Thursday, April 29, 2021

Which Engineering Project Gets Done?

The one that pleases all essential stakeholders for the lowest cost. 

Suppose you are an executive with real power over starting new projects, i.e. you have an R&D budget. If you are in the middle of the organization, then you are held responsible by your higher-ups, and to a lesser degree to neighbouring teams. If you are at the very top of your organization, then you are held responsible by your shareholders, the media, regulators, etc. So it's safe to say that if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have a lot of money and talent to direct towards a new project, then there will be a lot of people who have a say in what you with those resources. 

Every stakeholder who has the possibility to veto your project, creates a constraint for the final product. Typically, this will create an overdetermined problem; the stakeholders' wishes are so contradictory that a universally pleasing solution is impossible, but some tradeoffs have to be made. This is the difference between engineering and art: engineering deals with overdetermined design problems, art deals with underdetermined design problems. 

The over-determinedness means that if there happens to exist a solution that pleases all stakeholders and is within the budget, then there isn't much wiggle room to experiment. 

Another consequence of this is that decreasing costs have a direct impact on which projects are at all possible

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Internal and External Explanations

I would like to make a distinction between two kinds of explaining a thing. The thing can be both physical and abstract. An Internal explanation tells us how the thing works. This can be a mathematical definition, a blueprint, program code, or a flowchart. In theory, this is a complete description of the thing. This is also often the shortest way of explaining it (but not always). When we want to figure out something really nontrivial about the thing, we almost always have to look at the internal explanation. The internal explanation is the one that should be remembered. There is definitely a lot of power in getting the habit of checking internal explanations, as many people are reluctant to. 

However, the internal representation is not very good for transferring knowledge. It may be just a human thing, or perhaps it's a universal quality of knowledge, that the shortest explanations aren't very enlightening on their own. We often need some context for the knowledge to really stick. That is why we need the External explanations. The external explanation tells us how the thing connects to the rest of our world. It can tell us which problem the thing is meant to solve. It can reveal why the assumptions used, are exactly the assumptions needed. If the person giving the external explanation seems to be very vague and unsure, perhaps they themselves have not thought it through enough, and will not be taken seriously. A person who gives long external explanations however, is often extremely appreciated by their audience. I can't say the same thing about a person who presents long internal explanations. So there is also a lot of power in mastering the external explanation, both for personal and for social reasons. 

I have presented a distinction between two kinds of explanations, and what they are good for. I hope these concepts are useful to you. 

Friday, January 1, 2021


Independent thinking can't be imitated with an attitude. For people who need to think professionally, doing one's own thinking is cognitively cheaper than constructing a patchwork of attitudes and counter-attitudes. It is wise to copy other's data and arguments, but not their attitudes.

One of the things that most stuck with me in 2020 was a quote from Stefan Schubert's twitter (2020-03-16):

"The coronavirus crisis displays the limits of "biasology" - arguments for over- or under-reactions by reference to biases.
It's too easy to make up a just-so-story we're biased in this or that direction. You should primarily look at the object-level facts about the virus."[1]



Monday, December 21, 2020

The Version 0.1 Problem

The Version 0.1 Problem is when someone who is predicting that a radical new technology will exist in the future forgets that even a very simple version of the technology (a version 0.1) will have such large disruptive consequences that it is very hard to predict which path technology will take after the version 0.1. 

An example. Suppose that you are living in the 1980s, and dream of a fully immersive virtual reality cyberspace. Your vision of the future looks like the 1980s plus VR cyberspace. The problem is of course that version 0.1 of this technology is to just have people looking at simple screen interfaces with text/wireframe layouts, i.e. the internet. And the internet alone is so radically new that it is hard for a 1980s person to predict what the next version will be after the internet-of-screens, if there will be one. 

