Archive for the ‘Procrastination’ Category

Coronavirus: the second-weirdest solution?

Friday, March 6th, 2020

Many people have suggested coating handles, doorknobs and so forth with virus-killing copper tape. It’s a shame that this isn’t being tried on a wider scale. In the meantime, though, here’s a related but different idea that I had last night.

Imagine we could coat every doorknob, every light switch, every railing, every other surface that people might touch in public buildings, with some long-lasting disgusting, sticky, slimy substance. For a variety of reasons, one probably wouldn’t use actual excrement, although it wouldn’t hurt if the substance looked like that. Or it could be a sickly neon green or red, to make it impossible to conceal when you’d gotten the substance on your hands.

What would be the result? Of course, people would avoid touching these surfaces. If they had to, they’d do so with a napkin or glove whenever possible. If they had to touch them bare-handedly, they’d rush to wash their hands with soap as soon as possible afterwards. Certainly they wouldn’t touch their faces before having washed their hands.

In short, they’d show exactly the behaviors that experts agree are among the most helpful, if our goal is to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In effect, we’d be plugging an unfortunate gap in our evolutionary programming—namely, that the surfaces where viruses can thrive aren’t intuitively disgusting to us, as (say) vomit or putrid meat are—by making those surfaces disgusting, as they ought to be in the middle of a pandemic.

Note that, even if it somehow turns out to be infeasible to coat all the touchable surfaces in public buildings with disgusting goo, you might still derive great personal benefit from imagining them so covered. If you manage to pull that off, it will yield just the right heuristic for when and how often you should now be washing your hands (and avoiding touching your face), without no need for additional conscious reflection.

Mostly, having the above thoughts made me grateful for my friend Robin Hanson. For as long Robin is around, tweeting and blogging from his unique corner of mindspace, no one will ever be able to say that my ideas for how to control the coronavirus were the world’s weirdest or most politically tone-deaf.

NIPS vs. NeurIPS: guest post by Steven Pinker

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

Scott’s Update (Dec. 26): Comments on this post are now closed, since I felt that whatever progress could be made, had been, and I wanted to move on to more interesting topics. Thanks so much to everyone who came here to hash things out in good faith—which, as far as I’m concerned, included the majority of the participants on both sides.

If you want to see the position paper that led to the name change movement, see What’s In A Name? The Need to Nip NIPS, by Daniela Witten, Elana Fertig, Anima Anandkumar, and Jeff Dean. I apologize for not linking to this paper in the original post.

To recap what I said many times in this post and the comments: I myself am totally fine with the name NeurIPS. I think several of the arguments for changing the name were good arguments—and I thank some of the commenters on this post for elucidating those arguments without shaming anybody or calling them names. In any case the decision is done, and it belongs to the ML community, not to me and not to Steven Pinker.

The one part that I’m against is the bullying of anyone who disagrees by smearing them as a misogynist. And then, recursively, the smearing as a misogynist of anyone who objected to that bullying, and so on and so on. Most supporters of the name change did not engage in such bullying, but one leader of the movement very conspicuously did, and continues to do it even now (to, I’m told, the consternation even of many of her allies).

Since this post went up, something extremely interesting happened: Steven Pinker and I started getting emails from researchers in the NeurIPS community that said, in various words: “thank you for openly airing perspectives that we could not air, without jeopardizing our careers.” We were told that even women in ML, and even those who agreed with the activists on most points, could no longer voice opposition without risking their hiring or tenure. This put into a slightly different light, I thought, the constant claims of some movement leaders about their own marginalization and powerlessness.

Since I was 7 or 8 years old, the moral lodestar of my life has been my yearning (too often left unfulfilled) to stand up to the world’s bullies. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes: some are gangsters or men who sexually exploit vulnerable women; one, alas, is even the President of the United States. But bullying knows no bounds of ideology or gender. Some bullies resort to whisper networks, or Twitter shaming campaigns, or their power in academic hierarchies, to shut down dissenting voices. With the latter kinds of bully—well, to whatever extent this blog is now in a position to make some difference, I’d feel morally complicit if it didn’t.

As I wrote in the comments: may the 2020s be an era of intellectual freedom, compassion, and understanding for all people regardless of background. –SA

Scott’s prologue:

Happy Christmas and Merry Chanukah!

