Archimedes's Chronophone

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-03-23T17:43:19.000Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 87 comments

Think of how many generations of humanity would have benefited if certain ideas had been invented sooner, rather than later - if the Greeks had invented science - if the Romans had possessed printing presses - if Western civilization had turned against slavery in the thirteenth century.

Archimedes of Syracuse was the greatest mathematician and engineer of the ancient world.  Imagine that Archimedes invented a temporal telephone ("chronophone" for short) which lets him talk to you, here in the 21st century. You can make suggestions! For purposes of the thought experiment, ignore the morality of altering history - just assume that it is proper to optimize post-Archimedean history as though it were simply the ordinary future. If so, it would seem that you are in a position to accomplish a great deal of good.

Unfortunately, Archimedes's chronophone comes with certain restrictions upon its use:  It cannot transmit information that is, in a certain sense, "too anachronistic".

You cannot suggest, for example, that women should have the vote.  Maybe you could persuade Archimedes of Syracuse of the issue, and maybe not; but it is a moot point, the chronophone will not transmit the advice.  Or rather, it will transmit the advice, but it will come out as:  "Install a tyrant of great personal virtue, such as Hiero II, under whose rule Syracuse experienced fifty years of peace and prosperity."  That's how the chronophone avoids transmitting overly anachronistic information - it transmits cognitive strategies rather than words.  If you follow the policy of "Check my brain's memory to see what my contemporary culture recommends as a wise form of political organization", what comes out of the chronophone is the result of Archimedes following the same policy of looking up in his brain what his era lauds as a wise form of political organization.

You might think the next step would be to prepare a careful series of Plato-style philosophical arguments, starting from known territory, and intended to convince an impartial audience, with which to persuade Archimedes that all sentient beings should be equal before the law.  Unfortunately, if you try this, what comes out on Archimedes's end is a careful series of Plato-style philosophical analogies which argue that wealthy male landowners should have special privileges.  You followed the policy of "Come up with a line of philosophical argument intended to persuade a neutral observer to my own era's point of view on political privilege," so what comes out of the chronophone is what Archimedes would think up if he followed the same cognitive strategy.

In Archimedes's time, slavery was thought right and proper; in our time, it is held an abomination.  If, today, you need to argue that slavery is bad, you can invent all sorts of moral arguments which lead to that conclusion - all sorts of justifications leap readily to mind.  If you could talk to Archimedes of Syracuse directly, you might even be able to persuade him to your viewpoint (or not).  But the really odd thing is that, at some point in time, someone must have turned against slavery - gone from pro-slavery to anti-slavery - even though they didn't start out wanting to persuade themselves against slavery.  By the time someone gets to the point of wanting to construct persuasive anti-slavery arguments, they must have already turned against slavery.  If you know your desired moral destination, you are already there.  Thus, that particular cognitive strategy - searching for ways to persuade people against slavery - can't explain how we got here from there, how Western culture went from pro-slavery to anti-slavery.

The chronophone, to prevent paradox, will not transmit arguments that you constructed already knowing the desired destination.  And because this is a law of physics governing time travel, the chronophone cannot be fooled.  No matter how cleverly you construct your neutral-sounding philosophical argument, the chronophone "knows" you started with the desired conclusion already in mind.

The same dilemma applies to scientific issues. if you say "The Earth circles the Sun" it comes out of the chronophone as "The Sun circles the Earth". It doesn't matter that our civilization is right and their civilization is wrong - the chronophone takes no notice of facts, only beliefs and cognitive strategies. You tried to transmit your own belief about heavenly mechanics, so it comes out as Archimedes's belief about heavenly mechanics.

Obviously, what you need to transmit is the scientific method - that's how our own civilization went from geocentrism to heliocentrism without having the destination already in mind. Unfortunately, you also can't say to Archimedes, "Use mathematical laws instead of heroic mythology to explain empirical phenomena." It will come out as "If anyone should throw back his head and learn something by staring at the varied patterns on a ceiling, apparently you would think that he was contemplating with his reason, when he was only staring with his eyes... I cannot but believe that no study makes the soul look on high except that which is concerned with real being and the unseen." (Plato, The Republic, Book VII.) That is Archimedes's culture's stance on epistemology, just as science is your own culture's stance.

Can you suggest that Archimedes pay attention to facts, and authorities, and think about which one should ought to take precedence - by way of leading him down a garden path to the scientific method? But humanity did not invent the scientific method by setting out to invent the scientific method - by looking for a garden path that would lead to the scientific method. If you know your desired destination, you are already there. And no matter how you try to prevent your garden path from looking like a garden path, the laws of time travel know the difference.

So what can you say into the chronophone?

Suppose that, at some point in your life, you've genuinely thought that the scientific method might not be correct - that our culture's preferred method of factual investigation might be flawed. Then, perhaps, you could talk into the chronophone about how you've doubted that the scientific method as commonly practiced is correct, and it would come out of the chronophone as doubts about whether deference to authority is correct. After all, something like that must be how humanity got to science from nonscience - individuals who genuinely questioned whether their own culture's preferred method of epistemological investigation was correct.

If you try to follow this strategy, your own doubts had better be genuine. Otherwise what will come out of the chronophone is a line of Socratic questioning that argues for deference to authority. If your doubts are genuine, surface doubts will come out as surface doubts, deep doubts as deep doubts. The chronophone always knows how much you really doubted, and how much you merely tried to convince yourself you doubted so that you could say it into the chronophone. Such is the unavoidable physics of time travel.

Now... what advice do you give to Archimedes, and how do you say it into the chronophone?

Addendum:  A basic principle of the chronophone is that to get nonobvious output, you need nonobvious input.  If you say something that is considered obvious in your home culture, it comes out of the chronophone as something that is considered obvious in Archimedes's culture.


Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).

comment by Joseph_Hertzlinger · 2007-03-23T18:39:23.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some of Archimedes most potentially-important research involved things he regarded as trivial toys. So if we advise him to get interested in Rubik's cube...

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-03-23T18:50:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Joseph, the chronophone won't transmit a literal description of a Rubik's Cube any more than it will transmit a description of a printing press. But if you've ever mused over apparently trivial toys, you could talk about your own musings into the chronophone, and it would be translated appropriately on the other end. What appropriate "trivial toys" have you mused over?

comment by ESRogs · 2013-04-05T19:11:06.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wasn't Joseph already using the Rubik's cube as an example of a trivial toy?

comment by pure-awesome · 2013-05-04T23:45:02.099Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I don't think Joseph's intention was to get Archimedes to understand a Rubix cube. I believe his intention was to get Archimedes to play with 'trivial toys' and so he thought talking about Rubix cubes might do the trick.

comment by Mike_Linksvayer · 2007-03-23T19:16:35.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would attempt to send useful facts that the chronophone should not distort -- facts that classical Greek culture was ignorant of, but not biased against -- discoveries that would have been accepted by Greek culture, had they been made. I'd have to think about what those would be.

comment by Mike_Linksvayer · 2007-03-23T19:24:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The sort of thing I have in mind is mathematical proofs and engineering designs that go just beyond what he was able to manage without my help, not imparting the scientific method or liberal morality. Given what the chronophone does more ambitious communication seems really risky.

comment by Robin_Hanson2 · 2007-03-23T20:19:52.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would sure help if you could speak into one end and then hear how it comes out on the other end, and then edit and repeat. If so, I'd try to encourage him to try to make useful devices that make money, and to create a tradition of this activity.

comment by rcriii2 · 2007-03-23T20:59:20.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like if Archimedes asked us a question, he would almost always get the answer he was expecting. Given this, would he be better off calling someone closer to his own time, whose answers were less likely to be 'too anachronistic', and thus more likely to give him new information? Maybe our best bet would be to refer him to, say, James Madison or Galileo.

comment by qer · 2007-03-23T22:15:14.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Teach him decimal notation! It would bring us ahead a thousand years. Can't remember who first said that, but I read it somewhere.

comment by themusicgod1 · 2013-01-31T12:04:08.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wouldn't he have just discarded it as he was trained with other notation?

It would be like someone in the modern english world trying to learn chinese math notation. We could probably understand the concepts so could in principle do it, but it would seem relatively unweildly, even if it turns out that it's a much more elegant way of doing math. We'd never know.

He might very well learn it and then go "that's cute" and then ignore it.

comment by Tom3 · 2007-03-23T22:44:22.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would make an argument for the importance of space exploration and colonisation, on the assumption that in Archimedes' time this would be heard as an argument in favour of naval expansion. Since the greeks were seafaring people anyway, Archimedes might be convinced to push for a great greek colonisation program. Who knows? They could reach the far east, or even the americas. The age of global trade might begin two thousand years earlier.

comment by Raw_Power · 2010-10-31T16:54:21.733Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alexander tried this by land. It didn't work out, but it did leave us Hellenism.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-03-23T23:14:42.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So far it looks like Tom is the only one who made a non-meta valid suggestion. Come on, surely we can do better? For example, I could speak in my concerns about "statistical significance" levels, hoping it would come out as some kind of criticism of Greek philosophers' criteria of argument.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-03-23T23:30:13.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Robin, suppose you can't fine-tune the chronophone that way. How would you implement your object-level suggestion - what would you speak into the chronophone? Remember, a special-purpose garden path won't work. So, what cognitive efforts have you put forth to make useful devices that make money?

comment by Jack · 2010-05-10T08:57:42.485Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well this easy for Robin. He just needs to give his usual spiel on medical care skepticism.

comment by HalFinney · 2007-03-23T23:36:23.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a great thought experiment, but a little confusing. I'd suggest that a better name for this is the "metaphone", in that whatever you say it maps to the analogous concept in the recipient's mind and worldview. It's an interesting concept even beyond the specifics of time travel. I don't know if it could really work though, as it is too hard to figure out what would correspond in people's minds, in enough detail.

There's also a question of how meta it goes. Tom's idea is a good one if it just maps space exploration to naval exploration (assuming that that is in fact something we want to encourage). But maybe the phone would go meta even on the concept of exploration, and map that concept to something more analogous in Archimedes' world view. We come from a culture which is based on centuries of success via exploration, so maybe the phone would map that to something that had provided centuries of success for the greeks, like philosophy or something.

comment by Mike_Linksvayer · 2007-03-24T00:47:07.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tom, the Greeks were colonizers, e.g., Syracuse is not in the homeland.

The obvious non-meta version of my suggestion is to teach Archimedes calculus.

comment by Peter_de_Blanc · 2007-03-24T01:21:27.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should ask the greatest mathematician of the ancient world to work on FAI theory. If he solves the analogous problem, then when he explains his solution to you over the Chronophone, it'll come out on your end as a design for an AI.

comment by Mati_Roy (MathieuRoy) · 2014-02-02T06:40:00.076Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nice :-) but in fact, the chronophone will transmit a problem just as hard for Archimede as FAI is to us. So he'll probably solve the problem in the same amount of time than us (so it won't help us). I wonder what would be this problem? Is going do the Moon for Archimede just as hard than building a FAI for us?

comment by Strange7 · 2014-04-06T01:35:58.108Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In that case, Archimedes and his successors spend a few hundred years working on the problem, and then recalibrate the chronophone to communicate over a correspondingly shorter interval, just so they can seem smarter by giving the answer immediately.

comment by Brilliand · 2015-08-23T06:58:29.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd think the few hundred years of changing context there would cause the solution to come back to us as the solution to a different, much less difficult, problem.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-03-24T01:56:05.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ger, the chronophone won't directly transmit decimal notation - it will come out as Roman Numerals. Maybe you could get a computer programmer who works on simple user interfaces, or a mathematician trying to teach category theory to high-school students.

