The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine – Scott Aaronson

Interview on whether machines can be conscious with Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist and David J. Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary areas of research are quantum computing and computational complexity theory.
Scott blogged about this and other segments of our interview – his blog is very popular and has way more comments than this one does – check it out.

Check out interview segment “The Winding Road to Quantum Supremacy” with Scott Aaronson – covering progress in quantum computation, whether there are things that quantum computers could do that classical computers can’t etc..

Transcript

Adam Ford: In ‘Could a Quantum Computer have Subjective Experience?‘ you speculate where the process has to fully participate in the arrow of time to be conscious and this points to decoherence. If pressed, how might you try to formalize this?

Scott Aaronson: So yeah so I did write this kind of crazy essay five or six years ago that was called “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine“, where I tried to explore a position that seemed to me to be mysteriously under-explored! And all of the debates about ‘could a machine be conscious?’ and we want to be thoroughgoing materialists right? There’s no magical ghost that defies the laws of physics; the brains or physical systems that obey the laws physics
just like any others.
But there is at least one very interesting difference between a brain and any digital computer that’s ever been built – and that is that the state of a brain is not obviously copyable; that is not obviously knowable to an outside person well enough to predict what a person will do in the future, without having to scan the person’s brain so invasively that you would kill them okay. And so there is a sort of privacy or opacity if you like to a brain that there is not to a piece of code running on a digital computer.
And so there are all sorts of classic philosophical conundrums that play on that difference. For example suppose that a human-level AI does eventually become possible and we have simulated people who were running a inside of our computers – well if I were to murder such a person in the sense of deleting their file is that okay as long as I kept the backup somewhere? As long as I can just restore them from backup? Or what if I’m running two exact copies of the program on two computers next to each other – is that instantiating two consciousnesses? Or is it really just one consciousness? Because there’s nothing to distinguish the one from the other?
So could I blackmail an AI to do what I wanted by saying even if I don’t have access to you as an AI, I’m gonna say if you don’t give me a million dollars then I’m just going to – since I have your code – I’m gonna create a million copies of your of the code and torture them? And – if you think about it – you are almost certain to be one of those copies because there’s far more of them than there are of you, and they’re all identical!
So yeah so there’s all these puzzles that philosophers have wondered about for generations about: the nature of identity, how does identity persist across time, can it be duplicated across space, and somehow in a world with copy-able AIs they would all become much more real!
And so one one point of view that you could take is that: well if I can predict exactly what someone is going to do right – and I don’t mean you know just saying as a philosophical matter that I could predict your actions if I were a Laplace demon and I knew the complete state of the universe right, because I don’t in fact know the complete state of the universe okay – but imagine that I could do that as an actual practical matter – I could build an actual machine that would perfectly predict down to the last detail every thing you would do before you had done it.
Okay well then in what sense do I still have to respect your personhood? I mean I could just say I have unmasked you as a machine; I mean my simulation has every bit as much right to personhood as you do at this point right – or maybe they’re just two different instantiations of the same thing.
So another possibility, you could say, is that maybe what we like to think of is consciousness only resides in those physical systems that for whatever reason are uncopyable – that if you try to make a perfect copy then you know you would ultimately run into what we call the no-cloning theorem in quantum mechanics that says that: you cannot copy the exact physical state of a an unknown system for quantum mechanical reasons. And so this would suggest of you where kind of personal identity is very much bound up with the flow of time; with things that happen that are evanescent; that can never happen again exactly the same way because the world will never reach exactly the same configuration.
A related puzzle concerns well: what if I took your conscious or took an AI and I ran it on a reversible computer? Now some people believe that any appropriate simulation brings about consciousness – which is a position that you can take. But now what if I ran the simulation backwards – as I can always do on a reversible computer? What if I ran the simulation, I computed it and then I uncomputed it? Now have I caused nothing to have happened? Or did I cause one forward consciousness, and then one backward consciousness – whatever that means? Did it have a different character from the forward consciousness?
But we know a whole class of phenomena that in practice can only ever happen in one direction in time – and these are thermodynamic phenomena right; these are phenomena that create waste heat; create entropy; that may take these little small microscopic unknowable degrees of freedom and then amplify them to macroscopic scale. And in principle there was macroscopic records could could get could become microscopic again. Like if I make a measurement of a quantum state at least according to the let’s say many-worlds quantum mechanics in principle that measurement could always be undone. And yet in practice we never see those things happen – for the same for basically the same reasons why we never see an egg spontaneously unscramble itself, or why we why we never see a shattered glass leap up to the table and reassemble itself right, namely these would represent vastly improbable decreases of entropy okay. And so the speculation was that maybe this sort of irreversibility in this increase of entropy that we see in all the ordinary physical processes and in particular in our own brains, maybe that’s important to consciousness?
Right uh or what we like to think of as free will – I mean we certainly don’t have an example to say that it isn’t – but you know the truth of the matter is I don’t know I mean I set out all the thoughts that I had about it in this essay five years ago and then having written it I decided that I had enough of metaphysics, it made my head hurt too much, and I was going to go back to the better defined questions in math and science.

Adam Ford: In ‘Is Information Physical?’ you note that if a system crosses a Swartzschild Bound it collapses into a black-hole – do you think this could be used to put an upper-bound on the amount of consciousness in any given physical system?

Scott Aaronson: Well so I can decompose your question a little bit. So there is what quantum gravity considerations let you do, it is believed today, is put a universal bound on how much computation can be going on in a physical system of a given size, and also how many bits can be stored there. And I the bounds are precise enough that I can just tell you what they are. So it appears that a physical system you know, that’s let’s say surrounded by a sphere of a given surface area, can store at most about 10 to the 69 bits, or rather 10 to the 69 qubits per square meter of surface area of the enclosing boundary. And it has a similar limit on how many computational steps it can do over it’s it’s whole history.
So now I think your question kind of reduces to the question: Can we upper-bound how much consciousness there is in a physical system – whatever that means – in terms of how much computation is going on in it; or in terms of how many bits are there? And that’s a little hard for me to think about because I don’t know what we mean by amount of consciousness right? Like am I ten times more conscious than a frog? Am I a hundred times more conscious? I don’t know – I mean some of the time I feel less conscious than a frog right.
But I am sympathetic to the idea that: there is some minimum of computational interestingness in any system that we would like to talk about as being conscious. So there is this ancient speculation of panpsychism, that would say that every electron, every atom is conscious – and do me that’s fine – you can speculate that if you want. We know nothing to rule it out; there were no physical laws attached to consciousness that would tell us that it’s impossible. The question is just what does it buy you to suppose that? What does it explain? And in the case of the electron I’m not sure that it explains anything!
Now you could say does it even explain anything to suppose that we’re conscious? But and maybe at least not for anyone beyond ourselves. You could say there’s this ancient conundrum that we each know that we’re conscious presumably by our own subjective experience and as far as we know everyone else might be an automaton – which if you really think about that consistently it could lead you to become a solipsist. So Allen Turing in his famous 1950 paper that proposed the Turing test had this wonderful remark about it – which was something like – ‘A’ is liable to think that ‘A’ thinks while ‘B’ does not, while ‘B’ is liable to think ‘B’ thinks but ‘A’ does not. But in practice it is customary to adopt the polite convention that everyone thinks. So it was a very British way of putting it to me right. We adopt the polite convention that solipsism is false; that people who can, or any entities let’s say, that can exhibit complex behaviors or goal-directed intelligent behaviors that are like ours are probably conscious like we are. And that’s a criterion that would apply to other people it would not apply to electrons (I don’t think), and it’s plausible that there is some bare minimum of computation in any entity to which that criterion would apply.

Adam Ford: Sabine Hossenfelder – I forget her name now – {Sabine Hossenfelder yes} – she had a scathing review of panpsychism recently, did you read that?

