Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A waste of talent

The post below was initially going to be about what I see as people wasting their talent.

When I think of doctors not improving people's health I'm upset mainly by two things.
  • So many talented people are wasting their lives. In a way it's not as bad as that because we really want an impressive person looking after us when we're feeling vulnerable. In another way it's worse because they spend huge amounts of money becoming doctors and then start taking huge sums from other people.
  • When doctors resist institutional changes or better methods they are behaving immorally. The institution of promise keeping is a moral one because all our lives are improved if we keep promises. Rejecting promise keeping despite the evidence of it's beneficial effects is wrong. Keep rejecting rules that make us better off and we're on the way to just plain evil.

The first point has been bothering me recently with the moderate fuss made over the Large Hadron Collider finally becoming operational (it promptly broke). I'm as keen as anyone on being told what the fundamental nature of reality is, but bloody hell, is it really worth it? The thing costs billions of dollars! Given the number of people I know personally that spend their time on "that kind of thing" and even at CERN, I'd say there are a lot of super bright people devoting their careers to what purpose exactly? But my impression is that these people have pretty high status in society.

Which brings me to stuff like the future, life extension, transhumanism and other fine singularity related stuff. Respectable people often find this stuff silly. Fun to discuss at parties but not worth wasting time on. Here's an example where a science journalist telling Eliezer Yudkowsky what a shame it is that he's wasting his life on trying to build an AI. You can listen to the same guy discussing how awesome the LHC is and making fun of singularitarians in other podcasts (I don't mean to single him out, just a concrete, respectable example).

But wasting their lives compared to what? My instinct is to defend these assorted futurists by arguing why I'm on their side. But if (as it seems to me it is) that we build particle accelerators because of our (I suspect bogus) deep desire to know, it should be enough to note that futurists are motivated by similar desires, as well as the desire to actually improve the human condition. So why aren't we throwing billions of dollars at them?

Why oh why do we bestow such status on people who don't deserve it?


Ben said...

Is the LHC worth it? ...You bet it is.

Even in purely utilitarian terms, forgetting for a moment about merely knowing how the universe works, who knows what future technologies may depend on the LHC and what it will discover. Peel back the veil and you can learn how the magician performs his greatest tricks.

That said, I do wish 'futurist' sciences such as AI (and especially life extension) would receive more support. Be patient though. We'll get there. The tide can turn pretty quick, and a day is coming when these issues will be as big a part of public discussion as global warming is now. It's been a long journey from the cave for humanity, but every day we draw closer to the kinds of things you're talking about, and in the scheme of things they're right around the corner. Take heart! Great minds are working on these problems.

stuart said...

hi Ben, thanks for stopping by.

I thought about talking about that line of defence. I don't have any data on this , but I'd guess that the technology return per dollar spent on things like the LHC are small compared to the return on money invested by companies like Apple and Toyota.