How Artificial Intelligence Will Kill Science With Thought Experiments

Think about this:

Science—empirical study of the world—only exists because thought experiments aren’t good enough. Yet.

Philosophers used to figure out how stuff worked just by thinking about it. They would take stuff they knew about how the world worked, and purely by applying intuition, logic and math to it, figure out new stuff. No new observations were needed; with thought alone, new discoveries could be created out of the raw material of old discoveries. Einstein developed a lot of his theories using thought experiments. He imagined gliding clocks to derive special relativity and accelerating elevators to derive general relativity. With thought alone, he figured out many of the fundamental rules of the universe, which were only later verified with observation.

That last step is always needed, because even the greatest human intelligence can’t account for all variables. Einstein’s intuition could not extend to tiny things, so his thought experiments alone could not predict the quantum weirdness that arose from careful observation of the small. Furthermore, human mental capacity is limited. Short-term memory can’t combine all relevant information at once, and even with Google, no human is capable of accessing all relevant pieces of information in long-term memory at the right times.

But what happens when we go beyond human intelligence?

New York as painted by an artificial intelligence

If we can figure out true artificial intelligence, the limitations above could disappear. There is no reason that we can’t give rise to machines with greater-than-human memory and processing power, and we already have the Internet as a repository of most current knowledge. Like the old philosophers on NZT, AI could take the raw material of stuff we currently know and turn it into new discoveries without any empirical observation.

Taken to a distant but plausible extreme, an advanced AI could perfectly simulate a portion of the world and perform a million thought experiments within it, without ever touching or observing the physical world.

We would never need science as we know it again if there were perfect thought experiments. We wouldn’t need to take the time and money required to mess with reality if new discoveries about reality could be derived just by asking Siri.

It solves ethical issues. There are a lot of potentially world-saving scientific discoveries held back by the fact that science requires messing with people’s real lives. AI could just whip up a virtual life to thought-experiment on. Problem solved.

Of course, AI brings up new ethical problems. Is a fully functioning simulated life any less real than a physical one? Should such a simulation be as fleeting as a thought?

As technology advances, there will be a lot to think about.

Tolerance, Conflict, and Nonflict

A lot of conflict can be explained in terms of differing tolerance levels. A disagreement may simply be a matter of one person hitting their limit before another.

An example will help: let’s say a couple is fighting because he feels like he always has to clean up her mess around the house. It would be easy to label her as a slob and/or him as a clean freak, but maybe they just have different levels of tolerance for messes.

Let’s say he can tolerate four dirty dishes before cleaning up, while she can tolerate five. They agree on most things: too many dirty dishes are bad, cleaning up after one dish is a waste of time, etc. They have no fundamental disagreement. Yet, that one-dish difference will result in him cleaning up every time, simply because his four-dish limit gets hit first. That can lead to other conflicts, such as unequal division of labour, questioning compatibility, failure to communicate, etc. All because of one very small difference in tolerance.

How does this help us resolve conflict? On one hand, it can help foster understanding of different points of view. Many conflicts are not between people on different sides of a line, but rather different distances from the same side of the line. It’s worth noting that most people don’t choose their limits; they are born with them, or they had them instilled early on, or they believe they are rational. Sometimes the resolution to a conflict can be as easy as “ok, your limit is here, my limit is here, and that’s okay.”

On the other hand, living with other humans often necessitates adjusting our tolerance levels. Things run smoother if our limits are close. In the example above, if she dropped her tolerance to four dishes 50% of the time, each of them clean up half the time, and they live happily ever after. Sometimes it’ll have to go the other way too: if he’s not too ragey with disgust after four dishes, he could wait until five, then she hits her limit and naturally cleans up. Either way, hooray for compromise.

This may be a subtle point, but I think it’s a good one: many disagreements are not disagreements at all. It’s not that one person is wrong and the other is right. They’re just feeling different things based on how close they are to their limit. That is much easier to deal with than genuine conflict, especially if it’s recognized as the non-conflict (nonflict) it is.

Light and Dark in Daily Deals, one of those daily deal Groupon clones that everyone got sick of, often posts questionable deals. Some are only useless or frivilous (oh hi Justin Bieber tooth brush), but others are actively deceptive.

