In Praise of Boredom

by Eliezer Yudkowsky6 min read18th Jan 2009104 comments

32

Fun TheoryComplexity of Value
Personal Blog

If I were to make a short list of the most important human qualities—

—and yes, this is a fool's errand, because human nature is immensely complicated, and we don't even notice all the tiny tweaks that fine-tune our moral categories, and who knows how our attractors would change shape if we eliminated a single human emotion—

—but even so, if I had to point to just a few things and say, "If you lose just one of these things, you lose most of the expected value of the Future; but conversely if an alien species independently evolved just these few things, we might even want to be friends"—

—then the top three items on the list would be sympathy, boredom and consciousness.

Boredom is a subtle-splendored thing.  You wouldn't want to get bored with breathing, for example—even though it's the same motions over and over and over and over again for minutes and hours and years and decades.

Now I know some of you out there are thinking, "Actually, I'm quite bored with breathing and I wish I didn't have to," but then you wouldn't want to get bored with switching transistors.

According to the human value of boredom, some things are allowed to be highly repetitive without being boring—like obeying the same laws of physics every day.

Conversely, other repetitions are supposed to be boring, like playing the same level of Super Mario Brothers over and over and over again until the end of time.  And let us note that if the pixels in the game level have a slightly different color each time, that is not sufficient to prevent it from being "the same damn thing, over and over and over again".

Once you take a closer look, it turns out that boredom is quite interesting.

One of the key elements of boredom was suggested in "Complex Novelty":  If your activity isn't teaching you insights you didn't already know, then it is non-novel, therefore old, therefore boring.

But this doesn't quite cover the distinction.  Is breathing teaching you anything?  Probably not at this moment, but you wouldn't want to stop breathing.  Maybe you'd want to stop noticing your breathing, which you'll do as soon as I stop drawing your attention to it.

I'd suggest that the repetitive activities which are allowed to not be boring fall into two categories:

  • Things so extremely low-level, or with such a small volume of possibilities, that you couldn't avoid repeating them even if you tried; but which are required to support other non-boring activities.  You know, like breathing, or obeying the laws of physics, or cell division—that sort of thing.
  • Things so high-level that their "stability" still implies an immense space of specific possibilities, yet which are tied up with our identity or our values.  Like thinking, for example.

Let me talk about that second category:

Suppose you were unraveling the true laws of physics and discovering all sorts of neat stuff you hadn't known before... when suddenly you got bored with "changing your beliefs based on observation".  You are sick of anything resembling "Bayesian updating"—it feels like playing the same video game over and over.  Instead you decide to believe anything said on 4chan.

Or to put it another way, suppose that you were something like a sentient chessplayer—a sentient version of Deep Blue.  Like a modern human, you have no introspective access to your own algorithms.  Each chess game appears different—you play new opponents and steer into new positions, composing new strategies, avoiding new enemy gambits.  You are content, and not at all bored; you never appear to yourself to be doing the same thing twice—it's a different chess game each time.

But now, suddenly, you gain access to, and understanding of, your own chess-playing program.  Not just the raw code; you can monitor its execution.  You can see that it's actually the same damn code, doing the same damn thing, over and over and over again.  Run the same damn position evaluator.  Run the same damn sorting algorithm to order the branches.  Pick the top branch, again.  Extend it one position forward, again.  Call the same damn subroutine and start over.

I have a small unreasonable fear, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if I ever do fully understand the algorithms of intelligence, it will destroy all remaining novelty—no matter what new situation I encounter, I'll know I can solve it just by being intelligent, the same damn thing over and over.  All novelty will be used up, all existence will become boring, the remaining differences no more important than shades of pixels in a video game.  Other beings will go about in blissful unawareness, having been steered away from studying this forbidden cognitive science.  But I, having already thrown myself on the grenade of AI, will face a choice between eternal boredom, or excision of my forbidden knowledge and all the memories leading up to it (thereby destroying my existence as Eliezer, more or less).

Now this, mind you, is not my predictive line of maximum probability.  To understand abstractly what rough sort of work the brain is doing, doesn't let you monitor its detailed execution as a boring repetition.  I already know about Bayesian updating, yet I haven't become bored with the act of learning.  And a self-editing mind can quite reasonably exclude certain levels of introspection from boredom, just like breathing can be legitimately excluded from boredom.  (Maybe these top-level cognitive algorithms ought also to be excluded from perception—if something is stable, why bother seeing it all the time?)

