Podcast

John Schulman: OpenAI and recent advances in Artificial Intelligence – #16

John Schulman is a research scientist at OpenAI. He co-leads the Reinforcement Learning group and works on agent learning in virtual game worlds (e.g., Dota) as well as in robotics. John, Corey, and Steve talk about AI, AGI (Artifical General Intelligence), the Singularity (self-reinforcing advances in AI which lead to runaway behavior that is incomprehensible to humans), and the creation and goals of OpenAI. They discuss recent advances in language models (GPT-2) and whether these results raise doubts about the usefulness of linguistic research over the past 60 years. Does GPT-2 imply that neural networks trained using large amounts of human-generated text can encode “common sense” knowledge about the world? They also discuss what humans are better at than current AI systems, and near term examples of what is already feasible: for example, using AI drones to kill people.

Daniel Max on Writing a Literary non-Fiction Classic and Prion Diseases Then and Now – #15

Daniel Max, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Every Love Story is A Ghost Story, a biography of David Foster Wallace, speaks with Corey and Steve about his first book, The Family that Couldn’t Sleep. The discussion covers the emerging genre of literary non-fiction, Daniel’s process of writing The Family that Couldn’t Sleep, and how he approached and gained the trust of the family at the heart of the story. Corey probes Daniel about how he handled the complex scientific characters, Carl Gajdusek and Stanley Prusiner, who led research into prion disease for 40 years. Daniel recounts how Shirley Glasse (now Lindenbaum) discovered how prions were transmitted through ritual cannibalism in Papua New, a critical step in solving the mystery of what causes of the disease, but how credit was given to Gajdusek. The three discuss the painfully slow pace of research and the inspiring story of a young couple, Eric Minikel and Sonia Vallabh, who have changed careers to dedicate their lives to finding a cure.

Stuart Firestein on Why Ignorance and Failure Lead to Scientific Progress – Episode #14

Steve and Corey speak with Stuart Firestein (Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University, specializing in the olfactory system) about his two books Ignorance: How It Drives Science and Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. Stuart explains why he thinks that it is a mistake to believe that scientists make discoveries by following the “scientific method” and what he sees as the real relationship between science and art. We discuss Stuart’s recent research showing that current models of olfactory processing are wrong, while Steve delves into the puzzling infinities in calculations that led to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Stuart also makes the case that the theory of intelligent design is more intelligent than most scientists give it credit for and that it would be wise to teach it in science classes.

Joe Cesario on Political Bias and Problematic Research Methods in Social Psychology – #13

Corey and Steve continue their discussion with Joe Cesario and examine methodological biases in the design and conduct of experiments in social psychology and ideological bias in the interpretation of the findings. Joe argues that experiments in his field are designed to be simple but that in making experimental set ups simple researchers remove critical factors that actually matter for a police officer to make a decision in the real world. In consequence, he argues that the results cannot be taken to show anything about actual police behavior. Joe maintains that social psychology as a whole is biased toward the left politically and that this affects how courses are taught and research conducted. Steve points out the university faculty on the whole tend to be shifted left relative to the general population. Joe, Corey, and Steve discuss the current ideological situation on campus and how it can be alienating for students from conservative backgrounds.

James Cham on Venture Capital, Risk Taking, and the Future Impacts of AI – Episode #12

James Cham is a partner at Bloomberg Beta, a venture capital firm focused on the future of work. James invests in companies applying machine intelligence to businesses and society. Prior to Bloomberg Beta, James was a Principal at Trinity Ventures and a VP at Bessemer Venture Partners. He was educated in computer science at Harvard and at the MIT Sloan School of Business.

Joe Cesario on Police Decision Making and Racial Bias in Deadly Force Decisions – Episode #11

Corey and Steve talk with Joe Cesario about his recent work showing that, contrary to many activist claims and media reports, there is no widespread racial bias in police shootings. Joe discusses his analysis of national criminal justice data and his experimental studies with police officers in a specially designed realistic simulator. He maintains that evidence suggests that racial bias does exist in other uses force of force such as tasering but that the decision to shoot is fundamentally different and driven by facts about criminal context in which officers find themselves rather than race.

Ron Unz on the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, The Unz Review, and the Harvard Admissions Scandal – Episode #10

Ron Unz is the publisher of the Unz Review, a controversial, but widely read, alternative media site hosting opinion outside of the mainstream, including from both the far right and the far left. Unz studied theoretical physics at Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford. He founded the software company Wall Street Analytics, acquired by Moody’s in 2006, and was behind the 1998 ballot initiative that ended bilingual education in California.

Philosopher Sam Kerstein on the Morality of Genome Engineering, Inequality, and Star Trek – Episode #9

Corey and Steve speak with Samuel Kerstein, Professor of Philosophy and expert in Medical Ethics at the University of Maryland. They discuss the ethics of genome engineering and preimplantation embryo selection, and the inequality and narrowing of human diversity that might result from widespread adoption of these technologies. Among the topics covered: Why genome engineering at this time is immoral. Should we always pick the healthiest embryo? In the future will parents have a moral obligation to engineer their children? Will there be an arms race between countries to engineer their populations? Is Star Trek’s Khan a more advanced person (Steve) or just another smart psychopath (Sam) or both?

David Skrbina on Ted Kaczynski, Technological Slavery, and the Future of Our Species – Episode #7

David Skrbina is a philosopher at the University of Michigan. He and Ted Kaczynski published the book Technological Slavery, which elaborates on the Unabomber manifesto and contains about 100 pages of correspondence between the two which took place over almost a decade. Skrbina discusses his and Kaczynski’s views on deep problems of technological society, and whether violent opposition to it is justified.

John Hawks on Human Evolution, Ancient DNA, and Big Labs Devouring Fossils – Episode #6

Hawks is the Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He is an anthropologist and studies the bones and genes of ancient humans. He’s worked on almost every part of our evolutionary story, from the very origin of our lineage among the apes, to the last 10,000 years of our history.

Noor Siddiqui, Thiel Fellow, on Stanford and Silicon Valley – Episode #3

Corey and Steve interview Noor Siddiqui, a student at Stanford studying AI, Machine Learning, and Genomics. She was previously a Thiel Fellow, and founded a medical collaboration technology startup after high school. The conversation covers topics like college admissions, Tiger parenting, Millennials, Stanford, Silicon Valley startup culture, innovation in the US healthcare industry, and Simplicity and Genius.

Bobby Kasthuri & Brain Mapping – Episode #2

Corey and Steve are joined by Bobby Kasthuri, a Neuroscientist at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. Bobby specializes in nanoscale mapping of brains using automated fine slicing followed by electron microscopy. Among the topics covered: Brain mapping, the nature of scientific progress (philosophy of science), Biology vs Physics, Is the brain too complex to be understood by our brains? AlphaGo, the Turing Test, and wiring diagrams, Are scientists underpaid? The future of Neuroscience.