Less Wrong/2009 Articles/Summaries
Fun Theory is important for replying to critics of human progress; for inspiring people to keep working on human progress; for refuting religious arguments that the world could possibly have been benevolently designed; for showing that religious Heavens show the signature of the same human biases that torpedo other attempts at Utopia; and for appreciating the great complexity of our values and of a life worth living, which requires a correspondingly strong effort of AI design to create AIs that can play good roles in a good future.
Creating new emotions seems like a desirable aspect of many parts of Fun Theory, but this is not to be trivially postulated. It's the sort of thing best done with superintelligent help, and slowly and conservatively even then. We can illustrate these difficulties by trying to translate the short English phrase "change sex" into a cognitive transformation of extraordinary complexity and many hidden subproblems.
Since the events in video games have no actual long-term consequences, playing a video game is not likely to be nearly as emotionally involving as much less dramatic events in real life. The supposed Utopia of playing lots of cool video games forever, is life as a series of disconnected episodes with no lasting consequences. Our current emotions are bound to activities that were subgoals of reproduction in the ancestral environment - but we now pursue these activities as independent goals regardless of whether they lead to reproduction.
Stories and lives are optimized according to rather different criteria. Advice on how to write fiction will tell you that "stories are about people's pain" and "every scene must end in disaster". I once assumed that it was not possible to write any story about a successful Singularity because the inhabitants would not be in any pain; but something about the final conclusion that the post-Singularity world would contain no stories worth telling seemed alarming. Stories in which nothing ever goes wrong, are painful to read; would a life of endless success have the same painful quality? If so, should we simply eliminate that revulsion via neural rewiring? Pleasure probably does retain its meaning in the absence of pain to contrast it; they are different neural systems. The present world has an imbalance between pain and pleasure; it is much easier to produce severe pain than correspondingly intense pleasure. One path would be to address the imbalance and create a world with more pleasures, and free of the more grindingly destructive and pointless sorts of pain. Another approach would be to eliminate pain entirely. I feel like I prefer the former approach, but I don't know if it can last in the long run.
Humans seem to be on a hedonic treadmill; over time, we adjust to any improvements in our environment - after a month, the new sports car no longer seems quite as wonderful. This aspect of our evolved psychology is not surprising: is a rare organism in a rare environment whose optimal reproductive strategy is to rest with a smile on its face, feeling happy with what it already has. To entirely delete the hedonic treadmill seems perilously close to tampering with Boredom itself. Is there enough fun in the universe for a transhuman to jog off the treadmill - improve their life continuously, leaping to ever-higher hedonic levels before adjusting to the previous one? Can ever-higher levels of pleasure be created by the simple increase of ever-larger floating-point numbers in a digital pleasure center, or would that fail to have the full subjective quality of happiness? If we continue to bind our pleasures to novel challenges, can we find higher levels of pleasure fast enough, without cheating? The rate at which value can increase as more bits are added, and the rate at which value must increase for eudaimonia, together determine the lifespan of a mind. If minds must use exponentially more resources over time in order to lead a eudaimonic existence, their subjective lifespan is measured in mere millennia even if they can draw on galaxy-sized resources.
If a citizen of the Past were dropped into the Present world, they would be pleasantly surprised along at least some dimensions; they would also be horrified, disgusted, and frightened. This is not because our world has gone wrong, but because it has gone right. A true Future gone right would, realistically, be shocking to us along at least some dimensions. This may help explain why most literary Utopias fail; as George Orwell observed, "they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss". Heavens are meant to sound like good news; political utopias are meant to show how neatly their underlying ideas work. Utopia is reassuring, unsurprising, and dull. Eutopia would be scary. (Of course the vast majority of scary things are not Eutopian, just entropic.) Try to imagine a genuinely better world in which you would be out of place - not a world that would make you smugly satisfied at how well all your current ideas had worked. This proved to be a very important exercise when I tried it; it made me realize that all my old proposals had been optimized to sound safe and reassuring.
Utopia and Dystopia both confirm the moral sensibilities you started with; whether the world is a libertarian utopia of government non-interference, or a hellish dystopia of government intrusion and regulation, either way you get to say "Guess I was right all along." To break out of this mold, write down the Utopia, and the Dystopia, and then try to write down the Weirdtopia - an arguably-better world that zogs instead of zigging or zagging. (Judging from the comments, this exercise seems to have mostly failed.)
A pleasant surprise probably has a greater hedonic impact than being told about the same positive event long in advance - hearing about the positive event is good news in the moment of first hearing, but you don't have the gift actually in hand. Then you have to wait, perhaps for a long time, possibly comparing the expected pleasure of the future to the lesser pleasure of the present. This argues that if you have a choice between a world in which the same pleasant events occur, but in the first world you are told about them long in advance, and in the second world they are kept secret until they occur, you would prefer to live in the second world. The importance of hope is widely appreciated - people who do not expect their lives to improve in the future are less likely to be happy in the present - but the importance of vague hope may be understated.
Vagueness usually has a poor name in rationality, but the Future is something about which, in fact, we do not possess strong reliable specific information. Vague (but justified!) hopes may also be hedonically better. But a more important caution for today's world is that highly specific pleasant scenarios can exert a dangerous power over human minds - suck out our emotional energy, make us forget what we don't know, and cause our mere actual lives to pale by comparison. (This post is not about Fun Theory proper, but it contains an important warning about how not to use Fun Theory.)
