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Author: Ben Chugg and Vaden Masrani

Subscribed: 3Played: 72


Vaden Masrani, a PhD student in machine learning at UBC and Ben Chugg, a research fellow at Stanford Law School, get into trouble arguing about everything except machine learning and law. Coherence is somewhere on the horizon. Love, bribes, suggestions, and hate-mail all welcome at
20 Episodes
Back in the ring for round two on longtermism! We (Ben somewhat drunkenly) respond to some of the criticism of episode #17 and our two essays (Ben's, Vaden's) We touch on: Ben's hate mail from his piece on cliodynamicsLongtermism as implying altruistic portfolio shufflingWhat the hell is Bayesian epistemology The Pasadena gameAuthoritarianism and the danger of seeking perfection Arrow's theoremAlternative decision theories focusing on error correction What's the probability of nuclear war before 2100?When are models reliable What problems to work on You will, dear listener, be either pleased or horrified to learn that this will not be our last foray into longtermism. It's like choose your own adventure ... except we're choosing the adventure, and the adventure is longtermism. Next stop is the Hear this Idea podcast!Send us your predictions for who will be president in 2200 at Since the claim is falsifiable, don't worry, we'll get back to you.  
#18 - Work Addiction

#18 - Work Addiction


Bit of a personal episode this one is! Ben learns how to be a twitter warrior while Vaden has a full-on breakdown during quarantine. Who knew work addiction was actually a real thing? And that there are 12 step programs for people who identify as being "powerless over compulsive work, worry, or activity"? And that mathematics can create compulsive behavior indistinguishable from drug addiction? Vaden does, now.People mentioned in this episode:- Andrew Wiles (look at his face! the face of an addict!)- Grigori Perelman - Terry Tao's blog post ("There is a particularly dangerous occupational hazard in this subject: one can become focused, to the exclusion of other mathematical activity (and in extreme cases, on non-mathematical activity also)" - italics added) Work slavishly without sleeping or eating to send email over to  
#17 - Against Longtermism