Scott Aaronson: If it was very recent then I probably didn’t read it – I mean I did read an excerpt where she was saying that like Panpsychism – is what she’s saying that it’s experimentally ruled out? If she was saying that I don’t agree with that – know I don’t even see how you would experimentally rule out such a thing; I mean you’re free to postulate as much consciousness as you want on the head of a pin – I would just say well it’s not if it doesn’t have
an empirical consequence; if it’s not affecting the world; if it’s not affecting the behavior of that head of a pin, in a way that you can detect – then Occam’s razor just itches to slice it out from our description of the world – always that’s the way that I would put it personally.\
So I put a detailed critique of integrated information theory (IIT), which is Giulio Tononi’s proposed theory of consciousness on my blog, and my critique was basically: so Tononi know comes up with a specific numerical measure that he calls ‘Phi’ and he claims that a system should be regarded as conscious if and only if the Phi is large. Now the actual definition of Phi has changed over time – it’s changed from one paper to another, and it’s not always clear how to apply it and there are many technical objections that could be raised against this criterion. But you know what I respect about IIT is that at least it sticks its neck out right. It proposes this very clear criterion, you know are we always much clearer than competing accounts do right – to tell you this is which physical systems you should regard as conscious and which not.
Now the danger of sticking your neck out is that it can get cut off right – and indeed I think that IIT is not only falsifiable but falsified, because as soon as this criterion is written down (what the point I was making is that) it is easy to construct physical systems that have enormous values of Phi – much much larger then a human has – that I don’t think anyone would really want to regard as intelligent let alone conscious or even very interesting.
And so my examples show that basically Phi is large if and only if your system has a lot of interconnection – if it’s very hard to decompose into two components that interact with each other only weakly – and so you have a high degree of information integration. And so my the point of my counter examples was to try to say well this cannot possibly be the sole relevant criterion, because a standard error correcting code as is used for example on every compact disc also has an enormous amount of information integration – but should we therefore say that you know ‘every error correcting code that gets implemented in some piece of electronics is conscious?’, and even more than that like a giant grid of logic gates just sitting there doing nothing would have a very large value of Phi – and we can multiply examples like that.
And so Tononi then posted a big response to my critique and his response was basically: well you’re just relying on intuition; you’re just saying oh well yeah these systems are not a conscious because my intuition says that they aren’t – but .. that’s parochial right – why should you expect a theory of consciousness to accord with your intuition and he just then just went ahead and said yes the error correcting code is consciouss, yes the giant grid of XOR gates is conscious – and if they have a thousand times larger value of Phi than a brain, then there are a thousand times more conscious than a human is. So you know the way I described it was he didn’t just bite the bullet he just devoured like a bullet sandwich with mustard. Which was not what I was expecting but now the critique that I’m saying that ‘any scientific theory has to accord with intuition’ – I think that is completely mistaken; I think that’s really a mischaracterization of what I think right.
I mean I’ll be the very first to tell you that science has overturned common sense intuition over and over and over right. I mean like for example temperature feels like an intrinsic quality of a of a material; it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with motion with the atoms jiggling around at a certain speed – okay but we now know that it does. But when scientists first arrived at that modern conception of temperature in the eighteen hundreds, what was essential was that at least you know that new criterion agreed with the old criterion that fire is hotter than ice right – so at least in the cases where we knew what we meant by hot or cold – the new definition agreed with the old definition. And then the new definition went further to tell us many counterintuitive things that we didn’t know before right – but at least that it reproduced the way in which we were using words previously okay.
Even when Copernicus and Galileo where he discovered that the earth is orbiting the Sun right, the new theory was able to account for our observation that we were not flying off the earth – it said that’s exactly what you would expect to have happened even in the in ?Anakin? because of these new principles of inertia and so on okay.
But if a theory of consciousness says that this giant blank wall or this grid is highly highly conscious just sitting there doing nothing – whereas even a simulated person or an AI that passes the Turing test would not be conscious if it’s organized in such a way that it happens to have a low value of Phi – I say okay the burden is on you to prove to me that this Phi notion that you have defined has anything whatsoever to do with what I was calling consciousness you haven’t even shown me any cases where they agree with each other where I should therefore extrapolate to the hard cases; the ones where I lack an intuition – like at what point is an embryo conscious? or when is an AI conscious? I mean it’s like the theory seems to have gotten wrong the only things that it could have possibly gotten right, and so then at that point I think there is nothing to compel a skeptic to say that this particular quantity Phi has anything to do with consciousness.

The Winding Road to Quantum Supremacy – Scott Aaronson

Interview on quantum computation with Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist and David J. Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary areas of research are quantum computing and computational complexity theory.
Scott blogged about this and other segments of our interview – his blog is very popular and has way more comments than this one does – check it out.

Check out interview segment “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine” – covering whether a machine can be conscious, whether information is physical and integrated information theory.

Transcript

Scott Aaronson: Okay so – Hi, I’m Scott Aaronson. I’m a computer science professor at the University of Texas at Austin and my main interest is the capabilities and limits of quantum computers, and more broadly what computer science and physics have to tell each other. And I got interested in it I guess because it was hard not to be – because as a teenager it just seemed clear to me that the universe is a giant video game and it just obeys certain rules, and so if I really wanted to understand the universe maybe I could ignore the details of physics and just think about computation.
But then with the birth of quantum computing and the dramatic discoveries in the mid-1990s (like Shor’s algorithm for factoring huge numbers) it became clear that physics actually changes the basic rules of computation – so that was something that I felt like I had to understand. And 20 years later we’re still trying to understand it, and we may also be able to build some devices that can outperform classical computers namely quantum computers and use them to do some interesting things.
But to me that’s that’s really just icing on the cake; really I just want to understand how things fit together. Well to tell you the truth when I first heard about quantum computing (I think from reading some popular article in the mid 90s about Shor’s algorithm which had only recently been discovered) my first reaction was this sounds like obvious hogwash; this sounds like some physicists who just do not understand the first thing about computation – and they’re just inventing some physics proposal that sounds like it just tries every possible solution in parallel. But none of these things are going to scale and in computer science there’s been decades of experience of that; of people saying: well why don’t you build a computer using a bunch of mirrors? or using soap bubbles? or using folding proteins?
And there’s all kinds of ideas that on paper look like they could evaluate an exponential number of solutions at only a linear amount of time, but they’re always kind of idealizing something? So it’s always when you examine them carefully enough you find that the amount of energy or scales explose up on you exponentially, or the precision with which you would need to measure becomes exponentially precise, or something becomes totally unrealistic – and I thought the same must be true of quantum computing. But in order to be sure I had to read something about it.
So I while I was working over a summer at Bell Labs doing work that had nothing to do with quantum computing, well my boss was nice enough to let me spend some time learning about and reading up on the basics of quantum computing – and that was really a revelation for me because I accepted [that] quantum mechanics is the real thing. It is a thing of comparable enormity to the basic principles of computation – you can say the principles of Turing – and it is exactly the kind of thing that could modify some of those principles. But the biggest surprise of all I think was that I despite not being a physicist not having any skill that partial differential equations or the others tools of the physicists that I could actually understand something about quantum mechanics.
And ultimately to learn the basic rules of how a quantum computer would work and start thinking about what they would be good for – quantum algorithms and things like that – it’s enough to be conversant with vectors and matrice. So you need to know a little bit of math but not that much. You need to be able to know linear algebra okay and that’s about it.
And I feel like this is a kind of a secret that gets buried in almost all the popular articles; they make it sound like quantum mechanics is just this endless profusion of counterintuitive things. That it’s: particles can be in two places at once, and a cat can be both dead and alive until you look at it, and then why is that not just a fancy way of saying well either the cat’s alive or dead and you don’t know which one until you look – they they never quite explained that part, and particles can have spooky action at a distance and affect each other instantaneously, and particles can tunnel through walls! It all sounds hopelessly obscure and you know there’s no hope for anyone who’s not a PhD in physics to understand any of it.
But the truth of the matter is there’s this one counterintuitive hump that you have to get over which is the certain change to or generalization of the rules of probability – and once you’ve gotten that then all the other things are just different ways of talking about or different manifestations of that one change. And a quantum computer in particular is just a computer that tries to take advantage of this one change to the rules of probability that the physicists discovered in the 1920s was needed to account for our world. And so that was really a revelation for me – that even you’re computer scientists are math people; people who are not physicists can actually learn this and start contributing to it – yeah!

Adam Ford: So it’s interesting that often when you try to pursue an idea, the practical gets in the way – we try to get to the ideal without actually considering the practical – and they feel like enemies. Should we be letting the ideal be the enemy of the practical?

Scott Aaronson: Well I think that from the very beginning it was clear that there is a theoretical branch of quantum computing which is where you just assume you have as many of these quantum bits (qubits) as you could possibly need, and they’re perfect; they stay perfectly isolated from their environment, and you can do whatever local operations on them you might like, and then you just study how many operations would you need to factor a number, or solve some other problem of practical importance. And the theoretical branch is really the branch where I started out in this field and where I’ve mostly been ever since.
And then there’s the practical branch which asks well what will it take to actually build a device that instantiates this theory – where we have to have qubits that are actually the energy levels of an electron, or the spin states of an atomic nucleus, or are otherwise somehow instantiated in the physical world. And they will be noisy, they will be interacting with their environment – we will have to take heroic efforts to keep them sufficiently isolated from their environments – which is needed in order to maintain their superposition state. How do we do that?
Well we’re gonna need some kind of fancy error correcting codes to do that, and then there are there are theoretical questions there as well but how do you design those correcting codes?
But there’s also practical questions: how do you engineer a system where the error rates are low enough that these codes can even be used at all; that if you try to apply them you won’t simply be creating even more error than you’re fixing. What should be the physical basis for qubits? Should it be superconducting coils? Should it be ions trapped in a magnetic field? Should it be photons? Should it be some new topological state of matter? Actually all four of those proposals and many others are all being pursued now!
So I would say that until fairly recently in the field, like five years ago or so, the theoretical and the practical branches we’re pretty disjointed from each other; they were never enemies so to speak. I mean we might poke fun at each other sometimes but we were we were never enemies. The the field always sort of rose or fell as a whole and we all knew that. But we just didn’t have a whole lot to scientifically say to each other because the experimentalists we’re just trying to get one or two qubits to work well, and they couldn’t even do that much, and we theorists we’re thinking about – well suppose you’ve got a billion cubits, or some arbitrary number, what could you do? And what would still be hard to do even then?
A lot of my work was has actually been about the limitations of quantum computers, but I also like to say the study of what you can’t do even with computers that you don’t have. And only recently the experimentalists have finally gotten the qubits to work pretty well in isolation so that now it finally makes sense to start to scale things up – not yet to a million qubits but maybe 50 qubits, maybe to 60, maybe to a hundred. This as it happens is what
Google and IBM and Intel and a bunch of startup companies are trying to do right now. And some of them are hoping to have devices within the next year or two, that might or might not do anything useful but if all goes well we hope will at least be able to do something interesting – in the sense of something that would be challenging for a classical computer to simulate, and that at least proves the point that we can do something this way that is beyond what classical computers can do.
And so as a result the most nitty-gritty experimentalists are now actually talking to us theorists because now they need to know – not just as a matter of intellectual curiosity, but as a fairly pressing practical matter – once we get 50 or 100 cubits working what do we do with them? What do we do with them first of all that you know is hard to simulate classically? How sure are you that there’s no fast classical method to do the same thing? How do we verify that we’ve really done it , and is it useful
for anything?
And ideally they would like us to come up with proposals that actually fit the constraints of the hardware that they’re building, where you could say you know eventually none of this should matter, eventually a quantum programmer should be able to pay as little attention to the hardware as a classical programmer has to worry about the details of the transistors today.
But in the near future when we only have 50 or 100 cubits you’re gonna have to make the maximum use of each and every qubit that you’ve got, and the actual details of the hardware are going to matter, and the result is that even we theorists have had to learn about these details in a way that we didn’t before.
There’s been a sort of coming together of the theory and practical branches of the field just in the last few years that to me has been pretty exciting.

