooling people for short periods of time seems to have been accomplished.

 

AF: Is there any specific type of intelligence we should be testing machines for?

VV: There are intelligence tests that would be very interesting to me, but I rather not call them versions of the Turing Test. For instance, I think we’re already in the territory where more and more [forms->sorts] of superhuman forms of creativity and “intuition” are possible.

I think there well also be performance tests for IA and group mind projects.

 

AF: Some argue that testing for ‘machine consciousness’ is more interesting – what are your thoughts?

VV: Again, I’d keep this possibility separate from Turing Test issues, though I do think that a being that could swiftly duplicate itself and ramp intellect up or down per resource and latency constraints would have a vastly different view of reality compared to the severe and static time/space/mortality restrictions that we humans live with.

 

AF: The Turing Test seems like a competitive sport.  Though some interpretations of the Turing Test have conditions which seem to be quite low.  The competitive nature of how the Turing Test is staged seems to me to select for the cheapest and least sophisticated methods to fool judges on a Turing Test panel.

VV: Yes.

 

AF: Should we be focusing on developing more complex and adaptive Turing style tests (more complex measurement criteria? more complex assessment)? What alternatives to a Turing Test competition (if any) would you suggest to motivate regular testing for machine intelligence?

VV: The answers to these questions may grow out of hard engineering necessity more than from the sport metaphor. Going forward, I imagine that different engineering requirements will acquire various tests, but they may look more like classical benchmark tests.

 

Tracking Progress in Artificial Intelligence

AF: Why is tracking progress towards AI important?

VV: Up to a point it could be important for the sort of safety reasons Bostrom discusses in _Superintelligence_. Such tracking could also provide some guidance for machine/human/society teams that might have the power to guide events along safe paths.

 

AF: What do you see as the most useful mechanisms for tracking progress towards a) human equivalence in AI, b) a Technological Singularity?

VV: The approach to human equivalence might be tracked with a broad range of tests. Such would also apply to the Singularity, but for a soft takeoff, I imagine there would be a lot of economic effects that could be tracked. For example:
–  trends in employment of classic humans, augmented humans, and computer/human teams;
–  trends in what particular jobs still have good employment;
–  changes in the personal characteristics of the most successful CEOs.

Direct tests of automation performance (such as we’ve discussed above) are also important, but as we approach the Singularity, the center of gravity shifts from the programmers to the programs and how the programs are gaming the systems.

 

AF: If you had a tardis and you could bring Alan Turing forward into the 21st century, would he be surprised at progress in AI?  What kinds of progress do you think he would be most interested in?

VV: I don’t have any special knowledge of Turing, but my guess is he would be pleased — and he would want to _understand_ by becoming a super himself.

 

AF: If and when the Singularity becomes imminent – is it likely that the majority of people will be surprised?

VV: A hard takeoff would probably be a surprise to most people. I suspect that a soft takeoff would be widely recognized.

 

Implications

AF: What opportunities could we miss if we are not well prepared (This includes opportunities for risk mitigation)?

VV: Really, the risk mitigation is the serious issue. Other categories of missed opportunities will probably be quickly fixed by the improving tech.  For pure AI, some risk mitigation is the sort of thing MIRI is researching.

For pure AI, IA, and group minds, I think risk mitigation involves making use of the human equivalent minds that already exist in great numbers (namely, the human race). If these teams and early enhancements recognized the issues, they can form a bridge across to the more powerful beings to come.

 

AF: You spoke about an AI Hard Takeoff as being potentially very bad – can you elaborate here?

VV: A hard takeoff is too fast for normal humans to react and accommodate to.  To me, a Hard Takeoff would be more like an explosion than like technological progress. Any failure in mitigation planning is suddenly beyond the ability of normal humans to fix.

 

AF: What stood out for you after reading Nick Bostrom’s book ‘Superintelligence – paths, dangers, strategies’?

VV: Yes. I think it’s an excellent discussion especially of the pure AI path to superintelligence. Even people who have no intense interest in these issues would find the first few chapters interesting, as they sketch out the problematic issues of pure AI superintelligence — including some points that may have been missed back in the twentieth century. The book then proceeds to a fascinating analysis of how to cope with these issues.

My only difference with the analysis presented is that while pure AI is likely the long term important issue, there could well be a period (especially in the case of a Soft Takeoff) where the IA and groupmind trajectories are crucial.

vernor_vinge_LosCon

Vernor Vinge at Los Con 2012

Notes:
* Hugo award winning novels & novellas include: A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006), Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002), and The Cookie Monster (2004), and The Peace War (1984).

Also see video interview with Vernor Vinge on the Technological Singularity.

Future Day Melbourne 2017

WHERE: The Bull & Bear Tavern – 347 Flinders Lane (btw Queen and Elizabeth streets) Melbourne  WHEN – Wednesday March 1st 2017
See the Facebook event, and the Meetup Event.

SCHEDULE

* Noushin Shabab ‘The Evolution of Cybersecurity – Looking Towards 2045’ (Senior Security Researcher at Kaspersky Lab) – 20 mins
* Luke James (Science Party Melbourne) a (nonpartisan) talk about promises and pitfalls of government and future technology – 20 mins
* Dushan Phillips – To be what one is.. (spoken word) – 20 mins
* Patrick Poke – The Future of Finance – 20 mins
* There will also be discussion on the up and coming March for Science in Melbourne! (April 22nd) – 10 – 15 mins

Abstracts/Synopsis:

Promises and Pitfalls of Government and Future Technology

By Luke James

My talk is focusing on the interaction between technological developments (future tech) and government. From the point of view of government and from the point of view of those developing and trying to use new tech. I have a couple of scenarios to go over in which government has reacted poorly and well to new technologies and when new tech has integrated poorly and well with governments. Then I’ll speak about the policies and systems governments can utilise to encourage and take advantage of new tech. Which will lead me in to my final topic which will be a few minutes about the March for Science. I’ll leave a few minutes for questions at the end as well.
Throughout the speech I’ll be speaking about government purely from a systematic standpoint.

The Evolution of Cybersecurity – Looking Towards 2045

By Noushin Shabab

“Journey through the top cybersecurity criminal cases caught by the Global Research And Analysis Team (GReAT) from Kaspersky Lab and find out their current and future trends in cybercriminal activity.”

The Future of Finance

By Patrick Poke

 

  • I’ll start off with a bit of an introduction on what the finance industry is really about and where we are now.
  • I’ll then discuss some of the problems/opportunities that we face now (as these will form the basis for future changes.
  • I’ll go through some expectations over the short-term, medium-term, and long-term.
  • Finally, look at some of the over-hyped areas where I don’t think we’ll see as much change as people expect.

 

To be what one is..

By Dushan Phillips

TBA

 

About Future Day

“Humanity is on the edge of understanding that our future will be astoundingly different from the world we’ve lived in these last several generations. Accelerating technological change is all around us, and transformative solutions are near at hand for all our problems, if only we have the courage to see them. Future Day helps us to foresee our personal potentials, and acknowledge that we have the power to pull together and push our global system to a whole new level of collective intelligence, resiliency, diversity, creativity, and adventure. Want to help build a more foresighted culture? Don’t wait for permission, start celebrating it now!” – John Smart

Future Day is a global day of focusing and celebrating the energy that more and more people around the world are directing toward creating a radically better future.

The Future & You

We all have aspirations, yet we are all too often sidetracked in this age of distraction – however, to firmly ritualize our commitment to the future, each year we celebrate the future seeking to address the glorious problems involved in arriving at a future that we want. Lurking behind every unfolding minute is the potential for a random tangent with no real benefit for our future selves – so it is Future Day to the rescue! A day to remind us to include more of the future in our attention economies, and help us to procrastinate being distracted by the usual gauntlet of noise we run every other day. We take seriously the premise that our future is very important – the notion that *accelerating technological progress will change the world* deserves a lot more attention than that which can be gleaned from most other days of celebration. So, let us remind ourselves to remember the future – an editable history of a time to come – a future, that without our conscious deliberation and positive action, may not be the future that we intended.

Can we build AI without losing control over it? – Sam Harris

San Harris (author of The Moral Landscape and host of the Waking Up podcast) discusses the need for AI Safety – while fun to think about, we are unable to “martial an appropriate emotional response” to improvements in AI and automation and the prospect of dangerous AI – it’s a failure of intuition to respond to it like one would a sci-fi like doom scenario.

Scared of superintelligent AI? You should be, says neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris — and not just in some theoretical way. We’re going to build superhuman machines, says Harris, but we haven’t yet grappled with the problems associated with creating something that may treat us the way we treat ants.

Marching for Science with John Wilkins – a perspective from Philosophy of Science

Recent video interview with John Wilkins!

