Monday, September 3, 2012

Saving private Ryanair

I once heard that a growing number of TV shows were very popular but still got axeable ratings. Everyone was talking about them and new series were eagerly awaited and well reviewed, but nobody watched. This was because their fans were the kind of people who won’t watch TV by appointment, and they all waited for the DVDs to come out. Eventually TV companies got wise to this and started putting them out in graveyard slots, avoiding the straight-to-video stigma for their flagship shows and embarrassing ratings for their flagship slots. Problem solved.

Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed lately is that whenever I go to watch a film at my local multiplex, there’s usually hardly anyone there. It doesn’t matter what evening I go or how blockbusting a Christopher Nolan movie I see, it’s always deserted, or at least empty enough that it looks like a failure on the managers’ part. You’d think they would lower the prices. Cinema tickets are pretty expensive these days, after all. That was one of the issues covered in a recent viral Facebook rant that some of you may have read and which 264,163 people liked. They could at least try lowering the prices and see if more people show up. It can’t cost them much more to screen a film to an empty auditorium than a full one. But prices remain high.

Lately I’ve thought that a sensible application for the easyJet/Ryanair price structure would be cinemas. We all know the drill: you can order in advance online, and tickets start cheap and then get more expensive as the place fills up. This way they’ll still be able to sell expensive tickets where the demand is there, and they won’t be showing films to empty seats when people would be willing to pay reasonable prices to sit in them. It'd also mean people who want to see the Dark Knight on a Friday evening might be able to get a seat if they're willing to pay through the nose. (Perhaps selling high-demand stuff to highest bidder isn't such a bad thing; I don't really know.) Cinema screenings are like flights in that they’re planned in advance, have a fixed number of seats and big variation in demand. We also know (I think) that people are willing to buy cinema tickets online.

So why don’t they try it? Well, this morning when I was researching this post (I don’t just make them up, you know) I was shocked to read that in 2003 they did try it, and it didn’t work! It seems that it didn’t work for a few reasons, but the main problems were that they didn’t sell popcorn and the distributors wouldn’t let them show the big movies for 20p. The first problem is easily fixed, unless you're a start-up without the infrastructure in place. I don’t know why the distributors are unwilling to try out the model again in a randomized trial and see if takings go up. It’s impossible to sit in a quarter-full cinema and be sure it wouldn’t work. Are the distributors mad, or just stupid?

Maybe they’re neither. Maybe they don’t want people seeing their movies in the cinema because if they do that they won’t buy the DVD. Or maybe people won’t watch something old on DVD if they could see something new in the cinema instead. They can’t protect the DVD trade from piracy, but at least they can protect it from cinemas. I suppose they’re within their rights. It’s their money and their film. And of course, my evidence is anecdotal and it’s possible that cinemas outside of Leeds are doing fine. The highest grossing movies of all time are almost all recent, and even when you adjust for inflation Avatar did pretty well. 20p cinema tickets would be pretty sweet, though.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The invisible designer

When you go to see a band nobody's heard of, they tell you who they are. They often also tell you that you can still find them on MySpace. This is so that if you like them you can look out for them in future, check out their other work, and maybe tell your friends. All good stuff. I suppose a band might think there was no point telling people who they were until they were famous and the name would mean something to people. They'd reveal their identities to industry insiders when they were trying to get signed, but they'd only advertise their gigs as 'rock music' or 'emocore' or whatever. That'd be bad for business though, and bands don't tend to behave this way. Of course.

Now, in the world of fashion, designers don't behave like bands. They reveal their identities at fashion shows, and famous designers will have their names written on the clothes or at least on the label, but mostly when you buy clothes they don't say who designed them. The label says the name of the shop, which you knew already, but it doesn't say who designed the garment. The garments don't have proper names either, come to that.

Now, we all know that it's hard for new bands to crack the market without big corporate backing, but I guess the anonymity thing must make it even harder for designers. And I don't see that this is good for anyone except established designers and their shareholders. I think it must be bad for up and coming designers, consumers, and maybe places like Primark as well.

