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Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Robot God Apostle's Creed for the "Less Wrong" Throng

The singularitarian and techno-immortalist Robot Cultists who throng the tinpot-fiefdom of Less Wrong apparently had a minor tempest in their tinpot half a year or so ago in which some of the faithful dared declare that their sub(cult)ure might benefit from more contrarians and skeptics here and there, especially given the high-profile in their self-congratulatory self-promotional utterances about how marvelously self-critical and bias-fumigated they all are compared to Outsiders. But at least one Believer was having none of it, declaring:
I think the Sequences got everything right and I agree with them completely... Even the controversial things, like: I think the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the closest to correct and you're dreaming if you think the true answer will have no splitting (or I simply do not know enough physics to know why Eliezer is wrong, which I think is pretty unlikely but not totally discountable). I think cryonics is a swell idea and an obvious thing to sign up for if you value staying alive and have enough money and can tolerate the social costs. I think mainstream science is too slow and we mere mortals can do better with Bayes. I am a utilitarian consequentialist and think that if allow someone to die through inaction, you're just as culpable as a murderer. I completely accept the conclusion that it is worse to put dust specks in 3^^^3 people's eyes than to torture one person for fifty years. I came up with it independently, so maybe it doesn't count; whatever. I tentatively accept Eliezer's metaethics, considering how unlikely it is that there will be a better one (maybe morality is in the gluons?) "People are crazy, the world is mad," is sufficient for explaining most human failure, even to curious people, so long as they know the heuristics and biases literature.
Yes, of course it is ridiculous to pretend that the many worlds interpretation is so non-problematic and non-controversial that one would have to be "dreaming" to entertain the possibility that it may one day be supplanted by a better theory that looks more like alternatives already on offer -- and, yes, it is especially ridiculous to pretend so on the basis of not knowing more about physics than a non-physicist high school drop-out guru-wannabe who thinks he is leading a movement to code a history-shattering Robot God who will solve all our problems for us any time soon.

Yes, of course it is ridiculous to believe that your frozen, glassified, hamburgerized brain will be revived and sooper-enhanced and possibly immortalized by swarms of billions of robust reliably controllable and programmable self-replicating nanobots, and/or your info-soul "migrated" via snapshot "scanning" into a cyberspatial Holodeck Heaven where it will cavort bug-and-crash-and-spam free for all eternity among the sexy sexbots.

Yes, of course it is ridiculous to imagine non-scientists in an online Bayes-Theorem fandom can help accomplish warranted scientific results faster than common or garden variety real scientists can themselves by running probability simulations in your club chairs or on computer programs in addition to or even instead of anybody engaging in actually documentable, repeatable, testable experiments, publishing the results, and discussing them with people actually qualified to re-run and adapt and comment on them as peers.

Yes, of course it is ridiculous to think of oneself as the literal murderer of every one of the countless distant but conceivably reachable people who share the world with you but are menaced by violence, starvation, or neglected but treatable health conditions even if it is true that not caring at all about such people would make you a terrible asshole -- and, yes, it is ridiculous to fall for the undergraduate fantasy that probabilistic formulae might enable us to transform questions of what we should do into questions of fact in the first place.

Yes, of course it is ridiculous to say so many nonsensical things and then declare the rest of the world mad.

Yes, it is ridiculous that the very same Eliezer Yudkowsky treated as the paragon against whose views all competing theories of physics are measured is the very same person endorsed a few sentences later as the meta-ethical paragon compared to whose views all competing moral philosophies are judged wanting. Sure, sure, your online autodidact high priest deserves the Nobel Prize for Physics and the Nobel Peace Prize on top of it in addition to all that cash libertopian anti-multiculturalist reactionary and pop-tech CEO-celebrity Peter Thiel keeps giving him for being an even better Singularipope than Kurzweil. Who could doubt it?

Perhaps grasping the kind of spectacle he is making of himself, our True Believer offers up this defensive little bit of pre-emptive PR-management in his post (not that it yields any actual qualification of the views he espouses or anything): "This of course makes me a deranged, non-thinking, Eliezer-worshiping fanatic for whom the singularity is a substitute religion." Hey, pal, if the shoe hurts, you're probably wearing it.

By the way, if anybody is wondering just what The Sequences are, you know, the ones that presumably "get everything right" -- no, nothing culty there -- they are topical anthologies of posts that have appeared on Less Wrong (major contributions written by, you guessed it, Eliezer Yudkowsky, naturellement) and function more or less as site FAQs with delusions of grandeur. While not everything in The Sequences is wrong, little that isn't wrong in them isn't also widely grasped and often endorsed by all sorts of folks who aren't also members of Robot Cults who think they are the only ones who aren't wrong, er, are "less wrong" -- which is the usual futurological soft shoe routine, after all.

