onsdag 17 januari 2018

Two excellent contemporary writers

Two of my favorite contemporary writers, operating however in very different genres, are Ted Chiang and Scott Alexander:
  • Ted Chiang is a science fiction writer specializing in short stories. When I read his collection Stories of Your Life and Others I said to myself "wow, this guy is almost better than Greg Egan" (but let me withhold final judgement on that comparison). The book opens with Tower of Babylon, which explores a beautiful alternative cosmology more in line with what people believed in ancient times, and continues with Understand, which, albeit lacking somewhat in realism, gives what is probably the best account I've read on what it might be like to attain superintelligence - an impossible topic, yet important in view of possible future transhumanistic developments. Among the other stories in the book is the title one, Story of Your Life, which was later adapted to the Hollywood movie Arrival; I recommend both reading the story and seeing the movie (the plots diverge somewhat in interesting respects) and then listening to the podcast Very Bad Wizards discussing them.

  • Scott Alexander blogs about science, philosophy, future technologies and related topics. He often penetrates quite deeply into his chosen topic, and his posts are often longish to very long. Several of his blog posts have influenced me significantly, such as...
Excellence is writing may however be more or less genre-specific; I suspect that most good authors of university-level mathematics textbooks suck as poets, and vice versa. Another example is that when last month Ted Chiang tried his luck at writing an essay on AI futurology with the title Silicon Valley is Turning into its Own Worst Fear, his brilliance does not shine through. The gist of Chiang's argument is that superintelligent AI and capitalism are similar in that they both relentlessly optimize for something that is not entirely well-aligned with human well-being, and that since superintelligent AI does not at present exist while capitalism does, only capitalism poses a real danger. This last conclusion is a non sequitur.

And now, finally... get ready for my excuse for discussing Chiang and Alexander in the same blog post! Scott Alexander's blog post Maybe the Real Superintelligent AI is Extremely Smart Computers from earlier this week is a masterful exposition of the errors in Chiang's arguments. When I first saw Chiang's essay, I saw mostly the same errors that Alexander saw, but would never have been able to explain them quite as pedagogically as he does. Do read it (Alexander's blog post, that is), as I have nothing to add to it.

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