Valentines

Inspired by the Planet Money podcast, I’d like to celebrate Valentine’s Day by giving out some virtual valentines to things I’m especially glad are real things that exist.

Water Bears

Whether or not tardigrades, or “water bears,” can really survive quantum entanglement, they still have a lot going for them: they’re insanely tough and oddly charismatic. So I was absolutely delighted to discover a wholesome puzzle game based on rehydrating tardigrades that are in their dried-out hibernation-like “tun” state. The puzzles themselves are only fine, but Water Bears is totally worth playing just for the tardigrades. They even make cute alien-ish purring sounds. The only thing preventing this game from reaching a perfect 10/10 rating is that I can’t pet the tardigrades.

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

The ambitious title of this cookbook is, surprisingly, very nearly justified. You know how many recipes give long lists of highly specific ingredients, down to telling you what kind of salt to use or, heaven forbid, specifying that you need to use organic cranberries? This book is the antonym of that. Each recipe comes with several possible variations and notes about what you can change or substitute. If most recipe books treat cooking like following Ikea instructions, Bittman’s approach is more like teaching you how to paint or write programs: here’s the basic structure and technique, now go nuts. I’ve now made dozens of recipes from this book, and not only have I gotten a lot of delicious food, but I also think that working from this has made me a better cook. The vegetarian version is also excellent.

Effective Altruism: An Introduction podcast

Last year I discovered the 80,000 Hours podcast, which produces long, intense interviews with people working on how to do as much good as possible. Effective Altruism: An Introduction is a set of 10 episodes picked from the archive to help new listeners get up to speed with the most important ideas from the effective altruism community. I’ve found the quality and depth of the interviews in this series to be impressive, and learned about many fascinating questions and perspectives I’d never considered before. I’m glad that there are smart people thinking seriously about how to maximize the long-term welfare of humanity (and what doing so even means), and that I have the opportunity to learn from their insights.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

This is a collection of short stories about robots and free will. A full year after reading it, I still remember several of the stories in great detail, and think about them regularly. They’re the kind of stories I would have liked to be able to write, if I were an author.

Integrated Chinese textbooks

These textbooks are used by the Mandarin classes I’ve been taking at Berkeley, and the books are a large part of the reason why I’ve stuck with it so long (I’m currently in the fourth semester). When I took French in high school, I was well into my second year before I read an entire paragraph-long story rather than random disjointed sentences. In contrast, the Integrated Chinese books center each lesson around a dialogue or short narrative about a recurring cast of characters. The dialogues come with videos that land squarely in so-bad-it’s-good territory. The reading and listening exercises are frequently humorous, with characters gossiping, complaining, and telling each other off. New vocabulary and grammar is used regularly in subsequent lessons, helping memorization come naturally and creating a feeling of progression and growing empowerment as you gain the ability to understand more complicated topics. The textbooks are aimed at classroom use, but if anyone used similar ideas in an app targeting independent learners, I think it would be incredibly effective. Read the rest

A car-less person’s guide to hiking around Berkeley

Last week I was happy to have the opportunity to attend a research workshop on causality, hosted by the Simons Institute here at Berkeley. One of the other attendees asked for recommendations for things to do around the East Bay. Maybe because most of my time here has been under the influence of covid (but, honestly, I’m kind of just like this), I found myself rambling about different places I like to walk or hike around. Berkeley is a hiker’s paradise: hills overlooking the bay and San Francisco (with beautiful sunsets to boot), a huge diversity of plant life, and many miles of trails, all within 1.5 hours of the UC Berkeley campus on foot. I’d like to briefly mention a few of my favorite spots, just in case it’s useful to other students or visitors.

Tilden Park

Turtles in Jewel Lake

This is a hilly natural area to the northeast of the Berkeley campus with many hiking trails leading to great views, including Inspiration Point. There may be something to that name – I had an important (to me at least) research insight while walking around this area. When I mentioned this to a lab colleague, I learned that according to local legend, Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman was also very fond of hiking in Tilden as a way to develop his ideas. If the potential for Nobel-quality research ideas isn’t enticing enough, I’m happy to inform you that Tilden’s Jewel Lake is home to some extremely cute native turtles. As a last bonus, if you don’t mind being surrounded by toddlers, there’s even a place where you can ride around on a working scale model steam train. (I have done this as a grown adult and yes it was worth it.)

