Friday Links (with comments)

1. Finding who wrote my book. Comment/discuss at twotoreal

2. The Great Forgetting

A lot more mood affiliation than arguments (not even a philosophical alienation type of argument), but I want to highlight two common errors:

[Experts] pointed to the example of driving a car, which requires not only the instantaneous interpretation of a welter of visual signals but also the ability to adapt seamlessly to unanticipated situations. “Executing a left turn across oncoming traffic,” two prominent economists wrote in 2004, “involves so many factors that it is hard to imagine the set of rules that can replicate a driver’s behavior.” Just six years later, in October 2010, Google announced that it had built a fleet of seven “self-driving cars,” which had already logged more than 140,000 miles on roads in California and Nevada.

I do wonder who those experts were and worry that the writer is getting the pace of technology from economists, but that’s not the point. The point is the two economists were correct! But this is argument from lack of imagination.

I’ll even make a stronger claim: Making a left turn involves so many factors that it is impossible to imagine the set of rules that can replicate a driver’s behavior.

The mistake is to assume that this implies that we cannot write a computer programmer who does this task better than any human driver. We do not write computer programs for these tasks by enumeration of rules. We write subsystems, we empirically test (or have the machine empirically test), and w’ e end up with a system much more complex than any single human mind can grasp. This has nothing to do with computers, by the way, nobody can imagine the set of rules that run any large industry: humans can collectively build unimaginably complex systems. In the end, most of the “rules” are implicit in the code and are never even written out.

(Another mistake is that this implicitly assumes that the human driver is somehow doing more than following rules. We all follow rules, except that we follow rules encoded in synapse connections and neuro-transmitter levels rather than magnetic orientations; but rules nonetheless. Or God exists, but I have no need for that hypothesis.)

The second fallacy is even more obvious:

The technology theorist Kevin Kelly, commenting on the link between automation and pilot error, argued that the obvious solution is to develop an entirely autonomous autopilot: “Human pilots should not be flying planes in the long run.” […] That idea is seductive, but no machine is infallible. Sooner or later, even the most advanced technology will break down, misfire, or, in the case of a computerized system, encounter circumstances that its designers never anticipated.

This is textbook nirvana fallacy.


I often wonder whether my daughter will ever be allowed to drive a car in the Western world. I think that allowing humans to drive cars on public roads will be seen as we now look at the working conditions of 19th century factories: dangerous choices that can only be explained by the lack of better options.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.