At the Singularity Summit 2007, one of the speakers called for democratic, multinational development of artificial intelligence. So I stepped up to the microphone and asked:
Suppose that a group of democratic republics form a consortium to develop AI, and there’s a lot of politicking during the process—some interest groups have unusually large influence, others get shafted—in other words, the result looks just like the products of modern democracies. Alternatively, suppose a group of rebel nerds develops an AI in their basement, and instructs the AI to poll everyone in the world—dropping cellphones to anyone who doesn’t have them—and do whatever the majority says. Which of these do you think is more “democratic,” and would you feel safe with either?
I wanted to find out whether he believed in the pragmatic adequacy of the democratic political process, or if he believed in the moral rightness of voting. But the speaker replied:
The first scenario sounds like an editorial in Reason magazine, and the second sounds like a Hollywood movie plot.
Confused, I asked:
Then what kind of democratic process did you have in mind?
The speaker replied:
Something like the Human Genome Project—that was an internationally sponsored research project.
How would different interest groups resolve their conflicts in a structure like the Human Genome Project?
And the speaker said:
I don’t know.
This exchange puts me in mind of a quote from some dictator or other, who was asked if he had any intentions to move his pet state toward democracy:
We believe we are already within a democratic system. Some factors are still missing, like the expression of the people’s will.
The substance of a democracy is the specific mechanism that resolves policy conflicts. If all groups had the same preferred policies, there would be no need for democracy—we would automatically cooperate. The resolution process can be a direct majority vote, or an elected legislature, or even a voter-sensitive behavior of an artificial intelligence, but it has to be something. What does it mean to call for a “democratic” solution if you don’t have a conflict-resolution mechanism in mind?
I think it means that you have said the word “democracy,” so the audience is supposed to cheer. It’s not so much a propositional statement or belief, as the equivalent of the “Applause” light that tells a studio audience when to clap.
This case is remarkable only in that I mistook the applause light for a policy suggestion, with subsequent embarrassment for all. Most applause lights are much more blatant, and can be detected by a simple reversal test. For example, suppose someone says:
We need to balance the risks and opportunities of AI.
If you reverse this statement, you get:
We shouldn’t balance the risks and opportunities of AI.
Since the reversal sounds abnormal, the unreversed statement is probably normal, implying it does not convey new information.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons for uttering a sentence that would be uninformative in isolation. “We need to balance the risks and opportunities of AI” can introduce a discussion topic; it can emphasize the importance of a specific proposal for balancing; it can criticize an unbalanced proposal. Linking to a normal assertion can convey new information to a bounded rationalist—the link itself may not be obvious. But if no specifics follow, the sentence is probably an applause light.
I am tempted to give a talk sometime that consists of nothing but applause lights, and see how long it takes for the audience to start laughing:
I am here to propose to you today that we need to balance the risks and opportunities of advanced artificial intelligence. We should avoid the risks and, insofar as it is possible, realize the opportunities. We should not needlessly confront entirely unnecessary dangers. To achieve these goals, we must plan wisely and rationally. We should not act in fear and panic, or give in to technophobia; but neither should we act in blind enthusiasm. We should respect the interests of all parties with a stake in the Singularity. We must try to ensure that the benefits of advanced technologies accrue to as many individuals as possible, rather than being restricted to a few. We must try to avoid, as much as possible, violent conflicts using these technologies; and we must prevent massive destructive capability from falling into the hands of individuals. We should think through these issues before, not after, it is too late to do anything about them . . .
You have, I think, come upon the essence of modern political speeches.
I was going to say this as well. Your last paragraph here is like every presidential speech that I've ever watched.
The democracy booster probably meant that people with little political power should not be ignored. And that's not an empty statement; people with little political power are ignored all the time.
Actually, that seems to be an extremely empty statement. "Having little political power" seems to imply, and is implied by, "being ignored". I wouldn't doubt that the two predicates are coextensive. Since people with little political power are, by definition, ignored; saying that people with little political power should not be ignored makes as much sense as saying that squares should be circular.