Linksvayer, if you speak calculus into the chronophone, it comes out as some form of mathematics that is widely known in Archimedes's era - maybe Pythagoras's musical harmonics. Perhaps Andrew J. Wiles could speak into the chronophone.

de Blanc, for obvious reasons, Archimedes communicates literally with us if he can communicate at all - he just writes down his reply somewhere and hopes that it gets copied through a few thousand years. Transmitting information from the past to the future is conceptually straightforward.

Hal, you indeed seem to comprehend what I was aiming at with the chronophone parable. I may even have responded to Hanson incorrectly. In our time it is already widely believed, at least among the educational elite, that making money (especially by inventing new gadgets) benefits humanity. So if you said that into the chronophone, it might come out as a paean to the benefits of conquering enemy territories. In Archimedes's time a technological marketplace is a nonobvious idea; and a basic principle of the chronophone is that to make something nonobvious come out in the past, you have to say something nonobvious in the present.

comment by Mike_Linksvayer · 2007-03-24T06:09:34.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Archimedes lived two centuries after Pythagoras and knew more math in spite of being known as an engineer.

However, calculus is obvious now, so that won't work.

But the task is now easy -- I'd talk to Archimedes about plant rights (see

comment by JenniferRM · 2012-06-12T19:10:49.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I think this comment could plausibly be the primary inspiration for HP:MoR's chapter 48 :-)

comment by michael_vassar · 2007-03-24T07:55:13.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And if I talk to Archimedes about Greek-Style philosophy or mathematics? Does this come across as discussion of Egyptian philosophy and mathematics or does it remain Greek? I can find all sorts of interesting proposals in the latter, including governmental forms etc that sound promising by todays standards as well as a lot of fairly good science from the pre-Socratics.

comment by Matthew_Pianalto · 2007-03-24T15:55:13.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Archimedes, don't listen to what Aristotle said about Empedocles!" (Empedocles proposed a rough version of natural selection, and Aristotle rejected Empedocles' view as absurd in his Physics.) I suppose that might be "too anachronistic," depending upon just how much authority was given to Aristotle's teleological view of the world. I don't know that saying this would be forcing our own preferred conclusions on him.

comment by LuigiG · 2007-03-24T17:15:16.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd put Archimedes through to somebody like the current president of the United States ("Dubya") or maybe some religious fundamentalist. Archimedes would be so disappointed and perhaps horrified about what kind of people are hanging around in the future that he may try to use his intelligence to figure out what has gone (or will go) wrong in history and do something about it.

comment by Nick_Bostrom2 · 2007-03-24T20:01:08.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure I understand exactly how the chronophone works. It sounds a bit like the only useful ideas a person can transmit are ideas that she herself has independently worked out or discovered; in which case not the same ideas but some analogous and similarly useful ideas gets delivered to Archimedes. In this case, I guess I might try to read out some of my research papers, hoping that they contain some useful original insights. It might also work if I transmit ideas that have originated with others but whose merits I have grasped through my own independent judgement.

It seems if you subtract all the information advantages that we moderns have, all that remains in this exercise are the organic qualities of our brains and the amount and quality of intellectual labour that our brains have performed.

comment by Bill_Kaplan · 2007-03-24T20:19:44.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Transmit: "All things are made of atoms." Democrates said it. Confirm it.

About politics, do the same. Confirm Democrates.

comment by 1point7point4 · 2020-01-31T18:39:23.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since that's hindsight, we'd expect Archimedes to get something that was controversial thousands of years before but widely believed at the time.

comment by Anna · 2007-03-25T01:11:30.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose you could send messages back in time to Archimedes of Syracuse, using a chronophone which - to avoid transmitting anachronistic information - transmits the results of executing cognitive strategies, rather than words.

"You have no idea what you're about to discover!" "What you thought is real, is really not the truth!" "You can't imagine the facts!" "What is real, is only real to you!"

Just some ideas. Anna

comment by jsabotta · 2007-03-25T15:15:58.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Really, the best advice would be "Get out of Syracuse before the Romans show up" but I suppose your infuriating machine would refuse to transmit that as well.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-08-04T00:22:27.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey, all you have to do is think of an analogous suggestion today. I'm afraid I lack the historical knowledge necessary to even attempt to provide direct advice...

A possible problem would that there would be no analogous situation. That there is no place for your country to get out of before some people show up. I don't know if communicating similarly important abstract ideas works, and how much your correctness or incorrectness of advice matters...

comment by taryneast · 2011-05-31T08:28:12.165Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A possible problem would that there would be no analogous situation.

Get out of Austria before the Nazis show up.

comment by johnlawrenceaspden · 2012-10-08T17:16:50.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But that's hindsight, so it would come out as advice about Archimedes' past.

comment by taryneast · 2012-11-04T23:58:17.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's the use of a past example to advise on future actions.

comment by PrimIntelekt · 2009-10-10T17:22:32.607Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps "Get off of Earth before Nemesis sends some more comets our way"


Reasoning: The Roman invasion could have been predicted, but wouldn't have been well supported by evidence -- although foreign invasions were certainly a repeated (even cyclic) phenomenon. Of course, the Nemesis hypothesis rests on an unproven root cause of all major extinction events, whereas invasions came from various, known causes...

comment by Pavel · 2007-03-26T16:35:17.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about e.g. "Time is a means of measuring movement"?

comment by _Gi · 2007-03-26T18:04:58.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What happens when a contemporary political and economical analysis is sent over, including the troop sizes of contemporary armies, supply levels, economic conditions of the surrounding countries, facts that could not be available to Archimedes but could be available to some of his contemporaries?

comment by michael_vassar · 2007-03-27T20:28:47.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jsabotta: Easy to transmit that one. Get out of NYC, DC, and to a lesser degree other large US cities before terrorists nuke it/them. Maybe I should do that. OTOH, there are practical reasons to be there as well.