  • What should marchers for science advocate for (if anything)? Which way would you try to bias the economy of attention to science?
  • Should scientists (as individuals) be advocates for particular causes – and should the scientific enterprise advocate for particular causes?
  • The popular hashtag #AlternativeFacts and Epistemic Relativism – How about an #AlternativeHypotheses hashtag (#AltHype for short 😀 ?)
  • Some scientists have concerns for being involved directly – other scientists say they should have a voice and be heard on issues that matter and stand up and complain when public policy is based on erroneous logic and/or faulty assumptions, bad science. What’s your view? What are the risks?

John Wilkins is a historian and philosopher of science, especially biology. Apple tragic. Pratchett fan. Curmudgeon.

We will cover scientific realism vs structuralism in another video in the near future!
Topics will include:

  • Scientific Realism vs Scientific Structuralism (or Structuralism for short)
  • Ontic (OSR) vs Epistemic (ESR)
  • Does the claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the world trivialize scientific knowledge? (Epistemic Structural Realism and Ontic Structural Realism)
  • If we are in principle happy to accept scientific models (especially those that have graduated form hypothesis to theory) as structurally real – then does this give us reasons never to be overconfident about our assumptions?

Come to the Science March in Melbourne on April 22nd 2017 – bring your friends too 😀

March for Science! Interview with Michael Shermer

Adam Ford: G’day everybody – we’ve got Michael Shermer here today and we’re going to discuss science advocacy as well as the up and coming ‘March for Science’ which is happening on the 22nd of April. And I’m helping out with the Melbourne March for Science here in Australia.
Michael is in California. Michael is an American science writer, a historian of science and is the founder of the Skeptics Society – which I believe has about 55-60 thousand members at the moment – right?
Michael Shermer: That’s right yes.   All over the world!
Adam Ford: He has largely devoted his time at the Skeptics Society investigating pseudoscience and super natural claims – and things that rub up against the scientific view of the world. Shermer has been well known for engaging in debate on the topic of pseudoscience and religion .. and emphasizes scientific skepticism – and a famous one I think was with you and Sam Harris a while ago with Deepak Chopra – I thought that was hilarious to watch.. it was very good on your part.
We met about a year ago at a Think Inc conference focusing on Transhumanism and the Singularity and Skepticism – it’s interesting that more recently Sam Harris has covered a lot of the AI stuff recently and become sort of a vocal advocate for cautionary development of artificial intelligence there – but we might cover that later.
But in terms of the March for Science, to begin with – it may not be obvious to everybody that there exists a connection… what relationship do you see between skepticism and science?
Michael Shermer: Well I think really they are one and the same – I mean most scientists are skeptics by nature; they doubt claims until there is evidence for it.. they start with the Null Hypothesis – that your claim is not true until proven otherwise. You know, and so, and skeptics have a deep interest in science – probably if there was overlapping venn diagrams the part that is not overlapping on the skeptics side is the fact that we take a deep interest in a lot of these fringe, marginalized, borderland type claims that most scientists don’t have time to deal with. (Sorry I have a barking dog here – his name is Hitch!)
You know skeptics deal with things like ESP and psychics and UFOs and alien abductions and these sorts of things that mainstream scientists don’t have time to deal with.. or things like creationism and holocaust denial, the anti-vaccination movement, you know ‘the birthers’, ‘the truthers’… these are all claims that are being made that should be challenged – facts should be checked, evidence should be evaluated. But scientists don’t have time to do that so that’s kind of our specialty – so you might think of it as a branch of science – it’s like people that study alternative medicine, most of them are doctors, but are doctors that specialize in this because most doctors don’t have time – you know they are just busy doing their own work and research – so you know our focus is on those areas.. and really its necessary; it’s important; it’s needed – because most scientists don’t know how to respond. And some scientists have tried to face-off with creationists (for example) – and they don’t fare well because they think all they need is the science – but that’s not enough; you need to know what the arguments are that the creationists are making; why are they making those arguments? what the context is, and how to respond to that particular argument – which is not just countering with the scientific data, it has to do with the type of argument that they are making and what they really after there.. so you have to kind of know that and now you know, skepticism has been around for decades (modern skepticism) and so skeptic magazine and there are a number of other skeptic magazines around the world and groups and conferences and so it’s a whole literature and tons of books, 100s of books specializing in topics – so we had a really good literature now of skepticism that brings value to science.

