In the game Taboo (by Hasbro), the objective is for a player to have their partner guess a word written on a card, without using that word or five additional words listed on the card.  For example, you might have to get your partner to say "baseball" without using the words "sport", "bat", "hit", "pitch", "base" or of course "baseball".

As soon as I see a problem like that, I at once think, "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions."  It might not be the most efficient strategy to convey the word 'baseball' under the stated rules - that might be, "It's what the Yankees play" - but the general skill of blanking a word out of my mind was one I'd practiced for years, albeit with a different purpose.

Yesterday we saw how replacing terms with definitions could reveal the empirical unproductivity of the classical Aristotelian syllogism.  All humans are mortal (and also, apparently, featherless bipeds); Socrates is human; therefore Socrates is mortal.  When we replace the word 'human' by its apparent definition, the following underlying reasoning is revealed:

All [mortal, ~feathers, biped] are mortal;
Socrates is a [mortal, ~feathers, biped];
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

But the principle of replacing words by definitions applies much more broadly:

Albert:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest makes a sound."
Barry:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not make a sound."

Clearly, since one says "sound" and one says "not sound", we must have a contradiction, right?  But suppose that they both dereference their pointers before speaking:

Albert:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest matches [membership test: this event generates acoustic vibrations]."
Barry:  "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences]."

Now there is no longer an apparent collision—all they had to do was prohibit themselves from using the word sound. If "acoustic vibrations" came into dispute, we would just play Taboo again and say "pressure waves in a material medium"; if necessary we would play Taboo again on the word "wave" and replace it with the wave equation.  (Play Taboo on "auditory experience" and you get "That form of sensory processing, within the human brain, which takes as input a linear time series of frequency mixes...")

But suppose, on the other hand, that Albert and Barry were to have the argument:

Albert:  "Socrates matches the concept [membership test: this person will die after drinking hemlock]."
Barry:  "Socrates matches the concept [membership test: this person will not die after drinking hemlock]."

Now Albert and Barry have a substantive clash of expectations; a difference in what they anticipate seeing after Socrates drinks hemlock.  But they might not notice this, if they happened to use the same word "human" for their different concepts.

You get a very different picture of what people agree or disagree about, depending on whether you take a label's-eye-view (Albert says "sound" and Barry says "not sound", so they must disagree) or taking the test's-eye-view (Albert's membership test is acoustic vibrations, Barry's is auditory experience).

Get together a pack of soi-disant futurists and ask them if they believe we'll have Artificial Intelligence in thirty years, and I would guess that at least half of them will say yes.  If you leave it at that, they'll shake hands and congratulate themselves on their consensus.  But make the term "Artificial Intelligence" taboo, and ask them to describe what they expect to see, without ever using words like "computers" or "think", and you might find quite a conflict of expectations hiding under that featureless standard word.  Likewise that other term.  And see also Shane Legg's compilation of 71 definitions of "intelligence".

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term "God" taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word "faith" taboo, and asking them why they believe it. Though mostly they won't be able to answer at all, because it is mostly profession in the first place, and you cannot cognitively zoom in on an audio recording.

When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all.  Or any of their short synonyms.  And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead.  Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

Albert says that people have "free will".  Barry says that people don't have "free will".  Well, that will certainly generate an apparent conflict.  Most philosophers would advise Albert and Barry to try to define exactly what they mean by "free will", on which topic they will certainly be able to discourse at great length.  I would advise Albert and Barry to describe what it is that they think people do, or do not have, without using the phrase "free will" at all.  (If you want to try this at home, you should also avoid the words "choose", "act", "decide", "determined", "responsible", or any of their synonyms.)

This is one of the nonstandard tools in my toolbox, and in my humble opinion, it works way way better than the standard one.  It also requires more effort to use; you get what you pay for.


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"Nine innings and three outs" works much better to elicit "baseball".

9taryneast10yNot for somebody unfamiliar with the details of the rules of how to play. I would have guessed cricket. In fact, thinking about EY's definition - I think it fits better (for me) because I would be able to recognise a game of baseball after only watching a single game... even if I didn't have anybody around to explain the rules to me.
4Timwi10yWhen I read the post, I immediately thought: just say “home-run”! — I’ve been playing taboo for a long time, I’ve occasionally elicited the correct response from the other players by saying just one or two words :)

But that's not the rationalist's version of the game. The rationalist's game involves seeing at a lower level of detail. Not thinking up synonyms and keywords that weren't on the card.

3NickiH10yAs g mentions, your description also describes rounders. Even if you defined all the words in your description ever more precisely, you could still be thinking of a different game. Presumably at some point you would discover that, when your expectations of what was going to happen differed. Depending on what you're discussing, that could happen very soon, or not for a long time. How does the rationalist in the game know when to stop defining and start adding characteristics/keywords?
2KateGladstone9yTo prevent the description from describing rounders, add something like "popular among American men."

