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Heavy-Tailed Distributions: What Lurks Beyond Our Intuitions?

Understanding heavy-tailed distributions are important to assessing likelihoods and impact scales when thinking about possible disasters – especially relevant to xRisk and Global Catastrophic Risk analysis. How likely is civilization to be devastated by a large scale disaster or even go extinct?
Anders discusses how heavy-tailed distributions account for more than our intuitions tell us.

How likely is civilization to devastated by a global disaster or even go extinct?
In this video, Anders Sandberg discusses (with the aid of a whiteboard) how heavy-tailed distributions account for more than our intuitions tell us .

Considering large-scale disasters may be far more important than we intuit.

Transcript of dialog

So typically when people talk about probability they think about nice probability distribution like the bell curve or the Gaussian curve. So this means that it’s most likely that you get something close to zero and then less and less likely that you get very positive or very negative things and this is a rather nice looking curve.

However, many things in the world turn out to have much nastier probability distributions. A lot of disasters for example have a power law distribution. So if this is the size of a disaster and this is the probably, they fall off like this. This doesn’t look very dangerous from the start. Most disasters are fairly small, there’s a high probability of something close to zero and a low probability of something large. But it turns out that the probability getting a really large one can become quite big.

So suppose this one has alpha equal to 1 – that means that there is the chance of getting a disaster of size 10 is proportional to 1 in 10 and that disaster is 10 times as large that’s just a 10th of that probability and that it’s also 10 times as large as that big disaster (again a 10th of that).

That means that we’ve quite a lot of probability of getting very very large disasters – so in this case getting something that is very far out here is exceedingly unlikely, but in the case of power laws you can actually expect to see some very very large outbreaks.

So if you think about the time that various disasters happen – they happen irregularly and occasionally one is through the roof, and then another one, and you can’t of course tell when they happen – that’s random. And you can’t really tell how big they are going to be except that you’re going to be distributed in this way.

The real problem is that when something is bigger than any threshold that you imagine.. well it’s not just going to be a little bit taller, it’s going to be a whole lot taller.

So if we’re going to see a war for example as large as even the Second World War, we shouldn’t expect it to kill a million people more. We could expect it to kill tens or most likely hundreds or even a billions of people more – which is a rather scary prospect.

So the problem here is that disasters seem to be having these heavy tails. So a heavy a tail in probability slang that means that the probability mass over here, the chance that something very large is happening, there again it falls off very slowly. And this is of course a big problem because we tend to think in terms of normal distributions.

Normal distributions are nice. We say they’re normal because a lot of the things in our everyday life get distributed like this. The tallness of people for example – very rarely do we meet somebody who’s a kilometer tall, however, when we meet the people and think about how much they’re making or much money they have – well Bill Gates. He is far far richer than just ten times you and me and then he’s actually got, he’s from afar out here.

So when we get to the land where we have these fat heavy tails when both the the richest (if we are talking about rich people and the dangers if we talk about this) also tend to be much bigger than we can normally think about.

Adam: Hmm yes definitely un-intuitive.

Mmm and the problem is of course our intuitions are all shaped by what’s going on here in the normal realm. We have this experience about what has happened so far in our lives and once we venture out here and talk about very big events or intuitions suddenly become very bad. We make mistakes. We don’t really understand the consequences, cognitive biases take over and this can of course completely mess up our planning.

So we invest far too little in handling the really big disasters and we’re far too uninterested in going for the big wins in technology and science.

We should pay more attention probability theory (esp heavy-tailed distributions) in order to discover and avoid disasters that lurk beyond our intuitions.


Also see –
– Anders Sandberg: The Survival Curve of Our Species: Handling Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks

Anders Sandberg on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anders_Sandberg

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Kind regards,
Adam Ford
– Science, Technology & the Future: http://scifuture.org

AI: The Story So Far – Stuart Russell

stuart russell - redAwesome to have Stuart Russell discussing AI Safety – a very important topic. Too long have people been associating the idea of AI safety issues with Terminator – unfortunately the human condition seems such that people often don’t give themselves permission to take seriously non-mainstream ideas unless they see a tip of the hat from an authority figure.

