xkcd's Up-Goer Five comic gave technical specifications for the Saturn V rocket using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language.
This seemed to me and Briénne to be a really fun exercise, both for tabooing one's words and for communicating difficult concepts to laypeople. So why not make a game out of it? Pick any tough, important, or interesting argument or idea, and use this text editor to try to describe what you have in mind with extremely common words only.
This is challenging, so if you almost succeed and want to share your results, you can mark words where you had to cheat in *italics*. Bonus points if your explanation is actually useful for gaining a deeper understanding of the idea, or for teaching it, in the spirit of Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable.
As an example, here's my attempt to capture the five theses using only top-thousand words:
- Intelligence explosion: If we make a computer that is good at doing hard things in lots of different situations without using much stuff up, it may be able to help us build better computers. Since computers are faster than humans, pretty soon the computer would probably be doing most of the work of making new and better computers. We would have a hard time controlling or understanding what was happening as the new computers got faster and grew more and more parts. By the time these computers ran out of ways to quickly and easily make better computers, the best computers would have already become much much better than humans at controlling what happens.
- Orthogonality: Different computers, and different minds as a whole, can want very different things. They can want things that are very good for humans, or very bad, or anything in between. We can be pretty sure that strong computers won't think like humans, and most possible computers won't try to change the world in the way a human would.
- Convergent instrumental goals: Although most possible minds want different things, they need a lot of the same things to get what they want. A computer and a human might want things that in the long run have nothing to do with each other, but have to fight for the same share of stuff first to get those different things.
- Complexity of value: It would take a huge number of parts, all put together in just the right way, to build a computer that does all the things humans want it to (and none of the things humans don't want it to).
- Fragility of value: If we get a few of those parts a little bit wrong, the computer will probably make only bad things happen from then on. We need almost everything we want to happen, or we won't have any fun.
If you make a really strong computer and it is not very nice, you will not go to space today.
Other ideas to start with: agent, akrasia, Bayes' theorem, Bayesianism, CFAR, cognitive bias, consequentialism, deontology, effective altruism, Everett-style ('Many Worlds') interpretations of quantum mechanics, entropy, evolution, the Great Reductionist Thesis, halting problem, humanism, law of nature, LessWrong, logic, mathematics, the measurement problem, MIRI, Newcomb's problem, Newton's laws of motion, optimization, Pascal's wager, philosophy, preference, proof, rationality, religion, science, Shannon information, signaling, the simulation argument, singularity, sociopathy, the supernatural, superposition, time, timeless decision theory, transfinite numbers, Turing machine, utilitarianism, validity and soundness, virtue ethics, VNM-utility
You and I play a game.
We each want to get a big score.
But we do not care if the other person gets a big score.
On each turn, we can each choose to Give or Take.
If I Give, you get three points. If I Take, I get one point.
If you Give, I get three points. If you Take, you get one point.
If we both Give, we both will have three points.
If we both Take, we both will have one point.
If you Give and I Take, then I will have four points and you will have no points.
If you Take and I Give, then I will have no points and you have will four points.
We would both like it if the other person would Give, because then we get more points.
But we would both like to Take, because then we get more points.
I would like it better if we both Give than if we both Take.
But if I think you will Give, then I would like to Take so that I can get more points.
It is worst for me if I Give and you Take.
And you think just the same thing I do — except with "you" and "me" switched.
If we play over and over again, then each of us can think about what the other has done before.
We can choose whether to Give or Take by thinking about what the other person has done before.
If you always Give... (read more)
It would help if I knew that you and I think exactly the same way.
If this is true, then when I decide to Give, I know you will Give too.
"Doing Good in the Most Helping Way"- It is good to try to help people. It is better to help people in the best way possible. You should look at what actually happens when you try to help people in order to find out how well your helping worked. If we look at lots of different ways of helping people, then we can find out which way is best. You should give your money to the people who are best at helping people.
Where we live, and in places like it, everyone has lots more money than most people who live in other places. That means we have lots that we can give away to the people in the other places. It might be a good idea to try to make lots of money so that you can give away even more!
There is a beautifully executed talk by Guy Steele where he only uses one-syllable words or words explicitly defined in the talk: Growing a Language.
I love this. Small words help me understand huge things.
I think this is good. I am happy about this.
Pascal's wager: If you don't do what God says, you will go to Hell where you will be in a lot of pain until the end of time. Now, maybe God is not real, but can you really take that chance? Doing what God says isn't even that much work.
Pascal's mugging: I tell you "if you don't do what I say, something very bad will happen to you." Very bad things are probably lies, but you can't be sure. And when they get a lot worse, they only sound a little bit more like lies. So whatever I asked you to do, I can always make up a story so bad that it's safer to give in.