#17 - Against Longtermism


Well, there's no avoiding controversy with this one. We explain, examine, and attempt to refute the shiny new moral philosophy of longtermism. Our critique focuses on The Case for Strong Longtermism by Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill. We say so in the episode, but it's important to emphasize that we harbour no animosity towards anyone in the effective altruism community. However, we both think that longtermism is pretty f***ing scary and do our best to communicate why.Confused as to why there's no charming, witty, and hilarious intro? Us too. Somehow, Ben managed to corrupt his audio. Classic. Oh well, some of you tell us you dislike the intros anyway. ReferencesThe Case for Strong Longtermism, by Greaves and MacAskillVaden's EA forum post on longtermismThe reddit discussion surrounding Vaden's pieceBen's piece on longtermism (which he has hidden in the depths of Medium because he's scared of the EA forum) Ben on Pascal's Mugging and Expected ValuesGwern and Robin Hanson making fun of Ben's piece Yell at us on the EA forum, on Reddit, on Medium, or over email at 
Vaden comes battle-hardened and ready to debate and is met with ... a big soft hug from Ben. Ben repents his apocalyptic sins and admits that Vaden changed his mind. Again. God dammit this is getting annoying. To his credit, Vaden only gloats for 10 minutes.  Eventually we touch on some other topics: technology as filling nicheswhen is outrage appropriate? the upsides of social media conversation as a substitute for violence Much love to everyone and stay safe out there! Send us some feedback at 
Alright spiders, point this at your brain. Ben and Vaden do a deep dive into the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma and have a genuine debate, just like the good ol' days.  Topics touched:Why Vaden dislikes documentaries, and this one in particularIs reliance on social media a problem?The advertisement modelThe relationship between social media and mental health... and political polarization... and outrage in generalEpistemological erosionWars of words and swordsOutraged? Polarized? Radicalized, even?  We want to hear about it at referenced in episode:"This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrageification, vanityification, the entire thing. This is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate on humanity."- Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma"If we go down the current status quo for, let's say, another 20 years... we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance. We probably fail to meet the challenge of climate change. We probably degrade the world's democracies so that they fall into some sort of bizarre autocratic dysfunction. We probably ruin the global economy.  Uh, we probably, um, don't survive.  You know, I... I really do view it as existential."- Jaron Lanier, The Social Dilemma "We're pointing these engines of AI back at ourselves to reverse-engineer what elicits responses from us. Almost like you're stimulating nerve cells on a spider to see what causes its legs to respond. So, it really is this kind of prison experiment where we're just, you know, roping people into the matrix, and we're just harvesting all this money and... and data from all their activity to profit from."- Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma"Although I am an admirer of tradition, and conscious of its importance, I am, at the same time, an almost orthodox adherent of unorthodoxy: I hold that orthodoxy is the death of knowledge, since the growth of knowledge depends entirely on the existence of disagreement. Admittedly, disagreement may lead to strife, and even to violence. And this, I think, is very bad indeed, for I abhor violence. Yet disagreement may also lead to discussion, to argument, and to mutual criticism. And these, I think, are of paramount importance. I suggest that the greatest step towards a better and more peaceful world was taken when the war of swords was first supported, and later sometimes even replaced, by a war of words."- Karl Popper, The Myth Of The FrameworkReferences:Welcome to the Cult Factory (Tristan Harris's latest appearance on Making Sense)Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary FilmsHow to assess a documentaryTwitter Study showing only 1% of users are polarized, and the rest moderateLiterature review of social media use and mental health by Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge. Conclusion? It's complicated.Study showing self reports of time spent on social media are not reliable. This is relevant because most studies showing a link between social media use and deteriorating mental health rely on self reports. Not Born Yesterday by Hugo MercierErrata: Vaden keeps saying "Jared Lanier" when it should be "Jaron Lanier". Oops!
The third in the Conjectures and Refutations series, we cover Chapter 16: Prediction And Prophecy in the Social Sciences. There's a bit more Hitler stuff in this one than usual (retweets  ≠ endorsements), but only because he provides a clear example of the motherlode of all bad ideas - historicism. We discuss:What historicism is and why it sucksPrediction vs prophecyDifferences between the physical sciences and social sciencesThe success of prediction in the physical sciencesThe role of the social sciencesWhat are laws of nature?Plus a little easter egg! As always send us a little sumptin' sumptin' at"In memory of the countless men, women and children of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny."- Epigraph of The Poverty of Historicism"It was not by mere chance that the first forms of civilisation arose where the Aryan came into contact with inferior races, subjugated them and forced them to obey his command. The members of the inferior race became the first mechanical tools in the service of a growing civilisation. Thereby the way was clearly indicated which the Aryan had to follow.As a conqueror, he subjugated inferior races and turned their physical powers into organised channels under his own leadership, forcing them to follow his will and purpose.By imposing on them a useful, though hard, manner of employing their powers, he not only spared the lives of those whom he had conquered, but probably made their lives easier than they had been in the former state of so-called 'freedom.'" (italics added)- Mein Kampf (The Stalag Edition), Chapter XI: Nation and Race“But it is clear that the adoption of the conspiracy theory can hardly be avoided by those who believe that they know how to make heaven on earth. The only explanation for their failure to produce this heaven is the malevolence of the devil who has a vested interest in hell.”- Conjectures and Refutations, Chapter 16: Prediction and Prophecy in the Social Sciences