Fire trails and Siesta Valley

The Berkeley fire trails start directly next to campus, just to the east of the California Memorial Stadium, so you can get away from car traffic and go on an excellent hike right after finishing classes or meetings. Although technically the Fire Trail is one specific trail that provides access for fire-fighting equipment, I’m really referring to a collection of trails in this area that can be accessed by starting here. Some areas are quite steep, but once you gain some altitude, the beautiful views come frequently along almost any route you might pick. I could give directions to some of my favorite spots, but I think exploring is a large part of the fun. These trails boast an impressive diversity of scenery along just a few miles, from lush forests and views of campus and the bay, to more arid spots looking eastward over grassy areas and wildflowers.

Indian Rock Park

This tiny park is dominated by the titular rock, which towers over nearby houses and provides one of the most easily accessible scenic views of the bay. Although there are now stairs carved into it, the rock played an important role in the history of modern rock climbing, and people still go bouldering there. A small crowd of locals can be found there nearly every evening around sunset, but the view is well worth seeing at any time of day. The rock’s name probably comes from the acorn grinding pits carved into it by the indigenous Ohlone people. (The sunset image at the top of this post is from a path just south of the park).

Albany Bulb

Last but very much not least, the Albany Bulb is a vaguely bulb-shaped piece of land jutting into the San Francisco Bay north of the Berkeley Marina. It’s the site of a former landfill, closed almost 40 years ago, for construction debris. This may not sound like a promising location for a park, but nature has reclaimed the piles of broken concrete and twisted rebar to make something new and strangely beautiful. There are large trees twisted by the wind and vibrant wildflowers. Lizards sun themselves on the concrete, and ground squirrels burrow around it. And because this is Berkeley, local artists have helped the reclaiming process too, by turning the debris into a kind of indie open-air art gallery with a continuously changing rotation of things to discover. There aren’t any explanatory plaques or price tags or curators – only individual artists taking a place that might have been ruined or abandoned, and choosing to celebrate it instead. Whenever I visit the Bulb, I can’t help but feel hopeful that humanity can learn from our past mistakes. You couldn’t ask for a better metaphor for what we might achieve by working alongside the natural world that is our home, and by recognizing and growing from the past instead of attempting to bury it. Whether you buy into my waxing poetic or not, I can’t recommend this place enough.

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Curiosity in minds and machine learners

In the “classic” machine learning paradigm of supervised learning, there’s no role for curiosity. The goal of a supervised learning algorithm is simply to match a set of labels for a provided dataset as closely as possible. The task is clearly defined, and even if the algorithm was capable of wondering about the meaning of the data pouring into it, this wouldn’t help with the learning task at all.

For humans, on the other hand, curiosity seems to be an integral part of how we learn. Even before starting school, children are hard at work figuring out the world around them. They crave novelty and surprise, and delight in finding solutions to new challenges. Their choice of things to investigate or focus on is internally motivated: they target objects and skills that present just the right amount of challenge (too little is boring, too much is frustrating). Although adults might provide toys and encouragement, children seem to find exploring and gaining knowledge intrinsically rewarding. (This isn’t just limited to humans, either – for example, mice will endure an electric shock to explore a new environment.1) “Curiosity” is difficult to define precisely, but surely choosing to learn about something just for the sake of it gets at the heart of what it means to be curious.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that humans and machine learning algorithms learn in very different ways. However, unlike supervised learning, there seems to be a role for curiosity in reinforcement learning (RL). In RL, an algorithm (also called an agent) must choose actions in an attempt to reach some particular goal state, where it receives a reward that allows it to learn which actions are beneficial. For simple goals, an RL agent may be able to stumble upon a solution simply by choosing random actions until it receives a reward for the first time. However, this strategy doesn’t work so well if the task demands a precise sequence of actions. For example, when playing a video game, many hazards may need to be avoided before any points can be scored. 

In these cases, the RL agent has no idea what to do to reach the goal, and it might try random actions for years without success. However, the failures provide important information about what kinds of states don’t lead to a reward. This suggests a new strategy: systematically trying as many new things as possible, while keeping track of what has been tried so far. Various algorithms have been proposed to do this, and when implemented, the RL agent purposefully seeks out new situations, looking very much as if it is curious about its environment. One of these new situations will eventually be the goal, and the RL agent will successfully learn to complete the task.