All I can say is "I'm working on it".

comment by Aaron_Davies · 2007-03-28T16:27:36.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd start by looking into how the scientific method was developed in our history, and seeing if that would be any help. Perhaps sending him some of Roger Bacon's work would be useful?

comment by RobinZ · 2010-02-17T20:37:37.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rereading this article from Emile's link:

I think my major problem with this article is that the perfectly reasonable conclusion - that you can't do better in the future today by thinking today's cached thoughts about how people in the past could have done better in the future of the past - is obscured by the utterly ridiculous device of the eponymous chronophone.

To elaborate: If you analyze the question, "how did people in the past figure out that ideas are tested by experiment?", then you can immediately rule out "by asking how people at their own time evaluated ideas". And indeed, generalizing to "how did people in the past become smarter than their contemporaries - i.e. better at solving their problems?", you see that it is trivially true that you can't count on the standardized thinking of the present to take you beyond the standardized thinking of the present.

But if you analyze the question, "what do you say into the chronophone to convince Archimedes?", you come up with "this thing couldn't possibly work - there is no way to draw a unique relation between rationalizations of current and past ideas, so it fails sci-fi". Which has nothing to do with anything.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-05-10T07:13:49.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always thought that the middle chapters of Plato's Republic were satire. Are you quite sure that classical Greek philosophers were disdainful of empirical phenomena? How do you explain, e.g., Aristotle's Physics?

comment by Jack · 2010-05-10T08:45:41.234Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always thought that the middle chapters of Plato's Republic were satire.

Nope. Or at least that is an extremely novel interpretation, as far as I know.

Are you quite sure that classical Greek philosophers were disdainful of empirical phenomena? How do you explain, e.g., Aristotle's Physics?

Also, all his biology. I agree the post is unfair to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle invented observational science. The problem is he didn't think to run any experiments. He just collected stamps, so to speak.

comment by rebellionkid · 2012-01-09T17:35:51.290Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is not that he "didn't think to" run experiments, rather he actively rejected the doing of experiments. The idea is that one can study nature, study things as they naturally are, because that is them acting in accordance with their inherent properties. But it makes no sense to study things in a lab, in an artificial environment. If I launch something out of a cannon then I disturb it from how it inherently acts. Of course something acting against how it inherently acts is pointless to study. Likewise doing any kind of experiment will only tell you about your experiment (at best) and tell you nothing of the natural state of things.

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-09T18:07:28.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always thought that the middle chapters of Plato's Republic were satire.

I've held the same view, and while it is unpopular it's not unique.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-10-22T16:15:50.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The honest answer to your question is "Beats the !@#!$ out of me."

But if abdicating to someone smarter isn't an option, I need to do something. And starting from my values is asking for trouble: if they are temporally embedded the chronophone won't transmit them; if they aren't Archimedes has just as much access to them as I do.

So I have to start from the other side: model Archimedes, decide what modifications I want to introduce to that model, work out what aspects of his own mind will induce those modifications if excited/inhibited sufficiently, work out what aspects of my mind are most analogous to those, identify ideas that excite/inhibit my corresponding cognitive structures, and communicate those ideas.

So far, so good... this is essentially the same way I influence anyone in the real world who doesn't already happen to agree with me. It's also more or less how I train my dog. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

(Were this a real situation, I'd start by doing a lot of research on Archimedes and his milieu, about which I'm pretty ignorant. I'm not going to do that here, so my suggestions will be pretty bogus.)

Suppose I decide to influence Archimedes towards social equality (e.g., eliminate slavery, wider voting rights, that sort of thing).

Let's assume his current opposition to this idea is in part going along with social norms, in part the notion that there really are fundamental differences between people that map to their social roles, and in part the practical acknowledgment that restricting power to his own class makes his life better.

I can't do much about the first or the third. He could teach me a thing or two about being willing to stick your neck out, and I agree that there are practical benefits to preserving privilege; I could hardly convince him otherwise given the rhetoric-flattening nature of the chronophone. But the second seems like a potential lever.

There's no way to convey my own belief that the differences aren't as fundamental as all that, nor any reason Archimedes would be convinced by it. So I guess I'd start by thinking about experiments that have led me to reject intuitively obvious beliefs I've had about cognition. Demonstrations of confirmation bias, of conformity effects, of the use of availability heuristics in decision-making, that sort of thing.

The specifics don't matter much; what I'd want to get across is the idea that people, and how people interact, and what people are capable of, is just as subject to careful investigation without distortion by prior expectation as, say, machinery or the density of crowns.

If I could do that, and thereby encourage him to begin empirically exploring cognition... that'd be cool. A 2000-year headstart on that could really change the world.

I don't think much of my chances, though. I've tried to do this too many times across a much smaller gulf with better tools and failed miserably.

comment by nick012000 · 2010-10-22T19:05:24.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's simple. I'd make the best damn argument for slavery I could, knowing that the chronophone will invert it into the best damn argument against slavery I could give.

comment by tenshiko · 2010-10-25T02:51:24.235Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I'm understanding the chronophone correctly, the thing is that what comes out cannot be anachronistic. Maybe I'm not. If I'm understanding it as a strategy-conveying phone, then it would just tell Archimedes that you're trying to trick him into believing an anachronism.