Another example: androids. Necessary prerequisite technologies for androids are near-human AI and superior mechanic control technology. A step on the way to making a control and motor system that is agile enough to move like a human, is a robot whose control system is not quite so agile, but thanks to the greater configurability of the robot's strength, degrees of freedom of movement, extra sensors etc, the robot is still much more valuable as a manual labourer than a person. This is not science fiction, but rather the reality of industrial robots. The robots that actually look like humans are a small percentage of the value of the robot market. A prediction from this is that as robot technology improves, we will see a lot of experimentation with the form, and that the form will not converge to a human form in most cases. The same argument applies even more to the "brain" of the android. Once again, this is not science fiction but the reality of the artificial intelligence industry. The AIs that are supposed to mimic human thinking are a small part of the market, and I think this will keep being true in the future as well. Most of the time, users just want a specific problem solved (good search recommendations, efficient fraud detection, well-optimized production schedules, etc), and the AI having a personality is not conductive to that end. 

A third example: generation ships. Long before anyone ships humans off to a different star system at some immense expense, someone will have just sent some robots to do the same mission, at a considerably less immense expense. It is already true for Mars. Perhaps humans will be building bases on the Moon and Mars before remote-controlled robots can do it, but I don't think it's likely for any places after that. It is sobering to think that whatever planets humans ever set foot on in the future, they will have been preceded there by robots that built a relatively cushy life support system there for them. 

A fourth example: brain simulation. Simulating a human brain neuron-for-neuron seems extremely wasteful. A computer capable of simulating even 0.1% of the neurons of a human brain can most likely be used for much more valuable economic purposes than to simulate a mouse brain. 

Here is my explanation as to why the version 0.1 problem happens. Consider a 2x2 matrix, with hardness-of-imagination on one axis, and hardness-of-implementation on the other axis:

What is common of technologies that are easy to imagine, but hard to implement? Typically, they are just a copy or intensification of something that already exists in our surroundings. The idea of the android is obviously not very hard to think of, just "a machine that looks and behaves like a human". As a matter of fact, the motorized car, boat, airplane, and submarine were all in the easy-to-imagine/hard-to-implement category since at least the 1200s, since they were speculated by Roger Bacon. 

A summary could be that version 0.1 problem exists because it is harder to think of good businesses, than to think of popular science fiction. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Morality badge

Suppose there was a badge that said "I am a Moral person", that you could put on your person such that everyone you met could see it instantly. Let's look at how some increasingly advanced versions of this could work.

The Free-for-all Badge
The badge is just a pin that you can buy for a dollar and put on your coat. No background check is needed. This is very exploitable. Even if the free-for-all morality badge got a good start and won a lot of social capital, it would lose its magic after just a couple of instances of people wearing the badge behaving badly in public. 

The Lame Badge
The badge is something that makes you seem very uncool, even once people realize that it is correlated with high morality. This way, the Lame Badge wearers are protected from posers, but on the other hand they do not reap any social benefits except from each other. 

The Cumbersome Badge
The badge is something that requires a lot of work to maintain, for instance a habit. The status value of the Cumbersome Badge is limited by the amount of work that it takes to maintain. If the status is increased, for instance by an authority figure advocating the Cumbersome Badge openly, then posers will move in. 

The Permanent Badge
The badge is something like a public vow or an alteration of the body. If the badge can't be backed out of or reverted, then others can rest assured that if the person behaves badly, then they will face the consequences of their actions. The power of the Permanent Badge is inversely proportional to how easy it is to back out of the arrangement. 

The Tribal Badge
The badge is something that affiliates the person to a tribe that is recognized as being of high moral standing. Others can then rest assured that the person fears the consequences of their tribe enough be careful not to ruin the tribe's reputation. The power of the tribal badge is proportional to the person's status within the tribe. 

Free-for-all: pink ribbon, slacktivist profile picture.
Lame: geek wear, Jehovah's witnesses attire.
Cumbersome: ostentatious recycling, churchgoing (partially).
Permanent: Monk vows, marriage vows (as they worked back in the day), tattoos. 
Tribal: Wearing a Google shirt (if you work at Google), political party pins.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Cryogenics Story, the first 1500 years

Ruben and Nino are friends. They live average lives in a developed country. In their 20's, they study at the university and enter the labor force. In their 30's, they both start families. In their 40's, they raise their families, they travel, work, and read good books. From ages 50 to 80, they continue with their old habits and live peacefully with their families. Ruben's family signs up for cryogenics. Nino's family does not. When Ruben dies at age 82 in the year 2030, his body is frozen and stored in a facility. When Nino dies, his body is buried. 

