Hard Problems

Apparently, we need to allow controversial opinions in order to bring about innovation:

This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics.

I presume this is a deliberately inflammatory opinion in order to make more impact. Elsewhere, the article attempts to be more nuanced, including some factual observation:

More recently, I’ve seen credible people working on ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension leave San Francisco because they found the reaction to their work to be so toxic. “If people live a lot longer it will be disastrous for the environment, so people working on this must be really unethical” was a memorable quote I heard this year.

Conflating intelligence augmentation with homophobia as “controversial ideas” is utterly irresponsible. It’s identical to Trump saying “there were bad people on both sides”. Racist and homophobic members of the tech industry will read this as validation of their “controversial” views.

Ideas like intelligence augmentation aren’t controversial. What is controversial is the problems they create: these are hard problems to solve, and we all know tech startups avoid hard problems like the plague. Uber would rather break laws and pay less than minimum wage than genuinely solve the problems we need to solve to implement the gig economy.

The travelling salesman or even P=NP are easy problems by comparison. We can reason about them in isolation and even attempt to code up solutions. But if you want to solve radical life extension, you need to also solve sustainability and inclusivity. The reason people baulk when the tech industry brings up these “radical ideas” is because they know the hard problems are being glossed over.

In his clarification article, Sam points out:

It was literally heretical, not so long ago, to say that it was ok to be gay—the Bible has a different viewpoint. In a society where we don’t allow challenges to the orthodoxy, gay rights would not have happened.

Implying that Uber is akin to Galileo, boldly putting out controversial ideas against the weight of public opinion is a very long bow to draw. Uber are the church, charging forward with blind faith that they are right, leaving problems behind for their lessers (public servants, lower socio-economic groups, government legislators) to clean up.

What if it’s not intelligence augmentation that is heretical? ? What if the heretics are the ones challenging you to think about the impact on race and socio-economics before you launch into your intelligence augmentation startup?

What I meant is simply that we need, as a society, to tolerate controversial ideas. The biggest new scientific ideas, and the most important changes to society, both start as extremely unpopular ideas.

I couldn’t agree more. We should tolerate controversial ideas, for example the idea that tech startups shouldn’t get a free pass to “innovate” at the cost of others.

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