No, it's just a cute little nightmare, which I thought made a nice illustration of this proposed principle:

That the very top-level things (like Bayesian updating, or attaching value to sentient minds rather than paperclips) and the very low-level things (like breathing, or switching transistors) are the things we shouldn't get bored with.  And the mid-level things between, are where we should seek novelty.  (To a first approximation, the novel is the inverse of the learned; it's something with a learnable element not yet covered by previous insights.)

Now this is probably not exactly how our current emotional circuitry of boredom works.  That, I expect, would be hardwired relative to various sensory-level definitions of predictability, surprisingness, repetition, attentional salience, and perceived effortfulness.

But this is Fun Theory, so we are mainly concerned with how boredom should work in the long run.

Humanity acquired boredom the same way as we acquired the rest of our emotions: the godshatter idiom whereby evolution's instrumental policies became our own terminal values, pursued for their own sake: sex is fun even if you use birth control.  Evolved aliens might, or might not, acquire roughly the same boredom in roughly the same way.

Do not give into the temptation of universalizing anthropomorphic values, and think:  "But any rational agent, regardless of its utility function, will face the exploration/exploitation tradeoff, and will therefore occasionally get bored with exploiting, and go exploring."

Our emotion of boredom is a way of exploring, but not the only way for an ideal optimizing agent.

The idea of a steady trickle of mid-level novelty is a human terminal value, not something we do for the sake of something else.  Evolution might have originally given it to us in order to have us explore as well as exploit.  But now we explore for its own sake.  That steady trickle of novelty is a terminal value to us; it is not the most efficient instrumental method for exploring and exploiting.

Suppose you were dealing with something like an expected paperclip maximizer—something that might use quite complicated instrumental policies, but in the service of a utility function that we would regard as simple, with a single term compactly defined.

Then I would expect the exploration/exploitation tradeoff to go something like as follows:  The paperclip maximizer would assign some resources to cognition that searched for more efficient ways to make paperclips, or harvest resources from stars.  Other resources would be devoted to the actual harvesting and paperclip-making.  (The paperclip-making might not start until after a long phase of harvesting.)  At every point, the most efficient method yet discovered—for resource-harvesting, or paperclip-making—would be used, over and over and over again.  It wouldn't be boring, just maximally instrumentally efficient.

In the beginning, lots of resources would go into preparing for efficient work over the rest of time.  But as cognitive resources yielded diminishing returns in the abstract search for efficiency improvements, less and less time would be spent thinking, and more and more time spent creating paperclips.  By whatever the most efficient known method, over and over and over again.

(Do human beings get less easily bored as we grow older, more tolerant of repetition, because any further discoveries are less valuable, because we have less time left to exploit them?)

If we run into aliens who don't share our version of boredom—a steady trickle of mid-level novelty as a terminal preference—then perhaps every alien throughout their civilization will just be playing the most exciting level of the most exciting video game ever discovered, over and over and over again.  Maybe with nonsentient AIs taking on the drudgework of searching for a more exciting video game.  After all, without an inherent preference for novelty, exploratory attempts will usually have less expected value than exploiting the best policy previously encountered.  And that's if you explore by trial at all, as opposed to using more abstract and efficient thinking.

Or if the aliens are rendered non-bored by seeing pixels of a slightly different shade—if their definition of sameness is more specific than ours, and their boredom less general—then from our perspective, most of their civilization will be doing the human::same thing over and over again, and hence, be very human::boring.

Or maybe if the aliens have no fear of life becoming too simple and repetitive, they'll just collapse themselves into orgasmium.

And if our version of boredom is less strict than that of the aliens, maybe they'd take one look at one day in the life of one member of our civilization, and never bother looking at the rest of us.  From our perspective, their civilization would be needlessly chaotic, and so entropic, lower in what we regard as quality; they wouldn't play the same game for long enough to get good at it.

But if our versions of boredom are similar enough —terminal preference for a stream of mid-level novelty defined relative to learning insights not previously possessed—then we might find our civilizations mutually worthy of tourism.  Each new piece of alien art would strike us as lawfully creative, high-quality according to a recognizable criterion, yet not like the other art we've already seen.

It is one of the things that would make our two species ramen rather than varelse, to invoke the Hierarchy of Exclusion.  And I've never seen anyone define those two terms well, including Orson Scott Card who invented them; but it might be something like "aliens you can get along with, versus aliens for which there is no reason to bother trying".