Adam Ford: Yeah – and there’s going to be a Science March – I think skeptics should come along and help support this! Now this is happening not only in Washington – but there are groups all over the world who are getting involved. And it seems as though it’s going to be quite large – in terms of how large science marches can get – it may be the largest one yet – we’ll see ok!
Yes so I’m just wondering – there’s been quite a lot of controversy in the media of what counts as real facts and what counts as knowledge that can be trusted, policies that can trusted – so when people are going to this march for science – what do you think they should be listening for? How can they get the most out of it and make it the best possible science march?
Michael Shermer: Well know one knows because we’ve never done done this before! There was a Reason Rally in Washington DC that I participated in – that’s more of an Atheism type march. This (the march for science) is pure science – it’s not an atheism thing; religion has nothing to do with it; we just love science – and I think it’s really more instead of what happens at the march – it’s the idea that people are interested in that, and they care about that – and passionately enough to send a signal to Washington and politicians and really everybody – that we live in an age of science! There’s nothing more important the scientific method for determining what’s true – and so in an age of #alternativeFacts and ‘fake news’ stories and that sort of thing, we need science more than ever! And yes we have to get past this idea of science as guys in lab coats with beakers or particle accelerators – you know I mean all of us should be reasoning scientifically – that is it’s science and reason, it’s logic, it’s critical thinking, it’s just evaluating any claim whether it’s made by a politician or an economist or a religious leader .. anybody – if it’s a factual claim, its fair game for skeptical evaluation by anyone. I would like to think that we live in an age of science – we are all scientists in a sense that we should all be training how to think scientifically.
Adam Ford: Certainly! Alan Adler who was one of the stars of M.A.S.H. going years back (I used to watch that when I was a kid) said like science is a meticulous expression of human curiosity – so in a sense like we innately we are “proto-scientists” you know – sticking things in our mouths, tasting them and trying out new things in the world – some of the theory of science is a little bit unintuitive though – and I don’t think we are natural born scientists in the extreme sense…
Michael Shermer: Ahh yeah – that’s true! A couple of things – I have a new born, so it’s been kind of fun watching little Vinnie run experiments (Adam: Congratulations!) Thankyou! He’s a cute little guy – but they put stuff in their mouths, they drop things , they pick things up, they’re touching things – what they are doing is – the theory of Alison Gopnik (the developmental psychologist) – is that they’re like little scientists running experiments. Okay if I pick this up and drop it, what does it do? Where does it go? It’s called ‘object permanence’ – they’re little scientists. They also intuit the way the world works – figuring out how gravity (and things like that) which does not always turn out to be right. So our intuitions about the world (for example) – if you go outside it looks like the sun is rising, the sun is setting – the stars are stars are rising, the stars are setting – you don’t feel the earth move, you see the sky move. It feels like the earth is flat and stationary – everything goes around it – well we know that’s wrong – but that’s an intuitive idea. Same thing with evolution – it’s not intuitive; you don’t see species change – what you see is species staying the same in a human lifetime. So, it’s an inferential science – you have to infer from the fossils, from DNA, and so on – that evolution happened over long stretches of time – but in terms of the way our minds work from out senses, it’s counter intuitive – same thing with most of quantum physics – a lot of the esoteric sciences, you know, they are counter-intuitive. So that does take effort and training and practice, schooling and so on – there is a reason you should get a degree in science – because we learn something about these things over the centuries.
Adam Ford: Not everybody has a degree in science, not everybody has the time or the inclination to go through a degree in science – how can people, without a very mature scientific understanding of the world – still combat things like ‘alternate facts’ – how can find a position to stand in where they are in a position to judge the veracity of ‘alternate facts’?
Michael Shermer: It’s not hard, it’s not difficult at all – you just have to ask a few probing questions like ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘how do you know that’s true?’, ‘who said that?’, ‘what were their sources?’, ‘have their sources been double checked?’, ‘have they been fact checked?’ – you know these are just really basic like journalism type questions that any first year journalism student learns – that you can’t just read the newspaper and expect that that’s the truth – you got to know ‘what are the other sources?’, ‘what’s the source of that fact, and that fact?’ You’ve got to have more than one source, and cross check and fact check and things like that – so in fact its really just a matter of thinking critically in terms of asking questions; critical questions – just like ‘well that’s interesting – how do you know?’, ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘what’s the site?’ – ‘well you know I read it on the interweb’ – well most of the stuff is not fact checked on the interweb – Alex Jones’ ‘Info Wars’ – he talks about the aliens are running the government – you know whatever – down the rabbit hole you go with some of these websites – particularly the conspiratorial minded ones – you don’t have to have a degree in science that there’s something fishy going on there – you’ve just have to ask ‘come on, does that really work?’, ‘does that really fit with the way we know the world works?’ – its basically questions like that – we call it a baloney detection – Carl Sagan called it ‘the baloney detection kit’ – we’ve since published something along those lines called ‘the baloney detection kit’ at skeptics.com – Carl stated in his great book ‘Demon Haunted World’ just asking questions, you know – kicking the tires before you buy the car – just asking really basic questions like the ones I just said – so that – just start right there – by challenging the authority. ‘How do you know?’
Adam Ford: Absolutely! So – I might ask – sometimes I think it’s a bit counter productive to get too political in some of the interviews I do, because I’m not a political scientist – but.. what are your views on the current state of politics in America and Britain – do you see a promising horizon in the future?
Michael Shermer: Well, yeah – I’m an optimist – you know despite the last year of political upheaval; and everyone is all panicky and worrying – just calm down everybody – tranquillo; everything is going to be ok – we have spent centuries building civil societies – no one person can destroy it all; it’s not the end of the world – for all these things: artificial intelligence, terrorism – you know, these are not existential threats – I don’t think there are any (with the possible exception of nuclear weapons) anything that can destroy civilization – so you know just carry on in an optimistic way – continue making progress no matter who’s in power. I think there’s enough checks and balances in place to keep things stable.
Adam Ford: Well there are a certain amount of checks and balances to keep things stable. But you know, I can’t avoid the possibility that things could go pear shaped – so biasing the odds of achieving the kinds of futures we want is something that I think is worth doing – but also on that topic – we can use science to help us shape our understandings of how to do the most good in the world. Some people call this ‘science philanthropy’ – there has been successes in medicine in improving lives a lot over the years – and successes in other areas of science has had huge impacts. What areas of science and engineering do you think are both under-funded and under-populated and worth throwing resources at?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think that Social Sciences dealing with human problems like crime, racism, conflicts, civil wars – the kinds of things that kill people I think should be right up there with medicine. With public health we should have economic public health and political public health and conflict and peace studies – there are people that do this but I think they are under funded compared to say some of the medical professions or physics – which is all great – I don’t want to take any money from anybody just put more money into the social sciences, particularly the psychological sciences that study these kinds of human problems that we still need to work on. I mean we’ve wrote this book ‘The Moral Arc’ about moral progress over the last 500 years – I document there has been a lot of moral progress – we have a long ways to go – yeah so we need to keep working on it, and figure it out what it is we’ve been doing that is right and do more of that; and what it is we’ve been doing wrong and do less of that – and really that’s what social scientists do for a living – they try to figure out the cause of different things that we want to study – it’s not just a correlation but maybe there’s a causation there as well. There’s techniques to determine that – so I’d say more funding for that.
Adam Ford: Ok, what’s your view on funding basic fundamental science as opposed to applied scientific research?
Micheal Shermer: I think it’s both – I don’t think it’s fair to say one is more important than the other – I mean most of the applied research comes out of theoretical science – you have to have the theories first – you have to have the fundamental understanding of the laws and principles of nature that you then later manipulate through applied technologies and so we need both – so that’s why all the big companies: IBM, Google, Apple – they have their own research labs too; they have their professional scientists working there; all the pharmaceutical companies – they have their own professional scientists and their own laboratories – they know we have to make discoveries before we make products.
Adam Ford: The Effective Altruism movement has grown in popularity over the years. Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker … Peter Singer has definitely been involved, Stephen Pinker said it was one of the world’s best ideas. Have you any thoughts on the Effective Altruism movement?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think it’s great – I’m totally behind it – that and the animal rights movement and the application of the moral principles we have developed over the centuries: civil rights, civil liberties and so fourth – protections for those who can’t protect themselves, like animals – I think all of that’s important and the current movement that Peter Singer is pushing for, and I support it – mostly when I make my end of year donations, if there’s so many good charities I don’t know which one to pick – I just go to his website and he has a list – these are the ones we’ve spent years studying that we think save the most lives – or your dollar will go the farthest – and I just give my money to him – well his org (Adam: is it ‘The Life You Can Save’) – yeah the Life You Can Save – yep and it’s also a consciousness raising effort, which is the kinds of things that Gandhi did and Dr King did of just making people aware that we should be even thinking about those sorts of things – like what’s the value of life – how much money do you have to spend to save one life? Well it depends well if you talk about mosquito nets to prevent Malaria – it’s pretty cheap – a couple of bucks goes a long ways – you know, vitamins, water, just basic needs – that’s why I very much respect the Gates Foundation; they’re really going after to be solved which can be solved like within 6 months a year, a couple of years, 10 years, thirty years – you know, not pie in the sky stuff, like we’re going to build libraries for everybody – you know that was great – you know Carnegie did that, Rockefeller Foundation and all the things they did they’ve done over the last century – they are all good – but you know I like the idea – well let’s just save some lives right now
Adam Ford: Like pulling glass out of feet that are getting harmed today rather than worry about the long term future?
Michael Shermer: Yeah that’s right – well I mean both is good but you know if you want some bang for your buck that’s the best way to do it – to go for that – Effective Altruism – those kinds of moves that they make that are immediate and measurable – that’s why Gates is so good – he’s a scientist – well he is a technologist – he likes to measure things – you know I want quantitative measurements. So if we spend 100 million dollars in Africa on this problem, can I see a difference next year? I want to see the graph, I want to see the pie chart, I want to see the slice of the problem getting smaller – they’re projecting the end of poverty as the UN has defined it – $1.25 a day or less for extreme poverty, $2.50 a day or less for regular poverty – they are projecting the end of that – it will be zero percent by 2030 – that’s only 13 years from now – that’s unbelievable! Thousands of years of ‘we’ve always had the poor with us’ – before 1900 it was about 80% of the worlds population was poor, was living in poverty – now it’s about 10% – that’s a huge, huge improvement – and it’s almost, I wouldn’t say it’s unnoticed, but you know the activists who hew and cry that things are bad and getting worse – I think it’s good to have people like myself and Stephen Pinker, Peter Singer and others that are more optimistic say ‘Hey wait a minute – we have a lot of work to do but we’ve come a long ways’.
Adam Ford: Absolutely yeah – it’s good to report that achievements have been made. Unfortunately in the news people like to watch horror and they seem to not necessarily like – but if it bleeds it leads they say – and people are attracted to.. are paying attention to news snippets that have something to do with something that’s wrong in the world. And it’s unfortunate that people loose track of what’s going right – because what’s going right in the world helps reinforce us to work in the direction of made what’s right in the world happen – okay so yeah I think people miss out on a lot when they have this constant negativity bias in selecting the type of news that one sees.
