Can We Improve the Science of Solving Global Coordination Problems? Anders Sandberg

Anders Sandberg discusses solving coordination problems:

anders-s-02_40_16_03-still042Includes discussion on game theory including:the prisoners dilemma (and the iterated form), the tit-for-tat strategy, and reciprocal altruism. He then discusses politics, and why he considers himself a ‘heretical libertarian’ – then contrasts the benefits and risks of centralized planning vs distributed trial & error and links this in with discussion on Existential Risk – centralizing very risky projects at the risk of disastrous coordination failures. He discusses groupthink and what forms of coordination work best. Finally he emphasises the need for a science of coordination – a multidisciplinary approach including:

  1. Philosophy
  2. Political Science
  3. Economics
  4. Game Theory

Also see the tutorial on the Prisoners Dilemma:

And Anders paper on AGI models.

A metasystem transition is the evolutionary emergence of a higher level of organisation or control in a system. A number of systems become integrated into a higher-order system, producing a multi-level hierarchy of control. Within biology such evolutionary transitions have occurred through the evolution of self-replication, multicellularity, sexual reproduction, societies etc. where smaller subsystems merge without losing differentiation yet often become dependent on the larger entity. At the beginning of the process the control mechanism is rudimentary, mainly coordinating the subsystems. As the whole system develops further the subsystems specialize and the control systems become more effective. While metasystem transitions in biology are seen as caused by biological evolution, other systems might exhibit other forms of evolution (e.g. social change or deliberate organisation) to cause metasystem transitions. Extrapolated to humans, future transitions might involve parts or the whole of the human species becoming a super-organism.Anders Sandberg

Anders discusses similar issues in ‘The thermodynamics of advanced civilizations‘ – Is the current era the only chance at setting up the game rules for our future light cone? (Also see here)


Further reading
The Coordination Game:

Suffering, and Progress in Ethics – Peter Singer

Peter Singer_profileSuffering is generally bad – Peter Singer (who is a Hedonistic Utilitarian), and most Effective Altruists would agree with this. Though in addressing the need for suffering today Peter acknowledges that, as we are presently constituted, suffering is useful as a warning sign (e.g. against further injury). But what about the future?
What if we could eliminate suffering?
Perhaps in the future we will have advanced technological interventions to warn us of danger that will be functionally similar to suffering, but without the nasty raw feels.
Peter Singer, like David Pearce, suggests that if we could eliminate suffering of non-human animals that are capable of suffering, perhaps in some way that is difficult to imagine now – that this would be a good thing.

Video Interview:

I would see no reason to regret the absence of sufferingPeter Singer
Peter can’t see any regret to lament the disappearance of suffering, though perhaps people may say it would be useful to help understand literature of the past. Perhaps there are some indirect uses for suffering – but on balance Peter thinks that the elimination of suffering would be an amazingly good thing to do.

Singer thinks it is interesting to speculate what might be possible for the future of human beings, if we do survive over the longer term. To what extent are we going to be able to enhance ourselves? In particular to what extent are we going to be more ethical human beings – which brings to question ‘Moral Enhancement’.

The Expanding Circle - Peter SingerHave we made Progress in Ethics? Peter argues for the case that our species has expanded the circle of our ethical concern we have in his book ‘The Expanding Circle‘, and more recently Steven Pinker took up this idea in ‘Better Angels Of Our Nature’ – and this has happened over the millennia, beyond initially the tribal group, then to a national level, beyond ethnic groups to all human beings, and now we are starting to expand moral concern to non-human sentient beings as well.

Steven Pinker thinks that increases in our ethical consideration is bound up with increases in our intelligence (as proposed by James Flynn – the Flynn Effect – though this research is controversial (it could be actual increases in intelligence or just the ability to do more abstract reasoning)) and increases in our ability to reason abstractly.

As mentioned earlier there are other ways in which we may increase our ability and tendency to be more moral (see Moral Enhancement), and in the future we may discover genes that may influence us to think more about others, to dwell less on negative emotions like anger or rage. It is hard to say whether people will use these kinds of moral enhancers voluntarily, or whether we need state policies to encourage people to use moral enhances in order to produce better communities – and there are a lot of concerns here that people may legitimately have about how the moral enhancement project takes place. Peter sees this as a fascinating prospect and that it would be great to be around to see how things develop over the next couple of centuries.

Note Steven Pinker said of Peter’s book:

Singer’s theory of the expanding circle remains an enormously insightful concept, which reconciles the existence of human nature with political and moral progress. It was also way ahead of its time. . . . It’s wonderful to see this insightful book made available to a new generation of readers and scholars.Steven Pinker

The Expanding Circle

Abstract: What is ethics? Where do moral standards come from? Are they based on emotions, reason, or some innate sense of right and wrong? For many scientists, the key lies entirely in biology–especially in Darwinian theories of evolution and self-preservation. But if evolution is a struggle for survival, why are we still capable of altruism?

Peter Singer - The Most Good You Should Do - EA Global Melbourne 2015In his classic study The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer argues that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one’s kin and community members but has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. Drawing on philosophy and evolutionary psychology, he demonstrates that human ethics cannot be explained by biology alone. Rather, it is our capacity for reasoning that makes moral progress possible. In a new afterword, Singer takes stock of his argument in light of recent research on the evolution of morality.