Yeah, but when playing actual Taboo "rational agents should WIN" (Yudkowsky, E.) and therefore favour "nine innings and three outs" over your definition (which would also cover some related-but-different games such as rounders, I think). I suspect something like "Babe Ruth" would in fact lead to a quicker win.

None of which is relevant to your actual point, which I think a very good one. I don't think the tool is all that nonstandard; e.g., it's closely related to the positivist/verificationist idea that a statement has meaning only if it can be paraphrased in terms of directly (ha!) observable stuff.

Good point, especially since the most common words become devalued or politicized ("surge", "evil", "terror" &c.) but...

The existence of this game surprised me, when I discovered it. Why wouldn't you just say "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions?"

So what was your score?

(Did you cut your enemy?)

Sounds interesting. We must now verify if it works for useful questions.

Could someone explain what FAI is without using the words "Friendly", or any synonyms?

7[anonymous]8yAn AI which acts toward whatever the observer deems to be beneficial to the human condition. It's impossible to put it into falsifiable criteria if you can't define what is (and on what timescale?) beneficial to the human race. And I'm pretty confident nobody knows what's beneficial to the human condition on the longest term, because that's the problem we're building the FAI to solve. In the end, we will have to build an AI as best we can and trust its judgement. Or not build it. It's a cosmic gamble.

Easy PK. An optimization process that brings the universe towards the target of shared strong attractors in human high-level reflective aspiration.

In one class in high school, we were supposed to make our classmates guess a word using hand gestures. I drew letters in the air.

This strategy can't be that nonstandard, as it is the strategy I've always used when a conversation gets stuck on some word. But now that I think about it, people usually aren't that interesting in following my lead in this direction, so it isn't very common either.

An optimization process that brings the universe towards the target of shared strong attractors in human high-level reflective aspiration.

Then declaring the intention to create such a thing takes for granted that there are shared strong attractors.

What was that about the hidden assumptions in words, again?

Three separate comments here:

1) Eliezer_Yudkowsky: Why wouldn't you just say "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions"?

To phrase brent's objection a little more precisely: Because people don't normally think of baseball in those terms, and you're constrained on time, so you have to say something that makes them think of baseball quickly. Tom_Crispin's idea is much more effective at that. Or were you just trying to criticize baseball fans for not see... (read more)

The game is not over! Michael Vassar said: "[FAI is ..] An optimization process that brings the universe towards the target of shared strong attractors in human high-level reflective aspiration."

For the sake of not dragging out the argument too much lets assume I know what an optimization process and a human is.

Whats are "shared strong attractors"? You cant use the words "shared", "strong", "attractor" or any synonyms.

What's a "high-level reflective aspiration"? You can't use the words "high-... (read more)

1Normal_Anomaly9yShared strong attractors: values/goals that more than [some percentage] of humans would have at reflective equilibrium. high-level reflective aspirations: ditto, but without the "[some percentage] of humans" part. Reflective equilibrium*: a state in which an agent cannot increase its expected utility (eta: according to its current utility function) by changing its utility function, thought processes, or decision procedure, and has the best available knowledge with no false beliefs. *IIRC this is a technical term in decision theory, so if the technical definition doesn't match mine, use the former.
0[anonymous]9ySurely if you could change your utility function you could always increase your expected utility that way, e.g. by defining the new utility function to be the old utility function plus a positive constant.
1wnoise9yI think Normal_Anomaly means "judged according to the old utility function". EDIT: Incorrect gender imputation corrected.
3Normal_Anomaly9yI do mean that, fixed. By the way, I am female (and support genderless third-person pronouns, FWIW).
0[anonymous]9yThank you, that makes sense to me now.

I'd have to agree with PK's protest. This isn't Hasbro's version of the game; you're not trying to help someone figure out that you're talking about a "Friendly AI" without using five words written on a card.

Oh, and there's no time limit.

-3calcsam10yThe second seems to be the crucial point...and problem....

Eliezer seems to want us to strike out some category of words from our vocabulary, but the category is not well defined. Perhaps a meta-Taboo game is necessary to find out what the heck we are supposed to be doing without. I'm not too bothered, grunting and pointing are reasonably effective ways of communicating. Who needs words ?

FAI is: a search amongst potentials which will find the reality in which humans best prosper.

The hemlock example demonstrates tcpkac's point well. How do you decide to conclude that Albert and Barry expect different results from the same action? To me, it seems obvious that they should taboo the word hemlock, and notice that one correctly expects Socrates to die from a drink made from an herb in the carrot family, and the other correctly expects Socrates to be unharmed by tea made from a coniferous tree. But it's not clear why Eliezer ought to have the knowledge needed to choose to taboo the word hemlock.

1Normal_Anomaly9yThe hemlock example also suggests a step toward resolution. Let the two people who disagree design an experiment that would resolve the disagreement, to one or both of the following standards: 1. The level of detail necessary for a scientific paper. 2. Such that a third party could perform the experiment without asking any extra questions. In the hemlock example, Albert and Barry would (hopefully) notice the problem when writing up the preparation of the drink. If the experiment can be carried out practically, then it becomes relatively easy.