As a followup to last Thursday’s post about the term “quantum supremacy,” today all of us here at Shtetl-Optimized are humbled to host a guest post by Steven Pinker: the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, Enlightenment Now (which I reviewed here), and other books.

The former NIPS—Neural Information Processing Systems—has been the premier conference for machine learning for 30 years. As many readers might know, last year NIPS changed its name to NeurIPS: ironically, giving greater emphasis to an aspect that I’m told has been de-emphasized at that conference over time. The reason, apparently, was that some male attendees had made puns involving the acronym “NIPS” and nipples.

I confess that the name change took me by surprise, simply because it had never occurred to me to make the NIPS/nipples connection—not when I gave a plenary at NIPS in 2012, and not when my collaborators and I coauthored a NIPS paper. It’s not that I’m averse to puerile humor. It’s just that neither I, nor anyone else I knew, had apparently ever felt the need for a shorthand for “nipples.” Of course, once I did learn about this controversy, it became hard to hear “NIPS” without thinking about it.

Back when this happened, Steven Pinker tweeted about NIPS being “forced to change its acronym … because some thought it was sexist. ?????,” apparently as part of a longer thread about “the new Victorians.” In response, a computer science professor sent Pinker an extremely stern email, saying that Pinker’s tweeting about this had “caused harm to our community” and “just [made] the world a bleaker place for everyone.” After linking to a National Academies report on bias in STEM, the email ended: “I hope you will choose to inform yourself on the discussion to which you have just contributed and that you will offer a well-considered follow up.” I won’t risk betraying confidences by quoting further. Of course, the author is warmly welcomed to share anything they wish in the comments here (or I can add it to the main post).

Steve’s guest post today consists of his response to this email. (He told me that, after sending it, he received no further responses.)

I don’t have any dog in the NIPS/NeurIPS debate, being at most on the “margin” (har!) of machine learning. And in any case the debate ended a year ago: the name is now NeurIPS and it’s not changing back. Reopening the issue would seem to invite a strong risk of social-media denunciation for no possible gain.

So why am I doing this? Mostly because I thought it was in the interest of humanity to know that, even when Steven Pinker is answering someone’s email, with no expectation that his reply will be made public, he writes the same way he does in his books: with clarity, humor, and an amusing quote from his mom.

But also because—again, without taking a position on the NIPS vs. NeurIPS issue itself—there’s a tactic displayed by Pinker’s detractors that fundamentally grates on me. This is where you pretend to an open mind, but it turns out that you’re open only to the possibility that your opponent might not have read enough reports and studies to “do better”—i.e., that they sinned out of ignorance rather than out of malice. You don’t open your mind even a crack to the possibility that the opponent might have a point.

Without further ado, here’s Steven Pinker’s email:

I appreciate your frank comments. At the same time, I do not agree with them. Please allow me to explain.

If this were a matter of sexual harassment or other hostile behavior toward women, I would of course support strong measures to combat it. Any member of the Symposium who uttered demeaning comments toward or about women certainly deserves censure.

But that is not what is at issue here. It’s an utterly irrelevant matter: the three-decades-old acronym for the Neural Information Processing Symposium, the pleasingly pronounceable NIPS. To state what should be obvious: nip is not a sexual word. As Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, I can support this claim.

(And as my mother wrote to me: “I don’t get it. I thought Nips was a brand of caramel candy.”)  [Indeed, I enjoyed those candies as a kid. –SA] Even if people with an adolescent mindset think of nipples when hearing the sound “nips,” the society should not endorse the idea that the concept of nipples is sexist. Men have nipples too, and women’s nipples evolved as organs of nursing, not sexual gratification. Indeed, many feminists have argued that it’s sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality.

If some people make insulting puns that demean women, the society should condemn them for the insults, not concede to their puerility by endorsing their appropriation of an innocent sound. (The Linguistics Society of America and Boston Debate League do not change their names to disavow jejune clichés about cunning linguists and master debaters.) To act as if anything with the remotest connection to sexuality must be censored to protect delicate female sensibilities is insulting to women and reminiscent of prissy Victorian taboos against uncovered piano legs or the phrase “with the naked eye.”