"Boredom" is an immensely subtle and important aspect of human values, nowhere near as straightforward as it sounds to a human. We don't want to get bored with breathing or with thinking. We do want to get bored with playing the same level of the same video game over and over. We don't want changing the shade of the pixels in the game to make it stop counting as "the same game". We want a steady stream of novelty, rather than spending most of our time playing the best video game level so far discovered (over and over) and occasionally trying out a different video game level as a new candidate for "best". These considerations would not arise in most utility functions in expected utility maximizers.
Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when performing an action oneself, and watching someone else perform the same action - for example, a neuron that fires when you raise your hand or watch someone else raise theirs. We predictively model other minds by putting ourselves in their shoes, which is empathy. But some of our desire to help relatives and friends, or be concerned with the feelings of allies, is expressed as sympathy, feeling what (we believe) they feel. Like "boredom", the human form of sympathy would not be expected to arise in an arbitrary expected-utility-maximizing AI. Most such agents would regard any agents in its environment as a special case of complex systems to be modeled or optimized; it would not feel what they feel.
Our sympathy with other minds makes our interpersonal relationships one of the most complex aspects of human existence. Romance, in particular, is more complicated than being nice to friends and kin, negotiating with allies, or outsmarting enemies - it contains aspects of all three. Replacing human romance with anything simpler or easier would decrease the peak complexity of the human species - a major step in the wrong direction, it seems to me. This is my problem with proposals to give people perfect, nonsentient sexual/romantic partners, which I usually refer to as "catgirls" ("catboys"). The human species does have a statistical sex problem: evolution has not optimized the average man to make the average woman happy or vice versa. But there are less sad ways to solve this problem than both genders giving up on each other and retreating to catgirls/catboys.
A fictional short story illustrating some of the ideas in Interpersonal Entanglement above. (Many commenters seemed to like this story, and some said that the ideas were easier to understand in this form.) <a href="/lw/xd/growing_up_is_hard/">Growing Up is Hard</a>: Each piece of the human brain is optimized on the assumption that all the other pieces are working the same way they did in the ancestral environment. Simple neurotransmitter imbalances can result in psychosis, and some aspects of Williams Syndrome are probably due to having a frontal cortex that is too large relative to the rest of the brain. Evolution creates limited robustness, but often stepping outside the ancestral parameter box just breaks things. Even if the first change works, the second and third changes are less likely to work as the total parameters get less ancestral and the brain's tolerance is used up. A cleanly designed AI might improve itself to the point where it was smart enough to unravel and augment the human brain. Or uploads might be able to make themselves smart enough to solve the increasingly difficult problem of not going slowly, subtly insane. Neither path is easy. There seems to be an irreducible residue of danger and difficulty associated with an adult version of humankind ever coming into being. Being a transhumanist means wanting certain things; it doesn't mean you think those things are easy.
Having a Purpose in Life consistently shows up as something that increases stated well-being. Of course, the problem with trying to pick out "a Purpose in Life" in order to make yourself happier, is that this doesn't take you outside yourself; it's still all about you. To find purpose, you need to turn your eyes outward to look at the world and find things there that you care about - rather than obsessing about the wonderful spiritual benefits you're getting from helping others. In today's world, most of the highest-priority legitimate Causes consist of large groups of people in extreme jeopardy: Aging threatens the old, starvation threatens the poor, extinction risks threaten humanity as a whole. If the future goes right, many and perhaps all such problems will be solved - depleting the stream of victims to be helped. Will the future therefore consist of self-obsessed individuals, with nothing to take them outside themselves? I suggest, though, that even if there were no large groups of people in extreme jeopardy, we would still, looking around, find things outside ourselves that we cared about - friends, family; truth, freedom... Nonetheless, if the Future goes sufficiently well, there will come a time when you could search the whole of civilization, and never find a single person so much in need of help, as dozens you now pass on the street. If you do want to save someone from death, or help a great many people, then act now; your opportunity may not last, one way or another.
Describes some of the many complex considerations that determine what sort of happiness we most prefer to have - given that many of us would decline to just have an electrode planted in our pleasure centers.
You should try hard and often to test your rationality, but how can you do that?
Deceiving yourself is harder than it seems. What looks like a successively adopted false belief may actually be just a belief in false belief.
Why do people seem to care more about systematic methods of punching than systematic methods of thinking?
The classic failure modes of martial arts schools transfer over as direct warnings to would-be rationalists.
Reputational, experimental, and organizational: the different strengths of evidence needed to (a) prevent a school from degenerating, (b) systematically test particular techniques, or (c) credential individuals.
Brainstorming verification tests, asking along what dimensions you think you've improved due to "rationality".
Requesting suggestions for an actual survey to be run.
The term "playing to win" comes from Sirlin's book and can be described as using every means necessary to win as long as those means are legal within the structure of the game being played.
Knowledge of this heuristic might be useful in fighting akrasia.
Generalization From One Example is a tendency to pay too much attention to the few anecdotal pieces of evidence you experienced, and model some general phenomenon based on them. This is a special case of availability bias, and the way in which the mistake unfolds is closely related to the correspondence bias and the hindsight bias.
Applied scenario about forming priors.
People don't actually remember much of what they know, they only remember how to find it, and the fact that there is something to find. Thus, it's important to know about what's known in various domains, even without knowing the content.
People are offended by grabs for status.