The year is 2230. Thawing of patients frozen before a major breakthrough in freezing technology 2090 is finally possible. Aging reversal has been possible for 100 years. Ruben's body is thawed, and he is given an aging reversal therapy over a couple of months in a hospital. His body is soon as it were in his 20's. His family is also thawed, and they are reunited. 

In the first years after his thawing, Ruben feels very out of touch. The world has changed very much. Physically, he is now the same age as his children and his grandchildren. The people who have been thawed generally do not have skills relevant for participating in the economy. The number of jobs that thawed people are specifically suited for, such as recounting an oral history of the past, are much fewer than the number of thawed people. Ruben and his family live on a welfare program while educating themselves about the developments of the past 200 years. 

Life in the 2230's is not great for them, but not terrible either. Ruben and his wife are two of the oldest people alive in the world, so they are a bit special. But being a thawed person does not particularly impress most people. They typically socialize with people from their own era. 

The community of people who were frozen before 2090 is quite small and closely knit, since they are people who in the first part of their life shared an optimism for the future. Most of them are also open minded to strange sounding ideas. 

After updating himself on the technology and society of the future for 10 years, Ruben finds something that he thinks that the society of 2240 lacks. He starts working on supplying this missing service. His first business fails, so he has to fall back on the welfare program. His next venture is more hobbyistic, but it also fails to get traction. Still, he enjoys the work for a couple of years before abandoning the project. After giving up his second business, the decides to try a life of scholarship. His studies are fruitful, and in 2250 he writes a book that becomes quite popular. 

In the 2250's, the spends a lot of time with new friends that he met through his research. The years pass quickly, and soon he finds himself a veteran researcher of 20 years. In the 2270's, a new finding revolutionizes his field. The new finding makes new methods necessary, methods that Ruben does not find very interesting to work with. He decides to go into temporary retirement. Ruben and his wife spend a couple of years traveling and in recreation. His intention is to start a new career soon, but he procrastinates and the years pass quickly. 

In 2290, Ruben has been retired for almost 20 years. He feels very old and tired of life. However, he is still physically 20 years old and he is not actually aging. He thinks that Nino was in a sense lucky since he never had to make an active decision to die. Of course, he also thinks himself lucky to get a second chance at life. 

A chance meeting with a new friend revitalizes his lust for life, and he decides to move to another country. Ruben and his wife have drifted apart, and they decide to separate. Ruben builds a house in a rural area in a country that he never thought he would live in. As he settles in to the new part of the world, he is stricken by emotional realization of what is possible with immortality. No project can take too long. He knew it intellectually before, but it took him 60 years of mortal impatience and boredom to emotionally accept the consequences of his new existence. He starts painstakingly chiseling stones into smooth round shapes. He moves on to rocks, and later boulders. Natural environments are strictly protected in the 2300's, but he has exploitation rights for a layer of 20 meters of bedrock beneath his country house lot. 

Ruben starts excavating a large cavern by chisel. He carves countless details and patterns in the stone. Some reliefs take years to chisel. He works in a deep concentration. While chiseling, he meditates on his place in the universe, and on the fate of the world. He finds that after a long while without new impressions, new memories come back to him. He thinks a lot about the metaphoric nature of his enterprise: he is excavating a cave of stone, while at the same time excavating a cave of memories. 

Ruben's house lot is 10x10x20 = 2000 meters. Before Ruben feels that he is done with his excavation, he had chiseled away 500 cubic metres of stone. Every day, he removes three cubic decimeters of stone. Therefore, the chiseling takes him 500 years. 

The year is 2800. Ruben feels that he has finally achieved the patience necessary to do something well. He takes a break to visit the grave of Nino. Nino feels to him now like a childhood friend who died while they were still very young. 

