heuristics

Ecological Rationality: When Is Bias A Good Thing?

By Rebecca Brown

Many people will be broadly familiar with the ‘heuristics and biases’ (H&B) program of work, made prominent by the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. H&B developed alongside the new sub-discipline of Behavioural Economics, both detailing the ways in which human decision-makers deviate from what would be expected of homo economicus – an imaginary, perfectly rational being that always aims at maximising utility. For instance, in a famous experiment, Tversky and Kahneman gave people the following information (1983: 297):

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. 

Participants were then asked which of the two alternatives was more probable:

1. Linda is a bank teller.

2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

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Terminator studies and the silliness heuristic

The headlines are invariably illustrated with red-eyed robot heads: “I, Revolution: Scientists To Study Possibility Of Robot Apocalypse“. “Scientists investigate chances of robots taking over“. “‘Terminator’ risk to be investigated by scientists“. “Killer robots? Cambridge brains to assess AI risk“. “‘Terminator centre’ to open at Cambridge University: New faculty to study threat to humans from artificial intelligence“. “Cambridge boffins fear ‘Pandora’s Unboxing’ and RISE of the MACHINES: ‘You’re more likely to die from robots than cancer‘”…

The real story is that the The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk is planning to explore threats to the survival of the human species, including future technological risks. And among them are of course risks from autonomous machinery – risks that some people regard as significant, others as minuscule (see for example here, here and here). Should we spend valuable researcher time and grant money analysing such risks?

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