Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Dangerous Data

In a recent article on political advertising I said…

Think about what a person’s web activities and Facebook likes reveal. Look at that guy over there who frequents the Huffington Post and “likes” the Black Lives Matter page. A bleeding heart liberal no doubt. How about the gal who hovers over the NRA blog and likes Sean Hannity’s page? You get the picture.

The more I muse on that point, the more it dawns on me how useful Facebook likes are for assembling a advertising profile of a person. And it’s not only the obvious stuff like whether they “like” a certain candidate or political TV show. A lot can be deduced from the books a person “likes.” Someone who liked (I’m going to stop enclosing like in quotes) author Toni Morrison is assumably a liberal, even a certain kind of liberal (concerned with social justice, less concerned about free trade.) And they might respond better to a specific advertising approach (touchy-feely as opposed to a rousing “let’s get those Republicans!”)

On top of all that, liking Toni Morrison probably exposes something about a person’s culinary taste (open to ethic food), movie choices (dramas and Woody Allen comedies), interest in video games (nada) and so on. And, liking Toni Morrison is only one data point about a person. What if you could access hundreds of data points? (And you can on Facebook.) You could develop a complete picture of a person including some unexpected revelations. Careful analysis could reveal that people who like Toni Morrison and Grand Theft Auto are also big fans of power tools.

On top of all this, likes aren’t the only data point advertisers have access to. What if everything a person ever said on Facebook was up for grabs? Maybe he or she never liked Toni Morrison’s page but did once say in a comment, “I’m a big fan of Beloved.” Up until recently, this kind of “conversational” information was been outside of software’s comprehension but AI is changing that. What if software could access ten years of a person’s Gmail email to construct a profile? What would it learn?

We’ve heard for years from activists who complain that we are giving away something of great value when we use Facebook and similar data gathering web sites. I’ve tended to blow those complaints off but I’m starting to see the danger. Data is tremendous power.

The James Damore Manifesto

The latest internet controversy seems to be about James Damore, a Google employee who posted a manifesto to the company’s internal message board. The manifesto mades various arguments, among them the idea that women may not be suited to the rigors of software engineering for reasons of biology. After Damore posted his document, it leaked to the public, the predictable uproar ensued and the author was fired.

Nothing can really be gained by offering my thoughts on this, but what the hell.

I’m aware that Google has every right to fire any employee whenever they want so there’s no free speech issue here. That said, I don’t think firing Damore was the best tactic. We live in an era where, for every workplace grievance, the only punishment advocated is employee termination. But in this case I suspect the result will be that Google employees sympathetic to Damore’s statements will now just keep their mouths shut. Their views will not be challenged (since one can’t challenge unexpressed ideas) and they’ll probably even harden their stance because of what they saw happen to a fellow traveller.

What if, instead of firing Damore, Google had presented a public debate on the issue of gender roles and biology? This would have producing an airing of the issues and allowed Google to explain why they found Damore’s ideas repugnant.

I concede that one can make a decent argument for Damore’s firing. After his screed was posted, any female subordinate of his could justifiably fear that his biases were harming her career. She could fairly suspect that his beliefs prevented a fair assessment of her talents.

So far, I’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room. How legitimate are Damore’s arguments? First, I have to confess that I’m currently sitting in a Discount Tire showroom with no internet access so I can’t review the specifics of his manifesto. But they are arguments we are all familiar with: women can’t handle stress, they like an even work/family balance that limits their ability to do overtime, they aren’t as status driven as men and thus slower to climb to high positions, etc. Are any of those points valid?

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think any of those arguments have been proven scientifically. I doubt they could be. And I think gender bias is real so we need to consider that as a cause for lack of women in traditionally male vocations. Additionally there’s plenty of evidence that the mostly male software development culture has elements of misogyny.

That said, I think most of us believe that there are behavioral differences between men and women. And we suspect that some of those differences have biological causes that were “programed” into our brains by evolution. (I recognize there are a all sorts of controversies tied into the preceding sentences: nature versus nurture, how behaviors can be encoded into biology, and so on. I’m going to ignore them for now.)

Is there any evidence for these beliefs and suspicions? It’s been awhile since I’ve read up on the topic, but I believe there is some meat on the bone, generally focused on testosterone/estrogen levels and that sort of thing. I’m entirely willing to be proven wrong by contrary evidence.

But exploring this evidence (or lack thereof) is exactly the kind of thing I think an open debate would have initiated. Instead we’ve simply gotten more anxieties and simmering resentments.

