My Internet Mea Culpa


I’m sorry I was wrong. We all were.*

Last night, as I was falling asleep after a lovely Christmas, a thought popped into my head. I was thinking how lovely the holiday had been, and part of that was because I’d not been on the internet most of the day. Furthermore, most people hadn’t been on the internet all day. And it really made for a better day. I had recently lost an eBay auction on a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog — I’ve been thinking about how influential it was, and realized copies were still relatively affordable and it’d be fun to add a few issues to my old magazines collection.

These two lines of thinking merged together, and I wondered something to myself. And as I was going to sleep at the new-parent hour of 8:30 PM, I tweeted that thought:

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Superintelligence and Public Opinion


In which I survey the public — perhaps for the first time — about their appetite for risk and the pursuit of superintelligence.

Throughout 2017, I have been running polls on the public’s appetite for risk regarding the pursuit of superintelligence. I’ve been running these on Surveymonkey, paying for audiences so as to minimize distortions in the data. I’ve spent nearly $10,000 on this project. I did this in about the most scientific way I could. It is not a “passed around” survey, but rather paid polling across the entire American spectrum.

All in all, America can perhaps be best characterized as excited about the prospect of a superintelligence explosion, but also deeply afraid, skeptical, and adamantly opposed to the idea that we should plow forth without any regulation or plan. This is, it seems to me, exactly what is happening right now.

You can view the entire dataset here. I welcome any comments. I’m not a statistician, don’t have a research assistant, and have a full-time job, so my ability to proof-read and double-check things is limited (though I have tried). If you have comments, you can tweet at me @rickwebb.


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Enough with the “Fake News is Hard” BS


I swear. If Silicon Valley had to invent a ball point pen, they’d say “it’s just really hard getting the ink to flow smoothly and at a consistent rate out of the pen. You don’t understand how hard it is.” They seem to be under the impression that anything not invented in Silicon Valley does not exist. They also seem to be under the impression that we haven’t been dealing with the nuisance of fake news for hundreds of years.

I am going to say this up front, because I have friends working on these problems: no one is saying the technical challenges to perfectly arbitrating truth and fiction are easy. I am not saying that. And there are good people — at Facebook and elsewhere — who are working very hard on this problem. I believe, however, that management is tying their hands, because they are only looking at a single solution set, and ignoring history. And, I believe, humans don’t expect perfect arbitration. What they expect are openness, context, and labeling, along with the neutering of even the most blatant, clear-cut cases of lying.

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I’m Sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, But You Are Wrong



It is heartening to see you begin to grapple with your role in the election. We are all doing the same. And like us, you are going through multiple stages of grief, each with its own set of cognitive biases. If Buster Benson’s handy cheat sheet is to be believed, you are going through a modest version of the “blame others” heuristic. Or, at least, its benevolent cousin, “It’s not my fault.”

(To be fair, in re-reading your post, I notice you didn’t ever come out and say Facebook didn’t deserve part of the blame. Like I said, people tell me you’re a good guy. I suspect you know that Facebook does bear some responsibility after all.)

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An open letter to Paul Graham


image wikimedia foundation

Dr. Mr Graham:

You’re a smart man. I would love to read a revised essay from you on income inequality that takes into account four facts you seem to have failed to include in your analysis of the situation:

  1. Literally no one in America, save for a very few on the fringe, is talking about “eliminating income inequality.” People are seeking to and talking about reducing income inequality. No one believes that there should not be rich people. They do not want to “kill” you, literally or metaphorically.
  2. What people are talking about is a progressive income tax to reduce inequality. Amazingly, your essay on inequality only uses the word “tax” in the body of the essay a single time. If a billionaire is taxed 80% on the year he or she earns that billion, they will still be worth $200 million. And they are still free to start businesses and pursue wealth. They are still rich. They have not been “hunted” or “killed.” The crux of your argument — that “Ending economic inequality would mean ending startups” — is both a straw man (no one’s advocating eliminating income inequality completely) and untrue (people can still pursue whatever they want — they just have to pay more taxes on it.) No one wants to take the money you have away. You could still pursue being rich, and, indeed, you could still get rich. I don’t know TONS about your wealth levels, but if I extrapolate them from my own, and the successes you’ve had, I am willing to wager a large amount of money that in the world these people (including myself) envision, you would still be very, very rich.
  3. People want to take that money from the taxes and provide services so that everyone in America can get the same public services that — to extend your example — Larry Page got growing up in East Lansing, Michigan. You are partially correct when you say that “It’s not economic inequality per se that’s blocking social mobility, but some specific combination of things that go wrong when kids grow up sufficiently poor.” The “specific combination” is no mystery. For many of them, it’s that they also live in areas that are poor, and have low tax bases, and cannot provide the education and services at the same level as rich neighborhoods. So by taxing the wealthy and spending it on services, we can better ensure that the level playing field you allude to continues to exist.
  4. The pie metaphor you speak of is not crazy. There are different ways of looking at the “pie:” National income accounts (growing), money supply/purchasing (the money supply’s gone up, sure, and the value of money is relatively stable,) and the GDP-based purchasing power parity. So by one measure — the one you are presumably speaking of — the pie is growing. By a GDP measure, however, it is growing less and less every year. We haven’t had 5% GDP growth in over a decade. It’s been over 30 years since it hit 10%. Most economists believe that high-level GDP growth is a thing of the past, and we’re looking at 2–3% growth from here on out. So, by this completely rational view of the “pie,” it is, in fact, trending towards a zero sum game. This is not an irrational view.
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