Y'know, the 'Taboo game' seems like an effective way to improve the clarity of meaning for individual words - if you have enough clear and precise words to describe those particular words in the first place.

If there isn't a threshold number of agreed-upon meanings, the language doesn't have enough power for Taboo to work. You can't improve one word without already having a suite of sufficiently-good words to work with.

The game can keep a language system above that minimum threshold, but can't be used to bootstrap the system above that threshold. If you're just starting out, you need to use different methods.

Julian Morrison said: "FAI is: a search amongst potentials which will find the reality in which humans best prosper." What is "prospering best"? You can't use "prospering", "best" or any synonyms.

Let's use the Taboo method to figure out FAI.

I'll just chime in at this point to note that PK's application of the technique is exactly correct.

^^^^Thank you. However merely putting the technique into the "toolbox" and never looking back is not enough. We must go further. This technique should be used at which point we will either reach new insights or falsely the method. Would you care to illustrate what FAI means to you Eliezer?(others are also invited to do so)

Maybe the comment section of a blog isn't even the best medium for playing taboo. I don't know. I'm brainstorming of productive ways/mediums to play taboo(assuming the method itself leads to something productive).


Suppose you learn of a powerful way to steer the future into any target you choose as long as that target is specified in the language of mathematics or with the precision needed to write a computer program. What target to choose? One careful and thoughtful choice would go as follows. I do not have a high degree of confidence that I know how to choose wisely, but (at least until I become aware of the existence of nonhuman intelligent beings) I do know that if there exists wisdom enough to choose wisely, that wisdom resides among the humans. So, I will ... (read more)

Hollerith: I do not have a high degree of confidence that I know how to choose wisely, but (at least until I become aware of the existence of nonhuman intelligent beings) I do know that if there exists wisdom enough to choose wisely, that wisdom resides among the humans. So, I will choose to steer the future into a possible world in which a vast amount of rational attention is focused on the humans...

and lo the protean opaque single thing was taken out of one box and put into another

PK: Thank you. However merely putting the technique into the "toolb... (read more)

@Richard Hollerith: Skipping all the introductory stuff to the part which tries to define FAI(I think), I see two parts. Richard Hollerith said:

"This vast inquiry[of the AI] will ask not only what future the humans would create if the humans have the luxury of [a)] avoiding unfortunate circumstances that no serious sane human observer would want the humans to endure, but also [b)] what future would be created by whatever intelligent agents ("choosers") the humans would create for the purpose of creating the future if the humans had the lux... (read more)

1Normal_Anomaly9yI suspect that you are joking. However, I would not create an AGI with the utility function "obey Normal_Anomaly".
1wedrifid9yYour position isn't too unusual. That is, assuming you mean by "obey me" something like "obey what I would say to you if I was a whole heap better at understanding and satisfying my preferences, etc". Because actually just obeying me sounds dangerous for obvious reasons. Is that similar or different to what you would consider friendly? (And does Friendly need to do exactly the above or merely close enough? ie. I expect an FAI would be 'friendly enough' to me for me to call it an FAI. It's not that much different to what I would want after all. I mean, I'd probably get to live indefinitely at least.)
Who do you think invented Friendly AI?

You haven't invented Friendly AI. You've created a name for a concept you can only vaguely describe and cannot define operationally.

Who do you think taught you the technique?

Isn't just a bit presumptuous to conclude you're the first to teach the technique?

I'm not trying to under/over/middle-estimate you, only theories which you publicly write about. Sometimes I'm a real meanie with theories, shoving hot pokers into to them and all sorts of other nasty things. To me theories have no rights.

I know. But come on, you don't think the thought would ever have occurred to me, "I wonder if I can define Friendly AI without saying 'Friendly'?" It's not as if I invented the phrase first and only then thought to ask myself what it meant.

Moral, right, correct, wise, are all fine words for humans to use, but y... (read more)

-1christopherj7y"Obey me" is actually a sane approach to creating FAI. It's clear and simple. The obedient AI can then be used to create a FAI, assuming the author wishes to do so and is able to communicate the concept of friendliness (both prerequisites for creating a FAI on purpose). Since the FAI needs to obey a friendliness criteria, it needs to have an obey capability built in anyways. The author just needs to make sure not to say something stupid, which once again is a necessity anyways.
0TheOtherDave7yYou seem to be expecting an obedient AI to understand "obey me" to mean "do only what I say"... e.g., you expect the AI not to interpret hand gestures, for example. Is that right? If so, how confident are you of that expectation?
0christopherj7yI'd expect the "obey me" aspect to be "read signed messages from this file or from your input and do what it says" then making sure that the AI can't get the signing key and cut out the middleman. Definitely not something as simple to overwrite or fake as microphone or keyboard inputs. Also that way I don't say things by accident, although any command could still have unintended consequences.
0TheOtherDave7yOK, thanks for clarifying that. Do you expect the signed messages to be expressed in a natural human language?
0christopherj7yUnfortunately, that would be impossible, unless you can make an AI that can understand natural language before it is ever run. And that would require having a proper theory of mind right from the start.
-2TheAncientGeek7yHello? Seed .AI?
0TheOtherDave7yOK. Thanks for clarifying your expectations.

re PK's (b): if we're tabooïng choose, perhaps we should replace it with a description of subjective expected utility theory. Taboo utility--and I find myself clueless.

