Nightcap

  1. From the pussy hat to the liberty cap Marion Coutts, 1843
  2. Sweet waters grown salty Nathan Stone, Not Even Past
  3. A case for learning to read 17th century Dutch Julie van den Hout, JHIblog
  4. A danse macabre in Kermaria (Brittany) Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium

We have seen the algorithm and it is us.

The core assumption of economics is that people tend to do the thing that makes sense from their own perspective. Whatever utility function people are maximizing, it’s reasonable to assume (absent compelling arguments to the contrary) that a) they’re trying to get what they want, and b) they’re trying their best given what they know.

Which is to say: what people do is a function of their preferences and priors.

Politicians (and other marketers) know this; the political battle for hearts and minds is older than history. Where it gets timely is the role algorithms play in the Facebookification of politics.

The engineering decisions made by Facebook, Google, et al. shape the digital bubbles we form for ourselves. We’ve got access to infinite content online and it has to be sorted somehow. What we’ve been learning is that these decisions aren’t neutral because they implicitly decide how our priors will be updated.

This is a problem, but it’s not the root problem. Even worse, there’s no solution.

Consider one option: put you and me in charge of regulating social media algorithms. What will be the result? First we’ll have to find a way to avoid being corrupted by this power. Then we’ll have to figure out just what it is we’re doing. Then we’ll have to stay on top of all the people trying to game the system.

If we could perfectly regulate these algorithms we might do some genuine good. But we still won’t have eliminated the fundamental issue: free will.

Let’s think of this through an evolutionary lens. The algorithms that survive are those that are most consistent with users’ preferences (out of acceptable alternatives). Clickbait will (by definition) always have an edge. Confirmation bias isn’t going away any time soon. Thinking is hard and people don’t like it.

People will continue to chose news options they find compelling and trustworthy. Their preferences and priors are not the same as ours and they never will be. Highly educated people have been trying to make everyone else highly educated for generations and they haven’t succeeded yet.

A better approach is to quit this “Rock the Vote” nonsense and encourage more people to opt for benign neglect. Our problem isn’t that the algorithms make people into political hooligans, it’s that we keep trying to get them involved under the faulty assumption that people are unnaturally Vulcan-like. Yes, regular people ought to be sensible and civically engaged, but ought does not imply can.

Nightcap

  1. The story of our species needs rewriting again Christopher Bae, Aeon
  2. Conjuring anthropology’s future Simon During, Public Books
  3. Picasso’s year of erotic torment Michael Prodger, New Statesman
  4. “What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” Robert Darby, Quillette

Deep Learning and Abstract Orders

It is well known that Friedrich Hayek once rejoiced at Noam Chomsky’s evolutionary theory of language, which stated that the faculty of speaking depends upon a biological device which human beings are enabled with. There is no blank slate and our experience of the world relies on structures that come from the experience in itself.

Hayek would be now delighted if he were told about the recent discoveries on the importance of background knowledge in the arms race between human beings and Artificial Intelligence. When decisions are to be taken by trial and error at the inside of a feedback system, humans are still ahead because they apply a framework of abstract patterns to interpret the connections among the different elements of the system. These patterns are acquired from previous experiences in other closed systems and provide with a semantic meaning to the new one. Thus, humans outperform machines, which work as blank slates, since they take information only from the closed system.

The report of the cited study finishes with the common place of asking what would happen if some day machines learn to handle with abstract patterns of a higher degree of complexity and, then, keep up with that human relative advantage.

As we stated in another place, those abstract machines already exist and they are the legal codes and law systems that enable their users with a set of patterns to interpret controversies concerning human behaviour.

What is worth being asked is not whether Artificial Intelligence eventually will surpass human beings, but what group of individuals will overcome the other: the one which uses technology or the one which refuses to do so.

The answer seems quite obvious when the term “technology” is related to concrete machines, but it is not so clear when we apply it to abstract devices. I tried to ponder the latter problem when I outlined an imaginary arms race between policy wonks and lawyers.

Now, we can extend these concepts to whole populations. Which of these nations will prevail over the other ones: the countries whose citizens are enabled with a set of abstract rules to based their decisions on (the rule of law) or the despotic countries, ruled by the whim of men?

The conclusion to be drawn is quite obvious when we are confronted with a so polarised question. Nevertheless, the problem becomes more subtle when the disjunction concerns on rule of law vs deliberate central planning.

The rule of law is the supplementary set of abstract patterns of conduct that gives sense to the events of the social reality in order to interpret human social action, including the political authority.

In the case of central planning, those abstract patterns are replaced by a concrete model of society whose elements are defined by the authority (after all, that is the main function of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan).

Superficially considered, the former – the rule of law as an abstract machine – is irrational while the latter – the Leviathan’s central planning – seems to respond to a rational construction of the society. Our approach states that, paradoxically, the more abstract is the order of a society, the more rational are the decisions and plans that the individuals undertake, since they are based on the supplementary and general patterns provided by the law, whereas central planning offers to the individuals a poorer set of concrete information, which limits the scope of the decisions to those to be based on expediency.

That is why we like to state that law is spontaneous. Not because nobody had created it -in fact, someone did – but because law stands by itself the test of time as the result of an evolutionary process in which populations following the rule of law outperform the rival ones.

A long read

According to Instapaper this article at Wait But Why is a “139 minute read.” And it was time well spent.

