Moral luck: How it matters, and how it doesn’t

Feb 10 JDN 2458525

The concept of moral luck is now relatively familiar to most philosophers, but I imagine most other people haven’t heard it before. It sounds like a contradiction, which is probably why it drew so much attention.

The term “moral luck” seems to have originated in essay by Thomas Nagel, but the intuition is much older, dating at least back to Greek philosophy (and really probably older than that; we just don’t have good records that far back).

The basic argument is this:

Most people would say that if you had no control over something, you can’t be held morally responsible for it. It was just luck.

But if you look closely, everything we do—including things we would conventionally regard as moral actions—depends heavily on things we don’t have control over.

Therefore, either we can be held responsible for things we have no control over, or we can’t be held responsible for anything at all!

Neither approach seems very satisfying; hence the conundrum.

For example, consider four drivers:

Anna is driving normally, and nothing of note happens.

Bob is driving recklessly, but nothing of note happens.

Carla is driving normally, but a child stumbles out into the street and she runs the child over.

Dan is driving recklessly, and a child stumbles out into the street and he runs the child over.

The presence or absence of a child in the street was not in the control of any of the four drivers. Yet I think most people would agree that Dan should be held more morally responsible than Bob, and Carla should be held more morally responsible than Anna. (Whether Bob should be held more morally responsible than Carla is not as clear.) Yet both Bob and Dan were driving recklessly, and both Anna and Carla were driving normally. The moral evaluation seems to depend upon the presence of the child, which was not under the drivers’ control.

Other philosophers have argued that the difference is an epistemic one: We know the moral character of someone who drove recklessly and ran over a child better than the moral character of someone who drove recklessly and didn’t run over a child. But do we, really?

Another response is simply to deny that we should treat Bob and Dan any differently, and say that reckless driving is reckless driving, and safe driving is safe driving. For this particular example, maybe that works. But it’s not hard to come up with better examples where that doesn’t work:

Ted is a psychopathic serial killer. He kidnaps, rapes, and murder people. Maybe he can control whether or not he rapes and murders someone. But the reason he rapes and murders someone is that he is a psychopath. And he can’t control that he is a psychopath. So how can we say that his actions are morally wrong?

Obviously, we want to say that his actions are morally wrong.

I have heard one alternative, which is to consider psychopaths as morally equivalent to viruses: Zero culpability, zero moral value, something morally neutral but dangerous that we should contain or eradicate as swiftly as possible. HIV isn’t evil; it’s just harmful. We should kill it not because it deserves to die, but because it will kill us if we don’t. On this theory, Ted doesn’t deserve to be executed; it’s just that we must execute him in order to protect ourselves from the danger he poses.

But this quickly becomes unsatisfactory as well:

Jonas is a medical researcher whose work has saved millions of lives. Maybe he can control the research he works on, but he only works on medical research because he was born with a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion. He can’t control that he was born with a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion. So how can we say his actions are morally right?

This is the line of reasoning that quickly leads to saying that all actions are outside our control, and therefore morally neutral; and then the whole concept of morality falls apart.

So we need to draw the line somewhere; there has to be a space of things that aren’t in our control, but nonetheless carry moral weight. That’s moral luck.

Philosophers have actually identified four types of moral luck, which turns out to be tremendously useful in drawing that line.

Resultant luck is luck that determines the consequences of your actions, how things “turn out”. Happening to run over the child because you couldn’t swerve fast enough is resultant luck.

Circumstantial luck is luck that determines the sorts of situations you are in, and what moral decisions you have to make. A child happening to stumble across the street is circumstantial luck.

Constitutive luck is luck that determines who you are, your own capabilities, virtues, intentions and so on. Having a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion is constitutive luck.

Causal luck is the inherent luck written into the fabric of the universe that determines all events according to the fundamental laws of physics. Causal luck is everything and everywhere; it is written into the universal wavefunction.

I have a very strong intuition that this list is ordered; going from top to bottom makes things “less luck” in a vital sense.

Resultant luck is pure luck, what we originally meant when we said the word “luck”. It’s the roll of the dice.

Circumstantial luck is still mostly luck, but maybe not entirely; there are some aspects of it that do seem to be under our control.

Constitutive luck is maybe luck, sort of, but not really. Yes, “You’re lucky to be so smart” makes sense, but “You’re lucky to not be a psychopath” already sounds pretty weird. We’re entering territory here where our ordinary notions of luck and responsibility really don’t seem to apply.

Causal luck is not luck at all. Causal luck is really the opposite of luck: Without a universe with fundamental laws of physics to maintain causal order, none of our actions would have any meaning at all. They wouldn’t even really be actions; they’d just be events. You can’t do something in a world of pure chaos; things only happen. And being made of physical particles doesn’t make you any less what you are; a table made of wood is still a table, and a rocket made of steel is still a rocket. Thou art physics.

And that, my dear reader, is the solution to the problem of moral luck. Forget “causal luck”, which isn’t luck at all. Then, draw a hard line at constitutive luck: regardless of how you became who you are, you are responsible for what you do.

You don’t need to have control over who you are (what would that even mean!?).

You merely need to have control over what you do.

This is how the word “control” is normally used, by the way; when we say that a manufacturing process is “under control” or a pilot “has control” of an airplane, we aren’t asserting some grand metaphysical claim of ultimate causation. We’re merely saying that the system is working as it’s supposed to; the outputs coming out are within the intended parameters. This is all we need for moral responsibility as well.

In some cases, maybe people’s brains really are so messed up that we can’t hold them morally responsible; they aren’t “under control”. Okay, we’re back to the virus argument then: Contain or eradicate. If a brain tumor makes you so dangerous that we can’t trust you around sharp objects, unless we can take out that tumor, we’ll need to lock you up somewhere where you can’t get any sharp objects. Sorry. Maybe you don’t deserve that in some ultimate sense, but it’s still obviously what we have to do. And this is obviously quite exceptional; most people are not suffering from brain tumors that radically alter their personalities—and even most psychopaths are otherwise neurologically normal.

Ironically, it’s probably my fellow social scientists who will scoff the most at this answer. “But so much of what we are is determined by our neurochemistry/cultural norms/social circumstances/political institutions/economic incentives!” Yes, that’s true. And if we want to change those things to make us and others better, I’m all for it. (Well, neurochemistry is a bit problematic, so let’s focus on the others first—but if you can make a pill that cures psychopathy, I would support mandatory administration of that pill to psychopaths in positions of power.)