Inspired by the aggressive-defensive post I have been dissecting so far, another True Believer offered up -- again, all in good funny fun, right, right? -- the following intriguing, revealing Robot God Apostle's Creed for the Less Wrong Throng, which I reproduce here for your delight and edification:
I believe in Probability Theory, the Foundation, the wellspring of knowledge,
I believe in Bayes, Its only Interpretation, our Method.
It was discovered by the power of Induction and given form by the Elder Jaynes.
It suffered from the lack of priors, was complicated, obscure, and forgotten.
It descended into AI winter. In the third millennium it rose again.
It ascended into relevance and is seated at the core of our FAI.
It will be implemented to judge the true and the false.
I believe in the Sequences,
Many Worlds, too slow science,
the solution of metaethics,
the cryopreservation of the brain,
and sanity everlasting.
Nothing to see here, folks. For more on how totally not a cult the Robot Cult is, see this and this; and for more on the damage even so silly a cult as the Robot Cult can do, see this and this.


Joshua Bennett said...

In fairness to LessWrong, plenty of folks affiliated with the site are also concerned about it being a Yudkowsky cult. From a high-karma comment on that post:

"If you agree with everything Eliezer wrote, you remember him writing about how every cause wants to be a cult. This post looks exactly like the sort of cultish entropy that he advised guarding against to me. Can you imagine a similar post on any run-of-the-mill, non-cultish online forum?"

joe said...

Ok that is creepy on many many levels......
If these guys were were wearing bath robes, running shoes and tracksuits and were all castrated you couldn't tell them apart from a cult....

A couple of more steps to crazy town guys and the spaceship hiding in the asteroid will be along momenterilly to collect you after you down the kool aid Eliezer is handing out.

jimf said...

> Yes, of course it is ridiculous to say so many nonsensical
> things and then declare the **rest** of the world mad. . .
> [A]ll in good funny fun, right, right?

Laments of the Rationalists:
FormallyknownasRoko [Roko Mijic]
10 December 2010 05:06:28PM

[In reference to "Roko's Basilisk" -- see
or the comment at ]

. . .

Furthermore, I would add that I wish I had never learned about
any of these ideas. In fact, I wish I had never come across the
initial link on the internet that caused me to think about
transhumanism and thereby about the singularity; I wish very
strongly that my mind had never come across the tools to inflict
such large amounts of potential self-harm with such small
durations of inattention, uncautiousness and/or stupidity,
even if it is all premultiplied by a small probability. . .

I went to the effort of finding out a lot, went to SIAI and
Oxford to learn even more, and in the end I am left seriously
disappointed by all this knowedge. In the end it all boils down to:

"most people are irrational, hypocritical and selfish, if you
try and tell them they shoot the messenger, and if you try
and do anything you bear all the costs, internalize only tiny
fractions of the value created if you succeed, and you almost
certainly fail to have an effect anyway. And by the way the
future is an impending train wreck"

I feel quite strongly that this knowledge is not a worthy
thing to have sunk 5 years of my life into getting.

which engendered the reply:

XiXiDu [Alexander Kruel, ]
10 December 2010

I wish you'd talk to someone other than Yudkowsky about this.
You don't need anyone to harm you, you already seem to harm
yourself. You indulge yourself in self-inflicted psychological
stress. As Seneca said, "there are more things that terrify
us than there are that oppress us, and we suffer more often
in opinion than in reality". You worry and pay interest
for debt that will likely never be made. . .

jimf said...
What I can say is that I am becoming increasingly confused
about how to decide anything and increasingly tend to assign
more weight to intuition to decide what to do and naive
introspection to figure out what I want.

John Baez replied,

Well, you actually just described what I consider the correct
solution to your problem! Rational decision processes take a
long time and a lot of work. So, you can only use them to
make a tiny fraction of the decisions that you need to make.
If you try to use them to make more than that tiny fraction,
you get stuck in the dilemma you so clearly describe: an infinite
sequence of difficult tasks, each of which can only be done
after another difficult task has been done!

This is why I think some ‘rationalists’ are just deluding
themselves when it comes to how important rationality is. Yes,
it’s very important. But it’s also very important not to try
to use it too much! If someone claims to make most of
their decisions using rationality, they’re just wrong: their
ability to introspect is worse than they believe.

So: learning to have good intuition is also very important – because
more than 95% of the decisions we make are based on intuition.
Anyone who tries to improve their rationality without also
improving their intuition will become unbalanced. Some even
become crazy.

Indeed. Or, as G. K. Chesterton put it a century ago (_Orthodoxy_, 1908):

"If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that
you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind
moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things
that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense
of humor or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of
experience. He is the more logical for losing sane
affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in
this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man
who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has
lost everything except his reason."

(via )

(And no, I am not a Catholic. ;-> )

jollyspaniard said...

Is that for real?

Dale Carrico said...

Eliezer wrote... every cause wants to be a cult.

How very wrong... and revealing.

jimf said...