The Expanding Circle book page at Princeton University:

The Flynn Effect:

Peter Singer – Ethics, Evolution & Moral Progress –

For more on Moral Enhancement see Julian Savulescu’s and others writings on the subject.

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Science, Technology & the Future:

Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari – Steve Fuller

Sapiens, a breif history of humankind - Yuval Noah HarariMy sociology of knowledge students read Yuval Harari’s bestselling first book, Sapiens, to think about the right frame of reference for understanding the overall trajectory of the human condition. Homo Deus follows the example of Sapiens, using contemporary events to launch into what nowadays is called ‘big history’ but has been also called ‘deep history’ and ‘long history’. Whatever you call it, the orientation sees the human condition as subject to multiple overlapping rhythms of change which generate the sorts of ‘events’ that are the stuff of history lessons. But Harari’s history is nothing like the version you half remember from school.

In school historical events were explained in terms more or less recognizable to the agents involved. In contrast, Harari reaches for accounts that scientifically update the idea of ‘perennial philosophy’. Aldous Huxley popularized this phrase in his quest to seek common patterns of thought in the great world religions which could be leveraged as a global ethic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Harari similarly leverages bits of genetics, ecology, neuroscience and cognitive science to advance a broadly evolutionary narrative. But unlike Darwin’s version, Harari’s points towards the incipient apotheosis of our species; hence, the book’s title.

This invariably means that events are treated as symptoms if not omens of the shape of things to come. Harari’s central thesis is that whereas in the past we cowered in the face of impersonal natural forces beyond our control, nowadays our biggest enemy is the one that faces us in the mirror, which may or may not be able within our control. Thus, the sort of deity into which we are evolving is one whose superhuman powers may well result in self-destruction. Harari’s attitude towards this prospect is one of slightly awestruck bemusement.

Here Harari equivocates where his predecessors dared to distinguish. Writing with the bracing clarity afforded by the Existentialist horizons of the Cold War, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener declared that humanity’s survival depends on knowing whether what we don’t know is actually trying to hurt us. If so, then any apparent advance in knowledge will always be illusory. As for Harari, he does not seem to see humanity in some never-ending diabolical chess match against an implacable foe, as in The Seventh Seal. Instead he takes refuge in the so-called law of unintended consequences. So while the shape of our ignorance does indeed shift as our knowledge advances, it does so in ways that keep Harari at a comfortable distance from passing judgement on our long term prognosis.

Homo Deus YuvalThis semi-detachment makes Homo Deus a suave but perhaps not deep read of the human condition. Consider his choice of religious precedents to illustrate that we may be approaching divinity, a thesis with which I am broadly sympathetic. Instead of the Abrahamic God, Harari tends towards the ancient Greek and Hindu deities, who enjoy both superhuman powers and all too human foibles. The implication is that to enhance the one is by no means to diminish the other. If anything, it may simply make the overall result worse than had both our intellects and our passions been weaker. Such an observation, a familiar pretext for comedy, wears well with those who are inclined to read a book like this only once.

One figure who is conspicuous by his absence from Harari’s theology is Faust, the legendary rogue Christian scholar who epitomized the version of Homo Deus at play a hundred years ago in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. What distinguishes Faustian failings from those of the Greek and Hindu deities is that Faust’s result from his being neither as clever nor as loving as he thought. The theology at work is transcendental, perhaps even Platonic.

In such a world, Harari’s ironic thesis that future humans might possess virtually perfect intellects yet also retain quite undisciplined appetites is a non-starter. If anything, Faust’s undisciplined appetites point to a fundamental intellectual deficiency that prevents him from exercising a ‘rational will’, which is the mark of a truly supreme being. Faust’s sense of his own superiority simply leads him down a path of ever more frustrated and destructive desire. Only the one true God can put him out of his misery in the end.

In contrast, if there is ‘one true God’ in Harari’s theology, it goes by the name of ‘Efficiency’ and its religion is called ‘Dataism’. Efficiency is familiar as the dimension along which technological progress is made. It amounts to discovering how to do more with less. To recall Marshall McLuhan, the ‘less’ is the ‘medium’ and the ‘more’ is the ‘message’. However, the metaphysics of efficiency matters. Are we talking about spending less money, less time and/or less energy?

It is telling that the sort of efficiency which most animates Harari’s account is the conversion of brain power to computer power. To be sure, computers can outperform humans on an increasing range of specialised tasks. Moreover, computers are getting better at integrating the operations of other technologies, each of which also typically replaces one or more human functions. The result is the so-called Internet of Things. But does this mean that the brain is on the verge of becoming redundant?

Those who say yes, most notably the ‘Singularitarians’ whose spiritual home is Silicon Valley, want to translate the brain’s software into a silicon base that will enable it to survive and expand indefinitely in a cosmic Internet of Things. Let’s suppose that such a translation becomes feasible. The energy requirements of such scaled up silicon platforms might still be prohibitive. For all its liabilities and mysteries, the brain remains the most energy efficient medium for encoding and executing intelligence. Indeed, forward facing ecologists might consider investing in a high-tech agronomy dedicated to cultivating neurons to function as organic computers – ‘Stem Cell 2.0’, if you will.

