JaapSuter

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Is Google Paperclipping the Web? The Perils of Optimization by Proxy in Social Systems

The book Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations touches upon this very concept and how it relates to people's behavior (in corporate environments mostly). I recommend it.

Open Thread: May 2010

Having shared my view on comp.sci. education, I do wish to throw in a recommendation for pursuing a career in software development (beyond the years of formal education). Specifically in contrast to one alternative discussed earlier in this thread, namely a career in finance.

Full disclaimer, my perspective on "jobs that involve working with money" stems mostly from how the mainstream portrays it and is likely to be extremely naive. Despite what I'm about to say, I actually have a great deal of respect for money-savy people. Considering my personal financial situation is a constant source of akrasia, I'm often envious of people who are able to wield money itself as a tool to generate more of it.

I'm realistic enough to admit that income potential is a valid factor in deciding what kind of career to pursue - like most of us, I enjoy food, shelter, and expensive gadgets. Meanwhile, I also believe nobody treats money as the only factor in choosing a caree - we all rather work in fields we're passionate about.

So really, we have a realistic assessment of various career options - all of whom promise at least a decent living. Even agreeing with comments made earlier, that programming is prole and finance has higher likelihood of fast-tracking prestige (and as a programmer, I actually must admit there's some truth to this sentiment), my gut says that your passion and interest far outweighs these observations. I mean, we're not talking about whether you'll become a high-school janitor versus United States president. If you like money and you have knack for using it for growth and your benefit, go to Wall Street. If you like computers and have a knack for using them for innovation, go to Silicon Valley. In both cases you'll be able to afford a grande sugar-free vanilla low-fat soy latte every morning - if that's your cup of tea.

Now all of this is fairly generic advice, nothing you weren't told already by your parents. My reason for chiming in on this discussion has (obviously) to do with how the above is affected by accelerating chance. That's something most parents or advisors haven't really clued into yet, and I felt it worth pointing out.

The question is, assuming the kind of consequences from accelerating change that are commonly accepted in singularity circles; what type of careers promise the most leverage in the future? In other words, what skill set guarantees you can maintain or expand the amount of control you have over the reality that surrounds and affects you?

Presumably there won't be much contention over why leverage is an important metric. Now imagine the world one, two, or three decades from now - and ask yourself; what can I offer that is of value? Value comes in many forms, we can roughly categorize these as: money, ideas (and secrets), goods, labor (and skill). Of these, money and ideas are the ones with the most long term potential. The value of manual labor will dissappear rapidly, even skilled labor (biological enhancement notwithstanding). The value of goods will diminish when life moves from its reliance on matter to information, and our ability to transform and distribute matter improves. The value of secrets is likely to exist for eternity, but those who consider this a worthy pursuit should read Snowcrash, not this email.

It's my belief the only types of leverage with future potential are money and ideas, some conditions apply.

In the case of money, the assumption is that there'll exist a legal system to assure the continuous promise of value in tender. Considering the alternative is impractical barter - or worse - all-out chaos, I believe money will stick around for a long time. In the case of ideas, the assumption is that you can turn them into reality. An idea stuck in your head is useless, so you'll need money, skill, or both to make things happen.

But wait, didn't I just say that skilled labor is a dead-end path? Yes, when speaking of the mechanical kind (i.e., the things you can do by moving your limbs around, such as playing the piano). But when it comes to ideas (and the direction our society is heading) - the kind of skill I'm referring to is of the information-theoretic kind. Future creativity will occur primarily in a universe of bits and bytes, and the more adept you are at wielding these bits and bytes, the more leverage your ideas will have.

There is one more assumption in this, namely that creative information-based skill is of a different nature than biological mechanical skill. It may be that strong AI will leapfrog well past our human ability to merge and enhance, in which case both creative skill and mechanical skill will be displaced. If that's the case, I don't expect money will be much value to humans very long either, and we'll be on a short-lived dead end path.

I'm hoping for a more optimistic future, where intellectual enhancement permits us to remain competitively creative.

So unless you have money, and use it to make more money (e.g., pursue a financial career - a valid option), I recommend people become creative experts in a digital universe. That is, study theoretical computer science (through formal math education, in your spare time, or through a career), familiarize yourself breath-first with the entire hardware and software stack that permits the digital universe (from primitive electronics to silicon to computer architectures to machine language to assembly to compilers to higher level languages to creative tools for both art and process improvement), and pick two or three comp.sci. specialties in which you become a depth-first expert. Ideally, you do this alongside a grounding in a hard physical science, to keep you in touch with the universe you currently embed (it'll be around for a while to come).

That's what you'll need to escape from the consumer end of information, and become a creative source of information - which in turn is your future leverage and source of income. Those with the ability to command, influence, and transform the growing stream bits and bytes will have the most value to offer (and be able to afford two sugar free vanilla soy lattes).

