Bay Area Rationalists

by Sebastian Benthall

There is an interesting thing happening. Let me just try to lay down some facts.

There are a number of organizations in the Bay Area right now up to related things.

  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). Researches the implications of machine intelligence on the world, especially the possibility of super-human general intelligences. Recently changed their name from the Singularity Institute due to the meaninglessness of the term Singularity. I interviewed their Executive Director (CEO?), Luke Meuhlhauser, a while back. (I followed up on some of the reasoning there with him here).
  • Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). Runs workshops training people in rationality, applying cognitive science to life choices. Trying to transition from appearing to pitch a “world-view” to teaching a “martial art” (I’ve sat in on a couple of their meetings). They aim to grow out a large network of people practicing these skills, because they think it will make the world a better place.
  • Leverage Research. A think-tank with an elaborate plan to save the world. Their research puts a lot of emphasis on how to design and market ideologies. I’ve been told that they recently moved to the Bay Area to be closer to CFAR.

Some things seem to connect these groups. First, socially, they all seem to know each other (I just went to a party where a lot of members of each group were represented.) Second, the organizations seem to get the majority of their funding from roughly the same people–Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek, and Jaan Tallinn, all successful tech entrepreneurs turned investors with interest in stuff like transhumanism, the Singularity, and advancing rationality in society. They seem to be employing a considerable number of people to perform research on topics normally ignored in academia and spread an ideology and/or set of epistemic practices. Third, there seems to be a general social affiliation with LessWrong.com; I gather a lot of the members of this community originally networked on that site.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about what’s going on here. A network of startups, research institutions, and training/networking organizations is forming around a cluster of ideas: the psychological and technical advancement of humanity, being smarter, making machines smarter, being rational or making machines to be rational for us. It is as far as I can tell largely off the radar of “mainstream” academic thinking. As a network, it seems concerned with growing to gather into itself effective and connected people. But it’s not drawing from many established bases of effective and connected people (the academic establishment, the government establishment, the finance establishment, “old boys networks” per se, etc.) but rather is growing its own base of enthusiasts.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in this community now. Some, but not all, would compare what they are doing to the starting of a religion. I think that’s pretty accurate based on what I’ve seen so far. Where I’m from, we’ve always talked about Singularitarianism as “eschatology for nerds”. But here we have all these ideas–the Singularity, “catastrophic risk”, the intellectual and ethical demands of “science”, the potential of immortality through transhumanist medicine, etc.–really motivating people to get together, form a community, advance certain practices and investigations, and proselytize.

I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t think it’s just a joke any more. There is actually a religion starting up around this. Granted, I’m in California now and as far as I can tell there are like sixty religions out here I’ve never heard of (I chalk it up to the lack of population density and suburban sprawl). But this one has some monetary and intellectual umph behind it.

Personally, I find this whole gestalt both attractive and concerning. As you might imagine, diversity is not this group’s strong suit. And its intellectual milieu reflects its isolation from the academic mainstream in that it lacks the kind of checks and balances afforded by multidisciplinary politics. Rather, it appears to have more or less declared the superiority of its methodological and ideological assumptions to its satisfaction and convinced itself that it’s ahead of the game. Maybe that’s true, but in my own experience, that’s not how it really works. (I used to share most of the tenets of this rationalist ideology, but have deliberately exposed myself to a lot of other perspectives since then [I think that taking the Bayesian perspective seriously necessitates taking the search for new information very seriously]. Turns out I used to be wrong about a lot of things.)

So if I were to make a prediction, it would go like this. One of these things is going to happen:

  • This group is going to grow to become a powerful but insulated elite with an expanded network and increasingly esoteric practices. An orthodox cabal seizes power where they are able, and isolates itself into certain functional roles within society with a very high standard of living.
  • In order to remain consistent with its own extraordinarily high epistemic standards, this network starts to assimilate other perspectives and points of view in an inclusive way. In the process, it discovers humility, starts to adapt proactively and in a decentralized way, losing its coherence but perhaps becomes a general influence on the preexisting societal institutions rather than a new one.
  • Hybrid models. Priesthood/lay practitioners. Or denominational schism.

There is a good story here, somewhere. If I were a journalist, I would get in on this and publish something about it, just because there is such a great opportunity for sensationalist exploitation.

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