However, Harari does not see this possible future because he remains captive to Silicon Valley’s version of determinism, which prescribes a migration from carbon to silicon for anything worth preserving indefinitely. It is against this backdrop that he flirts with the idea that a computer-based ‘superintelligence’ might eventually find humans surplus to requirements in a rationally organized world. Like other Singularitarians, Harari approaches the matter in the style of a 1950s B-movie fan who sees the normative universe divided between ‘us’ (the humans) and ‘them’ (the non-humans).

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

The bravest face to put on this intuition is that computers will transition to superintelligence so soon – ‘exponentially’ as the faithful say — that ‘us vs. them’ becomes an operative organizing principle. More likely and messier for Harari is that this process will be dragged out. And during that time Homo sapiens will divide between those who identify with their emerging machine overlords, who are entitled to human-like rights, and those who cling to the new acceptable face of racism, a ‘carbonist’ ideology which would privilege organic life above any silicon-based translations or hybridizations. Maybe Harari will live long enough to write a sequel to Homo Deus to explain how this battle might pan out.

NOTE ON PUBLICATION: Homo Deus is published in September 2016 by Harvil Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Fuller would like to thank The Literary Review for originally commissioning this review. It will appear in a subsequent edition of the magazine and is published here with permission.

Video Interview with Steve Fuller covering the Homo Deus book

Steve fuller discusses the new book Homo Deus, how it relates to the general transhumanist philosophy and movementfactors around the success of these ideas going mainstream, Yuval Noah Harari’s writing style, why there has been a bias within academia (esp sociology) to steer away from ideas which are less well established in history (and this is important because our successfully navigating the future will require a lot of new ideas), existential risk, and we contrast a posthuman future with a future dominated by an AI superintelligence.

Yuval Harari’s books

– ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’:

– ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’:

Discussion on the Coursera course ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ (which I took a few years ago):

Is there a Meaningful Future for Non-Optimal Moral Agents?

In an interview last year, I had a discussion with John Danaher on the Hedonistic Imperative & Superintelligence – a concern he has with HI is that it denies or de-emphasises some kind of moral agency – in moral theory there is a distinction between moral agents (being a responsible actor able to make moral decisions, influence direction of moral progress, shapes its future, and owes duties to others) and moral patients who may be deemed to have limited or no grounds for moral agency/autonomy/responsibility – they are simply a recipient of moral benefits – in contrast to humans, animals could be classified as moral patients – (see Stanford writing on Grounds for Moral Status).

As time goes on, the notion of strong artificial intelligence leading to Superintelligence (which may herald in something like an Intelligence Explosion) and ideas like the hedonistic imperative becomes less sensational sci-fi concepts and more like visions of realizable eventualities. Thinking about moral endpoints comes to me a paradoxical feeling of triumph and disempowerment.

John’s concern is that ensuring the well-being of humans (conscious entities) is consistent with denying their moral agency – minimizing their capacity to act – that there is a danger that the outcome of HI or an Intelligence Explosion may result in sentient life being made very happy forever, but unable to make choices – with a focus on a future entirely based on bliss whilst ignoring other aspects of what makes for a valuable or worthwhile existence.

Artificial Heart chipsSo even if we have a future where a) we are made very happy and b) we are subject to a wide variety of novelty (which I argue for in Novelty Utilitarianism) without some kind of self-determination we may not be able to enjoy part of what arguably makes for a worthwhile existence.

If the argument for moral agency is completely toppled by the argument against free will then I can see why there would be no reason for it – and that bliss/novelty may be enough – though I personally haven’t been convinced that this is the case.

Also the idea that moral agency and novelty should be ranked as auxiliary aspects to the main imperative of reducing suffering/increasing bliss seems problematic – I get the sense that they (agency/novelty) could easily be swapped out for most non-optimal moral agents in the quest for -suffering/+bliss troublesome.
The idea that upon evaluating grounds for moral status, our ethical/moral quotient may not match or even come close to a potential ethical force of a superintelligence is also troubling. If we are serious about the best ethical outcomes, when the time comes, should we be committed to resigning all moral agency to agents that are more adept at producing peek moral outcomes?
ancillary-one-esk-glitchIs it really possible for non-optimal agents to have a meaningful moral input in a universe where they’ve been completely outperformed by moral machines? Is a life of novelty & bliss the most optimal outcome we can hope for?

There probably should be some more discussion on trade-offs between moral agency, peek experience and novelty.

Discussion in this video here starts at 24:02

Below is the whole interview with John Danaher:

The Knowledge Argument Applied to Ethics

A group of interested AI enthusiasts have been discussing Engineering Machine Consciousness in Melbourne for over a decade. In a recent interview with Jamais Cascio on Engineering Happy People & Global Catastrophic Risks, we discussed the benefits of amplifying empathy without the nasty side effects (possibly through cultural progress or technological intervention – a form of moral enhancement). I have been thinking further about how an agent might think and act differently if it had no ‘raw feels’ – any self-intimating conscious experience.

I posted to the Hedonistic Imperative Facebook group:

Is the limitations of empathy in humans distracting us from the in principle benefits of empathy?
The side effects of empathy in humans include increased distrust of the outgroup – and limitations in the amount of people we humans can feel strong empathy for – though in principle the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective seems quite useful – at least while we are still motivated by our experience.
But what of the future? Are our post human descendants likely to be motivated by their ‘experiences of’ as well as their ‘knowledge about’ in making choices regarding others and about the trajectories of civilizational progress?