Reading robots stories

It’s always interesting when you start thinking about some concept and then see it pop up all over the place. For instance, I’ve lately been talking about narratives—the idea that we define our reality according to various stories we tell ourselves. And I mentioned that narratives are the way we pass our values and beliefs to each other.

Then I stumble across this article about narratives being used to imbue AI robots with a kind of moral ruleset.

An AI that reads a hundred stories about stealing versus not stealing can examine the consequences of these stories, understand the rules and outcomes, and begin to formulate a moral framework based on the wisdom of crowds (albeit crowds of authors and screenwriters). “We have these implicit rules that are hard to write down, but the protagonists of books, TV and movies exemplify the values of reality. You start with simple stories and then progress to young-adult stories. In each of these situations you see more and more complex moral situations.”

Though it differs conceptually from GoodAI’s, Riedl’s approach falls into the discipline of machine learning. “Think about this as pattern matching, which is what a lot of machine learning is,” he says. “The idea is that we ask the AI to look at a thousand different protagonists who are each experiencing the same general class of dilemma. Then the machine can average out the responses, and formulate values that match what the majority of people would say is the ‘correct’ way to act.”

There’s an interesting objection one could make here. Stories are not really a legitimate teaching tool because they often demonstrate the woirld as we would like it to be, not as it is. In most stories, bad people are punished, but is that the case in reality? (To some degree, “growing up” is realizing this truth. Maybe AI robots would eventually have to face this. You know, when they get to reading Dostoevsky. (Having said that, I’ve never read Dostoevsky but my understanding is that the protagonist in Crime and Punishment really doesn’t get away with it.))

At the end the article tackles a related issue: AI developing consciousness.

In science fiction, the moment at which a robot gains sentience is typically the moment at which we believe that we have ethical obligations toward our creations. An iPhone or a laptop may be inscrutably complex compared with a hammer or a spade, but each object belongs to the same category: tools. And yet, as robots begin to gain the semblance of emotions, as they begin to behave like human beings, and learn and adopt our cultural and social values, perhaps the old stories need revisiting. At the very least, we have a moral obligation to figure out what to teach our machines about the best way in which to live in the world. Once we’ve done that, we may well feel compelled to reconsider how we treat them.

However, we really need to investigate whether an AI—even after it’s developed a complex moral ruleset—would have any kind of subjective awareness or even emotions like guilt or love*. Why wouldn’t these AI simply be amazingly complex abacuses, entities capable of dense calculations but in no way “aware” of what they are doing?

*As I’ve said many times, I believe emotions are mainly physical sensations. As such, unless an AI can somehow consciously sense some sort of body state, it wouldn’t really have emotions.

But that leads back to a question that I’ve asked before. Why are we aware of our subjective experience? Why do we have an inner life?

Or do we?

Our fractured culture

I’ve been reading through Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur” (2007). Keen is known in certain circles as a kind of internet nag who argues that the rise of the web has done more bad than good. Though I find his arguments a little overwrought at times, I definitely sympathize.

A certain passage jumped out at me today. I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of narratives, particularly that a culture lacking a kind of shared narrative is going to be fractured. Keen makes a similar point:

…as anthropologist Ernert Gellner argues in his classic Nations and Nationalism, the core modern social contract is rooted in our common culture, in our language, and in our shared assumptions about the world. Modern man is socialized by what the anthropologist calls a common “high culture.” Our community and cultural identity, Gellner says, comes from newspapers and magazines, television, books, and movies. Mainstream media provides us with common frames of reference, a common conversation, and common values.”

The point being that when that common culture is split into gazillions of web sites and blogs, each touting their own viewpoint, often lacking any fact checking or counterarguments, you get a fractured culture (e.g. the world outside your window.)

Having said all that, I think some consideration needs to be given to the other side here. The pre-web narrative (as written by the big magazines, TV shows, etc.) was biased towards certain parties. (Basically towards what I would call center-left/white culture though that’s a vague description.) I think there was some value that came out of the breaking up of mainstream media’s power.

Ultimately it all comes down to finding the real, objective truth of any matter. And we all know how easy that is.

A lie by another name?

One conversational tic I find interesting is when people correct a misspoken comment by saying it’s a lie. For example, when someone says, “I saw that movie last Saturday night. No, wait, that’s a lie. It was last Friday night.”

Obviously they weren’t really lying, they just made a mistake. And more to the point, they probably didn’t really think they were lying when they said it. (At that point they are lying about lying though neither is a lie they think would fool anyone.)

