Friday, December 25, 2009

SIAI Matching Challenge: Choose Your Own Research Project

Between now and 28 Feb. 2010, SIAI is offering a matching-funds challenge up to $100,000. Intriguingly, donors can choose particular grant proposals to fund -- including, e.g., papers on the following topics:
In addition, the page explains that donors contributing at least $1K can contact Anna Salamon to discuss the possibility of a new research topic. So, utilitarians: If you're interested in donating and have a project in mind, do contact Anna and see what can be done. SIAI might, for instance, fund an exploration of the types of suffering computations we decide to care about. Or perhaps a paper assimilating research on some aspect of mathematics, physics, computer science, economics, psychology, or cognitive science that is crucially important to know about when trying to reduce large-scale suffering.

Each paper has an associated expected cost figure, like this one for the anthropics article:
Total budget: $5,960, including:
  • Conference fees, air travel, motel: $1,400
  • Costs for researcher time: $4,560
How research costs are estimated:
  • Person-months for research and writing: 1.9 (obtained by taking our standard estimate[1] of 1.25 person-months per conference paper and multiplying by 1.5, since this paper requires thinking through and aggregating many different topics).
  • Dollars required to support one skilled full time researcher-month[2]: $2,400

Excellent Introduction to SIAI

I quite enjoyed Anna Salamon's talk, "Shaping the Intelligence Explosion," from the Singularity Summit 2009. Unlike many futurist speakers and authors, Salamon presented basic statements about what motivates the Singularity Institute (SIAI) in a fashion free from a lot of the unecessary transhumanist baggage (pet concerns like life extension or multiple-universe hypotheses) that can turn away people from other backgrounds who fundamentally care no less about these issues.

Salamon presented (~1:17 in the video) "Four Key Claims":
1. Intelligence can radically transform the world.
2. An intelligence explosion may be sudden.
3. An uncontrolled intelligence explosion would kill us and destroy practically everything we care about.
4. A controlled intelligence explosion could save us, and protect practically everything else we care about. It is difficult, but worth the attempt.
I'm personally rather skeptical that an intelligence explosion will ever occur -- indeed, I may assign the scenario a very low probability. On the other hand, if one did occur, the magnitude of its impact on our region of the cosmos would be so profound that I think focusing our efforts preparing for such possibilities has high expected value. (Think about why you wear a seat belt the next time you drive to your friend's house down the street.) I liked the way Salamon explained SIAI's core mission as something that almost anyone, even skeptics like me, ought to care about -- not just computer geeks and sci-fi aficionados. (As far as the potential plausibility of intelligence explosion itself, I do think the discussion around 18:00 of whole-brain emulation and the Hansonian takeoff scenario was well done.)

Of course, SIAI is fundamentally an academic organization, and most of its research is highly valuable whether or not an "intelligence explosion" ever occurs. Indeed, I encourage donations to SIAI mainly to fund projects that will help us better understand how to reduce massive amounts of suffering in our multiverse. SIAI explores fundamental questions about physics, Bayesian statistics, anthropics, decision theory, infinitarian consequentialism, consciousness, and cognitive science need to be studied regardless of what happens with AI.

Finally, readers may be interested in this other post on SIAI's matching-grant challenge, in which donors can choose their own research projects to support.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Procrastination: "Being in the Mood"

Feeling Good by David Burns has a nice discussion of why people procrastinate. I particularly enjoyed this piece of advice:
Motivation does not come first, action does! You have to prime the pump. Then you will begin to get motivated, and the fluids will flow spontaneously. [...] Individuals who procrastinate frequently confuse motivation and action. You foolishly wait until you feel in the mood to do something. Since you don't feel like doing it, you automatically put it off. (qtd. in Bonnie Runyan McCullough, Totally Organized: The Bonnie McCullough Way, p. 52)
I proffer some additional notes. They're all pretty obvious, but I find that I benefit from reminding myself of them frequently.
  • Decide on goals and tasks; then act. The point of avoiding procrastination is to get important things done. This requires that you know (1) what you consider important (your objective function) and (2) how best to achieve your goals (what your tasks are). Decide those first; then use Burns's anti-procrastination technique to do the highest-value tasks.
  • Update your to-do list over time. There's no need expending willpower to accomplish unimportant tasks, even if they're included on a to-do list. As you learn more and as priorities change, update the ordering of the to-do list. Drop old tasks that you once found important but now do not.
  • Don't "save work for later" unless you're sure you'll get it done later. This is the old "never do tomorrow what you can do today" maxim. There are times when I'm tempted to put off a high-value task for later (like checking emails) because I know it'll be fun. This is sometimes a good idea, but not if it causes a backlog of tasks to build up over time. Then finishing them all becomes a chore. And in general, I've found "there's plenty more where that came from," i.e., I can pretty much always find some high-value task for which I'm in the mood, and I don't need to save particular fun tasks for that purpose.
  • Avoiding procrastination allows for more time when you don't need to override your mood. In many cases, if there's no hard deadline or stark difference in productivity value between several actions, you ought to do the one that you most want to do, knowing that you'll probably want to do others later on. And if not, you can expend some willpower to get yourself started on them at a later point. Such is the luxury afforded by not being late in finishing time-sensitive tasks: You don't need to constantly expend willpower in forcing yourself to do the next put-out-the-fire item on your list.