Jared is a researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Until the summer of 2023 he was a lecturer at the University of Washington School of Computer Science. While there he created a class on the philosophy of AI and created and taught an ethics course as well as teaching technical artificial intelligence courses. His satirical novel "The Strength of The Illusion" was published in the summer of 2023. Previous Sentientism guest Mark Solms called it "extraordinary".
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
02:23 Jared Intro
- AI research, teaching philosophy, AI ethics and AI tech
- "What are the right things to do and how do we bring those things about"
- "AI is a sandbox... to test out these ideas"
- Jared's philosophical novel, "The Strength of the Illusion" "A timely meditation on what happens when artificial intelligence clashes with human stupidity"
- "#philosophyofmind ... what it means to think, to learn..."
05:12 What's Real?
- "I grew up with a father that derided religion"
- A "very atheistic upbringing... in some parts I regret" vs. "more religious community centred upbringings"
- Not convinced re: god or spirituality but "that's not to say that I want to discount the feelings of religious experiences"
- William James
- Irish grandmother "she hates the #catholic church with a passion"
- Father is a doctor encountering lots of "anti-science"
- Joining a gospel choir at University "I'm not religious but it's a really fun and enlivening way to approach life"
- "It's not been my life to combat religion... the 'Four Horsemen'... Dan Dennett, Sam Harris..."
- "I think there's value in being kind to each other when you talk about this [religion]"
- "Few people are willing to actually debate the tenets of their beliefs... that's the tension between science and religion"
- "The unwillingness, by design, to accept alternative hypotheses and test their views is what perpetuates religion"
- Spirituality: "I haven't been drawn... it seems a bit like #mysterianism... an appeal to mystery before the facts are out."
- "Could we not explain consciousness, morality... I think that we can eventually explain those things through rigourous science"
- Rejections of the possibility of explaining consciousness: Searle's Chinese Room, Nagel's "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?"... "These appeals are in a sense spiritual... they're appealing to some sort of mystery"
- "That explanation does not need to be a let down - just because we can explain the illusion doesn't mean that the illusion doesn't exist"
- "There's a degree of bad blood"... history of scientists denying or avoiding or deriding things because the evidence isn't yet there to enable study (e.g. #behaviourists ignoring mental states)
- "Scientists are imperfect and can be mean"
- Do AIs have epistemology - JW: "are they learning, can they know things?"
- #llms (large language models) like OpenAI's #chatgpt "Do they understand language?"
- "They... seem to be able to use language OK... they make errors but humans make errors too"
- "It seems like they know some things. It might be that they have a different set of things that they know than what humans know... Perhaps they only know word-like things"
- "I find it hard to truly say that they don't understand when they use language with such apparent ease"
- AI as a sand-box "you can control all of the parameters, you can twiddle the knobs..."
21:25 What & Who Matters?
- Figuring out independently, as a child, what was right and wrong
- "At the age of five I decided that I should be vegetarian because I thought it was mean to kill animals"
- "I would have a different description now - that animals... are deserving of moral patiency"
- "I stuck to my guns... they eventually let me do what I want... I then convinced both of my siblings... then we were a majority at that point - so they had to make dinner for us"
- "Even growing up with a naturalistic worldview there are cultural senses of what is right and what is wrong"
- Cultural norms re: #jaywalking in the US and Germany
- Political questions of democracy, distribution and welfare "I was very occupied by a lot of those thoughts through my school days"
- “Thinking that I needed to… do the most good… for other people”
- Trying to “really drill down” on those questions during university years
- Utilitarianism, Kantianism, deontology, relativism… “I have hesitations about all branches of normative ethics but I would probably take a bit from each”
- “A naturalistic ethics”
- Patricia Churchland’s work “she attempts to ground out ethics and morality in evolution”
- One view: “Ethics emerges as a way of stabilising social groups”
- Relativism doesn’t have to mean “it doesn’t really matter”
- “We are navigating a landscape… a very messy landscape”
- Fitness landscapes (survive and reproduce) vs. moral landscapes (suffering / flourishing?)
- E.g. suffering and being killed against your will as intrinsically bad things? Shaping that landscape
- “It’s so unlikely for there to be one set of rules… there is all this messiness”
- JW: “I’m quite comfortable linking the good and bad of experience (suffering, flourishing, living) to the good and bad of ethics”
- “My intuition is ‘yes’ [re: is suffering intrinsically bad] but I would probably argue for it on the grounds of consistency rather than on the grounds of it being necessarily right”
- “Could there be an adaptive, fitness maximising ethical policy which is nonetheless bad?... That’s obviously the case… slavery, women’s rights, animal rights… to me what makes them apparent is the appeal to consistency… We treat each other as deserving of moral attention… well why not somebody else… on the other side of the world…”
- “Why do you treat your dog differently than you do the factory farmed animals that you’re eating?”