He thinks about what to do next. In the future, it has been proven that there are no fast general solutions to computationally difficult problems (P =/= NP). Therefore, there are still plenty of unsolved puzzles. Ruben chooses a colorful tile problem and attacks it with the patience of immortality. The challenge is to place 256 tiles in a way that obeys certain rules. He moves into a monastery in a remote area. He spends his years on a cool floor, the tiles spreading out about him. He discovers plenty of methods and observations. He does not know whether a computer or another person has already thought of the same things, and it does not concern him. After 1000 years, he has laid 255 tiles in a legitimate pattern. But he cannot place the 256th tile in a way that obeys the rules. He stands up and walks out without finishing. He writes a computer program that uses his methods, that is able to solve the problem in an afternoon. 

The year is 3800. Every 10 years or so, Ruben has to get a genetic therapy in order to be physically rejuvenated. It is getting harder and harder to get a genetic therapy that restores the body to that of a human, as they originally evolved. Most rejuvenation therapy includes some update to the body's physiology that makes maintenance cheaper. Most people just get entirely new bodies. The new body also comes with an intelligence upgrade. Ruben has not been in a hurry with this, since he reckons that immortality is a long time. However, after his work with the tiles, Ruben decides to take the next step of his life and get the upgrade. He is one of the last people to do so. 

With the intelligence upgrade, Ruben's life changes dramatically. He will later look back on the upgrade as just the beginning. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The single reply rule

The single reply rule says that you are only allowed to make a single entry to an online thread or comment section. That is to say, not more than one comment and no replying to replies. 

What assumption is hiding behind the decision to adopt such a rule? It is the assumption that the kind of people who like to maintain a back-and-forth sequence of replies with a stranger online are not worth talking to. It's just wasting time. It's not even interesting to the readers. This is a bleak take on the internet, but I'm afraid that this is what online communities inevitably become when people who receive criticism are allowed to return criticism [1]. The only way to stop it is to not take the bait, to never reply to replies. This will not stop other people from jumping into the conversation and start wasting each other's time. At least you're not wasting your own time or energy.


When someone criticizes us online, the first instinct is to interpret this as an attack, and to return the attack. Why does it feel so important to not let a public attack to oneself stand unanswered? I think it has to do with the kind of "public" we are used to. We are used to small communities where everyone knows everyone and reputation is persistent. Coming out as the loser from a hostile exchange in such a setting can cause a permanent stain on reputation. So the instinct to defend the ego makes sort of sense in pre-urban societies, and also in artificially small communities like schools. 

In the online world, where people are more flexible to move around and switch communities, it is less important to keep up one's reputation in a specific community. So even if reputation was persistent within online communities, defending ego would be less important. The thing is, the online communities that work like like school classes are really not worth being part of. They are the bottom trough that capture all the insufferable people from school


Why write anything at all? Why not adopt a rule of never ever contributing stuff online? I wouldn't blame anyone for doing that. But for me, the reason for choosing to contribute something worth reading has to do with a sense of wanting to give back to the parts of the internet that have given me endless entertainment and information. I want online communities to be fun and interesting places. The way to achieve this is not by 'saving' toxic communities by arguing with the arguers [2], but by building new ones with better culture. A sign of a good culture would be that the most honourable thing is to provide succinct, entertaining, and interesting points or counterpoints. Another sign of a good culture would be that the most shameful thing is intellectual dishonesty, and that attitudes below intellectual dishonesty (such as name-calling) do not even appear in conversation, but are blocked by everyone. 


An additional consequence of adopting the single reply rule is that one has to make entries complete, in the sense that they can't leave obvious room for misinterpretation or misrepresentation. This increases the value to the reader. 

An exception

An exception can be made for replies that are well-meant, charitable, and are asking for clarification or more information. Such replies are constructive to the conversation and help build a positive and learning-oriented atmosphere. Note that the exception does not cover replies such as "Great post!" or "Genius comment!", since they are not asking for more information. For such cases, one can use the like button to say thanks. However, it should be noted that indiscriminate positive feedback is just the other side of the coin of indiscriminate negative feedback. 

[1] Actually, 'criticism' is a huge euphemism for most of bad faith online exchanges. 

[2] The idea of making a community nice by shouting down the trolls sounds so absurd that it's laughable to anyone who has used social media.