Ted Chiang on Free Will, Time Travel, Many Worlds, Genetic Engineering, and Hard Science Fiction – #19

Steve and Corey speak with Ted Chiang about his recent story collection “Exhalation” and his inaugural essay for the New York Times series, Op-Eds from the Future. Chiang has won Nebula and Hugo awards for his widely influential science fiction writing. His short story “Story of Your Life,” was the basis of the film Arrival (2016). Their discussion explores the scientific and philosophical ideas in Ted’s work, including whether free will is possible, and implications of AI, neuroscience, and time travel. Ted explains why his skepticism about whether the US is truly a meritocracy leads him to believe that the government-funded genetic modification he envisages in his Op-Ed would not solve the problem of inequality.

Rebecca Campbell on Identifying Serial Perpetrators, Rape Investigations and Untested Rape Kits – #18

Dr. Rebecca Campbell is a Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, whose research focuses on violence against women and children with an emphasis on sexual assault. Steve and Corey discuss her recent National Institute of Justice-funded project to study Detroit’s untested rape kits. Dr. Campbell describes the problem of untested kits and her work with police departments around the country to reduce the backlog. She explains how the use of the national CODIS database has led to sharply higher estimates of the proportion of rapes committed by serial perpetrators and how many rapists appear to be criminal “generalists”, committing a wide range of offenses. She describes the dynamics of sexual assault investigations, the factors that lead police to put more effort into investigating certain cases over others, and how common ways of questioning women can lead them to disengage from the process. Other topics include the incentives at work in law enforcement, the slow pace at which new research in DNA testing and treatment of victims is incorporated into police training, and Dr. Campbell’s efforts to engage with law enforcement agencies to improve investigative practices.

Mark Moffett on the Life and Death of Human Societies – #17

Steve and Corey talk with Mark Moffett, Photographer and Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute, about his new book The Human Swarm: How our Societies Arise, Thrive and Fall. They discuss Mark’s view that being able walk into a cafe filled with others and not be attacked illustrates what makes human societies distinct and so successful. Mark explains why he is far more interested in questions about when war and other events occur than with traditional issues such as the genetic origins of human behavior. The three discuss Dehumanization and its Chimp equivalent, Dechimpanizeeization, and how they lead to the division of societies, friend turning against friend, and genocide. They discuss the conditions under which foreigners are embraced and whether the US might ever enter into a post-racial society where group differences don’t matter and immigrants are more easily accepted.

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.