But maybe I'm not being very charitable here. You can make the shape that was once square more circular, only as long as you note that the shape isn't a square anymore. Similarly, people with little political power can, over time, gain more political power, which is a positive thing. But even if everyone has an equal amount of political power, the proposition that "people with little political power are ignored" would still be true, even if the predicates contain the null set.
Eeek, I think the differences in interpretations are due to the de re / de dicto distinction.
Compare the following translations of the statement "people without political power should not be ignored."
De dicto: "It should not be the case that any person without political power is also a person who is ignored."
De re: "If there is a person without political power, then that person should not be ignored."
If the two predicates in the de re interpretation ("person without political power" and "person who is ignored") are coextensive, and thus equivalent, we should be able to substitute like terms and derive "If there is a person without political power, then that person should not be without political power." Given that I wanted to use the more charitable interpretation, this is the interpretation I should use, and so you're correct :)
But look what happens to the de dicto interpretation when you substitute like terms. It turns into "It should not be the case that a person without political power is a person without political power." This is the sort of thing I was objecting to, to begin with. But it was the wrong i... (read more)
Alas, for most audiences I think you would find no one laughing even after an entire applause light speech.
Yeah, but you'd get lots of applause!
Evidence: any graduation speech I've ever been subject to.
I tried this for my valedictoral speech and I gave up after about 15 seconds due to the laughter.
My preferred method is to use long sentences, to speak slowly and seriously, with great emphasis, and to wave my hands in small circles as I speak. If you don't speak to this audience regularly, it is also a good idea to emphasise how grateful you are to be asked to speak on such an important occasion (and it is a very important occasion...). You get bonus points for using the phrase "just so chuffed", especially if you use it repeatedly (a technique I learned from my old headmaster, who never expressed satisfaction in any other way while giving speeches).
I also recommend this technique, this way of speaking, to anyone who wishes to wind up, by which I mean annoy or irritate, a family member. It's quite effective when used consistently, even if you only do it for a minute or two. Don't you agree?
I remember at the AGIRI workshop in DC last year, Alexei Samsonovich talked about sorting a list of English words along two dimensions - "valence" and "arousal," indicating some component of the emotional response which words evoke.
Maybe audiences respond to speeches by summing the emotion vectors of each word in the speech, rather than parsing sentences.
Quick test: who here is excited by the prospects of anthropic quantum computing?
What I find interesting is that there are some obvious parallels between applause lights and Barnum statements - so named after P.T. Barnum.
Barnum statements are essentially statements which anyone can apply to themselves as true, which essentially say nothing, and which feel unique to each individual hearing themselves described that way.
Barnum statements are a stock-in-trade of cold-readers such as mentalists and psychics. It seems to me that applause lights are nothing more than the abstract, impersonal version of the same phenomena; or perhaps the same phenomena used in a rhetorical and ideological application.
Such speech could theoretically perform "bringing to attention" function. Chunks of "bringing to attention" are equivalent to any kind of knowledge, it's just an inefficient form, and abnormality of that speech in its utter inefficiency, not lack of content. People can bear such talk as similar inefficiency can be present in other talks in different form. Inefficiency makes it much simpler to obfuscate eluding certain topics.
I'm pretty sure that many people and organizations routinely DO argue that "we shouldn't balance the risks and opportunities of X". In ethics, deontological systems claim this. In policy, environmentalists are the first example that spring to mind, though they have been getting substantially better in the last few years. Radical pacifists like Gandhi have often been praised for asserting that people should not balance the risks and opportunities of war. More broadly, display of this attitude seems to me to be necessary for anyone who is attempting to portray that they are extraordinarily "virtuous" as virtue is normally understood, at least in our broadly Christian derived civilization. I actually think that it would be a good idea to try presenting all applause lights, but I think that it has been done. "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense" claims in the appendix that such a speech has been written and presented to applause on a variety of topics. It seems to me though that the speech you were proposing above was actually an endorsement of a reasonable set of meta-policies which are in fact generally not engaged in, and was thus substantive, not empty, so I'm not sure it counts.