So here's my idea: when someone designs a garment, write their name on the label. That way people can see who made the clothes they like, and the good designers' names can get about by word of mouth. You won't have to get a fancy contract with a fancy fashion house to get your name known; if your clothes are in shops, you're not anonymous. And once people start looking out for your name, it can be a marketing tool for the shops you work for, or for you if you want to work for a fancy fashion house or set up on your own.

It's been suggested to me that big designers don't want people knowing who really designs their clothes. If a bigshot designer has underlings designing their clothes for them, they wouldn't want to have to write 'Joe Bloggs for Vivienne Westwood' or what have you on the label. Well they should lump it. Passing off other people's designs as your own is plagiarism, and if it's tolerated in fashion then people are suffering for it.

This could be done on a voluntary shop-by shop basis, but I don't really see why it couldn't just be put into law. It wouldn't change the way the clothes looked, the public would benefit, and the only thing it'd stop people doing is taking credit for other people's work. If you don't want your name known, use a pseudonym. I guess the big designers would get annoyed about it, but it's hard to imagine why the government would be very afraid of them. I'm pretty sure this idea has no downside, unless I'm being naive and Primark has all its clothes designed by robots.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wrong, wrong, wrong

This week I read Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy. I didn’t like it. He may well be best known among laypeople like me for his work on differences in the distributions of psychological traits among people of different sexes. That comes up in this book, but mostly incidentally, and in any case my problems with it aren’t anything to do with that.

Zero Degrees of Empathy is a book about empathy. Baron-Cohen (yes, he is Borat’s cousin) thinks that the common characteristic of three personality disorders and two types of autism is that people with the conditions have little or no empathy. He also thinks that we should stop explaining human cruelty in terms of evil, which is a bit of a non-explanation, and start explaining it in terms of a temporary or permanent deficit of empathy on the part of the perpetrators. I’m not sure how common it is these days to give a heavyweight role to evil in the explanation of cruelty, but if studying empathy helps us understand cruelty better, then empathy’s worth studying. No problems there.

