Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Six books from July to Sep 2019

Credit: The Map and the Territory, MIRI
Since my last book review, I read six books, or admittedly, one of them is a podcast episode rather than a book. Using audiobooks, it’s not been time-consuming at all. Total reading time: 35 hours in 3 months, or 25 minutes per day on average, often while travelling/ cooking/ tidying while listening.
  1. Ready Player One — Ernest Cline (Audiobook, 9 hours at 1.7x)
Set in a dystopian 2040 where everyone plays in a big multiplayer virtual reality, this gung-ho tale has the male teenage protagonist coming of age and taking on the big machine. He has to win a quest within this virtual world, using his knowledge of trivia and 1980s games.

Cline creates a big virtual world within the narrative, and it provided some escapism while I commuted on the tube. But it’s overrated as a book. The only female character is a one-dimensional gamer girl, awkwardly flirtatious and obviously obsessed with our male protagonist. A long section describes the protagonist’s high-tech VR gaming kit, in a fetishistic way that sounded more a petulant child’s Christmas list, than anything relevant to the narrative.

Our hero takes on a nasty capitalist company also seeking to win the prize, and wins against the odds. Cline makes a worn-out criticism of suits; only in it for the money, unlike the real fans. After hours of reading, the message we get is that you shouldn’t spend too much time online. There’s no discussion of what politics might look like in the 2040s, and his narrative plays up to a nonsensical US vision of how one individual can change the whole system. Sorry Cline, take a lesson from more established democracies: progress comes through groups, sharing, and collaboration, not the trivia of a lone teenager.

I supposed I finished it because the story was easy, but really, Cline’s written a dated and clumsy fantasy of a finicky male geek, and the book deserves the bin rather than the spotlight.

Rating: 1/5

2. On the Future: Prospects for Humanity — Martin Rees (Audiobook, 4 hours at 1.2x)

Lord Martin Rees, 77, holds the grand title of UK Astronomer Royal, and has taken up a role as the public face of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk. Rees is fretful about the future, and his warnings and optimism in his clipped 1950s language are tender and earnest.

The book is a great broad introduction to what the future might hold. It pans across humanity’s myriad achievements in improving our lives, and prosperity. The future certainly offers challenges: climate change, inequality, and unintended technological consequences. But overall, Martin Rees’ tone is upbeat about how we can use technology to make things better, and he brands himself ‘a technological optimist’.

If there’s a technological evangelist in your office who thinks that Apps can solve all of the world’s problems (I know several), then this book provides a good and balanced education about the double-edged sword of technology, and our uncertain future.

Our future needs science, and sensible zero-carbon policy with things like GM crops and nuclear energy to make it better, and it’s great to see academics engaging clearly and accessibly on topics like these.

Rating: 4/5

3. The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World — Tom Chivers (Audiobook, 5 hours at 1.5x)

Artificial intelligence is rapidly gaining public attention as businesses and governments use machine learning algorithms to adapt and improve their operations. Google, Netflix, and Spotify use masses of data and machine learning (ML) systems to sort through large volumes of data and tailor services to individuals, and AI is improving things like diabetic eye screening and early detection of breast cancer.

But over the long-run, how powerful could AI become? Tom Chivers speaks to some of the rationalist community thinking about this question. His book heavily parrots Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, and Yudkowsky’s sequences (AI to Zombies is reviewed below). I found both of those fairly readable, but if you want an easier starting point, then it’s an accessible intro.

Rating: 3/5

4. Strangers Drowning : Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity — Larissa Macfarquhar (Kindle edition, 338 pages, 4 hours)

Macfarquhar is a New York Times journalist who has interviewed and researched the lives of people seeking to do the most good they possibly can. It is a deeply touching book, listening to their stories, and how these often remote individuals felt a overwhelming desire to help others.

We learn about a monk with a gift for helping the suicidal, an environmentalist who decides to give his money away and live on the street, a doctor who single-handedly sets up a leper colony, and several others. The book has many intense stories: abuse, death, and things which push humans to and beyond their limits, so be warned for a challenging read.

