Jim Pivarski

Wiki Contributions


This story from the perspective of the Thing did get into the notion of what it would be like to be an amorphous consciousness (and how odd it is that Earthlings aren't). It's still a little different, though, from the trajectory of being human and then realizing what it's like to be multi-human. A version with Pod People would be a different kind of story...

Cool! I'll read that one, too, thanks!

What I was thinking about with the pod people was their group mentality. (After all, it has long been considered a metaphor for communism.) I'd like to see someone imagine—or do it myself—the poddified people not as soulless outer shells of their former selves, but as themselves, "melted" into a group consciousness. As an example of something similar, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "The Wish" did an excellent job showing characters who remained themselves, but as evil versions of themselves, as vampires.

In the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remakes, the reason the poddified people are hard to distinguish from their former selves is because they're good at mimicry. They were only pretending to be their former selves. However, if one person's consciousness really isn't distinct from another's in a fundamental way, just by a much thinner channel of communication than that between the parts of one's brain, then thickening the channel of communication between people by telepathy would probably feel like a kind of awakening—realizing that there are all these other parts of you that had been hidden until now. These people would probably talk and act as they did in the Body Snatcher movies: they'd tell the anti-pod antagonists that there's nothing to fear from poddification, that they haven't lost anything, they've only gained a wider consciousness, etc., while the antagonists recoil in horror because it's a threat to their individuality. Whenever someone is poddified, they change their mind not because they've been overcome, but because now they, too, see what they've been missing.

Personally, I can't say which side I'd be on. It would be underwhelming for the author of this remake to just reverse the moral (individualism is bad; all is one, baby!). It is horrific to think of one's personality melting into a larger brain. Also, the end-state of that is sopolistic: there would be only one consciousness, with no one to talk to. (But then again, wanting to talk to others is wanting to thicken the connections between bits of consciousness, so that's the same thing again.)

Although G.K. Chesterton wildly misunderstood other cultures and was triumphalist about his own, I've always rather liked this image from The Romance of Orthodoxy (1908):

The oriental deity is like a giant who should have lost his leg or hand and be always seeking to find it; but the Christian power is like some giant who in a strange generosity should cut off his right hand, so that it might of its own accord shake hands with him.

What this "nuclear consciousness" mental model doesn't have is an account of knowing someone without being that someone. But then, is there such a thing?

That's why I'd like to see a rewrite of the Body Snatchers: to explore that idea, even if it doesn't come to a solid conclusion.

But if that observer is in the universe, then there's more in the universe than just the circle.

I was examining this universe from the outside. We can't actually do that, though we act as though we do in the physical sciences. (One idea in the physical sciences that takes seriously the fact that experimenters are a part of the universe they observe is superdeterminism, and it's one of the possible loopholes for Bell's Inequality.)

Panpsychism! (Sort of!) But I guess that makes sense, since panpsychism is trying to make sense of divisibility of consciousness, too.

Sorry that I didn't notice your comment before. You took it the one extra step of getting kinetic and rotational energy in the same units. (I had been trying to compare potential and rotational energy and gave up when there were quantities that would have to be numerically evaluated.)

Yeah, I follow your algebra. The radius of the ball cancels and we only have to compare  and . Indeed, a uniformly solid sphere (an assumption I made) rolling without sliding without change in potential energy (at the end of the ramp) has 29% rotational energy and 71% linear kinetic energy, independently of its radius and mass. That's a cute theorem.

It also means that my "physics intuition trained on similar examples in the past" was wrong, because I was imagining a "negligible" that is much smaller than 29%. I was imagining something less than about 5% or so. So the neural network in my head is apparently not very well trained. (It's been about 30 years since I did these sorts of problems as a physics major in college, if that can be an excuse.)

As for your second paragraph, it would matter for solving the article's problem because if you used the ball's initial height and assumed that all of the gravitational potential energy was converted into kinetic energy to do the second part of the problem, "how far, horizontally, will the ball fly (neglecting air resistance and such)?" you would overestimate that kinetic energy by almost a third, and how much you overestimate would depend on how much it slipped. Still, though, the floppy track would eat up a big chunk, too.

Sorry—I addressed one bout of undisciplined thinking (in physics) and then tacked on a whole lot more undisciplined thinking in a different subject (AI alignment, which I haven't thought about nearly as much as people here have).

I could delete the last two paragraphs, but I want to think about it more and maybe bring it up in a place that's dedicated to the subject.

It might not matter in the grand scheme of things, but my comment above has been on my mind for the last few days. I didn't do a good job of demonstrating the thing I set out to argue for, that effect X is negligible and can be ignored. That's the first step in any physics problem, since there are infinitely many effects that could be considered, but only enough time to compute a few of them in detail.

The first respondent made the mistake of using the challenger's intentions as data—she knew it was a puzzle that was expected to be solvable in a reasonable amount of time, so she disregarded defects that would be too difficult to calculate. That can be a useful criterion in video games ("how well does the game explain itself?"), it can be exploited in academic tests, though it defeats the purpose to do so, and it's useless in real-world problems. Nature doesn't care how easy or hard a problem is.

I didn't do a good job demonstrating that X is negligible compared to Y because I didn't resolve enough variables to put them into the same units. If I had shown that X' and Y' are both in units of energy and X' scales linearly with a parameter that is much larger than the equivalent in Y', while everything else is order 1, that would have been a good demonstration.

If I were just trying to solve the problem and not prove it, I wouldn't have bothered because I knew that X is negligible than Y without even a scaling argument. Why? The answer physicists give in this situation is "physics intuition," which may sound like an evasion. But in other contexts, you find physicists talking about "training their intuition," which is not something that birds or clairvoyants do with their instincts or intuitions. Physicists intentionally use the neural networks in their heads to get familiarity with how big certain quantities are relative to each other. When I thought about effects X and Y in the blacked-out comment above, I was using familiarity with the few-foot drop the track represented, the size and weight of a ball you can hold in your hand, etc. I was implicitly bringing prior experience into this problem, so it wasn't really "getting it right on the first try." It wasn't the first try.

It might be that any problem has some overlap with previous problems—I'm not sure that a problem could be posed in an intelligible way if it were truly novel. This article was supposed to be a metaphor for getting AI to understand human values. Okay, we've never done that before. But AI systems have some incomplete overlap with how "System 1" intelligence works in human brains, some overlap with a behavioralist conditioned response, and some overlap with conventional curve-fitting (regression). Also, we somehow communicate values with other humans, defining the culture in which we live. We can tell how much they're instinctive versus learned by how isolated cultures are similar or different.

I think this comment would get too long if I continue down this line of thought, but don't we equalize our values by trying to please each other? We (humans) are a bit dog-like in our social interactions. More than trying to form a logically consistent ethic, we continually keep tabs on what other people think of us and try to stay "good" in their eyes, even if that means inconsistency. Maybe AI needs to be optimized on sentiment analysis, so when it starts trying to kill all the humans to end cancer, it notices that it's making us unhappy, or whimpers in response to a firm "BAD DOG" and tap on the nose...

This looks a lot like a typical high school/college freshman physics problem, and I guess the moral of the story is that it leads us to think that we should solve it that way. But if you were to work it out,

I think the ball's rotational energy would be a much smaller number than the gravitational potential energy of falling a few feet. The rotational energy of a solid sphere is , where  and  are the mass and radius of the ball and  is the angular velocity of rotation. Meanwhile, the gravitational potential energy is , where . There are some quantities whose values we don't know, like , but looking at the set-up, I seriously doubt that rotational energy, or lack thereof because the ball doesn't stick to the track, is going to matter.

Fun fact: Galileo didn't drop weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa; he rolled balls down slopes like this. He completely ignored/didn't know about rotational energy, and that was an error in his measurements, but it was small enough to not change the final result. He also used his heartbeat as a stopwatch.

I think the biggest effect here is the bendy track. It's going to absorb a lot (like ) of the energy, and can't be ignored. Alison uses the questioner's motives as data ("Calculating the effect of the ramp’s bendiness seems unreasonably difficult and this workshop is only meant to take an hour or so, so let’s forget that."), which she shouldn't.

Wow! That looks like a great book. Although one can find out by following the links you provided, I'd like to tell everyone here that the book is available for free on the author's website (PDF, epub, mobi).

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