When you make a moral choice, we have to hold you responsible for that choice.

Maybe Ted is psychopathic and sadistic because there was too much lead in his water as a child. That’s a good reason to stop putting lead in people’s water (like we didn’t already have plenty!); but it’s not a good reason to let Ted off the hook for all those rapes and murders.

Maybe Jonas is intelligent and compassionate because his parents were wealthy and well-educated. That’s a good reason to make sure people are financially secure and well-educated (again, did we need more?); but it’s not a good reason to deny Jonas his Nobel Prize for saving millions of lives.

Yes, “personal responsibility” has been used by conservatives as an excuse to not solve various social and economic problems (indeed, it has specifically been used to stop regulations on lead in water and public funding for education). But that’s not actually anything wrong with personal responsibility. We should hold those conservatives personally responsible for abusing the term in support of their destructive social and economic policies. No moral freedom is lost by preventing lead from turning children into psychopaths. No personal liberty is destroyed by ensuring that everyone has access to a good education.

In fact, there is evidence that telling people who are suffering from poverty or oppression that they should take personal responsibility for their choices benefits them. Self-perceived victimhood is linked to all sorts of destructive behaviors, even controlling for prior life circumstances. Feminist theorists have written about how taking responsibility even when you are oppressed can empower you to make your life better. Yes, obviously, we should be helping people when we can. But telling them that they are hopeless unless we come in to rescue them isn’t helping them.

This way of thinking may require a delicate balance at times, but it’s not inconsistent. You can both fight against lead pollution and support the criminal justice system. You can believe in both public education and the Nobel Prize. We should be working toward a world where people are constituted with more virtue for reasons beyond their control, and where people are held responsible for the actions they take that are under their control.

We can continue to talk about “moral luck” referring to constitutive luck, I suppose, but I think the term obscures more than it illuminates. The “luck” that made you a good or a bad person is very different from the “luck” that decides how things happen to turn out.

How personality makes cognitive science hard

August 13, JDN 2457614

Why is cognitive science so difficult? First of all, let’s acknowledge that it is difficult—that even those of us who understand it better than most are still quite baffled by it in quite fundamental ways. The Hard Problem still looms large over us all, and while I know that the Chinese Room Argument is wrong, I cannot precisely pin down why.

The recursive, reflexive character of cognitive science is part of the problem; can a thing understand itself without understanding understanding itself, understanding understanding understanding itself, and on in an infinite regress? But this recursiveness applies just as much to economics and sociology, and honestly to physics and biology as well. We are physical biological systems in an economic and social system, yet most people at least understand these sciences at the most basic level—which is simply not true of cognitive science.

One of the most basic facts of cognitive science (indeed I am fond of calling it The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science) is that we are our brains, that everything human consciousness does is done by and within the brain. Yet the majority of humans believe in souls (including the majority of Americans and even the majority of Brits), and just yesterday I saw a news anchor say “Based on a new study, that feeling may originate in your brain!” He seriously said “may”. “may”? Why, next you’ll tell me that when my arms lift things, maybe they do it with muscles! Other scientists are often annoyed by how many misconceptions the general public has about science, but this is roughly the equivalent of a news anchor saying, “Based on a new study, human bodies may be made of cells!” or “Based on a new study, diamonds may be made of carbon atoms!” The misunderstanding of many sciences is widespread, but the misunderstanding of cognitive science is fundamental.

So what makes cognitive science so much harder? I have come to realize that there is a deep feature of human personality that makes cognitive science inherently difficult in a way other sciences are not.

Decades of research have uncovered a number of consistent patterns in human personality, where people’s traits tend to lie along a continuum from one extreme to another, and usually cluster near either end. Most people are familiar with a few of these, such as introversion/extraversion and optimism/pessimism; but the one that turns out to be important here is empathizing/systematizing.

Empathizers view the world as composed of sentient beings, living agents with thoughts, feelings, and desires. They are good at understanding other people and providing social support. Poets are typically empathizers.

Systematizers view the world as composed of interacting parts, interlocking components that have complex inner workings which can be analyzed and understood. They are good at solving math problems and tinkering with machines. Engineers are typically systematizers.

Most people cluster near one end of the continuum or the other; they are either strong empathizers or strong systematizers. (If you’re curious, there’s an online test you can take to find out which you are.)

But a rare few of us, perhaps as little as 2% and no more than 10%, are both; we are empathizer-systematizers, strong on both traits (showing that it’s not really a continuum between two extremes after all, and only seemed to be because the two traits are negatively correlated). A comparable number are also low on both traits, which must quite frankly make the world a baffling place in general.

Empathizer-systematizers understand the world as it truly is: Composed of sentient beings that are made of interacting parts.

The very title of this blog shows I am among this group: “human” for the empathizer, “economics” for the systematizer!

We empathizer-systematizers can intuitively grasp that there is no contradiction in saying that a person is sad because he lost his job and he is sad because serotonin levels in his cingulate gyrus are low—because it was losing his job that triggered other thoughts and memories that lowered serotonin levels in his cingulate gyrus and thereby made him sad. No one fully understands the details of how low serotonin feels like sadness—hence, the Hard Problem—but most people can’t even seem to grasp the connection at all. How can something as complex and beautiful as a human mind be made of… sparking gelatin?

Well, what would you prefer it to be made of? Silicon chips? We’re working on that. Something else? Magical fairy dust, perhaps? Pray tell, what material could the human mind be constructed from that wouldn’t bother you on a deep level?

No, what really seems to bother people is the very idea that a human mind can be constructed from material, that thoughts and feelings can be divisible into their constituent parts.

This leads people to adopt one of two extreme positions on cognitive science, both of which are quite absurd—frankly I’m not sure they are even coherent.

Pure empathizers often become dualists, saying that the mind cannot be divisible, cannot be made of material, but must be… something else, somehow, outside the material universe—whatever that means.

Pure systematizers instead often become eliminativists, acknowledging the functioning of the brain and then declaring proudly that the mind does not exist—that consciousness, emotion, and experience are all simply illusions that advanced science will one day dispense with—again, whatever that means.

