Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest post: war, agency, killer robots, hostile systems

I have a new guest post up at Ribbonfarm which hits some of my usual issues: collective agency, war, morality, etc. It generalizes a bit from this earlier post into a theory (well, a proto-proto-theory) of human-hostile systems, which seems like an important concept.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Portraits of neglected Unicode characters #3: ⋩ SUCCEEDS BUT NOT EQUIVALENT TO

This symbol, somewhat awkward in both name and graphic, seems to be perfect for denoting certain types of human relationships, such as fathers and sons, teachers and students, influencers and artists. In all cases, the right side of the relationship obviously owes a great debt to the left side that precedes them, but determinedly asserts their non-equivalence.

The “but” seems weak though, as though it wasn’t really believed. Successors have to go through a process of overthrowing the influence of their predecessors. Like most revolutions, it can be at best a partial success, the revolutionary child inevitably ends up copying many of the strongest aspects of the paternal authority they are rebelling against. And over the course of time they tend to end up on the other side of the relationship, wondering how the hell they came to play a role that they defined themselves against.

(for father’s day)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The anti-Kurzweil

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is a fascinating mess. It’s centered around a single big idea – that some systems are not merely robust to disruption and shocks, but are capable of actively gaining from them. Taleb’s background is in finance and trade and his theory is deeply rooted in his trading strategies, but it goes far beyond that, purporting to be a very general theory of systems and indeed life in general. The book spins out implications of this idea at multiple levels, from economics to diet to basic philosophies of life. It is deeply personal – the author is clearly trying to pack a lifetime’s worth of thought into this package, which works both for and against the ideas. Taleb is in desperate need of an editor but probably too arrogant to accept anybody else’s intervention in his work. So the book feels kind of shapeless. 

Taleb’s thinking quite deliberately does not take the form of any kind of traditional academic theorizing. If there’s anything like a formal theory in this book, it is so enmeshed in his personality and biases that I couldn’t really make much sense of it. This is despite the fact that I share a large subset of his biases, his contempt for high-modernist central planning for instance. He is so confident of the correctness of his biases that he feels free to build them into this theorizing without much justification. The result is that the book quite often reads like a personal brag than a philosophical or scientific treatise (his habit of boasting about his physical strength and calling his opponents “half-men” also contributes to this impression).

So for me the actual content of this book remained tantalizingly obscure. This was frustrating, because it did seem like there were some deep, important, and profound truths hidden away, but they weren’t conveyed in as effective a way as I would have liked. Perhaps it is too much aimed at the world of standard economics that he despises, a foreign territory to me (but he despises all of academia just as much). If I try to summarize my understanding of what he is saying, it comes out both trivial and contradictory. For instance: apparently the secret of economic antifragility is to arrange your resources so they have limited downsides but at least small probabilities of large or unlimited upsides. Sounds like a great principle, but doesn’t sound like any more useful (to an economic naïf like me) than “buy low, sell high”.

The contradictory part is when he gets into ethics, where his main principle seems to be that one is obligated to have “skin in the game” – that is, personal exposure to risk. He is exquisitely scornful of the Wall Street types who manage to profit while destroying value for others, but how is that different from what he does? Financial trading (unlike actual economic production) is inherently zero-sum, if you profit, you are inherently always taking advantage of somebody else. I’m missing some distinction that I’m sure is there. Perhaps taking advantage of your peers (those who have the same skill and risk portfolio as yourself) is OK, but preying on the defenseless masses is not? A deeply ethical/aesthetic sensibility pervades Taleb’s work, and I find that quite appealing, but his sensibility is different from mine in ways I can’t quite tease out.

This short quote:

You cannot sit and moan about the world. You need to come out on top. (p 386)
encapsulates an important quality of Antifragile. He advocates action and winning over being right in any abstract academic sense. Academics don’t have skin in the game, they don’t suffer when they are wrong, thus their pronouncements have no weight. This makes some sense, but also doesn’t seem to leave room for any standard of value but money or power. The frank acknowledgement of the brutally competitive nature of life, while no doubt common on Wall Street, is pretty jarring in a book with the intellectual ambitions of this one. It’s an anti-intellectual stance, denying the possibility of any sort of un-self-interested enquiry. Taleb is well aware of this problem and his rhetorical strategy is to create a couple of separate personas to manage the contradiction of being an anti-intellectual intellectual. Fat Tony is the street-smart winner, uninterested in ideas for their own sake, while Nero Tulip represents the more cultured and cultivated side of life (but he too must play and win financial games).

One passage in the book really clarified Taleb’s position in the intellectual firmament for me: where he figures out a way to describe himself by identifying his polar opposite:
I was just reading…about attempts to use science, in a postreligious world, to achieve immortality. I felt some deep disgust — as would any ancient — at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. It is not just neomania. While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion. (p370)
I’ve mentioned Kurzweil a few times here, mostly to note his boring drone of a speaking style. Taleb seems to have the opposite flaw – he is so determined to be interesting that he doesn’t know when to put his personality aside and let his ideas speak for themselves. My own background is a lot closer to Kurzweil’s though, so maybe I am just too much of a nerd to catch the antifragility train.

Speaking of Kurzweil and AI – it occurs to me that minds and biological systems are necessarily antifragile (or at least robust), due to their evolutionary history. Every biosystem that exists has managed to do so despite being situated in a chaotic, dynamic and often hostile world. Computer systems are nothing like that. Like the formal theories of mathematical logic that gave rise to them, they are practically designed to fall apart at even a single mistake or contradiction. People are pretty aware of this and have been trying to back-fit various kinds of robustness onto computers, but it never goes very deep. Someday someone will reconstruct computation and computational intelligence on a truly robust foundation.