So what do you think the most exciting thing is in developments in STEM is? What do you think think is the most exciting news in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or engineering (as some people like to say)?
Michael Shermer: Oh well I think it’s definitely the application of technologies through smart phones, and iPads and laptops through the internet and reversing the classroom; essentially you can get your classroom lectures online for free! Not just the MOOC courses – the online video recordings of professors giving lectures (you know there’s 1000s of them now) but like the Khan Academy videos – these are short little 5 minute, 8 minute tutorials on very specific things, you know, math, algebra, english literature history, there’s 1000s of them now – I think the Gates Foundation is backing them too – that is getting beyond the idea that you have to have a brick and mortar building with kids sitting in rows – like little soldiers – because the fact that the original classroom was designed in a way to impose order on children and teach them to be good citizens and soldiers for the nation. I mean it was really Nationalism kind of movement – it’s not that I’m against having classrooms – I’m a professor, I have a class where I will be lecturing for hours in a classroom with 25 students sitting there taking notes – that’s fine, that’s good – it’s not the only thing – you can get any kind of education you want now, right now! I can too – I take teaching company courses when I’m out riding my bike or commuting the LA traffic – I listen to lectures – they are about 30 minutes – by the best professors in the world that go to the studio and this company, record these lectures professionally and they’re great – you know I take stuff on Shakespeare, taking courses on ancient history – there’s 100s of courses like that – I would never have the time otherwise to just sit down and take a class.. but if you’re just driving, or if you’re out walking, hiking, working out or cycling (in my case) why not get information – and it’s super cheap, it’s unbelievably cheap (Adam: Yes some are for free, it’s incredible!) – even podcasts! You know I’m a latecomer to doing podcasts thing as a guest being interviewed but folks are listening to it – and it turns out there are some really good podcasts – they’re totally free – and they’re unscripted conversations, like you and I are having – they just talk – and I learn a lot from people I’ve either never heard of or have heard of and have always wanted to read their book or whatever – or just didn’t have time – and here he is, he is just talking for the next hour and a half – in the case of Joe Rogan – 40 hours on a particular topic – you know it’s great – and it’s free! Again one of those projections in the future – at some point person on the planet will have access to the internet and virtually all knowledge will be free and immediately accessible on a hand held device – that’s gotta change the world!
Adam Ford: Yeah I know – I mean the more rationally and I guess informed people are, the more likely I think people will be able to make better informed decisions (Michael: Hopefully!) – I suspect it will be the case but there are still a lot of ideas on the internet that don’t have a lot of basis in proof so my next question is – what kinds of ideas that some people loosely define as ‘scientific’ are ready to be thrown out, retired, or put to rest? and why the hell are they still in currency?
Michael Shermer: First of all the internet is like the printing press – we don’t want to ban certain sites, just like we don’t want to ban books – it’s a bad idea. The new technologies bring side effects that are unwanted – in this case non-fact checked sites that just spew, not just spewing hate but false information – which in many ways is even worse – I mean the hate, the bigotry stuff you can see it – it’s obvious and anybody that has a brain and a heart can ignore it – but the information that’s not quite true – not crazy stuff like ‘Aliens are running the world.. lizards living in Mexico…’ you know – no one believes that – it’s more of the stuff that you know ‘I heard that whatever..’ is some political thing – we get back to the problem of baloney detection, we have to have certain critical questions that we ask before we accept things as true – and that’s what we’re here for – that’s what you do, that’s what I do – we’re all out there pushing back, push back, push back – and that there is many people who are aware that there you can’t just believe everything that you read on the internet.
Adam Ford: Okay – on the theme of being scientifically minded – in what ways have you personally updated your belief based on new evidence – what have you changed your mind about? (it could be something that happened yonks ago, or recently)
Michael Shermer: Well both, I used to be a born again Christian and a creationist and I abandoned both of those beliefs when I saw the facts didn’t support it. More recently, I used to be always in favor of the death penalty – mainly out of sympathy for the victims families – but then that always kind of went against my libertarian beliefs because I’m always hesitant about having the state having too much power; I was always slightly conflicted about that. Then when I was writing ‘The Moral Arc’ I really looked into the literature on ‘does it deter crime?’ – no, ‘does it deter homicides?’ – no. Because most of these crimes and homicides are committed in acts of emotional outbursts – usually there’s some moralistic component to it – it’s not a thought through rational calculation by a rational agent saying ‘okay I can get the Rolex watch, I can steal the car but I might face the death penalty’ – there’s no calculations like that anyway. And worst of all the corruption of the criminal justice system and too many people have very likely been put to death and are sitting on death row who don’t belong there – we know that for sure 100% over 200 have been exonerated through DNA alone – these are mostly rape homicide cases where there’s a rape case still in the archives that can be tested using DNA introduced in the 90s and that’s changed everything. And it’s come out that not only that but also a lot of police departments and criminal justice systems are not very efficient – not just corruption but also relying on things like eye-witness testimony which is not reliable. I’d like to air on the side of keeping too much power from the state – the power to kill people – the death penalty, also I’m sympathetic to the victims families yes but prison is a pretty rotten place to be and maybe there’s some satisfaction in knowing that the person who killed your loved one is at least rotting away on one of these hell holes – maybe it would feel better … I don’t know, there’s just too many problems with the death penalty. Gun control – I think we should have some gun control – some background checks – just basic stuff that most people think is reasonable – I used to be against those, now I’m for those. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.
Adam Ford: Awesome! Well next question would be: what invention or idea do you think will change ‘everything’?
Michael Shermer: Yeah – that was one the Brockman Edge.org questions – I can’t remember what my answer was now – but I think it was the scientific method – the way of science – it’s already been invented but just keep doing more of it. Obviously some big ones like the internet a game changer for sure. But the problem is I don’t even know what we don’t know – if you asked that question of Homo Erectus 2 million years ago, it would be ‘oh I think better stone tools are going to change everything’ – they’re not thinking ‘I need more bandwidth’ for my internet – they don’t even know what they don’t know – we didn’t even know about the internet say 25 years ago – 50 years ago, whatever. There was no such thing.. yeah well you know if in 50 years 125 – I don’t know, I really don’t – I think that one big thing would be .. you know my next book is called ‘Heavens on earth – the quest for immortality’ – I’ve been reading a lot about radical life extension, cryonics..
Adam Ford: You know that’s an interest of mine – I don’t believe in immortality – but I certainly think that radical life extension is possible in theory, in principle, it’s just that I don’t think we have any clear signs of it happening within our lifetimes – but it might happen in our lifetimes – and I’m open to that and I’ll certainly be all for it. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews with Aubrey de Grey and a number of other people – that have pretty concrete predefined testable theories about whether this will work or not.. so lets see.
Michael Shermer: So I mean in terms of what would be a break through – it’s not getting people to live 200 years, 500 years or whatever – I think it’s getting more people to live quality lives into their 80s, 90s and even into their 100s – the maximum life span is about 125 – no one’s ever going to make it past that and there are genetic reasons for that – that we can’t yet solve involving the telomeres and all that – but instead of worrying about that, let’s just link certain problems like alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease – the things that take you out or make you miserable at the end of your life, you know.. (Adam: Extending health-span) yes.. instead of living from 80-90 or 90-100 bed ridden, miserable and unable to walk – that’s not living – so that would be a goal for people that do that kind of research to aim for – you know I mean people I interviewed for my book say ‘sure, don’t you want to live to be 500?’ – my response is just get me to 100 without being senile, bed ridden with tubes in my stomach and just completely out of it – I don’t want to live like that – I’m not worried about 500 years – I just want to get to 100 and have a good healthy life…
Adam Ford: See how you feel when you get to 100, and the new generations of medicine are out and about then – then you can decide whether you want to continue to live – if you’re miserable and sad you may not want to continue – and that’s the thing, it’s a useful technology to give people choice about whether they want to continue to exist or not – and I think that’s interesting.
Micheal Shermer: Yeah well the polls on it show that most people say that they would not want to live beyond usually about 80 to 85 years – and you know, I think they are just not thinking this through carefully – they are thinking they are going to be bed ridden or whatever – of course, no one wants to live like that – but in fact if you were healthy and said well ‘you have a death sentence, you are going to die a week from tomorrow – but if you take this pill you will live an extra year – would you like to do that?’ – ‘Oh, yeah of course’ – yeah and so take it forward another year and make the same offer ‘yeah, I’ll take one more year’… and one more year, and one more year! As long as you’re healthy and reasonably happy .. of course we can see if we can op that – no ones going to go ‘no, I’m done’ – well unless your suicidal – the average healthy, happy person is not going to say ‘I’m done now’ – because of some philosophical, metaphysical notion of ‘we should only live as long as is normal or natural’ – well what that means is most of us would have been dead long ago anyway because there is very little natural in modern medicine – the whole point of medicine is to overcome those natural problems that disease and just entropy – just the assault on the body and brain that we are learning to reverse or avoid.
Adam Ford: Have you interviewed Liz Parrish at all? (Michael: no, I don’t know Liz) – well this is something interesting – there are a number of people who are interested in rejuvenating the telomeres (with the aid of telomerase) without causing cancer – there are some people who seem to be making some in-roads – but I don’t know what kind of test need to be done to justify whether they have made any success – and whether they will take 30 years to do the test or not. But it is interesting that there are people working on that problem knowing that if you just do it in a hap-hazard way you might end up causing disease – like causing cancer.
Michael Shermer: That’s right pleiotropy .. (Adam: Antagonistic pleiotropy?) .. yeah that’s right – so you have to be careful about that – but I was encouraged to see that it looks like drinking beer might be good for oneself so maybe Aubrey de Grey is on to something there – you know he loves beer (Adam: he certainly does) – and so do I so hey okay!
Adam Ford: Well the last joint question is: What are you most concerned about and what are you most optimistic about with reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine or mathematics)?
Michael Shermer: Well, I guess more broadly – first, concern about Islamic terrorism, and fundamentalist religion and in general and Islamic terrorism in particular – I don’t think it’s an existential threat – they’re not going to take over the western world – that’s not going to happen – you know but it can cause a lot of carnage and that’s a concern. The continued reduction of nuclear weapons I think is important – I want to look forward to more of that. In terms of STEM and continuing to promote science – is just we don’t want any setbacks. This idea that political ideology or economic ideology or religious beliefs trump scientific facts… no, no, no, no, no! We have to change our beliefs to fit the facts and not vice versa – that’s a deep rooted human problem within our nature to want to be right regardless of the facts, in the teeth of counter evidence – it’s called cognitive dissonance, the more you commit to a particular belief and you confront facts that contradict it the more likely you are to spin doctor the facts rather than your beliefs and that’s a very human problem – every body does it – you know so I think that’s an area we need more work on – not just understanding how it works, we know how cognitive dissonance works, but what to do about it – so long as we’re working on that. So that’s what I’m optimistic about!
Adam Ford: And I’m optimistic about the Science March!
Michael Shermer: Yes right I’m not it – lets go, let’s do it!
Adam Ford: So I hope people get involved and show to the world just how interested people are in science. It’s been fantastic having you on the show again! So I hope we cross paths again!
Michael Shermer: Oh we will, well definitely when my book comes out next January we’ll do another conversation.
Alright take care, cheers!