Stephen is back for round two! In this episode we learn that Vaden wants to live in a panopticon and Ben in a high tech surveillance state. Also, we're all going to use Bing from now on.  Stephen Caines is a research fellow at Stanford law school's CodeX centre for legal informatics, where he specializes in the domestic use of facial recognition technology. He received a J.D. from  the University of Miami  with a concentration in the Business of Innovation, Law, and Technology.  Bring on da feedback at; we check it at least once a month ...
In the lead up to the American presidential election, one of the largest and most consequential expressions of public opinion, Ben and Vaden do what they always do and ask: "What does Popper say about this?" The second in the Conjectures and Refutations series, we cover Chapter 17: Public Opinion and Liberal Principles.  Largely irrelevant and probably unhelpful, we touch A thesis that the far left and right are converging vis-a-vis reactionary politicsThe idea that "truth is manifest", i.e. obvious The role of free speech and diversity of opinionPolitical polarizationLibertarians and their hate of seatbeltsSend us some hate or some love at Chapter excerpt:The following remarks were designed to provide material for debate at an international conference of liberals (...). My purpose was simply to lay the foundations for a good general discussion. Because I could assume liberal views in my audience I was largely concerned to challenge, rather than endorse, popular assumptions favourable to these views.
Vaden's arguments against Bayesian philosophy and existential risk are examined by someone who might actually know what they're talking about, i.e., not Ben. After writing a critique of our conversation in Episode 7, which started off a series of blog posts, our good friend Mauricio kindly agrees to come on the podcast and try to figure out who's more confused. Does Vaden convert? Mauricio studies political science, economics, and philosophy at Stanford University. He is one of the organizers of the Stanford Effective Altruism group and the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative. We apologize for the long wait between this episode and the last one. It was all Vaden's fault. Hit us up at!Note from Vaden:  Upon relistening, I've just learned my new computer chair clicks in the most annoying possible way every time I get enthusiastic. My apologies - I'll work on being less enthusiastic in future episodes.  Second note from Vaden: Yeesh lots of audio issues with this episode - I replaced the file with a cleaned up version at 5:30pm September 17th. Still learning... 
Traditions, what are you good for? Absolutely nothing? In this episode of Increments, Ben and Vaden begin their series on Conjectures and Refutations by looking at the role tradition plays in society, and examine one tradition in particular - the critical tradition. No monkeys were harmed in the making of this episode. References:- C&R, Chapter 4: Towards a Rational Theory of TraditionPodcast shoutout:- Jennifer Doleac and Rob Wiblin on policing, law and incarceration- James Foreman Jr. on the US criminal legal systemaudio updated 26/12/2020
The talented Stephen Caines punctures the cloud of confusion that is Ben and Vaden's conception of facial recognition technology. We talk about the development and usage of facial recognition in the private and public spheres, the dangers and merits of the technology, and Vaden's plan to use it a bars. For God's sake don't give that man a GPU. Stephen is a legal technologist with a passion for access to justice. He is a 2019 graduate of the University of Miami School of Law with a concentration in the Business of Innovation, Law, and Technology. While in law school, his work focused on public interest, legal aid organizations, and non-profits. He was a 2018 Access to Justice Technology Fellow and has worked with the Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. on a variety of technology initiatives aimed at optimizing their operations. Additionally, he worked on the legislative and technology policy team of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Stephen’s current work focuses on developing standards and best practices for the safe and ethical implementation of technology in the public sector.References: Stephen's website.Perpetual Lineup Project (out of Georgetown)Stephen on the Our Data podcastIBM, Amazon, and Microsoft put moratoria on some aspects of their FRT technology. Clearview AI 
On the same page at last! Ben comes to the philosophical confessional to announce his probabilistic sins. The Bayesians will be pissed (with high probability). At least Vaden doesn't make him kiss anything. After too much agreement and self-congratulation, Ben and Vaden conclude the mini-series on the philosophy of probability, and "announce" an upcoming mega-series on Conjectures and Refutations. References:- My Bayesian Enlightenment by Eliezer YudkowskyRationalist community blogs:- Less Wrong- Slate Star Codex- Marginal RevolutionYell at us at 
Back down to earth we go! Or try to, at least. In this episode Ben and Vaden attempt to ground their previous discussion on the philosophy of probability by focusing on a real-world example, namely the book The Precipice by Toby Ord, recently featured on the Making Sense podcast. Vaden believes in arguments, and Ben argues for beliefs. Quotes"A common approach to estimating the chance of an unprecedented event with earth-shaking consequences is to take a skeptical stance: to start with an extremely small probability and only raise it from there when a large amount of hard evidence is presented. But I disagree. Instead, I think the right method is to start with a probability that reflects our overall impressions, then adjust this in light of the scientific evidence. When there is a lot of evidence, these approaches converge. But when there isn’t, the starting point can matter. In the case of artificial intelligence, everyone agrees the evidence and arguments are far from watertight, but the question is where does this leave us? Very roughly, my approach is to start with the overall view of the expert community that there is something like a one in two chance that AI agents capable of outperforming humans in almost every task will be developed in the coming century. And conditional on that happening, we shouldn’t be shocked if these agents that outperform us across the board were to inherit our future. Especially if when looking into the details, we see great challenges in aligning these agents with our values."