Minds aren't magic

Paul Crowley

Month: March, 2015

Rationality: From AI to Zombies

Cover imageRationality: From AI to Zombies, by Eliezer Yudkowsky, Machine Intelligence Research Institute, suggested price $5, 1813 pages

Christmas 1982, aged eleven, I gave my Dad a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and immediately borrowed it and read it myself. Like so many readers, I was captivated, and changed. Martin Gardner said of it: “Every few decades, an unknown author brings out a book of such depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty and originality that it is recognized at once as a major literary event.” Nothing could take its place as the biggest influence on my thought—until a quarter century later, when I started reading daily essays by Eliezer Yudkowsky on the blog Overcoming Bias. Out of those essays came a community with thousands of participants and meetups in over fifty locations worldwide. Now, they have been edited, organised, and combined with other writing by Yudkowsky and by Rob Bensinger to make this extraordinary work, Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

The two bear close comparison. Both GEB and RAZ take the reader on an eclectic journey through science, art and philosophy, drawing on the tropes of Eastern philosophy as well as Western popular science. Both are borne of contemplation of artificial intelligence, but their subject is the human mind. Like GEB, each diversion in RAZ is fascinating in its own right, but each makes a real and important contribution to a central theme. Among other things RAZ discusses the mathematics of probability and decision making, the foibles of human psychology, evolution, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and the philosophy of reason, of mind and of morality. For both, the central theme is hard to describe briefly—in the preface to the 20th Anniversary edition of GEB Hofstadter describes his difficulties getting the New York Times to use a description that was not “utter hogwash”, while Yudkowsky can only offer that after years of study “it may be that you will glimpse the center”. Both are at times intellectually demanding. GEB is a large book; at 1800 pages organised into six books, RAZ is over twice the length, with a word count similar to The Lord of the Rings.

Both are works of tremendous originality and wit. GEB is undoubtedly the greater work of beauty; while Yudkowsky is an excellent writer few if any can match the extraordinary fireworks of Hofstader’s wordplay. Conversely, RAZ surpasses it in all of clarity, range, and depth.

It’s not without its flaws; it takes a while to really get started, and not all readers enjoy Yudkowsky’s Eastern nods. But RAZ also surpasses GEB in an area Gardner does not name: importance. While the nature of consciousness is a subject of endless fascination, RAZ’s drive to help us properly shift our views in response to evidence and make better decisions in the face of uncertainty given only the flawed instrument that is our brain could not be of more crucial importance.

Declaration of interest: I have a spot in the acknowledgements for proofreading and very minor contributions to the new material.

Paying someone to help me learn degree-level maths

I have a plan, but some of the plan is probably wrong, so I’m posting here before executing in the hope that you can set me straight. Thanks!

I’m self-taught in most of the maths that I know. This has advantages, but it’s hard work; I can make a lot of progress by myself but if I get stuck on something it’s easy to stay stuck. I want to speed up my maths learning and pick up fields like category theory and mathematical logic, and it seems like even a small amount of tutoring could make a big difference. Obviously this is something friends who know the field can help with, but I can get a lot more control over the hows and whens by just paying someone. I still mostly want to teach myself, but with someone to turn to when I slow down; regular tutorials will also help me keep at it.

Tutoring over Hangouts/Skype have two advantages: I don’t have to travel or find a space for it to happen, and I can recruit from anywhere in the world, meaning it can be cheaper for me while still a good rate for the person receiving it. I could look for a tutor with a Google ad targeted to the right country with keywords from the fields I want to know about, and link the ad to a post on my main blog setting out the details.

Nitty gritty specifics: I’d advertise across India, and offer 1000 INR/hour, which is around £10.60; a search suggests that programmers in Bangalore and Hyderabad are often hired out at around $12/hour which is around £8, but unlike programming this is work that a PhD student can do. I’d pay in arrears by TransferWise. I’d offer to make the calls at either 7am or 9:30pm, whichever suited the tutor best.

The ad would say something like:

I’ll pay you 1000 INR/hour to help me learn category theory over video chat. I’m not a student, just curious!

Keywords: coproduct colimit … other ideas for category theory specific words welcome. Also ideas for what to look for for mathematical logic.

I’m not sure how to assess applicants—I guess it’ll depend on how many I get!

What am I missing?

EDITED TO ADD: have added some clarification on what I want after a useful question on Twitter from John Armstrong (1, 2) – thanks!