Any sufficiently advanced punditry is indistinguishable from bollocks

by Daniel on September 22, 2005

Hey up everyone, it’s the Prospect Magazine Intellectual of the Year contest!! I’m afraid that everyone at CT forgot to put our forms in (again!) although I see that bloody Yusuf al-Qaradawi did (and Airmiles too). This is a real shame, since I recently became The Most Important Thinker In The World. As Tyler Cowen pointed out in a post on Ray Kurzweil, the previous holder of that title, the secret to being the Most Important Thinker In The World is a mastery of the expected utility rule.

No matter how ludicrous your predictions, if they are sufficiently wildly utopian, then your thinking has a greater expected value than anyone else’s (see here for the general idea). Thus, if Kurzweil reckons that we will upload our consciousness onto software and live for ever as pure energy on the internet, then I say all that and a pony too! Not just any old pony by the way, but a super technonanopony! Which eats racism and shits pure gasoline … on the internet! Oh yeh and we will constantly be having multiple orgasms … and not just the normal kind either (more details to come). You might say that it’s pretty unlikely and I’ve failed to spell out important details, but as long as there is at least some probability that I’m right, then I am more important than Ray Kurzweil to the tune nU^(-rT), where U is the utility of a magic pony, n is the probability I’m right, r is the discount rate and T is the time it will take to sort us all out with one. Keep reading CT folks, because in expected value terms, it is only going to become more important!!

(this is mainly a cheap shot at Kurzweil and the other nanocyberAIscifitechnoutopiaboosters, but the serious underlying point is that there is a difference between probabilistic and speculative uncertainty and the expected value rule doesn’t work well at all in contexts where subjective probabilities don’t make sense. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the difficult kind of uncertainty is much more common and the easy kind much less common than is generally supposed, and that this poses big problems for the decision theory models which under most of economics)

{ 40 comments }

1

Ben Alpers 09.22.05 at 7:41 pm

Once again the liberal/neo-bolshevist conspiracy has apparently denied David Horowitz the right to compete for the title of intellectual of the year! Perhaps he can get one of our state legislatures to name him Intellectual Laureate.

2

lemuel pitkin 09.22.05 at 7:42 pm

A shout-out to Keynes wouldn’t be out of place here, in the below-the-fold part.

3

Tyler Cowen 09.22.05 at 7:53 pm

Great post, glad you caught my drift…!
Tyler Cowen

4

Walt Pohl 09.22.05 at 8:32 pm

Daniel, your feeble technopony demonstrates the poverty of your ideas. Plus, Airmiles offered me a pony _and_ 5 dollars cold hard cash.

Tyler, “most important think alive today, if only in expected utility terms” is extremely funny.

5

cw 09.22.05 at 9:46 pm

You don’t believe in the future? Fine. That’s just one more robot/monkey butler for me.

6

Rasselas 09.22.05 at 9:57 pm

You forgot to mention the ultimate shining victory of the Remixing Wikiforces over the DRM Legion. Long live the Nanoforce!

7

Richard Zach 09.22.05 at 10:21 pm

Wow, they couldn’t find more than 11 women for a list of 100?

8

junius ponds 09.22.05 at 11:55 pm

Sweet merciful crap, is Fafnir posting under Daniel’s name?

9

MTraven 09.23.05 at 12:52 am

I see your Kurzweil and pony and orgasms and raise by you get an entire circus worth of elephants plus you get to be the deity of your own universe, simulated on massively parallel nanogoo with sufficent bandwidth to spontaneously evolve a convincing religion dedicated to worshipping and placating your every mood.

There can only be one most important blog in the world. Race you to the singularity.

10

bad Jim 09.23.05 at 2:32 am

Eh. I’ve got both a robot dog and a robot vacuum cleaner. The Aibo can’t hold a candle to a puppy and my brother’s fearless mutt shuts off the Roomba in a few seconds.