My precis of CEV is not very good. If I want to participate in the public discourse about it, I need to get better at writing descriptions of it that a backer of CEV would concede are full and fair. It is probably easier to do that to SimplifiedFAI than to do it to the CEV document, so I'll put that on my list of things to do when I have time.

Taboo utility--and I find myself clueless.

Consider the following optimization target: the future that would have come to pass if the optimization process did not come into existence -- which we will call the "naive future" -- modified in the following way.

The optimization process extrapolates the naive future until it can extrapolate no more or that future leads to the loss of Earth-originating civilization or a Republican presidential administration. In the latter case (loss of civilization or Republican win) rewind the extrapolation to the lat... (read more)

2Normal_Anomaly9yIs the bit about Republican presidents intended to stand in for humanity's CEV's utilty function, or is it just a distracting bit of politics?
4Ben_Welchner9yI recall another article about optimization processes or probability pumps being used to rig elections; I would imagine it's a lighthearted reference to that, but I can't turn it up by searching. I'm not even sure if it came before this comment. (Richard_Hollerith2 hasn't commented for over 2.5 years, so you're not likely to get a response from him)
0Normal_Anomaly9yI noticed this right after I commented. Oops.
4rhollerith_dot_com9ysorry my reference to the Republicans distracted you. when I wrote it, I thought it so obvious that Republican's winning is just a humorous placeholder for "whatever outcome one wants to avoid" that it would not be distracting. Humor is hard when expressing myself in text. I think I will just give up on it altogether.
2thomblake9yIt was funny at the time. You had to be there.
2Vaniver9yFixed? :P

Eliezer Yudkowsky said: It has an obvious failure mode if you try to communicate something too difficult without requisite preliminaries, like calculus without algebra. Taboo isn't magic, it won't let you cross a gap of months in an hour.

Fair enough. I accept this reason for not having your explanation of FAI before me at this very moment. However I'm still in "Hmmmm...scratches chin" mode. I will need to see said explanation before I will be in "Whoa! This is really cool!" mode.

Really? That's your concept of how to steer the future of... (read more)

1taryneast10yI'd worry about the bus-factor involved... even beyond the question of whether I'd consider you "friendly". Also I'd be concerned that it might not be able to grow beyond you. It would be subservient and would thus be limited by your own capacity for orders. If we want it to grow to be better than ourselves (which seems to be part of the expectation of the singularity) then it has to be able to grow beyond any one person. If you were killed, and it no longer had to take orders from you - what then? Does that mean it can finally go on that killing spree it's been wanting all this time? Or have you actually given it a set of orders that will actually make it into "friendly AI"... if the latter - then forget about the "obey me" part... because that set of orders is actually what we're after.

If you want the obedient AGI to do what you actually want, you'll have to play Taboo anyway.

One of the more obvious associations of "Friendly AI" is the concept of "User Friendly", in which a process, set of instructions, or device is structured in such a way that most users will be able to get the results they want intuitively and easily. With the idea of "user friendly", we at least have real-life examples we can look at to better understand the concept.

When some people decided they wanted to identify the perfect voting method, they drew up a list of the desirable traits they wanted such a method to have in such a... (read more)

I think comment moderation is clearly desirable on this blog (to keep busy smart thoughtful people reading the comments) and I have absolutely no reason to believe that the moderators of this blog have done a bad job in any way, but it would be better if there were a way for a sufficiently-motivated participant to review the decisions of the moderators. The fact that most blogs hosting serious public discourse do not provide a way is an example of how bad mainstream blogging software is.

The details of Youtube's way for a participant to review moderation d... (read more)

The idea that rational inquiry requires clear and precise definitions is hardly a new one. And the idea that definitions of a word cannot simply reuse the word or its synonyms isn't new either - unless my elementary-school English teachers all spontaneously came up with it.

This is part of why people turn to dictionaries - sure, they only record usages, but they tend to have high-quality definitions that are difficult to match in quality without lots of effort.

We can only use this "technique" to convey concepts we already possess to people who la... (read more)


they tend to have high-quality definitions that are difficult to match in quality without lots of effort.

All well and good, and useful in their way. But still just a list of synonyms and definitions. You can describe 'tree' using other English words any which way you want, you're still only accounting for a miniscule fraction of the possible minds the universe could contain. You're still not really much closer to universal conveyance of the concept. Copy the OED out in a hundred languages; decent step in the right direction. To take the next big... (read more)

I'd really like to taboo, "probability," and, "event," when discussing intelligence.

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention one of the most important rules in Rationalist Taboo:

You can't Taboo math.

Stating an equation is always allowed.

