Monday, 3 April 2023

Why I Signed The "Pause" Letter

I work for Google, but everything here is my personal opinion, not Google's position.

I signed the "Pause" letter because I agree with what it says and I think the actions it advocates are very likely to be beneficial.

To be clear, none of the following are reasons why I signed:

  • Because I'm a fan of the Future Of Life Institute, Elon Musk, or any of the other signatories
  • Because I think the recommended pause would solve all our problems
  • Because I'm confident the pause will actually happen
  • To give academics time to publish papers (Scott Aaronson, this one's beneath you)
  • To build hype around large language models
  • To give some company an advantage over another company

Most of the arguments against a pause are very shallow, e.g. LLMs are a hoax; the proposed pause in giant-model training could lead to government regulation which is inevitably worse than any alternative; people want a pause because of risk X when they should be worried about worse risk Y; AI is so obviously super-beneficial that it's morally wrong to delay those benefits. The two strongest arguments against a pause, IMHO, are a) China and b) potential overhang.

Some people argue that a pause would give China a chance to overtake the rest of the world in AI, and that would be worse than not having a pause. I think that is very unlikely. Western-aligned countries together seem to have three big advantages: a lead in training large models, control over the manufacture and distribution of the most powerful GPUs and TPUs, and most of the world's best AI researchers. Also, from what I've read, the modern CCP is highly averse to social disruption, so I expect them to proceed carefully.

Another argument against a pause is that if we stop training giant models we'll continue to improve hardware and algorithms, so the next time we train a giant model there would be a discontinuous increase in capability, which would be worse than not pausing at all. It seems unlikely to me that this effect, even if it happens, would outweight the benefits of a pause.

Supporters of the proposed pause are motivated by different AI risks. In particular:

  • Some people, exemplified by Eliezer Yudkowsky, are convinced AI will inevitably destroy humanity due to the "alignment problem". I think that possibility has to be taken seriously — which alone is a good reason to adopt the "Pause" letter's measures (and more). Still, I doubt doom is guaranteed.
  • Some people are more worried about socioeconomic issues like potential mass unemployment. I think these issues, taken together, are also a sufficient reason to slow down AI development and mass deployment. When AI capabilities grow faster than people can learn new skills, we're pushing the limit of the rate of change humans can handle.
  • In between "social/economic adjustment" and "alignment extinction risk" are the risks of powerful AIs in the hands of malicious people. We have to learn to defend against the new generations of scams, hacks, warfare and other havoc that are coming, and again, this takes time.

I think all of these risks are valid concerns that warrant great caution and slower rates of change. I'd be delighted if we got the proposed pause. I don't think we will, but I hope that these issues get a lot more attention and we start taking government and self-regulation of AI seriously. It's absurd that we regulate food and drug safety but not AI.

Sunday, 2 April 2023

Auckland Waterfront Half Marathon 2023

This morning I did the Auckland Waterfront Half Marathon. I finished in 1:51:13 which is okay but a little bit disappointing given that this course is dead flat. I'm getting older and I have to accept that. It felt similar to my previous half marathons where I can maintain pace up until about 18km and then it becomes too hard, so I break into a walk/run pattern until the end. Still, a good workout and these events help incentivize me to keep the running up.

Saturday, 24 December 2022

Travers-Sabine Circuit 2022

After completing the Paparoa Track on December 14, six of our group were dropped off in St Arnaud to prepare for the Travers-Sabine Circuit. We spent two nights at Nelson Lakes Motel, with a rest day on December 15 to do laundry, buy a few more supplies, pack for the circuit, and generally relax (including watching Morocco vs France in the football World Cup).

On December 16 we got up early and took a boat across Lake Rotoiti to Coldwater Hut where we started the track. That day we marched for several hours up the Travers Valley, all the way to Upper Travers Hut at the head of the valley. It was a long, tiring walk with heavy packs containing supplies for six days, but not especially difficult. As forecast, the weather was foggy and a bit drizzly but not bad and when we reached Upper Travers we had some good views of Mt Travers and surrounding slopes still with patches of snow. The second day we crossed the Travers Saddle — a more difficult walk, starting with a steep 500m-vertical climb to the saddle, followed by a 1km-vertical desent to the East Sabine River and a walk to West Sabine Hut. This day the weather was pretty good and we had some great views from the saddle.

The next day I really wanted to visit Blue Lake because we missed out last time. I had originally planned to stay overnight at Blue Lake Hut but we decided instead to leave our gear at West Sabine Hut and make a day trip to Blue Lake. The main advantage was to shorten our walk on day four, by moving the return from Blue Lake to West Sabine Hut from day four to day three, which hopefully would leave us fresher for day five (see below). Our day trip was excellent; Blue Lake was nice but not stunning given the cloudy weather conditions, but the walk up the valley is beautiful and we visited Lake Constance beyond the head of the valley, which was stunning. (Signs say the Lake Constance viewpoint is one hour from Blue Lake Hut but it's really one hour return.)

On day four, as planned we had a relatively easy walk down to Sabine Hut on Lake Rotoroa, followed by quality rest time at the hut, during which we ate a lot of snacks, played a lot of Bang, and enjoyed Vodafone coverage inside the hut, letting us get up-to-date weather forecasts and let our loved ones know we were alive.