I wonder whether all the experiences of can be understood in terms of knowledge about – can the whole of ethics be explained without being experienced – though knowledge about without any experience of? Reminds me of the Mary’s Room/Knowledge Argument* thought experiment. I leaned towards the position that Mary could with a fully working knowledge of the visual system and relevant neuroscience wouldn’t ‘learn’ anything new when walking outside the grey-scale room and into the colourful world outside.
Imagine an adaptation of the Mary’s Room thought experiment – for the time being let’s call it Autistic Savant Angela’s Condition – in that:

class 1

Angela is a brilliant ethicist and neuroscientist (an expert in bioethics, neuroethics etc), whom (for whatever reason) is an Autistic savant with congenital insensitivity to pain and pleasure – she can’t at all feel pain, suffering or experience what it is like to be someone else who does experience pain or suffering – she has no intuition of ethics. Throughout her whole life she has been forced to investigate the field of ethics and the concepts of pleasure, bliss, pain and suffering through theory alone. She has a complete mechanical understanding of empathy, and brain states of subjects participating on various trolley thought experiments, hundreds of permutations of Milgrim experiments, is an expert in philosophies of ethics from Aristotle to Hume to Sidgwick etc. Suddenly there is a medical breakthrough in gene-therapy that would guarantee normal human function to feel without impairing cognitive ability at all. If Angela were to undergo this gene-therapy, would she learn anything more about ethics?

class 2

Same as above except Angela has no concept of other agents.

class 3

Same as class 2 except Angela is a superintelligent AI, and instead of gene-therapy, the AI recieves a software/hardware upgrade that allows the AI access to ‘fire in the equations’, to experience. Would the AI learn anything more about ethics? Would it act in a more ethical way? Would it produce more ethical outcomes?



Should an effective altruist support a completely dispassionate approach to cause prioritization?

If we were to build an ethical superintelligence – would having access to visceral experiences (i.e. pain/pleasure) change it’s ethical outcomes?
If a superintelligence were to perform Coherent Extrapolated Volition, or Coherent Aggregated Volition, would the kind of future which it produced differ if it could experience? Would likelihoods of various ethical outcomes change?

Is experience required to fully understand ethics? Is experience required to effectively implement ethics?
Robo Brain



The Knowledge Argument Thought Experiment

jacksons-knowledge-argumentMary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

Rationality & Moral Judgement – Simon Laham

Rationality & Moral Judgement – A view from Moral Psychology. Talk given at EA Global Melbourne 2015. Slides here.

Simon Laham - QandAWhat have we learned from an empirical approach to moral psychology – especially in relation to the role of rationality in most every day morality?
What are some lessons that the EA movement can take from moral psychology?

Various moral theorists over the years have had different emphasis on the roles that the head and heart play in moral judgement. Early conceptions of the role of the head in morality were that it drives moral judgement. A Kantian might say that the head/reasoning drives moral judgement – when presented with a dillema of some kind, the human engages with ‘system 2’ like processes in a controlled rational nature. An advocate of a Humean model may favor the idea that emotion or the heart (‘system 1’ thinking) plays the dominant role in moral judgement. Modern psychologists often take a hybrid model where both system 1 and system 2 styles of thinking are at play in contributing to the way we judge right from wrong.

Moral Judgement & Decision making is driven by a variety of factors:

  • Emotions (e.g., Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2006)
  • Values (e.g., Crone & Laham, 2015)
  • Relational and group membership concerns (e.g., Cikara et al., 2010)

Across a wide range of studies, a majority of people do not consistently apply abstract moral principles – Moral judgments are not decontextualized, depersonalized and asocial (i.e., not System 2)
Simon Laham - Rationality & Moral Judgement - Effective Altruism Global Melbourne 2015
Not only do people inconsistently apply rationality in moral judgments, many reject the idea that consequentialist rationality should have any place in the moral domain.

  • Appeals to consequentialist logic may backfire (Kreps and Monin, 2014)
  • People who give consequentialist justifications for their moral positions are viewed as less committed and less authentic

Is trying to change people’s minds the best way to expand the EA movement?
Moral judgment is subject to a variety of contextual effects. Knowledge of such effects can be used to ‘nudge’ people towards utilitarianism (see Thaler & Sunstein, 2008).

‘Practical’ take-home
Things beside rationality matter in morality and people believe that things beside rationality should matter.
(a) present EA in a manner that does not trade utilitarian options off against deeply held values, identities, or emotions
(b) use decision framing techniques to ‘nudge’ people towards utilitarian choices


Consider watching Simon’s talk at the festival of dangerous ideas about his book ‘The Joy of Sin‘.

Also Simon wrote an article for Huffington post where he says : “I confess it, I am a sinner. I begin most days in a haze of sloth and lust (which, coincidentally, is also how I end most days); gluttony takes hold over breakfast and before I know it I’m well on my way to hell and it’s not yet 9 a.m. Pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, sloth and anger, the seven deadly sins, these are my daily companions.

And you? Are you a sinner?

The simple fact is that we all sin (or rather ‘sin’), and we do it all the time. But fear not: the seven deadly sins aren’t as bad for you as you might think.”

