1: A Personal Beginning of Infinity

Carlos, why can't you be this excited about *work*?

Eight years ago, I finished my undergrad in mechanical engineering and started my never-to-be-finished masters in robotics. In my free time, I binge-watched everything from the free-market economist Milton Friedman and anti-theistic public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Prompted by Harris's ‘Currently Reading’ book list, I read David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, which argues that progress is real and can continue indefinitely. If you’d like to go beyond my vastly inadequate description of this wonderful book, check out this TED talk.

Incidentally, while reading the book, I was surprised and delighted to see in it a sentence with my precise job description at the time, “suppose that you are a graduate student in robotics, hoping to build a robot that walks on legs better than previous robots do.” Excited by the coincidence, I showed my fellow graduate students, and they were impressed (if only imperceptibly). Some months later, in a rapidly-deepening robo-depression, I momentarily brightened up to again share something from the book. A superior responded, with a raised eyebrow and feigned exasperation, “Nice... now Carlos, why can’t you be this excited about work?”

No such luck, at least not until I left robotics and moved on to other things. I chose to dig into the work of the philosopher Karl Popper. That seemed a good starting point, since his ideas on knowledge-creation were the giants’ shoulders upon which The Beginning of Infinity stood (or one shoulder at least, though that strains the analogy). Those days in the library were well-spent and the sum of my robotics experience lived on in other things, like my newfound programming skills and appreciation for the human ability to climb library stairs effortlessly - outclassing every robot in existence.

Looking back, it seems I actually took my superior’s advice in an indirect sort of way - I am now as excited about my work as I am about these ideas, because they are my work. After some detours in the worlds of data science and longevity research, I’ve found myself thinking and tweeting (and now newslettering, and perhaps soon blogging and podcasting) about progress, optimism, and artificial general intelligence. Hence the name of this newsletter, Making Minds and Making Progress.

As a teaser of upcoming posts, here are a few recent thoughts. Their diversity is a good illustration of the depth of Popper’s and Deutsch’s ideas, their range of applicability and fruitfulness, and why it’s exciting to work on them.

  • As I mentioned in a recent Twitter thread, depression and stasis (or stagnation, if you prefer) go hand in hand. What causes us to become miserable and stop even trying to discover and improve things? Upsets in brain chemistry are more often a consequence of bad ideas than a cause of them, I suspect, so pills won’t solve the problem.

  • While it’s easy to spot violence when it occurs, it’s less easy to see when one person coerces another with social pressure - forcing them to do things they don’t want to. It can be even harder to see when ideas in a single mind are clashing in the same way - when ideas about productivity, say, silence those about leisure, or vice versa. Conflicts can occur between people, or between ideas in a single mind, or between different versions of yourself at different times. The schedule you set yesterday may get in the way of the opportunities you see today. Your goals for the future may do the same.

  • The more I work on artificial general intelligence, the more I appreciate the complexity, power, and value of minds. That’s made me appreciate people more (including babies, who learn to navigate the world with amazing speed). Perhaps it’s a fine irony that an interest in programs has led to a greater love of humans.

P.S. Here’s the first of my now 6000+ tweets. A personal beginning of infinity.