The Limits of Psychology: Artificial Intelligence Edition

Recently on BigThink, Steven Pinker proposed a very interesting explanation for the cases of “alpha males” expressing fear or apprehension about the rise of artificial intelligence.  As someone who is often viewed as an alpha male and has repeatedly expressed concerns about artificial intelligence and how poorly equipped we might be to handle it effectively, this video piqued my interest.

Especially because I’ve made the argument before that the existence of artificial superintelligence poses a serious psychological problem for us, I wanted to know what a famous psychologist like Steven Pinker might think of as the psychological genesis of our fears about a machine revolution that would end our evolution.

Apparently, he thinks that we manly men just have this fear because we think, rather egocentrically, that an artificial intelligence would be just like us manly men: aggressive and dominating, power-hungry and drunk with greed for more resources.  A few men might object that this is sexist.  But my question, regardless of any sexist assumptions, is this: is it true?

It seems intuitively plausible that men who are domineering and aggressive might assume that an artificial intelligence would share their traits, because we human beings naturally engage in egocentrically interpreting the psychological motivations of other beings.  So it does make some sense that what Pinker calls an “alpha male” might project his own traits onto an artificial intelligence incorrectly.

What seems odd to me about Pinker’s explanation isn’t that it’s implausible for the men he’s describing, but rather that it’s implausible because most of the men I know who are concerned or fearful of an artificial intelligence wiping out our species are nerdy “beta males” rather than muscle-bound “alpha males”.  The men who seem most concerned about this are very unlikely to have aggressive or domineering personalities, even if they might be high-achieving within their field of study or business.

A psychologist might propose in reply to my point that it would make sense for beta males to fear the domination and aggression of their alpha male antagonists, projecting the psychological motivations of the alpha males onto the artificial intelligence.  But this just seems like obvious motivated reasoning by a psychologist who seems to not understand the limits of psychology as applied to artificial intelligence.

The other problem is that the arguments being made by serious intellectuals about the dangers of artificial intelligence are not based on assumptions that it will be like us, but rather the very strong evidence that we are terrible at being perfect programmers.  And we have a very mixed record when it comes to safeguards in software.  How long did it take to have effective safeguards against data loss on PCs?

Pinker is happy to dismiss the idea that our safeguards will be insufficient with a wave of his hand, but I’ve worked in the computing and technology fields long enough to learn that even very skilled teams of programmers with lots of resources make really big mistakes on a regular basis.  There is no reason to think that the teams of skilled programmers working on artificial intelligence will have no blind spots and magically find a way to safeguard from any major problems.

On the other hand, we have lots of reason to think that blind spots will be consequential in developing artificial superintelligence in a way they would not be in developing a touchscreen interface.  An artificial intelligence, Pinker rightly points out, is unlikely to be malicious.  That lack of an unhealthy psychological motivation just doesn’t matter to how dangerous it would be, as I’ve explained before at length.

A shark doesn’t have to possess malicious psychological motivations to kill me.  Nor does a frightened bear trying to protect its cubs.  Nor does a copperhead snake when I’m intruding on its territory.  That doesn’t change the fact that I might well end up dead in those situations.  And that’s an important limitation of psychology to understand.

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Can Suicide Squad get DC to back away from the ledge?

I watched the Suicide Squad movie last weekend with a group of friends.  I was hoping we would settle on a different movie to watch, but I tried to keep an open mind about seeing something else.

I’ve been deeply underwhelmed by DC’s movie offerings lately.  The Batman trilogy that Christopher Nolan directed was quite enjoyable, but the Superman and Green Lantern offerings were just unappealing.  Their trailers effectively sold me on not watching them at all.  And then Batman v. Superman came out.  Even though I love the basic idea of pitting Batman against Superman as a lead-up to the establishment of the Justice League, the trailer and the plot synopsis I read wasn’t appealing enough to get me to make a concerted effort to see it.

I really enjoyed those comic book characters as a child and would naturally be drawn to movies featuring those characters.  Unfortunately, DC seems committed to having mediocre writing and a director who doesn’t seem to have a basic understanding of the characters he’s working with on the Superman films.  I had basically given up on DC managing a decent film offering without Christopher Nolan directing it.

And then I watched Suicide Squad.  It felt a little patchy in places, as if someone had done some sewing to put a new piece of cloth on an old garment.  Occasionally the humor flopped.  Some of the character development could have been better.  The political intrigue should have been written a bit better.

But on the whole, the movie was actually enjoyable.  The acting was excellent, on the whole.  The ways in which the movie helped me to care about the characters were sometimes ham-fisted, but it worked.  Some of the action sequences were a bit dull, but many of them were quite good.  It wasn’t a technically flawless film, but it was fun and exciting and the characters worked well together.

I’m hoping that this is the beginning of DC stepping away from the film-making ledge it has been perched on, staring into the abyss of movies that just don’t live up to the hype and the hopes of people who just want to see their favorite heroes (or villains) win the day.