I can at least imagine what a universe would be like if eliminativism were true and there were no such thing as consciousness—just a vast expanse of stars and rocks and dust, lifeless and empty. Of course, I know that I’m not in such a universe, because I am experiencing consciousness right now, and the illusion of consciousness is… consciousness. (You are not experiencing what you are experiencing right now, I say!) But I can at least visualize what such a universe would be like, and indeed it probably was our universe (or at least our solar system) up until about a billion years ago when the first sentient animals began to evolve.

Dualists, on the other hand, are speaking words, structured into grammatical sentences, but I’m not even sure they are forming coherent assertions. Sure, you can sort of imagine our souls being floating wisps of light and energy (ala the “ascended beings”, my least-favorite part of the Stargate series, which I otherwise love), but ultimately those have to be made of something, because nothing can be both fundamental and complex. Moreover, the fact that they interact with ordinary matter strongly suggests that they are made of ordinary matter (and to be fair to Stargate, at one point in the series Rodney with his already-great intelligence vastly increased declares confidently that ascended beings are indeed nothing more than “protons and electrons, protons and electrons”). Even if they were made of some different kind of matter like dark matter, they would need to obey a common system of physical laws, and ultimately we would come to think of them as matter. Otherwise, how do the two interact? If we are made of soul-stuff which is fundamentally different from other stuff, then how do we even know that other stuff exists? If we are not our bodies, then how do we experience pain when they are damaged and control them with our volition? The most coherent theory of dualism is probably Malebranche’s, which is quite literally “God did it”. Epiphenomenalism, which says that thoughts are just sort of an extra thing that also happens but has no effect (an “epiphenomenon”) on the physical brain, is also quite popular for some reason. People don’t quite seem to understand that the Law of Conservation of Energy directly forbids an “epiphenomenon” in this sense, because anything that happens involves energy, and that energy (unlike, say, money) can’t be created out of nothing; it has to come from somewhere. Analogies are often used: The whistle of a train, the smoke of a flame. But the whistle of a train is a pressure wave that vibrates the train; the smoke from a flame is made of particulates that could be used to smother the flame. At best, there are some phenomena that don’t affect each other very much—but any causal interaction at all makes dualism break down.

How can highly intelligent, highly educated philosophers and scientists make such basic errors? I think it has to be personality. They have deep, built-in (quite likely genetic) intuitions about the structure of the universe, and they just can’t shake them.

And I confess, it’s very hard for me to figure out what to say in order to break those intuitions, because my deep intuitions are so different. Just as it seems obvious to them that the world cannot be this way, it seems obvious to me that it is. It’s a bit like living in a world where 45% of people can see red but not blue and insist the American Flag is red and white, another 45% of people can see blue but not red and insist the flag is blue and white, and I’m here in the 10% who can see all colors and I’m trying to explain that the flag is red, white, and blue.

The best I can come up with is to use analogies, and computers make for quite good analogies, not least because their functioning is modeled on our thinking.

Is this word processor program (LibreOffice Writer, as it turns out) really here, or is it merely an illusion? Clearly it’s really here, right? I’m using it. It’s doing things right now. Parts of it are sort of illusions—it looks like a blank page, but it’s actually an LCD screen lit up all the way; it looks like ink, but it’s actually where the LCD turns off. But there is clearly something here, an actual entity worth talking about which has properties that are usefully described without trying to reduce them to the constituent interactions of subatomic particles.

On the other hand, can it be reduced to the interactions of subatomic particles? Absolutely. A brief sketch is something like this: It’s a software program, running on an operating system, and these in turn are represented in the physical hardware as long binary sequences, stored by ever-so-slightly higher or lower voltages in particular hardware components, which in turn are due to electrons being moved from one valence to another. Those electrons move in precise accordance with the laws of quantum mechanics, I assure you; yet this in no way changes the fact that I’m typing a blog post on a word processor.

Indeed, it’s not even particularly useful to know that the electrons are obeying the laws of quantum mechanics, and quite literally no possible computer that could be constructed in our universe could ever be large enough to fully simulate all these quantum interactions within the amount of time since the dawn of the universe. If we are to understand it at all, it must be at a much higher level—and the “software program” level really seems to be the best one for most circumstances. The vast majority of problems I’m likely to encounter are either at the software level or the macro hardware level; it’s conceivable that a race condition could emerge in the processor cache or the voltage could suddenly spike or even that a cosmic ray could randomly ionize a single vital electron, but these scenarios are far less likely to affect my life than, say, I accidentally deleted the wrong file or the battery ran out of charge because I forgot to plug it in.

Likewise, when dealing with a relationship problem, or mediating a conflict between two friends, it’s rarely relevant that some particular neuron is firing in someone’s nucleus accumbens, or that one of my friends is very low on dopamine in his mesolimbic system today. It could be, particularly if some sort of mental or neurological illness in involved, but in most cases the real issues are better understood as higher level phenomena—people being angry, or tired, or sad. These emotions are ultimately constructed of axon potentials and neurotransmitters, but that doesn’t make them any less real, nor does it change the fact that it is at the emotional level that most human matters are best understood.

Perhaps part of the problem is that human emotions take on moral significance, which other higher-level entities generally do not? But they sort of do, really, in a more indirect way. It matters a great deal morally whether or not climate change is a real phenomenon caused by carbon emissions (it is). Ultimately this moral significance can be tied to human experiences, so everything rests upon human experiences being real; but they are real, in much the same way that rocks and trees and carbon emissions are real. No amount of neuroscience will ever change that, just as no amount of biological science would disprove the existence of trees.

Indeed, some of the world’s greatest moral problems could be better solved if people were better empathizer-systematizers, and thus more willing to do cost-benefit analysis.

What is the processing power of the human brain?

JDN 2457485

Futurists have been predicting that AI will “surpass humans” any day now for something like 50 years. Eventually they’ll be right, but it will be more or less purely by chance, since they’ve been making the same prediction longer than I’ve been alive. (Similarity, whenever someone projects the date at which immortality will be invented, it always seems to coincide with just slightly before the end of the author’s projected life expectancy.) Any technology that is “20 years away” will be so indefinitely.