One such deal was for a “Crystal Bala Bracelet With Magnetic Hematite Beads.” While careful to avoid specific health claims, they do claim that “in Buddhism, the pañca bala, or Five Strengths are critical to the achievement of enlightenment. Now you can keep them close to you every day with the Bala Bracelet.”

How does a mere bracelet help you achieve enlightenment? Well:

“Crystals catch and refract the light every time you move [and] six beads of magnetic hematite polarize the effect of light and dark”

Sciencey yet spiritual! It must work. It’s not quite the magnetic bracelets you see at summer festivals that claim to cure cancer, but still, manipulative and deceptive.

Luckily Dealifind has a forum to clear up any misconceptions about the products, so I dug a little deeper. Here’s my conversation:

Mike (me)

Can you provide a link to the peer reviewed scientific articles supporting the claim “six beads of magnetic hematite polarize the effect of light and dark”? I’m sure they just got left off by accident. Thanks!

Amy (Dealfind Admin)

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your inquiry.
Our deal page states:

“In Buddhism, the pañca bala, or Five Strengths are critical to the achievement of enlightenment. Now you can keep them close to you every day with the Bala Bracelet. Each of the crystal-encrusted balls represents one of the bala: Faith, Energy, Mindfulness, Concentration and Wisdom. Six beads of smooth magnetic hematite provide the perfectly polarized color choice to offset the crystals.”

For more of a scientific background, please contact Widget Love at 1.800.990.6771.

Thank you!


I have to call them just to have any idea about whether or not the bracelet does what it says it does? 😦

Can you at least explain what “polarize the effect of light and dark” and “polarized color” even mean?

I want to know more about what I’m getting into before buying into this sca–…er…product. I’m afraid polarizing my dark could have serious medical effects.


The above post was deleted shortly after posting it. Later:


Oh fiddlesticks, I think my follow-up post failed to go through so I’ll post my question again:

Can you at least explain what “polarize the effect of light and dark” and “polarized color” mean?


Mesha (Dealfind Admin)

Hi Mike,

Thank you for your post.

In this sense polarized means that although the colours range from one extreme to another (both dark and light) they compliment each other and the crystals.

For more of a scientific background, please contact Widget Love at 1.800.990.6771.

I hope this helps! 🙂


Ah, so it’s saying “there are black rocks and white rocks but they are both rocks.”

Thanks! That clears up everything! I’ll take 50!

That post was deleted too.

Yeah, I’m kind of just being a dick. But trying to sell people bullshit (bullshit capitalizing on the perfectly respectable religion of Buddhism) is also pretty dickish. So screw Dealfind and the dickshit company they promote. It’s just a cheap bracelet, but every penny milked from gullible people through lies is a penny too much.

On Lying

I recently finished reading Sam Harris’s short essay on the topic of lying, which is called, no lie, Lying. In it, he explores the rationality of communicating things that are not true, and comes to the conclusion that it is wrong to lie.

Yeah. Obviously. But Harris goes further than what many people mean when they say “it’s wrong to lie,” arguing that even seemingly justified forms of lying, like little white lies, lying to protect someone, and false encouragement, are all wrong in their own way.

He’s convincing, for the most part. Take false encouragement; the lies we tell without a second thought, like “yeah, I love your blog, you are such a good writer.” It seems harmless, and it would be awkward to say otherwise to someone, but Harris makes a good point: “False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.”

I’ve always been a big believer that the truth is the fastest route to success, both on a societal level (hence my interest in science) and on a personal level. It would be easy to get carried away with this, becoming one of those people who spouts his opinion whether asked for it or not, and is rarely invited to the next party. However, I think it is possible to tactfully express the truth whenever asked to.

I appreciate blunt people. Others may not, but even they can be served well by the right kind of bluntness. If I tell you that yes, you actually do look like a giant turd in that brown dress (like really, brown dress? What were you thinking?), it might hurt at first, but when you show up to the party in a different dress and get genuine compliments rather than awkward false encouragement, you’re better off in the long run.

Harris also makes the point that lying is not only harmful to the people being lied to, but taxing for the liar. Keeping up a lie takes a lot of mental effort, since the lie was fabricated in the liar’s mind. Every time the lie comes up, the liar has to check against his memory of previous lies, who knows what, how the lie affects everything else; he essentially has to store a new version of reality entirely in his head, often fabricated in real-time. When the truth comes up, though, it’s easy to keep track of; the truth-teller only has to keep track of one version of reality. The real one.