Don’t jump off the ledge, DC.  We all want you to live and thrive, and the Suicide Squad film can help point you in a better direction.

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Little Bang Theory: The jokes are not The Joke

Recently, I finally sat down to watch the 3rd season of The Big Bang Theory (the only season of which I was given a DVD), a comedy that numerous friends have recommended to me.  Many of them had told me that the science and geek humor was great and I would really like it, but I didn’t actually enjoy those jokes very much.

They were the kind of jokes that seemed not to come from a genuine nerdy and quirky sense of humor, but rather a contrived sense of what a non-nerdy person would think of as nerdy humor.  Even when the jokes were technically correct, it somehow wasn’t the best kind of correct.  It took me slightly over a quarter of the season to figure out why.

What I realized is that the little nerdy puns, geeky references, and quirky comments aren’t actually the jokes of the show.  What gets the laughs is the social situations that seem so awkward to those of us watching and also to the characters in the show in many cases.  What we are laughing about is the lack of understanding that the men exhibit with women, the lack of understanding that the women exhibit with the men, and the general lack of social skills that the 4 nerdy male main characters exhibit over and over.

And that makes some sense.  After all, it’s perfectly understandable that we would do with socially inept nerds what we do with lots of other people who don’t have our talents.  Many people laugh at those who are academically inept, or physically inept, or inept when it comes to fashion, et cetera.  Laughing at others’ weaknesses is a perfectly normal human thing to do.  I’ve done it myself, though much less in the past few years, and that’s because I realize it’s not a morally good thing to do.

So although I can appreciate that the show features some good acting, some good character development, and some good writing, those bits and pieces of goodness are not enough to offset the fact that The Joke of this comedy is that the people we consider the smart people are often profoundly socially inept in ways that endanger their chances of having healthy relationships.

The Joke of The Big Bang Theory is true, but it’s not a truth that sets us free unless our acknowledgement of that truth leads us to help others who are struggling rather than laughing at them.

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Fair Questions: Did Tim Kaine discard his beliefs about abortion to gain power?

There have been quite a few people in the Catholic segment of the blogosphere upset about Tim Kaine’s recent position on abortion.  In an op-ed published by CNN, Carter Snead points out that Kaine has recently changed his position on abortion.  The policies previously advocated by Kaine were essentially of the “safe, legal, and rare” variety of abortion policies that don’t try to overturn Rose V. Wade while they do try to reduce the overall amount of baby-killing.

Now, he has taken a stand in line with the Clinton campaign and is for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment along with co-sponsoring a bill to nullify any other legal restrictions on funding for, regulation of, or access to abortion.  Kaine is smart enough to know, and his friends in the Democratic Party smart enough to tell him, that the general consensus of the party has shifted on abortion…in the direction of loosening any restrictions on it.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Kaine is conveniently changing his position on the issue because the consensus of the Democratic Party has changed and he wants to be in line with the party as their Vice Presidential candidate.  It’s also possible that his current position was the position he held all along, and he was finally able to put himself in a political position in which it made sense to reveal his genuine policy beliefs.

Given that Kaine has stated that his progressive political ideology stemmed from his exposure to the Jesuits, and given his being of a particular progressive age, it would not surprise me at all if he had been in favor of loosening all restrictions on abortion for a long time.  That said, his argument that he is personally opposed to abortion but in favor of keeping it legal may not be dishonest.

It is definitely rationally incoherent, as Snead pointed out.  But as someone who used to make that same argument Kaine is making (along with almost half of the American electorate), I’m aware that the folks who make that argument are generally making it in good faith.  It’s not that they’re being cynical; they truly believe that even though they would never personally choose an abortion, the government’s role isn’t to intervene in such a complex moral dilemma.

Sure, I used motivated reasoning to reach my policy prescription of keeping abortion legal (and on such an emotionally-charged issue it’s difficult to avoid motivated reasoning), but my bad reasoning did not come from having bad intentions or a desire to gain political power.  Just as I truly believed it, the current crop of Pro-choice activists truly believe that the most compassionate thing we can do for women is to make abortion readily available and as comfortable as possible.

I don’t know that there is any way we can determine whether Tim Kaine is finally putting forward the policies that have matches his views all along or finally setting his personal views aside for political gain.  It could well be either one.  I just hope that he comes to a point at which he can stand firm on his actual principles, whatever those are.  Personal integrity is too important to sacrifice for something as small as temporary political power and great book deals.

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The Importance of Being Vulnerable

Recently, I read another article over at The Good Men Project, and this one was written by a woman who is imploring men to listen to their concerns rather than dismissing them as irrational or overly sensitive.

It’s easy for us men, especially those like me who are of above average height and musculature, to think that the fears and worries women express to us are groundless.  I suspect that the article’s author is correct that this is in part because we are generally not as vulnerable as women are and do not experience regular or constant attempts by others to appropriate our bodies.

And on the occasions when we do experience that (and I have on occasion experienced it), we are generally more confident in asserting our self-ownership and setting appropriate boundaries without being worried that we might be overpowered and our bodies appropriated without our consent.  Outside of a war zone, men are less likely to have lives which are shot through with bodily vulnerability in the same way that women generally do.

