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two of the best talks I've ever been to

Whew... I am still catching my breath! These last few days have been incredible, especially last night.

On Thursday, I went to a Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics talk given by Richard Healey. Going in with pretty low expectations (and almost not bothering to attend at all), I was pretty blown away by how well he actually understands math and physics being in another field. Perhaps it's just from arguing too much with complete idiots on livejournal, but I was beginning to lose my faith that there were actually good philosophers out there. And unlike Bas van Frasen, who came two years ago, whose opinions on quantum mechanics (while not unreasonable) I really can't see myself agreeing with, Healey's views are right in line with mine, modulo a few issues that I raised to him after the talk, and emailed him more about after I got back. Actually, after hearing what he had to say on these issues, it made me realize just how much I have to say that I really ought to write down and publish somewhere. There are several specific problems he mentioned he was waivering on that I have strong opinions on (and good arguments to back them up). My email to him ended up being 5 pages single-spaced, and all I did was list the major points I'd like to publish on, and sketch very briefly the arguments that I'd use to back them up. I feel like each paragraph, I could expand to at least a page... so it would be almost no trouble at all for me to crank out an article on this. Which I intend to do, whether or not he emails me back, but it will be nice to get some feedback if he does. Perhaps he can at least tell me which journal would be the best to publish it in.

For an example of how cool Richard Healey is, here is a paper he wrote On The Reality of Gauge Potentials which argues that holonomies should be taken as fundamental to gauge theories, rather than the gauge potentials themselves. Brilliant! It makes me wonder, though, how many other philosophers can actually read an article where he makes use of fiber bundles, holonomies, and Wilson loops to make his arguments (all far above the usually required mathematical literacy level for philosophers, as far as I knew.) As for my email to him, I might make a friends-only post disclosing it soon, I haven't decided yet whether that's a good idea. Or maybe I'll wait and see if I get a reply first.

On Friday, I went to a talk by Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute for AI. I'd met the other two founders (Brian and Sabine Atkins) of the Singularity Institute years ago when I lived in Atlanta, but until yesterday I had never met Eliezer who is really the "brains" behind the operation (Brian and Sabine mostly being the "money" behind it). Eliezer's talk was absolutely mind-blowingly awesome. Although I've thought about things like emergence, evolution, and intelligence before, I've never connected them all together or thought about the full context for them as much as I did while listening to him talk. He is a really bright guy. The only annoying thing was that some of the questions from people in the audience were not exactly what I'd consider "up-to-par" with his level of discussion, and it slowed the whole thing down without adding much to it. Actually, I thought the same thing about the philosophy talk I went to, but I guess that just indicates how much a cut-above the usual lectures I go to they were. After Eliezer was done speaking, we all just hung out and chatted and I got to meet several more people from the Singularity Institute (such as Tyler Emerson, who will be speaking at our Santa Cruz Future Salon in April). I also talked to Catherine M (I forget her last name) who did all the research for Ray Kurweil's latest book The Singularity is Near and reads about 1000 books per year (and 1000 words per minute!); she gave me a lot more useful information about Modafinil which I've been thinking seriously about ordering recently (it's a drug that basically gives you a full night's rest in a pill... partially obviating the need for sleep, if used correctly).

While I still have a passionate dislike for the word "Singularity" because I think it's inappropriate and untrue to its meaning in physics, and I'm not convinced yet that the rise of strong AI will be all that rapid (and I don't see cause for any discontinuities in the predictability of the future), I really admire everything they're doing at the Singularity Institute and, if I weren't doing incredibly interesting stuff already that I'm somewhat committed to, I would really really love to help out. Especially with their "World's Most Important Math Problem" which they've been trying to recruit someone to solve. I also don't really blame them for picking that name, because I'm sure they get a lot more funding with it than if they'd picked something less sensational. It just leads to a few people showing up to their conferences who have no idea what they're talking about. Hats off to them, especially Eliezer.


Feb. 26th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC)
I've read a couple of Kurzweil's books and tried to read the latest -- it's the least bad of those three, but it still irritated the hell out of me and I didn't finish, despite basically agreeing with the conclusion that we're headed for a singularity in the near future. His arguments are really sloppy -- I'd recommend Vinge's essay instead.

Hey, to sort of tie together the Singularity and QM topics from this post, have you seen Robin Hanson's work? Brilliant guy who's written about both.
http://hanson.gmu.edu/mangledworlds.html for his QM papers.
Mar. 4th, 2006 06:13 am (UTC)
I took a look at the mangledworlds essay... interesting. I was under the impression this problem was already solved in a more straightforward way, but I could be wrong. I'll have to take a closer look. I'm not sure I understand exactly what he's getting at with some of it.


domino plural

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