Any harm to the community of computer scientists has been done not by me but by the pressure group and the Symposium’s surrender. As a public figure who hears from a broad range of people outside the academic bubble, I can tell you that this episode has not played well. It’s seen as the latest sign that academia has lost its mind—that it has traded reasoned argument, conceptual rigor, proportionality, and common sense for prudish censoriousness, snowflake sensibility, and virtue signaling. I often hear from intelligent non-leftists, “Why should I be impressed by the scientific consensus on climate change? Everyone knows that academics just fall into line with the politically correct position.” To secure the credibility of the academy, we have to make reasoned distinctions, and stop turning our enterprise into a laughingstock.

To repeat: none of this deprecates the important effort to stamp out harassment and misogyny in science, which I’m well aware of and thoroughly support, but which has nothing to do with the acronym NIPS.

You are welcome to share this note with interested parties.

Best,
Steve

Fake it till you make it (to the moon)

Friday, July 19th, 2019

While I wait to board a flight at my favorite location on earth—Philadelphia International Airport—I figured I might as well blog something to mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. (Thanks also to Joshua Zelinsky for a Facebook post that inspired this.)

I wasn’t alive for Apollo, but I’ve been alive for 3/4 of the time after it, even though it now seems like ancient history—specifically, like a Roman cathedral being gawked at by a medieval peasant, like an achievement by some vanished, more cohesive civilization that we can’t even replicate today, let alone surpass.

Which brings me to a depressing mystery: why do so many people now deny that humans walked on the moon at all? Like, why that specifically? While they’re at it, why don’t they also deny that WWII happened, or that the Beatles existed?

Surprisingly, skepticism of the reality of Apollo seems to have gone all the way back to the landings themselves. One of my favorite stories growing up was of my mom, as a teenager, working as a waitress at an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, on the night of Apollo 11 landing. My mom asked for a few minutes off to listen to news of the landing on the radio. The owners wouldn’t grant it—explaining that it was all Hollywood anyway, just some actors in spacesuits on a sound stage, and obviously my mom wasn’t so naïve as to think anyone was actually walking to the moon?

Alas, as we get further and further from the event, with no serious prospect of ever replicating it past the stage of announcing an optimistic timetable (nor, to be honest, any scientific reason to replicate it), as the people involved die off, and as our civilization becomes ever more awash in social-media-fueled paranoid conspiracies, I fear that moon-landing denalism will become more common.

Because here’s the thing: Apollo could happen, but only because of a wildly improbable, once-in-history confluence of social and geopolitical factors. It was economically insane, taking 100,000 people and 4% of the US federal budget for some photo-ops, a flag-planting, some data and returned moon rocks that had genuine scientific value but could’ve been provided much more cheaply by robots. It was dismantled immediately afterwards like a used movie set, rather than leading to any greater successes. Indeed, manned spaceflight severely regressed afterwards, surely mocking the expectations of every last science fiction fan and techno-utopian who was alive at that time.

One could summarize the situation by saying that, in certain respects, the Apollo program really was “faked.” It’s just that the way they “faked” it, involved actually landing people on the moon!

On the scientific accuracy of “Avengers: Endgame”

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

[BY REQUEST: SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Today Ben Lindbergh, a writer for The Ringer, put out an article about the scientific plausibility (!) of the time-travel sequences in the new “Avengers” movie. The article relied on two interviewees:

(1) David Deutsch, who confirmed that he has no idea what the “Deutsch proposition” mentioned by Tony Stark refers to but declined to comment further, and

(2) some quantum computing dude from UT Austin who had no similar scruples about spouting off on the movie.

To be clear, the UT Austin dude hadn’t even seen the movie, or any of the previous “Avengers” movies for that matter! He just watched the clips dealing with time travel. Yet Lindbergh still saw fit to introduce him as “a real-life [Tony] Stark without the vast fortune and fancy suit.” Hey, I’ll take it.

Anyway, if you’ve seen the movie, and/or you know Deutsch’s causal consistency proposal for quantum closed timelike curves, and you can do better than I did at trying to reconcile the two, feel free to take a stab in the comments.

