Questions for Podcasts

I'm going to be interviewed by Tyler Cowen for "Conversations With Tyler" in a few weeks. Tyler has asked the public for suggestions for questions he should ask me. Initially to amuse myself, but then with increasing seriousness, I spent a couple of hours brainstorming a list of such questions. The list is below, for posterity. Also: at the end a list of observations about podcasts, and space for you to suggest questions.

  1. The Great Stagnation is often associated with bad effects on our society – declining productivity growth, declining real wages, declining impact of technology. What, if any, positive impacts does the Great Stagnation have? [This is also a question I'd like to ask Tyler; his answer might well be more interesting than mine.]
  2. You've recently been writing about AI and AGI and xrisk. These are worthwhile subjects, but they're also extremely popular, and it seems as though you're following the herd. Much of your earlier work was in areas which were unfashionable at the time, like quantum computing in the early 1990s, and which only became popular later. Why have you joined the large group of people opining on AI xrisk? Can't you find better ways to contribute?
  3. The physicist Richard Feynman once said that he didn't understand quantum mechanics, and neither does anyone else. What did he mean by that? Has the human race made much progress on the problem since then? Have we solved it? If not, what are some promising strategies to make a dent in it?
  4. Should the founder of SciHub, Alexandra Elbakyan, receive the Nobel Peace Prize?
  5. You're a fan of the work of the physicist Alexei Kitaev, and have said you think it's of epochal significance. Can you explain what his work is, and why you think it's important?
  6. There's a pretty thin line between dilettante and polymath. Specialists often do the best work, simply because they put more time into it, and can become far more knowledgeable and accrue more resources; they therefore have many advantages in arriving at the frontier and then expanding it. How can someone pursuing multidisciplinary work ensure they're not just faffing around, and actually contribute in a way that specialists cannot? In a related vein: your early work was in the hard sciences, involving lots of complex mathematics. You've gradually moved toward much softer areas of work. Do you think such work is as valuable? What are the pluses and minuses of that shift?
  7. You were asked if you'd be interested in joining OpenAI when it was starting up in 2015. Do you regret going in another direction?
  8. People like Steve Weinberg and Stephen Hawking have talked of physics nearing a theory of everything. Does this mean physics is nearing an end? Will attention necessarily shift to disciplines like biology? Will they be more productive?
  9. Your Twitter bio reads "Searching for the numinous". What does that mean? Why did you choose that? How do you think people can improve the way they self-describe? How is it related to "raising others' aspirations"?
  10. You began to work on open science advocacy around 2006, and did it fulltime from 2007 through 2012 or so. How much progress has been made an open science since then? How much creative ferment in the media scientists use to communicate their work? What is the opportunity here, to restructure expert attention?
  11. The Alignment Problem is often described as the problem of aligning computer systems – especially future ASI systems – with human values. You've proposed a very different framing of the problem – something like: "How to align a liberal society so it very strongly prioritizes differential technology development, while preserving liberal values?" Why make the switch? What's this got to do with AI? What benefits does the new framing give? How do you think humanity is going to solve it? What role do you think surveillance is likely to have in a solution? Can that be done without creating an authoritarian state?
  12. Why hasn't more progress been made on molecular nanotechnology?
  13. You initially were skeptical of Emergent Ventures. But you've changed your mind and become enthusiastic about it. What caused the switch? What would you change about Emergent Ventures if you were running it?

And, for context, a couple of things I believe about podcasts:

  1. Most podcasts are boring because the interviewer is asking questions they already know the answer to, faking the role of an ignorant audience member. They're much better off asking questions they don't know the answer to, but genuinely want to know the answers to. One such genuine question, of shared interest, can often support many hours (or even a lifetime) of back and forth; but if they have no such questions, they have the wrong guest. This has many consequences. One is that they sometimes must explain a fair bit of background context for the audience. Second, it means that a well-prepared interviewer should not be asking questions designed to get their guest to restate things they've published – those ought to be presumed common knowledge. Rather, they will be asking frontier questions – clarifying and pushing beyond what's been published. This ought to feel exploratory, a bit wild.
  2. The most interesting questions for any person are often the questions they don't know to ask themselves, things in their creative blind spot. It follows that an interviewer ought to ask me much better questions than those above. But perhaps the questions are nonetheless useful as stimulus.