March for Science – 22nd April 2017!

Australian Humanist Convention 2017

Ethics In An Uncertain World

After an incredibly successful convention in Brisbane in May, 2016, the Humanist Society of Victoria together with the Council of Australian Humanist Societies will be hosting Australian Humanists at the start of April to discuss and learn about some of the most pressing issues facing society today and how Humanists and the world view we hold can help to shape a better future for all of society.

Official Conference LinkGet Tickets Here | Gala Dinner | FAQs | Meetup Link | Google Map Link

Lineup

AC Grayling – Humanism, the individual and society
Peter Singer – Public Ethics in the Trump Era
Clive Hamilton – Humanism and the Anthropocene
Meredith Doig – Interbelief presentations in schools
Monica Bini – World-views in the school curriculum
James Fodor – ???
Adam Ford – Humanism & Population Axiology

SciFuture supports and endorses the Humanist Convention in 2017 in efforts to explore ethics foundational in enlightenment values, march against prejudice, and help make sense of the world. SciFuture affirms that human beings (and indeed many other nonhuman animals) have the right to flourish, be happy, and give meaning and shape to their own lives.

Peter Singer wrote about Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism – Free Inquiry, 24, no. 6 (Oct/Nov 2004), pp. 19-21

AC Grayling’s talk on Humanism at the British Humanists Association:

 

Should “Work Ethic” be a timeless measure of human worth?

Should “Work Ethic” be a timeless measure of human worth?
As automation increases alongside advances in AI and robotics – there will be significant decreases in ways in which people can economically compete. The writing is on the wall – it’s not hard to imagine, at least in principle, the idea of ‘reward for hard work’ becoming less meaningful and useful as time goes on.
If the sole measure of a successful economy is economic growth, where human well being is useful only insomuch as it is instrumental to economic growth – where do the dividends of economic growth go?
Not towards the well being of those who are unable to compete, and in the long term that likely means everyone.
Perhaps we are too comfortable with being at the top of the food chain that it makes it hard to see a future where we are no longer economically important being the most efficient means of economic progress. Imagine an automated age of abundance where everyone’s hardest work at providing economically competitive value is far outstripped by the efficiency of (physical and intellectual) mechanization – there would be no reward for human labor. It seems probable that ultimately even the rent-seekers would loose out. Imagine a future where an increasingly efficiently mechanized economy generates unending mountainous vistas of abundance that no one can afford to touch. What’s the use of an ultra efficient economy where no one can afford to enjoy it?
We need to seriously explore basic income guarantee – at least as a transition to a long term strategy where persons don’t just get a basic income, but one in which they can flourish with regardless of their ability to competitively contribute to the economy.
Some transhumanists suggest going full cyborg and merging with the machines – this idea is worth exploring too – but it isn’t without it’s problems. If the degree to which one can merge with the machines is based on ones economic output and ability to compete this too becomes a problem – in the long run the ‘human’ component in the merger may be the bottleneck.
I hope neo-darwinism/survival of the fittest ideology goes away completely. And while useful today, I think in the long run the idea of “work ethic” may need be retired.

In response to a great FB post by Stuart Armstrong, and a survey on Robots.

March for Science Melbourne

March for Science RallyJoin us in Melbourne on April 22nd to champion science as a pillar of human prosperity!  This will be huge – invite everyone to come – yes, everyone!

WHEN: EARTH DAY, 22nd April 2017
WHERE: Melbourne (Schedule & Location TBA)
WHY: Among other things, a global event bringing together people from all walks of life who believe we need more evidence and reason in our political process.

“The March for Science champions publicly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good, and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.”

The March for Science in Melbourne will be on the 22nd of April.  Please join the meetup group and tweet about it – push it out on social media!

The global mission statement is as follows: “THE MARCH FOR SCIENCE CHAMPIONS PUBLICLY FUNDED AND PUBLICLY COMMUNICATED SCIENCE AS A PILLAR OF HUMAN FREEDOM AND PROSPERITY. WE UNITE AS A DIVERSE, NONPARTISAN GROUP TO CALL FOR SCIENCE THAT UPHOLDS THE COMMON GOOD, AND FOR POLITICAL LEADERS AND POLICYMAKERS TO ENACT EVIDENCE-BASED POLICIES IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST.”

SCIENCE, NOT SILENCE

Recent world events have inspired us to march in our cities to ask our leaders to use science to make decisions through evidence, not ignorance, and to ensure science and scientific literacy is accessible and achievable to all.

 

Robert S. Young thinks it’s a bad idea – what do you think?

march4science_washington

 

Check out the main facebook page (connected to the March in Washington DC). And the Main Website!

The Simulation Argument – How likely is it that we are living in a simulation?

The simulation hypothesis doesn’t seem to be a terse parsimonious explanation for the universe we live in. If what is most important is to simulate ancestors, what’s the motivation for all the hugely detailed rendering of space? Why not just simulate earth or our solar system or our galaxy?

People often jump to the conclusions and assume* that the great simulators have infinite computing power. Infinity – another thing we have never been able to measure 🙂 Max Tegmark wrote an interesting piece about why infinity is probably not real. Until we do have evidence of infinities in the real world, I believe we should treat all thought experiments that rely on infinities as mere intuition pumps.

Without the assumption that potential simulators have infinite computing power, but assume instead they have a finite amount – it seems logical that there would be a cost/benefit trade-off between computation and simulation, detail/number of sims that would need to be taken into account. Limits to available computation would decrease the motivation for building huge amounts of simulations and/or highly detailed simulations.

People think their way around the astronomical computational waste and add yet another extra assumption* that the simulation may grow to fill all the spaces we probe and interact with – though this would still increase the computational requirements to run the simulation. With this assumption, we should believe that if we are in a simulation, compared to just 500 years ago, it is costing the simulators a whole lot more to run now that we can stare into the depths of physics and peer about the universe. It has been argued that we should avoid building big computers or perform certain experiments because the simulators may decide to turn off our simulation because it begins costing them to much to run.

If we are in a simulation – many argue for the most part, it probably doesn’t matter. Based on Newcomb’s problem – even if we are in an elegant simulation, then the simulated laws of physics will behave just as they would if they were actual laws
If we feel compelled to put an estimate on it – the more we develop empirically informed naturalistic explanations for the universe, the lower our estimates should be that we are in a simulation.

If there are considerable costs to creating simulations with the detail of our universe – why simulate ancestors if it costs so much?
What is so important about ancestor simulations to justify the expense?

* the more assumptions we add to a hypothesis, the less certain we should be about it

The Seminal Nick Bostrom Interview

Here is the interview I did with Bostrom in 2012:

Why so much confidence that we are in a simulation?

I hear reports that Bostrom’s confidence that we are in a simulation have decreased over the years (less than 10% I heard recently – can’t find a direct reference right now) – while others, after he wrote the seminal paper, have increased their confidence quite dramatically. Based on various article headlines I am fairly certain that many latch onto a surface level understanding of the arguments that support their existing biases. So its probably best to read the paper and understand the Simulation Hypothesis and the Simulation Argument before hand waving about what Bostrom thinks.

How much credence should we give sound arguments that are empirically unfalsifiable?

I’d say some – not everything can be falsified – generally I rank arguments with empirical evidence higher than those that don’t.

I Wonder what do the Intelligent Design movement think of this?

Some atheists may be worried that such a philosophical implications – but most seem to think the Simulation Argument is cool.

reisch-matrix-2

Resources

Various links on the simulation argument and hypothesis curated by Bostrom – including the original paper: http://www.simulation-argument.com/

All Aboard The Ship of Theseus with Keith Wiley

An exploration of the philosophical concept of metaphysical identity, using numerous variations on the infamous Ship of Theseus thought experiment.

