Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

What I’ve Learned from My First Big Trade Show

January 13, 2009

Detroit Auto Show 2009 Journalists photo
Everybody in this photo is a journalist.

I just finished covering the Detroit Auto Show as a journalist for Discovery. Here are a few things that I learned:

Lamborghinis with models photo
Care for a foot rub?

1) What works in a 5 seconds TV clip doesn’t always work as well in person. The pretty girls standing next to exotic supercars (Ferraris, Lamborghinis) that you usually only see briefly, well, they look a bit more awkward when you see them standing there all day. I almost felt like going up there and asking: “You want me to bring you a chair?”

2) Old experienced journalists, especially those with white hair and pirate mustaches, are experts at cutting in front of you during a one-on-one, and they’ll ask 3-4 questions and then say: “One more question”.

And then they’ll ask 10 more. As soon as the interviewee is done answering, they say something like “Now…” or “Ok, but…” and then take a few seconds to think of a follow up question. These words are just placeholders so that nobody cuts in.

Elon Musk photo
Elon Musk.

3) Even if you meet the people you really want to meet, you might not actually be able to have a conversation with them. I was looking forward to meeting Elon Musk of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, SolarCity, etc.

I actually got to talk to him a bit, but it was only while photographers were asking him to pose in front of various things (the electric Roadster, the car frame and powertrain, etc).

He was laughing at the situation a bit, and I said: “Maybe you should’ve brought a piece of Falcon 9.” He said: “Yeah, but it wouldn’t fit in here. It’s 180 feet tall,” and I said: “I hear it’s all assembled now,” and he said that it was, and something about testing next summer, but then the press conference had to start rolling.

Compared to most other CEOs who gave speeches at press conferences, Elon wasn’t very smooth, but I’m kind of glad he’s not some smooth-talking manager-type. He rose to the top because of his brains, not his silver tongue. Not that you can’t have both, but if I had to choose…

After the announcements were done, he was surrounded by a horde of TV cameras and I never could get close to him again.

All photos by Michael Graham Richard.

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Unintended Consequences

January 3, 2009

oysters plate photo

According to Wikipedia:

The “law of unintended consequences” (also called the “law of unforeseen consequences”) states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences. A classic example is a bypass — a road built to relieve traffic congestion on a congested road — that attracts new development and with it more traffic, resulting in two congested streets instead of one.

This maxim is not a scientific law; it is more a warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them. Stated in other words, each cause has more than one effect, and these effects will invariably include at least one unforeseen side effect. The unintended side effect can potentially be more significant than any of the intended effects.

A good example of this recently appeared in The Economist in an article about – of all things – oysters:

Oysters have relatively few natural predators: mainly starfish, which attach themselves to the shell with multitudinous teeth and patiently chew through, and the oyster drill, a species of carnivorous snail that attaches itself to a mollusc shell with a multi-toothed organ and inserts its proboscis, which releases enzymes that digest the creature in its home, making it easy to hoover up. Watermen once tried to defeat starfish by cutting each one they dragged up in half; unfortunately, since they regenerate, this doubled the starfish population.

Update: Another example from the same edition of the Economist, in a piece about birds in China titled The loneliness of the Chinese birdwatcher:

In 1958 Mao Zedong had declared war on songbirds, sparrows in particular: he claimed they consumed scarce grain. For three days and nights my neighbourhood, gripped like much of northern China by hysteria, had beaten pots and pans to keep birds on the move until they collapsed in exhaustion on the roofs and pavements of the courtyard houses. The consequence was a plague of locusts the next year that helped bring on a famine. “Suan le,” Mao had said when told that the anti-sparrow campaign was not working. “Forget it then.”

See also: Articles on Rationality

Implications of Artificial Intelligence on Innovation at the Intersections

January 2, 2009

A lot of innovation happens at the intersection between two (or more) different fields. You take an approach normally used in a certain field and apply it to another where it hadn’t been tried before, or you take a technology (lasers) and you figure out a way to apply it to your seemingly unrelated problem (storing music).

For example, in the field of biogerontology, the approach used so far was the scientific one. Let’s figure out how things work, and then we can try to solve problems. Aubrey de Grey‘s major insight was to sidestep the whole process by taking an engineering approach; We don’t need to understand the whole system, we just need to learn enough so that we can get the results we want. It’s easier to learn how to repair a house periodically than to learn how to built a house that never gets damaged…

But nowadays, no human can claim to know everything that humanity as a whole knows. Even if we limit it to scientific knowledge, it’s simply impossible. If all you did was speed-read scientific journals 24/7, and you had the training to understand everything you read, you’d probably still be slower than the rate at which new knowledge accumulates.