Simon Laham BandWSimon Laham is a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Melbourne University. He has worked over the last 8 years on the psychology of morality from the point of view of experimental social psychology.
Key research questions : How do we make moral judgments? How do others influence what we do?

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Science, Technology & the Future

Metamorphogenesis – How a Planet can produce Minds, Mathematics and Music – Aaron Sloman

The universe is made up of matter, energy and information, interacting with each other and producing new kinds of matter, energy, information and interaction.
How? How did all this come out of a cloud of dust?
In order to find explanations we first need much better descriptions of what needs to be explained.

By Aaron Sloman
Abstract – and more info – Held at Winter Intelligence Oxford – Organized by the Future of Humanity Institute

Aaron Sloman

Aaron Sloman

This is a multi-disciplinary project attempting to describe and explain the variety of biological information-processing mechanisms involved in the production of new biological information-processing mechanisms, on many time scales, between the earliest days of the planet with no life, only physical and chemical structures, including volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, solar and stellar radiation, and many other physical/chemical processes (or perhaps starting even earlier, when there was only a dust cloud in this part of the solar system?).

Evolution can be thought of as a (blind) Theorem Prover (or theorem discoverer).
– Proving (discovering) theorems about what is possible (possible types of information, possible types of information-processing, possible uses of information-processing)
– Proving (discovering) many theorems in parallel (including especially theorems about new types of information and new useful types of information-processing)
– Sharing partial results among proofs of different things (Very different biological phenomena may share origins, mechanisms, information, …)
Combining separately derived old theorems in constructions of new proofs (One way of thinking about symbiogenesis.)
– Delegating some theorem-discovery to neonates and toddlers (epigenesis/ontogenesis). (Including individuals too under-developed to know what they are discovering.)
– Delegating some theorem-discovery to social/cultural developments. (Including memes and other discoveries shared unwittingly within and between communities.)
– Using older products to speed up discovery of new ones (Using old and new kinds of architectures, sensori-motor morphologies, types of information, types of processing mechanism, types of control & decision making, types of testing.)

The “proofs” of discovered possibilities are implicit in evolutionary and/or developmental trajectories.

They demonstrate the possibility of development of new forms of development, evolution of new types of evolution learning new ways to learn evolution of new types of learning (including mathematical learning: by working things out without requiring empirical evidence) evolution of new forms of development of new forms of learning (why can’t a toddler learn quantum mechanics?) – how new forms of learning support new forms of evolution amd how new forms of development support new forms of evolution (e.g. postponing sexual maturity until mate-selection mating and nurturing can be influenced by much learning)
…. and ways in which social cultural evolution add to the mix

These processes produce new forms of representation, new ontologies and information contents, new information-processing mechanisms, new sensory-motor
morphologies, new forms of control, new forms of social interaction, new forms of creativity, … and more. Some may even accelerate evolution.

A draft growing list of transitions in types of biological information-processing.

An attempt to identify a major type of mathematical reasoning with precursors in perception and reasoning about affordances, not yet replicated in AI systems.

Even in microbes I suspect there’s much still to be learnt about the varying challenges and opportunities faced by microbes at various stages in their evolution, including new challenges produced by environmental changes and new opportunities (e.g. for control) produced by previous evolved features and competences — and the mechanisms that evolved in response to those challenges and opportunities.

Example: which organisms were first able to learn about an enduring spatial configuration of resources, obstacles and dangers, only a tiny fragment of which can be sensed at any one time?
What changes occurred to meet that need?

Use of “external memories” (e.g. stigmergy)
Use of “internal memories” (various kinds of “cognitive maps”)

More examples to be collected here.

Star Wars on Trial – A Feudalistic Fantasia Pushing an Elitist Anti-Democratic Agenda

The Star Wars movie series has been the mainstay of imaginative fiction for children and adults since the mid 70s – many saw it as the gold standard of science fiction. When I was a child I used to collect all sorts of Star Wars paraphernalia – figures of some of the characters, tie & x-wing fighters, and cards that came with bubble gum.  Meeting David Brin at a science fiction conference in Los Angeles in 2012 (see resulting interview), and coming across a book he co-edited Star Wars on Trial rooted in an infamous Salon article made me think twice about some of the messages that the Star Wars franchise has so far conveyed.  I thought it was a good time to ask David Brin his thoughts on the topic – here is the resulting interview.
– foreword by Adam Ford.

Interview with David Brin

Adam Ford: What did Yoda mean when he said “Do or do not. There is no try.”?

David Brin: That was just some faux-eastern-mystical gobbledygook that George Lucas insisted upon, amid the otherwise excellent screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, penned by Leigh Brackett and Laurence Kasden… the one time that George Lucas showed real wisdom and hired experts to do what he clearly cannot.  Write.

In fact though, can you name one thing that evil green oven mitt — Yoda — ever says that is verifiably right and wise and the truth?  A less “wise” character would be hard to find and no character across all of storytelling history wrought as much death as this nasty creature.

“There is no try”?  Bull!  Trying is how human beings learn. You have a stab at something.  You look at the resulting mess.  You send brain signals reinforcing the actions that had good results and gradually repressing those that failed. It is how we improve and become people who are capable of gymnastic gold medals, or astronauting through space, or writing dialogue that actually makes sense.