Another strange aspect to the guru-whammy grip (and there's really
no other way to characterize it) that Yudkowsky has held over
a large subset of the >Hist crowd (including the contingent marshalled by
his tireless PR disciple Michael Anissimov) ever since his
1996 appearance on the Extropians' mailing list and his
publication of "Staring Into the Singularity" and other articles
(including his own characterization of his self-imputed non-neurotypical
genius as an "Algernon" -- h/t the Daniel Keyes short story and
later novel and film) in 1997 at the old
Web site, is that **whatever** the prospects for "Strong"
Artificial Intelligence (or Artificial General Intelligence [AGI] --
I guess Ben Goertzel originated that term; I don't know for sure),
Yudkowsky's own rigid utilitarianism (now promulgated at
LessWrong) absolutely dominates discussions about AI in
on-line >Hist circles. Ben Goertzel himself doesn't buy it,
but he's been very very careful indeed to pussyfoot his
gentle demurrals so as not to inflame Yudkowsky and his
acolytes (and not always successfully, either).

It's an odd thing, but maybe not so surprising. The rigid,
analytical-math-oriented bias of that approach to AI
1) harks back to the GOFAI of the 50s and 60s, when some
folks expected the whole thing to be soluble by a smart
grad student spending a summer on it 2) reinforces
Yudkowsky's own dear image of himself as a consummate mathematician
3) is congruent with the kind of Ayn Randian, libertopian
bias among so many of the SF-fan, >Hist crowd.

No other approaches to AI need apply, because they're either
1) wrong, or worse 2) an existential risk.

Richard Loosemore, for example, (someone who, unlike Yudkowsky, has an
actual credential or two) has triggered the virulent immune
response of Yudkowsky and his defenders by proposing a model
of AI that seems, to **me** at least (but hey, what do I know? ;-> )
far more plausible (even if still not likely to be
technologically achievable anytime soon).

(I've mentioned Loosemore before in comments on )

jimf said...

> . . . Richard Loosemore . . .
Richard Loosemore, Mon May 14 2012 @ existential mailing list:

I find this entire discussion to be disturbingly ungrounded.

We are debating the behavior, drives and motivations of intelligent machines,
so it would seem critical to understand how the mechanisms underlying
behavior, drives and motivations would actually work.

But it is most certainly NOT the case that we understand these
mechanisms. There is a widespread assumption (especially at SIAI
and FHI) that the mechanisms must be some type of proposition-based
utility-maximization function. But this is nothing more than an
extrapolation from certain types of narrow-AI hierarchical
goal-planning systems, and a convenient excuse to engage in
unconstrained mathematical theorizing. In practice, we have
not come anywhere near to building an AGI system that:

(a) contains such types of motivation mechanism, with
extremely high-level supergoals, or
(b) contains such a mechanism and also exhibits a stable form
of intelligence.

Everything said in arguments like the current thread depends
on exactly how the mechanism would work, but that means that everything
said is actually predicated on unfounded assumptions.

On a more particular note:

On 5/14/12 9:24 AM, Anders Sandberg wrote:
> For example, the work on formalizing philosophical concepts
> (automating the process of grounding the fuzzy words into something
> real) into something an AI could understand requires quite
> sophisticated understanding of both philosophy and machine learning.

This assumes that there is some formalization to be had. But there
are many arguments (including those in some of my own papers on the
subject) that lead to the conclusion that this kind of formalization
of semantics, and the whole machine learning paradigm, is not
going to lead to AGI.

In plain language: you are never going to formalize the notion
of “friendliness” in such a way that the AGI can “understand”
it in the way that will make “Be friendly to humans” a valid
supergoal statement.

jimf said...
In response to Thoughts on the Singularity Institute (SI)
Comment author: Richard_Loosemore 10 May 2012 07:11:15PM -3 points

My own experience with SI, and my background, might be relevant
here. I am a member of the Math/Physical Science faculty at
Wells College, in Upstate NY. I also have had a parallel career
as a cognitive scientist/AI researcher, with several publications
in the AGI field, including the opening chapter (coauthored with
Ben Goertzel) in a forthcoming Springer book about the Singularity.

I have long complained about SI's narrow and obsessive focus
on the "utility function" aspect of AI -- simply put, SI assumes
that future superintelligent systems will be driven by certain
classes of mechanism that are still only theoretical, and which
are very likely to be superceded by other kinds of mechanism that
have very different properties. Even worse, the "utility function"
mechanism favored by SI is quite likely to be so unstable that
it will never allow an AI to achieve any kind of human-level
intelligence, never mind the kind of superintelligence that would
be threatening.

Perhaps most important of all, though, is the fact that the
alternative motivation mechanism might (and notice that I am
being cautious here: might) lead to systems that are extremely
stable. Which means both friendly and safe.