Personally I'd eagerly chirp about awesome technology like nanobots and solar power and high-speed trains that so many countries seem to be ignoring right now, and hope that it would pick up the kind of stuff Hero of Alexandria was doing with steam and such. (Although this might not work. It's such a shame that he came after Archimedes). It would be very interesting to see how this would turn out in conjunction with the whole space travel --> naval expansion idea...

comment by nick012000 · 2010-10-25T08:51:41.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, it'd tell him that you're arguing against the local belief structure regarding slavery. In his time, it'd be an argument against slavery.

comment by VAuroch · 2014-01-14T02:37:12.813Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems more likely to come out as an argument for some practice that had been given up as immoral in his time. i.e. human sacrifice, which I believe was no longer part of Greek religion by that time.

comment by moshez · 2011-04-27T18:55:24.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know it's ancient, but what the hell, I finally have answers!

"Archimedes, you should teach everybody to program. Every boy, every girl, at as early an age as you find possible. Computers are all around us, and knowing how to program gives us power over them, and lets us be in control of our universe."

I hope it comes out as

"Archimedes, you should teach everybody to read, write and the basic of mathematics. Every boy of reasonable upbringing, at as early an age as you find possible. Scrolls full of words and math are all around us, and knowing how to parse them give us power over them, and lets us be in control of our universe."

I'm kind of sad that it comes out as "every boy of reasonable upbringing", but since I see "every boy, every girl" as executing my time's algorithm of "who can learn" (I didn't propose teaching chimps or dolphins), that's the best I can do. Regardless, if you think how programming is treated as a specialization now, instead of as a basic art, I hope that I actually conveyed something useful to Archimedes.

Also: "Archimedes, copyright and DRM are evil. They hamper the transfer of knowledge, and make people get used to being slaves to others' whims."

If I'm very, very lucky, that might come out as an argument against slavery. If I convince Archimedes to end slavery, I consider it a big big win :)

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2011-05-17T04:17:20.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm kind of sad that it comes out as "every boy of reasonable upbringing", but since I see "every boy, every girl" as executing my time's algorithm of "who can learn" (I didn't propose teaching chimps or dolphins), that's the best I can do.

!! This obviously implies that we should be trying to teach chimps and dolphins!

comment by moshez · 2011-05-18T23:00:51.553Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That does not follow. I followed the algorithm of "check who my counter-parts think is teachable according to the most cutting edge research", so Archimedes follows the same algorithm. However, I happen to really truly believe that my time's beliefs on this specific issue are fairly accurate -- and that even though Archimedes probably believed the same about his time, he's wrong and I'm right.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-05-19T00:03:00.455Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

he's wrong and I'm wrong.


comment by moshez · 2011-05-19T23:05:13.529Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes :)

comment by Clippy · 2011-05-19T00:32:31.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, humans should teach programming to chimps and dolphins. Who but a racist would disagree?

That doesn't mean that you must teach them that specific skill now, with their current knowledge -- there are pre-requisites you will have to cover first. But you certainly need to attempt the first steps.

comment by FAWS · 2011-05-19T23:21:22.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, some people are trying to teach chimps sign language or similar. Success there seems likely to be a necessary prerequisite for teaching them programming.

comment by taryneast · 2011-05-31T08:24:30.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would speak highly of sharing scientific research with China and India - in the hopes that it would come out as a paean on the benefits of sharing research with other cultures - hopefully leading to a sharing of information with the great Islamic scientists. Most of which are after Archimedes' time... but having a culture-of-sharing in place would be a good way to spark things off.

comment by rebellionkid · 2012-01-09T17:44:47.001Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Archimedes died in 212 BC. Justinian closed the pagan schools and killed of the classical research project in 529 AD. The first book of the Quran was delivered in 610 AD. So sharing with the Islamic scientists (who had all read Aristotle anyway) doesn't make sense.

But an expansion of the communication between places like Alexandria, Athens, Cos etc could be a really good plan.

comment by orthonormal · 2011-06-20T22:15:54.643Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another way of putting the idea here: What ideas could qualify as X, where X is to modern common sense as modern common sense is to ancient Greek common sense?

comment by khafra · 2011-06-21T14:02:09.323Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea here might also be: "Which memes M form a group acted on by a torsor of cultural zeitgeists C such that MC1=C2, where C2 is a more desirable cultural zeitgeist than C1?"

I'm honestly not sure which meaning Eliezer originally intended, as both seem valuable focuses for contemplation.

comment by Benquo · 2011-06-21T14:19:52.060Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't worry if the simplest mathematical description of the appearances defies common sense. Common sense will catch up. Now rethink astronomy and pay attention to interesting regularities.

If something counts as "evidence" in one domain but not in another, you should think long and hard about whether this different treatment is justified. Maybe you're privileging "evidence" that should be ignored, or throwing out valuable information.

comment by Benquo · 2011-06-21T14:21:33.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which sciences are thought to be noble now is not a perfect indicator of which ones will prove to be valuable in the future.

comment by EvelynM · 2011-06-27T16:44:55.631Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Horoscope: Imagine your future self telling you an important idea, which you can put to use right now. What would that idea be?

comment by sniderj1 · 2011-10-07T04:45:16.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first thing I'd do is convince him that I'm a messenger from a God. So, I'd say "If I had a super-scientific machine that gave me all the answers, I'd put it on a big pedestal in George Mason's engineering building and use it to proofread everyone's research."

And he'd hear "If I had a mystical way of talking to the gods, I'd put in on a big pedestal in the agora and have philosophers talk to it all day."