My problem with the book is that it seems to be riddled with errors. Here are some of them:
  • On page 14 there is a graph showing that he’s found people’s empathy levels to be normally distributed. He says it’s a spectrum, but divides it into seven evenly spaced levels, from level 0 (no empathy) to level 6 (Desmond Tutu). The graph shows the mean/mode/median to be at level 3. Then on pages 17-20 he describes what each level is like. In the descriptions, people at level 3 have to ‘pretend to be normal’, and may realize that they ‘just don’t understand jokes that everyone else does’. Level 4 is ‘low-average’, and level 5 is ‘marginally above average’. So the descriptions suggest the average is between 4 and 5, and contrary to the graph empathy isn’t normally distributed. He repeats the claim that empathy levels are normally distributed many times in the book.
  • The same thing happens with his ‘systemizing’ spectrum: the graph on page 80 shows a normal distribution from 0 to 6 averaging 3, while the descriptions (page 80-81) suggest that the average is between levels 3 and 4, which isn’t what the graph says. It also means the distributions of empathy and systemizing are different, contrary to the impression given by the graphs looking exactly the same.
  • Here’s a quote from page 48: “If you have empathy you will be capable of feeling guilt, while if you lack empathy, you won’t. This might make you think that guilt and empathy is one and the same thing: clearly this cannot be true, since a person can feel guilt (e.g. that they went through a red traffic light) without necessarily feeling empathy. So empathy can give rise to guilt but guilt is not proof of empathy.” (Italics added.) The two italicized phrases contradict each other, don’t they? He also uses the expression ‘clearly’ a lot when making claims which are not clear and may not even be true, which is well known to be an annoying thing to do.
  • There is a diagram on page 31 illustrating the three forms of what he calls ‘zero-negative’ personalities. It looks just like a Venn diagram showing that zero-negative is the intersection of the borderline, psychopathic and narcissistic personality disorders. However, he wants to convey the quite different information that the three forms of zero-negative are those three personality disorders, and the diagram is pointlessly misleading.
  • He defines empathy on page 12 like this: “Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” That’s fine: it’s a reasonable definition. But in chapter 6 (‘Reflections on human cruelty’) he says that it follows from the definition that people commit various acts harming people (his examples involve murders and terrorist bombings) must have their empathy switched off at the time of action. This isn’t true, because there is no inconsistency in feeling an emotion and acting in spite of it. The line of thought that empathy is incompatible with some actions, even some praiseworthy actions (see note iv), appears frequently, especially in chapter 6, and it isn’t right.
  • Here is a quote from page 26: “…we react in a very sensory way when we identify with someone else’s distress. This clear brain response is telling us that even without any conscious decision to do so we must be putting ourselves into the other person’s shoes, not just to imagine how we would feel in their situation, but actually feeling it as if it had been our own sensation. No wonder we wince involuntarily when we see someone else get hurt. Of course, not everyone will have this strong empathic response to such emotionally charged situations. If our somatosensory cortex is damaged or temporarily disrupted, our ability to recognize other people’s emotions is significantly diminished. Surgeons may, for example, be well suited to their job precisely because they don’t have this emotional reaction, a prediction that was confirmed by Yawei Cheng who found that physicians who practise acupuncture show less somatosensory cortex activity while watching pictures of body parts being pricked by needles.” (Italics in original.) This suggests that a relaxed response to needles makes people more likely to go into acupuncture. He doesn’t explain why he doesn’t think the causation might be the other way round.
  • His definition of truth (pages 77-78) appears to be formulated to annoy philosophers. “Philosophers and theologians have long debated what we mean by truth. My definition of truth is neither mystical, nor divine, nor is it obscured by unnecessary philosophical complexity. Truth is (purely and simply) repeatable, verifiable patterns. Sometimes we call such patterns ‘laws’ or ‘rules’, but essentially they are just patterns.” I am a philosopher, and I am annoyed.
  • His view is that the variation in incidence of zero-negative personality types is explained in significant parts both by variation in genes and by variation in upbringing. This may well be true. He presents evidence for the genetic component (from twin studies and gene testing), but his evidence for the upbringing component seems to be that the parents of zero-negative people disproportionately often mistreated them. Such a correlation would (of course) result from a genetic connection even if there was no causal contribution from upbringing. Perhaps he has evidence that upbringing makes a difference, but it isn’t in the book as far as I can tell. This makes it irritating when on page 89 he says “we have seen bucket-loads of evidence for the importance of early experience”.
  • While he does present actual evidence for the genetic contribution, he also says this (pages 88-9): “there are parents who used the empathic, non-authoritarian style of parenting, discussing things reasonably with their child, yet their child still turns out to be a psychopath. Equally, we all know individuals who have thrived despite growing up in difficult environments… [Professor Dante Cicchetti] is proof that growing up in what James Blair calls a ‘dangerous and criminogenic’ environment does not totally determine your outcome. In his studies he found that as many as 80% of children who suffered abuse or neglect went on that [sic] to develop ‘disorganized attachment’. But clearly it takes more than a harsh environment to make a psychopath. There must be a genetic element.” Well, must there? It seems to me that this argument is easily parodied: disproportionately many people without access to clean water die in infancy, although not all do, and not all people who die in infancy lack clean water. Would this mean there was a genetic component? There could be a genetic component, but the rest of the variation might also be down to non-genetic chance factors. Drinking the wrong bit of water, perhaps. Or in the original case, having an encounter with the wrong person on the wrong day. Witnessing the wrong murder. Having the wrong friends. The possibilities are endless. These chance factors – what I understand the pros refer to as the unique environment – could explain the rest of the variation, without a genetic contribution. If I know this, Professor Baron-Cohen should know this.
  • Here’s his guess at why empathy is distributed as it is (page 128): “Presumably the reason that empathy is a bell curve (with the majority of people showing moderate rather than high levels of empathy) is because moderate empathy levels are most adaptive.” He goes on to tell a story about why this might be. But does he really think that when evolved traits are normally distributed we can presume that moderate levels are most adaptive? Does he think this applies to intelligence, beauty, physical fitness, height, fertility, resistance to disease and so on? Perhaps these things aren’t normally distributed, but I’m fairly sure some of them are. Normal distributions appear all over the place, and they don’t need explaining in terms of the mode being the most adaptive. Again, if I know this, so should he.