David's comment that we shouldn't ignore people with little political power is a bit problematic. People who are not ignored in a political process have by definition some political power; whoever is ignored lacks power. So the meaning becomes "people who are ignored are ignored all the time". The only way to handle it is to never ignore anybody on anything. So please tell me your views on whether Solna muncipality in Sweden should spend more money on the stairs above the station, or a traffic light - otherwise the decision will not be fully demo... (read more)
Eliezer's nothing-but-applause-lights speech sounds strangely like every State of the Union address I've ever heard...
See also Trust Cues.
Rather than just "applause lights", sloganeering often is a cue to group-identification. Cf. postmodern text generators.
This post reminds me of George Orwell's essay "Politics and The English Language".
"The democracy booster probably meant that people with little political power should not be ignored. And that's not an empty statement; people with little political power are ignored all the time."
But isn't it precisely the people with little political power who can most safely be ignored?
Curiously Eliezer, I feel like applauding. Good post.
Thank you for the quotation:
"We believe that we are already living in a democracy, although some factors are still missing, such as the expression of the people's will"
I hope someone can tell us who said it.
It might not convey information, but I bet you could get thunderous applause. Often, the latter outweighs the former when it comes t the goals of a speech.
link to 1981 Time magazine interview with the president of Argentina - source of Eliezer's quote about democracy absent the people's will.
I know where your quote came from: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,954853,00.html?promoid
It's from "President Roberto Eduardo Viola, formerly Argentina's army commander in chief".
It's an answer to the first question in the interview:
"Q. How soon do you expect Argentina to be returned to democratic government?
A. We believe we are already within a democratic system. Some factors are still missing, like the expression of the people's will, but nevertheless we still think we are within a democracy. We say so because we believe t... (read more)
[rhetorical pose] We shouldn't balance the risks and opportunities of AI. Enthusiasts for AI are biased. They under estimate the difficulties. They would not be so enthusiastic if they grasped how disappointing progress is likely to be. Detractors of AI are also biased. They under estimate the difficulties too. You will have a hard time convincing them of the difficulties, because you would be trying to pursuade them that they had been frightened of shadows.
So there are few opportunities which are likely to be altogether lost if we hang back through unnec... (read more)
That was kinda hilarious. I like your reversal test to detect content-free tautologies. Since I am working right now on a piece of AI-political-fiction (involving voting rights for artificial agents and questions that raises), I was thrown for a moment, but then tuned in to what YOU were talking about.
The 'Yes, Minister' and 'Yes, Prime Minister' series is full of extended pieces of such content-free dialog.
More seriously though, this is a bit of a strawman attack on the word 'democracy' being used as decoration/group dynamics cueing. You kinda blind-sided... (read more)
C'mon, Eliezar, be fair: identify who the speaker was that you "probed" in this way, so that people can find the recordings of the talk and exchange at singinst.org to decide for themselves how it went.
As you have it above, aside from the paraphrasing, you omit a couple of important parts of my replies. With regards to the Reason/Hollywood comparison, I go on to say:
"That is, they're both caricatures, and neither one is terribly plausible or complete. There would be some critical benefits to the messy process of the first scenario, and some important drawbacks to the second."
With regards to the "I don't know," I then say:
"This is a point I've tried to make a couple of times here: this is not a solved problem, but it's an important problem, and we need to figure out how to address it."
I certainly did not talk about democracy with any intent of it serving as "applause lights" for my talk -- in fact, given the audience, I expected a semi-hostile response, given my argument against the kind of "rebel nerd" heroism self-image a lot of the AGI community seems to have.
BTW, if anyone wants to go to singinst.org and download the audio, you'll note that the actual event did not occur the exact way I remembered it, which should surprise no one here who knows anything about human memory. In particular, Cascio spontaneously provided the Genome Project example, rather than needing to be asked for it.
Generally, the reason I avoid identifying the characters in my examples is that it feels to me like I'm dumping all the sins of humankind upon their undeserving heads - I'm presenting one error, out of context, as exemplar for all the errors of this kind that have ever been committed, and showing none of the good qualities of the speaker - it would be like caricaturing them, if I called them by name.
That said, the reason why I picked this example is that, in fact, I was thinking of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" while writing this post. And as Orwell said:
In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim t... (read more)
When I hear the sort of thing you would call "applause lights", I don't always think of that as an obvious fact that everyone in their right mind would agree on. Rather, I get the impression the speaker is implying that someone they strongly disagree with does believe this obvious fact is not true, or that this ridiculous notion is.
