I was recently reading the book Subvert! by Daniel Cleather (a colleague) and thought that this quote from Karl Popper and the author's preceding description of Popper's position sounded very similar to EAs method of cause prioritisation and theory of change in the world. (Although I believe Popper is writing in the context of fighting against threats to democracy rather than threats to well-being, humanity, etc.) I haven't read The Open Society and Its Enemies (or any of Popper's books for that matter), but I'm now quite interested to see if he draws any other parallels to EA.
For the philosophical point of view, I again lean heavily on Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Within the book, he is sceptical of projects that seek to reform society based upon some grand utopian vision. Firstly, he argues that such projects tend to require the exercise of strong authority to drive them. Secondly, he describes the difficulty in describing exactly what utopia is, and that as change occurs, the vision of utopia will shift. Instead he advocates for “piecemeal social engineering” as the optimal approach for reforming society which he describes as follows:
“The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.”
I also quite enjoyed Subvert! And would recommend that as a fresh perspective on the philosophy of science. A key point from the book is:
The problem is that in practice, scientists often adopt a sceptical, not a subversive, stance. They are happy to scrutinise their opponents results when they are presented at conferences and in papers. However, they are less likely to be actively subversive, and to perform their own studies to test their opponents’ theories. Instead, they prefer to direct their efforts towards finding evidence in support of their own ideas. The ideal mode would be that the proposers and testers of hypotheses would be different people. In practice they end up being the same person.
I think this post is a good counterpoint to common adages like 'don't sweat the small stuff' or 'direction over speed' that often come up in relation to career and productivity advice.
At the risk of making a very tenuous connection, this reminded me of an animal navigation strategy for moving towards a goal which has an unstable orientation (i.e. the animal is not able to reliably face towards the goal) - progress can still be made if it moves faster when facing towards the goal than away from it. (I don't think this is a very well known navigation strategy, at least it didn't seem to be in 2014 when I wrote up an experiment on this in my PhD thesis [Chapter 5]). Work is obviously a lot more multi-faceted than spatial navigation, but maybe an analogy could be made to school students or junior employees who don't get much choice about what they are working on day to day and recommend that they go all out on the important things and just scrape by on the rest.
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Nice article Jason. I should start by saying that as a (mostly former) visual neuroscientist, I think that you've done quite a good job summarizing the science available in this series of posts, but particularly in these last two posts about time. I have a few comments that I'd like to add.
Before artificial light sources, there weren't a lot of blinking lights in nature. So although visual processing speed is often measured as CFF, most animals didn't really evolve to see flickering lights. In fact, I recall that my PhD supervisor Srinivasan did a study where he tried to behaviorally test honeybee CFF - he had a very hard time training them to go to flickering lights (study 1), but had much more success training them to go to spinning disks (study 2). In fact, the CFF of honeybees is generally accepted to be around 200 Hz, off the charts! That said, in an innate preference study on honeybees that I was peripherally involved with, we found honeybee had preferences for different frequencies of flickering stimuli, so they certainly can perceive and act on this type of visual information (study 3).
Even though CFF has been quite widely measured, if you wanted to do a comprehensive review of visual processing speed in different taxa then it would also be worth looking at other measures, such as visual integration time. This is often measured electrophysiologically (perhaps more commonly than CFF), and I expect that integration time will be at tightly correlated with CFF and as they are causally related, one can probably be approximately calculated from the other (I say approximately because neural nonlinearities may add some variance, in the case of a video system it can be done exactly). For instance, this study on sweat bees carefully characterized their visual integration time at different times of day and different light conditions but doesn't mention CFF.
Finally, I think some simple behavioural experiments could shed a lot of light on how we expect metrics around sensory (in this case visual) processing speeds to be related to the subjective experience of time. For instance, the time taken to make a choice between options is often much longer than the sensory processing time (e.g. 10+ seconds for bumblebees, which I expect have CFF above 100 Hz), and probably reflects something more like the speed of a conscious process than the sensory processing speed alone does. A rough idea for an experiment is to take two closely related and putatively similar species where one had double the CFF of the other, measure the decision time of each on a choice-task to select flicker or motion at 25%, 50% and 100% of their CFF. So if species one has CFF at 80 Hz, test it on 20, 40 and 80 Hz, and if species two has CFF 40 Hz, test it on 10, 20 and 40 Hz. A difference in the decisions speed curve across each animals frequency range would be quite suggestive of a difference in the speed of decision making that was independent of the speed of stimulus perception. The experiment could also be done on the same animal in two conditions where its CFF differed, such as in a light- or dark-adapted state. For completeness, the choice-task could be compared to response times in a classical conditioning assay, which seems more reflexive, and I'd expect differences in speeds here correlate more tightly to differences in CFF. The results of such experiments seem like they could inform your credences on the possibility and magnitude of subjective time differences between species.
I'd be interested in knowing if other senses (sound, especially) are processed faster at the same time. It could be that for a reaching movement, our attention is focused primarily visually, and we only process vision faster.
I agree that this would be an interesting experiment. If selective attention is involved then I think it is also possible that other senses would be processed slower. Unfortunately, my impression is that comparatively limited work has been done on multi-sensory processing in human psychology.
