The Up-Goer Five Game: Explaining hard ideas with simple words

xkcd’s Up-Goer Five comic gave technical specifications for the Saturn V rocket using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

This seemed to me and Briénne to be a really fun exercise, both for tabooing one’s words and for communicating difficult concepts to laypeople. So why not make a game out of it? Pick any tough, important, or interesting argument or idea, and use this text editor to try to describe what you have in mind with extremely common words only.

This is challenging, so if you almost succeed and want to share your results, you can mark words where you had to cheat in *italics*. Bonus points if your explanation is actually useful for gaining a deeper understanding of the idea, or for teaching it, in the spirit of Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable.

As an example, here’s my attempt to capture the five theses using only top-thousand words:

  • Intelligence explosion: If we make a computer that is good at doing hard things in lots of different situations without using much stuff up, it may be able to help us build better computers. Since computers are faster than humans, pretty soon the computer would probably be doing most of the work of making new and better computers. We would have a hard time controlling or understanding what was happening as the new computers got faster and grew more and more parts. By the time these computers ran out of ways to quickly and easily make better computers, the best computers would have already become much much better than humans at controlling what happens.

  • Orthogonality: Different computers, and different minds as a whole, can want very different things. They can want things that are very good for humans, or very bad, or anything in between. We can be pretty sure that strong computers won’t think like humans, and most possible computers won’t try to change the world in the way a human would.

  • Convergent instrumental goals: Although most possible minds want different things, they need a lot of the same things to get what they want. A computer and a human might want things that in the long run have nothing to do with each other, but have to fight for the same share of stuff first to get those different things.

  • Complexity of value: It would take a huge number of parts, all put together in just the right way, to build a computer that does all the things humans want it to (and none of the things humans don’t want it to).

  • Fragility of value: If we get a few of those parts a little bit wrong, the computer will probably make only bad things happen from then on. We need almost everything we want to happen, or we won’t have any fun.

If you make a really strong computer and it is not very nice, you will not go to space today.

Other ideas to start with: agent, akrasia, Bayes’ theorem, Bayesianism, CFAR, cognitive bias, consequentialism, deontology, effective altruism, Everett-style (‘Many Worlds’) interpretations of quantum mechanics, entropy, evolution, the Great Reductionist Thesis, halting problem, humanism, law of nature, LessWrong, logic, mathematics, the measurement problem, MIRI, Newcomb’s problem, Newton’s laws of motion, optimization, Pascal’s wager, philosophy, preference, proof, rationality, religion, science, Shannon information, signaling, the simulation argument, singularity, sociopathy, the supernatural, superposition, time, timeless decision theory, transfinite numbers, Turing machine, utilitarianism, validity and soundness, virtue ethics, VNM-utility