During the presentation Stuart brings up a nice quote by Norbert Wiener:

If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it, because the action is so fast and irrevocable that we have not the data to intervene before the action is complete, then we had better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire and not merely a colorful imitation of it.Norbert Wiener

P.s. Stuart Russell co-authored AI A Modern Approach with Peter Norvig – arguably the most popular textbook on AI theory.

The lecture was presented at the 2016 Colloquium Series on Robust and Beneficial AI (CSRBAI) hosted by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) and Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI).

What I’m finding is that senior people in the field who have never publicly evinced any concern before are privately thinking that we do need to take this issue very seriously, and the sooner we take it seriously the better.Stuart Russell

Video of presentation:

 

The field [of AI] has operated for over 50 years on one simple assumption: the more intelligent, the better. To this must be conjoined an overriding concern for the benefit of humanity. The argument is very simple:

1. AI is likely to succeed.
2. Unconstrained success brings huge risks and huge benefits.
3. What can we do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks?

Some organizations are already considering these questions, including the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley, and the Future of Life Institute at Harvard/MIT. I serve on the Advisory Boards of CSER and FLI.

Just as nuclear fusion researchers consider the problem of containment of fusion reactions as one of the primary problems of their field, it seems inevitable that issues of control and safety will become central to AI as the field matures. The research questions are beginning to be formulated and range from highly technical (foundational issues of rationality and utility, provable properties of agents, etc.) to broadly philosophical.

– Stuart Russell (Quote Source)

 

UPDATE – Interview
I got to meet Stuart Russell at IJCAI in 2017, he agreed to do an interview which turned out very nicely. Here is the results:

Singularity Skepticism or Advocacy – to what extent is it warranted?

Why are some people so skeptical of the possibility of Super-intelligent Machines, while others take it quite seriously?
Hugo de Garis addresses both ‘Singularity Skepticism’ and advocacy – reasons for believing machine intelligence is not only possible but quite probable!
The Singularity will likely be an unprecedentedly huge issue that we will need to face in the coming decades.

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If you take the average person in the street and you talk to them about a future intelligent machine – there is a lot of skepticism – because today’s machines aren’t intelligent right? I know from my own personal experience that I get incredibly frustrated with computers, they crash all the time, they don’t do what I want… literally I say “I hate computers” but I really love them – so I have an ambivalent relationship with computers..Hugo de Garis
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The exponential growth of technology and resolution of brain-scanning may lead to advanced neuro-engineering. Brain simulation right down to the chemical synapse, or just plain old functional brain representation might be possible within our lifetimes – this would likely lead to a neuromorphic flavour of the singularity.

There have been some enthusiastic and skeptical responses to this video so far on YouTube:

AZR NSMX1 commented that “Computers already have a better memory and a higher speed than human brain, they can learn and recognice the human voice since 1982 with the first software made for Kurzweil Industries, the expert systems are the first steps for thinking, then in 90’s we learned that emotions are more easy for machines than we believed, an emotion is just an uncontrolled reaction an automatic preservation code that may be good or not for a robot to reach its goal. Now in 2010 the Watson supercomputer show us that is able to structure the human language to produce a logic response, if that is not what does the thought, then somebody explain me what means to think. The only thing they still can’t do is the creative thinking and conciousness, but that will be reached between 2030 and 2035. Conciousness is just the amout and quality of the information you can process, IBM Blue Brain team said this, for example we the humans are very stupid when it comes to use and exploit all the possibilities offered by the smell sense compared to dogs or bears, in this dimension a cockroach is smarter than us because they can map the direction of smell to find the food or other members of their group, we can’t do this, we just have no consciusness in that world. Creativity is the most complex thing, if machines reaches creativity then our world will change because we will not only have to work anymore, but what is better we will not have to think anymore haha. Machines gonna do everything.”
 My response: There has certainly been some impressive strides in technological advancement, it might asymptote at some stage – not sure when, but my take is that there won’t likely be many fundamental engineering or scientific bottlenecks that will block or stifle progress – the biggest problems I think will be sociological impediments – human caused. 

Darian Rachel says “Around the 8 minute or so point he makes a statement that a machine will be built that is intelligent and conscious. He seems to pull this idea that it will be conscious “out of the air” somewhere. It seems to be a rather silly idea.”
 My response: while I agree that a conscious machine is likely difficult to build, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement among humans about whether it exists, what consciousness actually is, whether it is a byproduct of (complex?) information processing and whether it is actually computable (using classical computation). Perhaps Hugo de Garis views consciousness as just being self-aware. 