Adam Ford: So you think we will have something equivalent to functional programming for quantum computing in the near future?

Scott Aaronson: Well there actually has been a fair amount of work on the design of quantum programming languages. There’s actually a bunch of them out there now that you can download and try out if you’d like. There’s one called Quipper, there’s another one called a Q# from Microsoft, and there are several others. Of course we don’t yet have very good hardware to run the programs on yet, mostly you can just run them in classical simulation, which naturally only works well for up to about 30 or 40 cubits, and then it becomes too slow. But if you would like to get some experience with quantum programming you can try these things out today, and many of them do try to provide higher level functionalities, so that you’re not just doing the quantum analog of assembly language programming, but you can think in higher-level modules, or you can program functionally. I would say that in quantum algorithms we’ve mostly just been doing theory and we haven’t been implementing anything, but we have had to learn to think that way. If we had to think in terms of each individual qubit, each individual operation on one or two
qubits, well we would never get very far right? And so we have to think in higher-level terms like there are certain modules that we know can be done – one of them is called the Quantum Fourier Transform and that’s actually the heart of Shor’s famous algorithm for factoring numbers (it has other applications as well). Another one is called Amplitude Amplification that’s the heart of Grover’s famous algorithm for searching long long lists of numbers
in about the square root of the number of steps that you would need classically, and that’s also like a quantum algorithm design primitive that we can just kind of plug in as a black box and it has many applications.
So we do think in these higher level terms, but there’s a different set of higher level abstractions than there would be for classical computing – and so you have to learn those. But the basic idea of decomposing a complicated
problem by breaking it down into its sub components that’s exactly the same in quantum computing as it is in classical computing.

Adam Ford: Are you optimistic with regards to quantum computing in the short to medium term?

Scott Aaronson: You’re asking what am I optimistic about – so I am I mean like I feel like the field has made amazing progress: both on theory side and on the experimental side. We’re not there yet, but we know a lot more than we did a decade ago. Some of what were my favorite open problems as a theorist a decade ago have now been resolved – some of them within the last year – actually and the hardware the qubits are not yet good enough to build a scalable quantum computer – in that sense the skeptics can clearly legitimately say we’re not there yet – well no duh we’re not – okay but: if you look at the coherence times of the qubits, you look at what you can do with them, and you compare that to where they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago – there’s been orders of magnitude type of progress. So the analogy that I like to make: Charles Babbage laid down the basic principles of classical computing in the 1820s right? I mean not with as much mathematical rigor as Turing would do later, but the basic ideas were there. He had what today we would call a design for a universal computer.
So now imagine someone then saying ‘well so when is this analytical engine gonna get built? will it be in the 1830s or will it take all the way until the 1840s?’ Well in this case it took more than a hundred years for a technology to be invented – namely the transistor – that really fully realized Babbage’s vision. I mean the vacuum tube came along earlier, and you could say partially realized that but it was just not reliable enough to really be scalable in the way that the transistor was. And optimistically now we’re in the very very early vacuum tube era of quantum computing. We don’t yet have the quantum computing analog of the transistor as people don’t even agree about which technology is the right one to scale up yet. Is it superconducting? Is it trapped ions? Is it photonics? Is it a topological matter? So they’re pursuing all these different approaches in parallel. The partisans of each approach have what sounds like compelling arguments as to why none of the other approaches could possibly scale. I hope that they’re not all correct uh-huh. People have only just recently gotten to the stage where one or two qubits work well in isolation, and where it makes sense to try to scale up to 50 or 100 of them and see if you can get them working well together at that kind of scale.
And so I think the the big thing to watch for in the next five to ten years is what’s been saddled with the somewhat unfortunate name of ‘Quantum Supremacy’ (and this was coined before Trump I hasten to say). But so this is just a term to refer to doing something with a quantum computer it’s not necessarily useful but that at least is classically hard. So you know as I was saying earlier, proves the point that you can do something that would take a lot longer to simulate it with a classical computer. And this is the thing that Google and some others are going to take their best shot at within the next couple of years so. What puts that in the realm of possibility is that just a mere 50 or 100 cubits if they work well enough should already be enough to get us this. In principle you know you may be able to do this without needing error correction – once you need error correction then that enormously multiplies the resources that you need to do even the simplest of what’s called ‘Fault-Tolerant Computing’ might take many thousands of physical qubits, okay, even though everyone agrees that ultimately if you want to scale to realize the true promise of quantum computing – or let’s say to threaten our existing methods of cryptography – then you’re going to need this fault tolerance. But that I expect we’re not gonna see in the next five to ten years.
If we do see it I mean that will be a huge shock – as big a shock as it would be if you told someone in 1939 that there was going to be a nuclear weapon in six years. In that case there was a world war that sort of accelerated the timeline you could say from what it would otherwise be. In this case I hope there won’t be a world war that accelerates this timeline. But my guess would be that if all goes well then quantum supremacy might be achievable within the next decade, and I hope that after that we could start to see some initial applications of quantum computing which will probably be some very very specialized ones; some things that we can already get with a hundred or so non-error-corrected qubits. And by necessity these are going to be very special things – they might mostly be physics simulations or simulations of some simple chemistry problems.
I actually have a proposed application for near-term quantum computers which is to generate cryptographically secure random numbers – those random numbers that you could prove to a skeptic really were generated randomly – turns out that even like a 50 or 60 qubit quantum computer should already be enough to give us that. But true scalable quantum computing the kind that could threaten cryptography and that could also speed up optimization problems and things like that – that will probably require error correction – and I could be pleasantly surprised . I’m not optimistic about that part becoming real on the next five to ten years, but you know since every everyone likes an optimist I guess I’ll I try to be optimistic that we will take big steps in that direction and maybe even get there within my lifetime.

Also see this and this of an interview with Mike Johnson conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson and I. Also this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.

Cognitive Biases & In-Group Convergences with Joscha Bach

True & false vs right & wrong – People converge their views to set of rights and wrongs relative to in-group biases in their peer group.
As a survival mechanism, convergence in groups is sometimes more healthy than being right – so one should optimize for convergence sometimes even at the cost of getting stuff wrong – so humans probably have an evolutionary propensity to favor convergence over truth.
However by optimizing for convergence may result in the group mind being more stupid than the smartest people in the group.

 

 
Joscha highlights the controversy of Yonatan Zunger being fired for sending out an email about biological differences between men and women effecting abilities as engineers – where Zunger’s arguments may be correct – now regardless of what the facts are about how biological differences effect differences in ability between men & women, google fired him because they thought supporting these arguments would make for a worse social environment.

This sort of thing leads to an interesting difference in discourse, where:
* ‘nerds’ tend to focus on ‘content‘, on imparting ideas and facts where everyone can judge these autonomously and form their own opinions – in view that in order to craft the best solutions we need to have the best facts
* most people the purpose of communication is ‘coordination‘ between individuals and groups (society, nations etc) – where the value on a ‘fact’ is it’s effect on the coordination between people

So is Google’s response to the memo controversy about getting the facts right, or about how Google at this point should be organised?

What’s also really interesting is that different types of people read this ‘memo’ very differently – making it very difficult to form agreement about the content of this memo – how can one agree on whats valuable about communication – whether it’s more about imparting ideas and facts or whether it’s more about coordination?

More recently there has been a lot of talk about #FakeNews – where it’s very difficult to get people to agree to things that are not in their own interests – and including, as Joshca points out, the idea that truth matters.

Joscha Bach, Ph.D. is an AI researcher who worked and published about cognitive architectures, mental representation, emotion, social modeling, and multi-agent systems. He earned his Ph.D. in cognitive science from the University of Osnabrück, Germany, and has built computational models of motivated decision making, perception, categorization, and concept-formation. He is especially interested in the philosophy of AI and in the augmentation of the human mind.

Discussion points:
– In-group convergence: thinking in true & false vs right & wrong
– The group mind may be more stupid than the smartest individuals in the group

The Generative Universe Hypothesis

Remembering Lee Smolin’s theory of the dynamical evolution of the universe  where through a form of natural selection, black holes spawn new universes, I thought that if a superintelligent civilization understood its mechanics, they may try to control it, and engineer or bias the physics in the spawned universe – and possibly migrate to this new universe.   Say that they found out how to talk along the parent/child relations between universes, it may be a an energy efficient way achieve some of the outcomes of simulations (as described in Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis).