- “Consistency can get us a lot of the way there”
- Sentientism’s clarity on moral scope (at least all sentient beings) but pluralism re: ethical system (care/deont/util/virtue/relational/consequentialism)
- “There are plenty of arguments left… do you give all sentient beings equal moral weight – that’s a very difficult question to resolve”
- JW: “There’s a danger that boundary gets eroded… [so] hold on to a clear and robust at least minimal definition of what compassion and moral consideration and moral status should actually mean… a non-maleficence which is saying at least you wouldn’t needlessly harm or kill or exploit… That’s a pretty minimal baseline.”
- “As somebody who teaches ethics your naming of a position makes me want to go in for the kill… but I do agree with the intuition”
- Questions of “what is a need?... is eating a need… is vanity a need?”
44:24 Who Matters?
- “I had a very cartoon version of the world – you killed animals to eat their meat but then there’s eggs and dairy – a separate issue”
- Going ~vegan in early 20s
- “Why was I not vegan earlier? There’s really no difference. The reasons that people become vegetarian for animal suffering are, by the sake of consistency, should lead them to be vegan”
- “It’s [being vegan] less of a real pain over the last 5 or so years”
- “We want to be able to say that you should stand on your values in the face of significant opposition and nonetheless do the right thing”
- “Do we judge our previous selves for this?”
- “It just is harder to do the right thing in that sort of setting [facing social opposition]”
- Jainism “maybe they could accuse vegans of being inconsistent?”
- “I’m very troubled by my own actions – I would like to be consistent – I know it’s an impossible vision – I also think that it’s a good practice – the kind of person I would like to be”
- Demandingness, Effective Altruism, maximising ethics “you’re valuing the take-out dinner that you spend that money on…[vs. alleviating poverty / saving lives]”
- Socrates’s “The unexamined life is not worth living”
- Moral consideration for artificial entities “I still care about sentience… so it becomes a question of whether artificial systems are sentient”
- Alternative considerations re: autonomy, agency, dignity, relations…
- Are rare human languages intrinsically or instrumentally valuable?
- Consciousness vs. sentience? “Sentience is oftentimes more palatable”
- Broad vs. narrow definitions of consciousness
- The doomed struggle to define consciousness so it only applies to humans (and not non-human animals or artificial entities)
- Functionalism “consciousness… is a function… even if they’re made of very different parts they do the same thing”
- “I’m not opposed to ascribing consciousness or sentience to AI systems - I don’t think it’s impossible – I just have a lot of questions left”
- “If there’s some possibility… does this not demand that we… change how we interact with these systems?”
- Materialism and physicalism
- “You could still be materialist and not functionalist… something about the substrate might be required for consciousness to exist”
- “We’re Russian dolls… of interacting systems… cells… molecules… that work together to produce us as we are”
- “In digital systems everything gets grounded out in bits… ones and zeros on your computer”
- The wings of planes are very different from those of bats and birds… but the same function?
- “At what level do we define consciousness – what are the required functions?”
- The Free Energy principle “minimising effort”?
01:09:25 A Better Future?
- “Endeavouring for such consistency… it’s hard to look at the world and look at it positively”
- “My better future probably starts with myself. I endeavour to be consistent, to examine my actions, to do more good than ill”
- “I’ve attempted… to popularise these discussions in the book that I’ve written”
- “I teach ethics… I do research on these scenarios… advocating for the positions I think are reasonable politically”
- Advocating with Washington state legislature re: AI safety
- Climate change
- “I hope that the people who worry about AI risk end up being wrong… but I’m not willing to say that they are necessarily wrong”
- “Not having a universal sense of ethics… also absolves me of trying to fix the world… I spent a lot of my youth trying to fix the world… it’s too much burden for any single person”
- “Where else could we start from [our own influence]… becoming aware of our agency, even if it’s limited, is hugely impactful… we realise we can play a role in the world”
- “Whether that’s simply talking about these issues with our loved ones… or advocating for them in a local organisation or employer or school… this is where the world changes”
- “I did write a book about many of these things… it follows an AI researcher who makes a machine that can write… eager to bring on-demand literature to millions… solving the world’s problems”
- “His partner, an activist… opposing the technology he’s making… trying to get him to see the reality of the world.”
- “He’s losing himself in the machine of his own creation”
- “The central tension of the book is trying to figure out the difference how to understand the difference between right and wrong – real and illusory… what is the right thing to do?”
- “What kind of relationships we want with machines… what kind of relationships we want with other people… with other organisms”
- “A parallel story of a developing Bonobo… that ends up learning to use some degree of language.”
- “I will endeavour to less inconsistency”
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