On day five we tackled the hardest part of our planned route: climbing Mt Cedric and then following ridgetops to Angelus Hut. The route up Mt Cedric has over 1000m of elevation gain in the first 3km of horizontal travel. Most of that gain is below the bushline and much of that track is covered in slippery black fungus fed by beech honeydew. It's a tough hike! To beat rain forecast for the afternoon, we got up at 5am and left the hut around 6am. Everything went well and we arrived at Angelus Hut around noon, right on schedule, tired but satisfied. The weather was mixed but we had some sun and good views in the afternoon.

On our last day we just had to walk from Angelus Hut along Robert Ridge and into St Arnaud for lunch and then a shuttle pickup to Nelson Airport. Thankfully we had excellent weather for this, with stunning views in all directions. After the rest of the circuit, Robert Ridge was extremely easy. It was fun to gently rejoin civilization by encountering more and more day-walkers as we made our way down Mt Robert.

Overall it was a challenging but extremely rewarding trip. On both Paparoa and Travers-Sabine the forecast weather was poor but the actual weather was much better. We achieved everything we set out to do. We enjoyed the walking and we had wonderful social times in huts — including many, many games of Bang!, some with people outside our group. I'm incredibly grateful to God for the privilege of being able to do these trips and for the love and friendship of the people whom I am blessed to tramp with.

Friday, 23 December 2022

Paparoa Track

We have a tradition that every year I organise a group tramping trip in the South Island in December, between students finishing exams and Christmas. Typically we do one "easy" tramp and one "hard" tramp, balancing welcoming new trampers with pursuing tougher but more rewarding challenges. This year the "easy" tramp was Paparoa Track and the "hard" tramp was the Travers-Sabine Circuit (which we previously did in 2019).

I completed all the official "Great Walks" some years ago, but recently the Paparoa Track was created as a new Great Walk, and this year seemed like a good time to re-complete the set. We did it over three days (December 12-14) which seemed about right; one could spend an extra day and stay at Ces Clark hut, but that would make it a bit too easy for my taste. So we started at the southern end, Smoke-Ho car park, and walked north, staying at Moonlight Tops Hut on the first night and Pororari Hut on the second night. We hired three rental cars to get all thirteen of us to the track start (staying the night before at Greymouth Top 10 Holiday Park), and hired Buller Adventures to move those cars to the track end while we were walking. These logistics all worked out well.

Everything basically went according to plan. We didn't get many views on the first day due to foggy weather — some of us did the side track up Croesus Knob, which was a waste of time since we basically walked up into a cloud. However the weather on the second and third day was excellent, with stunning views across the Paparoa ranges and down to the ocean on the West Coast. The Pororari River gorge was also a highlight. No-one got injured, though a couple of members of our group were a bit slower than expected. As expected for a Great Walk, the track condition was excellent. It's open to mountain bikers; we met a few but they didn't cause any problems. Parts of the track looked pretty terrifying to bike on but a lot of people are much better at biking than me! Along the track we had a close encounter with one kea and also saw a morepork (native owl), which is unusual since they're usually hidden during the day and impossible to see at night.

Late on the first day we passed a man tramping alone who had stopped to rest after experiencing some kind of heart arrhythmia. He was considering his options — continue or call for help — so I and a couple of other group members waited with him for a while to support him in whatever decision he made. In the end he decided to continue while we walked with him. To be on the safe side we carried his pack too. The next day he felt a lot better and carried on normally to complete the track, thank God. It's the first time we've had to assist someone outside our group in a quasi-emergency and I was pleased to be able to do it. At the hut turned out he was carrying a chess set; my son was delighted to play some games with him, and lost a few, which is great because there are no worthy opponents in the rest of our group.

It was interesting to see that the brand-new huts have USB chargers (powered by the rooftop solar panels). I guess that was inevitable!

Ranking the Great Walks, I rate Paparoa in the lower tier, with fewer interesting elements than most of the other Great Walks. It is extremely popular right now — bookings for the dates we wanted sold out in a few minutes after they opened on May 6 — but I guess that's partly due to completists like me adding it to their collection. On the other hand, it is certainly well worth doing in its own right, especially once you've done the top-tier walks.

After the exiting the track at Punakaiki on the 14th our drivers drove the rental cars back to Nelson, dropping off six of us in St Arnaud along the way to prepare for the Travers-Sabine Circuit, but that's another story...

Monday, 19 September 2022

Aotea Track 2022

I just completed the Aotea Track for the second time, with a few friends and work colleagues. On Saturday we flew to the island and walked from Whangaparapara to Kaiaraara Hut, with a side trip to Bush's Beach. On Sunday we walked up Kaiaraara Track to Mt Hobson/Hirakimata for fantastic views around the whole island and the outer Hauraki Gulf. A few of us did a side trip to Windy Canyons. We stayed the night at Mt Heale Hut which is pretty close to Hirakimata and also has incredible views. On Monday (today) we walked down to Kaitoke Hot Springs for a dip and then along the road to the airport for the flight home. The weather was good during the weekend; we had some rain today but it didn't cause us much trouble. We had a great time, and I feel very refreshed.

