Ben Kuipers in ACM’s Ubiquity Forum

I just got the latest AAAI AI Alert, and the top entry is a link to my advisor Ben Kuipers interviewed in
ACM Ubiquity forum
. He talks about commonsense knowledge, current work in our lab on navigation and the cognitive map, and some of his older work on qualitative reasoning.

Read the rest of this entry »

The jobless recovery continues — more big productivity increases

The latest U.S. economic numbers show another massive productivity increase. Treasury Secretary John Snow was on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos yesterday, defending the Bush economic policies in the face of the recent terrible jobs report. [Stupidly, ABCNEWS.com requires you to pay for transcripts of This Week, so I can’t get accurate direct quotations.] To paraphrase, Secretary Snow was defending his past statement that all current economic wisdom says that our current economic growth should create jobs at a rate of around 200,000 per month. Stephanopoulous and George Will tried to get an explanation or clarification of this statement in light of the fact that the economy only created 1000 new jobs last month. They even came tantalizingly close to addressing issues of automation and productivity in the new economy when George Will asked whether our economic wisdom might no longer apply. Unfortunately, Secretary Snow’s responses were devoid of any meaningful explanation for what’s going on, and amounted to little more than empty election-year cheerleading for White House economic policy.

I have yet to see a good big-media attempt to get to the bottom of these huge productivity increases and really explain the underlying economics. As I understand conventional economic wisdom, higher productivity raises our standard of living because it makes our work more valuable, on average. This brings two questions to mind:

  • Is the average standard of living a mean or median average? An increasing disparity of wealth between the rich and poor can cause the mean to rise while the median falls — i.e. a few Bill Gateses blow the curve for everyone. It seems like only a median measurement can really gauge our society’s economic well being.
  • Why do the theories assume that there’s an infinite amount of work to be done, and how do they break down in the limit as productivity approaches infinity? Do we need to rethink our work-based economy? Are we heading for an economic version of Vernor Vinge’s singularity?

Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Graham on What We Can’t Say

One of my favorite web essayists, Paul Graham, has a new essay: What You Can’t Say. He brings up the idea of moral fashion things that we believe only because that’s what the people of our times believe, and wonders what things we believe now will seem ridiculous when viewed historically from the future. His idea is that the things that we believe solely out of fashion are often the things that people get in trouble for denying — heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege, and their modern equivalents:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

If like me, you’re hoping for him to give some examples of current moral fashions, to list some ideas that are likely wrong but that can’t be questioned in our society, you’ll be disappointed. The essay discusses these kinds of ideas entirely in the abstract, or with references to moral fashions from the past. It’s an interesting essay nonetheless. A choice quote:

Although moral fashions tend to arise from different sources than fashions in clothing, the mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they’ll be joined by a second, much larger group, driven by fear. This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.

So if you want to figure out what we can’t say, look at the machinery of fashion and try to predict what it would make unsayable. What groups are powerful but nervous, and what ideas would they like to suppress? What ideas were tarnished by association when they ended up on the losing side of a recent struggle? If a self-consciously cool person wanted to differentiate himself from preceding fashions (e.g. from his parents), which of their ideas would he tend to reject? What are conventional-minded people afraid of saying?

Read the rest of this entry »