The simplest way to make a “curious” RL agent is to have it try to predict what is going to happen next, and give it an “exploration bonus” when this prediction fails. Intuitively, the agent can make good predictions about situations it has encountered before, but not about novel ones. Therefore, it receives the exploration bonus for learning how to achieve new kinds of states. How well does this behavior reflect human-like curiosity? Well, the exploration bonus causes the agent to seek out novelty, just like a curious human. However, this version of curiosity seems strangely passive: anything that’s unpredictable is equally rewarding to the RL agent, and it has no concept of some kinds of novelty being more interesting or relevant than others. This turns out to be a very practical concern, because the RL agent will seek out any source of unpredictability in its environment, such as random TV static.

Several methods proposed in the last several years, such as Random Network Distillation (RND) and episodic curiosity, have solved the “TV static problem.” In fact, these kinds of approaches to exploration are so successful that they enabled RL agents to achieve superhuman performance on difficult Atari video games like Montezuma’s Revenge. However, they achieve this through algorithmic tricks that rule out randomness in the environment when calculating exploration bonuses. An RND agent still has no basis for deciding that some kinds of novelty are more important than others.2

This is important because, unlike in video games, the real world is incredibly complex. Predicting the consequence of every action, especially in the presence of active humans and a dynamic environment, is intractable. Humans deal with this in part by having relatively narrow interests and things that matter to us, either because they are extrinsically rewarding (e.g. income, food), or because we simply get curious about specific things. Exploration and play, especially in children, are almost certainly tied to overall learning, development, and gaining mastery in interacting with the world. But children learn actively; they choose their own problems to solve, mysteries to explore, and questions to try to find answers to. They introduce their own structure into a world that resists simple rules and explanations.

A related idea in machine learning is that of automatic curricula, where algorithms attempt to successively choose learning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult in an attempt to smooth the learning process. Similarly, in active learning3 algorithms seek out more information when they’re uncertain. But the truth is that we have very little idea why children (and humans in general) get curious about some things rather than others, even though this is probably crucial to how we learn to make sense of our highly complicated environments. Human curiosity has already proved a fruitful source of inspiration for machine learning; future insights from cognitive scientists about how and why we get curious are likely to propel further developments and even better algorithms.

A note of caution

As AI agents become more competent and have more influence over our lives, ensuring that their behavior is truly beneficial becomes increasingly important. Even when AI agents only optimize for a single human-provided objective, it has been well established that there could be serious unintended consequences (for example, since the AI has to be operational to complete its task, it’s incentivized to resist attempts to turn it off for almost any objective). From this view, the idea of AI agents actively exploring and choosing their own goals sounds especially risky.4 If this turns out to be helpful or even necessary for robust learning in complex environments, how could we ensure that the things an AI decides to attempt aren’t harmful? Learning more about how young children play and explore may help, but children have societal scaffolds (like being physically weaker than adults) that may not apply to robots and AI algorithms. Ensuring safety while supporting learning is an important topic for research. Read the rest

Life is amazing: Fish-eating bat (Myotis vivesi)

Two Myotis vivesi bats roosting in a rock crevice

Bats make up around one-fifth of all mammal species, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve adapted to just about every ecological niche you could think of. Even so, I think Myotis vivesi is something special. These little guys subsist almost entirely on seafood that they catch during long fishing expeditions on the open ocean. They have huge claws to grasp fish with, and long, stable wings that allow them to glide efficiently and carry heavy prey. During the day, they roost among the rocks and cliffs of islands in the Gulf of California. Since their land home is quite dry and they spend so much time at sea, they can even get by only on seawater! Given these traits (which sound more like they belong to a seabird than a bat), it’s maybe not so surprising that they can fly up to 50km out to sea in a single evening.1 They’re even comfortable floating on the water.

The fish-eating bat is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN due to its limited habitat, but fortunately the population seems to be stable, so these lovable weirdos should be able to keep doing their thing for the foreseeable future.

Look at those claws! Photo credit: ginnical (CC BY-NC license).