A small post

Friday, May 3rd, 2019
  1. I really liked this article by Chris Monroe, of the University of Maryland and IonQ, entitled “Quantum computing is a marathon not a sprint.” The crazier expectations get in this field—and right now they’re really crazy, believe me—the more it needs to be said.
  2. In a piece for Communications of the ACM, Moshe Vardi came out as a “quantum computing skeptic.” But it turns out what he means by that is not that he knows a reason why QC is impossible in principle, but simply that it’s often overhyped and that it will be hard to establish a viable quantum computing industry. By that standard, I’m a “QC skeptic” as well! But then what does that make Gil Kalai or Michel Dyakonov?
  3. Friend-of-the-blog Bram Cohen asked me to link to this second-round competition for Verifiable Delay Functions, sponsored by his company Chia. Apparently the first link I provided actually mattered in sending serious entrants their way.
  4. Blogging, it turns out, is really, really hard when (a) your life has become a pile of real-world obligations stretching out to infinity, and also (b) the Internet has become a war zone, with anything you say quote-mined by people looking to embarrass you. But don’t worry, I’ll have more to say soon. In the meantime, doesn’t anyone have more questions about the research papers discussed in the previous post? Y’know, NEEXP in MIP*? SBP versus QMA? Gentle measurement of quantum states and differential privacy turning out to be almost the same subject?

Just says in P

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

Recently a Twitter account started called justsaysinmice. The only thing this account does, is to repost breathless news articles about medical research breakthroughs that fail to mention that the effect in question was only observed in mice, and then add the words “IN MICE” to them. Simple concept, but it already seems to be changing the conversation about science reporting.

It occurred to me that we could do something analogous for quantum computing. While my own deep-seated aversion to Twitter prevents me from doing it myself, which of my readers is up for starting an account that just reposts one overhyped QC article after another, while appending the words “A CLASSICAL COMPUTER COULD ALSO DO THIS” to each one?

De-sneering my life

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

If I’m being honest, the most exciting recent development in my life is this: a little over a month ago, I stopped checking “SneerClub” (a place I’d previously resolved not even to name here, but I think an exception is warranted now). Permanently, cold turkey. I won’t even visit to read their sneers about this post. I’ve made progress cutting down on other self-destructive social media fixations as well. Many friends suggested this course to me, and I thank them all, though I ultimately had to follow my own path to the obvious.

Ironically, the SneerClubbers themselves begged me to stop reading them (!), so presumably for once they’ll be okay with something I did (but if not, I don’t care). If any of them still have something to say to me, they can come to this blog, or email me, or if they pass through Austin, set up a time to hash it out over chips and queso (my treat). What I’ll no longer do is spend hours every week binge-reading a forum of people who’ve adopted nastiness and bad faith as their explicit principles. I’ll no longer toss and turn at night wondering how it came about that two thousand Redditors hate Scott Aaronson so much, and what I could say or do (short of total self-abnegation) that would make them hate me less. I plan to spend the freed-up time being Scott Aaronson.

Resolving to ignore one particular online hate pit—and then sticking to the resolution, as so far I have—has been a pure, unmitigated improvement to my quality of life. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife and kids. I recommend this course to anyone.

You could sensibly ask: why did I ever spend time worrying about an anti-nerds-like-me forum that’s so poisonous for its targets and participants alike? After long introspection, I think the answer is: there’s a part of me, perhaps a gift from the childhood bullies, that’s so obsessed with “society’s hatred of STEM nerds,” that it constantly seeks out evidence to confirm that its fears are justified—evidence that it can then wave in front of the rest of my brain to say “you see?? what did I always tell you?” And alas, whenever that part of my brain seeks such evidence, the world dutifully supplies mountains of it. It’s never once disappointed.

Now the SneerClubbers—who are perceptive and talented in their cruelty, if in nothing else—notice this about me, and gleefully ridicule me for it. But they’re oblivious to the central irony: that unlike the vast majority of humankind, or even the vast majority of social justice activists, they (the SneerClubbers) really do hate everyone like me. They’re precisely what the paranoid part of my brain wrongly fears that everyone else I meet is secretly like. They’re like someone who lectures you about your hilariously overblown fear of muggers, while simultaneously mugging you.