It’s about a new Elon Musk venture, Neuralink, but there’s plenty non-Musk stuff in there of interest. I’m agnostic on whether Elon Musk is or isn’t the next coming of the (anti-) Christ. What’s really interesting is the background material this article gives, building up a highly entertaining natural history of knowledge. The section below really captures the main thrust of that story, but it’s worth reading anyways.

minimal tribal knowledge growth before language

And this:

That leads into a discussion of how brains work, that “soft pudding you could scoop with a spoon.” Here are some excerpts:

I’m pretty sure that gaining control over your limbic system is both the definition of maturity and the core human struggle. It’s not that we would be better off without our limbic systems—limbic systems are half of what makes us distinctly human, and most of the fun of life is related to emotions and/or fulfilling your animal needs—it’s just that your limbic system doesn’t get that you live in a civilization, and if you let it run your life too much, it’ll quickly ruin your life.

And…

Which leads us to the creepiest diagram of this post: the homunculus.

The homunculus, created by pioneer neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, visually displays how the motor and somatosensory cortices are mapped. The larger the body part in the diagram, the more of the cortex is dedicated to its movement or sense of touch. A couple interesting things about this:

First, it’s amazing that more of your brain is dedicated to the movement and feeling of your face and hands than to the rest of your body combined. This makes sense though—you need to make incredibly nuanced facial expressions and your hands need to be unbelievably dexterous, while the rest of your body—your shoulder, your knee, your back—can move and feel things much more crudely. This is why people can play the piano with their fingers but not with their toes.

Second, it’s interesting how the two cortices are basically dedicated to the same body parts, in the same proportions. I never really thought about the fact that the same parts of your body you need to have a lot of movement control over tend to also be the most sensitive to touch.

Finally, I came across this shit and I’ve been living with it ever since—so now you have to too. A 3-dimensional homunculus man.17

This is too far outside my area of specialization to say, but it’s certainly an entertaining read that seems to fit with what I know about these topics (although the section on neurology could be made up as far as I know).

From there it builds up to the moon shot idea Musk apparently has in mind: building the core technology for a high bandwidth mind-computer interface. This would be the ultimate logical extreme of a trend towards better interfaces that’s been going on since before punch cards. If you think over the natural history of knowledge, it becomes clear that this idea is ultimately just a few dozen steps further down a path we’ve been on for billions of years.

And the implications of taking it that far are profound. The pros and cons of that power are huge. Consider how much more powerful your brain is with paper and pencil than without. Or a computer. Or a computer with a GUI and a copy of Excel. Once you can plug into your computer Matrix-style, all those awesome hot keys that let you zip through your computer like a pro will be like roller skates next to a rocket sled. And the two-way link would mean we could genuinely exercise some self control… for example,  by running a computer program that zaps you when you eat too much chocolate cake.

Readers of this blog will hear Hayek warning you! Such a device gives you a lot of power to manipulate a complicated thing in ways we may never be able to understand.

But this type of personal power might be a necessary bulwark against government or corporate power. Network externalities have already locked us in to Google and Facebook. A Byzantine government has created rent-seeking opportunities that puts enormous power in the hands of the politically connected. The NSA is terrifying. And machine learning will continue to get better, giving those entrenched players even more ability to understand and manipulate large numbers of people. (I’m not endorsing this forecast, just listing it as a possibility.)

In any case, even if Neuralink is just an April Fool’s joke I missed out on till now, this article provides a theory of knowledge that’s well worth reading.

In the near future I’ll argue why you need such a theory of knowledge. Stay tuned.

The Political is about to disrupt the crypto-currency scene -or at least they say so.

According to this Financial Times report, Bitcoin is at the verge of a critical decision.

The implications of the chosen terms (“existential crisis,” “decisive leadership,” “political flaw”) are not casual. It looks like the market that crypto-currency had carried from the beginning contain the germ of its own destruction. As in an Escher’s drawing, Bitcoin has unraveled its political strand and its whole existence is, now, dependent upon a moment of decision of the sovereign: the assembly of miners. The decisionist narrative would be fulfilled if the political decision had to be taken by acclamatio instead of voting.

Nevertheless, the decision by acclamation would be still possible: the ones who want “Bitcoin Core” might follow one direction and the other ones, who choose “Bitcoin Unlimited,” might follow their own way. After all, no existential crisis can be solved by voting.

So, which is inside of which? Is the market framed in a system depending upon a political decision of the sovereign? Or does every decision need to be taken inside a spontaneous framework of rules?

We are used to praising Bitcoin for its independence from any political factor: Bitcoin supply depends on a set of rules which allows the public to form expectations about its value with a high degree of probability of proving to be correct.

Taken in isolation, Bitcoin emulates the market. Nevertheless, being independent of political institutions is not enough for being “the market.” The attractiveness of Bitcoin is that it operates in an open system of competition of currencies. In this system, there are many other crypto-currencies, and there might be several variances of Bitcoins as well –in esse or in posse.

Imagine, for example, that Bitcoin effectively splits into Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Unlimited. Which of the two will prevail over the other? It does not matter. What really matters is that there will be several variances of currencies in competition. The factors that determine the selection of the prevailing currency depends upon a higher level of abstraction that impose an absolute limit to our knowledge.

So, is Bitcoin in an existential crisis? Does a political decision need to be made? Maybe.

But that does not imply that “The Political” will take over the reins of the crypto-currency market. Moreover, opposite political decisions are the linkages which the spontaneous selection process -in this case, of currencies- is made of. In this sense, “Bitcoin Core” and “Bitcoin Unlimited” are attributes of a competitive system and the final prevalence of one variance among other alternatives will not be the result of a deliberate decision but of an abstract process of evolution.

Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared?

I just came across this fantastic op-ed while listening to the author being interviewed.

The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.

It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.

Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.

It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.

But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.

So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.

So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.

Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.

And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.

We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.


* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.

** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.

There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.

And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.