I could go on, but that’s enough. Perhaps some of my criticisms could be given satisfactory responses, but I'd be astonished if there wouldn't still be a lot for him to think about. Simon Baron-Cohen is a professor at Cambridge and has been in the business for thirty years. He shouldn’t be making mistakes like these. It’d be nice if you could just come across a book like this, write the author off as a hack, and ignore them in future. You can’t do that, though. People trust experts. Laypeople trust them, of course, but academics in related fields trust them too, because you can’t be an expert in everything. We trust mathematicians that the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem doesn’t have any errors in it (anymore), and Steven Pinker (in chapter 18 of The Blank Slate) trusts Simon Baron-Cohen [see correction]. There’s a lot of division of labour in our collective search for truth, and misinformation spreads. Of course people make mistakes, but if experts took a reasonable amount of care in their work then we could trust that their simple mistakes were reasonably rare. But it seems they don’t, and it seems we can’t.


I said Steven Pinker trusted SBC in the chapter of The Blank Slate on gender. Sorry about this: I misremembered. He doesn't mention him there at all. In that chapter and others he relies on the work of a lot of experts in fields he isn't an expert in, so that part of the point still stands. SBC isn't one of those experts though, and is only briefly cited in the book, for his work on autism. Pinker and SBC do both hold the view that the average man isn't psychologically interchangeable with the average woman and that this is probably partly biologically caused, based on some of the same evidence. SBC's views on this (see especially his The Essential Difference) are however much more involved than anything Pinker defends in The Blank Slate. I might talk about TED in another post.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The real problem with ebooks

Last Christmas I got a Kindle, and it’s been great. I can carry around a lot more things to read, I don’t have to choose between printing out papers and reading them on a computer screen, and I can access lots of out of copyright material for free through Project Gutenberg or Amazon. When I got it I wondered where it had been all my life, and six months on I feel the same way. But I haven’t bought any books for it.

Some people like not being encumbered by a library full of books when they move house, and not having to find houseroom for them when they settle down. Moving lots of books is obviously a pain, although I’ve certainly got a long way to go before I own more books than I’d like to live among. It’s a matter of taste, money and how many books you have, but in any case if compactness is what you’re after then ebooks are definitely winning that one. Ebooks also tend to be cheaper, although for things still in copyright they’re usually not much cheaper than paperbacks, and are often more expensive than secondhand paperbacks.

Some people, presumably including some people who sympathize with the virtues of a library that fits in a handbag, prefer printed books anyway. The pictures are better, and some people are bound to find them easier to read, although personally I find the Kindle perfectly comfortable. Near the bottom of the barrel we have the smell, the covers, and according to Julian Barnes the fact that "books look as if they contain knowledge whereas e-readers look as if they contain information". (This in a piece that decries aphorisms as frequently "slick untruths". I've liked his fiction and cookery columns, but this comment is simply bizarre.)

It does however seem widely assumed that practicality and cost will overwhelm romance, and the printed word is to become increasingly marginalized. I think this would be a shame, and intend to buy books as long as they continue to be sold at prices as reasonable as at present. This is because books are transferable.