There are a lot of reasons why this prediction keeps failing so miserably. One is an apparent failure to grasp the limitations of exponential growth. I actually think the most important is that a lot of AI fans don’t seem to understand how human cognition actually works—that it is primarily social cognition, where most of the processing has already been done and given to us as cached results, some of them derived centuries before we were born. We are smart enough to run a civilization with airplanes and the Internet not because any individual human is so much smarter than any other animal, but because all humans together are—and other animals haven’t quite figured out how to unite their cognition in the same way. We’re about 3 times smarter than any other animal as individuals—and several billion times smarter when we put our heads together.

A third reason is that even if you have sufficient computing power, that is surprisingly unimportant; what you really need are good heuristics to make use of your computing power efficiently. Any nontrivial problem is too complex to brute-force by any conceivable computer, so simply increasing computing power without improving your heuristics will get you nowhere. Conversely, if you have really good heuristics like the human brain does, you don’t even need all that much computing power. A chess grandmaster was once asked how many moves ahead he can see on the board, and he replied: “I only see one move ahead. The right one.” In cognitive science terms, people asked him how much computing power he was using, expecting him to say something far beyond normal human capacity, and he replied that he was using hardly any—it was all baked into the heuristics he had learned from years of training and practice.

Making an AI capable of human thought—a true artificial person—will require a level of computing power we can already reach (as long as we use huge supercomputers), but that is like having the right material. To really create the being we will need to embed the proper heuristics. We are trying to make David, and we have finally mined enough marble—now all we need is Michelangelo.

But another reason why so many futurists have failed in their projections is that they have wildly underestimated the computing power of the human brain. Reading 1980s cyberpunk is hilarious in hindsight; Neuromancer actually quite accurately projected the number of megabytes that would flow through the Internet at any given moment, but somehow thought that a few hundred megaflops would be enough to copy human consciousness. The processing power of the human brain is actually on the order of a few petaflops. So, you know, Gibson was only off by a factor of a few million.

We can now match petaflops—the world’s fastest supercomputer is actually about 30 petaflops. Of course, it cost half a month of China’s GDP to build, and requires 24 megawatts to run and cool, which is about the output of a mid-sized solar power station. The human brain consumes only about 400 kcal per day, which is about 20 watts—roughly the consumption of a typical CFL lightbulb. Even if you count the rest of the human body as necessary to run the human brain (which I guess is sort of true), we’re still clocking in at about 100 watts—so even though supercomputers can now process at the same speed, our brains are almost a million times as energy-efficient.

How do I know it’s a few petaflops?

Earlier this year a study was published showing that a conservative lower bound for the total capacity of human memory is about 4 bits per synapse, where previously some scientists thought that each synapse might carry only 1 bit (I’ve always suspected it was more like 10 myself).

So then we need to figure out how many synapses we have… which turns out to be really difficult actually. They are in a constant state of flux, growing, shrinking, and moving all the time; and when we die they fade away almost immediately (reason #3 I’m skeptical of cryonics). We know that we have about 100 billion neurons, and each one can have anywhere between 100 and 15,000 synapses with other neurons. The average seems to be something like 5,000 (but highly skewed in a power-law distribution), so that’s about 500 trillion synapses. If each one is carrying 4 bits to be as conservative as possible, that’s a total storage capacity of about 2 quadrillion bits, which is about 0.2 petabytes.

Of course, that’s assuming that our brains store information the same way as a computer—every bit flipped independently, each bit stored forever. Not even close. Human memory is constantly compressing and decompressing data, using a compression scheme that’s lossy enough that we not only forget things, we can systematically misremember and even be implanted with false memories. That may seem like a bad thing, and in a sense it is; but if the compression scheme is that lossy, it must be because it’s also that efficient—that our brains are compressing away the vast majority of the data to make room for more. Our best lossy compression algorithms for video are about 100:1; but the human brain is clearly much better than that. Our core data format for long-term memory appears to be narrative; more or less we store everything not as audio or video (that’s short-term memory, and quite literally so), but as stories.

How much compression can you get by storing things as narrative? Think about The Lord of the Rings. The extended edition of the films runs to 6 discs of movie (9 discs of other stuff), where a Blu-Ray disc can store about 50 GB. So that’s 300 GB. Compressed into narrative form, we have the books (which, if you’ve read them, are clearly not optimally compressed—no, we do not need five paragraphs about the trees, and I’m gonna say it, Tom Bombadil is totally superfluous and Peter Jackson was right to remove him), which run about 500,000 words altogether. If the average word is 10 letters (normally it’s less than that, but this is Tolkien we’re talking about), each word will take up about 10 bytes (because in ASCII or Unicode a letter is a byte). So altogether the total content of the entire trilogy, compressed into narrative, can be stored in about 5 million bytes, that is, 5 MB. So the compression from HD video to narrative takes us all the way from 300 GB to 5 MB, which is a factor of 60,000. Sixty thousand. I believe that this is the proper order of magnitude for the compression capability of the human brain.

Even more interesting is the fact that the human brain is almost certainly in some sense holographic storage; damage to a small part of your brain does not produce highly selective memory loss as if you had some bad sectors of your hard drive, but rather an overall degradation of your total memory processing as if you in some sense stored everything everywhere—that is, holographically. How exactly this is accomplished by the brain is still very much an open question; it’s probably not literally a hologram in the quantum sense, but it definitely seems to function like a hologram. (Although… if the human brain is a quantum computer that would explain an awful lot—it especially helps with the binding problem. The problem is explaining how a biological system at 37 C can possibly maintain the necessary quantum coherences.) The data storage capacity of holograms is substantially larger than what can be achieved by conventional means—and furthermore has similar properties to human memory in that you can more or less always add more, but then what you had before gradually gets degraded. Since neural nets are much closer to the actual mechanics of the brain as we know them, understanding human memory will probably involve finding ways to simulate holographic storage with neural nets.

With these facts in mind, the amount of information we can usefully take in and store is probably not 0.2 petabytes—it’s probably more like 10 exabytes. The human brain can probably hold just about as much as the NSA’s National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center in Utah, which is itself more or less designed to contain the Internet. (The NSA is at once awesome and terrifying.)

But okay, maybe that’s not fair if we’re comparing human brains to computers; even if you can compress all your data by a factor of 100,000, that isn’t the same thing as having 100,000 times as much storage.