Exile438 responded that the “human brain has 100billion neurons and each connects to 10,000 other neurons, 10^11*10^4=10^15 human brain capacity estimate. Brain scanning resolution and speed of computers doubles every so often so within the next 2 to 3 decades we can simulate a brain on a computer. If we can do that it would run electronically 4million times faster then our chemical brains. This leads to singularity.”
 My response: it’s certainly a strange and exciting time to be alive – the fundamental questions that we have been wrestling with since before recorded history – questions around personal identity and what makes us what we – may be unraveled within the lifetimes of most of us here today. 

Grand Unifying Theories in Physics with Sundance

Sundance describes particle physics and covers two grand unifying theories: super string theory and quantum loop gravity, then discusses the distribution of beliefs among experts on grand unifying theories and concludes by emphasisng the need for a wider research program in physics (and science in general) – as well as the funding to back it up.

Interview Video link: https://youtu.be/g5Wg41iEn5A

Sundance at Ceres (2 of 16) headshotSundance Osland Bilson-Thompson is an Australian theoretical particle physicist. He has developed the idea that certain preon models may be represented topologically, rather than by treating preons as pointlike particles. His ideas have attracted interest in the field of loop quantum gravity, as they may represent a way of incorporating the Standard Model into loop quantum gravity. This would make loop quantum gravity a candidate theory of everything. At the time he was a Visiting Academic at the University of Adelaide. From 2006 to 2009 he was a full-time academic at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. From 2010 he held a Ramsay Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Photos taken at Interview

Cyclists Party

Sundance is currently running for the Cyclists Party in South Australia.

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundance_Bilson-Thompson
BloSundance at Ceres (2 of 16) smlg: http://meanderingmarsupials.blogspot.com/

Brian Greene on Artificial Intelligence, the Importance of Fundamental Physics, Alien Life, and the Possible Future of Our Civilization

March 14th was Albert Einstein’s birthday, and also PI day, so it was a fitting day to be interviewing well known theoretical physicist and string theorist Brian Greene – the author of a number of books including, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality!
Think-Inc-logo2Many thanks to Suzi and Desh at THINKINC for helping organize this interview & for bringing Brian Greene to Australia for a number of shows (March 16 in Perth, March 18 in Sydney and March 19 in Melbourne) – check out www.thinkinc.org.au for more info!

Audio recording of the interview:

About the Interview with Brian Greene

Brian Greene discusses implications Artificial Intelligence and news of DeepMind AI (AlphaGo) beating the world grand champion in the board game Go.  He then discusses physics string theory, the territory of opinion on grand unifying theories of physics, the importance of supporting fundamental science, the possibility of alien life, the possible future of our space-faring civilization and of course gravitational waves!

In answer to the question on the importance of supporting fundamental research in science, Brain Greene said:

I tell them to wake up! Wake up and recognize that fundamental science has radically changed the way they live their lives today. If any of these individuals have a cell phone, or a personal computer, or perhaps they themselves or loved ones has been saved by an MRI machine.. I mean any of these devices rely on integrated circuits, which they themselves rely on quantum physics – so IF those folks who were in charge in the 1920s had have said, ‘hey you guys working on quantum physics, that doesn’t seem to be relevant to anything in the world around as so were going to cut your funding – well those people would have short circuited on of the greatest revolutions that our species has gone through – the information age, the technological age – so the bottom line is we need to support fundamental research because we know historically that when you gain a deep understanding of how things work – we can often leverage that to then manipulate the world around us in spectacular ways! And that needs to be where our fundamental focus remains – in science!

 

Layered art of Brian Greene, background and series titleBrian Randolph Greene is an American theoretical physicist and string theorist. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1996 and chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it in 2008. Greene has worked on mirror symmetry, relating two different Calabi–Yau manifolds (concretely, relating the conifold to one of its orbifolds). He also described the flop transition, a mild form of topology change, showing that topology in string theory can change at the conifold point.

