Category Archives: risk analysis

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still inceasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

COVID-19 (Average) vs Other Causes of Death (Actual) in the U.S. – Animated Data Graph

Source: Covid vs. US Daily Average Cause of Death, Robert Martin on 8 Apr 2020

For those still saying influenza is a much bigger killer than COVID-19 (SARS-COV-2), the numbers don’t support that argument, especially considering there are many deaths that strongly appear to be due to COVID-19 that are not reported as such because the deceased are not tested. The animation conveys the speed with which an exponentially increasing infection rate overtakes other, relatively linear rates of expansion.

How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History

This article is relevant to our recent discussions and Zak Stein’s (see Edward’s recent post) suggestion that great destabilizing events open gaps in which new structures can supplant older, disintegrating systems–with the inherent risks and opportunities.

Rapid Personality Change and the Psychological Rebirth

Informative video on this process. Ofttimes we need to descend into hell before we can ascend into a new life. And this seems the overall process of human development, that for each stage we must go through this spiraling process of dissolution and reorganization. Hence we are far more than twice-born; we are multiply born anew at each stage. It seems though that the further we go in this process the greater the risks and rewards.

Speaking of which, the inaugural issue of Phi Mi Sci will address this issue:

“The inaugural issue of PhiMiSci will be a Special Topic on Radical Disruptions of Self-Consciousness (see the Manifesto of the Selfless Minds workshop). The call for papers for this Special Topic was closed on May 1. Submissions are currently under review. The guest editors of this Special Topic are Thomas Metzinger (Mainz) & Raphaël Millière (Oxford). The expected publication date of this Special Topic is late 2019.”

Book: Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff investigates the impacts of current and emerging technologies and digital culture on individuals and groups and seeks ways to evade or extract ourselves from their corrosive effects.

After you read the book, please post your thoughts as comments to this post or, if you prefer, as new posts. There are interviews and other resources about the book online. Feel free to recommend in the comments those you find meaningful. Also, the audiobook is available through the Albuquerque Public Library but may have a long wait queue (I’m aiming for a record number of ‘q’s in this sentence).

Please use the tag and/or category ‘Rushkoff’ in your new posts. Use any other tags or categories you want. To access categories and tags while composing a post, click ‘Document’ at the top of the options area on the right side of the editing page.

How to add a category to a post in WordPress sites using the Gutenberg editor

Any comments you add to this post should inherit the post’s categories and tags. Add any additional ones as you like.

Last, this site includes a book reviews app for registered site members. To use it, log in and select Review under the New menu.

Starting a new book review

Running on escalators

Ideally, automation would yield a Star Trek reality of increasing leisure and quality of choice and experience. Why isn’t this our experience? An article on Medium offers insight into why this is not occurring on any significant scale.

Evolved behavioral strategies explained by the prisoner’s dilemma damn the majority of humans to a constant doubling down. We exchange the ‘leisure dividend’ (free time) granted by automation for opportunities to outcompete others.

Apparently, the sort of reciprocal social learning that could lead us to make healthy choices with our leisure opportunities depends on us and our competitors being able to mutually track our outcomes across consecutive iterations of the ‘game’. That ‘traceability’ quickly breaks down with the complexity inherent in vast numbers of competitors. When we conclude that any viable competitor may use her leisure dividend to further optimize her competitive position, rather than to pause to enjoy her life, we tend to do the same. Each assumes the other will sprint ahead and so chooses to sprint ahead. Both forfeit the opportunity to savor the leisure dividend.

The prisoner’s dilemma shows that we (most humans) would rather be in a grueling neck-and-neck race toward an invisible, receding finish line than permit the possibility a competitor may increase her lead.

Any strategy that’s so endemic must have evolutionary roots. Thoughts?

Test determines approximate year of death

Age-at-death forecasting – A new test predicts when a person will die. It’s currently accurate within a few years and is getting more accurate. What psychological impacts might knowing your approximate (± 6 months) death time mean for otherwise healthy people? Does existing research with terminally ill or very old persons shed light on this? What would the social and political implications be? What if a ‘death-clock’ reading became required for certain jobs (elected positions, astronauts, roles requiring expensive training and education, etc.) or decisions (whom to marry or parent children with, whether to adopt, whether to relocate, how to invest and manage one’s finances, etc.)?

Applying artificial intelligence for social good

This McKinsey article is an excellent overview of this more extensive article (3 MB PDF) enumerating the ways in which varieties of deep learning can improve existence. Worth a look.

The articles cover the following:

  • Mapping AI use cases to domains of social good
  • AI capabilities that can be used for social good
  • Overcoming bottlenecks, especially around data and talent
  • Risks to be managed
  • Scaling up the use of AI for social good

Musk: merging of humans and technology essential to survival

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From Axios interview with Elon Musk:

Musk said his neuroscience company, Neuralink, has about 85 of “the highest per capita intelligence” group of engineers he has ever assembled — with the mission of building a hard drive for your brain.

  • “The long-term aspiration with Neuralink would be to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”
  • Wait. What? “To achieve a sort of democratization of intelligence, such that it is not monopolistically held in a purely digital form by governments and large corporations.”

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The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

Kurzweil builds and supports a persuasive vision of the emergence of a human-level engineered intelligence in the early-to-mid twenty-first century. In his own words,

With the reverse engineering of the human brain we will be able to apply the parallel, self-organizing, chaotic algorithms of  human intelligence to enormously powerful computational substrates. This intelligence will then be in a position to improve its own design, both hardware and software,  in a rapidly accelerating iterative process.

In Kurzweil’s view, we must and will ensure we evade obsolescence by integrating emerging metabolic and cognitive technologies into our bodies and brains. Through self-augmentation with neurotechnological prostheses, the locus of human cognition and identity will gradually (but faster than we’ll expect, due to exponential technological advancements) shift from the evolved substrate (the organic body) to the engineered substrate, ultimately freeing the human mind to develop along technology’s exponential curve rather than evolution’s much flatter trajectory.

The book is extensively noted and indexed, making the deep-diving reader’s work a bit easier.

If you have read it, feel free to post your observations in the comments below. (We’ve had a problem with the comments section not appearing. It may require more troubleshooting.)