So let’s use that smaller figure, 0.2 petabytes. That’s how much we can store; how much can we process?

The next thing to understand is that our processing architecture is fundamentally difference from that of computers.

Computers generally have far more storage than they have processing power, because they are bottlenecked through a CPU that can only process 1 thing at once (okay, like 8 things at once with a hyperthreaded quad-core; as you’ll see in a moment this is a trivial difference). So it’s typical for a new computer these days to have processing power in gigaflops (It’s usually reported in gigahertz, but that’s kind of silly; hertz just tells you clock cycles, while what you really wanted to know is calculations—and that you get from flops. They’re generally pretty comparable numbers though.), while they have storage in terabytes—meaning that it would take about 1000 seconds (about 17 minutes) for the computer to process everything in its entire storage once. In fact it would take a good deal longer than that, because there are further bottlenecks in terms of memory access, especially from hard-disk drives (RAM and solid-state drives are faster, but would still slow it down to a couple of hours).

The human brain, by contrast, integrates processing and memory into the same system. There is no clear distinction between “memory synapses” and “processing synapses”, and no single CPU bottleneck that everything has to go through. There is however something like a “clock cycle” as it turns out; synaptic firings are synchronized across several different “rhythms”, the fastest of which is about 30 Hz. No, not 30 GHz, not 30 MHz, not even 30 kHz; 30 hertz. Compared to the blazing speed of billions of cycles per second that goes on in our computers, the 30 cycles per second our brains are capable of may seem bafflingly slow. (Even more bafflingly slow is the speed of nerve conduction, which is not limited by the speed of light as you might expect, but is actually less than the speed of sound. When you trigger the knee-jerk reflex doctors often test, it takes about a tenth of a second for the reflex to happen—not because your body is waiting for anything, but because it simply takes that long for the signal to travel to your spinal cord and back.)

The reason we can function at all is because of our much more efficient architecture; instead of passing everything through a single bottleneck, we do all of our processing in parallel. All of those 100 billion neurons with 500 trillion synapses storing 2 quadrillion bits work simultaneously. So whereas a computer does 8 things at a time, 3 billion times per second, a human brain does 2 quadrillion things at a time, 30 times per second. Provided that the tasks can be fully parallelized (vision, yes; arithmetic, no), a human brain can therefore process 60 quadrillion bits per second—which turns out to be just over 6 petaflops, somewhere around 6,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.

So, like I said, a few petaflops.

How to change the world

JDN 2457166 EDT 17:53.

I just got back from watching Tomorrowland, which is oddly appropriate since I had already planned this topic in advance. How do we, as they say in the film, “fix the world”?

I can’t find it at the moment, but I vaguely remember some radio segment on which a couple of neoclassical economists were interviewed and asked what sort of career can change the world, and they answered something like, “Go into finance, make a lot of money, and then donate it to charity.”

In a slightly more nuanced form this strategy is called earning to give, and frankly I think it’s pretty awful. Most of the damage that is done to the world is done in the name of maximizing profits, and basically what you end up doing is stealing people’s money and then claiming you are a great altruist for giving some of it back. I guess if you can make enormous amounts of money doing something that isn’t inherently bad and then donate that—like what Bill Gates did—it seems better. But realistically your potential income is probably not actually raised that much by working in finance, sales, or oil production; you could have made the same income as a college professor or a software engineer and not be actively stripping the world of its prosperity. If we actually had the sort of ideal policies that would internalize all externalities, this dilemma wouldn’t arise; but we’re nowhere near that, and if we did have that system, the only billionaires would be Nobel laureate scientists. Albert Einstein was a million times more productive than the average person. Steve Jobs was just a million times luckier. Even then, there is the very serious question of whether it makes sense to give all the fruits of genius to the geniuses themselves, who very quickly find they have all they need while others starve. It was certainly Jonas Salk’s view that his work should only profit him modestly and its benefits should be shared with as many people as possible. So really, in an ideal world there might be no billionaires at all.

Here I would like to present an alternative. If you are an intelligent, hard-working person with a lot of talent and the dream of changing the world, what should you be doing with your time? I’ve given this a great deal of thought in planning my own life, and here are the criteria I came up with:

  1. You must be willing and able to commit to doing it despite great obstacles. This is another reason why earning to give doesn’t actually make sense; your heart (or rather, limbic system) won’t be in it. You’ll be miserable, you’ll become discouraged and demoralized by obstacles, and others will surpass you. In principle Wall Street quantitative analysts who make $10 million a year could donate 90% to UNICEF, but they don’t, and you know why? Because the kind of person who is willing and able to exploit and backstab their way to that position is the kind of person who doesn’t give money to UNICEF.
  2. There must be important tasks to be achieved in that discipline. This one is relatively easy to satisfy; I’ll give you a list in a moment of things that could be contributed by a wide variety of fields. Still, it does place some limitations: For one, it rules out the simplest form of earning to give (a more nuanced form might cause you to choose quantum physics over social work because it pays better and is just as productive—but you’re not simply maximizing income to donate). For another, it rules out routine, ordinary jobs that the world needs but don’t make significant breakthroughs. The world needs truck drivers (until robot trucks take off), but there will never be a great world-changing truck driver, because even the world’s greatest truck driver can only carry so much stuff so fast. There are no world-famous secretaries or plumbers. People like to say that these sorts of jobs “change the world in their own way”, which is a nice sentiment, but ultimately it just doesn’t get things done. We didn’t lift ourselves into the Industrial Age by people being really fantastic blacksmiths; we did it by inventing machines that make blacksmiths obsolete. We didn’t rise to the Information Age by people being really good slide-rule calculators; we did it by inventing computers that work a million times as fast as any slide-rule. Maybe not everyone can have this kind of grand world-changing impact; and I certainly agree that you shouldn’t have to in order to live a good life in peace and happiness. But if that’s what you’re hoping to do with your life, there are certain professions that give you a chance of doing so—and certain professions that don’t.
  3. The important tasks must be currently underinvested. There are a lot of very big problems that many people are already working on. If you work on the problems that are trendy, the ones everyone is talking about, your marginal contribution may be very small. On the other hand, you can’t just pick problems at random; many problems are not invested in precisely because they aren’t that important. You need to find problems people aren’t working on but should be—problems that should be the focus of our attention but for one reason or another get ignored. A good example here is to work on pancreatic cancer instead of breast cancer; breast cancer research is drowning in money and really doesn’t need any more; pancreatic cancer kills 2/3 as many people but receives less than 1/6 as much funding. If you want to do cancer research, you should probably be doing pancreatic cancer.
  4. You must have something about you that gives you a comparative—and preferably, absolute—advantage in that field. This is the hardest one to achieve, and it is in fact the reason why most people can’t make world-changing breakthroughs. It is in fact so hard to achieve that it’s difficult to even say you have until you’ve already done something world-changing. You must have something special about you that lets you achieve what others have failed. You must be one of the best in the world. Even as you stand on the shoulders of giants, you must see further—for millions of others stand on those same shoulders and see nothing. If you believe that you have what it takes, you will be called arrogant and naïve; and in many cases you will be. But in a few cases—maybe 1 in 100, maybe even 1 in 1000, you’ll actually be right. Not everyone who believes they can change the world does so, but everyone who changes the world believed they could.