Mr. Turing's Computer
Computers in the past could only do one kind of thing at a time. One computer could add some numbers together, but nothing else. Another could find the smallest of some numbers, but nothing else. You could give them different numbers to work with, but the computer would always do the same kind of thing with them.
To make the computer do something else, you had to open it up and put all its pieces back in a different way. This was very hard and slow!
So a man named Mr. Babbage thought: what if some of the numbers you gave the computer were what told it what to do? That way you could have just one computer, and you could quickly make it be a number-adding computer, or a smallest-number-finding computer, or any kind of computer you wanted, just by giving it different numbers. But although Mr. Babbage and his friend Ms. Lovelace tried very hard to make a computer like that, they could not do it.
But later a man named Mr. Turing thought up a way to make that computer. He imagined a long piece of paper with numbers written on it, and imagined a computer moving left and right that paper and reading the numbers on it, and sometimes changing the numbers. This computer coul... (read more)
The Halting Problem (Part One)
A plan is a list of things to do.
When a computer runs, it is doing the things that are written in a plan.
When you solve a problem like 23 × 3, you are also following a plan.
Plans are made of steps.
To follow a plan, you do what each plan step says to do, in the order they are written.
But sometimes a step can tell you to move to a different step in the plan, instead of the next one.
And sometimes it can tell you to do different things if you see something different.
It can say "Go back to step 4" ... or "If the water is not hot yet, wait two minutes, then go back to step 3."
Here is a plan:
Here is another plan:
There is something funny about the second plan!
If we started following that plan, we would never stop.
We would just keep walking to the store, buying a food, and walking back home.
(Or until we decide it is a dumb plan and we should stop following it.
But a computer couldn't do that.)
You may have heard songs like "The Song That Never Ends" or "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Drinks on the W... (read more)
The Halting Problem (Part Two)
Can we have plans for thinking about other plans? Yes, we can!
Suppose that we found a plan, and we did not know what kind of plan it is.
Maybe it is a plan for how to make a food.
Or maybe it is a plan for how to go by car to another city.
Or maybe it is a plan for how to build a house. We don't know.
Can we have a plan for finding out?
Yes! Here is a plan for telling what kind of plan it is:
(Do not do the things that step says to do!
You are only reading that plan, not following it.
You are following this plan.)
Do not write down anything that is not a name of a real thing.
Do not write down numbers, action words, colors, or other words like those.
If so, go to the next step of the plan we are reading, and go back to go back to step 3 of this plan.
If not, go on to step 6 of this plan.
I spent the better part of November writing miniature essays in this. It's really quite addictive. My favourites:
Parallax and cepheid variables (Dead stars that flash in space)
Basic linear algebra (four-sided boxes of numbers that eat each other)
The Gold Standard (Should a bit of money be the same as a bit of sun-colored stuff that comes out of the ground?)
The Central Limit Theorem (The Middle Thing-It-Goes-To Idea-You-Can-Show-Is-True-With-Numbers - when you take lots of Middle Numbers of lots of groups, it looks like the Normal Line!)
Complex numbers ("I have just found out I can use the word 'set'. This makes me very happy.")
Utility, utilitarianism and the problems with interpersonal utility comparison ("If you can't put all your wants into this order, you have Not-Ordered Wants")
The triumvirate brain hypothesis ("when you lie down on the Mind Doctor's couch, you are lying down next to a horse, and a green water animal with a big smile")
Arrow's Impossibility Theorem ("If every person making their mark on a piece of paper wants the Cat Party more than the Dog Party, then the Dog Party can't come out higher in the order than the
Does it really simplify things if you replace "limit" with "thing-it-goes-to" and theorem with "idea-you-can-show-is-true-with-numbers"? IMO this is a big problem with the up-goer five style text: you can still try to use complex concepts by combining words. And because you have to describe the concept with inadequate words, it becomes actually harder to understand what you really mean.
There are two purposes of writing simple English:
In both cases is "sun-colored stuff that comes out of the ground" really the way you would explain it? I would sooner say something like: "yellow is the color of the sun, it looks like . People like shiny yellow metal called gold, because there is little of it".
I suppose the actual reason we are doing this is
"give them a line" and "be cross with you" are expressions that make no sense with the literal interpretation of these words.
Using the most common 1,000 words is not really about simplifying or clarifying things. It's about imposing an arbitrary restriction on something you think you're familiar with, and seeing how you cope with it.
There are merits to doing this beyond "it's fun". When all your technical vernacular is removed, you can't hide behind terms you don't completely understand.
Earlier attempts to do something like this: by us, by other people
Rogitate the nerterological psephograph in order to resarciate the hecatologue from its somandric latibule in the ipsographic odynometer, and thereby sophronize the isangelous omniregency.
It's hard to even imagine how to make a mind - build a brain - that does what's 'right', what it 'should'. We, the humans who have to build that mind, don't know what's right a lot of the time; we change our minds about what's right, and say that we were wrong before.