Taken in isolation, these thoughts and arguments might amount to
nothing more than a minor addition to the points that you make above.
However, my experience with SI is that when I tried to raise
these concerns back in 2005/2006 I was subjected to a series of
attacks that culminated in a tirade of slanderous denunciations
from the founder of SI, Eliezer Yudkowsky. After delivering this
tirade, Yudkowsky then banned me from the discussion forum that
he controlled, and instructed others on that forum that discussion
about me was henceforth forbidden.

Since that time I have found that when I partake in discussions
on AGI topics in a context where SI supporters are present, I am
frequently subjected to abusive personal attacks in which
reference is made to Yudkowsky's earlier outburst. This activity
is now so common that when I occasionally post comments here,
my remarks are very quickly voted down below a threshold that makes
them virtually invisible. (A fate that will probably apply
immediately to this very comment).

I would say that, far from deserving support, SI should be considered
a cult-like community in which dissent is ruthlessly suppressed
in order to exaggerate the point of view of SI's founders and
controllers, regardless of the scientific merits of those views,
or of the dissenting opinions.

Dale Carrico said...

The rigid, analytical math-oriented bias of that approach to AI 1) harks back to the GOFAI of the 50s and 60s, when some folks expected the whole thing to be soluble by a smart grad student spending a summer on it 2) reinforces Yudkowsky's own dear image of himself as a consummate mathematician 3) is congruent with the kind of Ayn Randian, libertopian bias among so many of the SF-fan, >Hist crowd.

I think there are enormously clarifying observations packed into that formulation, and folks should re-read it.

Speaking of the way the singularitarians hark back to the most failed most inept most sociopathic most boyz-n-toys AI discourse of mid-century Gernsbackian-pulp post-WW2 U!S!A! footurism, I can't help but cite another passage from Less Wrong that you drew to my attention in a private e-mail a couple of days ago:

"I've just been through the proposal for the Dartmouth AI conference of 1956, and it's a surprising read. All I really knew about it was its absurd optimism, as typified by the quote:

An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

But then I read the rest of the document, and was... impressed. Go ahead and read it, and give me your thoughts. Given what was known in 1955, they were grappling with the right issues, and seemed to be making progress in the right directions and have plans and models for how to progress further. Seeing the phenomenally smart people who were behind this (McCarthy, Minsky, Rochester, Shannon), and given the impressive progress that computers had been making in what seemed very hard areas of cognition (remember that this was before we discovered Moravec's paradox)... I have to say that had I read this back in 1955, I think the rational belief would have been [emphasis added] 'AI is probably imminent'. Some overconfidence, no doubt, but no good reason to expect these prominent thinkers to be so spectacularly wrong on something they were experts in."

Although the poor Robot Cultist cannot help but point to the "overconfidence" of these sentiments -- all of which were after all completely flabbergastingly serially failed and wrong and ridiculous -- you can tell his heart just isn't in it. Where sensible people look at these pronouncements and see the radically impoverished conception of intelligence and ridiculously triumphalist conception of technoscience driving the discourse, the Robot Cultist finds himself saying, man those dumb sociopathic white guys were really onto something there! Man, were they rational and right or what to believe so irrationally in what was so wrong! Man, I love those guys! Notice that even the retroactive reconstruction of Bayesian triumphalism cannot permit the reality of how "spectacularly wrong" they all were to have any "good reason" -- and nothing about the example gives a critical nudge even now to the assertion about this army of fail that they are "prominent thinkers" and "experts" in sound AI.

About the Randroidal pot-boiler & pulp SF connection to this Bayes/AI-fandom notice that the entitative figuration of their AI discourse remains far more beholden to sfnal conceits than software practice, and notice how often sooper-genius Yudkowsky's highest profile formulations have often depended on frankly facile ungainly high-school English level appropriations from popular fiction like Flowers for Algernon or Harry Potter.

jimf said...

> I believe in the Sequences,
> Many Worlds, too slow science,
> the solution of metaethics,
> the cryopreservation of the brain,
> and sanity everlasting.
> Phyg.

What does "phyg" mean? Is it a flying pig?
Is it the Greek word for "shun" or "flee"?
(or "flight"; phyg- = Latin fug- ).

Well, maybe. But here's another explanation:
Thanks to people not wanting certain words google-associated with LW: Phyg

. . .

This was an embedded link to, where
"Phyg" decodes to "Cult".


Black guy from the future past said...

>"Yes, of course it is ridiculous to believe that your frozen, glassified, HAMBURGERIZED BRAIN will be revived and sooper-enhanced and possibly immortalized by swarms of billions of robust reliably controllable and programmable self-replicating nanobots"

Right when I read aloud the words "hamburgerized brain", I let out a bellyful of laughter. These transhumanoids, are seriously out of touch with reality, and are seriously out of their depth. Funny thing is I used to believe in such nonsense too! AHAHHA! I am so glad I found this blog, to break out of my brief, yet notable and memorable spell of stupidity.

jimf said...

> Funny thing is I used to believe in such nonsense too!