Now, what sort of careers might satisfy all these requirements?

Well, basically any kind of scientific research:

Mathematicians could work on network theory, or nonlinear dynamics (the first step: separating “nonlinear dynamics” into the dozen or so subfields it should actually comprise—as has been remarked, “nonlinear” is a bit like “non-elephant”), or data processing algorithms for our ever-growing morasses of unprocessed computer data.

Physicists could be working on fusion power, or ways to neutralize radioactive waste, or fundamental physics that could one day unlock technologies as exotic as teleportation and faster-than-light travel. They could work on quantum encryption and quantum computing. Or if those are still too applied for your taste, you could work in cosmology and seek to answer some of the deepest, most fundamental questions in human existence.

Chemists could be working on stronger or cheaper materials for infrastructure—the extreme example being space elevators—or technologies to clean up landfills and oceanic pollution. They could work on improved batteries for solar and wind power, or nanotechnology to revolutionize manufacturing.

Biologists could work on any number of diseases, from cancer and diabetes to malaria and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. They could work on stem-cell research and regenerative medicine, or genetic engineering and body enhancement, or on gerontology and age reversal. Biology is a field with so many important unsolved problems that if you have the stomach for it and the interest in some biological problem, you can’t really go wrong.

Electrical engineers can obviously work on improving the power and performance of computer systems, though I think over the last 20 years or so the marginal benefits of that kind of research have begun to wane. Efforts might be better spent in cybernetics, control systems, or network theory, where considerably more is left uncharted; or in artificial intelligence, where computing power is only the first step.

Mechanical engineers could work on making vehicles safer and cheaper, or building reusable spacecraft, or designing self-constructing or self-repairing infrastructure. They could work on 3D printing and just-in-time manufacturing, scaling it up for whole factories and down for home appliances.

Aerospace engineers could link the world with hypersonic travel, build satellites to provide Internet service to the farthest reaches of the globe, or create interplanetary rockets to colonize Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They could mine asteroids and make previously rare metals ubiquitous. They could build aerial drones for delivery of goods and revolutionize logistics.

Agronomists could work on sustainable farming methods (hint: stop farming meat), invent new strains of crops that are hardier against pests, more nutritious, or higher-yielding; on the other hand a lot of this is already being done, so maybe it’s time to think outside the box and consider what we might do to make our food system more robust against climate change or other catastrophes.

Ecologists will obviously be working on predicting and mitigating the effects of global climate change, but there are a wide variety of ways of doing so. You could focus on ocean acidification, or on desertification, or on fishery depletion, or on carbon emissions. You could work on getting the climate models so precise that they become completely undeniable to anyone but the most dogmatically opposed. You could focus on endangered species and habitat disruption. Ecology is in general so underfunded and undersupported that basically anything you could do in ecology would be beneficial.

Neuroscientists have plenty of things to do as well: Understanding vision, memory, motor control, facial recognition, emotion, decision-making and so on. But one topic in particular is lacking in researchers, and that is the fundamental Hard Problem of consciousness. This one is going to be an uphill battle, and will require a special level of tenacity and perseverance. The problem is so poorly understood it’s difficult to even state clearly, let alone solve. But if you could do it—if you could even make a significant step toward it—it could literally be the greatest achievement in the history of humanity. It is one of the fundamental questions of our existence, the very thing that separates us from inanimate matter, the very thing that makes questions possible in the first place. Understand consciousness and you understand the very thing that makes us human. That achievement is so enormous that it seems almost petty to point out that the revolutionary effects of artificial intelligence would also fall into your lap.

The arts and humanities also have a great deal to contribute, and are woefully underappreciated.

Artists, authors, and musicians all have the potential to make us rethink our place in the world, reconsider and reimagine what we believe and strive for. If physics and engineering can make us better at winning wars, art and literature and remind us why we should never fight them in the first place. The greatest works of art can remind us of our shared humanity, link us all together in a grander civilization that transcends the petty boundaries of culture, geography, or religion. Art can also be timeless in a way nothing else can; most of Aristotle’s science is long-since refuted, but even the Great Pyramid thousands of years before him continues to awe us. (Aristotle is about equidistant chronologically between us and the Great Pyramid.)

Philosophers may not seem like they have much to add—and to be fair, a great deal of what goes on today in metaethics and epistemology doesn’t add much to civilization—but in fact it was Enlightenment philosophy that brought us democracy, the scientific method, and market economics. Today there are still major unsolved problems in ethics—particularly bioethics—that are in need of philosophical research. Technologies like nanotechnology and genetic engineering offer us the promise of enormous benefits, but also the risk of enormous harms; we need philosophers to help us decide how to use these technologies to make our lives better instead of worse. We need to know where to draw the lines between life and death, between justice and cruelty. Literally nothing could be more important than knowing right from wrong.