Header image: Myotis vivesi in a rock crevice on Isla San Ildefonso. Photo credit: Winifred Frick (CC BY-NC license). Read the rest

A common misconception about the Chinese Room Argument

The “Chinese Room Argument” is one of the most famous bits of philosophy among computer scientists. Until recently, I thought the argument went something like this: Imagine a room containing a person with no Chinese language proficiency and a very sophisticated book of rules. Occasionally, someone slides a piece of paper with a sentence in Chinese written on it under the door. The room’s inhabitant (let’s call them Clerk) uses the rulebook to look up each Chinese character and pick out the appropriate characters to form a response, which they slide back under the door. Clerk has no idea what the characters or the sentences they form mean, but with a sufficiently sophisticated rulebook, it would look to outside observers like Clerk was conversant in written Chinese. The conclusion of the argument was that even if we were to create an AI system that could pass a Turing test in Chinese (or any other language), that wouldn’t be sufficient to conclude that it actually understands Chinese. Understanding, here, means something like conscious awareness of what the Chinese characters mean and what is being said with them.

It turns out that this conclusion is quite different from what Searle, who originally proposed the Chinese Room thought experiment, intended.1 Searle wasn’t trying to argue that consciousness was difficult or impossible to detect in machines, he was arguing that it is impossible for a digital computer to be conscious at all.2 To understand why, consider this version of the thought experiment: someone sends me a program that they claim passes the Turing test. I take the assembly code for this program, print it into a giant manual, and shut myself up in an unused basement in Cory Hall. When a piece of paper with some writing on it is slid under the door, I use the manual to pick the responses, just as Clerk did before. In this fashion, I essentially become the computer running the program. But just like Clerk, I’m not conscious of the meaning of the sentences I receive as input or the reasoning behind selecting one output over another. This means (according to Searle) that a regular computer running this code also couldn’t be conscious of these things, even if it does pass the Turing test. Therefore, no matter how sophisticated a program is, the computer running it won’t achieve consciousness. Searle sums up this viewpoint by saying: “Symbol shuffling… does not give any access to the meanings of the symbols.”

Since humans are conscious and do have access to meanings, Searle believed that there is something special about the brain over and above any digital computer. He is commonly quoted as saying “brains cause minds” (i.e. the “software” running on the brain doesn’t create a mind, at least not by itself – something about the physical brain itself is critical). This stronger conclusion is unsurprisingly not widely accepted among AI researchers, who generally believe that a digital computer (perhaps a very powerful one) running the right kind of software could achieve understanding and consciousness. 

Most philosophers also seem to object to the Chinese Room Argument. One criticism of Searle’s argument is so well-known that it gets its own name: the “systems response.” This argument accepts Searle’s assumption that Clerk wouldn’t understand Chinese simply by manipulating symbols, but notes that we can’t logically conclude from this that the system that includes both Clerk and the rulebook doesn’t understand Chinese. Searle appears to struggle to take this objection seriously – how could a rulebook understand anything?3

The systems response seems a little less absurd when we consider just how sophisticated the rulebook would have to be to pass a serious Turing test. Imagine a human judge asks a computer to explain a bad joke. The computer might respond that explaining jokes ruins them, but when pressed, give an explanation that explains the cultural context of the joke and why the punchline is amusing.4 A rulebook that could exhibit this kind of behavior would have to be unimaginably complex! The problem with the Chinese Room Argument is that it invites us to imagine manipulating symbols according to a (say) dictionary-size rulebook, then extrapolate our intuition about this scenario to the wondrously complex software that would be needed to exhibit a human-like mastery of language. If you seriously consider just how far this extrapolation needs to go, it’s reasonable to entertain serious doubts as to whether the simple dictionary-rulebook case tells us anything at all about a program that passes the Turing test.    While the Systems Response and other criticisms make it difficult to take Searle’s conclusion that brains must have a special “consciousness sauce” missing in digital computers too seriously, these criticisms also don’t establish the other extreme, namely that a Turing test-passing program really would understand language (or be conscious). Therefore, the conclusion I’m left with is quite similar to my original misunderstanding of the Chinese Room Argument: computers may or may not achieve consciousness someday, but knowing for sure whether a future computer thinks or understands may not be possible. Read the rest