You can’t lend an ebook. (I guess there’ll be some illegal way, but let’s bracket that.) You buy it, it appears on your e-reader, and if someone else wants it to appear on theirs then they have to buy it too, for the same price you paid. With a printed book you buy it, and if you like it you can lend it to someone else, and it doesn’t cost you or them anything except for one more reading’s wear on the book. Then you can talk to each other about it. Likewise, if someone reads a book and recommends it to you, they can lend it to you if but only if it’s a printed book. Lending and borrowing books is great value, and with ebooks you can’t do it. That sucks. At least, I think it sucks. When I’ve talked to other people about this they mostly accept the point don’t seem to lend their books much. I don’t know why not. Like I say, great value. It’s a gift you can keep on giving.

Anyway, for people who aren’t impressed by the lendability argument there’s another reason printed books are better for being transferable. Lots of people who like reading were brought up in a house full of books and liked it a lot. Now, I’ve read Freakonomics and I know they say having books at home doesn’t seem to make kids do better at school, but the fact remains that if you like reading then growing up surrounded by books is awesome. It’s awesome not just because books are pretty (although they are) but because you can explore the shelves and find all sorts of things to read that you might well not otherwise come across, and when you do come across them you can often talk to your parents about them because they’ve read them too. (Unless what you’ve found is your parents’ stash of erotica.) What’s the ebook equivalent of that? When people started amassing their music libraries digitally, I remember a couple of people fretting about not having crates of vinyl for their kids to search for gems, but at least you can still browse your parents’ ipods or Brennans or whatever people have nowadays and listen to it. It's no use browsing their Kindles because even if you did find something you could only read it if they were prepared to lend you their whole libraries, and they’re not. Apart from anything else, your parents are probably using their Kindles to read something else.

It’s possible that this can be sorted out, and ebooks can be published in a format that makes lending them practical. I haven’t thought of a way of doing this which keeps it free but stops people getting organized and bringing down the publishing industry. If they don’t sort it out, I’m going to keep buying printed books and some people are going to get a big shock in a decade or two when their kids don’t have anything to read.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Barriers to non-classical implication

I’ve put another paper on my university page. It’s called ‘Barriers to Non-classical Implication’, and builds on some results in another paper by Greg Restall and Gillian Russell. You might understand mine better if you read theirs first. Even if you’d still understand mine fine I recommend you read theirs anyway if you like that sort of thing. It’s a delight. When I gave a talk on the material in my paper in February, this was the abstract:

Intuitively there are some kinds of statements you can't infer from some other kinds. You probably can't get general information from particular information, and maybe you can't get normative information from descriptive either. Gillian Russell and Greg Restall have shown how to make these barrier theses precise and immune to counterexamples, if the barriers don't divide the statements into two exhaustive groups. I explain why this happens, and extend their results to show how to make the divisions exhaustive by changing the consequence relation.

That’s pretty much still what it’s about. It's still a work in progress so please don't cite it without asking. If it sounds like your idea of fun, click here. If not, here’s another link to that romantic short story I posted ages ago.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New webpage and paper

I’ve now got a new webpage on my university’s site. It isn’t very fancy, but it does have some information about some papers I’ve been writing. There’s also a link to one of them, with more to follow soon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Famine, affluence, and psychopathy

I recently read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. It’s an engaging, entertaining and interesting read, and I’d warmly recommend it to people who like that sort of thing. It’s a book about psychopaths. Apparently they’re everywhere, but don’t worry: most of them don’t go round killing people. Mostly they’re just charming, lacking in conscience and empathy, easily bored, promiscuous, irresponsible and a few other things. It’s a dimensional thing rather than a binary one, but he said that by a pretty reasonable classification about 1% of us are psychopaths. Most are men. Lots are in prison.