If for example I hear someone say "we shouldn't be hugging criminals, we should be locking them up", I interpret that as a very one-sided opposition to a grossly misrepresented opponent who goes a bit easier on convicts. Of course this person wouldn't literally believe the reverse that "we should be hugging criminals instead of locking them up", but she might believe something that a bigot could paraphrase as such with a straight face.
I think this is also the reason why the speaker's supporters applaud to statements like that - it implies the issue is very simple and clear-cut, only one side (ours) is remotely sensible, and you'd have to be insane to disagree. One-sidedness feels good. Very blatant one-sidedness feels even better.
(Excuse me if this has been said already.)
(Hi everyone; this is my first time posting here.)
If someone delivered that 100%-applause-light paragraph to me in a speech, my first impulse would be to interpret it as an honest attempt to remind the audience of obvious but not necessarily currently-in-context ideas. For example, this statement from the middle:
"To achieve these goals, we must plan wisely and rationally. We should not act in fear and panic, or give in to technophobia; but neither should we act in blind enthusiasm."
Taken literally as a set of assertions, this really is quite empty of novel or unexpected content. However, directed at an audience of humans, aware of but still vulnerable to cognitive bias, the statement above implies another statement which is more useful: "We should be careful to not act like who, despite intending not to, panicked rather than thinking productively. We should also be careful to not act like whose enthusiasm overwhelmed their necessary sense of caution, even though they knew the value of that caution."
People who agree with the part of the 1st virtue that says "A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth" may still sometimes need to be reminded to check themselves and make sure they're doing the former rather than the latter.
This sounds similar to the idea of a "motherhood statement" as defined here.
Oy, now that you've said it, I hear speeches like that at the end all the time. Whole discussion between opposing sides even. Perhaps that's why I haven't been able to stand cable news for a while now?
When I first read this, I imagined a favorite politician (I won't mention who) giving this mock speech.
To my embarrassment, I found myself nodding in completely genuine enthusiasm. This guy clearly knows what he's talking about!
(This in turn made me consider just how much of this politician's speeches was similarly composed. I came to the conclusion that quite a significant amount of it was)
...Nobody ever told me cognitive bias would be this annoying!
"Applause Light" is a wonderful name for that tactic; it's funny, catchy, and makes the problem with that tactic intuitively obvious. That term should be further proliferated throughout the internet if it hasn't already been. Adding that meme to the average internet goer's repertoire could have wonderful side-effects on the support decisions of people in meat space everywhere.
That applause-light speech at the end just needs some variation, and I'm pretty sure it would fly. I'd replace about half of the "we should" with something else, like "it is important that we", and "it would be dangerous to neglect" and so on, because right now it's so repetitive that surely a lot of people would notice and realize what's being done.
Or maybe i'm yet again overestimating my fellow human beings, as past experience says I am prone to do...
I am tempted to give a talk sometime that consists of nothing but applause lights
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxMqSdgB-uA (appropriately titled "Unthink").
You got him on nice Socratic question. Well, a good question seeks good idea and eliminate inane idea. Nice
There might be one another case: in casual conversation, something that looks like an applause light, could be just expression of recent insights of a particular person on the subject. Like, he just yesterday deduced (based on some fragments of rational texts on the web) that we should balance risks and opportunities of this. Or, maybe the audience level on the subject is so low that even the applause-like statements do convey some information.
"Let's do everything right."
Yep. Standard political speech.
I don't think these statements are entirely vacuous. Even when their content is little more than a tautology, their actual meaning is something else entirely, at least in politics; they represent that the speaker is aware of the jargon, willing to use it, essentially moderate/"pragmatic" and prone to maintaining the status quo.
I couldn't resist adding another link as an example of a speech that seems to consist almost entirely of applause lights. This one is vintage Peter Sellers.
Applause Lights also have more sinister, dark artsy application: they can be used to bait people into agreeing with seemingly trivial propositions, which nevertheless cause the target to modify their self image, rendering them more likely to agree with less trivial propositions in the future. For example, Cialdini's Influence reports on a study that found that households that had been visited by a volunteer collecting signatures in favor of the vague statement "keep California beautiful" (without ever specifying how this was to be accomplished) w... (read more)
Why limit it to bounded rationalists?