Now that I have sung the praises of the natural sciences and the humanities, let me now explain why I am a social scientist, and why you probably should be as well.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists obviously have a great deal to give us in the study of mental illness, but they may actually have more to contribute in the study of mental health—in understanding not just what makes us depressed or schizophrenic, but what makes us happy or intelligent. The 21st century may not simply see the end of mental illness, but the rise of a new level of mental prosperity, where being happy, focused, and motivated are matters of course. The revolution that biology has brought to our lives may pale in comparison to the revolution that psychology will bring. On the more social side of things, psychology may allow us to understand nationalism, sectarianism, and the tribal instinct in general, and allow us to finally learn to undermine fanaticism, encourage critical thought, and make people more rational. The benefits of this are almost impossible to overstate: It is our own limited, broken, 90%-or-so heuristic rationality that has brought us from simians to Shakespeare, from gorillas to Godel. To raise that figure to 95% or 99% or 99.9% could be as revolutionary as was whatever evolutionary change first brought us out of the savannah as Australopithecus africanus.

Sociologists and anthropologists will also have a great deal to contribute to this process, as they approach the tribal instinct from the top down. They may be able to tell us how nations are formed and undermined, why some cultures assimilate and others collide. They can work to understand combat bigotry in all its forms, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism. These could be the fields that finally end war, by understanding and correcting the imbalances in human societies that give rise to violent conflict.

Political scientists and public policy researchers can allow us to understand and restructure governments, undermining corruption, reducing inequality, making voting systems more expressive and more transparent. They can search for the keystones of different political systems, finding the weaknesses in democracy to shore up and the weaknesses in autocracy to exploit. They can work toward a true international government, representative of all the world’s people and with the authority and capability to enforce global peace. If the sociologists don’t end war and genocide, perhaps the political scientists can—or more likely they can do it together.

And then, at last, we come to economists. While I certainly work with a lot of ideas from psychology, sociology, and political science, I primarily consider myself an economist. Why is that? Why do I think the most important problems for me—and perhaps everyone—to be working on are fundamentally economic?

Because, above all, economics is broken. The other social sciences are basically on the right track; their theories are still very limited, their models are not very precise, and there are decades of work left to be done, but the core principles upon which they operate are correct. Economics is the field to work in because of criterion 3: Almost all the important problems in economics are underinvested.

Macroeconomics is where we are doing relatively well, and yet the Keynesian models that allowed us to reduce the damage of the Second Depression nonetheless had no power to predict its arrival. While inflation has been at least somewhat tamed, the far worse problem of unemployment has not been resolved or even really understood.

When we get to microeconomics, the neoclassical models are totally defective. Their core assumptions of total rationality and total selfishness are embarrassingly wrong. We have no idea what controls assets prices, or decides credit constraints, or motivates investment decisions. Our models of how people respond to risk are all wrong. We have no formal account of altruism or its limitations. As manufacturing is increasingly automated and work shifts into services, most economic models make no distinction between the two sectors. While finance takes over more and more of our society’s wealth, most formal models of the economy don’t even include a financial sector.

Economic forecasting is no better than chance. The most widely-used asset-pricing model, CAPM, fails completely in empirical tests; its defenders concede this and then have the audacity to declare that it doesn’t matter because the mathematics works. The Black-Scholes derivative-pricing model that caused the Second Depression could easily have been predicted to do so, because it contains a term that assumes normal distributions when we know for a fact that financial markets are fat-tailed; simply put, it claims certain events will never happen that actually occur several times a year.

Worst of all, economics is the field that people listen to. When a psychologist or sociologist says something on television, people say that it sounds interesting and basically ignore it. When an economist says something on television, national policies are shifted accordingly. Austerity exists as national policy in part due to a spreadsheet error by two famous economists.

Keynes already knew this in 1936: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Meanwhile, the problems that economics deals with have a direct influence on the lives of millions of people. Bad economics gives us recessions and depressions; it cripples our industries and siphons off wealth to an increasingly corrupt elite. Bad economics literally starves people: It is because of bad economics that there is still such a thing as world hunger. We have enough food, we have the technology to distribute it—but we don’t have the economic policy to lift people out of poverty so that they can afford to buy it. Bad economics is why we don’t have the funding to cure diabetes or colonize Mars (but we have the funding for oil fracking and aircraft carriers, don’t we?). All of that other scientific research that needs done probably could be done, if the resources of our society were properly distributed and utilized.

This combination of both overwhelming influence, overwhelming importance and overwhelming error makes economics the low-hanging fruit; you don’t even have to be particularly brilliant to have better ideas than most economists (though no doubt it helps if you are). Economics is where we have a whole bunch of important questions that are unanswered—or the answers we have are wrong. (As Will Rogers said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”)

Thus, rather than tell you go into finance and earn to give, those economists could simply have said: “You should become an economist. You could hardly do worse than we have.”

The Cognitive Science of Morality Part II: Molly Crockett

JDN 2457140 EDT 20:16.

This weekend has been very busy for me, so this post is going to be shorter than most—which is probably a good thing anyway, since my posts tend to run a bit long.

In an earlier post I discussed the Weinberg Cognitive Science Conference and my favorite speaker in the lineup, Joshua Greene. After a brief interlude from Capybara Day, it’s now time to talk about my second-favorite speaker, Molly Crockett. (Is it just me, or does the name “Molly” somehow seem incongruous with a person of such prestige?)

Molly Crockett is a neuroeconomist, though you’d never hear her say that. She doesn’t think of herself as an economist at all, but purely as a neuroscientist. I suspect this is because when she hears the word “economist” she thinks of only mainstream neoclassical economists, and she doesn’t want to be associated with such things.

Still, what she studies is clearly neuroeconomics—I in fact first learned of her work by reading the textbook Neuroeconomics, though I really got interested in her work after watching her TED Talk. It’s one of the better TED talks (they put out so many of them now that the quality is mixed at best); she talks about news reporting on neuroscience, how it is invariably ridiculous and sensationalist. This is particularly frustrating because of how amazing and important neuroscience actually is.

I could almost forgive the sensationalism if they were talking about something that’s actually fantastically boring, like, say, tax codes, or financial regulations. Of course, even then there is the Oliver Effect: You can hide a lot of evil by putting it in something boring. But Dodd-Frank is 2300 pages long; I read an earlier draft that was only (“only”) 600 pages, and it literally contained a three-page section explaining how to define the word “bank”. (Assuming direct proportionality, I would infer that there is now a twelve-page section defining the word “bank”. Hopefully not?) It doesn’t get a whole lot more snoozeworthy than that. So if you must be a bit sensationalist in order to get people to see why eliminating margin requirements and the swaps pushout rule are terrible, terrible ideas, so be it.