The idea of moving to a more hospitable universe could be such a strong attractor to post-singularity civs that, once discovered, it may be the an obvious choice for a variety of reasons.   A) Better computation by faster/easier networking – Say for instance, that the speed of light were a lot faster, and information could travel over longer distances than in this universe – then network speed may not be as much of a hindrance to developing larger civs, distributed computation, and mega-scale galactic brains. B) As a means of escape – If it so happened that neighbouring alien civs were close enough to pose a threat, then escaping this universe to a new generated universe could be ideal – especially if one could close the door behind, or lay a trap at the opening to the generated universe to capture probes or ships that weren’t ones own.  C) Mere curiosity – it may not be full blown utility maximization that is the lone object of the endeavor,  it could be just simple curiosity about how (stable) universes may operate if fine tuned differently. (How far can you take simulations in this universe to test how hypothetical universes could operate without actually generating and testing the universes?)  D) To escape the ultimate fate of this universe – according to the most popular current estimates, we have about 10100 years until the heat death of this universe. E) Better computation by a ‘cooler’ environment – A colder yet stable universe to compute in – similar to the previous point and the first point.  Some hypothesise that civs may sleep until the universe gets colder when computation can be done far more efficiently, where these civs long for the heat death so that they can get really get started with whatever projects they have in mind that require the computing power only made possible by extremely low temperatures more abundantly available at or near the heat death.  Well, what if you could engineer a universe to achieve temperatures far lower than that which would be available in this universe, while also allowing the benefit of the universe being relatively steady (say that’s something that’s needed) – and if it could be achieved sooner by a generative universe solution than waiting around for this universes heat death then why not?  F) Fault tolerance – distributing a civ across (generated) universes may preserve the civ against risks of the current one going unexpectedly pear shaped – the more fault tolerance the merrier G) Load balancing – if it’s posisble to communicate between parent/child relationships, then civs may generate universes merely to act as containers for computation, helping solve really really really big problems far faster, or scaffold extremely detailed virtual realities far more efficiently – less lag, less jitters – deeper immersion! 

If this Perhaps we will find evidence of alien civs around black holes generating and testing new universes before taking the leap to transcend so to speak.

Why leave the future evolution of universes up to blind natural selection?  Advanced post-singularity alien civs might hypothesize an extremely strict set of criteria to allow for the formation of the right kinds of matter and energy in child universes to either mirror our own universe, or more likely take it up a notch or two;  to new levels of interestingness – while computational capacity is limited if constrained by the laws of this containing universe, it may be that spawning a new universe could allow for more interesting and efficient computation.

It may also be a great way to escape the heat death of the universe 🙂

I spoke about the idea with Andrew Arnel a while ago while out for a drink, where I came up with a really cool name for this idea – though I can’t remember what it was 🙂  perhaps it only sounds good after a few beers – perhaps it was something like the ‘generative’, spawnulation or ‘genulation’ hypothesis…

 

Update: also more recently I commented about this idea on a FB post by Mike Johnson:
I may have a similar idea relating to smolins darwinistic black-hole universe generation. Why build simulations where it would be more efficient to actually generate new universes not computationally bounded by or contained by the originating universe – by nudging the physics that would emerge in the new universe to be more able to support flourishing life, more computation and wider novelty possibility spaces.


Furthermore I spoke to Sundance Bilson Thomson (a physicist in Australia who was supervised by Lee Smolin) about whether what influenced the physics in the child universes was local phenomena surrounding the black hole in the parent universe, or global phenomena of the parent universe.  He said it was global phenomena based on something to do with the way stars are formed.  So this might lower my credence in the Generative Universe hypothesis as it pertains to Lee Smolin’s idea – though I need to seek out whether the nature of the generated child universes could still be nudged or engineered.

Why Technology Favors a Singleton over a Tyranny

Is democracy loosing its credibility, will it cede to dictatorship?  Will AI out-compete us in all areas of economic usefulness – making us the future useless class?

It’s difficult to get around the bottlenecks of networking and coordination in distributed democracies. In the past quite naturally distributed systems being scattered are more redundant wer in many ways fault tolerant and adaptive – though these payoffs for most of us may dwindle if humans become less and less able to compete with Ex Machina. If the relative efficiency of democracies to dictatorships tips towards the latter nudging a transition to centralized dictatorships, while solving some distribution & coordination problems, the concentration of resource allocation may be exaggerated beyond historical examples of tyranny. Where the ‘once was proletariat’ now new ‘useless class’ have little to no utility to the concentration of power – the top 0.001% – the would be tyrants will likely give up on ruling and tyrannizing – and instead find it easier to cull the resource hungry and rights demanding horde – more efficient that way. Ethics is fundamental to fair progress – ethics is philosophy with a deadline creeping closer – what can we do to increase the odds of a future where the value of life is evaluated beyond it’s economic usefulness?
I found ‘Why Technology Favors Tyranny by Yuval Noah Harari‘ was a good read – I enjoy his writing, and it provokes me to think.  About 5 years ago I did the ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ course via coursera – urging my friends to join me.  Since then Yuval has taken the world by storm.
The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. […] We tend to think about the conflict between democracy and dictatorship as a conflict between two different ethical systems, but it is actually a conflict between two different data-processing systems. Democracy distributes the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given 20th-century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much information and power in one place. Nobody had the ability to process all available information fast enough and make the right decisions. […]Why Technology Favors Tyranny
I assume AI superintelligence is highly probable if we don’t go extinct first.  For the same reason that the proletariat’s become useless I think ultimately the AI-Human combination will likely become useless too, and cede to Superintelligent AI – so all humans becomes useless. The bourgeoisie elite may initially feel safe in the idea that they don’t need to be useful, they just need to maintain control of power. Though the sliding relative dumbness of bourgeoisie to superintelligence will worry them.. perhaps not long after wiping out the useless class, the elite bourgeoisie will then see the importance of the AI control problem, and that their days are numbered too – at which point will they see ethics and the value of life beyond economic usefulness as important?
However, artificial intelligence may soon swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible to process enormous amounts of information centrally. In fact, it might make centralized systems far more efficient than diffuse systems, because machine learning works better when the machine has more information to analyze. If you disregard all privacy concerns and concentrate all the information relating to a billion people in one database, you’ll wind up with much better algorithms than if you respect individual privacy and have in your database only partial information on a million people. An authoritarian government that orders all its citizens to have their DNA sequenced and to share their medical data with some central authority would gain an immense advantage in genetics and medical research over societies in which medical data are strictly private. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century.Why Technology Favors Tyranny
Yuval Noah Harari believes that we could be heading for a technologically enabled tyranny as AI automates all jobs away – and we become the useless class. Though if superintellignece is likely, then human’s will likely to be a bottleneck in any AI/Human hybrid use case – if tyranny happens, it won’t last for long – what use is a useless class to the elite?

Technology without ethics favors singleton utility monsters – not a tyranny – what use is it to tyrannize over a useless class?

Uncovering the Mysteries of Affective Neuroscience – the Importance of Valence Research with Mike Johnson

Valence in overview

Adam: What is emotional valence (as opposed to valence in chemistry)?

Mike: Put simply, emotional valence is how pleasant or unpleasant something is. A somewhat weird fact about our universe is that some conscious experiences do seem to feel better than others.

 

Adam: What makes things feel the way they do? What makes some things feel better than others?

Mike: This sounds like it should be a simple question, but neuroscience just don’t know. It knows a lot of random facts about what kinds of experiences, and what kinds of brain activation patterns, feel good, and which feel bad, but it doesn’t have anything close to a general theory here.

..the way affective neuroscience talks about this puzzle sometimes sort of covers this mystery up, without solving it.

And the way affective neuroscience talks about this puzzle sometimes sort of covers this mystery up, without solving it. For instance, we know that certain regions of the brain, like the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum, seem to be important for pleasure, so we call them “pleasure centers”. But we don’t know what makes something a pleasure center. We don’t even know how common painkillers like acetaminophen (paracetamol) work! Which is kind of surprising.

In contrast, the hypothesis about valence I put forth in Principia Qualia would explain pleasure centers and acetaminophen and many other things in a unified, simple way.

 

Adam: How does the hypothesis about valence work?

Mike: My core hypothesis is that symmetry in the mathematical representation of an experience corresponds to how pleasant or unpleasant that experience is. I see this as an identity relationship which is ‘True with a capital T’, not merely a correlation.  (Credit also goes to Andres Gomez Emilsson & Randal Koene for helping explore this idea.)

What makes this hypothesis interesting is that
(1) On a theoretical level, it could unify all existing valence research, from Berridge’s work on hedonic hotspots, to Friston & Seth’s work on predictive coding, to Schmidhuber’s idea of a compression drive;

(2) It could finally explain how the brain’s so-called “pleasure centers” work– they function to tune the brain toward more symmetrical states!

(3) It implies lots and lots of weird, bold, *testable* hypotheses. For instance, we know that painkillers like acetaminophen, and anti-depressants like SSRIs, actually blunt both negative *and* positive affect, but we’ve never figured out how. Perhaps they do so by introducing a certain type of stochastic noise into acute & long-term activity patterns, respectively, which disrupts both symmetry (pleasure) and anti-symmetry (pain).

 

Adam: What kinds of tests would validate or dis-confirm your hypothesis? How could it be falsified and/or justified by weight of induction?

Mike: So this depends on the details of how activity in the brain generates the mind. But I offer some falsifiable predictions in PQ (Principia Qualia):

  • If we control for degree of consciousness, more pleasant brain states should be more compressible;
  • Direct, low-power stimulation (TMS) in harmonious patterns (e.g. 2hz+4hz+6hz+8hz…160hz) should feel remarkably more pleasant than stimulation with similar-yet-dissonant patterns (2.01hz+3.99hz+6.15hz…).

Those are some ‘obvious’ ways to test this. But my hypothesis also implies odd things such as that chronic tinnitus (ringing in the ears) should product affective blunting (lessened ability to feel strong valence).

Note: see https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/quantifying-bliss-talk-summary/ and http://opentheory.net/2018/08/a-future-for-neuroscience/ for a more up-to-date take on this.

