Book review: “Architects of Intelligence”

Architects of Intelligence is a series of interviews with a grab bag of prominent researchers and entrepreneurs in AI. The roster is the star attraction – most of the interviewees are pretty famous, ranging from neural network pioneers like Geoffrey Hinton to “classic” AI experts like Stuart Russell. Most of them are excellent communicators, and this shines through in their responses. Unfortunately, the quality of the questions leaves a lot to be desired. Martin Ford is a business writer, and he’s more concerned about the impact of AI on the labor market than on how it works and whether it’s safe. I’m not saying that economics isn’t important, but asking Judea Pearl about whether robots will take our jobs is a bit like asking Anthony Fauci about the economic impact of people taking time off work to get their covid vaccines. It’s especially frustrating when the interviewee makes some interesting point about their research, and Ford completely drops the thread to ask about an unrelated topic outside their field of expertise. 

So, you can probably find better interviews with the people featured in this book elsewhere. But in spite of this, I still found the book surprisingly valuable. Why? Because while each interview is unremarkable in isolation, the collection of them shows a fascinating diversity of viewpoints. Ford asks everyone a core set of questions, so we get to see the contrast between researchers in stark relief. Some of the experts are worried about the safety of increasingly sophisticated AI agents; others find the idea of safety concerns so ridiculous that they refuse to discuss it. Deep neural networks are sufficient for human-level AI, or need to be supplemented with some other techniques, or are on the wrong track entirely. AI will worsen inequality, or even the playing field, or neither (because humanity will merge with the AI and transcend these kinds of petty concerns). There’s no shortage of very hot takes. It’s impossible to come away from reading these interviews thinking that there’s consensus about much of anything in AI research.

I also found going through this book to be helpful in building up my mental model of what kinds of research are done by which labs and companies. This knowledge does accrue naturally as you go to talks and read papers, but among all the details it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. I’ve found myself returning to my notes from Architects of Intelligence many times when I come across a new quote or idea from one of the interviewees, and each time I’ve been grateful for the extra context. Wikipedia is a fantastic resource, but it isn’t a substitute for having a curated set of the most interesting/relevant/useful things you’ve learned about someone. These interviews are a great source of interesting facts about prominent AI researchers and their views.

I hold out hope that someday, someone will put together a similar project with better interviews and more interesting questions. In the meantime, I recommend this book (I guess!). Read the rest

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