Reading a Jon Ronson book tends not to make you an expert on anything, but it did get me thinking. Many of my readers are probably familiar with Peter Singer’s paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, in which he argues that rich people should give away most of their money to help save the lives of strangers in poor countries. Most people think it’d be terrible to see a child drowning in a shallow pond but not save it because you’d get your trousers muddy, and being surrounded by a crowd of equally callous onlookers doesn’t really get you off the hook. Peter Singer thinks blowing our disposable incomes on trivia when we could be saving the lives of strangers is much the same. Of course they don’t feel the same, but Singer doesn’t think that matters. Nor do I, really.

Now, the impression that I got from Jon Ronson’s book was that psychopaths are the sort of people who might see a kid drowning in a shallow pond and ignore it for the sake of their trousers. On the other hand, most of us seem to be the sorts of people who would hear of some children dying on the other side of the world and ignore them for the sake of something trivial. Maybe a nice new pair of trousers. Quite a lot of ink has been spilled trying to make excuses for us without excusing pond-ignorers, but maybe the psychopath analogy provides a more fruitful way of looking at it. My suggestion is that normal people stand to the kids in (at time of writing) Niger as psychopaths stand to the kids in the pond. If psychopaths are excused, so are we. If not, not.

One difference which I suppose is relevant is that if you’re not a psychopath and have a fully functional imagination you might be able to spot parallels between famine children and pond children and get appropriately worked up about the former. I guess that’s part of the point of those charity advertisements showing people suffering instead of just telling you about it. Maybe our failure to spot the parallels and engage our emotions consistently is culpable, so people who want to excuse the psychopaths but not the general public have a logical place to stand. But in any case, if there’s a reasonably common kind of person who would be as unmoved by a kid in the pond as the rest of us are by famine victims, then it seems kind of dense for the discussion of Singer’s arguments not to take them into account.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Chess in a dress

I’m bad at chess. One of the advantages of this is that when I play it against strangers on the internet I don’t get accused of cheating, but I’d still like to be better. It tends to surprise people how bad I am because I’ve always been pretty good at mathsy things. It surprises me too, but I think what’s killing my game is that I don’t take enough interest in what the other player’s thinking. As anyone who doesn’t suck at chess knows, that’s pretty important. If you’re too self-absorbed, they’ll have a plan and then catch you unawares with it, and you’ll lose. But now I may have hit upon a solution.

Regular readers will know that a while ago I read and enjoyed a book about psychological research into differences between men and women. If I remember rightly, she said (among other things) that when people imagine themselves as being of a particular gender they adopt the psychological traits they think people of that gender tend to have. One of the traits people in my country tend to associate with women is seeing things from other people’s point of view. Empathy, sympathy, emotional intelligence: whatever you call it,  the chances are that on some level a 21st century Briton like me will think women are better at it. This is meant to work even if you've read and been broadly persuaded by a book suggesting the stereotypes may be largely unfounded. So if I want to be better at chess, I just need to write a first-person story from a woman’s point of view, and then use my magical mindreading skills to rumble my opponents' plans. Those strangers on the internet won’t know what hit them.

Now, I can imagine someone pointing out that the best chess players in the world are mostly men, and at the very highest level they’re all men. Presumably there’s something men are good at which outweighs the women’s ability to read minds. Well, one thing is that the technique makes you assume the traits you think women have, not the traits they actually have. Men may be actually just as good at mindreading as women are, but as long as I think women are better, if I think myself feminine I should become better. Another thing is that even if male dominance in chess is caused at least in part by psychological differences between men and women, these differences might benefit the men in obsessively learning openings and practising, rather than making them better players practice-hour for practice-hour. So I don’t think my hypothesis should be dismissed out of hand.

I did think I might be able to get in touch with my telepathic side by wearing a dress when I play, but it was suggested to me that this might actually draw attention to my maleness, since I’d be thinking ‘I’m a man in a dress’. I don’t know which way this effect would go, so I should probably test the hypothesis using the story method, which I understand is more standard. I’ll test the dress method too though, because if it works then it might catch on and top players would need to turn out in drag to stay competitive. That’s a turn of events for which I wouldn’t mind being responsible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Probably not important

Consider this sentence:

            PN       PN is probably not true.