There are many similar things that have popped up in recent history
(mid to late 20th century), some of them science-fiction-derived
(or science-fiction-related) that you might well have stumbled

The new book about Scientology, _Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood,
and the Prison of Belief_ by Lawrence Wright
is quite a jaw-dropper and well worth the $20.
It's also a professional job, and well-written -- the guy's
a staff writer for _The New Yorker_.

There's also a book about the Ayn Rand movement you might want to
take a look at: _The Ayn Rand Cult_ by Jeff Walker
(Don't be dismayed by the three-star review average; books
like this get pile-on pans by contemporary Randroids.)

Speaking of science fiction, I had heard before that Keith Raniere's
"large-group awareness training" outfit (don't call it a cult
or they'll sue!), NXIVM, had been inspired (Raniere claimed)
by Hari Seldon's "psychohistory" in Isaac Asimov's
_Foundation_ trilogy
( ).

But I didn't know until I saw it in _Going Clear_ (which I'm
currently reading) that the Aum Shinrikyo cult had also
derived some of its ideas from the _Foundation_ books:

"In March 1995, adherents of a Japanese movement called _Aum
Shinrikyo_ ("Supreme Truth") attacked five subway trains in
Tokyo with sarin gas. Twelve commuters died; thousands more
might have if the gas had been more highly refined. It
was later discovered that this was just one of at least
fourteen attacks the group staged in order to set off a
chain of events intended to result in an apocalyptic world
war. The leader of the group, Shoko Asahara, a blind yoga
instructor, comibned the tenets of Buddhism with notions
drawn from Isaac Asimov's _Foundation_ trilogy, which depicts
a secretive group of scientists who are preparing to take
over the world. Many of Asahara's followers were indeed
scientists and engineers from top Japanese universities
who were enchanted by this scheme. They purchased military
hardware in the former Soviet Union and sought to acquire
nuclear warheads. When that failed, they bought a sheep farm
in Western Australia that happened to be atop a rich
vein of uranium. They cultivated chemical and biological
weapons, such as anthrax, Ebola virus, cyanide, and VX gas.
They had used such agents in previous attacks, but failed
to create the kind of mass slaughter they hoped would bring
on civil war and nuclear Armageddon. . . A spokesperson
for the Church of Scientology in New Zealand explained that
the source of Aum Shinrikyo's crimes was the practice of
psychiatry in Japan."

-- _Going Clear_, pp. 240-241

See also "The Cult at the End of the World"
Wired Magazine, July 4, 1996
By David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall

Dale Carrico said...

the Aum Shinrikyo cult had also
derived some of its ideas from the _Foundation_ books

For heaven's sake don't let Paul Krugman hear about that!

jollyspaniard said...

Science fiction has fingerprints in a lot of cults.

I just took a peek at Less Wrong and I see major paralells with the Scientology objective to apply Dianetics to become "clear". What these guys are doing is outsourcing their thinking to a charismatic authority figure which is the oldest and biggest logical fallacy in the book.

jimf said...

> Yudkowsky's own rigid utilitarianism (now promulgated at
> LessWrong) absolutely dominates discussions about AI in
> on-line >Hist circles. Ben Goertzel himself doesn't buy it,
> but he's been very very careful indeed to pussyfoot his
> gentle demurrals so as not to inflame Yudkowsky and his
> acolytes (and not always successfully, either).

Speaking of Ben Goertzel:
Muehlhauser-Goertzel Dialogue, Part 1
16 March 2012 05:12PM

. . .

[T]here’s no formal mathematical reason to think that
“technical rationality” is a good approach in real-world situations;
and “technical rationality” has no practical track record to
speak of. And ordinary, semi-formal rationality itself seems to
have some serious limitations of power and scope. . .

[A]t this stage -- certainly, anyone who has supreme confidence that
technical rationality is going to help humanity achieve its
goals better, is being rather IRRATIONAL ;-) ….

In this vein, I’ve followed the emergence of the Less Wrong community
with some amusement and interest. One ironic thing I’ve noticed
about this community of people intensely concerned with improving their
personal rationality is: by and large, these people are already
hyper-developed in the area of rationality, but underdeveloped
in other ways! Think about it -- who is the prototypical Less Wrong
meetup participant? It’s a person who’s very rational already,
relative to nearly all other humans -- but relatively lacking in
other skills like intuitively and empathically understanding other
people. But instead of focusing on improving their empathy and
social intuition (things they really aren’t good at, relative to
most humans), this person is focusing on fine-tuning their rationality
more and more, via reprogramming their brains to more naturally
use “technical rationality” tools! This seems a bit imbalanced. . .

To me it’s all about balance. . . Don’t let your thoughts be clouded by
your emotions; but don’t be a feeling-less automaton, don’t make
judgments that are narrowly rational but fundamentally unwise.
As Ben Franklin said, “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”

. . .

jimf said...