Many of these examples assume the people involved are regular, sane people, who ultimately just want to get along. Where Harris starts to lose me is when discussing situations where this arrangement breaks down. He discusses a hypothetical situation of a murderer showing up at your door looking for a little boy who you are sheltering. Should you tell the murderer the truth? Harris argues that lying could have unintended harmful consequences; the murderer might go to the next house and murder someone else, or at best, it just shifts the burden of dealing with the murderer to someone else. Instead, a truth like “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew,” coupled with a threat, could mollify the situation without a lie.

I’d argue that, when facing someone for whom cooperation and rationality have obviously broken down (e.g., a kid murderer), sometimes there are known consequences of lying (e.g., saving a kid’s life) that are almost certainly less harmful than far-fetched unknown consequences. Harris later makes this same point on a larger scale, when justifying lying in the context of war and espionage, saying the usual rules of cooperation no longer apply. I think blowing up a city with a bomb and stabbing a kid with a knife are both situations where cooperation has broken down, and both situations where lying can be a tool used in good conscience.

There are no absolute moral principles that work in all situations. Life is too complicated for that. Trying to summarize it in simple prescriptive rules (as many religions have) doesn’t work. So, the rule “lying is always wrong” can’t work. There are extreme situations where the rule breaks down.

Luckily, most people will never encounter such an extreme situation in their daily lives. This is where Harris’s main point is spot on: we should lie a lot less than we do. If everyone told the truth in every normal situation, relationships would be stronger, and people would be happier and more productive. I’ve certainly been more aware of my honesty since reading the book, so it’s fair to say it literally changed my life. That’s certainly worth the $2.00 it costs (buy it here). No word of a lie.

Evolution’s Failures

I think it’s hilarious to imagine evolution’s failures.

Think of how our digestive systems are able to function no matter which way we’re sitting or lying, carrying food to the right place in a peristaltic wave, even if it’s going against gravity. Think of the pre-human who didn’t get that gene. He’s all like, “check out this handstand!”, then as soon as he’s upside-down, all the wooly mammoth he ate earlier is pouring out of his face. He suffocates, dying before he ever had a chance to procreate, and his shitty genes never get passed on. Hilarious.

Thing is, one day that guy will be us.

Evolution is not only biological, but technological. We already pity the people of the past—most of human history—who didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Technology has doubled our lifespan just by tuning up our default biological hardware from the outside. Think of what we can do once technology moves inside.

It’s a near certainty that we will merge with technology. We already rely on it, and there’s gotta be a better way of interacting with it than through our fingers. When our brains and bodies are made more of bits and bytes than nerves and leukocytes, the people of today will be the pre-humans.

Looking back, we’ll think that our squishy biological way of doing things was hilarious. “That’s right son,” we’ll say, to our sons. “We had computers we plugged into walls, but our own method of recharging was—hah, it’s so gross, but get this—we mashed up other living things with our teeth then let them slide down our throat. There were actually people who couldn’t find things to eat, and they died. Forever! They didn’t even have a backup.”

And our sons, they probably won’t even understand how (or why) we managed to get through the day.

Evolution makes failures of us all.

The Myth of the Evil Genius

Joker by Nebezial

The evil genius only exists in fiction.

An evil genius cannot exist in reality, because in reality, intelligence and evil are incompatible. A genius acts rationally, and history constantly proves that it is rational to be good.

Genius and evil are two terms that are nearly impossible to define, but most people know it when they see it. Adolf Hitler was evil. Osama Bin Laden was probably evil. Albert Einstein was a genius. Bill Gates is probably one too.

It’s not that evil doesn’t pay; genius and evil both pay, in some sense. Bill and Osama both have mansions, and could probably afford the most expensive bacon at the grocery store (though I guess Osama would pass). The difference is that Bill is living a comfortable life that leaves a trail of advancements and improved lives. Osama is at the bottom of the ocean riddled with bullets, and has left a trail of destruction and ruined lives.

Osama and Adolf did gain power, but was it through genius? I doubt it. They excelled in some areas—charisma, mostly, and probably a good helping of being in the right place at the right time—but I doubt they were geniuses. Not in the sense meant here: extreme mental ability for coming to correct conclusions.