But at least they’re not the contented and self-confident bullies of my childhood nightmares, kicking dirt down at nerds from atop their pinnacle of wokeness and social adeptness. If you spend enough time studying them, they themselves come across as angry, depressed, pathetic. So for example: here’s one of my most persistent attackers, popping up on a math thread commemorating Michael Atiyah (one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century), just to insult Atiyah—randomly, gratuitously, and a few days after Atiyah had died. Almost everything posted all over Reddit by this individual—who uses the accurate tagline “unpleasantly radical”—has the same flavor. Somehow seeing this made it click for me: wait a second, these are the folks are lecturing me about my self-centeredness and arrogance and terrible social skills? Like, at least I try to be nice.


Scott Alexander, who writes the world’s best blog and is a more central target of SneerClub than I’ve been, recently announced that he asked the moderators of r/ssc to close its notorious “Culture War” thread, and they’ve done so—moving the thread to a new home on Reddit called “TheMotte.”

For those who don’t know: r/ssc is the place on Reddit to discuss Scott’s SlateStarCodex blog, though Scott himself was never too involved as more than a figurehead.  The Culture War thread was the place within r/ssc to discuss race, gender, immigration, and other hot-button topics.  The thread, which filled up with a bewildering thousands of comments per week (!), attracted the, err … full range of political views, including leftists, libertarians, and moderates but also alt-righters, neoreactionaries, and white nationalists. Predictably, SneerClub treated the thread as a gift from heaven: a constant source of inflammatory material that they could use to smear Scott personally (even if most of the time, Scott hadn’t even seen the offending content, let alone endorsing it).

Four months ago, I was one of the apparently many friends who told Scott that I felt he should dissociate the Culture War thread from his brand. So I congratulate him on his decision, which (despite his eloquently-expressed misgivings) I feel confident was the right one. Think about it this way: nobody’s freedom of speech has been curtailed—the thread continues full steam at TheMotte, for anyone who enjoys it—but meanwhile, the sneerers have been deprived of a golden weapon with which to slime Scott. Meanwhile, while the sneerers themselves might never change their minds about anything, Scott has demonstrated to third parties that he’s open and reasonable and ready to compromise, like the debater who happily switches to his opponent’s terminology. What’s not to like?


A couple weeks ago, while in Albuquerque for the SQuInT conference, I visited the excellent National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.  It was depressing, as it should have been, to tour the detailed exhibits about the murderous events surrounding the birth of the nuclear era: the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was depressing in a different way to tour the exhibits about the early Atomic Age, and see the boundless optimism that ‘unleashing the power of the atom’ would finally usher in a near-utopia of space travel and clean energy—and then to compare that vision to where we are now, with climate change ravaging the planet and (in a world-historic irony) the people who care most about the environment having denounced and marginalized the most reliable source of carbon-free energy, the one that probably had the best chance to avert our planet’s terrifying future.

But on the bright side: how wonderful to have born into a time and place when, for the most part, those who hate you have only the power to destroy your life that you yourself grant them. How wonderful when one can blunt their knives by simply refusing to open a browser tab.

Sabineblogging

Monday, February 4th, 2019

I’ve of course been following the recent public debate about whether to build a circular collider to succeed the LHC—notably including Sabine Hossenfelder’s New York Times column arguing that we shouldn’t.  (See also the responses by Jeremy Bernstein and Lisa Randall, and the discussion on Peter Woit’s blog, and Daniel Harlow’s Facebook thread, and this Vox piece by Kelsey Piper.)  Let me blog about this as a way of cracking my knuckles or tuning my violin, just getting back into blog-shape after a long hiatus for travel and family and the beginning of the semester.

Regardless of whether this opinion is widely shared among my colleagues, I like Sabine.  I’ve often found her blogging funny and insightful, and I wish more non-Lubos physicists would articulate their thoughts for the public the way she does, rather than just standing on the sidelines and criticizing the ones who do. I find it unfortunate that some of the replies to Sabine’s arguments dwelled on her competence and “standing” in physics (even if we set aside—as we should—Lubos’s misogynistic rants, whose predictability could be used to calibrate atomic clocks). It’s like this: if high-energy physics had reached a pathological state of building bigger and bigger colliders for no good reason, then we’d expect that it would take a semi-outsider to say so in public, so then it wouldn’t be a further surprise to find precisely such a person doing it.