Articles like this make me think there is some basis to this concern:
Coronavirus: Russia calls international concern over vaccine 'groundless'
On Wednesday, Germany's health minister expressed concern that it had not been properly tested."It can be dangerous to start vaccinating millions... of people too early because it could pretty much kill the acceptance of vaccination if it goes wrong," Jens Spahn told local media."Based on everything we know... this has not been sufficiently tested," he added. "It's not about being first somehow - it's about having a safe vaccine."
This seems like a thorough consideration of the interaction of BCIs with the risk of totalitarianism. I was also prompted to think a bit about BCIs as a GCR risk factor recently and had started compiling some references, but I haven't yet refined my views as much as this.
One comment I have is that risk described here seems to rely not just on the development of any type of BCI but on a specific kind, namely, relatively cheap consumer BCIs that can nonetheless provide a high-fidelity bidirectional neural interface. It seems likely that this type of BCI would need to be invasive, but it's not obvious to me that invasive BCI technology will inevitably progress in that direction. Musk hint's that Neuralink's goals are mass-market, but I expect that regulatory efforts could limit invasive BCI technology to medical use cases, and likewise, any military development of invasive BCI seems likely to lead to equipment that is too expensive for mass adoption (although it could provide the starting point for commercialization). Although DARPA's Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program does have the goal of developing high-fidelity non- or minimally-invasive BCIs; my intuition is at that they will not achieve their goal of reading from one million and writing to 100,000 neurons non-invasively, but I'm not sure about the potential of the minimally-invasive path. So one theoretical consideration is what percentage of a population needs to be thought policed to retain effective authoritarian control, which would then indicate how commercialized BCI technology would need to be before it could become a risk factor.
In my view, a reasonable way to steer BCIs development away from posing a risk-factor for totalitarianism would be to encourage the development of high-fidelity non-invasive and read-focused consumer BCI. While non-invasive devices are intrinsically more limited than invasive ones, if consumers can still be satisfied by their performance then it will reduce the demand to develop invasive technology. Facebook and Kernel already look like they are moving towards non-invasive technology. One company that I think is generally overlooked is CTRL-Labs (now owned by Facebook), who are developing an armband that acquires high-fidelity measurements from motor neurons - although this is a peripheral nervous system recording, users can apparently repurpose motor neurons for different tasks and even learn to control the activity of individual neurons (see this promotional video). As an aside, if anybody is interested in working on non-invasive BCI hardware, I have a project proposal for developing a device for acquiring high-fidelity and non-invasive central nervous system activity measurements that I'm no longer planning to pursue but am able to share.
The idea of BCIs that punish dissenting thoughts being used to condition people away from even thinking about dissent may have a potential loophole, in that such conditioning could lead people to avoid thinking such thoughts or it could simply lead them to think such thoughts in ways that aren't punished. I expect that human brains have sufficient plasticity to be able to accomplish this under some circumstances and while the punishment controller could also adapt what it punishes to try and catch such evasive thoughts, it may not always have an advantage and I don't think BCI thought policing could be assumed to be 100% effective. More broadly, differences in both intra- or inter-person thought patterns could determine how effective BCI is for thought policing. If a BCI monitoring algorithm can be developed using a small pool of subjects and then applied en masse, that seems much risky than if the monitoring algorithm needs to be adapted to each individual and possibly updated over time (though there would be scope for automating updating). I expect that Neuralinks future work will indicate how 'portable' neural decoding and encoding algorithms are between individuals.
I have a fun anecdotal example of neural activity diversity: when I was doing my PhD at the Queensland Brain Institute I did a pilot experiment for an fMRI study on visual navigation for a colleague's experiment. Afterwards, he said that my neural responses were quite different from those of the other pilot participant (we both did the navigation task well). He completed and published the study and ask the other pilot participant to join other fMRI experiments he ran, but never asked me to participate again. I've wondered if I was the one who ended up having the weird neural response compared to the rest of the participants in that study... (although my structural MRI scans are normal, so it's not like I have a completely wacky brain!)
The BCI risk scenario I've considered is whether BCIs could provide a disruptive improvement in a user's computer-interface speed or another cognitive domain. DARPA's Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts (NIA) program showed that an x10 increase in image analysis speed with no loss of accuracy, just using EEG (see here for a good summary of DARPAs BCI programs until 2015). It seems reasonable that somewhat larger speed improvements could be attained using invasive BCI, and this speed improvement would probably generalize to other, more complicated tasks. When advanced BCIs is limited to early adopters, could such cognitive advantages facilitate the risky development in AI or bioweapons by small teams, or give operational advantages to intelligence agencies or militaries? (happy to discuss or share my notes on this with anybody who is interested in looking into this aspect further)
The call for science to be done in service to society reminds me of Nicholas Maxwell's call to redirect academia to work towards wisdom rather than knowledge (see here and also here). I haven't read any of Maxwell's books on this, but it surprises me that there doesn't seem to be any interaction between him and EA philosophers at other UK institutes as Maxwell's research seems to be generally EA aligned (although limited to the broad-meta level).
Although not really a field, Nassim Taleb's book Antifragile springs to mind - I haven't read this myself but have seen it referenced in several discussion on economic fragility, so it might at least be a starting point to work with.
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Doe direto was running a trial to give cash transfers to vulnerable families in Brazil. They seemed to have finished the trial now and I'm not sure if/when they will consider restarting it.