On both an individual and a societal level, it is rational to be good. More often than not, the correct choice between a good option and an evil option is the good option, all things considered. Murdering a person you can’t stand may be easier than altering your own life to get away from him (say, packing up and moving away), but on an individual level, murder will probably put you in jail or dead yourself, and on a societal level, allowing people to murder willy-nilly wouldn’t be conducive to happiness and productivity.

That’s why the evil genius doesn’t exist. Even if the impulse to do evil was there, a true genius would take a moment, and think “hmm, considering all the consequences, maybe genocide isn’t such a spiffy idea.” If The Joker was really so smart, he’d figure out a way to resolve his Batman problem without blowing up innocent people and getting thrown in Arkham again and again.

Evil cannot result from the cool calculated machinations of a genius. In real life, evil is in the hot passion of an argument when a knife is nearby. It’s in the subtle biases of a politician whose values are misguided. And in that sense, evil is in all of us; luckily we also have an inner genius to play superhero.

On Ann Coulter, Tolerance, and the Subjectivity of Morality

Ann Coulter, the conservative political commentator from the U.S., recently made a visit to Canada. First she visited my fine school, UWO, to talk then avoid questions and make a few racial slurs. Then she tried to talk at Ottawa, but backed down when she discovered a shocking truth: people here don’t really like her.

Everyone is talking about this. A lot of the discussion goes like this:

  • I support free speech.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak about you not wanting to speak.

Etc., forever. But such discussion isn’t really productive. I think we need to get more meta, and look at some higher-level questions that Coulter’s visit brings up:

1. Is indiscriminate tolerance a good thing?

2. If not, what should be tolerated, and what shouldn’t be?

3. Once we figure that out, what should we do with people we don’t tolerate?

These may seem like matters of opinion, or moral questions without any objective answers. For example, while most people, when pressed, would agree that the answer to #1 is “no,” they can agree to disagree on #2. Some think homosexuality is wrong, others think worshiping a false god is wrong, and that’s just their opinion. Same with #3; acting on those opinions, is it better to stage a peaceful protest, or “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”1? Some argue that’s a moral question with no precise answer.

I don’t buy that.

Some actions are objectively right and other things are objectively wrong, and it doesn’t take an omnipotent being writing rules on stone tablets for that to be true. When we disagree on which of two actions is best for humanity, one or both of us is wrong. An individual person is extremely unlikely to have all the answers, whether she is a priest or a physicist, but we should never deny that there are answers. And I believe that with enough time, science, and careful critical thought, many of these answers will be revealed to us.

In a recent TED talk, Sam Harris expresses a similar viewpoint (it’s well worth clicking and spending 20 minutes to watch this talk if you’re at all interesting in this stuff).

From the talk:

Now, it’s often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values because science deals with facts. And facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It’s often thought that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

The only wrinkle is defining morality to begin with, but I think the one Harris provides—maximizing the well being of conscious creatures—is one that most people (and if they could be asked, animals) would agree on. And the point is that for any definition of morality, there is an objective answer to moral questions.

So what about Ann Coulter? Well, I believe that free speech is objectively good. History has proven that the open flow of information from all sources maximizes human well being. I fully support her right to speak, and while you won’t find me out there protesting, I fully support their right to protest as well. But much of the content of her speech is objectively false. For example, should we invade countries and convert them to Christianity? No. The objective truth value of her Christian beliefs is questionable, plus the very act of violently converting people to any belief system is repugnant.

I am open to being proven wrong about my moral stance. However, while it’s nice to see people using Coulter as a staring point for discussing moral questions (even writing blog posts about it), part of me thinks her ideas are so comically evil that it would be better to just ignore her. After all, what’s worse: being scared off a campus by a group of peaceful protesters, or arriving without fanfare to an empty room, then leaving without selling a single book?

Regardless of whether it’s inspired by Coulter or not, we do need to keep questioning and requestioning our morals, because it is possible to find answers.


1 Coulter, 2001.

P.S. This is kinda off topic, but another thing I have a problem with is making fun of Coulter’s physical appearance. Yeah she’s a celebrity and thus opens herself up to it to some extent. However, pointing out her adam’s apple because you disagree with her political stance is coming from the same base, ugly, immature side of human nature that her crass racial quips come from. Don’t stoop to her level.

P.P.S. Try putting into your web browser.