Not for the first time, though, I find myself coming down on the opposite side as Sabine. Basically, if civilization could get its act together and find the money, I think it would be pretty awesome to build a new collider to push forward the energy frontier in our understanding of the universe.

Note that I’m not making the much stronger claim that this is the best possible use of $20 billion for science. Plausibly a thousand $20-million projects could be found that would advance our understanding of reality by more than a new collider would. But it’s also important to realize that that’s not the question at stake here. When, for example, the US Congress cancelled the Superconducting Supercollider midway through construction—partly, it’s believed, on the basis of opposition from eminent physicists in other subfields, who argued that they could do equally important science for much cheaper—none of the SSC budget, as in 0% of it, ever did end up redirected to those other subfields. In practice, then, the question of “whether a new collider is worth it” is probably best considered in absolute terms, rather than relative to other science projects.

What I found most puzzling, in Sabine’s writings on this subject, was the leap in logic from

  1. many theorists expected that superpartners, or other new particles besides the Higgs boson, had a good chance of being discovered at the LHC, based on statistical arguments about “natural” parameter values, and
  2. the basic soundness of naturalness arguments was always open to doubt, and indeed the LHC results to date offer zero support for them, and
  3. many of the same theorists now want an even bigger collider, and continue to expect new particles to be found, and haven’t sufficiently reckoned with their previous failed predictions, to …
  4. therefore we shouldn’t build the bigger collider.

How do we get from 1-3 to 4: is the idea that we should punish the errant theorists, by withholding an experiment that they want, in order to deter future wrong predictions? After step 3, it seems to me that Sabine could equally well have gone to: and therefore it’s all the more important that we do build a new collider, in order to establish all the more conclusively that there’s just an energy desert up there—and that I, Sabine, was right to emphasize that possibility, and those other theorists were wrong to downplay it!

Like, I gather that there are independently motivated scenarios where there would be only the Higgs at the LHC scale, and then new stuff at the next energy scale beyond it. And as an unqualified outsider who enjoys talking to friends in particle physics and binge-reading about it, I’d find it hard to assign the totality of those scenarios less than ~20% credence or more than ~80%—certainly if the actual experts don’t either.

And crucially, it’s not as if raising the collision energy is just one arbitrary direction in which to look for new fundamental physics, among a hundred a-priori equally promising directions. Basically, there’s raising the collision energy and then there’s everything else. By raising the energy, you’re not testing one specific idea for physics beyond Standard Model, but a hundred or a thousand ideas in one swoop.

The situation reminds me a little of the quantum computing skeptics who say: scalable QC can never work, in practice and probably even in principle; the mainstream physics community only thinks it can work because of groupthink and hype; therefore, we shouldn’t waste more funds trying to make it work. With the sole, very interesting exception of Gil Kalai, none of the skeptics ever seem to draw what strikes me as an equally logical conclusion: whoa, let’s go full speed ahead with trying to build a scalable QC, because there’s an epochal revolution in physics to be had here—once the experimenters finally see that I was right and the mainstream was wrong, and they start to unravel the reasons why!

Of course, $20 billion is a significant chunk of change, by the standards of science even if not by the standards of random government wastages (like our recent $11 billion shutdown). And ultimately, decisions do need to be made about which experiments are most interesting to pursue with limited resources. And if a future circular collider were built, and if it indeed just found a desert, I think the balance would tilt pretty strongly toward Sabine’s position—that is, toward declining to build an even bigger and more expensive collider after that. If the Patriots drearily won every Superbowl 13-3, year after year after year, eventually no one would watch anymore and the Superbowl would get cancelled (well, maybe that will happen for other reasons…).

But it’s worth remembering that—correct me if I’m wrong—so far there have been no cases in the history of particle physics of massively expanding the energy frontier and finding absolutely nothing new there (i.e., nothing that at least conveyed multiple bits of information, as the Higgs mass did). And while my opinion should count for less than a neutrino mass, just thinking it over a-priori, I keep coming back to the question: before we close the energy frontier for good, shouldn’t there have been at least one unmitigated null result, rather than zero?

The NP genie

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Hi from the Q2B conference!