On a bit of a tangential note, this is why I advocate the introduction of a mandatory comp.sci. component from kindergarten all the way up to university - on par with traditional components like math or phys-ed. To verbalize this as: "...our society relies increasingly on computers" is to state the obvious, and the point is not that everybody should become a software developer. The critical point is to raise a generation that understands the notion of algorithmic computation well enough to believe they can (in principle) be in control of a computing device, rather than it controlling them. Computers are not magic, and one day present-day humans won't be either.

Then again, even basic schooling in math and physics fails to teach many people they can (in principle) be in control of their own life. But alas, I digress - lest this become political... :-)

Long post, little value - time to return to my computer and become a better programmer. Gotta make a living...

Two cents,

Jaap Suter - http://jaapsuter.com

[1] To be clear, I love the fundamentals of computer science. It's a great passion of mine. But I believe its place in education is by and large a sub-field of math. I suspect that'll change over time, but I'm not yet sure in which direction (math absorbing computer science, or theoretical computer science growing enough meat to justify recognition as being a field on its own.)

[2] With the additional remark that the fundamental habits of good engineering are timeless and emerge from developing your expertise in the humanities (both in one's ability to interact and cooperate with other people to achieve your goals, and the study of interactions between man, his environment, and the fruits of your labor). The tools we use along the way are fleeting - software and hardware is commonly outdated by the time you've become an expert - better to recognize the underlying patterns.

Open Thread: May 2010

In a thread called Acturial vs. Software Engineering - what pays best?, somebody wrote:

Do any of you know how much of an option it is to start a software engineering career with a math/science but not CS background?

My response...

I encourage most people to pursue a math or science degree, rather than comp.sci., even if their long term goals are in the field of software engineering. My opinion is based on personal hindsight (having majored in computer science, I often wish my ability to absorb and apply fundamental math or hard physics was stronger) and on eleven years industry experience (where I've noticed an inverse correlation between the amount of formal comp.sci. training a person's had and his or her strength as a software engineer).

In regards to my personal hindsight; it could well be that had I studied math or physics, that I'd feel my comp.sci. expertise would need brushing up. That's probably true to some extent, but there's another factor; namely that many comp.sci. programs are a less-than-ideal blend of theoretical math (better obtained through a dedicated programs[1]) and practical engineering (most definitely useful[2], but because of its nature easily accessible in your spare time). That last point is critical; anybody who can afford university education, has access to a computer and a compiler. So why not tinker at home - you're passionate, right? Compare with programs like mechanical engineering, chemistry, and most hard physics programs - you probably don't have access to a particle accelerator or DNA extraction lab at home.

Not yet anyway... :-)

That brings me to my observation from industry experience, namely that the best programmers I've worked with often hadn't majored in comp.sci. The point of course not that a comp.sci. education makes for worse programmers. Rather, that people with the audacity and discipline to pursue hard physics or math who also have a passion for programming have a leg-up on those who are only passionate about programming.

I'm sure there's the occasional failed particle physicist applying for a hundred programming gigs without success, but that person would've been just as unskilled as a programmer had he or she majored in comp.sci.

Open Thread: May 2010

Recycling an email I wrote in a Existential Risk Reduction Career Network discussion. The topic looked at various career options, specifically with an eye towards accumulating wealth - the two major fields recognized being finance and software development.

Frank Adamek enquired as to my (flippant) vanilla latte comments, which revealed a personal blind-spot. Namely, that my default assumption for people with an interest in accumulating wealth is that they're motivated by an interest in improving the quality of their own life (e.g., expensive gadgets, etc.).

I should know -- especially in X-Risk Network context -- that wealth accumulation is not necessarily predominantly selfish, and that instead wealth can be an effective multiplier to benefit positive futures. Thanks for mentioning this Frank.

The motivation for copying this email here is two-fold.

  • One, what else can further rational critic of my own rants teach me?

  • Two, I've lurked in this community for a long time, but can't muster gusto to contribute. The quality-bar for top-level posts is well beyond my thinking and writing skills. Which is great, because it means I get to learn and grow. But there's a flip-side, which is the gap between Less Wrong discourse and that of my day-to-day interaction with friends, family, and coworkers. I don't have a solution to this, but perhaps an increase in open-thread comment mediocrity helps close the gap.

Ugh, probably not. Alas, here goes - posted as a reply to myself, because of comment-length limits.

Welcome to Heaven

A number of people mention this one way or another, but an explicit search for "local maximum" doesn't match any specific comment - so I wanted to throw it out here.

Wireheading is very likely to put oneself in a local maximum of bliss. Though a wirehead may not care or even ponder about whether or not there exist greater maxima, it's a consideration that I'd take into account prior to wiring up.

Unless one is omniscient, the act of a permanent (-ish) state of wireheading means foregoing the possibility of discovering a greater point of wireheaded happiness.

I guess the very definition of wireheadedness bakes in the notion that you wouldn't care about that anymore - good for those taking the plunge and hooking up I suppose. Personally, the universe would have to throw me an above average amount of negative derivates before I'd say enough is enough, screw potential for higher maxima, I'll take this one...