And yet everything we need has to be inside our minds somewhere, in some sense. Not upon the stars is it written. What's 'right' doesn't come from outside us, as a great light from the sky. So it has to be within humans. But how do you get it out of humans and into a new mind?
Start with what's really there in human minds. Then ask what we would think, if we knew everything a stronger mind knew. Ask what we would think if we had years and years to think. Ask what we would say was right, if we knew everything inside our own minds, all the real reasons why we decide what we decide. If we could change, become more the people we wished we were - what would we think then?
Building a mind which will figure all that out, and then do it, is about as close as we can now imagine to building something that does what's 'right', starting from only what's already there in human minds and brains.
Utilitarianism : Care the same whether everyone is happy; if they live near or if they live far, if you like them or if you not like them; everyone.
I don't think either this, or anything else in this subthread, captures it. Let me have a go.
It's not perfect but I think it captures the key points: equal weights for all, consider all people, add up utilities, utilities should correspond to people's preferences. And it owns up to some of the difficulties that I can't solve in upgoer5 language because I can't solve them at all.
Recent trends in my field of research, syntactic parsing
We've been trying for a long time to make computers speak and listen. Here is what has been happening with the part I work on for the last few years, or at least the part I'm excited about.
What makes understanding hard is that what you are trying to understand can mean so many different things. SO many different things. More than you think!! In fact the number grows way out of line with the number of words.
Until a few years ago, the number one idea we had was to figure out how to put together just a f... (read more)
The AI Box Experiment:
The computer-mind box game is a way to see if a question is true. A computer-mind is not safe because it is very good at thinking. Things good at thinking have the power to change the world more than things not good at thinking, because it can find many more ways to do things. Many people ask: "Why not put this computer-mind in a box so that it can not change the world, but tell guarding-box people how to change it?"
But some other guy answers: "That is still not safe, because computer-mind can tell guarding-box people m... (read more)
Relativity in words of four letters or less
Complexity and Fragility of Value, My take: When people talk about the things they want, they usually don't say very many things. But when you check what things people actually want, they want a whole lot of different things. People also sometimes don't realize that they want things because they have always had those things and never worried that they might lose them.
If we were to write a book of all the things people want so a computer could figure out ways to give people the things they want, the book would probably be long and hard to write. If there w... (read more)
The Prime Number Theorem
A group of four people can stand two by two, but a group of five people can only stand five in a line. The number of numbers like five, and not like four, between two numbers, is the number of times you take two times what you had, starting at one, to get between the two numbers if the two numbers are close.
Bayesianism (probabilism, conditioning, priors as mathematical objects):
Let a possible world be a way the world could be. To say something about the world is to say that the actual world (our world) is one of a set of possible worlds. Like, to say that the sky is blue is to say that the actual world is one of the set of possible worlds in which the sky is blue. Some possible worlds might be ours for all we know (maybe they look like ours, at least so far). For others we are pretty sure that they aren't ours (like all the possible worlds where the sky is pi... (read more)
So, are we going to localize the LW wiki from English to Simple English?
Quantum Field Theory
Not me and only tangentially related, but someone on Reddit managed to describe the basics of Quantum Field Theory using four-letter words or less. I thought it was relevant to this thread, since many here may not have seen it.
The Tiny Yard Idea... (read more)
Reminds me of the E minmal language http://www.ebtx.com/lang/readme2.htm which uses only 300 words including prepositions and tenses, inflections etc. (all words at http://www.ebtx.com/lang/eminfrm.htm ). These 300 are meant to exhaustively decompose most language, physical and everyday concepts down to - well - a minimum.
The first paragraph of the prisoners dilemma (FREPOHU HAAPOZ) might be
VI DILO DU PLAEM PLAL. VIZ CHAAN KRAAN MO ROL. DIBRA VIZ NAA CHON DIER DEPO HUEV VEN MO ROL.
In the world, things happen for reasons. When anything happens ever, there's a reason for it- even if you don't know what it is, or it seems strange. Start with that: nothing has ever happened without a cause. (Here we mean "reason" and "cause" like how a ball rolling into another ball will knock it over, not like good or bad. Think about it- it makes sense.)
If you're interested in knowing more about the world, often, you want to know the real reason things happen (or the reason other things DON'T happen, which can be ju... (read more)
My attempt at describing a black hole:
Words sorely missed: hole, curvature, density, vacuum, horizon.
When you try to understand how very small things work, you realize that you can't use the same kind of ideas which you used to explain how bigger things like cars and balls work. So one of the things you realize is that very small things care about how you look at them. Suppose you have a room with two doors. With big things, if you opened one door and saw a red ball inside and then you opened the other door, you would also see a red ball. But with small things, it could happen that you open one door, see a red ball, open the other door s... (read more)