Thinking with machines

From Ray Dalio’s fascinating book, Principles.

During those terrible days after 9/ 11, when the whole country was being whipsawed by emotion, or the weeks between September 19 and October 10, 2008, when the Dow fell 3,600 points, there were times I felt like hugging our computers. They kept their cool no matter what. This combination of man and machine is wonderful. The process of man’s mind working with technology is what elevates us—it’s what has taken us from an economy where most people dig in the dirt to today’s Information Age. It’s for that reason that people who have common sense, imagination, and determination, who know what they value and what they want, and who also use computers, math, and game theory, are the best decision makers there are. At Bridgewater, we use our systems much as a driver uses a GPS in a car: not to substitute for our navigational abilities but to supplement them.

Dalio treats principles as decision-making algorithms. He writes down what he thinks works as a decision-making process, then compares the results.

He’s also built a company culture that is all about finding the best information in order to make the best decisions – something he calls an idea meritocracy. So developing processes that allow people to make decisions in tandem with machines has been a natural extension of his approach.

It reminds me of Gary Kasparov’s “advanced chess” – also known more exotically as centaur chess – in which humans play alongside a machine. Players have likened it to moving from running to Formula One racing – it makes chess high speed, with ideas and approaches quickly tested with machines, or new angles the human polayer hasn’t considered suddenly presented as possibilities by the machine.

Links:

  • Ray Dalio described his ideas meritocracy model in a TED Talk.
  • I talked about Kasparov and “bicycles for the mind” a few years ago at the Inspiration conference.

Inventing futures we want, and some we don’t

Image: Popular Mechanics – the ciy of the future (1928)

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” said Alan Kay, the pioneering computer scientist.

In this context “invent” here means to build not just to imagine or to conjure a vision. Futures are built things, technology and humans made into new shapes and structures. Imagining the future is a way of thinking about possible ways things might evolve – often these days as a way of satirising the present, rather than a serious effort to imagine how things could be – with a fair wind, and some lucky politics – you know, better than they are today. We are well served with literary and cinematic dystopias, but there are apparently few creative efforts to imagine a brighter tomorrow.

A lovely post from Futurism surveys how people a century ago imagined the future. There are delightful near misses – “correspondence cinema” is almost Netflix – and amusingly accurate forecasts. The times 100 years ago were not unlike ours – as we teeter on the edge of an AI, automated, bio-engineered century:

People in the early 20th century were hopeful about the future innovation might bring.The technology that came out of World War I, and the growing potential brought by electricity (half of all U.S. homes had electric power by 1925) had many looking ahead to the coming century. Futurists of the early 1900s predicted an incredible boom in technology that would transform human lives for the better.

Much of this came to pass – along with world wars, genocide and new fangled ways to to suffer and die, which we’re still working on all the time. And then again – there are billions more humans alive today than in 1917, with proportionately fewer afflicted by child mortality, living longer, less likely to be hungry or poor.

At the moment, reading Fire and Fury about our recent, implausible global political past and reading the ongoing news about our even less convincing present, I wonder if we are too confused by the contemporary to see anything but collapse and catastrophe in our future. It could be a fertile fictional world to explore though, a better one. Could be worth a try.

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