Once that happens, whatever we want to say will be much more convincing.

comment by Ronny (potato) · 2011-12-10T21:38:51.852Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What if I talked to him about pebbles and buckets? Did the Greeks have pebbles and buckets? Did they have a word for probable? Or a way to express it? Cause then i would just try to get them to get bayes theorem, and priors, and updating, and bayes networks, through talking about pebbles with different properties in buckets of different sizes. And the whole time say that this is just like belief. Or that in the future, this is epistemology.

I would probably try to explain a bit of Boole to them first, use black and white pebbles. Just conjunction negation, and disjunction. Show them demorgan's.

I think this would all work as long as i give examples in terms of plain things that were around back then, and let them do the generalizing.

I would hope that if i showed this to the right cat back then, I might inspire some early empiricism.

comment by Insert_Idionym_Here · 2012-01-30T21:49:09.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems that in order to get Archimedes to make a discovery that won't be widely accepted for hundreds of years, you yourself have to make a discovery that won't be widely accepted for hundreds of years; you have to be just as far in the dark as you want Archimedes to be. So talking about plant rights would probably produce something useful on the other end, but only if what you say is honestly new and difficult to think about. If I wanted Archimedes to discover Bayes' theorem, I would need to put someone on the line who is doing mathematics that is hundreds of years ahead of their time, and hope they have a break-through.

comment by johnlawrenceaspden · 2012-10-08T17:28:30.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think probability theory would have been very accessible to the Greeks, had they only thought to think about games of chance, which they certainly played. I bet if you'd asked Archimedes 'What odds should you offer on a bet that two dice get seven?', then the whole thing would have come crashing out within a hundred years or so.

So you might want to put him in touch with a modern philosopher trying to take a mathematical approach to something mysterious, say Dennett.

comment by keddaw · 2012-07-24T13:16:50.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I have a couple of suggestions:

  1. Find a current social/scientific norm that maps almost perfectly to Archimedes' time that you disagree with (e.g. the need for a strong, expansionist military; use of torture; increase in state power over citizens; existence of a political class etc.) and use the same arguments against it now, including outcomes and dangers, and they should map to decent arguments then.

  2. Find a socially wronged group and use arguments for their emancipation (women, non-whites, gays, children etc. depending on your era) and whichever hated/discriminated against group they map to in Archimedes' time will almost definitely be helped by your emancipation arguments.

  3. Say that hatred/fear based on religion is wrong, but that religion itself is wrong and the acquiescence to authority is also problematic.

  4. Describe the problems of current economic bubbles, their causes and possible solutions to avoid them. This will hopefully help with the basic economy of ancient Greece.

  5. Argue for non-objective morality. And moral error theory. And a lack of libertarian free will. And against fate (but for a QM-accepting variant of determinism).

Basically, as long as your argument is against the common knowledge/understanding of your time you have a chance of getting across a decent version of it, or the principle at least, especially if the common knowledge has a (close) corollary in Archimedes' time. (HT. unequally-yoked).

comment by MixedNuts · 2012-07-24T15:06:38.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, it'll come out as arguments for then-controversial position that Archimedes already holds.

comment by Philip_W · 2012-09-23T19:20:10.898Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem with the chronophone is that almost all of our knowledge and beliefs comes from the authority of others. Unless you have designed every stage of the test yourself, and then observed that no errors were made and if you have derived all the underlying assumptions yourself (or have them in common with Archimedes), you can't use the result of such a test because you've accepted the authority of the testers.

And still you could argue that verifying the accuracy of every test you have ever done is merely applying Bayesian Reasoning/The Scientific Method as it was taught you - which would come out as applying Aristotelean philosophy, or something close. Tell him to educate all children of the world? You can't even tell him to do a damned scientific experiment!

If we want to convince Archimedes of anything, we're going to have to rederive science and ethics from principles which Archimedes would agree with for the same reasons as us (or, to generalize to the presumable meaning of the post, principles which are actually fundamental).

comment by johnlawrenceaspden · 2012-10-08T17:13:56.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that the two most scary risks we face are nanotechnology and AI, and that compared to them, nothing else matters at all. So it seems like our best strategy would probably be to try to understand those risks as thoroughly as possible, and to throw vast amounts of money at research to see whether there's any way to deal with them safely.

So if that's our best plan, and I say it into the magic time idea translating phone, maybe something good will come out of Archimedes' end, like 'try to understand the Roman Republic and how you might counter it before it shreds you'. And who knows. Maybe if the Greeks and the Carthaginians had understood the nature of the threat, they might have been able to do something about it.

But it's not clear that preventing the rise of the Roman Empire would optimize the modern world.

comment by themusicgod1 · 2013-01-31T14:23:42.880Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would explain the concepts of the craziest, most non-obvious ideally moral ideas I've ever had [such as the idea that Nick Bostrom's Interstellar Opportunity Cost paper completely changes the nature of the pro-life debate, such that it no longer is sensible to freeze all fetuses instead of aborting them, instead, if we're serious about being pro-life we should crop humanity down to only what is needed to spread human life to other stars, and that there are economic considerations to freedom but that they are subtle and complex]. Something that is so the wall might not go through directly, but it might come through as something equally out there [that the greeks should dedicate all their energies and efforts to seafaring and trade]

And in fact the further in the future I would be aiming to talk about the better. What matters about 2,000 paltry years when we're talking about post-singularity or near-singularity times? The differences between us will be minor in comparison, and not be 'smudged' by the chronophone.

comment by TheWakalix · 2018-12-13T22:09:30.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The cultural differences - the object-level information that Aristotle is lacking - are significant. This is true even if you are talking about things that differ from both of you by more than your difference to Aristotle.

comment by Manfred · 2013-01-31T15:07:35.541Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sadly, I'm afraid all these suggestions were generated with the cognitive algorithm "think of something that will make the chronophone output something good," and will thus result in arguments that Archimedes would have come up with when trying to get the chronophone to output something good.

comment by sjmp · 2013-04-20T15:59:04.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose I could talk about how I've never had any other proof about existence of photons except what I've read in books and I've been told by teachers. How I am in fact taking science on authority rather than first hand experimental proof. Sure, scientific method and all the explanations sound like they make sense, but is that enough to accept them as facts? Or should I lower my probabilities until I actually find out myself?

comment by smijer · 2013-08-17T12:13:21.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

70 comments so far, and none of them, "Holy Shit! I'm talking to Archimedes!"