Every nerd has surely considered the scenario where an all-knowing genie—or an enlightened guru, or a superintelligent AI, or God—appears and offers to answer any question of your choice.  (Possibly subject to restrictions on the length or complexity of the question, to prevent glomming together every imaginable question.)  What do you ask?

(Standard joke: “What question should I ask, oh wise master, and what is its answer?”  “The question you should ask me is the one you just asked, and its answer is the one I am giving.”)

The other day, it occurred to me that theoretical computer science offers a systematic way to generate interesting variations on the genie scenario, which have been contemplated less—variations where the genie is no longer omniscient, but “merely” more scient than any entity that humankind has ever seen.  One simple example, which I gather is often discussed in the AI-risk and rationality communities, is an oracle for the halting problem: what computer program can you write, such that knowing whether it halts would provide the most useful information to civilization?  Can you solve global warming with such an oracle?  Cure cancer?

But there are many other examples.  Here’s one: suppose what pops out of your lamp is a genie for NP questions.  Here I don’t mean NP in the technical sense (that would just be a pared-down version of the halting genie discussed above), but in the human sense.  The genie can only answer questions by pointing you to ordinary evidence that, once you know where to find it, makes the answer to the question clear to every competent person who examines the evidence, with no further need to trust the genie.  Or, of course, the genie could fail to provide such evidence, which itself provides the valuable information that there’s no such evidence out there.

More-or-less equivalently (because of binary search), the genie could do what my parents used to do when my brother and I searched the house for Hanukkah presents, and give us “hotter” or “colder” hints as we searched for the evidence ourselves.

To make things concrete, let’s assume that the NP genie will only provide answers of 1000 characters or fewer, in plain English text with no fancy encodings.  Here are the candidates for NP questions that I came up with after about 20 seconds of contemplation:

  • Which pieces of physics beyond the Standard Model and general relativity can be experimentally confirmed with the technology of 2018? What are the experiments we need to do?
  • What’s the current location of the Ark of the Covenant, or its remains, if any still exist?  (Similar: where can we dig to find physical records, if any exist, pertaining to the Exodus from Egypt, or to Jesus of Nazareth?)
  • What’s a sketch of a resolution of P vs. NP, from which experts would stand a good chance of filling in the details?  (Similar for other any famous unsolved math problem.)
  • Where, if anywhere, can we point radio telescopes to get irrefutable evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life?
  • What happened to Malaysia Flight 370, and where are the remains by which it could be verified?  (Similar for Amelia Earhart.)
  • Where, if anywhere, can we find intact DNA of non-avian dinosaurs?

Which NP questions would you ask the genie?  And what other complexity-theoretic genies would be interesting to consider?  (I thought briefly about a ⊕P genie, but I’m guessing that the yearning to know whether the number of sand grains in the Sahara is even or odd is limited.)


Update: I just read Lenny Susskind’s Y Combinator interview, and found it delightful—pure Lenny, and covering tons of ground that should interest anyone who reads this blog.

The stupidest story I ever wrote (it was a long flight)

Friday, May 18th, 2018

All the legal maneuvers, the decades of recriminations, came down in the end to two ambiguous syllables.  No one knew why old man Memeson had named his two kids “Laurel” and “Yanny,” or why his late wife had gone along with it.  Not Laura, not Lauren, but Laurel—like, the leaves that the complacent rest on?  Poor girl.  And yet she lucked out compared to her younger brother. “Yanny”? Rhymes with fanny, seriously?  If you got picked on in school half as much as Yanny did, you too might grow up angry enough to spend half your life locked in an inheritance fight.

But people mostly tolerated the old man’s eccentricities, because he clearly knew something. All through the 1930s, Memeson Audio was building the highest-end radios and record players that money could buy.  And long after he’d outdone the competition, Memeson continued to outdo himself. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he proudly unveiled a prototype of his finest record player yet, the one he’d been tinkering with in his personal workshop for a decade: the Unmistakable.  Interviewed about it later, people who attended the demo swore that you couldn’t mishear a single syllable that came out of the thing if you were 99% deaf. No one had ever heard a machine like it—or would, perhaps, until the advent of digital audio.  On Internet forums, audiophiles still debate how exactly Memeson managed to do it with the technology of the time.  Alas, just like the other Memeson debate—about which more shortly—this one might continue indefinitely, since only one Unmistakable was ever built, and that World’s Fair was the last time anyone heard it.