We meat people and our meat pets may yet have a forseeable future.

11

Simstim 09.23.05 at 3:19 am

The commentary here is turning into the mirror image of the Monty Python Yorkshiremen sketch.

12

dp 09.23.05 at 4:32 am

Do I haveta choose? I’m no good at this best/most important stuff. I’d much prefer multiple choice. After all, there’s no top dog without a top pony to ride on. Nor may we forget the elephants.

So, my version of the contest is: which of these apparently important thinkers would you have over for dinner?

But even then there are problems. If there are very important thinkers, they must be having very important thoughts. So, for the singularists out there: what’s the most important thought (or line of thought) in the world today?

For the multiple-choicers: what particularly important thoughts need combining? What is the most important aggregate of thoughts in the world today? Representative samples from CT not included.

13

Reinder 09.23.05 at 5:14 am

I offer all of Kurzweil’s predictions, two ponies, plus the confident prediction that in the future, I will be an even more awesome thinker than I am today.

14

Grandma Lausch 09.23.05 at 6:33 am

Let’s hope that the ‘Palestinian philosopher’ and the ‘Nigerian activist-playwright’ will make it to the top

15

Jeremy Osner 09.23.05 at 7:37 am

Junius, Daniel was Fafnir before Fafnir was Fafnir… check out his archives.

16

Matt McIrvin 09.23.05 at 8:17 am

…and the expected value rule doesn’t work well at all in contexts where subjective probabilities don’t make sense.

Daniel broke my Pascal’s Wager! Only a magic pony could make up for the pain.

17

Matt McIrvin 09.23.05 at 8:20 am

By the way, I think Frank Tipler actually took the application of this rule to a further extreme than Kurzweil some time ago. See particularly his speculations about how in the AI-resurrected afterlife we will all get to have sex with the hottest woman whose existence is logically possible, and his musings about whether this would destroy our minds.

18

anon 09.23.05 at 9:34 am

It wasn’t until I read Frank Tipler that I really grokked the Ontological Proof.

Anselm: Things that exist are more perfect than things that do not exist. Therefore the most perfect being imaginable — God — must exist.

Tipler: insane theories are even more insane if they are true. Therefore the most insane theory imaginable — that someday there will be a computer so powerful it can go back in time and fix everything, and it will want to do this, because with great power comes great benevolence — must also be true.

19

dp 09.23.05 at 9:58 am

“someday there will be a computer so powerful…”

If such a thing ever happens, everything that precedes will be as it should. Our current existence means that it A) has already happened, or B) cannot happen.

20

anon 09.23.05 at 10:21 am

Exactly. That’s why Tipler is an even more important thinker than Kurzweil, because he believes basically the same thing, except you don’t have to stay physically fit while you’re waiting for the godlike computer. This is a clear bonus.

21

jet 09.23.05 at 11:00 am

“someday there will be a computer so powerful…”
So this is the best of all possible worlds?

22

yabonn 09.23.05 at 11:41 am

and not just the normal kind either (more details to come).

Waiting.

23

Gary Zukof-Smirnov 09.23.05 at 12:52 pm

Of course, the point is, it doesn’t matter whether the future holds literal technonanoponies and twenty-four-hour, dry orgasms, or whether it simply holds wonders of some comparably wondrous nature. This is similar to the mystic’s evocation of the “stripper factory” or “beer volcano,” in that both are representative of a deeper, sublingual truth. By allowing us to peer past the limitation of our n-dimensional descriptor-fields, both the futurologicologists like Kurzweil and the modern-day prophets like Henderson provide a glimpse of that thing casting shadows on the cave wall. This is all explained in my new book, The Dancing Lo Mein Masters. Or, as Chief Black Elk once said, “The marinara is always on my clean white shirt.”

