Eliezer’s Sequences and Mainstream Academia

Due in part to Eliezer’s writing style (e.g. not many citations), and in part to Eliezer’s scholarship preferences (e.g. his preference to figure out much of philosophy on his own), Eliezer’s Sequences don’t accurately reflect the close agreement between the content of The Sequences and work previously done in mainstream academia.

I predict several effects from this:

  1. Some readers will mistakenly think that common Less Wrong views are more parochial than they really are.

  2. Some readers will mistakenly think Eliezer’s Sequences are more original than they really are.

  3. If readers want to know more about the topic of a given article, it will be more difficult for them to find the related works in academia than if those works had been cited in Eliezer’s article.

I’d like to counteract these effects by connecting the Sequences to the professional literature. (Note: I sort of doubt it would have been a good idea for Eliezer to spend his time tracking down more references and so on, but I realized a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t take me much effort to list some of those references.)

I don’t mean to minimize the awesomeness of the Sequences. There is much original content in them (edit: probably most of their content is original), they are engagingly written, and they often have a more transformative effect on readers than the corresponding academic literature.

I’ll break my list of references into sections based on how likely I think it is that a reader will have missed the agreement between Eliezer’s articles and mainstream academic work.

(This is only a preliminary list of connections.)

Obviously connected to mainstream academic work

Less obviously connected to mainstream academic work

I don’t think Eliezer had encountered this mainstream work when he wrote his articles

  • Eliezer’s TDT decision algorithm (2009, 2010) had been previously discovered as a variant of CDT by Wolfgang Spohn (2003, 2005, 2012). Both TDT and Spohn-CDT (a) use Pearl’s causal graphs to describe Newcomblike problems, then add nodes to those graphs to represent the deterministic decision process the agent goes through (Spohn calls them “intention nodes,” Yudkowsky calls them “logical nodes”), (b) represent interventions at these nodes by severing (edit: or screening off) the causal connections upstream, and (c) propose to maximize expected utility by summing over possible values of the decision node (or “intention node” /​ “logical node”). (Beyond this, of course, there are major differences in the motivations behind and further development of Spohn-CDT and TDT.)

  • Many of Eliezer’s points about intelligence explosion and machine ethics had been made in earlier writings Eliezer did cite, e.g. Williamson (1947), Good (1965), and Vinge (1993). Others of Eliezer’s points appear in earlier writings he did not cite but probably had read: e.g. Minsky (1984), Schmidhuber (1987), Bostrom (1997), Moravec (1999). Others of Eliezer’s points appear in earlier writings he probably hadn’t read: e.g. Cade (1966), Good (1970), Versenyi (1974), Lukasiewicz (1974), Lampson (1979), Clarke (1993, 1994), Sobel (1999), Allen et al. (2000). (For a brief history of these ideas, see here and here.)

  • A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation retreads much ground from the field of Bayesian epistemology, surveyed for example in Niiniluoto (2004) and Howson & Urbach (2005).