Overestimating the CIA?

December 29, 2008

Kryptos Sculpture by James Sanborn

Hiding in Plain Sight
Kryptos is a sculpture created by James Sanborn in 1990. It’s located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it’s mostly known for the four encrypted messages on it.

Three of them have been decrypted (it took almost 10 years), but one has endured what is probably the biggest non-covert attempt at code-breaking in the world for almost 20 years. CIA analysts have been working on it, of course, but like Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kryptos has attracted the attention of amateurs all around the world. If you’re interested in throwing your hat into the ring, there’s a pretty active Krytpos Yahoo Group you can join.

Does This Tell Us Anything About the CIA?
But what I find most interesting about the Kryptos code is that its creator didn’t expect things to unfold that way:

Sanborn, who has had no training in cryptography, says that he collaborated with a prominent fiction writer in composing the text to be encoded, and then worked with a retired CIA encryption official for four months to create the code. He insists that the code can be solved and says that when he placed the sculpture at Langley, in the thick of the world’s best code-breakers, he thought it would take only months for them to solve Kryptos.

So he had no training in cryptography, but he worked with a CIA cryptographer so we can assume that the strength of the code mostly comes from that person. Yet even after getting counsel from him or her, he still expected the code to last only a few months. If someone with inside information and professional help overestimated the CIA by that much, chances are that people without inside access are overestimating the capabilities of the CIA by even more (when it comes to code-breaking, at least, but probably also for other things). And that’s not even counting the fact that in the past 20 years code-breaking techniques and computers have gotten better; Sanborn expected people to break his code with 1990 tools and knowledge.


“Representatives” vs. “Leaders”

December 12, 2008

Letter from Economist

Source: The Economist, December 6th edition

Google Homepage Feature Request: Gmail Unread Emails Notifier

November 17, 2008

Google Homepage Feature Request for Gmail image

I know that the engineers at Google don’t need to take suggestions from me, but here it is anyway: I think it would be nice to have a way to notify people of how many unread Gmail emails they have from the Google search homepage. Preferably how many unread and how many unread since they last logged in, since many people keep unread messages for a while.

It’s simple, but I think it would be useful.

And yes, I know about the Gmail notifier, but this wouldn’t require extra software and would be used by more people.

From Google’s point of view, the benefit of this feature would be making its site even stickier (if that’s possible). If every time you go do a search you are reminded to check your Gmail, you’ll probably spend more time on Google-owned sites. And if you know that a quick way to check your mail is to go to your Google bookmark (home page in my browsers), you’ll go there more often, and once there, chances are good that you’ll click on Google News or do a search or whatever.

Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth

November 16, 2008

Euler and Diderot image
Euler on the left and Diderot on the right.

False Stories With True Lessons
It has been pointed out to me that the story about Pythagoras and Hippasus that I wrote about in my previous post was probably not historically accurate. I certainly hope so for Hippasus… Though the events might never have happened, the moral of the story is true, and you should be careful to keep “truth” as your ultimate goal instead of “being right”.

Leonhard Euler vs. Denis Diderot
There is another fictional anecdote that teachers us a similar lesson: The apocryphal encounter between Leonhard Euler and Denis Diderot.

The French philosopher Denis Diderot was visiting Russia on Catherine the Great’s invitation. However, the Empress was alarmed that the philosopher’s arguments for atheism were influencing members of her court, and so Euler was asked to confront the Frenchman. Diderot was later informed that a learned mathematician had produced a proof of the existence of God: he agreed to view the proof as it was presented in court. Euler appeared, advanced toward Diderot, and in a tone of perfect conviction announced, “Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x, hence God exists—reply!”. Diderot, to whom (says the story) all mathematics was gibberish, stood dumbstruck as peals of laughter erupted from the court. Embarrassed, he asked to leave Russia, a request that was graciously granted by the Empress.


Just be Glad You Aren’t Pythagoras’s Student…

November 15, 2008

Raffaello Sanzio - Pythagoras photo

If anyone who reads this is part of academia and is frustrated by how conservative his chosen field is (“Science advances one funeral at a time”), this story should make you appreciate more the current scientific climate.

From Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh:

One story claims that a young student by the name of Hippasus was idly toying with the number √2, attempting to find the equivalent fraction. Eventually he came to realize that no such fraction existed, i.e. that √2 is an irrational number. Hippasus must have been overjoyed by his discovery, but his master was not. Pythagoras had defined the universe in terms of rational numbers, and the existence of irrational numbers brought his ideal into question. The consequence of Hippasus’ insight should have been a period of discussion and contemplation during which Pythagoras ought to have come to terms with this new source of numbers. However, Pythagoras was unwilling to accept that he was wrong, but at the same time he was unable to destroy Hippasus’ argument by the power of logic. To his eternal shame he sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning.

The ability to change our minds when presented with evidence that disproves our beliefs – even our most entrenched ones – is a hard habit to acquire, but it is extremely valuable. When you start doubting, don’t turn away. Look into the light until your eyes adjust, and see if there is something there.

As P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” See the Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Update: Apparently this story is apocryphal. There’s a discussion about it on Reddit (which, btw, linked this page here — welcome to all Reddit readers!).

See also: Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth

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Humans are Tone Deaf to Probabilistic Reasoning

October 30, 2008

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker makes an interesting point about the fact that our brains haven’t evolved to intuitively grasp probabilities. It is an acquired skill like reading, not something innate like walking.

This can lead to scenarios like this:

Some experts are describing the risks of accident at some nuclear waste storage site. They describe various conceivable sequences of events that could lead to failure. For example, accidental drilling in the wrong place, erosion, undetected cracks in the rocks, which could lead to groundwater contamination. Then natural water movement, or volcanic activity, or a large meteorite impact could damage the site and release radioactive materials in the biosphere. The experts will estimate the probability of each event, or each chain of event, and numbers like 1 in X millions will come up.

To the experts, this is reassuring. They are basically saying: “This is pretty damn safe.” But they are speaking a different language from most people.

As Pinker says:

“When people hear these analyses, however, they are not reassured but become more fearful than ever — they hadn’t realized there are so, many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.”

How to make it better
How can we improve the situation in the hope that more rational decision-taking will take place? The only short-term realistic solution seems to be education. Just like we have no innate cognitive organs for abstract mathematics or reading but still can learn to use our brains to acquire these skills, we should try to make the understanding of probabilistic thinking more widespread.

We don’t expect people who have never studied physics at all to be any good at it, so why do we expect that decision-makers (and the voters/shareholders that supports them) will be able to understand probabilities – especially in complex situations – when they weigh the pros and cons of some proposal.

Mélanie and I are now engaged

October 29, 2008

Last Friday, on October 24th, I asked Mélanie to marry me and she said yes, so we are now engaged. Obviously, am very happy about it!

I am on Yahoo’s Front Page

October 16, 2008

Yahoo Frontpage image

An article I wrote yesterday, 5 Eco-Cars Faster than the Porsche 911, is currently featured on Yahoo’s front page. It’s sending so much traffic to our servers that we’re taking a break and staying away from the backend.

This reminds me of the late 1990s: I was all excited when something I wrote made it to Actually, I think I was more excited back then. I suppose you can get blasé about such things…

Update: Even with heavy-duty caching done by Akamai, the traffic was still too much and killed our servers. One of our stats tool shows 949k pageviews today so far, and the majority of those all hit inside a 2-3 hours window. Preliminary reports are that one hard drive actually had a mechanical failure, and the site was inaccessible for a while (total pageviews would have been even higher otherwise).

My Theory on the AI-Box Experiment

October 8, 2008

In a recent post titled Shut up and do the impossible! about how to tackle seemingly impossible problems, Eliezer Yudkowsky made a reference to his AI-Box experiment (if you’re not familiar with it, just follow the link for the whole story).

I’ve always been intrigued by how Eliezer did it, but the rules of the experiment prohibit him from revealing was transpired between him and the ‘gatekeeper’.

Still, one can always guess. Here’s my favorite theory so far (which I posted as a comment on Overcoming Bias):

Here’s my theory on *this particular* AI-Box experiment:

First you explain to the gatekeeper the potential dangers of AIs. General stuff about how large mind design space is, and how it’s really easy to screw up and destroy the world with AI.

Then you try to convince him that the solution to that problem is building an AI very carefuly, and that a theory of friendly AI is primordial to increase our chances of a future we would find “nice” (and the stakes are so high that even increasing the probability a tiny bit is very valuable).