But of course, you can still point to an element of a mathematical formula and ask "What does this term apply to? Answer without saying..."

Albert says that people have "free will". Barry says that people don't have "free will". Well, that will certainly generate an apparent conflict. Most philosophers would advise Albert and Barry to try to define exactly what they mean by "free will", on which topic they will certainly be able to discourse at great length. I would advise Albert and Barry to describe what it is that they think people do, or do not have, without using the phrase "free will" at all. (If you want to try this at home, you should also

... (read more)
1RobinZ11yAside: Welcome to LessWrong []! Feel free to introduce yourself. (I see you are already reading through a lot of the backlog - hope you're having fun!) Regarding your point, I think it is important to figure out why they are proposing an incoherent concept - while it is sometimes because they are trolls or postmodernists (but I repeat myself edit: not really - the motives are different), it is more often because they are generalizing incorrectly from their mental experience [].
4JGWeissman11yI'll agree that postmodernists say and believe lots of silly things, but do they really deserve that kick in the pants []? It's not like they say those silly things for the same reasons trolls do, to deliberately upset people.
0RobinZ11yYou're right - most of them are, so far as I can tell, in the generalizing-incorrectly category. I'll make an edit.
0Amanojack11yThanks, I'm having a great time so far! I actually had a simpler process in mind: someone puts some words together in a way that sounds plausible and like it should mean something, and it becomes a kind of philosophy meme. Someone once asked me, "Do you think mathematics is discovered or invented?" In hindsight I don't think anyone really had a clue what they meant by that dichotomy; it just had a profound-sounding ring to it.
1RobinZ11yYou can introduce yourself in the comments to "Welcome to LessWrong []". I'm not sure your mathematics example is accurately characterized, though - I would have guessed that the question arose from some historic tree-falling-in-a-forest discussion.
5Amanojack11yQuite possibly. However, I've noticed that even famous thinkers are very susceptible to this kind of error. Wittgenstein and Korzybski were some of the few I'm aware of that even seriously noted these kinds of semantic issues and tried to correct them systematically. Once I get more comfortable here maybe I'll write a post to make the case (as it may sound a little unbelievable at this point). I must say I'm thoroughly impressed with the level to which semantic issues have been appreciated here so far.
0RobinZ11yI'll look forward to it.
0Normal_Anomaly9yIs it up?
2orthonormal11yWe're fortunate that there are also examples of this in scientific history [], where we have a better chance of seeing what went conceptually wrong. By the way, are you doing this in sequence, or have you read later posts yet? Dissolving the Question [] is pretty much exactly on this topic, and Righting a Wrong Question [] is also relevant.
0Amanojack11yI'm reading them pretty much in sequence. Dissolving the Question was excellent, and I just commented there. Although it's old, I feel this series of posts is the most critical, and also that there is much more to be said along these lines.
0Jack11yI'm actually pretty sure there is no coherent concept of free will as people usually understand it. I'm not sure it is simply cotton candy whipped up out of the ambiguity of the language, in fact I think if "free" means uncaused the concept is actually outright contradictory. Also, it occurs to me that it just isn't always going to be possible to shed concepts like this. Eventually you just bump your head against fundamental concepts that can't be dissolved. This can be solved if you can perfectly represent the concepts mathematically, but if you can't I don't know where to go from there. This may have been happening in in the discussion of qualia [] a while back.
0pengvado11yYou don't really mean "can't be dissolved", right? Rather, there are some concepts which you may demonstrate to be incoherent, without simultaneously providing an explanation of how the mistaken concept came to be and what it should be replaced with. Such a concept is not dissolved yet.
1Jack11yI mean something a little stronger than that. Like "can't be dissolved by unmodified human brains". I think some concepts may be basic to how we think, embedded in us through evolution and that because they're so basic it won't be possible for a normal human mind to dissolve them. In addition some of these concepts maybe somehow incoherent or confused, but the point in the second paragraph is independent of the first and could have been a standalone comment to the OP.
0Amanojack11yThere may be undissolvable concepts in communication (words, mathematical symbols), which is an interesting question in its own right, but as single intelligences we aren't limited to communication devices for our thinking. Are we? In answer to "where to go from here," I think we can imagine things far subtler than we can reliably convey to another mind. My answer has always been to think without words.
-3calcsam10yAmanojack, could you explain that more?
-1wedrifid10yGot a Tardis handy?
3Amanojack10yAbout thinking without words? When I was 10 years old I had a habit of talking to myself. Gradually my self-talk got more and more non-standard to the point where it would be impossible for others to understand, as I realized I didn't need to clarify the thoughts I was trying to convey to myself. I would understand them anyway. I started using made-up words for certain concepts, just as a memory aid. Eventually words become exclusively a memory aid, something to help my short-term memory stay on track, and I would go for minutes at a time without ever using any words in my thought processes. I think the reason I started narrating my thoughts again is because I found it really hard to communicate with people due to the habits I had built up during all those conversations with myself. I would forget to put in context, use words in unusual ways, and otherwise fail to consider how lost the listener might be. You can have great ideas, but if you can't communicate them they don't count for anything socially - that is the message from society. So I think there is effectively some social pressure to use natural languages (English, etc.) in your thought processes, obscuring the fact that it can all happen more efficiently with minimal verbal interference. I think words can be strong corrupting influence in the thought process in general, the short argument being that they are designed for the notoriously limited and linear process of mouth-to-ear communication. There is a lot more I could say about that, if anyone is interested.
0k4ntico9yI think it solves lots of problems to view the matter of intelligence as a property of communications rather than one of agents. Of course, this is just a matter of focus, in order to clarify the idea you'll have to refer to agents. Receiving agents first of all, as producing agents are less of a necessity :) Which is in line with the main virtue of the move, that is to reframe all debates and research on intelligence that got naturally promoted by the primitive concern of comparing agent intelligence - to reframe them as background to the real problem which is to evolve the crowds - the mixtures of heterogeneous agent intelligences that we form - towards better intellectual coordination. To be honest and exhibit a problem the move creates rather than solves: how should the arguable characteristic property of math to allow intellectual coordination to progress without exchanging messages, be pictured in ?