AF: You mention that George Lucas “has spent the last 20 years relentlessly pissing in modernity’s face, preaching Romantic claptrap about how demigods and mystic warriors are better than democracy.”

DB: JRR Tolkien had a grievance against modernity, but he came by it honestly, at the Battle of the Somme, watching the flower of his generation mowed down by modern implements of death.  He saw what coal dust did to the buildings and lungs of London Town.  The Lord of the Rings rails against modernity — painting it as a tool of Mordor — while extolling the elfish demigods and mystic chosen-one warriors of Numenor.  And it’s great stuff!  We are on opposite sides of this argument.  But Tolkien is very good and makes his case in a gorgeous story.

In contrast, George Lucas was given everything by modernity… health and fun and riches and all the tools he needed for his dream – to direct movies — to come true.  Modernity provides the brilliant artists whom he hires by the bushel-load.  When he rails against modernity – along with democracy and science and the hopeful possibilities of the common woman or man – he is simply being an ingrate.


AF: You mentioned in an article at that the message George Lucas puts across in Star Wars is : “True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited. Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.”

DB: That’s romanticism, in a nutshell. But it went beyond forbearance with the apotheosis of Darth Vader.  The notion that a killer of billions should be forgiven because he saves the life of his own son? Or that Luke was ever in any danger of becoming “evil” just because he got a little angry?  Oh my.

“I never cared for the whole Nietzschian Ubermensch thing: the notion — pervading a great many myths and legends — that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude…. wherever you witness slanlike superbeings deciding the fate of billions without ever pausing to consider their wishes.”David Brin -



AF: Would George Lucas, or anyone for that matter, be a good benign dictator – (by good I mean successfully benign)?  If so, how do you pick a correct one?
DB: We all daydream about what laws we would command, if we got to be king.  I am no exception.  Moreover I admit there have sometimes been good kings.  Only look at what happened when their sons took charge.  It took a special kind of maturity for George Washington and his band of geniuses to say: “Let us limit our own power. Instead, we’ll ask the people to argue and negotiate with each other.”

The result is noisy, messy, frustrating… and so vastly better and more just and more productive than the preceding 6000 boring years of brutal, nasty feudalism.  We are in a revolution.  It is ongoing.  And science fiction is the one form of literature that says: “look, we can spot mistakes!  We can criticize and maybe cooperate.  Look at how far we’ve come.  Maybe – just maybe – we can go farther.”


AF: You mention “Romanticism is an enemy meme. I think it is deeply contrary to the Enlightenment, and deeply harmful.”  – while I like some of the beautiful portrayals, narratives in some art, Rousseau writes wonderfully  – it’s the implementation that in the real world that bothers me.
DB: Romanticism can be spectacularly beautiful! As I said, it was the core mythic system across most cultures.  But its dark side is promoting endlessly the form of governance that filled those cultures.  Feudalism — kings and the priests who pushed kingliness as the best thing.

We are revolutionaries, no less than Washington and Franklin! We can find a way to have the adventure and fun of fantasy without the relentlessly and tediously repeated lessons: that only annointed ones can rule… and that everything must stay the same.


AF: What do you see are the main differences between Fantasy and Scifi? Why are people attracted one more than the other?
DB: Fantasy is the Mother Genre. Until about 1700, nearly all literature and storytelling, in nearly all cultures, contained elements of the fantastic — demigod heroes who confronted monsters or whole armies, for example. Only with Thackery and Defoe and Balzac and so on did we start to get a very recent fixation on the narrow “here and now.” Both fantasy and science fiction break out of the myopic constraint, positing that things might be different than they are, elsewhere and elsewhen… or else right before our eyes.

The difference between these two cousin genres is not – fundamentally – about science and machines versus magic and dragons. Tales like Star Wars seem to revolve around techno wonders like starships and lasers, but the plots and characters and assumptions that weave through that fictional universe are all those of a fantasy tale.

Powerful wizards and kings and chosen-one heroes are the figures who matter. Normal people only get to choose which ubermensch mutant-superman demigod they’ll carry a spear for.

Not once does a single democratic institution actually function, or even do anything much, at all.

The inherent notion underlying fantasy is romanticism. Feudalism is the natural social order. A hero may fight for one prince over another, but there will be wizards and kings and nothing about that will ever change. In this respect, Star Wars is very similar (though much lower in quality) to the romantic fantasies of Tolkien.
The fundamental premise of good science fiction is inherently different. Things may change — even basic things like the kind of government or how children are raised or what gender roles might be like. A hero isn’t someone who puts the nicer prince on the throne, but someone who empowers ten million kids to lift their gaze and say: “this might all be different.”
AF: What are your hopes for the next three episodes?
DB: That JJ Abrams and his peers actually read Star Wars on Trial. Even if you are a defender of Lucas’s saga, you’d surely want to see the final trilogy avoid earlier mistakes, delivering what we got in The Empire Strikes Back — entertainment and thrills that are also thoughtful and thought provoking and that encourage us to feel that we all might be heroes in a civilization that deserves the name.

Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time

Star Wars on TrialStar Wars on Trial on Amazon!
“Order in the Court!

Star Wars: the most significant, powerful myth of the twenty-first century or morally bankrupt military fantasy?