As I read through Strangers Drowning, I made about 30 annotations on my Kindle — so much of it rang true to me. Having read more of people like Peter Singer, and hung out with the effective altruism crowd, I’ve thought more about the injustice of global inequality, the outrage of factory farming, the climate emergency, and other global problems. There is always more to do. And a life of rolexes and sports cars just doesn’t seem right given the world outside.

Macfarquhar’s take is profoundly moving, and I was in tears and joy as I read these stories of other individuals, tenderly working in their own way, and trying to live up to their own demanding expectations. Her stories include successes and failures, and lessons about how the most effective people were those who patient, strategic, and who looked after themselves. (Take note fellow activists.)

Rating: 5/5 (my top book of 2019)

5. The Map and the Territory (Rationality: From AI to Zombies)—Eliezer Yudkowsky (Paperback, 231 pages, ~5 hours)

Eliezer Yudkowsky is at the centre of the rationalist community, writing and thinking about artificial intelligence and human reasoning from before 2007. He is cited in Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and his reasoning and books are popular among AI researchers. Although better-than AI goes conceptually back to at least I. J. Good in 1966.

The Map and the Territory is the first book from his 2400-page magnum opus, Rationality: From AI to Zombies. The whole text surveys evolutionary biology, psychology, the philosophy of language, and quantum physics, among many others. The first book reminded me of Thinking Fast and Slow, a more popular book going through Kahneman and Tsversky’s work on biases in economic decision-making. Yudkowsky’s book is written in a breezier tone, the bite-size chapters of 2–7 pages whip through a sequence of ideas much quicker than TFaS.

I found The Map and the Territory engrossing. It is clear to me that my own brain thinks consistently incorrectly. As individuals (and societies) we assemble these mental models (rules, stories, myths) about how the world works, but often the models are wrong. And if the model is wrong, then you’re not going to be able to navigate through the world and achieve the outcomes you want. So sharpening up the correspondence between your mental map and reality is worthwhile task. And this the goal throughout the series: passing through the availability heuristic, belief as social attire, and evidence and updating of our beliefs.

I certainly raise an eyebrow at Yudkowsky, an autodidact, who writes at times with an extremely condescending tone and who makes some unusual claims. But I thought this book was more original and coherent than Ready Player One and The AI Does Not Hate You, which both have garnered wide acclaim, despite being quite mediocre.

I think Yudkowsky can say some unwise things, and that his writing would benefit from professional editing, but his thinking is moreish and I plan to read more of the sequences. The individual chapters from the book and full series are also available here if you wanted to dip your toe in.

Rating: 3/5

(Note: I tried the audiobook and hated the smugness of the narrator, plus found listening to it hard to follow. I fancied a paper copy that I could reread slowly, highlight and make notes on).

6. The Climate Crisis as an Existential Threat with Simon Beard and Haydn Bellfield — Future of Life Institute (Podcast, 1 hour, listened to twice at 1x)

Lots of politicians are describing climate change as an existential threat. Extinction Rebellion seem to be concerned that climate change and an ecological breakdown will lead to human extinction. But will it actually?

The answer is that scientists don’t know. Climate change is complicated, and while we know all we need to know to drastically reduce emissions to net zero, we have a limited understanding of feedback and cascading effects of climate change. If we can model and research those, then we can start to develop strategies (e.g. around conservation, water management). If it turns out that >5C of warming would be catastrophic on a level not previously captured in our models, then a strong evidence base could help push hard for global governance of climate on climate change.

There’s some bad science out there, for example Jem Bendall’s unpublishable Deep Adaption blogpost, and a need for researchers to actually work out what plausible scenarios there are. Simon Beard and Haydn Bellfield of CSER (mentioned above in On the Future) discuss these points in a great interview.

Books I tried and actively decided not to continue:
  • This is Not a Drill by Extinction Rebellion — patchily written, aggressive, unscientific, and without policy direction.
  • Algorithms to Live by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths — just felt very dry, and I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe I’ll come back to it another day.
Other books I’m interested in reading
  • Margaret Atwood—Handmaid's Tale
  • States and Markets — Susan Strange
  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—Shoshana Zuboff
  • Island—Aldous Huxley
  • Open to recommendations!

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