About the hypothetical uber-intelligence that wants to tile the
cosmos with molecular Mickey Mouses. . . [Y]ou don’t have any rigorous
argument to back up the idea that a system like you posit is possible
in the real-world, either! And SIAI has staff who, unlike me,
are paid full-time to write and philosophize … and they haven’t
come up with a rigorous argument in favor of the possibility of
such a system, either. Although they have talked about it a lot,
though usually in the context of paperclips rather than Mickey Mouses. . .

About my blog post on “The Singularity Institute’s Scary Idea” --
yes, that still reflects my basic opinion. After I wrote that blog post,
Michael Anissimov -- a long-time SIAI staffer and zealot whom I
like and respect greatly -- told me he was going to write up and
show me a systematic, rigorous argument as to why “an AGI not built
based on a rigorous theory of Friendliness is almost certain to
kill all humans” (the proposition I called “SIAI’s Scary Idea”).
But he hasn’t followed through on that yet -- and neither has
Eliezer or anyone associated with SIAI. . .

But I find it rather ironic when people make a great noise about
their dedication to rationality, but then also make huge grand
important statements about the future of humanity, with great
confidence and oomph, that are not really backed up by any rational
argumentation. This ironic behavior on the part of Eliezer,
Michael Anissimov and other SIAI principals doesn’t really bother
me, as I like and respect them and they are friendly to me, and
we’ve simply “agreed to disagree” on these matters for the time
being. But the reason I wrote that blog post is because my own
blog posts about AGI were being trolled by SIAI zealots
(not the principals, I hasten to note) leaving nasty comments to the
effect of “SIAI has proved that if OpenCog achieves human level AGI,
it will kill all humans.“ Not only has SIAI not proved any such
thing, they have not even made a clear rational argument! . . .

I recall when. . . Anna Salamon guest lectured in the class on
Singularity Studies that my father and I were teaching at
Rutgers University in 2010. Anna made the statement, to the students,
that. . . “If a superhuman AGI is created without being carefully
based on an explicit Friendliness theory, it is ALMOST SURE
to destroy humanity.” (i.e., what I now call SIAI’s Scary Idea)

I then asked her. . . if she could give any argument to back up the idea.

She gave the familiar SIAI argument that, if one picks a mind at random
from “mind space”, the odds that it will be Friendly to humans
are effectively zero. . .

I had pretty much the same exact argument with SIAI advocates
Tom McCabe and Michael Anissimov on different occasions; and also,
years before, with Eliezer Yudkowsky and Michael Vassar -- and
before that, with (former SIAI Executive Director) Tyler Emerson.
Over all these years, the SIAI community maintains the Scary Idea
in its collective mind, and also maintains a great devotion
to the idea of rationality, but yet fails to produce anything
resembling a rational argument for the Scary Idea -- instead
repetitiously trotting out irrelevant statements about random minds!! . . .
[And] backing off when challenged into a platitudinous position
equivalent to “there’s a non-zero risk … better safe than sorry...”,
is not my idea of an intellectually honest way to do things.

Why does this particular point get on my nerves? Because I don’t
like SIAI advocates telling people that I, personally, am on a
R&D course where if I succeed I am almost certain to destroy
humanity!!! That frustrates me. . .


jollyspaniard said...

There's an even larger set of professionals working on vaccinations that are being told that they're destroying humanity for profit by an even larger group of folks. Some of them are also in enlightenment cults styled after Scientology. Life is too short to spend much of it being annoyed by how these people think of you. This kind of nuttery is like the residual noise left behind by the big bang, it's constant and it's not going away on any timescale you can imagine.

jimf said...

> This kind of nuttery is like the residual noise left behind by
> the big bang, it's constant and it's not going away on any
> timescale you can imagine.

No, I'm afraid it's not going to go away. There are always (a few)
people being born who are ready to step into the role of a guru
who is going to Show Us The Way, and (rather more) people
being born who are ready to become a follower of somebody
who looks like he (usually a "he", though there are exceptions --
Mary Baker Eddy, Helena Blavatsky, Aimee Semple McPherson)
can (for a price) provide their lives with meaning (usually
a meaning of no less than Cosmic Significance).

That doesn't mean the phenomenon isn't worth public exposure.
Far from it! Though those doing the exposing can often
themselves pay a terrible price. It boggles the mind that
something like the following could happen in the United States,
in the 1970s:

(From _Going Clear_, p. 117)

"Paulette Cooper was studying comparative religion for a summer
at Harvard in the late 1960s when she became interested in
Scientology, which was gaining attention. 'A friend came to
me and said he had joined Scientology and discovered he was
Jesus Christ,' she recalled. She decided to go undercover to
see what the church was about. 'I didn't like what I saw,'
she said. The Scientologists she encountered seemed to be in
a kind of trance. When she looked into the claims that the
church was making, she found many of them false or impossible
to substantiate. 'I lost my parents to Auschwitz,' Cooper said,
explaining her motivation in deciding to write about
Scientology at a time when there had been very little published
and those who criticized the church came under concentrated
legal and personal attacks. . . Cooper published her first
article in _Queen_, a British magazine, in 1970. 'I got
death threats,' she said. The church filed suit against her.
She refused to be silent. 'I thought if, in the nineteen-thirties
people had been more outspoken, maybe my parents would
have lived.' The following year, Cooper published a book,
_The Scandal of Scientology_. . .