 

Part of The Fun Theory Sequence

Next post: "Sympathetic Minds"

Previous post: "Dunbar's Function"

32

104 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:28 AM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

Are you sure this isn't the Eliezer concept of boring, instead of the human concept? There seem to be quite a few humans who are happy to keep winning using the same approach day after day year after year. They keep getting paid well, getting social status, money, sex, etc. To the extent they want novelty it is because such novelty is a sign of social status - a new car every year, a new girl every month, a promotion every two years, etc. It is not because they expect or want to learn something from it.

0[anonymous]11yAn easy way to differentiate the two kinds for those who like games is: People who can play Mario Kart thousands of times and have a lot of fun. People who must play the new final fantasy. There are those who do both, and those who only enjoy games designed for doing the same thing, better and better, every five minutes. Compare the complexity of handball with the complexity of bowling. Maybe bowling is Eliezer::boring but it isn't boring for a lot of people. It would be a waste of energetic resources if FAI gave those people Final Fantasy 777 instead of just letting them play Mario Kart 9. The tough question then becomes: Are those of us who enjoy Mario Kart and bowling willing to concede the kind of fun that the Eliezer Final Fantasy, pro-increasing-rate-of-complexity find desirable? They will be consuming soooo much energy for their fun. Isn't it fair that we share the pie half in half, and they consume theirs exponencially, while we enjoy for subjectively longer?
0[anonymous]10yThe argument that you would loose interest if you could explain boredom away -- which is what I have to conclude from your stance: seems a bit thin to me. Does a magician loose interest because he knows every single trick that wows the audience? Does the musician who has spent a lifetime studying the intricacies of Bach's partita No 2 loose interest just because he can deconstruct it entirely? Douglas Hoefstadter expressed a similar concern a decade or so ago when he learnt of some "computer program" able to "generate Mozart music better then Mozart himself" only to recant a bit later when facing the truism that there is more to the entity than the some of its parts. I do not know that we will someday be able to "explain magic away", and if that makes me irrational (and no, I don't need to bring any kind of god in the picture: I'm perfectly happy being goddless and irrational :) so be it.
0waveman5yMaybe for some people more shallow forms of novelty suffice e.g. sex with new women.

Perhaps consistent with Robin's comment, I don't see any reason not to "collapse ... into orgasmium," at least after our other utilitarian obligations (e.g., preventing suffering by others in the multiverse) are completed.

An appropriate post : I've come to find EY's posts very boring. Subtle, intelligent, all that, sure. A mind far finer than my own, sure. But it never gets anywhere, never goes anywhere. He spends so much time posting he's clearly not moving AI forward. His book is still out of sight, two years down the line. I can understand the main thrust of his posts, and the comments, if I invest enough, my intelligence and knowledge are just about up to that. But why bother ? It's sterile. Boredom = sterility. As for Robin's comment, which is pertinent and bears on the real world of lived emotions, the connection is that boredom is not a result of what you are doing, it's a result of what you're not doing. Think about it.

Interest in previously boring (due to repetition) things regenerates over time. Eating strawberries every six months may not be as good as the first time (although nostalgia may make it better), but it's not obvious that it declines in utility.

We may also actively value non-boredom in some mid-level contexts, e.g. in sexual fidelity, or for desires that we consider central to our identity/narratives.

5pnrjulius9y"Eating strawberries every six months may not be as good as the first time (although nostalgia may make it better), but it's not obvious that it declines in utility." Isn't "not being as good" just what "declines in utility" means?
0smk9yMaybe they meant that it doesn't continue getting less and less good. I dunno.
1CarlShulman9yRead that as "continues to decline in utility every six months."
0pnrjulius9yMaybe the problem is trying to assign utility to "eat strawberries" rather than to the whole timeless state "ate strawberries Tuesday, blueberries Wednesday, bananas Thursday" etc. We do seem to run into some weird problems if we say that the marginal utility of strawberries declines each time you eat a strawberry... though maybe we could say that this is true, everything else held constant or something like that.

Cool stuff. It's philosophy for our present times. I like all the cultural references.

I wonder what kinds of boredom, unfamiliar to us resource-limited kind, do billionaires suffer from. It seems it's the same things all over and over again, only on a different scale - probably the closest to the boredom experienced widely in the Culture.

Science, it seems, is ultimately the only reliable escape from boredom. Until everything is solved - any estimation when we might call the project called 'Science' "Done!"?

"All science is either physics or stamp collecting." -Ernest Rutherford

6pnrjulius9yIf you get bored of being a billionaire, give away all your money. In fact, give it to me.