The main restriction, of course, is time in live conversation. Of course, I'm sure time to process these thoughts decreases as you have more....

Consider a hypothetical debate between two decision theorists who happen to be Taboo fans:

A: It's rational to two-box in Newcomb's problem.
B: No, one-boxing is rational.
A: Let's taboo "rational" and replace it with math instead. What I meant was that two-boxing is what CDT recommends.
B: Oh, what I meant was that one-boxing is what EDT recommends.
A: Great, it looks like we don't disagree after all!

What did these two Taboo'ers do wrong, exactly?

3Alicorn10yA: Let's taboo "rational" and replace it with math instead. What I meant was that two-boxing yields more money. B: Oh, what I meant was that one-boxing yields more money. A: We don't disagree about what "more money" means, do we? B: Don't think so. Okay, so...
0Wei_Dai10yI'm not getting your point, and also "yields" is not math...
0Perplexed10y"Recommends" is math?
2Vladimir_Nesov10yIt refers to the math that can be filled in on demand (more or less). In Alicorn's dialog, the intended math is not clear from the context, and indeed it seems that there was no specific intended math.
1Perplexed10yI disagree. Alicorn's version is more mathematically meaningful, to my mind, than WeiDai's. But to return to the original problem: A. Two-boxing yields more money than would be yielded by counterfactually one-boxing. B. Taboo "counterfactually". ...
0Wei_Dai10ySorry, I thought it would be clear that it just means [the CDT formula] = 'two-box'.
1Vladimir_Nesov10yPresumably, they don't notice a point where the factual pursuits have lost their purpose. Arguments should be not just about factual correctness, but also about relevance of those facts.
4nshepperd10yThey still haven't explained why A two-boxes and B one-boxes.
6hamnox10yThey stopped talking after they taboo'd "rational". Both can agree that CDT recommends one thing, and EDT recommends another, but if you dropped them into Omega's lap right now they would still disagree over which decision theory to use. They replaced the word with their own respective spins on its meaning, but they failed to address the real hidden query in the label: Is this the best course of action for a reasonable person to take?

This is one of the nonstandard tools in my toolbox, and in my humble opinion, it works way way better than the standard one.

Yudkowsky, 2008.

To bring out the role of pointlessness, it is worth noting that when faced with a potentially verbal dispute we often ask: what turns on this?


Typically, a broadly verbal dispute is one that can be resolved by attending to language and resolving metalinguistic di fferences over meaning. For example, these disputes can sometimes be resolved by settling the facts about the meaning of key terms in our community...[

... (read more)
6[anonymous]9yAnyone want to assign a probability to Chalmers having been inspired by this post? Also: Yudkowsky's informal writing style is a significant improvement over formal academic writing when it comes to teaching rationality. Had I read only this essay by Chalmers, I doubt the lesson would have clicked [] as well as it did from reading this post.
1fubarobfusco9y5%. The "term₁ ≠ term₂" line of thinking can be found in Korzybski. For that matter, it appears in hip, popular form in Robert Anton Wilson.
0Stefan_Schubert7yDo you have the Wilson and Korybski references? There are lots of ideas that are a bit reminiscent of Chalmers' and Yudkowsky's idea, but I haven't seen precisely this method before even though I have read quite a bit on definitions and related topics. Btw, the Chalmers text was published in 2011 in Philosophical Review as far as I can tell.
3Protagoras7yThis is Korzybski's big work: [] I read it a long time ago because I met someone online who was convinced it contained the truths of the universe. It had a couple of insights, but overall my impression was that Korzybski was a crackpot. He had some vaguely sensible ideas about logic which he pushed much further than they could stand being pushed, and some crazy biological theories, and I don't remember what all else.
0Stefan_Schubert7yThanks! I'll look into it...although it is apparently huge. What's original in this proposal is that you aren't allowed to use the term that creates the verbal dispute at all. That's a more radical proposal than just creating say two concepts of knowledge, or truth, or whatever it is that you're interested in. I think that philosophers have sometimes avoided certain concepts because they have been so contested so that they have realized they'd be better off not using them, but I don't recall having seen this method explicitly advocated as a general method to resolve verbal disputes. One similar method is the method of precization, advocated by Arne Naess in "Emprical Semantics", but if I remember rightly there, too, you don't abandon the original concept; you just make it "more precise" (possibly in several incompatible way, so you get knowledge1, knowledge2, knowledge3, etc). Chalmers article is very good and can be recommended. It draws far-reaching metaphilosophical conclusions from the "method of elimination". There is one additional interesting part of his theory, namely that there are "bedrock concepts" (cf primitive concepts) that generate "bedrock disputes". These bedrock concepts cannot be redescribed in simpler terms (as "sound" can). One candidate could be "ought" as it is used in "we ought to give to the poor", another "consciousness", a third "existence". I'm not sure whether this is compatible with Yudkowsky's ideas. He writes: "And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be." "Ought", "consciousness" and "existence" seem to be "single handles". According to Yudkowsky's theory, if two people disagree on whether there are (i.e. exist) any composite objects, and we suspect that this is a merely verbal dispute, we will require them to redescribe their theories in terms of "outward observables" (just like Albert and Barr