After[wards], Cooper's life turned into a nightmare. She was
followed; her phone was tapped; she was sued nineteen times.
Her name and telephone number were written on the stalls of
public men's rooms. One day, when Cooper was out, her
cousin, who was staying in her New York apartment, opened
the door for a delivery from a florist. The deliveryman took
a gun from the bouquet, put it to her temple, and pulled
the trigger. When the gun didn't fire, he attempted to
strangle her. Cooper's cousin screamed and the assailant
fled. Cooper then moved to an apartment building with a
doorman, but soon after that her three hundred neighbors
received letters saying that she was a prostitute with venereal
disease who molested children. . . Cooper was charged
with mailing bomb threats to the Church of Scientology. . .
In May, 1973, Cooper was indicted by the U.S. Attorney's
office for mailing the threats and then lying about it
before the grand jury. . ."

jimf said...

p. 140

"Very early one morning in July 1977, the FBI, having been
tipped off about [another Scientology operation], carried
out raids on Scientology offices in Los Angeles and
Washington, DC, carting off nearly fifty thousand documents.
One of the files was titled 'Operation Freakout.'
It concerned the treatment of Paulette Cooper, the journalist
who had published an expose of Scientology. . . six years

After having been indicted on perjury and making bomb threats
against Scientology, Cooper had gone into a deep depression.
She stopped eating. At one point, she weighed just
eighty-three pounds. She considered suicide. Finally,
she persuaded a doctor to give her sodium pentothal, or
'truth werum,' and question her under the anaesthesia.
The government was sufficiently impressed that the prosecutor
dropped the case against her, but her reputation was
ruined, she was broke, and her health was uncertain."

And more recently:
[Lawrence Wright's] new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the
Prison of Belief” (Knopf) is about the famously litigious Church of Scientology,
and he said he has received innumerable threatening letters from lawyers
representing the church or some of the celebrities who belong to it.
(Transworld, Mr. Wright’s British publisher, recently canceled its plans
to publish “Going Clear,” though a spokeswoman insisted that the decision
was not made in response to threats from the church.)

Dale Carrico said...

That doesn't mean the phenomenon isn't worth public exposure.

That's for sure. It is important to expose even the wackier Robot Cultists to the extent that

[1] they are saying things that certain elite-incumbents like to hear however ridiculous on the merits -- eg, skim-scam tech celebrity ceos looking to be cast as the protagonists of history, petrochemical ceos looking for profitable geo-engineering rationales rather than regulatory interventions that impact their bottom lines, corporate-militarists on the lookout for existential threat techno-terror frames that justify big budget boondoggles -- the example of the belligerent neocon militarists and macroeconomically illiterate market ideologues should be ever before us in recalling this;

[2] they are saying things that in their extremity actually expose the underlying assumptions, aspirations, and pathologies of more mainstream and prevalent scientism, evo-psycho/evo-devo reductionism, eugenic "optimal" health norms, techno-fetishism, techno-triumphalism, unsustainable consumption, digi-utopianism, exploitative fraudulent global developmentalism in neoliberal discourses and practices;

[3] they are doing real damage to real people in real time in organizational and media contexts by mobilizing guru-wannabe, pseudo-expertise, True Believer dynamics at whatever scale.

jollyspaniard said...

These suckers aren't born they're victims of circumstance. Almost everyone is susceptible at some point. The two biggest predictors of joining a cult are death of someone really close to you or a recent divorce. It's one of the reasons why Scientologist comb over disaster areas trying to recruit people like they did in Haiti.

I was in a sales cult when I was 18, shortly after my dad died. It was easy to get sucked in but I came to my senses rather suddenly after two weeks. I rang a friend from a payphone and he came and picked me up and got me out of there.

jollyspaniard said...

Oh and I agree they should be subjected to ridicule but it's best not to let them rile you too much.

jimf said...

> These suckers aren't born they're victims of circumstance.
> Almost everyone is susceptible at some point. The two
> biggest predictors of joining a cult are death of someone
> really close to you or a recent divorce.