 

Adam: Why is valence research important?

Mike Johnson: Put simply, valence research is important because valence is important. David Chalmers famously coined “The Hard Problem of Consciousness”, or why we’re conscious at all, and “The Easy Problem of Consciousness”, or how the brain processes information. I think valence research should be called “The Important Problem of Consciousness”. When you’re in a conscious moment, the most important thing to you is how pleasant or unpleasant it feels.

That’s the philosophical angle. We can also take the moral perspective, and add up all the human and non-human animal suffering in the world. If we knew what suffering was, we could presumably use this knowledge to more effectively reduce it and make the world a kinder place.

We can also take the economic perspective, and add up all the person-years, capacity to contribute, and quality of life lost to Depression and chronic pain. A good theory of valence should allow us to create much better treatments for these things. And probably make some money while doing it.

Finally, a question I’ve been wondering for a while now is whether having a good theory of qualia could help with AI safety and existential risk. I think it probably can, by helping us see and avoid certain failure-modes.

 

Adam: How can understanding valence could help make future AIs safer? (How to help define how the AI should approach making us happy?, and in terms of a reinforcement mechanism for AI?)

Mike: Last year, I noted a few ways a better understanding of valence could help make future AIs safer on my blog. I’d point out a few notions in particular though:

  • If we understand how to measure valence, we could use this as part of a “sanity check” for AI behavior. If some proposed action would cause lots of suffering, maybe the AI shouldn’t do it.
  • Understanding consciousness & valence seem important for treating an AI humanely. We don’t want to inadvertently torture AIs- but how would we know?
  • Understanding consciousness & valence seems critically important for “raising the sanity waterline” on metaphysics. Right now, you can ask 10 AGI researchers about what consciousness is, or what has consciousness, or what level of abstraction to define value, and you’ll get at least 10 different answers. This is absolutely a recipe for trouble. But I think this is an avoidable mess if we get serious about understanding this stuff.

 

Adam: Why the information theoretical approach?

Mike: The way I would put it, there are two kinds of knowledge about valence: (1) how pain & pleasure work in the human brain, and (2) universal principles which apply to all conscious systems, whether they’re humans, dogs, dinosaurs, aliens, or conscious AIs.

It’s counter-intuitive, but I think these more general principles might be a lot easier to figure out than the human-specific stuff. Brains are complicated, but it could be that the laws of the universe, or regularities, which govern consciousness are pretty simple. That’s certainly been the case when we look at physics. For instance, my iPhone’s processor is super-complicated, but it runs on electricity, which itself actually obeys very simple & elegant laws.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that:

>Anything piped through the complexity of the brain will look complex, regardless of how simple or complex it starts out as. Similarly, anything will look irreducibly complex if we’re looking at it from the wrong level of abstraction.

 

Adam: What do you think of Thomas A. Bass’s view of ITheory – he thinks that (at least in many cases) it has not been easy to turn data into knowledge. That there is a pathological attraction to information which is making us ‘sick’ – he calls it Information Pathology. If his view offers any useful insights to you concerning avoiding ‘Information Pathology’ – what would they be?

Mike: Right, I would agree with Bass that we’re swimming in neuroscience data, but it’s not magically turning into knowledge. There was a recent paper called “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” which asked if the standard suite of neuroscience methods could successfully reverse-engineer the 6502 microprocessor used in the Atari 2600 and NES. This should be easier than reverse-engineering a brain, since it’s a lot smaller and simpler, and since they were analyzing it in software they had all the data they could ever ask for, but it turned out that the methods they were using couldn’t cut it. Which really begs the question of whether these methods can make progress on reverse-engineering actual brains. As the paper puts it, neuroscience thinks it’s data-limited, but it’s actually theory-limited.

The first takeaway from this is that even in the age of “big data” we still need theories, not just data. We still need people trying to guess Nature’s structure and figuring out what data to even gather. Relatedly, I would say that in our age of “Big Science” relatively few people are willing or able to be sufficiently bold to tackle these big questions. Academic promotions & grants don’t particularly reward risk-taking.

 

Adam: Information Theory frameworks – what is your “Eight Problems” framework and how does it contrast with Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT)? How might IIT help address valence in a principled manner? What is lacking IIT – and how does your ‘Eight Problems’ framework address this?

Mike: IIT is great, but it’s incomplete. I think of it as *half* a theory of consciousness. My “Eight Problems for a new science of consciousness” framework describes what a “full stack” approach would look like, what IIT will have to do in order to become a full theory.

The biggest two problems IIT faces is that (1) it’s not compatible with physics, so we can’t actually apply it to any real physical systems, and (2) it says almost nothing about what its output means. Both of these are big problems! But IIT is also the best and only game in town in terms of quantitative theories of consciousness.

Principia Qualia aims to help fix IIT, and also to build a bridge between IIT and valence research. If IIT is right, and we can quantify conscious experiences, then how pleasant or unpleasant this experience is should be encoded into its corresponding mathematical object.

 

Adam: What are the three principles for a mathematical derivation of valence?

Mike: First, a few words about the larger context. Probably the most important question in consciousness research is whether consciousness is real, like an electromagnetic field is real, or an inherently complex, irreducible linguistic artifact, like “justice” or “life”. If consciousness is real, then there’s interesting stuff to discover about it, like there was interesting stuff to discover about quantum mechanics and gravity. But if consciousness isn’t real, then any attempt to ‘discover’ knowledge about it will fail, just like attempts to draw a crisp definition for ‘life’ (elan vital) failed.

If consciousness is real, then there’s a hidden cache of predictive knowledge waiting to be discovered. If consciousness isn’t real, then the harder we try to find patterns, the more elusive they’ll be- basically, we’ll just be talking in circles. David Chalmers refers to a similar distinction with his “Type-A vs Type-B Materialism”.

I’m a strong believer in consciousness realism, as are my research collaborators. The cool thing here is, if we assume that consciousness is real, a lot of things follow from this– like my “Eight Problems” framework. Throw in a couple more fairly modest assumptions, and we can start building a real science of qualia.

Anyway, the formal principles are the following:

  1. Consciousness can be quantified. (More formally, that for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it.)
  2. There is some order, some rhyme & reason & elegance, to consciousness. (More formally, the state space of consciousness has a rich set of mathematical structures.)
  3. Valence is real. (More formally, valence is an ordered property of conscious systems.)

 

Basically, they combine to say: this thing we call ‘valence’ could have a relatively simple mathematical representation. Figuring out valence might not take an AGI several million years. Instead, it could be almost embarrassingly easy.

 

Adam: Does Qualia Structuralism, Valence Structuralism and Valence Realism relate to the philosophy of physics principles of realism and structuralism? If so, is there an equivalent ontic Qualia Structuralism and Valence Structuralism?….

Mike: “Structuralism” is many things to many contexts. I use it in a specifically mathematical way, to denote that the state space of qualia quite likely embodies many mathematical structures, or properties (such as being a metric space).

Re: your question about ontics, I tend to take the empirical route and evaluate claims based on their predictions whenever possible. I don’t think predictions change if we assume realism vs structuralism in physics, so maybe it doesn’t matter. But I can get back to you on this. 🙂

 

Adam: What about the Qualia Research Institute I’ve also recently heard about :D! It seems both you (Mike) and Andrés Gómez Emilson are doing some interesting work there

Mike: We know very little about consciousness. This is a problem, for various and increasing reasons– it’s upstream of a lot of futurist-related topics.

But nobody seems to know quite where to start unraveling this mystery. The way we talk about consciousness is stuck in “alchemy mode”– we catch glimpses of interesting patterns, but it’s unclear how to systematize this into a unified framework. How to turn ‘consciousness alchemy’ into ‘consciousness chemistry’, so to speak.

Qualia Research Institute is a research collective which is working on building a new “science of qualia”. Basically, we think our “full-stack” approach cuts through all the confusion around this topic and can generate hypotheses which are novel, falsifiable, and useful.

Right now, we’re small (myself, Andres, and a few others behind the scenes) but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and we’ve got more exciting things in the pipeline. 🙂

Also see the 2nd part, and the 3rd part of this interview series. Also this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.

 

Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website.
‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary.
If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

Physicalism & Materialism – John Wilkins

Materialism was a pre-socratic view that for something to be real it has to be matter – physical stuff made of atoms (which at the time were considered hard like billiard balls – fundametal parts of reality).  The reason these days the term physicalism is used is because it can describe things that aren’t matter – like forces, or aren’t observable matter – like dark matter, or energy or fields, or spacetime etc..  Physicalism is the idea that all that exist can be described in the language of some ‘ideal’ physics – we may never know what this ideal physics is, though people think that it is something close to our current physics (as we can make very accurate predictions with our current physics).

If magic, telepathy or angels were real, there would be a physics that could describe them – they’d have patterns and properties that would be describable and explainable.  A physicist would likely think that even the mind operates according to physical rules.  Being a physicalist according to John means you think everything is governed by rules, physical rules – and that there is an ideal language that can be used to describe all this.

Note John is also a deontologist.  Perhaps there should exist an ideal language that can fully describe ethics – does this mean that ideally there is no need for utilitarianism?  I’ll leave that question for another post.

Interview with John Wilkins on Materialism & Physicalism.

Here are some blog posts about physicalism by John Wilkins:

Is physicalism an impoverished metaphysics?