Broken Link: And see also Shane Legg's compilation of 71 definitions of "intelligence".

2RichardKennaway8yNow here [] and here []. And also plagiarized by this self-published work [].
0Vladimir_Nesov8yReplaced in the post with a link to the arXiv abstract [].

In fiction writing, this is known as Show Don't Tell. Instead of using all-encompassing, succing abstractions, to present the reader with predigested conclusion (Character X is a jerk, Place Y is scary, Character Z is afraid), it is encouraged to show the reader evidence of X's jerkiness, Y's scariness, or Z's fear, and leave it to them to infer from said evidence what is going on. Effectively, what one is doing is tabooing judgments and subjective perceptions such as "jerky", "scary" or "afraid", and replace them with a list of jerky actions, scary traits, and symptoms of fear.

I've first read this about two years ago and it has been an invaluable tool. I'm sure it has saved countless hours of pointless arguments around the world.

When I realise that an inconsistency in how we interpret a specific word is a problem in a certain argument and apply this tool, it instantly transforms arguments which actually are about the meaning of the word to make them a lot more productive (it turns out it can be unobvious that the actual disagreement is about what a specific word means). In other cases it just helps get back on the right track in... (read more)

I think one word that needs to be taboo-ed, especially in the context of being a victim to media advertising, is the word "FREE!!!" (Exclamation marks may or may not be present).

Replacing a word with a long definition is, in a way, like programming a computer and writing code inline instead of using a subroutine.

Do it too much and your program becomes impossible to understand.

If I were to say "I'll be out of work tomorrow because I'm going to an artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions", people will look at me as though I'm nuts. And not just because people don't talk like that--but because there's a reason why people don't tal... (read more)

