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Kaj Sotala
Works at Foundational Research Institute
Attended University of Helsinki
Lives in Helsinki
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Kaj Sotala

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> We are standing above the new Sorek desalination plant, the largest reverse-osmosis desal facility in the world, and we are staring at Israel’s salvation. Just a few years ago, in the depths of its worst drought in at least 900 years, Israel was running out of water. Now it has a surplus. That remarkable turnaround was accomplished through national campaigns to conserve and reuse Israel’s meager water resources, but the biggest impact came from a new wave of desalination plants.

> Bar-Zeev, who recently joined Israel’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research after completing his postdoc work at Yale University, is an expert on biofouling, which has always been an Achilles’ heel of desalination and one of the reasons it has been considered a last resort. Desal works by pushing saltwater into membranes containing microscopic pores. The water gets through, while the larger salt molecules are left behind. But microorganisms in seawater quickly colonize the membranes and block the pores, and controlling them requires periodic costly and chemical-intensive cleaning. But Bar-Zeev and colleagues developed a chemical-free system using porous lava stone to capture the microorganisms before they reach the membranes. It’s just one of many breakthroughs in membrane technology that have made desalination much more efficient. Israel now gets 55 percent of its domestic water from desalination, and that has helped to turn one of the world’s driest countries into the unlikeliest of water giants.

> Driven by necessity, Israel is learning to squeeze more out of a drop of water than any country on Earth, and much of that learning is happening at the Zuckerberg Institute, where researchers have pioneered new techniques in drip irrigation, water treatment and desalination. They have developed resilient well systems for African villages and biological digesters than can halve the water usage of most homes.
 
Breakthrough in desalinization makes water cheap in the Middle East.
One of the driest countries on earth now makes more freshwater than it needs
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Kaj Sotala

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"So in order to write these 20 pages of stuff, I've read or skimmed at least three books and maybe a couple of dozen research papers, and sure, I couldn't have written this without reading all that... but now that I have, I wonder if all of this is just totally obvious and uninteresting to everyone?" <-- my brain right now. Yay doing research. :P
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I get that feeling, too. Something that helps a bit against that (for me at least!) is to consider that if I'll write about it, at least it might turn out to be better documentation of the obvious thing, so to speak. :)
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> If we rely on motivation alone, we’ll rarely be productive.

> What can we do instead?

> One of my mentors, BJ Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, says we should assume that our “future self” is going to be lazy and have no motivation. We need to set up systems to make productivity as easy as possible — even when our motivation is low.
We’ve all had days or weeks where we’re incredibly productive. I’ll show you how to be more productive, so you can make every day a super productive day.
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It's possible to set yourself up for failure, or for success.
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An economist responding to the common criticism of economics being useless for assuming that people are rational:

> First, here is a link that was posted in this sub recently of a list of counterintuitive results from game theory. Keep in mind, all of these are derived from models using perfectly rational agents, and all of them make predictions that are to some extent or another consistent with real world behavior and incentives. In other words, rational agents can behave in ways that appear, at first glance, to be irrational. Modeling agents as rational has the power to identify these situations, while modeling them as irrational does not. It just throws their behavior into the catch-all bin of "we can't explain it easily so it must be irrationality".

> Now, when you model economic behavior, if you do start under the assumption that people are irrational, you have the choice to either (i) explicitly and systematically model the way in which you believe they are irrational and have a chance at making predictions or explaining real world behavior, or (ii) assume this irrationality is un-model-able or unpredictable, in which case you have no more model, so you have no more insight; you just throw your hands in the air and give up.

> (ii) is obviously not a good option. (i), in my opinion, is isomorphic to modeling rational agents. If a person is irrational in a systematic, model-able way, it's simply a different form of rationality. And that's exactly what economists have been doing, for decades now. Time inconsistency, altruism, willfull ignorance, loss aversion, racism and other types of biases, heuristic decision making, anchoring, habit formation, the endowment effect, and so on and so on, these are all things that could hardly be explained by the caricature of economics I would guess you hold in your mind (and some of which are often mentioned in textbooks written for Freshman level Intro to Microeconomics. But in fact, they can all be explained with more specific, more detailed, more realistic rational agents. When you take that away, you lose all ability to reasonably and reliably predict the behavior, test those predictions, and use the successes and failures of those models to try to understand the world better and make it a better place. When you take that away, you've reduced understanding human behavior to guessing game, when all social sciences have contributed so much more than that to our understanding of ourselves and our understanding of society, to the benefit of both.