Every so often, we read about some philosopher or other form of public intellectual who makes the claim that a physicalist ontology – a world view in which only things that can be described in terms of physics are said to exist – is impoverished. That is, there are things whereof science cannot know, &c. A recent example is that made by Thomas Nagel [nicely eviscerated here by the physicist Sean Carroll], whose fame in philosophy rests with an influential 1974 paper that there is something like being a bat that no amount of physics, physiology or other objective science could account for.

Recent, Nagel has argued that the evolutionary view called (historically misleadingly) neo-Darwinism, is “almost certainly” false. One of the reasons is that “materialism” (which Nagel should know is an antiquated world view replaced by physicalism defined above; there are many non-material things in physics, not least fields of various kinds) does not permit a full account of consciousness; the subjective facts of being a particular individual organism. Another is that the chance that life would emerge from a lifeless universe is staggeringly unlikely. How this is calculated is somewhat mysterious, given that at best we only have (dare I say it?) subjective estimates anyway, but there it is.

But Nagel is not alone. Various nonreligious (apparently) thinkers have made similar assertions, although some, like Frank Jackson, who proposed the Knowledge Argument, have since backed down. What is it that physicalism must account for that these disputants and objectors say it cannot?

It almost entirely consists of consciousness, intentions, intelligence or some similar mental property which is entirely inexplicable by “reductionist” physicalism. [Reductionism is a term of abuse that means – so far as I can tell – solely that the person who makes such an accusation does not like the thing or persons being accused.] And that raises our question: is physicalism lacking something?

I bet you are dying to know more… you’ll just have to follow the link…
See more at Evolving Thoughts>>

Is Physicalism Coherent?

In my last post I argued that physicalism cannot be rejected simply because people assert there are nonphysical objects which are beyond specification. Some are, however, specifiable, and one commentator has identified the obvious ones: abstract objects like the rules of chess or numbers. I have dealt with these before in my “Pizza reductionism” post, which I invite you to go read.

Done? OK, then; let us proceed.

It is often asserted that there are obviously things that are not physical, such as ideas, numbers, concepts, etc., quite apart from qualia, I once sat with a distinguished philosopher, who I respect greatly and so shall not name, when he asserted that we can construct natural classifications because we can deal first with the natural numbers. I asked him “In what sense are numbers natural objects?”, meaning, why should we think numbers are entities in the natural world. He admitted that the question had not occurred to him (I doubt that – he is rather smart), but that it was simply an axiom of his philosophy. I do not think such abstract objects are natural.

This applies to anything that is “informational”, including all semantic entities like meanings, symbols, lexical objects, and so on. They only “exist” as functional modalities in our thoughts and language. I have also argued this before: information does not “exist”; it is a function of how we process signals. Mathematics is not a domain, it is a language, and the reason it works is because the bits that seriously do not work are not explored far[*] – not all of it has to work in a physical or natural sense, but much of it has to, or else it becomes a simple game that we would not play so much.

So the question of the incoherence of physicalism is based on the assumption (which runs contrary to physicalism, and is thus question begging) that abstract objects are natural things. I don’t believe they are, and I certainly do not think that a thought, or concept, for example, which can be had by many minds and is therefore supposed to be located in none of them (and thus transcendental), really is nonphysical. That is another case of nouning language. The thought “that is red” exists, for a physicalist, in all the heads that meet the functional social criteria for ascriptions of red. It exists nowhere else – it just is all those cognitive and social behaviours in biological heads…

Yes, I know, it’s a real page turner…
See more at Evolving Thoughts>>

In philosophy, physicalism is the ontological thesis that “everything is physical”, that there is “nothing over and above” the physical, or that everything supervenes on the physical. Physicalism is a form of ontological monism—a “one substance” view of the nature of reality as opposed to a “two-substance” (dualism) or “many-substance” (pluralism) view. Both the definition of physical and the meaning of physicalism have been debated. Physicalism is closely related to materialism. Physicalism grew out of materialism with the success of the physical sciences in explaining observed phenomena. The terms are often used interchangeably, although they are sometimes distinguished, for example on the basis of physics describing more than just matter (including energy and physical law). Common arguments against physicalism include both the philosophical zombie argument and the multiple observers argument, that the existence of a physical being may imply zero or more distinct conscious entities. “When I lost my belief in religion I had to decide what I needed to accept as a bare minimum. I decided that I needed to believe in the physical world. I never found the slightest reason to accept the existence of anything else. To this day I am a physicalist only because I never found the need to be anything else. The principle of parsimony suggests that one should not believe in more than one needs to. Even if it does make you feel comfortable.”

 

Let’s get physicalism!

See John Wilkin’s Blog ‘Evolving Thoughts

#philsci #philosophy #science #physics

On Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence with Mike Johnson

Andrés L. Gómez Emilsson

Andrés Gómez Emilsson joined in to add very insightful questions for a 3 part interview series with Mike Johnson, covering the relationship of metaphysics to qualia/consciousness/hedonic valence, and defining their terms, whether panpsychism matters, increasing sensitivity to bliss, valence variance, Effective Altruism, cause prioritization, and the importance of consciousness/valence research .
Andrés Gómez Emilsson interviews Mike Johnson

Carving Reality at the Joints

Andrés L. Gómez Emilsson: Do metaphysics matter for understanding qualia, consciousness, valence and intelligence? Mike Johnson: If we define metaphysics as the study of what exists, it absolutely does matter for understanding qualia, consciousness, and valence. I think metaphysics matters for intelligence, too, but in a different way. The big question is whether terms like qualia, consciousness, and valence “carve reality at the joints” or whether they’re emergent linguistic constructs that don’t reflect the structure of the universe. And if these things are ‘real’ in some sense, the follow-up question is: how can we formalize these concepts? Intelligence seems different: it seems like a ‘fuzzy’ concept, without a good “crisp”, or frame-invariant, definition. Andrés: What about sources of sentient valence outside of human brains? What is the “minimum viable valence organism”? What would you expect it to look like?

Mike Johnson

Mike: If some form of panpsychism is true- and it’s hard to construct a coherent theory of consciousness without allowing panpsychism- then I suspect two interesting things are true.
  1. A lot of things are probably at least a little bit conscious. The “minimum viable valence experiencer” could be pretty minimal. Both Brian Tomasik and Stuart Hameroff suggest that there could be morally-relevant experience happening at the level of fundamental physics. This seems highly counter-intuitive but also logically plausible to me.
  2. Biological organisms probably don’t constitute the lion’s share of moral experience. If there’s any morally-relevant experience that happens on small levels (e.g., quantum fuzz) or large levels (e.g., black holes, or eternal inflation), it probably outweighs what happens on Earth by many, many, many orders of magnitude. Whether it’ll outweigh the future impact of humanity on our light-cone is an open question.

The big question is whether terms like qualia, consciousness, and valence “carve reality at the joints” or whether they’re emergent linguistic constructs that don’t reflect the structure of the universe. And if these things are ‘real’ in some sense, the follow-up question is: how can we formalize these concepts?

In contrast with Brian Tomasik on this issue, I suspect (and hope) that the lion’s share of the qualia of the universe is strongly net positive. Appendix F of Principia Qualia talks a little more about this. Andrés: What would be the implications of finding a sure-fire way to induce great valence for brief moments? Could this be used to achieve “strategic alignment” across different branches of utilitarianism? Mike: A device that could temporarily cause extreme positive or negative valence on demand would immediately change the world. First, it would validate valence realism in a very visceral way. I’d say it would be the strongest philosophical argument ever made. Second, it would obviously have huge economic & ethical uses. Third, I agree that being able to induce strong positive & negative valence on demand could help align different schools of utilitarianism. Nothing would focus philosophical arguments about the discount rate between pleasure & suffering more than a (consensual!) quick blast of pure suffering followed by a quick blast of pure pleasure. Similarly, a lot of people live their lives in a rather numb state. Giving them a visceral sense that ‘life can be more than this’ could give them ‘skin in the game’. Fourth, it could mess a lot of things up. Obviously, being able to cause extreme suffering could be abused, but being able to cause extreme pleasure on-demand could lead to bad outcomes too. You (Andres) have written about wireheading before, and I agree with the game-theoretic concerns involved. I would also say that being able to cause extreme pleasure in others could be used in adversarial ways. More generally, human culture is valuable and fragile; things that could substantially disrupt it should be approached carefully. A friend of mine was describing how in the 70s, the emerging field of genetic engineering held the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA to discuss how the field should self-regulate. The next year, these guidelines were adopted by the NIH wholesale as the basis for binding regulation, and other fields (such as AI safety!) have attempted to follow the same model. So the culture around technologies may reflect a strong “founder effect”, and we should be on the lookout for a good, forward-looking set of principles for how valence technology should work. One principle that seems to make sense is to not publicly post ‘actionable’ equations, pseudocode, or code for how one could generate suffering with current computing resources (if this is indeed possible). Another principle is to focus resources on positive, eusocial applications only, insofar as that’s possible– I’m especially concerned about addiction, and bad actors ‘weaponizing’ this sort of research. Another would be to be on guard against entryism, or people who want to co-opt valence research for political ends. All of this is pretty straightforward, but it would be good to work it out a bit more formally, look at the successes and failures of other research communities, and so on.

A question I find very interesting is whether valence research is socially disruptive or socially stabilizing by default. I think we should try very hard to make it a socially stabilizing force.