24

Aidan Maconachy 09.23.05 at 2:07 pm

All I have to say on this topic is …

Everybody mus’ git stoned …

LZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ#######~~~~~~

25

paul 09.23.05 at 4:27 pm

Obviously I ought to be thinking the greatest thought possible for me at this moment, and not thinking any thoughts with lesser utility.

Oops, let me try again…

26

Martin James 09.24.05 at 1:27 am

Why does the payoff from thinking have to be related to the payoffs described by the thinking?

Isn’t it as likely that a pessimistic theory could lead to ludicrously optimistic results as an optimistic theory?

Without a meta-theory to measure ex post payoffs, how do you take the expected value?

How about this related practical question.

How does one optimize the choice of one’s preferences?

Furthermore, since we know ignorance is bliss, the singularity is oh so unblissful and Kurzweil is the devil.

27

robotslave 09.24.05 at 5:20 am

I have to say, it’s quite odd to see the “and a pony” reference invoked by a person who is (or at least was, at some point in the past) a staunch defender of anarcho-capitalism.

Or have we forgotten the fact that the pony was first deployed in an attack on Libertarianism?

With that said, I am not a huge fan of the “and a pony” argument; my own critique of the libertarians, the Marxists, the anarcho-capitalists, the neocons, ad barfum, is not that they promise more than they can deliver, but that their utopias all rest on the notion of “once everyone agrees with our fundamental ideological tenets, the glorious future will be inevitable!

When I’m being charitable, I read “and a pony” to mean, “and everyone will of course eventually come around to this point of view.”

This is how you distinguish a nutter from the rest– in the nutter’s ideal future, the rest simply do not exist.

28

abb1 09.24.05 at 6:08 am

I don’t think any of these ideologies rely on “once everyone agrees with our fundamental ideological tenets, the glorious future will be inevitable!”. Quite the contrary, the anarcho-capitalists rely on mercenaries, marxists on dictatorship of the proletariat and neocons on the US military.

E.g.: if we make more aggressive use of the US military to promote US interests in the world, then liberal democracies will pop up all over the place and free market will flourish. All that, and everyone will get a pony too.

See, it’s not that everyone will necessarily agree, it’s just that we will ‘kill or capture’ those who resist and sufficiently intimidate the rest – for their own good.

29

Brett Bellmore 09.24.05 at 7:46 am

Historically speaking, for the Marxists it’s been, “Once we’ve killed everyone who didn’t at least pretend to believe our fundamental ideological tenets”… ;)

30

j0nesing_around 09.24.05 at 8:18 am

This is true – punditry, especially leftist- liberal-cerebral-machinations are definitely bollock prone. You only have to read some of the convoluted and completely unreal excersises in mental abuse that pass in here for “wisdom”.

The liberal mind never sees things in black and white. Things are never as they appear. Ever.

For example a big man with long red beard kills a small white dog with an axe in the middle of the street in front of everyone … a solid down to earth conservative will say –

“A big guy with a red beard axed a little white dog to death.”

You think this is how the average liberal will see it? Oooooooh no. No way jose! Take this bleeding heart called um … Mikhail Flumkeind … he’s has an entirely different take on it. Listen up …

“I saw this severely disadvantaged person who has been mercilessly duped by the Bush administration make an impulsive gesture driven by desperation and need and a poodle owned by that awful Republican zillionaire Goldy Goldestein
accidentally wondered in the radial arc of his descending axe … the axe he always uses incidentally for chopping the wood he needs to feed his starving children.”

Ok, see that! Life is seen through the lense of a myriad of abstract rationales and theories. NOTHING is the way it seems. Obfuscation … smoke and mirrors … oh yeah baby, and then some.

If you challenge such odd ball takes on what was clearly the cold blooded murder of a dog, they look at you as though you are an idiot, and say with lofty irony …

“Haha yes well you just don’t get it!”

Take another example. Two cops are tracking a suspect who has just slaughtered and eaten all the residents of an old people’s home. This suspect is purple and has yellow tinges on his skin that glow in the dark and shoot laser beams.