But neuroscience is not boring, and so sensationalism only means that news outlets are making up exciting things that aren’t true instead of saying the actually true things that are incredibly exciting.

Here, let me express without sensationalism what Molly Crockett does for a living: Molly Crockett experimentally determines how psychoactive drugs modulate moral judgments. The effects she observes are small, but they are real; and since these experiments are done using small doses for a short period of time, if these effects scale up they could be profound. This is the basic research component—when it comes to technological fruition it will be literally A Clockwork Orange. But it may be A Clockwork Orange in the best possible way: It could be, at last, a medical cure for psychopathy, a pill to make us not just happier or healthier, but better. We are not there yet by any means, but this is clearly the first step: Molly Crockett is to A Clockwork Orange roughly as Michael Faraday is to the Internet.

In one of the experiments she talked about at the conference, Crockett found that serotonin reuptake inhibitors enhance harm aversion. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are very commonly used drugs—you are likely familiar with one called Prozac. So basically what this study means is that Prozac makes people more averse to causing pain in themselves or others. It doesn’t necessarily make them more altruistic, let alone more ethical; but it does make them more averse to causing pain. (To see the difference, imagine a 19th-century field surgeon dealing with a wounded soldier; there is no anesthetic, but an amputation must be made. Sometimes being ethical requires causing pain.)

The experiment is actually what Crockett calls “the honest Milgram Experiment“; under Milgram, the experimenters told their subjects they would be causing shocks, but no actual shocks were administered. Under Crockett, the shocks are absolutely 100% real (though they are restricted to a much lower voltage of course). People are given competing offers that contain an amount of money and a number of shocks to be delivered, either to you or to the other subject. They decide how much it’s worth to them to bear the shocks—or to make someone else bear them. It’s a classic willingness-to-pay paradigm, applied to the Milgram Experiment.

What Crockett found did not surprise me, nor do I expect it will surprise you if you imagine yourself in the same place; but it would totally knock the socks off of any neoclassical economist. People are much more willing to bear shocks for money than they are to give shocks for money. They are what Crockett terms hyper-altruistic; I would say that they are exhibiting an apparent solidarity coefficient greater than 1. They seem to be valuing others more than they value themselves.

Normally I’d say that this makes no sense at all—why would you value some random stranger more than yourself? Equally perhaps, and obviously only a psychopath would value them not at all; but more? And there’s no way you can actually live this way in your daily life; you’d give away all your possessions and perhaps even starve yourself to death. (I guess maybe Jesus lived that way.) But Crockett came up with a model that explains it pretty well: We are morally risk-averse. If we knew we were dealing with someone very strong who had no trouble dealing with shocks, we’d be willing to shock them a fairly large amount. But we might actually be dealing with someone very vulnerable who would suffer greatly; and we don’t want to take that chance.

I think there’s some truth to that. But her model leaves something else out that I think is quite important: We are also averse to unfairness. We don’t like the idea of raising one person while lowering another. (Obviously not so averse as to never do it—we do it all the time—but without a compelling reason we consider it morally unjustified.) So if the two subjects are in roughly the same condition (being two undergrads at Oxford, they probably are), then helping one while hurting the other is likely to create inequality where none previously existed. But if you hurt yourself in order to help yourself, no such inequality is created; all you do is raise yourself up, provided that you do believe that the money is good enough to be worth the shocks. It’s actually quite Rawslian; lifting one person up while not affecting the other is exactly the sort of inequality you’re allowed to create according to the Difference Principle.

There’s also the fact that the subjects can’t communicate; I think if I could make a deal to share the money afterward, I’d feel better about shocking someone more in order to get us both more money. So perhaps with communication people would actually be willing to shock others more. (And the sensation headline would of course be: “Talking makes people hurt each other.”)

But all of these ideas are things that could be tested in future experiments! And maybe I’ll do those experiments someday, or Crockett, or one of her students. And with clever experimental paradigms we might find out all sorts of things about how the human mind works, how moral intuitions are structured, and ultimately how chemical interventions can actually change human moral behavior. The potential for both good and evil is so huge, it’s both wondrous and terrifying—but can you deny that it is exciting?

And that’s not even getting into the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science, which undermines all concepts of afterlife and theistic religion. I already talked about it before—as the sort of thing that I sort of wish I could say when I introduce myself as a cognitive scientist—but I think it bears repeating.

As Patricia Churchland said on the Colbert Report: Colbert asked, “Are you saying I have no soul?” and she answered, “Yes.” I actually prefer Daniel Dennett’s formulation: “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”

We don’t have a magical, supernatural soul (whatever that means); we don’t have an immortal soul that will rise into Heaven or be reincarnated in someone else. But we do have something worth preserving: We have minds that are capable of consciousness. We love and hate, exalt and suffer, remember and imagine, understand and wonder. And yes, we are born and we die. Once the unique electrochemical pattern that defines your consciousness is sufficiently degraded, you are gone. Nothing remains of what you were—except perhaps the memories of others, or things you have created. But even this legacy is unlikely to last forever. One day it is likely that all of us—and everything we know, and everything we have built, from the Great Pyramids to Hamlet to Beethoven’s Ninth to Principia Mathematica to the US Interstate Highway System—will be gone. I don’t have any consolation to offer you on that point; I can’t promise you that anything will survive a thousand years, much less a million. There is a chance—even a chance that at some point in the distant future, whatever humanity has become will find a way to reverse the entropic decay of the universe itself—but nothing remotely like a guarantee. In all probability you, and I, and all of this will be gone someday, and that is absolutely terrifying.

But it is also undeniably true. The fundamental link between the mind and the brain is one of the basic facts of cognitive science; indeed I like to call it The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science. We know specifically which kinds of brain damage will make you unable to form memories, comprehend language, speak language (a totally different area), see, hear, smell, feel anger, integrate emotions with logic… do I need to go on? Everything that you are is done by your brain—because you are your brain.

Now why can’t the science journalists write about that? Instead we get “The Simple Trick That Can Boost Your Confidence Immediately” and “When it Comes to Picking Art, Men & Women Just Don’t See Eye to Eye.” HuffPo is particularly awful of course; the New York Times is better, but still hardly as good as one might like. They keep trying to find ways to make it exciting—but so rarely seem to grasp how exciting it already is.