A question I find very interesting is whether valence research is socially disruptive or socially stabilizing by default. I think we should try very hard to make it a socially stabilizing force. One way to think about this is in terms of existential risk. It’s a little weird to say, but I think the fact that so many people are jaded, or feel hopeless, is a big existential risk, because they feel like they have very little to lose. So they don’t really care what happens to the world, because they don’t have good qualia to look forward to, no real ‘skin in the game’. If valence tech could give people a visceral, ‘felt sense’ of wonder and possibility, I think the world could become a much safer place, because more people would viscerally care about AI safety, avoiding nuclear war, and so on. Finally, one thing that I think doesn’t make much sense is handing off the ethical issues to professional bioethicists and expecting them to be able to help much. Speaking as a philosopher, I don’t think bioethics itself has healthy community & dresearch norms (maybe bioethics needs some bioethicsethicists…). And in general, I think especially when issues are particularly complex or technical, I think the best type of research norms comes from within a community. Andrés: What is the role of valence variance in intelligence? Can a sentient being use its consciousness in any computationally fruitful way without any valence variance? Can a “perfectly flat world(-simulation)” be used for anything computational?   Mike: I think we see this today, with some people suffering from affective blunting (muted emotions) but seemingly living functional lives. More generally, what a sentient agent functionally accomplishes, and how it feels as it works toward that goal, seem to be correlated but not identical. I.e., one can vary without the other. But I don’t think that valence is completely orthogonal to behavior, either. My one-sentence explanation here is that evolution seems to have latched onto the

Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation

property which corresponds to valence- which I argue is symmetry– in deep ways, and has built our brain-minds around principles of homeostatic symmetry. This naturally leads to a high variability in our valence, as our homeostatic state is perturbed and restored. Logically, we could build minds around different principles- but it might be a lot less computationally efficient to do so. We’ll see. 🙂 One angle of research here could be looking at people who suffer from affective blunting, and trying to figure out if it holds them back: what it makes them bad at doing. It’s possible that this could lead to understanding human-style intelligence better. Going a little further, we can speculate that given a certain goal or computation, there could be “valence-positive” processes that could accomplish it, and “valence-negative” processes. This implies that there’s a nascent field of “ethical computation” that would evaluate the valence of different algorithms running on different physical substrates, and choose the one that best satisfices between efficiency and valence. (This is of course a huge simplification which glosses over tons of issues…)
Andrés: What should we prioritize: super-intelligence, super-longevity or super-happiness? Does the order matter? Why? Mike: I think it matters quite a bit! For instance, I think the world looks a lot different if we figure out consciousness *before* AGI, versus if we ignore it until AGI is built. The latter seems to involve various risks that the former doesn’t. A risk that I think we both agree is serious and real is this notion of “what if accelerating technology leads to Malthusian conditions where agents don’t- and literally can’t, from a competitive standpoint- care about qualia & valence?” Robin Hanson has a great post called “This is the Dream Time” (of relaxed selection). But his book “Age of Em” posits a world where selection pressures go back up very dramatically. I think if we enter such an era without a good theory of qualia, we could trade away a lot of what makes life worth living.  
Andrés: What are some conceptual or factual errors that you see happening in the transhumanist/rationalist/EA community related to modeling qualia, valence and intelligence? Mike: First, I think it’s only fair to mention what these communities do right. I’m much more likely to have a great conversation about these topics with EAs, transhumanists, and rationalists than a random person off the street, or even a random grad student. People from this community are always smart, usually curious, often willing to explore fresh ideas and stretch their brain a bit, and sometimes able to update based on purely abstract arguments. And there’s this collective sense that ideas are important and have real implications for the future. So there’s a lot of great things happening in these communities and they’re really a priceless resource for sounding out theories, debating issues, and so on. But I would highlight some ways in which I think these communities go astray.

Computationalism, functionalism, fun theory, ‘hedonic brain regions’, ‘pleasure neurochemicals’, the reinforcement learning theory of valence, and so on all give the illusion of explanatory depth but don’t actually explain things in a way which allows us to do anything useful.

First, people don’t realize how bad most existing models of qualia & valence are. Michael Graziano argues that most theories of consciousness are worse than wrong- that they play to our intuitions but don’t actually explain anything. Computationalism, functionalism, fun theory, ‘hedonic brain regions’, ‘pleasure neurochemicals’, the reinforcement learning theory of valence, and so on all give the illusion of explanatory depth but don’t actually explain things in a way which allows us to do anything useful. Second, people don’t realize how important a good understanding of qualia & valence are. They’re upstream of basically everything interesting and desirable. Here’s what I think has happened, at least in the rationalist community: historically, consciousness research has been a black hole. Smart people go in, but nothing comes out. So communities (such as physicists and LessWrong) naturally have an interest in putting up a fence around the topic with a sign that says

historically, consciousness research has been a black hole. Smart people go in, but nothing comes out. So communities .. naturally have an interest in putting up a fence around the topic with a sign that says ‘Don’t go here!’

‘Don’t go here!’ – But over time, people forgot why the mystery was blocked off, and started to think that the mystery doesn’t exist. This leads to people actively avoiding thinking about these topics without being able to articulate why. Andrés: Is there value in studying extreme cases of valence? E.g. Buddhist monks who claim to achieve extreme sustainable bliss, or people on MDMA? Mike: ‘What science can analyze, science can duplicate.’ And studying outliers such as your examples is a time-honored way of gathering data with high signal-to-noise. So yes, definitely. 🙂
Also see the 1st part, and the 2nd part of this interview series. Also this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.
 
Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website. ‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary. If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

Ethics, Qualia Research & AI Safety with Mike Johnson

What’s the relationship between valence research and AI ethics?

Hedonic valence is a measure of the quality of our felt sense of experience, the intrinsic goodness (positive valence) or averseness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation.  It is an important aspect of conscious experience; always present in our waking lives. If we seek to understand ourselves, it makes sense to seek to understand how valence works – how to measure it and test for it.

Also, might there be a relationship to the AI safety/friendliness problem?
In this interview, we cover a lot of things, not least .. THE SINGULARITY (of course) & the importance of Valence Research to AI Friendliness Research (as detailed here). Will thinking machines require experience with valence to understand it’s importance?

Here we cover some general questions about Mike Johnson’s views on recent advances in science and technology & what he sees as being the most impactful, what world views are ready to be retired, his views on XRisk and on AI Safety – especially related to value theory.

This one part of an interview series with Mike Johnson (another section on Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence). 

 

Adam Ford: Welcome Mike Johnson, many thanks for doing this interview. Can we start with your background?

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson: My formal background is in epistemology and philosophy of science: what do we know & how do we know it, what separates good theories from bad ones, and so on. Prior to researching qualia, I did work in information security, algorithmic trading, and human augmentation research.

 

Adam: What is the most exciting / interesting recent (scientific/engineering) news? Why is it important to you?

Mike: CRISPR is definitely up there! In a few short years precision genetic engineering has gone from a pipe dream to reality. The problem is that we’re like the proverbial dog that caught up to the car it was chasing: what do we do now? Increasingly, we can change our genome, but we have no idea how we should change our genome, and the public discussion about this seems very muddled. The same could be said about breakthroughs in AI.

 

Adam: What are the most important discoveries/inventions over the last 500 years?

Mike: Tough question. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, Newton’s theory of gravity, Faraday & Maxwell’s theory of electricity, and the many discoveries of modern physics would all make the cut. Perhaps also the germ theory of disease. In general what makes discoveries & inventions important is when they lead to a productive new way of looking at the world.

 

Adam: What philosophical/scientific ideas are ready to be retired? What theories of valence are ready to be relegated to the dustbin of history? (Why are they still in currency? Why are they in need of being thrown away or revised?)

Mike: I think that 99% of the time when someone uses the term “pleasure neurochemicals” or “hedonic brain regions” it obscures more than it explains. We know that opioids & activity in the nucleus accumbens are correlated with pleasure– but we don’t know why, we don’t know the causal mechanism. So it can be useful shorthand to call these things “pleasure neurochemicals” and whatnot, but every single time anyone does that, there should be a footnote that we fundamentally don’t know the causal story here, and this abstraction may ‘leak’ in unexpected ways.

 

Adam: What have you changed your mind about?

Mike: Whether pushing toward the Singularity is unequivocally a good idea. I read Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near back in 2005 and loved it- it made me realize that all my life I’d been a transhumanist and didn’t know it. But twelve years later, I’m a lot less optimistic about Kurzweil’s rosy vision. Value is fragile, and there are a lot more ways that things could go wrong, than ways things could go well.

 

Adam: I remember reading Eliezer’s writings on ‘The Fragility of Value’, it’s quite interesting and worth consideration – the idea that if we don’t get AI’s value system exactly right, then it would be like pulling a random mind out of mindspace – most likely inimicable to human interests. The writing did seem quite abstract, and it would be nice to see a formal model or something concrete to show this would be the case. I’d really like to know how and why value is as fragile as Eliezer seems to make out. Is there any convincing crisply defined model supporting this thesis?

Mike: Whether the ‘Complexity of Value Thesis’ is correct is super important. Essentially, the idea is that we can think of what humans find valuable as a tiny location in a very large, very high-dimensional space– let’s say 1000 dimensions for the sake of argument. Under this framework, value is very fragile; if we move a little bit in any one of these 1000 dimensions, we leave this special zone and get a future that doesn’t match our preferences, desires, and goals. In a word, we get something worthless (to us). This is perhaps most succinctly put by Eliezer in “Value is fragile”:

“If you loose the grip of human morals and metamorals – the result is not mysterious and alien and beautiful by the standards of human value. It is moral noise, a universe tiled with paperclips. To change away from human morals in the direction of improvement rather than entropy, requires a criterion of improvement; and that criterion would be physically represented in our brains, and our brains alone. … You want a wonderful and mysterious universe? That’s your value. … Valuable things appear because a goal system that values them takes action to create them. … if our values that prefer it are physically obliterated – or even disturbed in the wrong dimension. Then there is nothing left in the universe that works to make the universe valuable.”