From _Dream Catcher: A Memoir_ by Margaret A. Salinger
(daughter of author J. D. Salinger)
(Washington Square Press, 2000)

The existential state of the typical person who, upon
encountering a cult, is likely to become a follower
reads like a description of most of my father's
characters, and indeed, or my father himself.
Many studies of cult phenomena have found that the
appeal of the cult depends "largely on the weakness
and vulnerability that all of us feel during key
stress periods in life. At the time of recruitment,
the person is often mildly depressed, in transition,
and feeling somewhat alienated." [Robert W. Dellinger,
_Cults and Kids_] One study, in particular, of
those who become involved in cults, speaks directly
to the vulnerability of my father and his characters
who "just got out": "Leaving any restricted
community can pose problems -- leaving the Army for
civilian life is hard, too . . . many suffered from
depression . . . loneliness, anomie [Margaret Thaler
Singer, "Coming out of the Cults," _Psychology Today_,
January 1979], or what can be referred to as
"future void." They're standing at the edge, as Holden
said, of "some crazy cliff," looking for a catcher. . .
Many of those who join cults find "close relationships
with like-minded others" [A study conducted by the
Jewish Community Relations Committee of Philadelphia
asked former cult members to list their reasons
for joining. The committee found that, in order
of relative importance, the number one reason was
loneliness and the need for friendship. "More than
any other factor, the desire for uncomplicated
warmth and acceptance . . . leads people into
cults."] . . .

I copied more from _Dream Catcher_ into Dale's blog
in the comment thread at

jimf said...

> Obviously I wouldn't expect Michael [Anissimov] to be pleased
> by these observations, but it is interesting that -- quite
> true to form for a cultist -- he immediately identifies the
> critique as nothing but defamation, he claims I am calling
> particular people names when I am clearly pointing out reasons
> among many why people join cults of which I think transhumanism
> is one (I call it a Robot Cult, after all), he calls it
> hate speech, ad hominem, libelous and so on, quasi-legal
> insinuations Giulio Prisco also takes up in his pile-on post.
> I must say, transhumanist muckety-mucks do e-mail me weaselly
> little insinuations about suing me all the time, by the way. . .
> Michael goes on to claim that reading my posts for him is like
> a person of color reading the fulminations of a white supremacist
> or a Jew reading an antisemitic screed. It is in moments like
> this when you get a glimpse into the fully crazy place transhumanist
> sub(cult)ural "warriors" have found their way to in their
> substitution of an identity movement organized by investment in
> an idiosyncratic construal of "technology" and fantasy of "the future"
> for actually serious deliberation about technodevelopmental topics.
> That is to say, in this very response Michael clearly exemplifies
> the True Believer Groupthink irrationality I attributed to
> transhumanism and which he is taking such exception to in the
> first place. . .

From a blog post by a contributor to LessWrong:
Is criticism of the Singularity Institute a result of hostility?

First of all I want to say something about the recent use of
the word “cult” with respect to the Singularity Institute and
LessWrong. I don’t think that they are a cult. . . [However, t]here
are very good reasons to analyze them critically and start playing
hardball. . .

People have to realize that to critically examine the output
of that community is very important due to the nature and scale
of what they are trying [or at least **claiming** to be trying!]
to achieve.

Even people with comparatively modest goals like trying to
become the president of the United States of America should
face and expect a constant and critical analysis of everything
they are doing.

Which is why I am kind of surprised how often people protest
any kind of fierce criticism that community is facing or find fault
with the alleged “hostility” of some of its critiques. Excuse me?
They are asking for money to implement a mechanism that will change
the nature of the whole universe. . .

Last but not least one should always be wary of a group of people
with strong beliefs about the possibility of doom as the result
of the actions of another group of people (in this case the
culprits being AI and computer scientists). Even more so if it
is a group who believes that the fate of an intergalactic civilization
depends on their actions.

Those beliefs are strong incentives. The history of humanity is rich
with examples where it took much less than that to cause people
to take incredibl[y] stupid actions.


jollyspaniard said...

Cult is a funny word as it gets used in different ways and the nature of cults themselves morphs over time. Less Than Wrong isn't a cult in the classic sensse, but few cults are. And there are lots of different kinds of cults. If you want to get really specific it can be described as an Enlightenment cult which is way down on the malignancy scale. The internet has fostered these as it makes it easier to maintain a diffuse network (traditional cults relied on concentrating people and isolating them physicaly from the outside world. Enlightenment cults on the internet form self reinforcing intellectual ghettos and basically turn people into assholes with an inflated sense of their own importance. The presence of a charismatic leader who makes grand promises about intellectual superiority and increased longevity and who is aggrandised in return is a key element. The cult exists to further the leaders own ego needs to the detriment of his followers who are often disciplined and mistreated if they stray from the dictates of the leader (or sometimes the leader just gets off on cruelty.

I think the shoe fits in this case.

jimf said...

> > the Aum Shinrikyo cult had also derived some of its
> > ideas from [Isaac Asimov's] _Foundation_ books
> For heaven's sake don't let Paul Krugman hear about that!

For Heaven's Gate, did you say? ;->

Oh, and Newt Gingrich, too:
(via David Brin at )

"Two thousand years ago Cicero observed that to be ignorant of
history was to remain always a child. To which we might add a
Gingrich corollary: to confuse science fiction with reality
is to remain always a child."

Dale Carrico said...

Brin's one to talk.

Anonymous said...

White people are better than you :)

Dale Carrico said...