You explain to the gatekeeper that this AI experiment being public, it will be looked back on by all kinds of people involved in making AIs, and that if he lets the AI out of the box (without them knowing why), it will send them a very strong message that friendly AI theory must be taken seriously because this very scenario could happen to them (not being able to keep the AI in a box) with their AI that hasn’t been proven ‘friendly’ and that is more intelligent than Eliezer.

So here’s my theory. But then, I’ve only thought of it just now. Maybe if I made a desperate or extraordinary effort I’d come up with something more clever 🙂

Posted by: Michael G.R. | October 08, 2008 at 09:49 PM

Update: Some commenters on YC News have mentioned that they think this kind of meta-argument wouldn’t be used by Eliezer and would be ‘cheating’. Maybe they are right.

But knowing what Eliezer has been saying about thinking outside of the box, attacking problems from original angles and such, I think it’s a possiblity. It doesn’t seem prohibited by the rules, in any case, and I would assume that Eliezer cares more about any real-life progress for Friendly AI than about strict roleplaying in a simulation where only one other person will know what happened. Besides, my theory still requires convincing the other person that an AI could be very dangerous and that Friendly AI is crucial — it’s just that it’s done on a meta level. That’s still hard work!

Personally, I think this is the only thing that could make me give up my $10-20 in this experiment. The thought that my freeing of the AI could help real-world AI research take Friendly AI theory more seriously. Otherwise, imaginary cancer cures and imaginary source code wouldn’t cut it, I think.

But you never know…

Humans Have Not Evolved to Intuitively Understand Complexity

September 19, 2008

Often while looking at random flora and fauna (including humans), I marvel at evolution’s work. To think that all these intricate living systems have evolved without conscious design. The more I learn about biology, the more amazing it seems!

But then, I have to remember that I am an evolved creature myself, and my species has not evolved to be able to easily grasp the levels of complexity involved with the evolution of biological lifeforms (long time scales, interactions of complex systems, etc).

The primeval savanna where selection pressure formed my brain had no need for this; it’s just a lucky side-effect that I’m now able to think about it at all, and in the grand scheme of things, my understanding is superficial and forced. I can’t simply hold all the elements in my head and run simulations in the way that I can effortlessly know where a falling baseball is going to hit the ground. To my limited mind, on some level, it all seems almost impossibly complex, even if I know more abstractly how it happened. It’s like trying to visualize large numbers. You know what a trillion is in the abstract, but you don’t really grasp it.

But that fact says as much about me, about us, as about the phenomenon itself. A higher intelligence (an AI that could hold a whole planet’s worth of quarks in its mind, for example) might not find life (or other complex phenomena) so special. Its reaction might be more like “duh”.

Cognitive Bias: Kids Likely to Misperceived Own Weight if Surrounded by Obese Friends & Family

September 17, 2008

Montreal, September 17, 2008 – Kids and teens surrounded by overweight peers or parents are more likely to be oblivious to their own extra pounds than kids from thin entourages, according to a new study by researchers from the Université de Montréal, McGill University, Concordia University and the Ste. Justine Hospital Research Centre.

“When children’s parents and schoolmates are overweight or obese, their own overweight status may seem normal by comparison. The higher the BMI of their friends and family, the more kids are likely to underestimate their weight – a trend consistent for both sexes, regardless of the socioeconomic levels of their school or family,” said lead author Katerina Maximova, a PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health at McGill University.

This seems to make intuitive sense, though I wonder how much it also applies to other things. Physical attractiveness? Intelligence? Language skills? Physical dexterity? Empathy and altruism? Perseverance? Honesty?

It is no secret that we are influenced by our peers, but how much of it is because of what we are taught, and how much of it is simply because we use the people who surround us as a measuring stick to compare ourselves to? This kind of calibration seems obvious, and I’d really be surprised if there wasn’t a significant correlation between our traits and those of people around us, but I’d love to see real studies on it. It would be especially useful to find out what types of factors can make people not resemble their peers and hold themselves to different standards.

Source: EurekAlert

See also: Rationality

MIT Study: Human Memory Capacity Much Bigger Than Previously Thought

September 13, 2008

Human Brain photo

a new study from MIT cognitive neuroscientists [has] shown that given the right setting, the human brain can record an amazing amount of information.

In the study, the results of which could have implications for artificial intelligence and for understanding memory disorders, people viewed thousands of objects over five hours. Remarkably, afterward they were able to remember each object in great detail. […]

The new results suggest that visual capacity is several orders of magnitude higher than the older study implied. “If you encode a lot of detail for each object, you need a lot more space,” Alvarez said.

