Summary: Rationalists should win; however, it could take a really long time before a technological singularity or uploading provide powerful technology to aid rationalists in achieving their goals. It's possible today to create assistant computer software to help direct human effort and provide "hints" for clearer thinking. We should catalog such software when it exists and create it when it doesn't.
We may be waiting awhile for a Friendly AI or similar “world changing” technology to appear. While technology continues to improve, the process of creating a Friendly AI seems extremely tricky, and there’s no solid ETA on the program. Uploading is still years to decades away. In the meantime, aspiring rationalists still have to get on with our lives.
Rationality is hard. Merely knowing about a bias is often not enough to overcome it. Even in cases where the steps to act rationally are known, the algorithm required may be more than can be done manually, or may require information which itself is not immediately at hand. However, a lot of things that are difficult become easier when you have the right tools. Could there be tools that supplement the effort involved in making a good decision? I suspect that this is the case, and will give several examples of programs that the community could work to create -- computer software to help you win. Because a lot of software is specifically created to address problems as they come up, it would also be worthwhile to maintain an index of already available software with special usefulness and applicability to Less Wrong readers.
Some people have expressed concern that Less Wrong should be more focused on “doing things” rather than “knowing things” -- instrumental rather than epistemic rationality. Computer software, as a set of instructions for “doing something” fall closer to the “instrumental” end of this spectrum (although for a very good program, it’s possible to learn a thing or two from the source code, or at least the documentation). The concept of open-source software is well-tested, and platforms for open-source projects are freely available and mature -- see Google Code, SourgeForge, GitHub, etc. Additionally, many of us on Less Wrong already have the skills to contribute to such an effort directly. By my count, the 2009 survey shows that 71 of the respondents are involved in computing professionally -- 46%; it seems at first glace as if the basic skills to generate rationality power tools are already present in the community.
Currently, the only software listing on the wiki seems to be puzzle games and the only discussion I’m aware of for creating software in the community is the proposal for a Less Wrong video game.
What’s a Rationality Power Tool?
By “rationality power tool” I mean a computer program which is:
- At least somewhat specialized for a “to win” goal. Word processors are handy, but are not a rationality power tool. Web servers are essential but are basically used for anything and everything on the Internet. A rationality power tool lends itself especially toward rationality.
- General enough to be useful in many different situations. A script that takes data from a proprietary database, combines it with information from public records, and then prints out a report related to a particular company’s goals might be really handy, but is more akin to the instructions for an industrial robot on an assembly line than a power drill.
- Aren’t just for training or demonstration -- games are great and I wholeheartedly support them, but most puzzles cannot be picked up and placed “in production.” Power tools are tools.
- Not just a lifehack. This is a more inclusive concept that, say, also includes the right web browser settings to make websites load 5% faster.
- Not trivial. A set of rules to sort email by keywords in the subject or a countdown timer to see how long you’ve been doing something are generally just too small to do a lot of “heavy lifting.” Power tools have power. However, even trivial concepts could be expanded into programs that fit -- see CRM114 and this discussion of website-time-tracking programs.
Program Examples and Proposals
Facebook Idea Futures
Idea futures are neat, but public opportunities for participating in them are few and far between. The Foresight Exchange is mostly moribund, and definitely shows its age -- Consensus Point has mostly focused on bringing prediction markets to large corporations, which is fine as far as it goes, but not necessarily optimal for getting the word out and letting people who are new to the concept play with it. The Popular Science prediction market closed in 2009. Intrade has questionable legality, at best, from the U.S., has lackluster marketing (e.g. the 2008 U.S. elections are still listed at the top of the sidebar!), and is limited in the number of claims it can support and its usefulness in introducing the concept to those unfamiliar with it by using real money. Additionally, none of these markets have a large number of conditional claims (e.g. you can use Intrade for a probability that a Democrat wins the 2012 presidential election and a probability that Palin is the 2012 Republican nominee, but a conditional claim of some sort would be needed for a probability that a Democrat wins given that Palin is the Republican nominee).
At the same time, browser-based games have become much more popular recently. The basic concept of the Foresight Exchange would make a really good Facebook game if the interface were updated, and claim creation were encouraged rather than discouraged.
Prediction markets can provide good exercise in critically evaluating claims for their participants, while simultaneously quantifying the “wisdom of crowds” -- a more expensive and difficult job when a survey is needed. Zocalo and Idea Futures (a descendant of the software that runs FX), are two packages that could possibly be updated.
Related: TakeOnIt, a database of expert opinion by Ben Albahari introduced on LessWrong earlier this year.
Coordinated Efforts -- Fundraising and Otherwise
Money is [basically] a unit of caring. Sometimes it’s useful for people to donate toward something if and only if other people donate toward that cause. Websites like ChipIn and KickStarter can somewhat help in this sort of “coordination game.” The Point is a similar website with a less financial focus.
Time is almost invariably an element in a plan. It’s very rare that someone can overcome akrasia and procrastination, go do whatever needs to be done on the spot, and that’s the end of it. More often, something needs to be done every week, every day, every month, always in response to some environmental queue, randomly over a period of 3 years, in a particular sequence, at a particular time, when the resources become available, etc. There’s already been some discussion on Less Wrong of various approaches and issues of time management, but again, there hasn’t been much effort to critique these systems, find software implementations, and catalog them.
FWIW, I’ve been using a PHP script to randomly create schedules for myself for the last several weeks. While still very crude, I’ve found that being able to just “adjusting the dials” to how much I work on things on a week-by-week basis and making small changes to the auto-scheduler's output (currently a tab-delimited spreadsheet) is a lot better than having to actually come up with a complete schedule ex nihilo. The less time spent thinking about what you’re going to do, the more time you have to actually do it.
Mentor Match and Practice Program Database
Based on some advice in Memetic Hazards in Videogames, I have been reading Talent is Overrated, which also ties well to the recent Shiny Distraction discussion. It suggests that well-designed practice is key to developing skills, and this is often easier if you have a mentor for feedback and hints on what you should be working on. This leads me to two programs that don’t currently exist, as far as I know, but that would be very useful -- first, a database of practice programs for developing various skills, and second, a mentor finder to pair up rationalists that want to learn things with those that already know them.
In “Building Communities With Software,” Joel Spolsky discusses how various way of setting up the software around an online community can affect its behavior. It’d be possible to create a rationalist community using nothing but IRC, but it’d be more difficult. Less Wrong itself (based on Reddit) certainly falls into the category of rationalist power tools. For those not already aware, there is currently a debate on the appropriateness of “community” items like job postings and meetings on the front page. Following the principle that the things you want people to do on a website should be easier to do, We shouldn't simply bury these -- if we want people to meet in person and implement rationality in the workforce, we should put community items in full on the front page, if perhaps not with the same prominence as articles (in the sidebar?).
Where To Go From Here
I’ve created a page on the wiki
to catalog rationality power tools that currently exist and proposals to create new ones -- feel free to edit in links to programs you think fit and your ideas for new ones (perhaps with a link to an appropriate link to a article or comment on the main site for discussion). My definition of “rationality power tools” above is a bit awkward, and I’d appreciate any refinement that helps us find or make such tools. For especially worthy projects, it may make sense to solicit bids for them, and then commission them, perhaps with Kickstarter. If you’re willing to take on a project and know some programming language, just do it. *Actually, will soon create a page on the wiki, as I’m ironically experiencing technical difficulties in doing so.