I always think of boredom as the chorus of brain agents crying out that 'whatever you are doing right now, it has not recently helped ME to achieve MY goals'. Boredom is the emotional reward circuit to keep us rotating contributions towards our various desired goals. It also applies even if we are working on a specific goal, but not making progress.

I think as we age our goals get fewer, narrower and a bit less vocal about needing pleasing, thus boredom recedes. In particular, we accept fewer goals that are novel, which means the goals we do have tend to be more practical with existing known methods of achieving them such that we are more often making progress.

Robin, I suspect that despite how it may look from a high level, the lives of most of the people you refer to probably do differ enough from year to year that they will in fact have new experiences and learn something new, and that they would in fact find it unbearable if their world were so static as to come even a little close to being video game repetitive.

That said, I would agree that many people seem not to act day-to-day as if they put a premium on Eliezer-style novelty, but that seems like it could be better explained by Eliezer's boredom being a FAR value than by the concept being specific to Eliezer :-)

My Greek Philosophy professor claims that Americans invented boredom.

8pnrjulius9yHe is wrong.

I'm not sure breathing needs a special exclusion from boredom, for the same reasons people don't get bored from jumping in Mario: we don't get bored with something if it's only a mean to something else.

This blog post talks about that a bit.

You could also say that you only get bored with conscious activities, and that breathing is unconscious, just as jumping is in mario. I'm not sure which explanation is the best way of putting things "not boring because unconscious" and "not boring because it's a means to a goal".

But anyway, those expl... (read more)

... and if you consider the class of "subconscious activities done in order to reach another goal", you'll see that if covers both "low-level" stuff like breathing, and "high-level" stuff like thinking (or at least, the mechanics of thinking - retrieving memories, updating beliefs, etc.). So you get one category instead of two.

0Jade10yAnother way to get one category instead of two... Think of boredom as a signal of not incorporating new, useful physical info. Breathing and thinking (usefully) are not boring because those processes facilitate the body's exploitation or incorporation of physical info. In other words, boredom arises from a lack of novelty on the level of physics, though the process of breathing may seem repetitive or non-novel on the level of biomechanics.

You can't just be "intelligent over and over", because discovery and insight are essentially random processes. You can't just find insight, you have to look for it, in the same way that evolution searches the option space.

Yes, you can always have better heuristics or search algorithms. But those heuristics are not themselves intelligence. And there are always new heuristics to discover...

So, I don't think mere insight into the process of intelligence would allow you to be bored, since the things to be discovered by intelligence would still be ... (read more)

0DanielLC8yIn that case, roll a die over and over, and you'll have to worry about boredom. True, but one of those heuristics is you, and you can't stop doing that. Of course, I don't think any of us think this is very likely to be a problem. I'm basically just playing devil's advocate. I'm pretty certain you'd have to do some significant self-modification to understand it all on a level that makes it boring, and at that point, you could just self-modify so that it isn't boring.

Robin, do they eat the same foods every day? Drive to the same places every day? Buy the same things every time they shop? Have sex in the same position every time? Watch the same movie each time they go to the theater? Since you're standing back, you see them at a level of abstraction from which their life looks mostly "the same" to you, but I doubt they're playing the same level of the same video game over and over again "every time they sit at the computer".

4diegocaleiro11yAn easy way to differentiate the two kinds for those who like games is: People who can play Mario Kart thousands of times and have a lot of fun. People who must play the new final fantasy. There are those who do both, and those who only enjoy games designed for doing the same thing, better and better, every five minutes. Compare the complexity of handball with the complexity of bowling. Maybe bowling is Eliezer::boring but it isn't boring for a lot of people. It would be a waste of energetic resources if FAI gave those people Final Fantasy 777 instead of just letting them play Mario Kart 9. The tough question then becomes: Are those of us who enjoy Mario Kart and bowling willing to concede the kind of fun that the Eliezer Final Fantasy, pro-increasing-rate-of-complexity find desirable? They will be consuming soooo much energy for their fun. Isn't it fair that we share the pie half in half, and they consume theirs exponencially, while we enjoy for subjectively longer?
3Ghatanathoah9yDo you really play Mario Kart thousands of times because you love repeating the same thing? Or do you love it because you have a finer eye for small detail than the new FF player, and so are noticing new novelty each time you play? I know I can watch "King Kong" or "Halloween" over and over again partly because I notice something new each time I watch those films. That being said, I think a proper fun theory would probably have some sort of error bars around the level of boredom that is acceptable. In other words a creature that gets bored x% less easily than the median human is might still be a worthwhile creature, but creating a creature x+1% less easily bored would be bad (unless such a creature is instrumentally useful, obviously).
0[anonymous]7yIf we're defining "novelty" such that it encompasses literally watching the same movie over and over again, then maybe it's time to step back and consider whether we need a new word, since we're moving so far away from the intuitive definition of "novelty".
1Ghatanathoah9yAnother question came to my mind while thinking about this today. How often do you play Mario Kart alone vs. with friends? Adding social interaction to the game vastly increases its complexity. Probably part of the reason it's more enduring than the FF games is that most of those games are single player, so the complexity is limited by your inability to play against other humans. Good multiplayer games are probably so replayable partly because they are venues for social interaction, which is a very, very complex form of novelty.