Greene has become known to a wider audience through his books for the general public, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Hidden Reality, and related PBS television specials. He also appeared on The Big Bang Theory episode “The Herb Garden Germination“, as well as the films Frequency and The Last Mimzy. He is currently a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Media series with James Hughes

James-Hughes---raysJames Hughes the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut where he teaches health policy and serves as Director of Institutional Research and Planning. Dr. Hughes is a Fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of Humanity+, the Neuroethics Society, the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and the Working Group on Ethics and Technology at Yale University. He serves on the State of Connecticut Regenerative Medicine Research Advisory Committee (formerly known as the Stem Cell Research Advisory Board).

A YouTube playlist of interviews and presentations:

Michio Kaku – A History of a Time to Come

Science, Technology & the Future interviews Dr. Michio Kaku on Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity, Biotech and Nanotechnology

  • What is it that is driving this revolution?
  • How do you think your background in Theoretical Physics shape your view on the future of the mind?
  • Intelligence enhancement, Internet of the mind – brain-net, like a hive mind? Where are we at with AI?
  • Many AI experts and scientists agree that some time in the future a Singularity will be possible (often disagreeing about when). What are your thoughts on the Singularity?
  • What about advances in Nanotechnology?
  • Is the Sticky Fingers problem a show stopper?

Michio is the author of many best sellers, most recently “the Future of the Mind” – We are entering a golden age of neuroscience – today it seems much of the discourse today seems to be it’s use in helping understand and treat mental illness (which is great) – though in the future, there will be other profound implications to understanding neuroscience – such as understanding the mechanics of intelligence…

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Michio Kaku’s Biography

Michio Kaku (born January 24, 1947) is an American theoretical physicist, the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York, a futurist, and a communicator and popularizer of science. He has written several books about physics and related topics, has made frequent appearances on radio, television, and film, and writes extensive online blogs and articles. He has written three New York Times Best Sellers: Physics of the Impossible (2008), Physics of the Future (2011), and The Future of the Mind (2014).

Kaku is the author of various popular science books:
– Beyond Einstein: The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe (with Jennifer Thompson) (1987)
– Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension (1994)
– Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century[12] (1998)
– Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time (2004)
– Parallel Worlds: A Journey through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos (2004)
– Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel (2008)
– Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (2011)
– The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind (2014)

Also see this previous interview with Michio Kaku:

 

The Future of the Mind‘ – Book on Amazon.

Many thanks to Think Inc. who brought Dr Kaku to Australia!

Subscribe to the Science, Technology & the Future YouTube Channel

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Science, Technology & the Future

Michio Kaku – The Future of the Mind – Intelligence Enhancement & the Singularity

Scifuture interview with popular scientist Michio Kaku on the Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance & Empower the Mind!

The audio of this interview is found here.

Dr. Michio Kaku advocates thinking about some of the radical Transhumanist ideas we all know and love – here he speaks on the frontiers of Neuroscience, Intelligence Enhancement, the Singularity, and his new book ‘The Future of the Mind’!

String theory stems from Albert Einstein’s legacy; it combines the theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics by assuming the multiverse of universes. String field theory then uses the mathematics of fields to put it all into perspectives. Dr Kaku’s goal is to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one ‘unified field theory’, a theory that seeks to summarise all fundamental laws of the universe in one simple equation.

Note Scifuture did another interview with Michio Kaku – the article can be found here, audio can be found here, and the video can be found here.

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The Future of the Mind‘ – Book on Amazon.

Many thanks to Think Inc. who brought Dr Kaku to Australia!

Subscribe to the Science, Technology & the Future YouTube Channel

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Science, Technology & the Future

Jamais Cascio – The Future and You! Security, Privacy, AI, Geoengineering

Jamais Cascio discusses the Participatory Panopticon, Privacy & Secrecy, the ramifications of Disconnecting from the Chorus, what it means to be a Futurist, the Arc of Human Evolution, Artificial Intelligence, the Need for Meaning, Building Agents to Listen to Us, WorldChanging.com / OpenTheFuture.com, Geoengineering and the Viridian Green movement.

We pollute our data-streams, to control we have over our identifying information. The motivation behind social networks is not to keep your information private.

Jamais Cascio - Privacy, Security the Future and YouInterview was conducted at the Humanity+ conference in San Francisco late 2012.
Jamais Cascio is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and ethical futurist specializing in design strategies and possible outcomes for future scenarios.
Jamais Cascio resides in the San Francisco Bay Area Cascio received his undergraduate degree from UC Santa Cruz and later attended UC Berkeley. In the 1990s, Cascio worked for the futurist and scenario planning firm Global Business Network. In 2007 he was a lead author on the Metaverse Roadmap Overview.