I was surprised to see no trampers on the track or in the huts, other than our group. There aren't many good tramping options near Auckland, especially during the winter, and this is a great one. Getting to Great Barrier is easy if you fly (about $300 round trip). Altogether I expected this track to be more popular.

Sunday, 4 September 2022

Success, Privilege And God

I totally agree with Ed Zitron when he writes

Anyone that has achieved any level of success wants to believe they did so based on noble terms and tells their story in a way that makes them seem both like a moral paragon and someone that’s “earned” their place.
Privilege isn’t just about being rich, or white, or male, or any number of other conditions that make life easier by default, and one can be an incredibly hard worker and still be quite privileged. Privilege is the ability to work hard when it actually matters, which is to say that simply working hard is not enough to succeed if your hard work doesn’t lead to actual success because the right person wasn’t watching or you weren’t at the right company, or you were overlooked based on your gender or the color of your skin.

Even "intrinsic" circumstances such as our talents are not something that we earned. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters:

People did not create themselves... their talents were given them, and they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.

I agree with Zitron and Lewis that we have an unhealthy tendency to take credit for our own success. But pushing against that too hard may lead to a mindset that nothing we do makes any difference — we're just a victim of circumstances — which leads to apathy and irresponsibility. So how do we find the right way to think about this tension?

Jesus gives us a simple and elegant approach in Luke 12:48:

"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."

That's so simple it's almost trite, but I think it's actually very deep, especially when interpreted in the broader context of Luke and other teachings such as the parable of the talents. First Jesus affirms that the good things we have have been given to us by God, directly or indirectly. We can't take credit for them. But then he tells us that God expects a lot from us in return; we have to make the most of what God has given us. In fact, in the context it's clear Jesus is talking about the day of divine judgement. There is no room for apathy; God requires our very best efforts.

This is a beautiful and elegant answer to a very practical dilemma. It's important to notice that this answer doesn't work without God — the Creator who also judges. If you take God out of the equation then there is not necessarily anyone to feel grateful to for our success, and we are obliged to no-one to make the most of what we have.

Saturday, 2 July 2022

Tūrangi Road Trip

Last weekend (Friday) was the first ever Matariki public holiday and the kids had Monday off so we went on a family road trip to Tūrangi for three nights. It wasn't a tramping trip — we stayed at the "Tūrangi Leisure Lodge" motel — but the trip was mostly short walks and board games.

We drove down on Friday and stopped near Lake Karapiro to walk up Maungatautari from the northern side. It's a mountain in the Waikato countryside with a predator-proof fence to create a bird sanctuary. The walk to the summit was worth doing, about three hours round trip, although there isn't much of a view at the top.

Saturday was overcast and drizzly and we did short walks around Tūrangi — up and down the Tongariro River, with lots of people fly-fishing. We drove the short distance to Tokaanu and enjoyed views of the lake from the wharf. Near Tokaanu is the bush-clad hill Maunganamu, probably a very small volcanic cone. Our topographic map showed a track to the top so we hunted it down — there are no signs in the area and the trailhead is overgrown, but the track is still there and passable although obviously unmaintained and becoming gradually overgrown. At the top there's bit of a lookout over the surrounding area. For a very short walk it was pretty good.

Sunday's weather was a bit better so we drove the road loop around the central volcanoes, clockwise — Whakapapa, National Park, Ohakune, the Desert Road, back to Tūrangi, with stops along the way in a few places. In Whakapapa we did the Taranaki Falls walk and got some great views of snow-clad Mt Ruapehu along the way. We did a side trip up the Ohakune Mountain Road to Tūroa skifield and played around in the snow for a little while. (Fortunately for us, there wasn't enough snow for the skifield to be open and thronged with skiers.) Along the Desert Road clouds lifted enough for us to have amazing views of the east side of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro. It was getting late in the day for more walking but we took the chance to investigate the Kaimanawa Road leading to DoC's Urchin Campsite and the route up Mt Urchin. The road is actually pretty good, definitely good enough for our Honda Odyssey. We did a very short walk there on a beautifully maintained bush track. I'm definitely looking forward to going back there, maybe camping, and doing the walk up Mt Urchin. This was a pretty great day; even though the weather wasn't perfect we got good views of all the mountains at various times during the day.

On Monday we headed back to Auckland via my favourite geothermal park: Waimangu Valley near Rotorua. This is supposedly the world's youngest geothermal area, having only become geothermally active in 1886 after the eruption of Mt Tarawera. I enjoy this place because it's a great three-hour bush walk (at a slow pace) which just happens to have amazing geothermal features along the way. The highlight for me was Frying Pan Lake, supposedly the world's biggest hot spring, but certainly a quite large and very hot lake. The patterns of rising steam swirling in the wind are amazing, something I haven't seen anywhere else. No boiling mud or geysers but of course you can see those at lots of other places in the region.

It's a huge blessing to leave near enough to all these features that we can easily get away to see them in a long weekend. Tūrangi makes a great base — it's cheap and uncrowded but still close to great stuff. I'm really grateful to God.