Perhaps it would help if more men did see combat, fight against larger opponents, work in an extremely dangerous job or engage in extreme sports in which bodily danger is a constant risk.  And perhaps it would help if  men were generally raised to understand that life is generally experienced differently for women so that when women express concerns about their vulnerability, more of us men can really listen to them instead of dismissing them.

This is of course not to say that every single concern a woman expresses is necessarily based on good evidence or good reasoning, or that we should never ask women to do self-examination and think critically about it.  It’s quite healthy to engage in self-examination to identify our insecurities and seek to overcome them.  But it is to say that we should not merely assume that a woman’s concerns aren’t based on good evidence or good reasoning.

Instead, we should understand our own vulnerability and let that be the stepping stone to listening to one another with an open mind and an open heart full of compassion.  But if we are never particularly vulnerable, this is unlikely to be something we can do well.

The importance of being vulnerable is that we can learn from that experience in order to become more compassionate to those who are the most vulnerable and in need of our strength.

Posted in Education, Relationships | 2 Comments

The Philosophy of Hooking Up

I was recently reading an article written by a professor of Philosophy about the damaging and toxic affects of hook-up culture on women.  She notes that many of her contemporaries find it baffling to think that the sexual freedoms fought for and won by the architects and activists of the Sexual Revolution might not have a completely healthy outcome for young women today.

And that’s perfectly understandable.  They are indeed true believers in the God of Sex, and true believers generally have trouble understanding why others would not want to believe as they do.  While it may be obvious to those of us looking on after the fact that something is very wrong, it is not obvious to me that those who were born before or during the Revolution are correct about hook-up culture being the root of the problem for the young women who are self-medicating their sense of worthlessness away for a while.

I suspect that the underlying problem is that having sex recklessly has now become not only normative for Revolutionaries, but completely normal for their descendants.  What was liberating for their grand-parents is just the standard expectation for young people.  And there’s nothing liberating about obeying the standard cultural expectation.  The Sexual Revolutionaries were able to feel liberated because they felt socially constrained from making reckless sexual decisions.

Their grandchildren have no such social constraints, and therefore no such liberation.  Hooking up (meaning to have casual sex with someone new) cannot possibly be liberating if there really aren’t any serious consequences for doing it.  And for most of my generation and those who are younger, there are no longer any serious consequences for hooking up.  We’re more likely to be handed a condom and told to avoid getting in a car drunk than to face our parents kicking us out of the house because we had sex with a new acquaintance in their car.

Hooking up is now boring; the only reason it held any draw aside from the intense physical and emotional high was that it was a rebellion, a participation in a fight for freedom from antiquated social mores.  That draw is dead for most of us, and so what fulfillment could young women (or young men) be finding in it?  They might feel sexually competent, or experienced, or even accomplished.  But they won’t feel any sense of higher purpose to it, because the higher purpose of liberation is no longer possible and the higher purpose of spiritual communion/procreation is unthinkable.

That’s because sex is just a recreational act to them, something to be explained in a sexual education class so that there’s no mystery to it, so that it’s reduced to a combination mechanics and sentiments.  And after it was stripped of any glorious purpose and reduced to mere techniques, then it was divinized, made to be the transcendent value, a moral duty and a right to be exercised all at once.

We must all bow at the altar of coitus or be barred from the public temples; no matter that we neutered it by demanding that it not ask us to bring forth new life, or that we insisted that it was not sacred at all, or that we just go through the motions without believing it actually means anything (even though we really want to).  The architects and activists of the Sexual Revolution tore down the old cluttered temples our ancestors had built to the God of Sex and erected empty ones in their places.

So it’s no surprise that the new worship feels empty, that our praises of the joys of sex ring somewhat hollow now, and that the sacrifice of our time and effort to reach the altar of coitus seems like a bit of a waste in the end.

The God of Sex is dead, and its worshipers were the ones who killed it.

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As the Trump Turns: The Winner has Become the Loser

Well, it looks like Trump was a late bloomer in the Republican primary process, not really picking up enough steam to become the presumptive nominee until fairly late in the process.  At the same time, his poll numbers looking toward the general election have told the opposite story.

He was fairly strong in some polls early on, with those polls showing Trump and Clinton very close to one another in the polls in about the proportions we have seen in Presidential elections during the last few cycles.  But after a strong early showing, Trump is now losing horribly in those polls.

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s best prediction based on the current polling data (and his predictions are usually at least close) shows Hillary Clinton with a 77.5% chance of winning and Donald Trump with a 22.4% chance of winning.  These numbers will no doubt shift over the coming months, but it would take an unprecedented shift to get Trump out of the hole he has managed to dig for himself.

It’s certainly possible that Trump, a man unafraid of doing things that are highly unusual to accomplish unprecedented things in the political arena, will step up to the plate and take a swing at recovering from this setback.  All we can do is watch as the Trump turns and see what happens.

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