... which I suppose he would hear as "Ye Gods! I'm talking to Plato"...

comment by Mati_Roy (MathieuRoy) · 2014-02-02T07:20:31.513Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If doubting is/was accepted in our current society, and we wanted Archimede to doubt about his beliefs, would we have to doubt about the value doubting, or be certain about the value of doubting?

It's a joke. As Eliezer said "to get nonobvious output, you need nonobvious input", so obviously, we'd just have to find something nonobvious. :-)

I wonder if we will ever come up with something that is as nonobvious to us right now as bayesian thinking was to Archimede.

comment by Ender · 2014-04-19T05:13:01.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might pull together a good message just based on the original question, "what advice do you give to Archimedes, and how do you say it into the chronophone." Yudkowsky's question was designed to make us think non-obvious thoughts, after all.

"Would you be able to ask anything meaningful through the chronophone?"

(My construction might not be quite right. I'm feeling all smug and Godelian, but it's 1 AM, so I've probably missed something.)

comment by Jiro · 2014-04-19T10:52:41.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The description of what the chronophone transmits is vague enough that no matter what I say, there's always a plausible way to interpret that description such that it would fail to work. As you, as the person posing the problem in the first place, get to decide which interpretation is correct, that means there's no solution.

By the time someone gets to the point of wanting to construct persuasive anti-slavery arguments, they must have already turned against slavery. If you know your desired moral destination, you are already there. Thus, that particular cognitive strategy - searching for ways to persuade people against slavery - can't explain how we got here from there, how Western culture went from pro-slavery to anti-slavery.

I don't buy this argument either. Someone might not want to specifically construct persuasive arguments against X. Rather, he tries to construct persuasive arguments about X regardless of they are for or against it. Then he decides to accept or reject X depending on whether the persuasive argument he created happened to be for or against it (possibly changing his preexisting opinion about X in the process). Once he has constructed the persuasive argument (either for or against) and has his newest opinion for or against X, he then tries to convince others of it.

It also ignores the difference between an argument being persuasive to yourself and to others. Perhaps some believers in X and some believers in ~X want to come up with arguments that confirm their preexisting position. Both of them manage to produce arguments that convince themselves. But it turns out that when they use those arguments on other people, they're not equally effective in convincing other people. In fact, it turns out that believers in X can convince a subset of believers in ~X to switch sides, while believers in ~X cannot convince a similar subset of believers in X to switch sides.

(And it might be hard to see this because once the arguments have spread, when you get to the next generation, the arguments are already floating around, so the people who if they had been born earlier would have started out believing in ~X but gotten converted, would have started out already believing X and had no need to change their mind. You would then observe this and think "nobody can be convinced by argument to change their mind" when in fact all the people who are susceptible to persuasion by argument are already on the side that has the persuasive arguments.)

comment by ike · 2014-06-18T21:52:18.204Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ger suggested teaching Archimedes decimal notation. Well, if you speak decimal notation - our home culture's standard representation of numbers - into the chronophone, then the chronophone outputs the standard representation of numbers used in Syracuse. To get a culturally nonobvious output, you need a culturally nonobvious input. Place notation is revolutionary because it makes it easier for ordinary people, not just trained accountants, to manipulate large numbers. Maybe an equivalent new idea in our own era would be Python, which makes it easier for novices to program computers - or a mathematician trying to standardize on category theory instead of set theory as a foundation for mathematics.

– (From the follow up article)

I think that the rules for the chronophone are either inconsistent, or incorrectly applied. There is not a fine enough distinction between our “cognitive policies”, and our “meta-cognitive policies”.

That is, if you were to explain Python into the chronophone, you are executing two different cognitive policies at two different levels of reduction:

  • Explain a non-obvious kind of math in our culture which makes it easy for ordinary people to do things previously reserved for professionals. Or the meta-policy of
  • Say something into the chronophone which will result in decimal notation (something standard in our culture) coming out of the chronophone

Now, presumably, if Archimedes says something into the chronophone to himself, it comes out unchanged. Therefore, the rules predict that what will come out the chronophone will be (depending on which level of meta-cognitive-policy you choose):

  • A non-obvious kind of math in Archimedes's culture which makes it easy for ordinary people to do things previously reserved for professionals. E.g. decimal notation.
  • Something that Archimedes could say into the chronophone which will result in a standard representation of math in his culture coming out of the chronophone.

You see the problem here. If level 2 is the “correct” way of looking at it, (which seems more fundamental to me), then whatever you say, it has a root goal of getting Archimedes to understand something obvious in your culture. Even if you say something unobvious.

(I suppose you could say something “doubly-unobvious” to get it to say something merely unobvious in both his culture and ours, but it's unobvious to me what that would look like. What useful ideas are unobvious both to our culture and Archimedes, and more, are the same level of unobviousness, that you could iterate the unobviousness and get useful output? If that's too unclear, I can try to clarify it.)

comment by Rixie · 2015-02-08T15:47:24.710Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel like this thought experiment is less about how to cleverly communicate to Archimedes all the things that he is obviously wrong about and that we are obviously right about, and more about how to try to recognize the potential mistakes within our own way of thinking, as Archimedes was as certain about his geocentric point of view as we are with our heliocentric one. While I think we're right about heliocentrism at least, there may be other seemingly obvious facts that we take for granted, but that future generations will want to yell at us through a chronophone for, and whatever tricks we come up with to get Archimedes to question his beliefs (like giving nonobvious input) may help us to question our own beliefs. But maybe all that was just really really obvious in which case ahhhh I'm sorry.