Worldchanging

From 2003 to 2006 Cascio helped in the formation of Worldchanging. His activities covered topics related energy and climate change to global development, open source, and bio and nanotechnologies.
On November 29, 2010, Worldchanging announced that due to fundraising difficulties it would shut down. It has since merged with Architecture for Humanity, though detailed plans for the site’s future have not been released.

Open the Future

In early 2006, Cascio established Open The Future as his online home, a title based on his WorldChanging essay, The Open Future.

cascio_jamais_headshot-smSelected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009, Cascio writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specializing in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking, emphasizing the power of openness, transparency and flexibility as catalysts for building a more resilient society.

Cascio’s work appears in publications as diverse as Metropolis, the Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. He has been featured in multiple documentaries discussing social and environmental futures, including National Geographic Television’s SIX DEGREES, its 2008 program on the effects of global warming, the 2010 Canadian Broadcasting Company feature, SURVIVING THE FUTURE, and the 2013 independent film FIXED: THE SCIENCE/FICTION OF HUMAN AUGMENTATION. He has also been featured in several science-oriented television documentary series.

Cascio currently serves as Director of Impacts Analysis for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Cascio was a speaker on the “On The Edge of Independent User-Creation In Gamespace” panel at the 2007 SXSW Interactive Festival. He is a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Future where together with Jane McGonigal in 2008 he helped create and administer the large scale collaborative multiplayer game Superstruct as an advanced strategy to engage lots of other hopeful thinkers in the pursuit of possible strategies and positive outcomes of a proposed future scenario occurring in 2019.
In 2006, Cascio presented a TED Talk at the TED conference “The Future We Will Create,” in Monterey, California. In the presentation he outlined possible available solutions for the emerging world climate and energy crisis.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets with Simon Singh

You may have watched hundreds of episodes of The Simpsons (and its sister show Futurama) without ever realizing that cleverly embedded in many plots are subtle references to mathematics, ranging from well-known equations to cutting-edge theorems and conjectures. That they exist, Simon Singh reveals, underscores the brilliance of the shows’ writers, many of whom have advanced degrees in mathematics in addition to their unparalleled sense of humor.

A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems. Simon Singh, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

The Simpsons and their Mathematical SecretsWhile recounting memorable episodes such as “Bart the Genius” and “Homer3,” Singh weaves in mathematical stories that explore everything from p to Mersenne primes, Euler’s equation to the unsolved riddle of P v. NP; from perfect numbers to narcissistic numbers, infinity to even bigger infinities, and much more. Along the way, Singh meets members of The Simpsons’ brilliant writing team—among them David X. Cohen, Al Jean, Jeff Westbrook, and Mike Reiss—whose love of arcane mathematics becomes clear as they reveal the stories behind the episodes.
With wit and clarity, displaying a true fan’s zeal, and replete with images from the shows, photographs of the writers, and diagrams and proofs, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets offers an entirely new insight into the most successful show in television history.

Buy the book on amazon

An astronomer, a physicist, and a mathematician (it is said) were holidaying in Scotland. Glancing from a train window, they observed a black sheep in the middle of a field. “How interesting,” observed the astronomer, “all Scottish sheep are black!” To which the physicist responded, “No, no! Some Scottish sheep are black!” The mathematician gazed heavenward in supplication, and then intoned, “In Scotland there exists at least one field, containing at least one sheep, at least one side of which is black. Simon Singh, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

 

 

Simon Singh is a British author who has specialised in writing about mathematical and scientific topics in an accessible manner. His written works include Fermat’s Last Theorem (in the United States titled Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem),The Code Book (about cryptography and its history), Big Bang (about the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe), Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial[6] (about complementary and alternative medicine) and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (about mathematical ideas and theorems hidden in episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama).

Singh has also produced documentaries and works for television to accompany his books, is a trustee of NESTA, the National Museum of Science and Industry and co-founded the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme.

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As a society, we rightly adore our great musicians and novelists, yet we seldom hear any mention of the humble mathematician. It is clear that mathematics is not considered part of our culture. Instead, mathematics is generally feared and mathematicians are often mocked. Simon Singh, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

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