Comments on “Radical progress without Scary AI”

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bullshit radar pinging

kabs 2023-02-28

“Some individual scientists and networks of scientists contribute dramatically more than others. Why? I believe we can discover and understand what great scientists do differently from mediocre ones.

How can we do more of that? I believe we can teach it.

What support environments lead to great science? How are new fields born, how do they get old, sick, or die, and how can they be revivified?

All these are under-studied research questions. Preliminary investigation suggests that better understanding may lead to better outcomes.”

I’m not in the industry but these seem like really obvious things to be researching. So people are probably already doing it. I don’t like AI, but I dont think bs is gonna help here

Is it bs though?

Pattern 2023-03-08

“I’m not in the industry but these seem like really obvious things to be researching. So people are probably already doing it.”

‘Under-studied’ implies it a) could be studied more (fact claim), not that it isn’t being studied at all, or b) It’s being studied, but it should be studied more (normative claim).

Additionally, the subject of funding often comes up around research. Maybe it’s obvious to researchers this should be studied more, but funders are under-valuing today. Maybe science doesn’t have as much funding today. I haven’t looked into this, but researching whether the claim (‘these are under-studied research questions’) is true, might show that it isn’t bs. I’m not David Chapman, and I don’t have as much experience with academia (I don’t have a p.h.d.), so I’ve considered the possibility that the claim might be true.

My initial guesses are: a) that this might be a hard object to study, and also b) it can take a while for new fields to form, relative to ‘this seems obvious’: This article is about recent work in clock thermodynamics: It’s surprising that this didn’t come up sooner, but the problem is it a bit more complicated than is obvious (for comparison, general relativity was theorized about a 100 years ago, and quantum stuff has come a ways in that time).

The traps of techno-determinism and reductionism

Danyl Strype 2024-01-23

Most people do not viscerally believe that any further progress is possible. That disbelief, that unwarranted pessimism, is a major impediment to progress itself.

The late David Graeber wrote about this a decade ago and is worth quoting at length;

“For earlier generations, many science fiction fantasies had been brought into being. Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?

In fact, even as those dreams were being outlined, the material base for their achievement was beginning to be whittled away. There is reason to believe that even by the fifties and sixties, the pace of technological innovation was slowing down from the heady pace of the first half of the century. There was a last spate in the fifties when microwave ovens (1954), the Pill (1957), and lasers (1958) all appeared in rapid succession. But since then, technological advances have taken the form of clever new ways of combining existing technologies (as in the space race) and new ways of putting existing technologies to consumer use (the most famous example is television, invented in 1926, but mass produced only after the war.) Yet, in part because the space race gave everyone the impression that remarkable advances were happening, the popular impression during the sixties was that the pace of technological change was speeding up in terrifying, uncontrollable ways.”

I think this can be extrapolated to help us grok contemporary attitudes.

Like the space race in the 60s, the mainstreaming of the net and the digitisation of everything has given techno-utopians the impression that the pace of technological progress has been accelerating. Just about everyone else, seeing that the opposite has been true for decades as Graeber says, and trapped in the postmodern Swamps of Sadness, has fallen into techno-pessimism.

These are two sides of the same techno-determinist coin. I agree with what you’ve said elsewhere, that progress (in technology and elsewhere) is possible but not inevitable. Achieving it is not guaranteed and will require significant effort.

I believe a better understanding of how science gets done well, and why that works, should give us insight into how to accelerate it. (This is the engineering attitude!)

You may be right about this and I agree that it’s worth a try. But here be dragons!

Reductionist ideology posits that anyything can reproduced by breaking it down into its constituent parts and studying the chains of causation that link them into a whole. Then reproducing all the parts and putting them back together. This universalism is obviously wrong, just try reproducing a human that way : P

I think it’s possible to gain a deep understanding of how past scientific progress was achieved without being able to reproduce it. For example, when part of the answer is ‘with abundant, cheap fossil fuels’. Or to come up with metasystematic ways of reproducing the conditions for doing good science, without a mechanistic understanding of how past breakthroughs were achieved.

Non-AI Free Code software aiding scientists

Danyl Strype 2024-01-24

Here’s an example of advanced software aiding scientists without AI;

Note that full source code for the software is available under a free license (ie Open Source), to aid anyone trying to reproduce or build on the research. Something that’s much harder, if not impossible, when black box AI is used.

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