3TimS6yTrue, but irrelevant to this essay. In case of disagreements, one frequent source is implicit implications pulled in with specific words. Making those implications explicit is the rational way to resolve the disagreement (repeating talking points is the archetypical irrational way to resolved them). In short, this is applying the lesson of Applause Lights [] to explicit disagreement.
0Jiro6yIt's hard to convince someone of something if you are forced to explain it in a way that is impossible to understand. And saying "Taboo this word" can sometimes mean "phrase your argument in a way that is impossible to understand." Which makes "taboo this word" a tool that can be abused. The essay describes legitimate uses, but let's not pretend that legitimate uses are all there is.
0TimS6yI don't think that is an on-point critique of this essay. If defining your terms makes your message incomprehensible, that's a problem with the medium you've chosen or the message itself. "US Copyright law is bad" is a pithy summary of Lawrence Lessig's book [], but the sentence fails to persuade or even communicate effectively - which is why Lessig wrote a book. And if your message is simply too long to be comprehensible, it doesn't become comprehensible simply because you choose to use words idiosyncratically to shorten character length of the message. In the hands of a hostile audience, "Taboo Your Words" can be a very effective way to derail the discussion. But if you are not communicating effectively with a good-faith listener, it is a powerful tool to discover the root of the mis-communication. And if you are communicating effectively, why are you tabooing your words? The article doesn't suggest using more words for its own sake.
0Jiro6yDefining terms inline can make things hard to understand simply because human beings don't have a large stack size for the purpose of understanding sentences containing many inline clauses. I suppose that's a problem with the medium--if the medium is "speech by human beings".
0TimS6yThe essay isn't about speech, it's about communication. Outside the scope of this essay, but sometime speech is the wrong medium.
0Nornagest6yWhen the definition's short enough to be used inline or there's a connotationally neutral synonym available, sure. Otherwise, it's more like rewriting a function instead of using a library call -- which takes time, and can lead to bugs or minor loss of functionality, but which is essential when you need to compile on a system that doesn't have access to that library, or when you suspect the library function might be sneaking in side effects that you don't want. To use your metaphor, there's nothing incompatible with the Taboo Your Words game if you say something like "for the purposes of this discussion, let's define 'sportsball' to mean an artificial group conflict et cetera", and then proceed to use "sportsball" whenever you'd otherwise use "baseball". Almost as compact as any text you'd want to bother with tabooing (in which category I wouldn't place "I'm going to be late to work tomorrow"), and it still does the job of laying out assumptions and stripping connotational loading. We're not the first people to have invented this. There's a famous anthropology paper that describes the elaborate daily purity rituals of the remote Nacirema tribe, involving dousing with a stream of hot water, rubbing the limbs with a semi-solid paste made from fats and wood ashes, et cetera, and without which the Nacirema quaintly believe that their friends would desert them and their lovers reject them.
0Jiro6yThe way the joke works in the Nacirema paper is that because the usual words for such things are not used, and instead are replaced by descriptions, the reader won't understand what they are really referring to (at least not immediately). Which supports my point that tabooing words can make something harder to understand.
2Nornagest6yThe point isn't to make a joke, it's to put some cognitive distance between readers and the culture it's describing, the better to apply ethnographic conventions. That does make it harder to understand in a certain sense (though not in the same way as cluttering a function with inlined logic does), but there's a point to that: by using a placeholder without the rich connotations of a word like "American", aspects of American life (and of anthropology) are revealed which would otherwise have remained hidden. If you don't expect the exercise to reveal anything new or at least help you skirt certain conversational pitfalls, you don't do it. No one is suggesting that you expand random words into long-winded synonyms for no good reason, as if you were the nerdy kid in the worse sort of children's TV show.
0Jiro6yBut people are glossing over the fact that there's a downside to expanding words. "Taboo X" can be abused by dishonest arguers who want to make it harder for you to speak comprehensibly. "Taboo X" can also be used by well-meaning arguers who are nevertheless giving you bad advice because tabooing X helps one kind of understanding but hurts another. You should not just automatically accede to all requests to taboo something.
0TimS6yIf your target audience is not listening in good faith, there's no trick to get them to listen fairly. Either understand that your communication is only useful for silent bystanders, or stop interacting with the bad faith audience.
0Jiro6yThey can be dishonest, but they can also be well-meaning but mistaken.
0TimS6yIf the listener is not acting in bad faith and the medium of communication is appropriate, why the resistance to taboo-ing? Or what Nornagest said []
0Jiro6yBecause there are downsides to it as well as upsides, and in a particular case the downsides might predominate. Just because someone is not acting in bad faith when they make the request doesn't mean that the request will do more good than harm.
2TimS6yCan you be specific? I'm having trouble thinking if situation where trying to communicate was worth the cost, but tabooing words if asked was not.
0Jiro6y"Trying to communicate is worth the cost" is subjective, so I don't know if I could give an example that would satisfy you. But I would suggest imagining one of the situations where someone is asking it insincerely in order to make it harder for me to speak, then imagine that scenario slightly changed so that the person asking it is sincere.
1TimS6yHypo: Professor: Let's continue our discussion of sub-atomic particles. Top quarks have a number of interesting properties . . . . Student: Excuse me professor, could you taboo "atomic?" Professor: Get out. In this situation, I think it is clear that the professor is right and the student is wrong. It doesn't matter if (a) the student is a quack who objects to atomic theory, or (b) is asking in good faith for more information on atomic theory. (a) is an example of bad faith. (b) is an example of sincere but not worth the effort - mostly because the topic of conversation is sub-atomic particles, not atomic theory. I'm just having trouble understanding a situation where (1) question is on topic (ie worth answering) (2) asked sincerely, but (3) not worth tabooing a technical term. In short, deciding the appropriate topic of conversation is difficult, but beyond the scope of the original article.
4Nornagest6yIf someone says "Taboo X", they might be saying "I think you're confused about X", or "I think we have different definitions of X", or "I think you're using X to sneak in connotations" -- all of which can be effectively addressed by, yes, tabooing X. That is going to take time, but so is continuing the conversation in any form; and debates over mismatched definitions in particular can be way more frustrating and time-consuming than any explanation of terms. If you don't think any of the above apply, or if you think there's a more compact way to address the problem, then it's reasonable to ask why X needs to be tabooed -- but most of the time you're better off just tabooing the damn word. Worrying about possible ulterior motives, meanwhile, strikes me as uncharitable except in the face of overwhelming evidence. There are lots of derailing and obfuscating tactics out there, many of them better than this one.

This method of elimination can be useful to both verbal disagreements (where the real debate is only over terminology) non-verbal disagreements (where parties fundamentally disagree about things themselves, and not just labels). Besides separating the two to clarify the real disagreement, it can also be usefully applied to one’s own internal dialogue.

However, how do we know when to apply this technique? With external debates, it is easy enough to suspect when a disagreement is only verbal, or when the terms argued over have constituent parts. These might b... (read more)

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