But besides that, I remember doubting the power structure within my own familial unit as a child (parents are always right, children should always just listen until they turn 18 and become magically responsible) , could communicating that help Archimedes doubt some of the power structures withing Greek society? Maybe it would have him question the arbitrariness of slaves always having to defer to normal citizens, until the point at which they can buy themselves out of slavery and become magically worthy of politics like everyone else?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-02-08T21:12:07.515Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Doubting power structures itself isn't that useful it usually doesn't change them.

comment by Become_Stronger · 2016-07-22T03:25:53.011Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


  • Gather useful information and insights from experts in countries foreign to you, the farther away the better. (Use the internet, jet travel, etc for this.)
  • Read this information into the chronophone.
  • This should produce insights from experts Archimedes would have had comparatively much more trouble contacting, because you have better tools available to you for the execution of the same cognitive strategy.
comment by Regex · 2020-04-18T18:49:52.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I first tried to describe rationality piece by piece, but realized that just comes out as something like: "Enumerate all the principles, fundamentals, and ideas you can think of and find about effective thinking and action. Master all of them. More thoroughly and systematically apply them to every aspect of your life. Use the strongest to solve its most relevant problem. Find their limits. Be unsatisfied. Create new principles, fundamentals, and ideas to master. Become strong and healthy in all ways. "

Non-meta attempt:

<Epistemic status: I would predict most of these are wrong. In fact, I rather recently proved I didn't understand fundamental parts of The Sequences. So I know that my beliefs here are weak and thoroughly misled. So my basis of belief for all of these is broken and weak. I am certain my foundation for beliefs is wrong even if all of my actual beliefs here turn out to be basically accurate. I cannot thoroughly justify why they are right.>

General strategy: collect all the important things you think are true, and consider what it means for each to be false.

Starting with a list of the things most important to you, state the most uncontroversial and obvious facts about how those work and why that is the case. Now assume the basic facts about the things most important to you are wrong. The impossible is easy. The probable is actually not true. Your assumptions do not lead to their conclusions. The assumptions are also false. You don't want the conclusions to be true anyway. The things that you know work, work based on principles other than what you thought. Most of your information about those phenomena is maliciously and systematically corrupted, and all of it is based on wrong thinking. Your very conceptions of the ideas are set up to distort your thinking on this subject.

What if my accepted ideas of civilizational progress are wrong? What if instead of exponential growth, you can basically just skip to the end? Moore's Law is actually just complacency. You can, at any point, write down the most powerful and correct version of any part of civilization. You can also write down what needs to happen to get there. You can do this without actually performing any research and development in between, or even making prototypes. You don't need an AGI to do this for you. Your brain and its contents right now are sufficient. You just need to organize them differently. In fact, you already know how to do this. You're tripping over this ability repeatedly, overlooking the capability to solve everything you care about because you regard it as trash, some useless idea, or even a bad plan. You've buried it alongside the garbage of your mind. You're not actually looking at what is in your head and how it can be used. Even if it feels like you are. Even if you're already investing all your resources in 'trying.' It is possible, easy even. You're just doing it wrong in an obvious way you refuse to recognize. Probably because you don't actually want what you feel, think, and say you do. You already know why you're lying to yourself about this.

You can't build AGI without understanding what it'll do first, so AI safety as a separate field is actually not even necessary or especially valuable. You can't even get started with the tech that really matters until you've laid out what is going to happen in advance. That tech can also only be used for good ends. Also, AGI is impossible to build in the first place. Rationality is bunk and contains more traps than valuable thinking techniques. MIRI is totally wrong about AI safety and is functionally incapable of coming anywhere close to what is necessary to align superintelligences. Even over a hundred years it will be mechanically unable to self-correct. CFAR is just very good at making you feel like rationality is being taught. They, don't understand even the basics of rationality in the first place. Instead they're just very good at convincing good people to give them money, and everyone including themselves that this is okay. Also, it is okay. Because morality is actually about making you feel like good things are happening, not actually making good things happen. We actually care about the symbol, not the substance.

That rationality cannot, even in its highest principles of telling you how to overcome itself, actually lead you to something better. To that higher unnamed thing which is obviously better once you're there. There is, in fact, actually no rationality technique for making it easier to invent the next rationality. Or for uncovering the principles it is missing. Even the fact of knowing there are missing principles you must look for when your tools shatter is orthogonal to resolving the problem. It does not help you. Analogously there is no science experiment for inventing rationality. You cannot build an ad-hoc house whose shape is engineering. If it somehow happens, it will be because of something other than the principles you thought you were using. You can keep running science experiments about rationality-like-things and eventually get an interesting output, but the reason it will work is because of something like brute force random search.

That the singularity won't happen. Exponential growth already ended. But we also won't destroy ourselves for not being able to stop X-risk. In fact, X-risk is a laughable idea. Humans will survive no matter what happens. It is impossible to actually extinguish the species. S-risk is also crazy, it is okay for uncountable humans to suffer forever, because immense suffering is orthogonal to good/bad. What we actually value has nothing to do with humans and conscious experience at all, actually.

comment by FwQkbCL77 · 2020-07-04T14:41:14.428Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apparently, what you should have been saying to Archimedes 13 years ago was: “You are not doing enough to prepare for a serious pandemic”. Figures. We got lucky that the world-ending plague turned out to be a Chinese knock-off.