Zaphod: kind of funny, given the many foreign words in English - ennui, weltschmerz, melancholy etc.

Robin: It is not because they expect or want to learn something from it.

A major component of fun in video games is the emotional reward when the brain learnt something; that probably generalizes to why we find a lot of activities enjoyable, even though we might not label them as "learning" which is often associated to "memorizing useless facts because you're forced to".

2pnrjulius9yRight. Football players don't think of themselves as "learning" when they perfect their field goal kicks, but neurologically that is exactly what they are doing.

What bores me is that we live in a binary universe. Sort of limits your options.

6DanielLC8yWhat's a binary universe?

If most of us have a "terminal preference for a stream of mid-level novelty" those with ADD/ADHD find that unstimulating. They require a stream of high level novelty or, at least, a much faster stream of mid-level. See ADHD posts on ThePowerOfBoredom.com

Few people become bored with jumping in SMB because 1) becoming skilled at it is quite hard, 2) it's used to accomplish specific tasks and is quite useful in that context, 3) it's easier to become bored with the game as a whole than with that particular part of it.

the time when we gain enough experience to find all boring will be near to the time we can eliminate boredom as an emotion.

If you still wish to feel novelty you are free to wallow in ignorance; all will be new to you then. if you wish to move forward then remember self-modification to be an option.

0DanielLC8yIf there's still a forward to move in then it would seem we don't have enough experience to find all boring.

Emile and Caledonian are right. Eliezer should've defined exceptions to boredom instead (and more simply) as "activities that work towards your goal". Those are exempt of boredom and can even be quite fun. No need to distinguish between high, low and mid-level.

The page at Lostgarden that Emile linked to is a bit long, so I'll try to summarize the proposed theory of fun, with some of my own conclusions:

You naturally find activities that provide you with valuable insights fun (the "aha!" moment, or "fun"). Tolerance to repetitio... (read more)

Ben Goertzel's patternist philosophy of mind is suggestive here. It is boring when the same patterns repeat themselves. It's not about whether the pixels change or stay the same. It's about whether you can detect a unique pattern each time.

This may explain Eliezer's preference for the mid-level. If you are too specific, you don't see any patterns. If you are too general you miss many lower-level patterns. And also the balance between triviality and intractability of problems. If it's trivial you already have the pattern, if it is intractable you can't see ... (read more)

The argument that you would loose interest if you could explain boredom away, which is what I have to conclude from your stance:

All novelty will be used up, all existence will become boring, the remaining differences no more important than shades of pixels in a video game.

seems a bit thin to me. Does a magician loose interest because he knows every single trick that wows the audience?

Does the musician who has spent a lifetime studying the intricacies of Bach's partita No 2 loose interest just because he can deconstruct it entirely?

Douglas Hoefstadter e... (read more)

Now this is probably not exactly how our current emotional circuitry of boredom works. That, I expect, would be hardwired relative to various sensory-level definitions of predictability, surprisingness, repetition, attentional salience, and perceived effortfulness.

It is interesting to read this after reading Yvain's classic essay on wanting, liking, and approving. In Yvain's terms, the value of boredom could be construed as an instance where our "wanting, "liking," and "approving" systems are in relative harmony.

Couched in Yva... (read more)

EY: (Do human beings get less easily bored as we grow older, more tolerant of repetition, because any further discoveries are less valuable, because we have less time left to exploit them?)

Anonymous: For a 3 year old, every day is like your first day in Paris.

Sample of one but my personal experience in my seventh decade is that is just gets damn hard to find interesting new hings, especially easily accessible interesting new things.

My tolerance of boredom actually seems far lower than it used to be but I have to work a lot harder to access good new stuff.