Sentences can be true even if they’re probably not, at least on some readings of ‘probably’. I’m intending ‘probably’ in one of those ways. It sounds Moore-paradoxical to say ‘P but probably not-P’, but Moore-paradoxicality isn’t inconsistency. So the instance of the sloppy T-schema for PN...

            T-PN   PN is true iff PN is probably not true.

...doesn’t entail a contradiction. Maybe it’s true but probably not true. Contrast the instance of the sloppy T-schema for L:

            L          L is not true.

            T-L      L is true iff L is not true.

T-L does entail a contradiction, so L is paradoxical. T-PN doesn’t, but that’s not the end of it. First, note that there’s another way PN could go: it could be untrue though not probably. This might be because it was probably true, or because its truth and untruth were equiprobable. So it might be true, and it might be untrue. Which is it?

A fairly reasonable-sounding principle of indifference might say its truth and untruth were equiprobable. In that case it isn’t probably untrue, which means it isn’t true. But if the equiprobability was itself probable, then its consequence that PN isn’t true would seem to be probable, which means PN is true, which is a contradiction. So the equiprobability isn’t probable. What are the other credible options?

Maybe PN is probably not true. But this means it’s true. So if PN is probably probably not true, then it’s probably true. That doesn’t sound a very delicious combination.

The other possibility is that PN is probably true. In that case it’s not true. So if it’s probably probably true then it’s probably not true. Yuk again.

Can this lot even be made consistent? Here are the entailments:

            Probably true untrue
            Probably not true true
            Equiprobable untrue

If the disjunction of probably and equiprobable is probable, then PN is probably untrue, but this contradicts the disjunction being probable, since the options are exclusive. So the disjunction is not probable, so probably not must be at least 50% probable. But if it’s exactly 50% probable, then given the entailments, PN is equiprobably true and not true. But this makes equiprobable true, which we’ve established is not probable. So suppose probably not is probable. This means PN is probably true, which is a contradiction. So the improbable equiprobable must be true. But if something must be true, then it’s probable. So the disjunction is probable after all, and that led to a contradiction. So dialetheism must be true. But if dialetheism must be true, we can reject some of the above reductio reasoning. So some contradictions are true, but possibly not this one.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Keeping up with the robots

Like all sensible people, I spend fair amount of time worrying about the robots taking over. Futurologists disagree about exactly when this problem is going to become pressing, but when it does, we’ll need a plan. So I’ve come up with a plan.

First I’ll outline the problem. It’s well within the capabilities of computers to program other computers, and robots can do things like build computers. The machines of the future may be able to build more and better machines without us getting involved at all. And if, as Descartes and even Dawkins sometimes seem to, you think that a designer could not design something more powerful than itself, you are wrong.

Now, there might come a point when the machines are better at designing machines than humans are. After that point, not only will each generation of designers have more to build on than their predecessors, but they’ll also be better designers. This will have two effects. First, technology will advance much faster. Second, the robots’ designs will be better than anything we can come up with, since they are better designers than us. Our puny weapons will be no match for their superior intellect, and the robocalypse will be upon us.

Here’s the solution. The problem was robots becoming better at designing new robots. To keep up with them, we need to become better at designing new humans. We need to use our knowledge of biology to produce better humans who will in turn be better at designing the subsequent generation, and so on. The robots’ powers will increase exponentially, but so will ours. This will give us a fighting chance in the Robagnarok.

Of course, this plan of mine evokes the twin spectres of eugenics and designer babies, and the subsequent generations of bioengineering geniuses will presumably evoke brave new spectres of their own. The reasons for not going down those roads are as strong as ever, and I don’t like the sound of growing old in that world at all. But unless we can think of something else, it may be our only chance. And since the sooner we start, the more likely we are to beat them, I think we'd better come up with another idea pretty quickly.