Notes from Waking Up #40: Complexity & Stupidity, with David Krakaur and Sam Harris
The middle of this podcast was pretty interesting, starting about 38 minutes in. See the second section below. But going chronologically…
David introduces himself and the Santa Fe Institute where he does his research. He then gives us his working definitions of intelligence and stupidity.
He defines intelligence as doing something efficiently, and stupidity as doing something so inefficiently that it will never work.
For example if our task is to walk to an unfamiliar destination, then an intelligent way would be to use a map (or some other technology) so that we can reach the destination as directly as possible. An unintelligent way would be to walk randomly until we reached the destination. And a stupid way would be to keep walking around the same block again and again, guaranteeing we will never arrive.
How technologies affect our abilities (for better and for worse)
The abacus lets us do arithmetic more quickly. But people who use an abacus regularly, end up with the ability to create a virtual abacus in their imagination. With this imaginary abacus they can perform arithmetic quickly, without needing a physical abacus at all. So the physical abacus has actually helped to enhance the individual’s abilities.
By contrast, a calculator lets us do arithmetic even more quickly, but it does not improve our independent mental ability. If anything, it makes us worse at the task of arithmetic! (But of course it does free us up to do other things instead.)
So cognitive artefacts exist on a spectrum: some of them enhance our cognitive abilities, and others assault them.
The abacus enhances other abilities too (such as geometric reasoning). Maps do too. Other technologies, such as forks and sewing needles, enhance our physical dexterity.
The motorcar might enhance some of our abilities but it is generally bad for our physical fitness. When self-driving cars become common, they will form a triple assault: on our legs, on our ability to read maps, and on our ability to operate heavy machinery.
Neural networks (and other forms of AI) also do not enhance our abilities very well, because they hide from us how they work. We cannot learn their secrets, so we do not gain insights from them directly. [Although a NN may help us to test and discover insights through experimentation.]
David thinks that this should be an important focus of debate:
What unexpected tangential abilities will we lose from employing, or from abandoning, certain technologies?
[And conversely, what could we gain from new technologies, or from more free time?]
Sam says some teachers recommend cursive writing as an important tool for a child’s linguistic development, even though it is rarely used in adulthood. David says Einstein and Wright both played with toy cubes as children. [A place perhaps occupied by Lego in the modern age.]
[Although I was aware of neuroplasticity, I had not heard this aspect of technology expressed quite so clearly, so I found it interesting.]
Other topics: science and culture
“A scientist is someone who believes in the ignorance of experts.” — Richard Feynman.
By this he means that scientists should be sceptical about the claims of individuals, even if they are experts. We should instead look to the scientific method and the scientific community, an institution which can process and critique individual research in order to eventually filter out the real truth.
Modern culture likes concrete answers. But, like scientists, we should learn not to be scared of uncertainty, but to embrace it. Scientists know that some of the answers just don’t exist.
David: “I am frightened by unconditional optimism and unconditional pessimism. The extremes of politically correct and politically incorrect are both equally abhorrent.”
He’s also worried about conformity and loss of diversity encouraged by culture and ironically technology. Cultural ghettos existed even before modern social media bubbles. Technology has an instinct to universalise us (eg. because factory manufacture is cheaper, so companies tend to promote mass-produced rather than bespoke products). [It’s an interesting observation but I’m not as worried as he is.]
We have an intellectual/ethical obligation to populate the universe. We may be the only way for the universe to appreciate itself.
Footnote 1: Apparently this imaginary abacus forms somewhere in the visual cortex.
Footnote 2: The part of the brain we use for numbers is the same part that other primates use for numbers. It is different from the part of the brain we use for language.