The day after the triumphant demonstration, a crowd cheered as Memeson boarded a train in Grand Central Station to return to his factory near Chicago, there to supervise the mass production of Unmistakables. Meanwhile Laurel and Yanny, now both in their thirties and helping to run the family firm, stood on the platform and beamed. It hadn’t been easy to grow up with such a singleminded father, one who seemed to love his radios a million times more than them, but at a moment like this, it almost felt worth it.  When Laurel and Yanny returned to the Fair to continue overseeing the Memeson Audio exhibition, they’d be the highest-ranking representatives of the company, and would bask in their old man’s reflected glory.

In biographies, Memeson is described as a pathological recluse, who’d hole himself up in his workshop for days at a time, with strict orders not to be disturbed by anyone.  But on this one occasion—as it turned out, the last time he’d ever be seen in public—Memeson was as hammy as could be.  As the train pulled out of Grand Central, he leaned out of an open window in his private car and grinned for the cameras, waving with one arm and holding up the Unmistakable with the other.

Every schoolchild knows what happened next: the train derailed an hour later.  Along with twenty other passengers, Memeson was killed, while all that remained of his Unmistakable was a mess of wires and splintered wood.

Famously, there was one last exchange. As the train began moving, a journalist waved his hat at Memeson and called out “safe travels, sir!”

Memeson smiled and tipped his hat.

Then, noticing Laurel and Yanny on the platform, the journalist yelled to Memeson, in jest (or so he thought): “if something happens, which of these two is next in line to run the business?”

The old man had never been known for his sense of humor, and seemed from his facial expression (or so witnesses would later say) to treat the question with utmost seriousness. As the train receded into the distance, he shouted—well, everyone agrees that it was two syllables. But which? With no written will to consult—one of Memeson’s many idiosyncrasies was his defiance of legal advice—it all came down to what people heard, or believed, or believed they heard.

On the one hand, it would of course be extremely unusual back then for a woman to lead a major technology firm. And Memeson had never shown the slightest interest in social causes: not women’s suffrage, not the New Deal, nothing. In court, Yanny’s lawyers would press these points, arguing that the old man couldn’t possibly have intended to pass on his empire to a daughter.

On the other hand, Laurel was his first-born child.  And some people said that, if Memeson had ever had a human connection with anyone, it was with her.  There were even employees who swore that, once in a while, Laurel was seen entering and leaving her dad’s workshop—a privilege the old man never extended to Yanny or anyone else. Years later, Laurel would go so far as to claim that, during these visits, she’d contributed crucial ideas to the design of the Unmistakable. Most commentators dismiss this claim as bluster: why would she wait to drop such a bombshell until she and Yanny had severed their last ties, until both siblings’ only passion in life was to destroy the other, to make the world unable to hear the other’s name?

At any rate, neither Laurel nor anyone else was ever able to build another Unmistakable, or to give a comprehensible account of how it worked.  But Laurel certainly has die-hard defenders to this day—and while I’ve tried to be evenhanded in this account, I confess to being one of them.

In the end, who people believed about this affair seemed to come down to where they stood—literally. Among the passengers in the train cars adjoining Memeson’s, the ones who heard him are generally adamant that they heard “Laurel”; while most who stood on the platform are equally insistent about “Yanny.”  Today, some Memeson scholars theorize that this discrepancy is due to a Doppler effect.  People on the platform would’ve heard a lower pitch than people comoving with Memeson, and modern reconstructions raise the possibility, however farfetched, that this alone could “morph” one name to the other.  If we accept this, then it suggests that Memeson himself would have intended “Laurel”—but pitch changing a word?  Really?

Today, Laurel and Yanny are both gone, like their father and his company, but their dispute is carried on by their children and grandchildren, with several claims still winding their way through the courts.

Are there any recordings from the platform?  There is one, which was lost for generations before it unexpectedly turned up again. Alas, any hopes that this recording would definitively resolve the matter were … well, just listen to the thing.  Maybe the audio quality isn’t good enough.  Maybe an Unmistakable recording, had it existed, would’ve revealed the observer-independent truth, given us a unique map from the sensory world to the world of meaning.