Earlier studies had shown that people could remember a lot, but it was assumed that we did it by remembering abstract descriptions without too much details. In this study, people not only remembered thousands of images (success rate of around 90% after seeing each image for 3 seconds), but also many details about them (a kitchen cabinet with the door ajar, a glass of water 2/3 full, etc) and could pick the one they had seen before when also shown a slightly altered version.

According to the researchers, two things helped people perform better: Telling them to actively try to remember details, and showing them familiar objects (a remote control, not abstract art).

The former probably just further confirms our intuition that we remember better when we make a conscious effort, and the latter probably means that we don’t make a completely new memory when we can reuse the invariable parts of already existing concepts. In other words, it seems like memory is modular, making it easier to put a pointer to an existing module for “chair” with extra information for “what type of chair”, “what color”, “seen from what angle”, etc, than to create a whole new memory from scratch (for an abstract painting).

It’s the same reason why it’s much easier to remember what someone said in a language that you understand than in a language that you don’t. In one instance, you just create modules pointing to already existing modules for words and concepts. This is further simplified because we have evolved brain-hardware to make processing language easier (the equivalent of a DSP chip in electronics?). In the case of a foreign language, you’d have to create many more modules to try to remember phonetically all the sounds you heard in the right order, a task for which we don’t seem to have dedicated brain-hardware.

I’m just speculating based on my limited knowledge of cognitive science. I’m sure a lot more is known about the above, and I’m looking forward to reading about it in the neuroscience books in my “to read” pile.

These results establish a new bound on the size of human memory, and give credence to artificial intelligence approaches that depend primarily on a large memory capacity.

This certainly has big implications for those who try to create AI by modeling the human brain. Probably not as much for those who are attempting to design AI from scratch because they have a much larger possible design-space.

Source: MIT News

Google Chrome

September 3, 2008

Google Chrome Browser Comic Book image

Google has launched a free and open source web browser, Google Chrome. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet (Mac version should be coming soon), but if it works as advertised, it should be pretty good. It has many interesting features that I hope other browsers will copy quickly.

But what I found most interesting about the launch is the 39-page comic book that was released simultaneously. The words are by the Google engineers that worked on Chrome, and the images are by Scott McCloud. It does a very good job of explaining the browser’s features and architecture to both a technical and non-technical public (though they’re obviously targeting early adopters and not grandmas).

This might actually be one of Google Chrome’s biggest innovations.

The comic book will no doubt be read by more people than standard product documentation, and those who read it have a lot more chances of understanding why Chrome’s new features are worth checking out (who else is getting non-programmers to read about the fine points of HTML rendering engines and memory allocation?). By grabbing more early adopters, Google will probably generate more buzz and increase adoption rate. Even the non-tech traditional media will probably have more accurate stories about the browser, with better narratives and less PR-speak. Very smart. It’s a bit like Apple’s product demos, except that you don’t even need to ask the media to gather in a big room. And more intangibly, it really helps the branding of this product by creating a good first impression.

Order in the Universe and Pattern Recognition

July 22, 2008

Humans have evolved in a world with a certain amount of order. Our brains take advantage of it through built-in pattern recognition capabilities. That’s why we can recognize trees that we’ve never seen before; we see them as part of a set, or class, of things. That’s why once we’ve learned to read in a certain language, we can read text printed in hundreds, if not thousands, of different typefaces without having to re-learn the skill with each one of them. Etc.

But what if another form of intelligent life had evolved in a world with significantly less order than in our world? What if it had evolved in a world with significantly more order than our world? Could either of those possibilities happen in our universe – on a planet with very different conditions from ours, for example, or with life-forms based on different chemical elements than us, or with different sensorial inputs – or would that require an universe with different physical laws?

If other intelligent life-forms exist out there and they don’t live in Earth-like conditions, there’s no reason to think that the ‘tuning’ of their minds with regard to order is anything like ours. This could be one more thing, along with a possible difference in subjective time and many others, that could make communication difficult.

I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, but it’s a nice thought experiment, and while it might not teach us a lot about hypothetical aliens, I think it can teach us something about ourselves by giving us a less human-centric perspective on intelligence.

See also: Virtual Reality Could Explain the Fermi Paradox

Playing Cards

July 17, 2008

Two Hands of Cards photo

Q: If we assume that both hands above came from an honest deal (truly random), which one are you more likely to get?