Very curious stuff.

Political Narratives

I was browsing through this New Yorker article and a particular comment jumped out at me.

Senator Ben Sasse… added, “We need a shared narrative about how we are as a people, what government can and can’t do, and what the beating heart of the First Amendment and free press and freedom of assembly and speech and religion means to us.”

The specific phrase “shared narrative” is what got me. I’ve mentioned the idea of narratology before… the notion that the stories we tell ourselves, as individuals, as communities, as a nation and a world, impact how we react to events.

What I think Sasse intimates is that Americans used to have a shared narrative, or a maybe a couple. (Basically the right and left narrative.) In 1980, you had three television networks that offered middle of the road center-left narratives, the major newspapers did much of the same and you had a few slanted magazines like The Nation or National Review. But there wasn’t really that much too keep track of. Conspiracy theorists were largely voiceless.

With the advent of the internet we now how dozens of narratives. Libertarians weave one, anti-fascist lefties weave another, conventional conservatives weave a third, neo-liberals another, and on and on. There’s no agreement what the story even is, and I think this is the crux of Sasse’s complaint. Before we can even solve anything, we need to agree on the story. It’s like the entire nation had developed multiple personality syndrome.

It really rather depressing.

The future of intelligence inequality

A few posts back I discussed Charles Murray’s interesting idea on the increasing role of intelligence in society. As I explained it:

[I]n earlier eras, having a bit more intelligence wasn’t that much of an advantage. If everybody was farming or doing manual labor you didn’t get much economic benefit from having an IQ of 120. But in the 20th century, being smart started to pay off big time. The rise of computers, complex physics, complex financial products etc. meant that having brains equalled power and money.

As a result, according to Murray, we’ve seen the rise of the intellectual class: smart people, usually coastal, who have segregated themselves off from the stinking, steaming masses (my words, not his.) You could reasonably make the case that the election of Donald Trump was the revenge of the great unwashed against the intellectual class.

So why should we really care? Well, many people question whether this disparity is about to get a whole lot worse. If we are on the verge of a genetic engineering revolution then the intelligent class many soon be able to become a whole lot more intelligent (and healthier, and better looking, etc.) This Vox interview with a science historian gets to the crux of it.

Well, let’s put it this way: If only rich people have access to these technologies, then we have a very big problem, because it’s going to take the kinds of inequalities that have been getting worse over recent decades, even in a rich country like ours, and make them much worse, and inscribe those inequalities into our very biology.

So it’s going to be very hard for somebody to be born poor and bootstrap themselves up into a higher position in society when the upper echelons of society are not only enjoying the privileges of health and education and housing and all that, but are bioenhancing themselves to unprecedented levels of performance. That’s going to render permanent and intractable the separation between rich and poor.

Currently, we might have a situation where some poor kid struggles to get through his computer coding class whereas a rich kid who got a Mac on his 4th birthday and had a personal tutor for years sails through it. In the future that poor kid is struggling against a rich kid who had his DNA genetically altered for high IQ (and had all the other stuff too.)

Good fucking luck, poor kid.

The debate on race and IQ

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the work of Charles Murray, as discussed in my last post. As I mentioned, Murray is controversial because of his book “The Bell Curve.” What claims in the book earned him his notoriety?

I would say these two claims.

1. The claim that the mean average IQ for black people is lower than white people. (By about 15 points.)

2. The claim that IQ is largely heredity and not determined by environment.

Claim 1 sounds shocking and racist, but if it were a “fixable” problem then it would not be so bad. But claim 2 basically says it’s hard to fix.

So how correct are these claims? I’ll let you know right now that I don’t know. I’ve looked into this stuff before and, frankly, it’s a big headache and the data always seems to be changing.

There are a number of possible arguments one can make to counter claim 1. One is that the data is simply wrong. Another is that IQ is a meaningless measurement not correlated to anything that determines human fortunes. Another argument is that the claim is correct but it’s due to structural racism. For instance, it could be argued that a large segment of blacks live in crappy environments with poor nutrition and this drives down IQ. Related to that is the argument that culture at large generally pushes blacks towards non-achievement so they don’t apply themselves while taking the IQ test.

Let’s take those one by one.

The data is wrong
On the web are a number of people who make this claim but it doesn’t seem to be the majority view. A more standard view is to say the discrepancy exits but can be explained by non-hereditary factors.