Ok, the conservative, no-nonsense cop is going to put out an alert that says JUST THAT – all of the above.

However the liberal, complex and of course … “sensitive” cop will say to his associates -

“Gee guys, we can’t refer to his skin color that would be profiling. And we can’t say he is “fat” – oops sorry, I mean “large” – and that he has a wooden leg with “Allah rules” carved on it because that might offend the muslim community. So the liberal cop ends up posting …

“The suspect was wearing a ball cap, white t’shirt and blue bermuda shorts, roughly 5’10 and appears to have a minor disability.”

So in deference to political correctness and all … the liberal cop puts out a description that applies to a billion people on the planet, whereas the conservative cop nails the one, and the ONLY possible villain.

So, in answer to the bollocks thesis …

Absototallootly.

31

Jonathan Goldberg 09.24.05 at 9:49 am

And Kevin Drum, who was once a CT poster, takes this seriously. It’s true he feels no need to actually read the book first, but still…

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_09/007172.php

Oh, the shame of it.

32

engels 09.24.05 at 10:58 am

“j0nesing_around” – I just wasted 30 seconds of my life reading through that rambling enumeration of your prejudices. It has nothing to do with Prospect, Kurzweil, or expected utility, save that this post appeared on a “librul” site. Did you read the post, or just the title? Assuming the former, you have just provided conclusive proof that it is you who see life “through the lense of a myriad of abstract rationales and theories”.

33

j0nesing_around 09.24.05 at 11:22 am

See engels proves what I have said with this knee jerk comment. He doesn’t get it – they never do.

My examples are a metaphor for a state of mind, and engels gets all tied up in a critique about my failure to engage on the level of Prospect, Kurzweil, and expected utility. He doesn’t understand that I reject some of the fundamental presuppostions as fallacies and so have resorted to allegory.

I don’t want to make your kind of sense.

34

abb1 09.24.05 at 11:42 am

Why, I liked the ‘a big man with long red beard kills a small white dog with an axe’ story, it’s funny.

Don’t you think it’s kinda even worse on the other (pseudo-conservative) side, where anything and everything is labeled in a black-and-white manner as ‘freedom’ or ‘terror’ or ‘liberation’, though? Once in a while some things pop up on occasions that do have a few different angles, you know.

35

engels 09.24.05 at 2:11 pm

My examples are a metaphor for a state of mind… I don’t want to make your kind of sense.

Do all conservatives do acid?

36

j0nesing_around 09.24.05 at 4:55 pm

The right kind dude.

37

theogon 09.24.05 at 4:56 pm

Jonesy seems to be saying, so far as I can tell, that he doesn’t need to adress the topics of the post in its comments because he has ascended to a higher level of consciousness. The only possible explanation is that “j0nesing_around” is actually an artificial intelligence from the future sent to troll liberal blogs.

In other words, LGF will evolve into SkyNet…

38

engels 09.24.05 at 6:19 pm

The only possible explanation is that “j0nesing_around” is actually an artificial intelligence from the future sent to troll liberal blogs.

It’s not true AI, though: more like Eliza.

ELIZA has almost no intelligence whatsoever, only tricks like string substitution and canned responses based on keywords.

39

Henry 09.24.05 at 6:28 pm

Not LGF meets Skynet either. More like an “uploaded version”:http://www.asimovs.com/Nebulas03/Lobsters.shtml of the Medium Lobster.

40

engels 09.26.05 at 10:33 am

Probably a bit late to try to pick holes in the actual post but, Daniel, you do realise that, in the example you give, n is dependent on U, so raising Kurzweil by a technopony will not necessarily be enough to defeat him on expected utility, as doing so may well make your predictions less probable than his? Isn’t this also a problem with Tyler’s original argument? In general, a large U gives no reason to expect a large E, because it’s plausible to expect a negative correlation between U and n. Or am I taking this too seriously?

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