Video interview with Keith Wiley

Note: a separate text interview is below.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Keith Wiley is the author of A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading, available on Amazon.

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’ paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

The paradox had been discussed by other ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus and Plato prior to Plutarch’s writings, and more recently by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Several variants are known, including the grandfather’s axe, which has had both head and handle replaced.
See more at Wikipedia…

Text Interview

Note this is not a transcription of the video/audio interview.

The Ship of Theseus Metaphor

Adam Ford: Firstly, what is the story or metaphor of the Ship of Theseus intended to convey?

Keith Wiley: Around the first century AD, Plutarch wrote several biographies, including one of the king Theseus entitled Life of Theseus, in which he wrote the following passage:

The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.Plutarch

People sometimes erroneously believe that Plutarch presents the scenario (replacing a ship piecemeal style until all original material is absent) with a conclusion or judgment, i.e., that it makes some prescription of the “correct” way to interpret the scenario (as to, yes or no, is the ship’s identity preserved). However, as you see from the passage above, this is not the case. Plutarch left the question open. He mere poses the question and leaves it to the reader to ruminate on an actual answer.

The specific questions in that scenario are:

  • Does identity require maintaining the same material components? Aka, is identity tied and indicated by specific sets of atoms?
  • If not, then does preservation of identity require some sort of temporally overlapping sequence of closely connected parts?

The more general question being asked is: What is the nature of identity? What are its properties? What are its requirements (to claim preservation under various circumstances)? What traits specify identity and indicate the transformations under which identity may be preserved and under which it is necessarily lost?

Here is a video explainer by Keith Wiley (intended to inspire viewers to think about identity preservation)

Adam Ford: How does this story relate to mind uploading?

Keith Wiley: The identity of relatively static objects, and of objects not possessing minds or consciousness, is an introduction to the thornier question of metaphysical personal identity, i.e., the identity of persons. The goal in considering how various theories of identity describe what is happening in the Ship of Theseus is to prime our thinking about what happens to personal identity of people in analogous scenarios. For example, in a most straightforward manner, the Ship of Theseus asks us to consider how our identity would be affected if we replaced, piecemeal style, all the material in our own bodies. The funny thing is, this is already the case! It is colloquially estimated that our bodies turn over their material components approximately every seven years (whether this is precisely accurate is beside the point). The intent is not that a conclusion drawn from the Ship of Theseus definitively resolves the question concerning personal identity, because the former is a much simpler scenario. The critical distinction is that people are more obviously dynamic across time than static physical objects because our minds undergo constant psychological change. This raises the question of whether some sort of “temporal continuity” is at play in people that does not take effect in ships. There is also the question of whether consciousness somehow changes the discussion in radical ways. So the Ship of Theseus is not conclusive on personal identity. It is just a way to get us started in thinking about such issues.

Adam Ford: Fishing for clarification on how you use the term ‘identity’, Robin Hanson (scenario of uploads in the future in Age of Em) enquired about what kind of identity concept you are interested in. That is, what function do you intend this concept to serve?

Keith Wiley: Sure. First, and this might not be what Robin meant, there are different fundamental kinds of identity, two big ones being quantitative and numerical. Two things quantitatively identified possess the same properties, but are not necessarily “the same entity”. Two things numerically identical are somehow “the same thing”, which is problematic in its phrasing since they were admitted to be “two things” to begin with. The crucial distinction is in whether numerical identity makes any difference, or whether quantitative identity is all the fundamentally matters.

For me, I phrase the crucial question of personal identity relative to mind uploading in the following way: Do we grant equal primacy to claims to the original single identity to all minds (people) who psychologically descend from that common ancestral mind (person)? I always phrase it this way: granting primacy in claims to a historical identity. Do we tolerate the metaphysical interpretation that all descendant minds are equal in the primacy of their claim to the identity they perceive themselves to be? Alternatively, do we disregard such claims, dictating to others that they are not, in fact, who they believe themselves to be, and that they are not entitled to the rights of the people they claim to be? My concern is of:
bias (differing assignments of traits to various people),
prejudice (differing assignments of values, claims, or rights resulting from bias),
and discrimination (actions favoring and dismissing various people, resulting from prejudices).

Adam Ford: Is ‘identity’ the most appropriate word to be using here?

Keith Wiley: Well, identity certainly doesn’t seem to fully “work”. There’s always some boundary case or exception that undermines any identity theory we attempt to assign. My primary concern, such as it is on an entirely abstract philosophical musing (at this point in history when mind uploading isn’t remotely possible yet) is only secondarily the nature of identity. The primary concern, justified by those secondary aspects of identity, is whether we should regard uploads in some denigrated fashion. Should we dismiss their claims that they are the original person, that they should be perceived as the original person, that they should be treated and entitled and “enrighted” as the original person? I don’t just mean from a legal standpoint. We can pass all sorts of laws that force people to be respectful, but that’s an uninteresting question to me. I’m asking if it is fundamentally right or wrong to regard an upload in a denigrated way when judging its identity claims.

Ontology, Classification & Reality

Adam Ford: As we move forward the classification of identity will likely be fraught with struggle. We might need to invent new words to clarify the difference between distinct concepts. Do you have any ideas for new words?

Keith Wiley: The terminology I generally use is that of mind descendants and mind ancestors. In this way we can ask whether all minds descending from a common ancestral mind should be afforded equal primacy in their claim to the ancestral identity, or alternatively, whether there is a reasonable justification to exhibit biases, prejudices, and discriminations against some minds over such such questions. Personally, I don’t believe any such asymmetry in our judgment of persons and their identity claims can be grounded on physical or material traits (such as whose brain is composed of more matter from the ancestral brain, which comes up when debating nondestructive uploading scenarios).

Adam Ford: An appropriate definition for legal reasons?

Keith Wiley: I find legal distinctions to be uninteresting. It used to be illegal for whites and blacks to marry. Who cares what the law says from a moral, much less metaphysical, perspective. I’m interested in finding the most consistent, least arbitrary, and least paradoxical way to comprehend reality, including the aspect of reality that describes how minds relate to their mental ancestors.

Adam Ford: For scientific reasons?

Keith Wiley: I don’t believe this is a scientific question. How to procedurally accomplish uploading is a scientific question. Whether it can be done in a nondestructive way, leaving the original body and brain unharmed, is a scientific question. Whether multi-uploading (producing multiple uploads at once) is technically possible is a scientific question, say via an initial scan that can be multi-instantiated. I think those are crucial scientific endeavors that will be pursued in the future, and I participate in some of the discussions around that research. But at this point in history, when nothing like mind uploading is possible yet, I am pursuing other aspects, nonscientific aspects, namely the philosophical question of whether we have the correct metaphysical notion of identity in the first place, and whether we are applying identity theories in an irrational, or even discriminatory, fashion.

Implications for Brain Preservation

Adam Ford: Potential brain preservation (inc cryonics) customers may be interested in knowing the possible likely science of reanimation (which, it has been suggested, includes mind uploading) – and the type of preservation which will most likely achieve the best results. Even though we don’t have mind uploading yet – people are committing their brains to preservation strategies that are to some degree based on strategies for revival. Mummification? No – that probably won’t work. Immersion in saline based solution? Yeah for short periods of time. Plastination? Yes but only if it’s the connectome we are after… And then there is different methods of cryonic suspension that may be tailored to different intended outcomes – do you want to destructively scan the brain layer by layer and be uploaded in the future? Do you want to be able to fully revive the actual brain in the (potentially in a longer term future)?

Keith Wiley: People closer to the cryonics community than myself, such as some of my fellow BPF board members, claim that most current cryonics enthusiasts (and paying members or current subjects) are not of the mind uploading persuasion, preferring biological revival instead. Perhaps because they tend to be older (baby boomer generation) they have not bought into computerization of brains and minds. Their passion for cryonics is far more aligned with the prospect of future biological revival. I suspect there will be a shift toward those of a mind uploading persuasion as the newer generations, more comfortable with computers, enter the cryonics community.

As you described above, there are few categories of preservation and a few paths of potential revival. Preservation is primarily of two sorts: cryogenic and at least conceivably reversible, and room temperature and inconceivably reversible. The former is amenable to both biological revival and mind uploading. The latter is exclusively amenable to mind uploading. Why would one ever choose the latter option then? Simple: it might be the better method of preservation! It might preserve the connectome in greater detail for longer periods of time with lesser rates of decay — or it might simply be cheaper or otherwise easier to maintain over the long term. After all, cryonic storage requires cryonic facilities and constant nitrogen reintroduction as it boils off. Room temperature storage can be put on the shelf and forgotten about for millennia.

Adam Ford: What about for social (family) reasons?