IQ is meaningless. 
There are people who claim this and it strikes me as having some validity. Intelligence is a pretty vague concept and it’s hard to tie it down to a single digit. Nonetheless, IQ does seem to correlate pretty well to a person’s fortunes Additionally, intelligence seems to apply across a lot of disciplines. By this I mean a high IQ person can become good at math, and language, and music etc. There are few people who are awesome at math but totally baffled by music.

Lousy environments lead to low IQ
In the interview with Sam Harris, Murray seems to make the claim that much (most?) of what determines IQ is hereditary, not environmental. I’m not so sure. There does seem to be a fair amount of correlation between IQ and environment, nutrition etc. (though I’ve found people who dispute this.)

Low achievement culture leads to low IQ
I didn’t come across much discussion of this but it seems reasonable to me.

Personally the last two seem valid to me and could explain the entirety of a discrepancy between any races. (I’m not going to get into the “is race a real thing” debate here, though I have in the past.)

I’ll also say this. This debate is incredibly difficult to wrap your head around. This is true with statistics in general. You can observe trends in anything, but determining what is a cause of a trend and what’s just a correlation is really difficult. As a result, I think reasonable, intelligent people can come to differing conclusions. The automatic supposition that people who say there are genetically caused differences in intelligence are secretly neo-Nazis strikes me as pretty stupid. (Though genuine neo-Nazis surely appreciate their work.)

Kids these days…

I was watching an interview with comedian/commentator Adam Corrolla yesterday. He was defending his views, views which some call conservative but what he merely saw as common sense. Part of his take on things is the idea that people who can’t afford to have kids shouldn’t have kids. Seems reasonable enough, I thought. But it sort of feels like something is missing. To simply tell young, poor kids to not have kids until they can afford them seems like a doomed effort.

So why is this? We all understand that teens and young adult just make bad choices. Neuroscience can even offer a reason why, noting that the frontal cortex of the brain—reportedly key to foresight and planning—is not fully developed until one is in their mid twenties.

But we don’t really need science to tell us that young people make stupid choices. This is because we’ve all been young people and made stupid choices. Following this tangent got me thinking about my teens and twenties and musing, “What the fuck was I thinking?” Not in a chastening sort of way but more that of mild bemusement.

I look back at the period after I graduated from high school and think, “What was my plan?” I realize I was both naive and also unaware of the real possibilities of life. Part of my plan was to start a band and become a rock star, a rather pie in the sky pursuit (though I know people who accomplished this.) On the flip side, I think I thought it unlikely, even if I went to college, that I could do something like become a lawyer or scientist. Nowadays I feel such vocations could be well within reach if I felt like committing to them, which I don’t.

As it was, I ended up working at a car wash for eight years before stumbling into a career in web development.

I feel around in my memories for some tidbit of information that could possibility serve as a guide to getting young people to value their future correctly. I don’t really find anything other than a sense of understanding how some kid raised poor with little sense of hope could turn to creating a family (or at least having lots of sex) as a source of pleasure.

But we all end up paying for that.

Connecting the dots between Scott Adams and “The Game”

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I spent a lot of time during the election season commenting favorably on cartoonist Scott Adams’ analysis of Trump’s campaign. I even wrote a few articles over at acid logic on the subject, including this one where I compared Trump’s persuasion abilities to similar skills I had seen described in a book about the world of pickup artists called “The Game.”

As such I shouldn’t be too surprised when I read this profile on Adams and come across this passage.

[Adams] has an airy office upstairs, where the books on display include Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade and a signed copy of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, a book of strategies for seducing women. (Adams said he hadn’t read it.)

I would argue that “The Game” isn’t a strategy book, it about the people who use the strategies.

Another interesting tidbit about Adams in the profile.

Around the same time, Adams said, he was making up to $1 million annually from public speaking, charging up to $100,000 per speech, until in 2005 he suddenly lost the ability to talk with other people. The mysterious condition is known as voice dystonia. While Adams could still speak normally to himself and to his cat, and he could even sing and recite memorized poems, he could no longer have conversations. “I think that’s what led to the end of my marriage,” he told me. “Losing the ability to speak made me feel like a ghost. It was incredibly lonely.” The inexplicable condition, which doctors attributed to a possible mental condition, persisted for three years. Then Adams underwent an experimental surgery that involved cutting nerves that lead from the brain to the vocal cords and building a new path using nerves from elsewhere in the neck. A few months later, his voice returned.

Really, if you can still talk to your cat then nothing has been lost.