If this frame is right, then it’s going to be really really really hard to get AGI right, because one wrong step in programming will make the AGI depart from human values, and “there will be nothing left to want to bring it back.” Eliezer, and I think most of the AI safety community assumes this.

But– and I want to shout this from the rooftops– the complexity of value thesis is just a thesis! Nobody knows if it’s true. An alternative here would be, instead of trying to look at value in terms of goals and preferences, we look at it in terms of properties of phenomenological experience. This leads to what I call the Unity of Value Thesis, where all the different manifestations of valuable things end up as special cases of a more general, unifying principle (emotional valence). What we know from neuroscience seems to support this: Berridge and Kringelbach write about how “The available evidence suggests that brain mechanisms involved in fundamental pleasures (food and sexual pleasures) overlap with those for higher-order pleasures (for example, monetary, artistic, musical, altruistic, and transcendent pleasures).” My colleague Andres Gomez Emilsson writes about this in The Tyranny of the Intentional Object. Anyway, if this is right, then the AI safety community could approach the Value Problem and Value Loading Problem much differently.

 

Adam: I’m also interested in the nature of possible attractors that agents might ‘extropically’ gravitate towards (like a thirst for useful and interesting novelty, generative and non-regressive, that might not neatly fit categorically under ‘happiness’) – I’m not wholly convinced that they exist, but if one leans away from moral relativism, it makes sense that a superintelligence may be able to discover or extrapolate facts from all physical systems in the universe, not just humans, to determine valuable futures and avoid malignant failure modes (Coherent Extrapolated Value if you will). Being strongly locked into optimizing human values may be a non-malignant failure mode.

Mike: What you write reminds me of Schmidhuber’s notion of a ‘compression drive’: we’re drawn to interesting things because getting exposed to them helps build our ‘compression library’ and lets us predict the world better. But this feels like an instrumental goal, sort of a “Basic AI Drives” sort of thing. Would definitely agree that there’s a danger of getting locked into a good-yet-not-great local optima if we hard optimize on current human values.

Probably the danger is larger than that too– as Eric Schwitzgebel notes​, ​

“Common sense is incoherent in matters of metaphysics. There’s no way to develop an ambitious, broad-ranging, self- consistent metaphysical system without doing serious violence to common sense somewhere. It’s just impossible. Since common sense is an inconsistent system, you can’t respect it all. Every metaphysician will have to violate it somewhere.”

If we lock in human values based on common sense, we’re basically committing to following an inconsistent formal system. I don’t think most people realize how badly that will fail.

 

Adam: What invention or idea will change everything?

Mike: A device that allows people to explore the space of all possible qualia in a systematic way. Right now, we do a lot of weird things to experience interesting qualia: we drink fermented liquids, smoke various plant extracts, strap ourselves into rollercoasters, and parachute out of plans, and so on, to give just a few examples. But these are very haphazard ways to experience new qualia! When we’re able to ‘domesticate’ and ‘technologize’ qualia, like we’ve done with electricity, we’ll be living in a new (and, I think, incredibly exciting) world.

 

Adam: What are you most concerned about? What ought we be worrying about?

Mike: I’m worried that society’s ability to coordinate on hard things seems to be breaking down, and about AI safety. Similarly, I’m also worried about what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls ‘Moore’s Law of Mad Science’, that steady technological progress means that ‘every eighteen months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point’. But I think some very smart people are worrying about these things, and are trying to address them.

In contrast, almost no one is worrying that we don’t have good theories of qualia & valence. And I think we really, really ought to, because they’re upstream of a lot of important things, and right now they’re “unknown unknowns”- we don’t know what we don’t know about them.

One failure case that I worry about is that we could trade away what makes life worth living in return for some minor competitive advantage. As Bostrom notes in Superintelligence,

“When it becomes possible to build architectures that could not be implemented well on biological neural networks, new design space opens up; and the global optima in this extended space need not resemble familiar types of mentality. Human-like cognitive organizations would then lack a niche in a competitive post-transition economy or ecosystem. We could thus imagine, as an extreme case, a technologically highly advanced society, containing many complex structures, some of them far more intricate and intelligent than anything that exists on the planet today – a society which nevertheless lacks any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. In a sense, this would be an uninhabited society. It would be a society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit. A Disneyland with no children.”

Nick Bostrom

Now, if we don’t know how qualia works, I think this is the default case. Our future could easily be a technological wonderland, but with very little subjective experience. “A Disneyland with no children,” as Bostrom quips.

 

 

Adam: How would you describe your ethical views? What are your thoughts on the relative importance of happiness vs. suffering? Do things besides valence have intrinsic moral importance?

Mike: Good question. First, I’d just like to comment that Principia Qualia is a descriptive document; it doesn’t make any normative claims.

I think the core question in ethics is whether there are elegant ethical principles to be discovered, or not. Whether we can find some sort of simple description or efficient compression scheme for ethics, or if ethics is irreducibly complex & inconsistent.

The most efficient compression scheme I can find for ethics, that seems to explain very much with very little, and besides that seems intuitively plausible, is the following:

  1. Strictly speaking, conscious experience is necessary for intrinsic moral significance. I.e., I care about what happens to dogs, because I think they’re conscious; I don’t care about what happens to paperclips, because I don’t think they are.
  2. Some conscious experiences do feel better than others, and all else being equal, pleasant experiences have more value than unpleasant experiences.

Beyond this, though, I think things get very speculative. Is valence the only thing that has intrinsic moral importance? I don’t know. On one hand, this sounds like a bad moral theory, one which is low-status, has lots of failure-modes, and doesn’t match all our intuitions. On the other hand, all other systematic approaches seem even worse. And if we can explain the value of most things in terms of valence, then Occam’s Razor suggests that we should put extra effort into explaining everything in those terms, since it’d be a lot more elegant. So– I don’t know that valence is the arbiter of all value, and I think we should be actively looking for other options, but I am open to it. That said I strongly believe that we should avoid premature optimization, and we should prioritize figuring out the details of consciousness & valence (i.e. we should prioritize research over advocacy).

Re: the relative importance of happiness vs suffering, it’s hard to say much at this point, but I’d expect that if we can move valence research to a more formal basis, there will be an implicit answer to this embedded in the mathematics.

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change. And so if people are doing ethics without caring about making their theories cash out in physical terms, they’re not actually doing ethics- they’re doing art, or social signaling, or something which can serve as the inspiration for a future ethics.

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change.

The analogy I’d offer here is that we can think about our universe as a computer, and ethics as choosing a program to run on this computer. Unfortunately, most ethicists aren’t writing machine-code, or even thinking about things in ways that could be easily translated to machine-code. Instead, they’re writing poetry about the sorts of programs that might be nice to run. But you can’t compile poetry to machine-code! So I hope the field of ethics becomes more physics-savvy and quantitative (although I’m not optimistic this will happen quickly).

Eliezer Yudkowsky refers to something similar with his notions of “AI grade philosophy”, “compilable philosophy”, and “computable ethics”, though I don’t think he quite goes far enough (i.e., all the way to physics).

 

Adam: What excites you? What do you think we have reason to be optimistic about?

Mike: The potential of qualia research to actually make peoples’ lives better in concrete, meaningful ways. Medicine’s approach to pain management and treatment of affective disorders are stuck in the dark ages because we don’t know what pain is. We don’t know why some mental states hurt. If we can figure that out, we can almost immediately help a lot of people, and probably unlock a surprising amount of human potential as well. What does the world look like with sane, scientific, effective treatments for pain & depression & akrasia? I think it’ll look amazing.

 

Adam: If you were to take a stab at forecasting the Intelligence Explosion – in what timeframe do you think it might happen (confidence intervals allowed)?

Mike: I don’t see any intractable technical hurdles to an Intelligence Explosion: the general attitude in AI circles seems to be that progress is actually happening a lot more quickly than expected, and that getting to human-level AGI is less a matter of finding some fundamental breakthrough, and more a matter of refining and connecting all the stuff we already know how to do.

The real unknown, I think, is the socio-political side of things. AI research depends on a stable, prosperous society able to support it and willing to ‘roll the dice’ on a good outcome, and peering into the future, I’m not sure we can take this as a given. My predictions for an Intelligence Explosion:

  • Between ~2035-2045 if we just extrapolate research trends within the current system;
  • Between ~2080-2100 if major socio-political disruptions happen but we stabilize without too much collateral damage (e.g., non-nuclear war, drawn-out social conflict);
  • If it doesn’t happen by 2100, it probably implies a fundamental shift in our ability or desire to create an Intelligence Explosion, and so it might take hundreds of years (or never happen).

 

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It would be unfortunate if a whole lot of awesome stuff were to happen with no one around to experience it.  <!–If a rainbow appears in a universe, and there is no one around to experience it, is it beautiful?–>

Also see the 2nd part, and 3nd part (conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson) of this interview series conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson and this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.

 

Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website.
‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary.
If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

Science, Mindfulness & the Urgency of Reducing Suffering – Christof Koch

In this interview with Christof Koch, he shares some deeply felt ideas about the urgency of reducing suffering (with some caveats), his experience with mindfulness – explaining what it was like to visit the Dali Lama for a week, as well as a heart felt experience of his family dog ‘Nosey’ dying in his arms, and how that moved him to become a vegetarian. He also discusses the bias of human exceptionalism, the horrors of factory farming of non-human animals, as well as a consequentialist view on animal testing.
Christof Koch is an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness.

Christof Koch is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology. http://www.klab.caltech.edu/koch/