Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Rowling's Commencement Address Revisited

Over the past year or so, I've become gradually more enamored by J. K. Rowling's 2008 Harvard commencement address, to the point where I now revisit it about once a month. There's a lot to like about her speech: the eloquent phrasing, a clear message, excellent delivery, and with nary a wasted sentence to be found.

In the last couple of years, I've also become increasingly interested in stripping away (or at least explicitly identifying and acknowledging) various [human] biases which cloud our reasoning. It recently occurred to me that a rationalist's interpretation of Rowling's commencement address might yield some interesting insights.

The first half of her address is relatively straightforward. Rowling discusses how experiencing real failure can help us reset our value system and acquire (or perhaps regain) a more informed and thus less biased perspective. Often in life, we allow various non-essentials to gain in significance and consequently warp our value system to detrimental effect. This happens especially often during our high school and college years, in part due to our limited experience at that stage. Many students live or die by their academic performance; the idea of "failing" at school can seem absolutely terrifying. And sadly, as Rowling mentioned, some people continue to equate their CV with their life well into adulthood.

Although Rowling pitches this lesson as one of self-discovery and finding inner peace, one can also consider the more general point of identifying and reducing the effects of institutional and cultural biases. I still remember the first time I did poorly in a class -- I cried and pouted for hours. After a while, I started realizing that school is but a conduit for gaining education and wisdom, and grades are but a proxy measure for quantifying performance. Of course, such things are correlated with our actual goals (or what would be our goals if we knew better). For example, grades are useful indicators of aptitude and can be utilized to help predict future success. But institutionalization and/or widespread cultural acceptance can often warp values to center too much on the proxies and not enough on what they strive to achieve.

Rowling's second message seems a bit more interesting. By asking us to be more empathetic, she is basically using one human bias against another. The detrimental bias is our "Monkeysphere". We humans have evolved to maintain relatively small inner social groups (see Dunbar's number). We might feel immense anguish for the death of a loved one, but barely bat an eye when told that millions of children die from malnutrition every year. By many objective standards, this is inexcusable -- as a side note, I encourage everyone to at least donate to organizations such as UNICEF (I donate regularly).

To overcome this bias, Rowling asks us to utilize our powers of imagination and empathy. By imagining ourselves in another person's shoes, we might start to understand their troubles and place value in solving them. Actually meeting such people in distress can be very eye-opening. The first time I visited my father's old home in semi-rural China was such an experience. I was struck by their impoverished state and, because of their poverty, how limited their ambitions were. Furthermore, I was keenly aware that my life could very well have been no different. For those who lack such experiences, one can try more scalable (though less effective) tactics such as watching Hotel Rwanda.

In many ways, our empathy is very biased towards humans. This point is a bit more abstract, but we do not directly experience what other people experience. For example, I can only consider how I personally would've felt growing up in poverty, because my feelings are the only ones I've ever known. More fundamentally, I only know for certain that I'm a sentient being with feelings and values. I can only infer sentience in other humans based on their observed similarities with myself, such as how their facial expressions resemble mine when I experience certain emotions. Currently, this has no practical implications, but it will become profoundly important if and when artificial intelligence systems become sufficiently general and autonomous. Most humans accept other humans as being sentient at face value (literally), but cannot imagine giving rights to "a machine" because "machines just can't possibly ever be self-aware -- or have a soul". While this empathy bias towards other humans can be powerfully leveraged for good causes in the world today, its implications might become more complex in the (possibly near) future.


Syed Rizvi said...

yisong,that was one of most inspirational speeches i have ever heard. Thanks for sharing this. I would however like to know more about your point related to empathy bias being used for good causes and its future implications.

Yisong said...

Thanks for your comment. I don't actually have much to say with regards to using empathy bias to support good causes. I was mostly just pointing out that Rowling was employing such a tactic during her speech.

With regards to future implications (assuming the existence of general AI), the key question you should ask yourself is this: how do you know for certain that other humans are sentient beings?

The answer is that you don't know. You can only infer based on observations showing other humans as being extremely similar to the only agent you know to be truly sentient -- yourself. For example, you only feel your own feelings. You can only imagine what other people are feeling or what you yourself might feel in their place. But you don't know for certain what anyone else truly feels. Most people accept universal human sentience blindly without ever stopping to think about it. I do also operate under the assumption that other human beings are sentient, but I don't do so blindly.

Many people believe that only humans have souls and that a man-made machine, no matter how intelligent, cannot have a soul and thus cannot be sentient. I even had one (well educated) person admit to me that simply looking like a human plays an important role here. This blind acceptance (driven by human empathy) might then be counter-productive when trying to reason about things like granting rights to an AI agent.

Parisa said...

Excellent writeup. A couple of comments:

- When you say our empathy is biased toward humans, what are you comparing that to? Many humans are (arguably) illogically empathetic to cute, furry animals.

- How are you so certain about your own sentience if you find it hasty to not question the sentience of others.

- ASIMO ( is good evidence supporting your "we prefer things to look like humans" theory. It's even gender/heritage neutral and has a cute back pack!

- Watch District 9 for an interesting aspect on empathy toward non-humans :)

Yisong said...

I have subjective experience. Even if I'm under an illusion of sentience, I can't tell the difference.

There is absolutely no way (yet..?) for me to actually feel your subjective experiences. I can only make inferences based empirical observations and my own subjective experiences and feelings.

Yes, many of us find cute furry animals quite endearing, but (most) of us wouldn't go so far as to say they deserve equal rights as humans. I'd imagine there are some anthropomorphizing (which is an extension of our empathy bias) -- and in certain cases selective breeding -- going on here.

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