Six films. Countless books. $20 billion in revenue. No one can question the financial value or cultural impact of the Star Wars film franchise. But has the impact been for the good?

In Star Wars on Trial’s courtroom—Droid Judge presiding—Star Wars stands accused of elitist politics and sexism, religious and ethical lapses, the destruction of literary science fiction and science fiction film, and numerous plot holes and logical gaps.

Supported by a witness list of bestselling science fiction authors, David Brin (for the prosecution) and Matthew Woodring Stover (for the defense) debate these charges and more before delivering their closing statements.

The verdict? That’s up to you.

The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the perfect time to look back at George Lucas’ crimes, and new forewords by Brin and Stover discuss the newest generation of Star Wars films and what JJ Abrams must do to live up to—or redeem—the franchise.”











Biography of David Brin

Brin at an Association of Computing Machinery conference in 2005

David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages.

His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web. His 2012 novel Existence extends this type of daring, near future extrapolation by exploring bio-engineering, intelligence and how to maintain an open-creative civilization.

A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was loosely based on The Postman.

Brin serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI and nanotechnology, future/prediction and philanthropy. He has served since 2010 on the council of external advisers for NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC), which supports the most inventive and potentially ground-breaking new endeavors.

Read more here


Science vs Pseudoscience – Kevin Korb

Science vs PseuodoscienceScience has a certain common core, especially a reliance on empirical methods of assessing hypotheses. Pseudosciences have little in common but their negation: they are not science.
They reject meaningful empirical assessment in some way or another. Popper proposed a clear demarcation criterion for Science v Rubbish: Falsifiability. However, his criterion has not stood the test of time. There are no definitive arguments against any pseudoscience, any more than against extreme skepticism in general, but there are clear indicators of phoniness.


Science v Non-science – What’s the point? Possible goals for distinguishing btw them: Rhetorical, Political, Social Methodological: aiming at identifying methodolgical virtues and vices; improving practice How to proceed? Traditional: propose and test necessary and sufficient conditions for being science Less ambitious: collect prominent characteristics that support a “family resemblance”

What is Science?

Science is something like the organized (social, intersubjective) attempt to acquire knowledge about the world through interacting with the world. In the Western tradition, this began with the pre-Socratic philosophers and is especially associated with Aristotle.

science-pseudoscienceNature of Science Science contrasts to: Learning: individuals learn about the world. Their brains are wired for that. Mathematics/deduction: a handmaid to science, but powerless to teach us about the world on its own. Dogma, ideology, faith: These may be crucial to driving even scientific projects forward (as are good meals, sleep, etc.), but as they are by definition not tested by evidence, they are not themselves science.

A Potted History of the Philosophy of Science

Wissenschaftsphilosophie – The Vienna Circle Early 20th Century Scientific Major Success Stories: Charles Darwin (evolutionary biology) Gottlob Frege (formal logic) Albert Einstein (physics) The sciences were showing themselves as the most successful human project ever undertaken. In Vienna a group of great philosophers asked themselves: Why? How did this happen? With the Vienna Circle philosophy of science became a discipline, attempting to answer these questions.