Keith Wiley: This is closer to the area where I think and write, although not necessarily in a family-oriented way. But social in terms of whether our social contracts with one another should justify treating certain people in a discriminatory fashion and whether there is a rational basis for such prejudices. Not that any of this will be a real-world issue with which to tackle for quite some time. But perhaps some day…

Adam Ford: If the intended outcomes of BP are for subjective personal reasons?

Keith Wiley: I would admit that much of my personal interest here is to try to grind out the absolutely most logical way to comprehend minds and identity relative to brains, especially under the sorts of physical transformations that brains could hypothetically experience (Parfit’s hemispherical fission, teleportation, gradual nanobot replacement, freeze-slice-scan-and-emulate, etc.).

Philosophy

Adam Ford: In relation to appropriate definitions of ‘identity’ for scientific reasons – what are your thoughts on the whole map/territory ‘is science real’ debate? Where do you sit – scientific realism, anti-realism and structural realism (epistemic or ontic)? what’s your favorite?

Keith Wiley: I suppose I lean toward scientific realism (to my understanding: scientific claims and truths hold real truth value, not just current societal “perspective”, and further they can be applied to yet-to-be observed phenomena), although antirealism is a nifty idea (scientific truths are essentially those which we have yet to disprove, but expect to with some future overturning, or furthermore, unobserved phenomena are not reasonable subjects of scientific inquiry). The reason I don’t like the latter is it leads to antiintellectualism, which is a huge problem for our society. Rather than overturning or disregarding scientific theories, I prefer to interpret it as that we refine them, saying that new theories apply in corners where the old ones didn’t fit well (Newton’s laws are fine in many circumstances, but are best appended by quantum mechanics at the boundary’s of their applicability). Structural and ontic realism are currently vague to me. I’ve read about them but haven’t really grinded through their implications yet.

Adam Ford: If we are concerned about our future and the future of things we value we perhaps should ask a fundamental question: How do things actually persist? (Whether you’re a perdurantist or an endurantist – this is still a relevant question – see 5.2 ‘How Things Persist?’ in ‘Endurantism and Perdurantism’)

Keith Wiley: Perdurantism and Endurantism are not terms I have come across before. I do like the idea of conceptualizing objects as 4D temporal “worms”. I describe brains that way in my book for example. If this is the “right” way (or at least a good way) to conceive of the existence of physical objects, then it partially solves the persistence or preservation-of-identity problem: preservation of identity is the temporal stream of physical continuity. The problem is, I reject any physical requirement for explicitly *personal* identity of minds, because there appears to be no associated physical trait — plus that would leave open how to handle brain fission, ala Parfit, so worms just *can’*t solve the problem of personal identity, only of physical objects.

Adam Ford: Cybernetics – signal is more important than substrate – has cybernetics influenced your thinking? If so, how?

Keith Wiley: If by signal, you mean function, then I’ve always held that the functional traits of the brain are far more important (it not entirely more important) than mere material components.

Adam Ford: “signal is more important than substrate” – Yet the signal quality depends on the substrate – surely a ship’s substrate is not as tightly coupled to its function of moving across a body of water (wood, fiberglass, even steel will work) than a conscious human mind is to its biological brain. in terms of the granularity of replacement part – how much is needed?

Keith Wiley: Good question. I have no idea. I tend to presume the requisite level is action potential processing and generation, which is a pretty popular assumption I think. We should be open on this question at this time in history and current state of scientific knowledge.

Adam Ford: What level of functional representation is needed in order to be preserve ‘selfhood’?

Keith Wiley: Short answer: We don’t know yet. Long answer, it is widely presumed that the action-potential patterns of the connectome are where the crucial stuff is happening, but this is a supposition. We don’t know for sure.

Adam Ford: A Trolley Problem applied to Mind Uploaded Clones: As with the classic trolley problem, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards 5 people. As in the classic case, you can divert it onto a separate track by pulling a nearby leaver. However, suddenly 5 functionally equivalent carbon copies* of the original 5 people appear on the separate track. Would you pull the lever to save the originals but kill the copies? Or leave the originals to die, saving the copies? (*assume you just know the copies are functionally equivalent to the originals)

Keith Wiley: Much of my writing focuses on mind uploading and the related question of what minds are and what personal identity is. My primary claim is that uploads are wholly human in their psychological traits and human rights, and furthermore that they have equal primacy in their claim to the identity of the person who preceded an uploading procedure — even if the bio-original body and brain survive! The upload is still no less “the original person” than the person housed in the materially original body, precisely because bodies and material preservation are irrelevant to who we are, by my reckoning. If this is not the case, then how can we solve the fission paradox? Who gets to “be the original” if we split someone in two? The best solution is that only psychological traits matter and material traits are simply irrelevant.

So, for those reasons, I would rephrase your trolley scenario thusly: track one has five people, track two has five other people. Coincidentally, pairs of people from each track have very recently diverging memories, but the scenario is psychologically symmetrical between the two tracks even if there is some physical asymmetry in terms of how old the various material compositions (bodies) are. So we can disregard notions of asymmetry for the purpose of analyzing the moral or identity-preserving-killing implications of the trolley problem. It is simply “Five people on one track, five on another. Should you pull the lever, killing those on the diverted track to save those on the initial track?” That’s how I rephrase it.

Adam Ford: I wonder if the experiment would yield different results if there were 5 individuals on one track and 6 copies of 1 person on the other? (As some people suggest that copies are actually identical to the original – eg for voting purposes)

Keith Wiley: But they clearly aren’t identical in the scenario you described. The classic trolley problem has always implied that the subjects are reasonably alert and mentally dynamic (thinking). It isn’t carefully described so as to imply that the people involved are explicitly unconscious, to say nothing of the complexities involved in rendering them as physically static objects (preserved brains undergoing essentially no metabolic or signal-processing (action potentials) activity. The problem is never posed that way. Consequently, they are all awake and therefore divergent from one another, distinct individuals with all the rights of individual personhood. So it’s just five against six in your example. That’s all there is to it. People might suggest, as you said above, that copies are identical to each other (or to the original), but those people are just wrong.

So an interesting question then, is what if the various subjects involved actually are unconscious or even rigidly preserved? Can we say their psychological sequences have not diverged and that they therefore represent redundant physical instantiations of a given mind? I explore this exact question in my book by the way. I think a case could be made that until psychological divergence (until the brains are rolling forward through time, accumulating experiences and memories) we can say they are redundant in terms of identity and associated person-value. But to be clear, if the bio-original was statically preserved, then uploaded or duplicated, and then both people were put on the train tracks in their preserved state, physically identical, frozen with no ongoing psychological experience, then I would be clear to state that while it might not matter if we kill the upload, it *also* doesn’t matter if we choose the other way and kill the bio-original! That is the obvious implication of my reasoning here. And in your case above, if we have five distinct people on one track (let’s stay everyone involved is statically preserved) and six uploads of one of those people on the other track, then we could recast the problem as “five on one track and one on the other”. The funny thing is, if we save the six and revive them, then, after the fact, we have granted life to six distinct individuals, but we can only say that after we revive them, not at the time of the trolley experiment when they are statically preserved. So now we are speculating on the “tentative” split personhood of a set of identical but static minds based on a later time when they might be revived. Does that tentative individuality grant them individuality while they are still preserved? Does the mere potential to diverge and individualize grant them full-blown distinct identity before the divergence has occurred? I don’t know. Fascinating question. I guess the anti-abortion-choice and pro-abortion-choice debate has been trying to sort out the personhood of tentative, potential, or possible persons for a long time (and by extension, whether contraception is acceptable hits the same question). We don’t seem to have all agreed on a solution there yet, so we probably won’t agree in this case either.

Philosophy of identity

Adam Ford: Retention of structure across atomic change – is identity the structure, the atomic composition, the atomic or structural continuum through change, or a mixture?

Keith Wiley: Depends on one’s chosen theory of identity of course. Body theory, psychological theory, psychological branching theory, closest continuer theory, 4D spacetime “worm” theory. There’s several to choose from — but I find that some more paradox-prone than others, and I generally take that as an indication of a weak theory. I’m a branchest, although the distinction from worm theory is, on some accounts, virtually indistinguishable.

Adam Ford: Leibniz thought about the Identity of indiscernibles (principle in ontology that no two things can have all properties the same) – if objX and objY share all the same properties, are they the same thing? If KeithX and KeithY share the same functional characteristics are they the same person?