> Now, I want to say something and hope it comes across in the least judgmental, least condescending way possible, so I hope you will take it that way. But anyone who has studied economics in even a reasonably serious way (which I define as graduate level at the very least) knows these things, and I would bet that the overwhelming majority agree. So the question is, do you really think you can bring the entire field of economics crashing to the ground by just going "lolololol people aren't rational, checkmate economists". If so, what does that say about you? Maybe you need to spend more time learning about something before you become so sure you know or understand more than the sum of the knowledge of a large number of very smart people who have dedicated their lives to it.
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Would be nice to see you again too :) My money situation does look better now than it looked before (which was the main reason why I was unsure), so maybe I should just go.
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Yesterday I was about to take a nap and almost set an alarm to wake me up after 15 minutes 15 seconds, but then I caught my mistake! 15:15 wouldn't have been right, because 15:51 has a way better aesthetic. Phew, glad I didn't fall for that.
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I notice that I notice when it's 11:34 which is Hell O'Clock.
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> All research involves risk. If your project can't fail, it's development, not research. What's hard is dealing with project failures. It's easy to interpret your project failing as your failing; in fact, it proves that you had the courage to do something difficult.

> The few people in the field who seem to consistently succeed, turning out papers year after year, in fact fail as often as anyone else. You'll find that they often have several projects going at once, only a few of which pan out. The projects that do succeed have usually failed repeatedly, and many wrong approaches went into the final success.

> As you work through your career, you'll accumulate a lot of failures. But each represents a lot of work you did on various subtasks of the overall project. You'll find that a lot of the ideas you had, ways of thinking, even often bits of code you wrote, turn out to be just what's needed to solve a completely different problem several years later. This effect only becomes obvious after you've piled up quite a stack of failures, so take it on faith as you collect your first few that they will be useful later.
Next: Endnote Previous: Research methodology Up: How To Do Research In the MIT AI Lab. Emotional factors. Research is hard. It is easy to burn out on it. An embarrassingly small fraction of students who start PhD programs in AI finish. AT MIT, almost all those who do not finish drop out ...
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😁 👍
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+gwern branwen is skeptical about computational complexity arguments placing practical upper bounds on AI intelligence:

> Computational complexity theory describes the steep increase in computing power required for many algorithms to solve larger problems; frequently, the increase is large enough to render problems a few times larger totally intractable. Many of these algorithms are used in AI-relevant contexts. It has been argued that this implies that AIs will fundamentally be limited in accomplishing real-world tasks better than humans because they will run into the same computational complexity limit as humans, and so the consequences will be small, thus it is impossible for there to be any large fast global changes due to human or superhuman-level AIs. I examine the assumptions of this argument and find it neglects the many conditions under which computational complexity theorems are valid and so the argument doesn’t work: problems can be solved more efficiently than complexity classes would imply, large differences in problem solubility between humans and AIs is possible, greater resource consumption is possible, the real-world consequences of small differences on individual tasks can be large, such consequences can compound, and any of these independent objections being true destroys the argument.
Critics of AI risk suggest diminishing returns to computing means AI will be weak; I argue argument breaks if any premises rejected
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I agree that the complexity arguments don't really apply for super intelligence relative to humans but they do make exponential AIs impossible. Searching for improvements to an intelligence's architecture is NP-hard at least, so I expect it will take exponentially more resources per small gains per level.
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Kaj Sotala

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> ...our partners aren’t partners, but our friends.