Oh, my, the unintentional humor of that speaker's comment. There's an entire book written on how groups resolved their conflicts in the Human Genome Project, The Genome War: They didn't. The outcome was a horrific case study of how science really "works" today.
You'll often see feminists on the Internet pointing out how just about everyone seems to be in favor of "gender equality" and yet hardly anyone of either gender self-identifies as feminist anymore, even though gender equality is what feminism claims to be all about.
This article explains that disconnect. "Equality" is an applause light. It's something we can all agree is great in the abstract, but as soon as someone starts talking specifics, the applause thins and we all go back to being polarized again because everyone's idea of what equality, especially social and economic equality, actually entails is different.
"I am here to propose to you today that we need to balance the risks and opportunities of advanced Artificial Intelligence..."
Seven years later, this open letter was signed by leaders of the field. It's amusing how similar it is to the above speech, especially considering how it actually marked a major milestone in the advancement of the field of AI safety.
In this old post, Eliezer is being insufficiently charitable and not steelmanning.
It is possible that I know that X can do A, but I don't know how X can do A. "Look at X and do A similarly to that" may be a reasona... (read more)
Sounds like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floating_signifier
Hi, i made this german translation if anyone is interested:
11. September 2007
Auf dem Singularity Summit 2007 rief einer der Redner zu einer demokratischen, multinationalen Entwicklung der KI auf. Also trat ich ans Mikrofon und fragte:
Angenommen, eine Gruppe demokratischer Republiken bildet ein Konsortium zur Entwicklung der KI, und während des Prozesses gibt es viel politisches Taktieren - einige Interessengruppen haben einen ungewöhnlich großen Einfluss, andere werden über den Tisch gezogen - mit... (read more)
I'm reminded of your Tom Riddle a bit heh.
I think "a speech that consists of nothing but applause lights" pretty much applies to 99% of political discourse these days and instead being amused at how long it takes the audience to realize you'd be embittered at how seriously everyone took the whole exercise. Maybe I have some bias to sort out but I think the actual content of what is being said often matters very little to most people, as long as you hit the right buzzwords and look convincing/confident.
"do whatever the majority says" is not democracy.
True democracy finds the solution that maximizes the utility of all the voters, not maximizing the utility of half while completely ignoring the other half.
I think it's possible that there's another purpose to these kinds of statements. When someone says, "We must acknowledge the potential risks and benefits of AGI," they're signalling - at least in principle - that they're aware that there *are* both risks and benefits to AGI.
So its purpose is in some cases as a signal to listeners that the speaker has avoided ideological possession at least long enough to acknowledge the existence of factors on more than one side of an argument.
It's hard to judge this particular case without context, but such sentences can be valid if they convey a general direction a person wants something to move on in a situation where they can't or shouldn't be overspecific, for example if they don't know much about the specific subject, or if they want to remain on topic during a talk about a particular issue.
For example, I could say "it's time someone developed a machine that is able to fetch things around the house and bring them to us". It doesn't mean I know anything about engineering or about how this m... (read more)
Back in the day I would've agreed and thought that indeed the last paragraph was prime example of political speech with nothing inside it. After recent years in politics, I wouldn't be suprised to see leaders in certain countries make a very different speech about AI. So perhaps it is indeed useful to have these kinds of speeches, just to signal that there is still reason in this world.
When you get down to it, all politics is about conflict resolution. That's not particular to democracy.
Democracy can be viewed as a government in which policy decisions are intended to reflect the will of the people, as opposed to, for example, the will of the nobility, or a single ruler. When people say that a set of decisions should be made democratically, they mean that the conflict resolution mechanism should be such that the decisions made are reflective of the will of the people.
I think the speaker advocating for a democratic, multinational push for ... (read more)
Yes, I would do a modern democracy, because of one fact that is shown in stark relief by the Ukraine War: Democracy isn't perfect, but is usually immune to the unilateralist's curse and is better at governance than any other system we've tried.
To quote Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other systems we've tried.