Report — From the January 2015 issue

Come With Us If You Want to Live

Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley

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In 2013, the Singularity Institute changed its name to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. Whereas MIRI aims to ensure human-friendly artificial intelligence, an associated program, the Center for Applied Rationality, helps humans optimize their own minds, in accordance with Bayes’s Theorem. The day after I met Yudkowsky, I returned to Berkeley for one of CFAR’s long-weekend workshops. The color scheme at the Rose Garden Inn was red and green, and everything was brocaded. The attendees were mostly in their twenties: mathematicians, software engineers, quants, a scientist studying soot, employees of Google and Facebook, an eighteen-year-old Thiel Fellow who’d been paid $100,000 to leave Boston College and start a company, professional atheists, a Mormon turned atheist, an atheist turned Catholic, an Objectivist who was photographed at the premiere of Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike. There were about three men for every woman.

At the Friday-night meet and greet, I talked with Benja, a German who was studying math and behavioral biology at the University of Bristol, whom I had spotted at MIRI the day before. He was in his early thirties and quite tall, with bad posture and a ponytail past his shoulders. He wore socks with sandals, and worried a paper cup as we talked. Benja had felt death was terrible since he was a small child, and wanted his aging parents to sign up for cryonics, if he could figure out how to pay for it on a grad-student stipend. He was unsure about the risks from unfriendly AI — “There is a part of my brain,” he said, “that sort of goes, like, ‘This is crazy talk; that’s not going to happen’ ” — but the probabilities had persuaded him. He said there was only about a 30 percent chance that we could make it another century without an intelligence explosion. He was at CFAR to stop procrastinating.

Julia Galef, CFAR’s president and cofounder, began a session on Saturday morning with the first of many brain-as-computer metaphors. We are “running rationality on human hardware,” she said, not supercomputers, so the goal was to become incrementally more self-reflective and Bayesian: not perfectly rational agents, but “agent-y.” The workshop’s classes lasted six or so hours a day; activities and conversations went well into the night. We got a condensed treatment of contemporary neuroscience that focused on hacking our brains’ various systems and modules, and attended sessions on habit training, urge propagation, and delegating to future selves. We heard a lot about Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize–winning psychologist whose work on cognitive heuristics and biases demonstrated many of the ways we are irrational.

Geoff Anders, the founder of Leverage Research, a “meta-level nonprofit” funded by Thiel, taught a class on goal factoring, a process of introspection that, after many tens of hours, maps out every one of your goals down to root-level motivations — the unchangeable “intrinsic goods,” around which you can rebuild your life. Goal factoring is an application of Connection Theory, Anders’s model of human psychology, which he developed as a Rutgers philosophy student disserting on Descartes, and Connection Theory is just the start of a universal renovation. Leverage Research has a master plan that, in the most recent public version, consists of nearly 300 steps. It begins from first principles and scales up from there: “Initiate a philosophical investigation of philosophical method”; “Discover a sufficiently good philosophical method”; have 2,000-plus “actively and stably benevolent people successfully seek enough power to be able to stably guide the world”; “People achieve their ultimate goals as far as possible without harming others”; “We have an optimal world”; “Done.”

On Saturday night, Anders left the Rose Garden Inn early to supervise a polyphasic-sleep experiment that some Leverage staff members were conducting on themselves. It was a schedule called the Everyman 3, which compresses sleep into three twenty-minute REM naps each day and three hours at night for slow-wave. Anders was already polyphasic himself. Operating by the lights of his own best practices, goal-factored, coherent, and connected, he was able to work 105 hours a week on world optimization.

For the rest of us, for me, these were distant aspirations. We were nerdy and unperfected. There was intense discussion at every free moment, and a genuine interest in new ideas, if especially in testable, verifiable ones. There was joy in meeting peers after years of isolation. CFAR was also insular, overhygienic, and witheringly focused on productivity. Almost everyone found politics to be tribal and viscerally upsetting. Discussions quickly turned back to philosophy and math.

By Monday afternoon, things were wrapping up. Andrew Critch, a CFAR cofounder, gave a final speech in the lounge: “Remember how you got started on this path. Think about what was the time for you when you first asked yourself, ‘How do I work?’ and ‘How do I want to work?’ and ‘What can I do about that?’ . . . Think about how many people throughout history could have had that moment and not been able to do anything about it because they didn’t know the stuff we do now. I find this very upsetting to think about. It could have been really hard. A lot harder.”

He was crying. “I kind of want to be grateful that we’re now, and we can share this knowledge and stand on the shoulders of giants like Daniel Kahneman . . . I just want to be grateful for that. . . . And because of those giants, the kinds of conversations we can have here now, with, like, psychology and, like, algorithms in the same paragraph, to me it feels like a new frontier. . . . Be explorers; take advantage of this vast new landscape that’s been opened up to us in this time and this place; and bear the torch of applied rationality like brave explorers. And then, like, keep in touch by email.”

The workshop attendees put giant Post-its on the walls expressing the lessons they hoped to take with them. A blue one read rationality is systematized winning. Above it, in pink: there are other people who think like me. i am not alone.

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