> This is a consistent pattern. When one of my sweeties was – and is – experiencing legal trouble with their visa to America, [my wife] Gini kept asking what she could do to help reduce F’s anxiety about possibly having to leave the country. “Yes, of course we must help them.” When another sweetie needed some emergency supplies sent to her, Gini authorized the expenditure without a second thought – “Yes, of course she needs that, send it to her now.”

> I should note that Gini is not dating any of these people. They’re my partners alone. Yet Gini’s had dinner with them, hung out, heard me talk about them. She cares.

> And that goes both ways. When Gini’s partner wound up in the hospital, I asked her whether she needed to go to him. [...]

> What I’m grateful for in our relationships is that we don’t endure each others’ partners, we embrace them.
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On that recent "threatens to invalidate 15 years of brain research" headline:

> As to the question of how serious this is, in my view, it’s very serious, but it doesn’t “invalidate 15 years of brain research” as the headline had it. For one thing, the issue only affects fMRI, and most brain research does not use fMRI. Moreover, Eklund et al.’s findings don’t call all fMRI studies into question – the problem only affects activation mapping studies. Yet while these experiments are common, they are far from the only application of fMRI. Studies of functional connectivity or multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA) are increasingly popular and they’re not, as far as I can see, likely to be affected.

> Finally, it’s important to remember that “70% chance of finding at least one false positive” does not imply that “70% of positives are false”. If there are lots of true positives, only a minority of positives will be false. It’s impossible to directly know the true positive rate, however.

> Update 15th July 2016: Tom Nichols, one of the authors of ‘Cluster Failure’, reports that he’s requested some corrections to the paper in order to remove some of the statements that led to “misinterpretations” of the study (i.e. to those hyped headlines).
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+Matthew Graves makes a nice analogy about what it would be like if the whole world had a single currency:

> ...you would have much more in the way of local price mobility but less in the way of global price mobility. If American oil is suddenly worth more, then instead of dollars increasing in value in a fashion that’s mostly invisible to Americans insulated from the global economy, then the oil producers would have more planetary credits, causing prices in the regions that produce oil to rise, potentially dramatically.

> You can actually already get some taste of this when it comes to expensive cities. A New York City dollar and a Boise dollar are only kind of the same, and it might make sense to think of a Boise-NYC exchange rate / what that would look like if the two cities had different official currencies.
drethelin: “ isangelouis: “ @ smart ppl what would happen if the whole world used the same currency? what would be the effects? ” as far as I understand it, the outcome would be similar to the Euro...
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> [My sister] told me, once, when we were much younger women, about something that had happened when she was a freshman or so in high school. She studied ballet quite seriously in those days. On the occasion, she showed up at her regular dance class after school. Apparently the teacher could tell something was amiss, and indeed my sister was dealing with some drama or another – probably family nonsense. The teacher took my sister aside [...] and said something to the effect of, look, whatever the hell's going on with you, "you don't bring it in here. You leave it outside the studio door or you don't come in."

> Now, to many this might be crushing to told, but I suppose once you're on toe shoes and having public class weighings, the weak have been culled. My sister related this in a tone of wonder, and of imparting a delightful secret. "I realized", she told me (as I recall it), "she was right, I shouldn't bring that in with me. Before she said that, it hadn't even occurred to me I could leave it outside the studio door. But I could; I didn't have to deal with any of that when I was in the dance studio. The dance studio could be a place where I focus on dance – and nothing else."

> I love this story for a variety of reasons, but one is because I resonate with it. Being a therapist, I have no paid time off and I certainly can't spare the money, so I've been working, but that's actually been a great comfort. The regularity of the routine, the familiarity of the environments and people, and, of course, getting to put all else aside to Do Therapisting, have been grounding and soothing, and served as a powerful antidote against the upheaval and uncertainty of my situation.
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Helsinki
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Turku, Finland
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  • Foundational Research Institute
    Researcher, 2016 - present
  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute
    Research Associate, 2013 - 2016
  • Finn Lectura
    Software Developer, 2013 - 2014
  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute
    Research Fellow, 2012 - 2013
  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute
    Research Associate, 2012 - 2012
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  • University of Helsinki
    Cognitive Science (BA), 2006 - 2011
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