RE: Yudkowsky's AI (again)

Lyle Burkhead (
Sun, 4 Apr 1999 20:24:17 -0700

On your web site, you say

> The ultimate object, remember, is for runaway positive feedback
> to take over and give birth to something transhuman

In general I agree with that, except
(1) It doesn't have to be "runaway" -- it will proceed at its own pace,
whatever that is.
(2) I think in terms of IA instead of AI. The seed is within us. I am creating an environment around myself that fosters a positive feedback mechanism in my own mind (and body), which will lead to something -- "transhuman," maybe, although I'm increasingly uncomfortable with such words. I just think of it as clear thought and perfect health.

I also have other aims, such as wiping hip-hop off the face of the earth, but I don't imagine Extropians could relate to that.

You and I have such different vocabularies that it would take a very long time to establish communication. I don't get my philosophical vocabulary from Hofstadter and Vinge. I thought you would understand my reference to the ur-meme immediately. Do you understand how Judaism works as a meme? Have you read Everett Fox's translation of the Torah? or Aryeh Kaplan's translation of Sefer Yetzirah? or Isaiah, in any translation? or "The Art of Biblical Poetry" by Robert Alter? I guess you don't think that sort of thing is worth bothering with. Not to mention Frege, Wittgenstein, Austin, Goedel (his own papers, not filtered through GEB), Rene Thom, and all the other stuff I read. I read a lot of math -- not Hofstadter's self-reflective stuff, but plain old math. And plain old science -- I subscribe to Nature and read it every week; it would never occur to me to subscribe to a science fiction magazine, or to make science fiction the center of my thought. And plain old history, and plain old fiction and poetry (Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Keats, Goethe, Rilke, etc). We have both read Dawkins, but the "meme" meme by itself is not enough to establish a common ground for discussion of ultimate goals and how to get there.

Nevertheless there is a deep resonance here. As I read your web site, I get an eerie sense of deja vu. I feel like I am reading my own notebooks from a decade ago. At that time I still believed in AI. I wanted to create a new kind of entity, not exactly a religion, not exactly a business, not exactly a school, but a combination of all three -- a network of schools and businesses that would make money not for its own sake but with the aim of creating the Singularity. (I actually used that word for a while, after going to a Terence McKenna seminar at Esalen in 1988). The whole thing was going to be organized as a corporation called Recursive Systems. For various reasons nothing ever came of this. I guess the main obstacle was that I was uncomfortable with the messianic pretensions involved.

There are three ways to get people to write checks:

  1. Define your project as research in computer science, with potential military applications. Explain it in terms that make sense to agencies such as NSF and DOD (or their equivalents in some other country).
  2. Define your project as a business. Break it down into steps, in such a way that each step is profitable in its own right. Do the same thing with your AI system that Stephen Wolfram did with Mathematica, or John Walker did with AutoCad, or Bill Gates did with MS-DOS. It is still possible to start from scratch and make billions of dollars in the software industry. Someone will have the same dominant position in robotic software that Bill Gates has in PC software. (This is what I meant the other day when I said you wouldn't have to worry about money if you spent your time writing software instead of reading the list.)
  3. Define your project in religious terms, in such a way that people care about it and want to see it happen. Call it Singularitarianism, or some such ism. Or just say you are going to create the Messiah, or be the Messiah. A lot of people will believe this and write checks, if you have the stomach for it. It is still possible to make money with cults. I see living proof of this every day -- I live across the street (diagonally) from the Scientology Celebrity Center. The money pours in. There are also a lot of preachers making a ton of money off the coming Apocalypse. But I don't think anybody has pursued this from a specifically Jewish angle. A lot of Jews here in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) expect the Messiah to appear any day. The opportunity is there, for whoever wants it. I don't. If the first one didn't come back to life after they crucified him, I don't imagine my prospects would be any better.

I think path #2 is the wisest choice.

I'm not going to be writing checks for the Elisson Project, because, as I explained in geniebusters, I think the whole thing is based on a fallacy. To say that computing power is doubling every n years is at most a half-truth. The number of transistors on a chip is doubling, and the clock speed is doubling, but that doesn't imply that intelligence is doubling. It doesn't imply that there is going to be a Singularity. It wouldn't surprise me if, a decade from now, you write something like geniebusters, in which you describe how it gradually (or perhaps suddenly) dawned on you that you plus the software you create will always understand philosophy better than the software by itself. It should be an interesting paper -- maybe better than geniebusters, which is certainly not the last word on the subject.