Keith Wiley: But do they really share the same properties to begin with, or is the premise unfounded? When people casually analyze these sorts of scenarios, the two people are standing there, conscious, wondering if someone is about to pass judgment on them and kill them. They are experiencing the world from slightly different sensorial vantage points (vision, sound, etc.) Their minds are almost certainly diverged in their psychological state mere fractions of a second upon regaining consciousness. So they aren’t functionally identical in the first place. Thus the question is flawed, right? The question can only be applied if they are unconscious and rigidly preserved (frozen perhaps). Although I believe a case could be made that mere lack of consciousness is sufficient to designate them *psychologically* identical even if they are not necessarily physically identical due to microscopic metabolic variations — but I leave that subtly as an open question for the time being.

Adam Ford: Here is a Symmetric Universe counterexample – Max Black – two distinct perfect spheres (or two Ship of Theseuses) are two separate objects even though they share all the same properties – but don’t share the same space-time. What are your thoughts?

Keith Wiley: This is very close to worm theory. It distinguishes seemingly identical entities by considering their spacetime worms, which squiggle their way through different spacetime paths and are therefore not identical in the first place. They never were. The reason they appeared to be identical is that we only considered 3D space projection of their truly 4D spacetime structure. You can easily alias pairs of distinct higher-dimensional entities by looking only at their projections onto lower dimensions and thereby wrongly conclude that they are identical when, in fact, they never were to begin with in their true higher dimensional structure. For example, consider two volumes, a sphere and a cylinder. They are 3D. But project them onto a 2D plane (at the right angle) and you get two circles. You might wrongly conclude they are identical, but they weren’t to begin with! You simply ignored an entire dimension of their nature. That’s what the 4D spacetime worm says about the identity of physical objects.

However, once we dismiss any relevance or importance of physical traits anyway (because I reject body identity on the matter of personal identity, favoring psychological identity), then the 4D worm becomes more convoluted. The question then becomes, what sort of “time worm” describes psychological changes over time instead of physical, structure, and material changes over time? I think it’s as simple as: take an information pattern instantiated in a physical system (a brain), produce a second physical instantiation, and now readily conclude that the psychological temporal worm (just a temporal sequence of psychological states frankly) has diverged.

Adam Ford: Nice answer! – I’m certainly interested in hearing more about worm theory – I think this wikipedia source is about the same thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perdurantism
Do you have any personal writings I can point at in the text form of the interview?

Keith Wiley: Ah, I hadn’t heard that term before. Thanks for the reference. Well, I always refer to my book of course, and more recently Randal Koene and I published a paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies this past March.

(See Free near-final version on arxiv

Adam Ford: David Pearce is skeptical that our we as in our subjects of experience are actually enduring metaphysical egos – he seems more of a stage theorist – that each moment of subjective experience is fleeting – only persisting through one cycle of quantum cohesion delimited by decoherence.

Keith Wiley: Hmmm, I see the distinction in the link to stage theorist you provided above, and I do not believe I am committed to a position on that question. I go both ways in my own writing, sometimes describing things as true 4D entities (I describe brains that way in my book) but also writing quite frequently in terms of “mind descendants of mind ancestors”. That phrasing admits that perhaps identity does not span time in a temporal worm, but rather that it consists of instantaneous time slices of momentary identity connected in a temporal sequence. Like I said, I am uncommitted on this distinction, at least for now.

Identity: Accidental properties vs Essential properties

Adam Ford: Is the sense of an enduring metaphysical ego really an ‘accidental property’ (based on our intuitions of self) rather than an ‘essential property’ of identity?

Keith Wiley: It is possible we don’t yet know what a mind is in sufficient detail to answer such a question. I confess to not being entirely sure what the question is asking. That said, it is possible that conscious and cognitively rich aliens have come up with a fairly different way of comprehending what their minds actually are, and consequently may also have rather bizarre notions of what personal identity is.

Note that in the video, I sometimes offer an answer to the question “Did we preserve the ship in this scenario?” and I sometimes don’t, simply asking the viewer “So did we preserve it or not? What do you think?” This is because I’m certainly not sure of all the answers to this question in all the myriad scenarios yet.

Adam Ford: This argument is criticized by some modern philosophers on the grounds that it allegedly derives a conclusion about what is true from a premise about what people know. What people know or believe about an entity, they argue, is not really a characteristic of that entity.
There may be a problem in that what is true about a phenomenon or object (like identity) shouldn’t be derived from how we label or what we know about it – the label or description isn’t a characteristic of the identity (map not the territory etc).

Keith Wiley: I would essentially agree that identity shouldn’t merely be a convention of how we arbitrarily label things (i.e., that labeling grants or determines identity), but rather the reverse, that we are likely to label things so as to indicate how we perceive their identity. The question is, does our perception of identity indicate truth, which we then label, or does our perception determine or choose identity, which we then label? I would like to think reality is more objective than that, that there at least some aspects of identity that aren’t merely our choices, but rather traits of the world that we discover, observe, and finally label.

ship-of-theseus

Notes

References

A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading https://www.amazon.com/dp/0692279849
The Fallacy of Favouring Gradual Replacement Mind Uploading Over Scan-and-Copy https://arxiv.org/abs/1504.06320 Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299820458_The_Fallacy_of_Favouring_Gradual_Replacement_Mind_Uploading_Over_Scan-and-Copy

The Endurance/Perdurance Distinction By Neil Mckinnon http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/713659467
Endurantism and Perdurantism for a discussion on 3 different ways on what these terms have been taken to mean : http://www.nikkeffingham.com/resources/Endurantism+and+Perdurantism.pdf
Plutarch: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Theseus*.html

Definitions


Perdure – remain in existence throughout a substantial period of time; persisting in virtue of having both temporal and spatial parts (alternatively the thesis that objects are four dimensional and have temporal parts)
Endure – being wholly present at all times at which it exists (endurance distinct from perducance in that endurance has strict identity and perdurance has a looser unity relation (genidentity))
Genidentity – is an existential relationship underlying the genesis of an object from one moment to the next.
Gunk – In mereology, an area of philosophical logic, the term gunk applies to any whole whose parts all have further proper parts. That is, a gunky object is not made of indivisible atoms or simples. Because parthood is transitive, any part of gunk is itself gunk.

Bio

Keith Wiley has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of New Mexico and was one of the original members of MURG, the Mind Uploading Research Group, an online community dating to the mid-90s that discussed issues of consciousness with an aim toward mind-uploading. He has written multiple book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles, and magazine articles, in addition to several essays on a broad array of topics, available on his website. Keith is also an avid rock-climber and a prolific classical piano composer.


Also see Jennifer Wang’s (Stanford University) video as she introduces us to the Ship of Theseus puzzle that has bedeviled philosophy since the ancient Greeks. She tells the Ship of Theseus story, and draws out the more general question behind it: what does it take for an object to persist over time? She then breaks this ancient problem down with modern clarity and rigor.

Why don’t we see more larger brained species in our ecosystem?

Species with larger brains seem to have a higher general intelligence. So why haven’t all species evolved larger brains? Possibly because general intelligence relies on a capability for social learning, so larger brains are only useful for species that rely more on social learning. – Kaj Sotala

Larger brains cost require more fuel, larger brains require larger heads, larger heads are harder to scaffold, scaffolding costs nutrients, there are so many trade-offs… scaffolding+big brains are often a the expense of other important morphologies … locomotion abilities, large craniums at the expense of stronger and bigger mouths, and in many species larger heads correlate with more complications during birth.

Perhaps I should add – (and this seems similar to some AI singleton scenarios) – larger brains (as mentioned, correlates with greater intelligence), could give distinct first mover advantages when coupled with other morphologies that enable the organism to generally & efficiently manipulate its environment (opposable thumbs etc). The first mover advantage may be so powerful as to diminish dependencies on environmental factors – or the rest of the ecological web. We, as arguably the most intelligent species on the planet, seem to be moving through an era where we as a species decreasingly depend on aspects of the ecosystem or aspects of our evolutionary endowed morphology – we synthesize better alternatives – and its happening so fast that evolution by natural selection can’t keep up – it’s production of ‘new better models’ of organisms is crowded out by the rapid progress of civilization. So perhaps one reason we don’t see more larger brained species, is for anthropic reasons – ruffly that the higher the occurrence of large brained morphologies, the higher the likelihood of one single species taking the first mover advantages related to high intelligence – and as a result quickly becoming technologically advanced enough for either subduing and manipulating the ecosystem – which may crowd out (and essentially retard) the power of evolution by natural selection to evolve larger brains in other species. The species may go on to inadvertently destroy the ecosystem, intentionally phase out the current ecosystem (involving blind natural selection) perhaps for ethical or instrumental reasons, or leave the ecosystem and natural selection to its own devices and go interstellar – in which case there would be at least one less large brained species in the ecosystem, and perhaps re-opening a niche for another species to fill.

This was inspired by Kaj Sotala’s query about why we don’t see more larger brained species than we currently do.