The Vienna Circle & Logical Positivism : The beginning was the appointment of Ernst Mach as Professor of the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences at the University of Vienna, 1895. Thereafter, Mortiz Schlick founded the Vienna Circle (and Logical Positivism) in 1922. Through the helpful activities of Adolf Hitler, the leading philosophers of science introduced the Vienna Circles ideas throughout the English speaking world.
Vienna Circle Ernst Mach Moritz Schlick Rudolf Carnap Hans Reichenbach Karl Popper Paul Feyerabend Noretta Koertge Positivismus Falsifikationismus Anarchismus
The Vienna Circle Basic Principles: Philosophy as logical analysis The logical foundation of science lies in observation & experiment e.g., Rudolf Carnap’s 1928 title: The Logical Construction of the World!! Key: Verifiability Criterion of Meaning What cannot be proven empirically, is meaningless. E.g., metaphysics, religion, superstition. {h, b e1, . . . en; e1, . . . en} verifies h
Karl Popper Objects Many scientific hypotheses are universal: E.g., light always bends near large masses. But {h, b e1, . . . e∞; e1, . . . e∞} is not even a possible state of affairs Aside from that, metaphysics is an ineliminable part of science; all science has fundamental presuppositions.
Karl Popper Falsificationism Key: Demarcation criterion for science What cannot be falsified empirically, is unscientific. E.g., Marxism, religion, psychoanalysis. {h, b e, ¬e} falsifies h Theses: We can make scientific (or social) progress alternating between Bold Conjectures and Refutations. The ideal test (severe test) is guaranteed to falsify one of two (or more) alternative conjectures. Progress: refuting more and more theories; not accumulating more and more knowledge.
Imre Lakatos Sophisticated Falsificationism {h, b e, ¬e} falsifies (h&b) Hypotheses stand or fall in networks, networked to each other and to theories of measurement, etc. = research programmes If a research programme makes novel predictions that come up true, it is progressive If a programme lies in a sea of anomalies and is dominated by ad hoc saving maneuvers, it is degenerating Unfortunately, there’s no definite point at which a degenerating research programme rationally needs to be abandoned.
Thomas Kuhn Scientific Revolutions In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) he introduced the idea that science moves (not: progresses) from “normal science” through a sea of anomalies to “revolutionary science” to a new “normal science” – from “paradigm” to “paradigm”. According to Kuhn, the process is not rational, but explained in terms of psychology, social processes and power relationships.
Paul Feyerabend Epistemic Anarchy In 1958 Feyerabend went to Berkeley, where he turned against Popper, promoting “Epistemological Anarchism” instead (Against Method, 1974). He embraced the inability to reject research programmes, promoting methodological pluralism instead. Denunciations of witchcraft, pseudosciences, etc. are mere expressions of prejudice.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Open Concepts Natural language concepts have an “open structure”, based on family resemblance, not definition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Open Concepts One of Wittgenstein’s examples: Define “game”, in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions. Now let’s play a game involving changing those conditions. . . Socrates’ game of taking some sophist’s definition for “love”, “knowledge”, “good” and poking holes in it could be played forever. Hence, Socrates’ phony humility in claiming that he knew nothing. The reality is that our understanding and use of language doesn’t depend on definitions.
1“Science” is an Open Concept Instead of assembling inadequate necessary and sufficient conditions, let’s collect examples of science and non-science and see what the former share in family resemblances. Leave problematic cases for later. Physics Mathematics Epidemiology Medicine Paleontology Religion Climatology Mining Evolution Theory Creationism Economics Politics Political Science Fox News
“Science” is an Open Concept I’d like to suggest the key family resemblances are: Empiricism: insistance on an empirical base versus ideological dominance Abstraction (generalization) and mathematization (when possible) versus anecdotal evidence Social processes encouraging objectivity, intersubjectivity, peer review, Popperian critical rationality versus authoritarianism
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments AGW/ecology/genetic regulatory/etc models are highly abstract, lose track of detailed reality and so are not scientific. George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Any computer model will misrepresent continuity, but does it matter? The question is whether the property of the model of interest (mapping to reality) is preserved under model dynamics, not whether irrelevant details are carried along. The demand for “proof” in science is a good indicator of dishonesty.
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments Similarly: the model predicts overall process ok, but omits some really tiny details and therefore is wrong. Here’s an example I gave a data mining class; 120 years of data on business profits. Looks like three different trends concatenated. Let’s just regress just the points from 80-120.
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments Not bad. But some ornery shareholder says, let’s just try years 109-120 instead.
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments As we can all see profits are hardly moving; let’s turf out the board!!
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments NB: profit = global surface temperature; competitiveness = solar energy.
Some References on Scientific Method F Bacon (1620) Novum Organum Scientiarum. JS Mill (1843) System of Logic. M Gardner (1957) Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover. T Kuhn (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. K Popper (1963) Conjectures and Refutations. R Carnap (1966) An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. C Hitchcock (2004) Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science.

Slides can be found here:


Kevin KorbMy research is in: machine learning, artificial intelligence, philosophy of science, scientific method, Bayesian inference and reasoning, Bayesian networks, artificial life, computer simulation, epistemology, evaluation theory.

See The page is out of date, but accurate as far as it goes.

Email kbkorb [at] gmail {dot} com twitter: @kbkorb

Aubrey de Grey – Engaging the Disengaged

There is likely a lot of mileage in engaging the disengaged in untapped support for more efficient progress in regenerative medicine. We need to talk about the familiar and positive aspects of rejuvenation medicine!

Aging issues have appeared in the media a lot recently – all to often the narrative is skewed in the direction of sci-fi sounding future scenarios, and are embedded in sensationalized media stunts, to the effect that for many the ideas ‘go out one ear and out the other’ – the people whom are currently disengaged forget about rejuvenation medicine and loose interest when they hear about the latest patch for their iphone.

There are a lot more people out there in the world besides transhumanists who have resources and energy to transform into meaningful progress in the science of rejuvenation biotechnology.
People also get fixated on long term Malthusian visions or the pseuodoscientific and religious connotations of words like ‘immortality’ and loose sight of the fact that SENS and others are working on _health_.

History shows a bleak picture, but the further back we go, the worse it seems. It seems civilization is getting better at healthy living into older age – now it really is a priority to get better at getting better – effective aging, so to speak.
There is so much in the world to do – many people grow old and unable to do the things they want to do before they have finished doing much of what they want to do. Live is precious – it’s an imperative that we focus on giving people extra healthy life-time for them to do more of the things they love to do.


The main thing that people misunderstanding is the actual relationship between aging and the diseases of old age – and this is largely the fault of gerontologists….people would go out and say, all the time, ‘Aging is not a disease’ – that’s not useful. Ultimately it’s very counter productive. What happened was people would think to themselves ‘well ok then, aging is this natural thing that’s never going to be amenable to medical intervention, because it’s not a disease – and also because it’s not a disease, then why should we care about it?’ – so it was absolutely the wrong thing to be saying… it’s even more the wrong thing to be saying because it’s not even true. Aubrey de Grey

Aubrey de Grey is the chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) public charity that is transforming the way the world researches and treats age-related disease.

The research SENS funds at universities around the world and at SENS own Research Center uses regenerative medicine to repair the damage underlying the diseases of aging. The goal of SENS is to help build the industry that will cure these diseases.

Aubrey de Grey was interviewed by Adam Ford in 2012.

Here is a playlist of all the interview sections: