Tag: <span>AI</span>

The 10 Books I Finished in April

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  1. The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracyby: Taylor Dotson
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by: Mark Fisher 
  3. The Age of AI and Our Human Future by: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher
  4. A Confederacy of Dunces by: John Kennedy Toole
  5. Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation by: Roosevelt Montás
  6. Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen by: Steve Sims
  7. The Thursday Murder Club by: Richard Osman
  8. The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands by: John Michael Greer
  9. Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) by: Craig Alanson
  10. Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9) by: Craig Alanson

The next few months are going to be pretty busy. As I mentioned in the epilogue of one of my essays in April, we’ve decided to move. My house is old, we’ve lived in it a very long time, and I like to collect things, particularly books. (At this point we’ve used 80+ boxes just on them.) So getting ready to show and sell the house has already been a pretty laborious process, and will continue to be so for the next couple of weeks. Once the house is sold, which hopefully will be the matter of a weekend since the market, while cooling, is still pretty hot (my timing for selling the house has not been perfect, but I’m hoping it’s close enough) then we need to find a new house, which will also be time consuming. Once a new house is acquired we’ll need to move, unpack, and reconstruct things. Hopefully this will all happen before July 10th, because that’s when I leave for Ireland for two and a half weeks. As I said, the next few months are going to be busy.

I bring all of this up because there’s obviously a chance it will affect the time I have available to write. (It already delayed the second half of my drug post so that it was almost on top of my end of month newsletter.) There’s a chance I just won’t put out two essays one of these months (the best candidate being July) but my plan is to focus on trying to write some shorter essays. These will hopefully take less time, and as my post lengths have been creeping up, it’s probably a good idea to try to exercise some restraint in any case. That said sometimes shorter pieces require just as much, if not more effort than longer pieces. All the way back in 1657 Pascal apologized for the length of one of his letters because he “had not the time to make it shorter”. The more I write the more true I realize this is. 

In any event we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure how much shorter I can make my reviews, but I guess we’re about to find out. Making things more difficult, I’m going to immediately undermine this effort by adding a new section for non-fiction books, and the occasional fictional book: “What’s the author’s angle?”


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy 

By: Taylor Dotson

Published: 2021

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another examination of political polarization. This one focused on pointing out that science is not nearly as prescriptive as people claim, but also neither is “common sense”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Dotson describes himself as a leftist, and his primary thrust seems to be urging other leftists to re-engage with pluralist, discursive democracy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone sick of people telling them that we just need to “follow the science” or anyone who suspects that the value of an epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) has been oversold.

General Thoughts

I found this book to be appealing but flawed. Let’s start with its appeal. I have noticed, particularly since the pandemic started, that the admonition to “follow the science” has gotten ever more insistent. These admonitions preceded the pandemic, but that was what really put the idea to the test and found it wanting. I have previously discussed why this is so. Why determining the correct action is not nearly so simple. But some people imagine that it is precisely that simple, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

Tyson and Nye are not generally at the top of anybody’s list of “people who are destroying the world”, but Dotson is pretty hard on them. This was definitely part of the book’s appeal for me. Not because Tyson or Nye are bad people, but precisely because they’re not. This allows us to clearly identify the bad idea as something separate, not part of other biases which might attach to the person, something which is impossible with people like Biden and Trump. 

So what is this bad idea? Let’s start with Nye:

“On his Netflix program, Bill Nye tackles controversial issues such as alternative medicine, antivaccination, and climate change primarily by presenting one side as in line with science and the other as beset by cognitive biases and ignorance. Yes, people are often misinformed about the issues they care about, but narratives like Nye’s and the others mentioned here portray disagreement as if it were always the result of cognitive deficiencies and conspiratorial thinking on one side or the other. The historian Ted Steinberg describes this tendency to blame political opponents’ opinions on an underlying psychological ailment as “the diagnostic style of politics.”

The problem with the diagnostic style of politics is not simply that it is rude and condescending but that it encourages a fanatical approach to political disagreements. Opponents are no longer people who see the world differently but instead heretics who refuse to think “rationally” or accept objective science.”

Tyson takes this “diagnosis” and runs with it:

In a recent viral YouTube video, for instance, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims that America’s problems stem from the increasing inability of those in power to recognize scientific fact. Only if people begin to see that policy choices must be based on established scientific truths, according to Tyson, can we move forward with necessary political decisions. 

… 

Tyson’s call for a world government called “Rationalia,” whose one-line constitution requires that policy decisions simply be settled by “the weight of the evidence,” went viral on Twitter. 

It’s hard to express how breathtakingly naive these ideas are. Particularly given Tyson’s reputation for intelligence. Which, bears repeating, is not the same as wisdom. But perhaps you think I’m being too hard on him and Nye. I don’t think so, and as I mentioned, that’s the appeal of the book. It points out all the ways these recommendations won’t work. 

  • Collecting evidence has proven to be far more difficult than people expected, leading to a vast replication crisis.
  • Different scientists weigh evidence differently. An ecologist may be concerned about evidence that genetically modified crops are more fragile. While a geneticist may be entirely concerned with evidence of pest resistance. 
  • “Scientizing policy privileges the dimensions of life that are easily quantifiable and renders less visible the ones that are not.”
  • Science as it is conducted is not apolitical. Scientists not only have biases in how they weigh the evidence, they are biased in which studies they conduct, and the recommendations they make. 

I could go on, but perhaps at this point it’s more useful to apply it to an actual problem we’re currently grappling with. I’m sure everyone’s excited that the controversy over abortion is once again dominating the news. What does science say about how to decide that problem? 

Back in 2018 The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost”. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. I’m sure there is some other science, that weighs in on the opposite side (though I expect it would mostly apply to very early abortions). But my point is not to get into the actual debate, my point is that there is a debate. A debate where there’s significant evidence for the pro-life side. The side Nye and Tyson are almost certainly opposed to. 

To put it another way, forget about the morality of the situation. Forget about bodily autonomy or choice, or anything like that. And just consider, what the “weight of evidence” says about abortion, what science says about it. Using nothing but science would every person arrive at the same conclusion? Obviously not. Of course this gets into the is-ought problem which I’ve mentioned before.  And Dotson’s whole point is that when Tyson advocates for Rationalia and other people advocate for an epistocracy, they have no idea how to overcome this problem. The question we’re left with is, does Dotson?

Eschatological Implications

In any discussion of this topic almost no one questions Dotson’s premise. Everyone agrees that there’s a divide. Furthermore, most people, even Tyson and Nye, would go on to agree that  there’s too much fanatical certitude. (Though they would point to the other side as the one where this is a problem.) Which is to say everyone grants the title/thesis of the book. What they want to know is: what do we do about it? What does it mean for the future of civil society? How will America survive this widening divide? Or will it not survive it? If “following the science” isn’t the solution, what is?

As I mentioned the book is appealing but flawed, and it’s when we get to Dotson’s solutions that the flaws emerge, but as I pointed out at some length in a past post, solutions are oftentimes where great thinkers stumble. I’m not sure that I would classify Dotson as a great thinker, but his proposed solutions are better than most. He doesn’t put together a list, but he seems to offer up three solutions:

1- Better, and more civil discourse: This is something of a free speech argument. That we need more speech, not less. That this is the problem with the left, they use appeals to “science” to shut down discussion, and while I haven’t focused on his criticisms of the right as much, he claims they use appeals to “common sense” in a similar fashion. Dotson is not a free speech absolutist, but he believes we have abandoned the “pluralist process of negotiation at the heart of democracy”.

This all sounds great, but it’s easy to make the case that social media has made “pluralist negotiation” basically impossible. Dotson doesn’t ignore the problems of social media, but he doesn’t have any innovative suggestions for fixing the problem either. Here’s as close as he comes:

It is difficult to imagine exactly what a better net might look like, but a reasonable first step would be to hold information distributors to the same standards we would want information producers to abide by. News aggregators and social media sites should be forced to protect against outright fraudulent claims and libelous speech and perhaps be incentivized or encouraged to prioritize material from multipartisan public media.

2- Demarchy: Dotson spends much of the book advocating for democracy over epistocracy, but when it comes down to what most people think of as democratic he’s against it. He doesn’t like representative democracy because politicians are entrenched and oligarchic. He doesn’t like direct democracy, like California’s ballot proposition system, because it leads to bad outcomes. instead he proposes the creation of a demarchical system. Demarchy is “randomly selecting a representative sample of citizens to serve as legislators.” This is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea, and it was used in Ancient Athens, so that’s something. And in many ways it’s interesting, but it’s a very big jump from where we are to there, and I expect that there are lots of ways it might go wrong that we haven’t even imagined.

As one example, he mentions that demarchy can be thought of as similar to how juries are selected. And they seem to work out okay. That may be true, but other than the random selection part, everything else is very different. They are impaneled to consider a single issue. It’s expected that they frequently won’t reach a decision. And there’s a whole additional process of jury selection after the random selection. Will we have something similar where given sufficient grounds potential legislators could be dismissed or not seated? If so, that puts us back in the same position we’re already in. My favorite version of demarchy imagined that the people selected would remain anonymous. In conclusion this proposal is interesting, but embryonic.

3- Civic religion: I bow to no one in my appreciation for the benefits of civic religion, and you would think that appreciation would extend to anyone else who also chooses to extol it’s virtues, but Dotson’s advocacy is the strangest I’ve come across. Most people who think civic religion is important will pine for a return to the civic religion of patriotism, with its veneration of the founding fathers, the constitution, and the Revolution. Even though our former civic religion did all the things Dotson says he wants, he not only doesn’t wish to revive it, he doesn’t even acknowledge its existence!

It would be one thing if he had a different definition of civic religion, but when he says things like, “For pluralism to blossom, the next generation may need to be brought up within a democratic civic religion.” That sure sounds like the kind of thing I experienced in the 70’s and 80’s, but he never once draws that connection…

I’m not saying that returning to the old civic religion of patriotism, 4th of July parades, and secular saints like Washington and Lincoln will be easy, but if civic religion is going to save the country it will be a heck of a lot easier to return to what we already have, than to invent some new civic religion out of whole cloth.


II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 

By: Mark Fisher 

Published: 2009

81 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek or perhaps both, said “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This book discusses how capitalism grew to encompass the whole of our imagination, and the brief glimpses one receives of potential alternatives. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Fisher has been described as a Marxist pop-culture theorist, a description I would agree with after reading the book.

Who should read this book?

People looking to steelman communism. In particular the author does a good job of showing how the Marxist concept of ‘Late Capitalism’ foretold much of the craziness we’re currently experiencing.

General Thoughts

I have many thoughts about this book, but I’d rather not go off half-cocked, which is to say, my plan is to re-read this book on my Kindle where it’s easy to highlight things and only then do I intend to opine deeply on what it’s saying. 

As I have mentioned in the past, I’m part of a book club, and one part of my plan to re-read this book is hoping to use my substantial influence (that’s a joke) to convince them to read it along with me. If I’m successful I will return here and report on not only what I thought, but what others thought as well. 

I realize that this is something of a cop-out, so I’ll leave you with a quote. This is from the section of the book where I first was prompted to sit up and think, “Wow, this is powerful stuff!”

In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, [Kurt] Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that [Fredric] Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.


The Age of AI and Our Human Future

By: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher

Published: 2021

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The changes that are likely be wrought by increasingly advanced AI, with a particular focus on near term changes.

What’s the author’s angle?

They’re hoping to bring greater awareness to the geopolitical changes which will be brought by AI and to urge the US to take the lead with AI.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in AI, but all your attention has been dominated what’s happening now (i.e. GPT-3, DALL-E, AlphaGo, etc.) or what may eventually happen (AI risk, Superintelligence, Age of Em, etc.) then this is a great book for covering the territory in between. 

General Thoughts

Yes, the lead author is that Henry Kissinger, who is apparently still writing (or at least contributing to books) at the age of 98. We should all be so lucky.

While Kissinger is well known for foreign affairs in general, his initial interest was “nuclear weapons and foreign policy”, which ended up being the name of his first book. His experience with nuclear weapons is one of several interesting things about this book, because it contends that national AI programs pose similar threats to world peace, and require similar thinking. But in all other respects they are vastly more difficult to manage. They are more difficult to create international agreements around, to defend against, to collect intelligence on—more difficult along just about any measurement you can imagine.

As I already alluded to, another interesting thing about the book was its focus on the near-term. The vast majority of the people working on AI are either fixating on developing or improving something which currently exists, or on being ready for the Singularity. As an example of the latter, my sense is that Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that we’re already too late. This book spends a lot of time looking at what’s going to happen on a 10-20 year horizon. One byproduct of this, is that the authors seem to largely dismiss the idea that the singularity is going to arrive unexpectedly sometime in that period.

As a follow-up to reading the book I listened to Schmidt being interviewed by Sam Harris, and as you can imagine the question of AI Risk came up. Schmidt confidently predicted that the next generation of AI researchers would be able to come up with a “run amuck” button, as in if an AI starts to “run amuck” you just press that button and it stops them. You could forgive a blasé answer about the future if it came from Kissinger, what does he care, he’s 98, but I expected better from Schmidt.

According to my notes, which are never as good as they should be, Schmidt said he wasn’t worried about AI running amuck, he was worried about them changing what it means to be human. They spend a lot of time talking about this aspect of things, and I think the authors believe that this is really their main contribution to the discussion. Enough so that they included it in the title. Their approach to this question mostly seems curious and neutral, avoiding conclusions of doom and utopia that seem so common in other books of this sort. But I think doom might be warranted. AI can’t really change what it means to be human, too much of that meaning is encoded in our genes, but it can manipulate those built in attributes, and sow an enormous amount of confusion. Which is not only something to worry about happening in the near term, it’s something we should be worried about right now.


A Confederacy of Dunces 

By: John Kennedy Toole

Published: 1980

405 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The misadventures of the overweight, overeducated and overwrought Ignatius J. Reilly, and fleshed out with similar misadventures from other eccentric personalities of 1960’s New Orleans.

Who should read this book?

This is rightly judged to be a modern classic, and you should probably read it just for that reason, but as Ignatius is the original geek who spends most of his time in his bedroom declaiming his superiority into the ether, I think it has a lot to say about our present moment as well. 

General Thoughts

I enjoyed this book. The plot was nothing to write home about, but the characters, dialogue, writing and setting were all fantastic. Also for a book written in the late 60’s it seemed unusually prophetic. But of course there’s an argument to be made that we’re replaying the 60’s only with the addition of the internet, so perhaps that’s why it feels so timely. 

I can’t emphasize enough how eccentric the characters are in this book, but again that’s another way in which it somehow nails the current moment.


Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By: Roosevelt Montás

Published: 2021

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Montás’ journey from poor kid in the Dominican Republic to undergraduate at Columbia, to Director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the pivotal and empowering role “Great Books” played at every stage of that journey.

What’s the author’s angle?

Montás’ has been the head of Columbia’s “Great Books” effort for many years, so in part he’s defending his job.

Who should read this book?

Anyone looking for a defense of including great books as one of the foundations of a liberal education, in particular a first person defense. 

General Thoughts

I remember a time when the “Great Books” still had a lot of cachet. I’m sure it was already fading by the time I came along, but it was still there. In the decades since then they’ve taken a beating. The most common accusation is that they were all or mostly written by old white guys, and that privileging them crowds out minority authors and academics. So I was very interested in reading the story of one of those minority academics who claimed that a traditional “Great Books” course dramatically, profoundly, and positively altered his life. 

Of course these days we have expanded the Great Books canon to include books by Gandhi and other non-european authors, but as Montás points out, these new books have not replaced the old books, they are an addition to the canon. All of the books that were great in 1920 are still great today. Montás covers four authors in particular: Augustine, Aristotle, Freud, and the aforementioned Gandhi. He spends one chapter on each of them detailing how they impacted his life in positive ways. I liked the first person aspect of the book, but as this was a book giving a defense of the Great Books as a general tool for educating everyone, it would have been nice if he had included more examples of people benefiting from them beyond just his own story.

Still as someone who is engaged in his own laborious path through the Great Books, it was nice to read someone urging me to continue.


Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen

by: Steve Sims

Published: 2018

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A self-help/business book written by a guy who specializes in making seemingly impossible dreams into realities. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I assume he has enough money, and that he genuinely wants to help people turn their dreams into reality, but I assume the money from the book is a nice bonus.

Who should read this book?

This does not break any new ground in the self-help/business book genre. If you haven’t read the 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, I would read that first, but after a certain point these books are more about motivation than knowledge and this book provides plenty of motivation.

General Thoughts

Sims has an inspiring rags to riches story. He started out as a bricklayer in East London, having dropped out of school at age 15. After landing a job in Hong Kong and getting fired five days later he got a job as a doorman, and kind of stumbled into being a concierge as part of that job. As part of that he kept pushing the limits of what a concierge could do, eventually pulling off some truly amazing requests, like arranging for six people to have dinner at the feet of Michaelangelo’s David. My favorite story from the book is how he had a client who wanted to meet the band Journey, and Sims took that request, ran with it, and in the end the guy was able to get on stage with them and be lead singer on four of their songs at a charity concert. 

As far as how to do stuff like that, as I said I’m not sure that Sims gives away any big secrets in this book. His recommendations are the same as the recommendations from a dozen other books like this. But at a certain point it’s not knowing what to do, it’s being motivated to do what you already know you should be doing, and on that count Sims is a very motivational guy.


The Thursday Murder Club

by: Richard Osman

Published: 2020

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four people in a retirement community who meet every Thursday to work over old unsolved murders who are suddenly confronted with an actual murder.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. If you like all those things and you’re starting to feel the melancholia of being old then this book is especially for you.

General Thoughts

Every good novel ideally has great characters, witty dialogue, and a good plot. The latter is particularly important for a mystery novel because it’s a genre that not merely demands good plots, they have to be intricate and surprising. Osman manages to pull off all of those features. The characters are delightful, the dialogue is fantastic, and beyond that he manages to pull off not just one intricate plot, but multiple interlocking, intricate plots. I thought it was especially brilliant to set it in a retirement community. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

249 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fourth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, and here.) This one is set at Miskatonic University, and the titular Dreamlands.

Who should read this book?

As with all series, whether you read this book depends a lot on what you thought of the books which preceded this one. I thought this was the strongest entry in the series since the first one. So if you’re thinking of continuing I would.

General Thoughts

Greer mostly writes non-fiction, he recently described his career as follows:

Over the years… I watched (and joined in) the peak oil movement as it rose and fell, watched (and kept my distance from) the parallel movement of climate change activism as it rose and fell, watched (and dealt in my own life with some of the consequences of) the slow twilight of America’s global empire and the vaster twilight of Western civilization as a whole.

I bring this up because, for Greer, in both the novel and in the real world, the bad guys are those who think that technology and progress are the solutions to everything. That the modern world with its institutions and ideology is somehow special and different. Of all the books in the series I think this one illustrates the bad guys the best, particularly as they appear in academia. Despite the obvious moral of the story, it’s never preachy or heavy handed, it’s just a very interesting, very different view of how the world works, and of course, as always with this series, how Lovecraftian horror is conceived.


Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

6 Hours (Only available on audio)

Briefly, what is this audio drama special about?

As you can tell from the title this is an interstitial piece between books 7 and 8 in the main series. It concerns an unforeseen alien threat which suddenly arrives at Earth, which as I think about it, is the plot of the very first book in the series as well.

Who should listen to this audio drama special?

I’m not sure. It is referenced at the start of book 8, and it’s kind of annoying to not know the story, and it’s also kind of annoying to have to go out and spend an audible credit to get the story. They attempt to compensate for these annoyances by bringing in some big names and doing a full cast production, but I found the full cast recording with sound effects to be more annoying than just having the single narrator, so your annoyance is tripled. If you want my advice, you can skip it. 

General Thoughts

This is basically an attempt to turn Expeditionary Force into an old-timey radio drama. Having only listened to a few old-timey radio dramas I can’t say whether they succeeded or not. But as a general rule every full-cast recording I’ve listened to has been disappointing. If someone has one they particularly enjoy let me know. I’d like to find a good one, but so far, in my limited experience, they have all been mediocre.


Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9)

By: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

398 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As I mentioned in my review of book 8, the Merry Band of Pirates have finally leveled up, this book is about what they do with their new “powers”. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve come this far you should probably continue. By now you will have either given up in annoyance at Alanson’s quirks or come to accept them. I think this book is better than some of the previous books, and ends on a very interesting cliffhanger.

General Thoughts

I’m writing this having already read book 10. And I will say that up until about halfway through book 9 things were getting pretty formulaic. Now it was a good formula, one I mostly enjoyed, but it was still getting old, but about halfway through this book and continuing into the next book, things have been very interesting. I’m hoping they stay that way. 


I also hope my blog stays interesting, which can be tough, since I’ve written at least as many words as 10 novels. This post I started pointing out people’s angles. I have many angles, but certainly one of them is precisely this, to keep things interesting. And obviously another is to try to make you guilty enough to donate


Predictions (Spoiler: No AI or Immortality)

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Many people use the occasion of the New Year to make predictions about the coming year. And frankly, while these sorts of predictions are amusing, and maybe even interesting, they’re not particularly useful. To begin with, historically one of the biggest problems has been that there’s no accountability after the fact. If we’re going to pay attention to someone’s predictions for 2017 it would be helpful to know how well they did in predicting 2016. In fairness, recently this trend has started to change, driven to a significant degree by the work of Philip Tetlock. Perhaps you’ve heard of Tetlock’s book Superforcasting (another book I intend to read, but haven’t yet, I’m only one man) But if you haven’t heard of the book or of Tetlock, he has made something of a career out of holding prognosticators accountable, and his influence (and that of others) is starting to make itself felt.

Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex, makes yearly predictions and, following the example of Tetlock, scores them at the end of the year. He just released the scoring of his 2016 predictions. As part of the exercise, he not only makes predictions but provides a confidence level. In other words, is he 99% sure that X will/won’t happen, or is he only 60% sure? For those predictions where his confidence level was 90% or higher he only missed one prediction. He predicted with 90% confidence that “No country currently in Euro or EU announces plan to leave:” And of course there was the Brexit, so he missed that one. Last year he didn’t post his predictions until the 25th of January, but as I was finishing up this article he did post his 2017 predictions, and I’ll spend a few words at the end talking about them.

As an aside, speaking of posting predictions on the 25th, waiting as long as you can get away with is one way to increase your odds. For example last year Alexander made several predictions about what might happen in Asia. Taiwan held their elections on the 16th of January, and you could certainly imagine that knowing the results of that election might help you with those predictions. I’m not saying this was an intentional strategy on Alexander’s part, but I think it’s safe to say that those first 24 days of January weren’t information free, and if we wanted to get picky we’d take that into account. It is perhaps a response to this criticism for Alexander to post his predictions much earlier this year.

Returning to Alexander’s 2016 predictions, they’re reasonably mundane. In general he predicts that things will continue as they have. There’s a reason he does that. It turns out that if you want to get noticed, you predict something spectacular, but if you want to be right (at least more often than not) than you predict that things will basically look the same in a year as they look now. Alexander is definitely one of those people who wants to be right. And I am not disparaging that, we should all want to be more correct than not, but trying to maximize your correctness does have one major weakness. And that is why, despite Tetlock’s efforts, prediction is still more amusing than useful.

See, it’s not the things which stay the same that are going to cause you problems. If things continue as they have been, than it doesn’t take much foresight to reap the benefits and avoid the downside. It’s when the status quo breaks that prediction becomes both useful and ironically impossible.

In other words someone like Alexander (who by the way I respect a lot I’m just using him as an example) can have year after year of results like the results he had for 2016 and then be completely unprepared the one year when some major black swan occurs which wipes out half of his predictions.

Actually, forget about wiping out half his predictions, let’s just look at his, largely successful, world event predictions for 2016. There were 49 of them and he was wrong about only eight. I’m going to ignore one of the eight because he was only 50% confident about it (that is the equivalent of flipping a coin and he admits himself that being 50% confident is pretty meaningless). This gives us 41 correct predictions out of 48 total predictions, or 85% correct. Which seems really good. The problem is that the stuff he was wrong about is far more consequential than the stuff he was right about. He was wrong about the aforementioned Brexit, he made four wrong predictions about the election. (Alexander, like most people, was surprised by the election of Trump.) And then he was wrong about the continued existence of ISIS and oil prices. As someone living in America you may doubt the impact of oil prices, but if so I refer you to the failing nation of Venezuela.

Thus while you could say that he was 85% accurate, it’s the 15% of stuff he wasn’t accurate about that is going to be the most impactful. In other words, he was right about most things, but the consequences of his seven missed predictions will easily exceed the consequences of the 41 predictions that he got right.

That is the weakness of trying to maximize being correct. While being more right than wrong is certainly desirable. In general the few things people end up being wrong about end up being far more consequential than all things they’re right about. Obviously it’s a little bit crude to use the raw number of predictions as our standard. But I think in this case it’s nevertheless essentially accurate. You can be right 85% of the time and still end up in horrible situations because the 15% of the time you’re wrong, you’re wrong about the truly consequential stuff.

I’ve already given the example of Alexander being wrong about Brexit and Trump. But there are of course other examples. The recent financial crisis is a big one. One of the big hinges of investment boom leading up to the crisis was the idea that the US had never had a nationwide decline in housing prices. And that was a true and accurate position for decades, but the one year it wasn’t true made the dozens of years when it was true almost entirely inconsequential.

You may be thinking from all this that I have a low opinion of predictions, and that’s largely the case. Once again this goes back to the ideas of Taleb and Antifragility. One of his key principles is to reduce your exposure to negative black swans and increase your exposure to positive black swans. But none of this exposure shifting involves accurately predicting the future. And to the extent that you think you can predict the future it makes you less likely to worry about the sort of exposure shifting that Taleb advocates, and makes things more fragile. Also, in a classic cognitive bias, everything you correctly predicted you ascribe to skill while every time you’re wrong you put that down to bad luck. Which, remember, is easy trap to fall into because if you expect the status quo to continue you’re going to be right a lot more often than you’re wrong.

Finally, because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. For example, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

All of this is not to say that you should move to Wyoming and build a fallout shelter. Only to illustrate the asymmetry of being right most of the time, if when you’re wrong you’re wrong about something really big.

In discussing the move towards tracking the accuracy of predictions I neglected to engage in much of a discussion of why people make outrageous and ultimately inaccurate predictions. Why do predictions, in order to be noticed, need to be extreme? Many people will chalk it up to a need for novelty or a requirement brought on by a crowded media environment, but once you realize that it’s the black swans, not the status quote that cause all the problems (and if you’re lucky bring all the benefits) you begin to grasp that people pay attention to extreme predictions not out of some morbid curiosity or some faulty wiring in their brain but because if there is some chance of an extreme prediction coming true, that is what they need to prepare for. Their whole life and all of society is already prepared for the continuation of the status quo, it’s the potential black swans you need to be on the lookout for.

Consequently, while I totally agree that if someone says X will happen in 2016, that it’s useful to go back and record whether that prediction was correct. I don’t agree with the second, unstated assumption behind this tracking that extreme predictions should be done away with because they so often turn out to not be true. If someone thinks ISIS might have a nuke, I’d like to know that. I may not change what I’m doing, but then again I just might.

To put it in more concrete terms, let’s assume that you heard rumblings in February of 2000 that tech stocks were horribly overvalued, and so you took the $100,000 you had invested in the NASDAQ and turned it into bonds, or cash. If so when the bottom rolled around in September of 2002 you would still have your $100k, whereas if you didn’t take it out you would have lost around 75% of your money. But let’s assume that you were wrong, and that nothing happened and that the while the NASDAQ didn’t continue its meteoric rise that it continued to grow at the long term stock market average of 7% then you would have made around $20,000 dollars.

For the sake of convenience let’s say that you didn’t quite time it perfectly and you only prevented the loss of $60k. Which means that the $20k you might have made if your instincts had proven false was one third of the $60k you actually might have lost. Consequently you could be in a situation where you were less than 50% sure that the market was going to crash (in other words you viewed it as improbable) and still have a positive expected value from taking all of your money out of the NASDAQ. In other words depending on the severity of the unlikely event it may not matter if it’s unlikely or improbable, because it can still make sense to act as if it were going to happen, or at a minimum to hedge against it. Because in the long run you’ll still be better off.

Having said all this you may think that the last thing I would do is offer up some predictions, but that is precisely what I’m going to do. These predictions will differ in format from Alexander’s. First, as you may have guessed already I am not going to limit myself to predicting what will happen in 2017. Second I’m going to make predictions which, while they will be considered improbable, will have a significant enough impact if true that you should hedge against them anyway. This significant impact means that it won’t really matter if I’m right this year or if I’m right in 50 years, it will amount to much the same regardless. Third, a lot of my predictions will be about things not happening. And with these predictions I will have to be right for all time not just 2017. Finally with several of these predictions I hope I am wrong.

Here are my list of predictions, there are 15, which means I won’t be able to give a lot of explanation about any individual prediction. If you see one that you’re particularly interested in a deeper explanation of, then let me know and I’ll see what I can do to flesh it out. Also as I mentioned I’m not going to put any kind of a deadline on these predictions, saying merely that they will happen at some point, but for those of you who think that this is cheating I will say that if 100 years have passed and a prediction hasn’t come true then you can consider it to be false. However as many of my predictions are about things that will never happen I am, in effect, saying that they won’t happen in the next 100 years, which is probably as long as anyone could be expected to see. Despite this caveat I expect those predictions to hold true for even longer than that. With all of those caveats here are the predictions. I have split them into five categories

Artificial Intelligence

1- General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.

If there was a single AI able to do everything on this list, I would consider this a failed prediction. For a recent examination of some of the difficulties see this recent presentation.

2- A complete functional reconstruction of the brain will turn out to be impossible.

This includes slicing and scanning a brain, or constructing an artificial brain.

3- Artificial consciousness will never be created.

This of course is tough to quantify, but I will offer up my own definition for a test of artificial consciousness: We will never have an AI who makes a credible argument for it’s own free will.

Transhumanism

1- Immortality will never be achieved.

Here I am talking about the ability to suspend or reverse aging. I’m not assuming some new technology that lets me get hit by a bus and survive.

2- We will never be able to upload our consciousness into a computer.

If I’m wrong about this I’m basically wrong about everything. And the part of me that enviously looks on as my son plays World of Warcraft hopes that I am wrong, it would be pretty cool.

3- No one will ever successfully be returned from the dead using cryonics.

Obviously weaselly definitions which include someone being brought back from extreme cold after three hours don’t count. I’m talking about someone who’s been dead for at least a year.

Outer Space

1- We will never establish a viable human colony outside the solar system.

Whether this is through robots constructing humans using DNA, or a ship full of 160 space pioneers, it’s not going to happen.

2- We will never have an extraterrestrial colony (Mars or Europa or the Moon) of greater than 35,000 people.

I think I’m being generous here to think it would even get close to this number but if it did it would still be smaller than the top 900 US cities and Lichtenstein.

3- We will never make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.

I have already offered my own explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, so anything that fits into that explanation would not falsify this prediction.

War (I hope I’m wrong about all of these)

1- Two or more nukes will be exploded in anger within 30 days of one another.

This means a single terrorist nuke that didn’t receive retaliation in kind would not count.

2- There will be a war with more deaths than World War II (in absolute terms, not as a percentage of population.)

Either an external or internal conflict would count, for example a Chinese Civil War.

3- The number of nations with nuclear weapons will never be less than it is right now.

The current number is nine. (US, Russia, Britain, France, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel.)

Miscellaneous

1- There will be a natural disaster somewhere in the world that kills at least a million people

This is actually a pretty safe bet, though one that people pay surprisingly little attention to as demonstrated by the complete ignorance of the 1976 Chinese Earthquake.

2- The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown.

I realize that this one isn’t very specific as stated so let’s just say that the meltdown has to be objectively worse on all (or nearly all) counts than the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. And it has to be widely accepted that US government debt was the biggest cause of the meltdown.

3- Five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form.

This one relies more on the implicit 100 year time horizon then the rest of the predictions. And I would count any foreign occupation, civil war, major dismemberment or change in government (say from democracy to a dictatorship) as fulfilling the criteria.

A few additional clarifications on the predictions:

  • I expect to revisit these predictions every year, I’m not sure I’ll have much to say about them, but I won’t forget about them. And if you feel that one of the predictions has been proven incorrect feel free to let me know.
  • None of these predictions is designed to be a restriction on what God can do. I believe that we will achieve many of these things through divine help. I just don’t think we can do it ourselves. The theme of this blog is not that we can’t be saved, rather that we can’t save ourselves with technology and progress. A theme you may have noticed in my predictions.
  • I have no problem with people who are attempting any of the above or are worried about the dangers of any of the above (in particular AI) I’m a firm believer in the prudent application of the precautionary principle. I think a general artificial intelligence is not going to happen, but for those that do like Eliezer Yudowsky and Nick Bostrom it would be foolish to not take precautions. In fact insofar as some of the transhumanists emphasize the elimination of existential risks I think they’re doing a useful and worthwhile service, since it’s an area that’s definitely underserved. I have more problems with people who attempt to combine transhumanism with religion, as a bizarre turbo-charged millennialism, but I understand where they’re coming from.

Finally, as I mentioned above Alexander has published his predictions for 2017. As in past years he keeps all or most of the applicable predictions from the previous year (while updating the confidence level) and then incrementally expands his scope. I don’t have the space to comment on all of his predictions, but here are a few that jumped out:

  1. Last year he had a specific prediction about Greece leaving the Euro (95% chance it wouldn’t) now he just has a general prediction that no one new will leave the EU or Euro and gives that an 80% chance. That’s probably smart, but less helpful if you live in Greece.
  2. He has three predictions about the EMDrive. That could be a big black swan. And I admire the fact that he’s willing to jump into that.
  3. He carried over a prediction from 2016 of no earthquakes in the US with greater than 100 deaths (99% chance) I think he’s overconfident on that one, but the prediction itself is probably sound.
  4. He predicts that Trump will still be president at the end of 2017 (90% sure) and that no serious impeachment proceedings will have been initiated (80% sure). These predictions seem to have generated the most comments, and they are definitely areas where I fear to make any predictions myself, so my hat’s off to him here. I would only say that the Trump Presidency is going to be tumultuous.

And I guess with that prediction we’ll end.