- The Precipice, p. 165"Most of the risks arising from long-term trends remain beyond revealing quantification. What is the probability of China’s spectacular economic expansion stalling or even going into reverse? What is the likelihood that Islamic terrorism will develop into a massive, determined quest to destroy the West? Probability estimates of these outcomes based on expert opinion provide at best some constraining guidelines but do not offer any reliable basis for relative comparisons of diverse events or their interrelations. What is the likelihood that a massive wave of global Islamic terrorism will accelerate the Western transition to non–fossil fuel energies? To what extent will the globalization trend be enhanced or impeded by a faster-than-expected sea level rise or by a precipitous demise of the United States? Setting such odds or multipliers is beyond any meaningful quantification." - Global Catastrophes and Trends, p. 226"And while computers have been used for many years to assemble other  computers and machines, such deployments do not indicate any imminent self- reproductive capability. All those processes require human actions to initiate them,  raw materials to build the hardware, and above all, energy to run them. I find it hard to visualize how those machines would (particularly in less than a generation) launch, integrate, and sustain an entirely independent exploration, extraction, conversion, and delivery of the requisite energies."- Global Catastrophes and Trends, p. 26References:- Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years- The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity- Making Sense podcast w/ Ord  (Clip starts around 40:00)- Repugnant conclusion- Arrow's theorem- Balinski–Young theorem
Don't leave yet - we swear this will be more interesting than it sounds ... ... But a drink will definitely help. Ben and Vaden dive into the interpretations behind probability. What do people mean when they use the word, and why do we use this one tool to describe different concepts. The rowdiness truly kicks in when Vaden releases his pent-up critique of Bayesianism, thereby losing both his friends and PhD position. But at least he's ingratiated himself with Karl Popper. References:Vaden's  Slides on a 1975 paper by Irving John Good titled Explicativity, Corroboration, and the Relative Odds of Hypotheses. The paper is I.J. Good’s response to Karl Popper, and in the presentation I compare the two philosophers’ views on probability, epistemology, induction, simplicity, and content.Diversity in Interpretations of Probability: Implications for Weather ForecastingAndrew Gelman, Philosophy and the practice of Bayesian statisticsPopper quote: "Those who identify confirmation with probability must believe that a high degree of probability is desirable. They implicitly accept the rule: ‘Always choose the most probable hypothesis!’ Now it can be easily shown that this rule is equivalent to the following rule: ‘Always choose the hypothesis which goes as little beyond the evidence as possible!’ And this, in turn, can be shown to be equivalent, not only to ‘Always accept the hypothesis with the lowest content (within the limits of your task, for example, your task of predicting)!’, but also to ‘Always choose the hypothesis which has the highest degree of ad hoc character (within the limits of your task)!’" (Conjectures and Refutations p.391) Get in touch at updated 13/12/2020
In their first somber episode, Ben and Vaden discuss the protests and political tensions surrounding the murder of George Floyd. They talk about defunding the police, the importance of philosophy in politics, and honest conversation as the only peaceful means of error-correction. References: which found that body cameras did not have a statistically significant effect. Errata: Ta-Nehisi Coates quote is "essential below" not "eternal under". Full quote is: "It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country."Things That Make White People Uncomfortable was written by Michael Bennett, not Michael BarnetLove and complaints both welcome at 
Are computer scientists recklessly applying their methods to other fields without sufficient thoughtfulness? What are computer scientists good for anyway? Ben, in true masochistic fashion, worries that computer scientists are overstepping their bounds. Vaden analysis his worries with a random forest and determines that they are only 10% accurate, but then proceeds to piss of his entire field by arguing that we're nowhere close to true artificial intelligence. References"Good" isn't good enough, Ben Green. "How close are we to creating artificial intelligence?", David Deutsch, Aeon"Artificial Intelligence - The Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet", Michael Jordan, Medium"Deep Learning: A Critical Appraisal", Gary MarcusErrata Vaden says "every logarithmic curve starts with exponential growth". This should be "every logistic curve stats with exponential growth". Vaden says "95 degree accuracy". This should be "95 percent accuracy." The three main rationalists were Descarte, Spinoza, and Leibniz, and the three main empiricists were Bacon, Locke, and Hume. (Not whatever Vaden said)Ben says so much nonsense that it's not even worth documenting. 
Ben persuades Vaden that all prisoners should be let loose. Vaden convinces Ben that he shouldn’t use the word “vista” so regularly. At least they stay on topic this time. References: What is the PIC? What is Abolition?, Critical Resistance. Is Prison Necessary? NY Times piece covering Ruth Wilson Gilmore. What is Prison Abolition, The Nation. 
An attempt to clean up the mess we made last episode. Ben still doesn't figure out how not to yell into his microphone, and Vaden finally realizes what Ben was saying and it was … perhaps not so interesting in the first place? Ben, all too pleased with himself, starts yammering on about future generations. Should we care? God — we promise that next week we’ll try to stick to whichever subject we pick. References: Why the long-term future matters, podcast with Toby Ord. 
We attempt to talk about Epistemic Modesty: broadly, the idea that one should be modest in their beliefs when other people (with similar credentials) disagree with them. Vaden however, entirely immodestly, tries abandoning the subject because he’s scared of Ben’s forceful arguments and derails the conversation on to the entirely uncontroversial subject of which systems of moral decision making are best suited for moral progress. A flabbergasted Ben tries to keep up, but too little too late. Most of the time he's just trying to get his microphone to behave anyway. References:In defence of epistemic modesty; Greg Lewis. Against Modest Epistemology; Eliezer Yudkowski. Podcast with Will MacAskill on moral uncertainty.  
#0 - Introduction

#0 - Introduction


Ben and Vaden attempt to justify why the world needs another podcast, and fail.  
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