Possible Insight

Archive for May 2011

Why We're Smart

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Most people believe humans evolved intelligence because using tools was an advantage.  However, I believe tool use was secondary.  Group cooperation was the primary advantage conferred by intelligence.  You see, cooperation is fundamentally difficult.

This insight coalesced when I was reading about Mark Satterthwaite, an economist at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.  He’s famous for two important impossibility theorems: (1) the Myerson-Satterthwaite Theorem and (2) the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem.

Informally, (1) says that there is no bargaining mechanism that can guarantee a buyer and seller will trade if there are potential gains from trade, while  (2) says that there is no voting mechanism for determining a single winner that can induce people to vote their true preferences.  In both cases, the reason for the impossibility is that people have incentives to hide their actual values to achieve a strategic advantage.

Add these to the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem on the list of fundamental barriers to cooperation (Holmstrom’s Theorem is another good one; it explains why you can’t get everyone in a firm to exert maxium effort).  By “fundamental”, I mean there is no general solution.  So the evolutionary process cannot just discover a mechanism that guarantees cooperation when it is efficient.  There will always be the opportunity for individuals to subvert the cooperative process to promote themselves, thus creating selection pressure against the cooperation mechanism.

(Note that there is a hack: make sure each individual has the same genes.  This is how multicellular and hive organisms get around the problem.  But the existence of cancer in the former case and the reduced genetic diversity in the latter case make them limited solutions.)

To achieve extensive cooperation in large groups, individuals need the ability to model the strategic situation, estimate the payoffs to various group members, and continuously assess what strategies other members may be playing. On top of that, there’s an arms race between deceiving and detecting deception.  It’s the old, “I know that you know that I know…” schtick.  The smarter you are, the further you can compute this series.

Bottom line: the impossibility theorems mean the only way to achieve cooperation is to have the machinery in place to make detailed case-by-case determinations.  We’ve talked about the Dunbar Number before: the maximum size of primate groups is determined in large part by a species’ average neocortical volume.   I claim you need to be smarter to process more complex strategic configurations and maintain models of more individuals’ goals.

If I’m right, there are two interesting implications.  First, politics will be with us forever.  No magical technology or philosophical enlightenment will eliminate it.  Second, if we ever encounter intelligent aliens, they’ll have politics too.  Nothing else about them may be recognizable, but they’ll have analogs of haggling over price and building political coalitions.


Written by Kevin

May 24, 2011 at 10:54 am

Posted in Economics

Simple Interventions

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And now for something completely different…  For 25+ years, I have suffered from a propensity toward lots of bad upper respiratory infections (URIs) and associated secondary bacterial infections.  Recently, I have found two simple interventions that appear to have solved this problem and dramatically improved my quality of life.

First, the history.  Ever since I can remember, at least back to high school, I have come down with more than my fair share of URIs.  This source says that adults average 2-4 colds per year.  I typically averaged 6-8.  Moreover, my URIs seemed more severe than other people’s.  This study on zinc lozenges says the average length of an untreated cold is 7.6 days.  I typically averaged 10-14 days.

Even worse, I developed a lot of secondary bacterial bronchitis and sinusitis, which meant a lot of antibiotics.  There were two periods, one in college and one in my late 20s, where I had 3 sinus infections per year for several years.  They’d put me on inhaled steroids, which would solve the problem for the six months I was on them plus another six months, after which the sinus infections would return.

Finally, about 2.5 years ago, my father suggested I try a nasal irrigation syringe.  I had tried a Neti pot previously without much luck, but the syringe seemed more usable and to generate better irrigation.  After about 2 weeks (and two instances of experiencing copious amounts of amazingly neon-colored discharge), my sinuses were clear for the first time in years.  I haven’t had a single sinus infection since.

Now, I still had the URIs.  They weren’t as bad because I didn’t have painful sinus pressure or develop sinus infections, but they still sucked.  This winter, I was on my normal trajectory of 3 colds between Halloween and New Year’s.  Then I went for my physical in January and my doctor said my serum vitamin D was very low: 17 ng/ml when the recommended range is 30-100.  So I started taking 1,000 IU of D-3 twice a day.

I haven’t had a severe URI since.  I think I’ve had a couple of colds, but their quality is completely different than in the past.  Hardly even worth mentioning compared to my previous experience.  Could be coincidence.  However, vitamin D is crucial to enabling the activation of your immune systems T-cells.  So an improved immune response makes sense.

Rinsing my sinuses with saline once or twice a day and taking a vitamin supplement twice a day are pretty simple interventions.  Probably cost 10-20 cents per day.  Extremely low risk of adverse reactions.  But if they only improve my experience to the average (and I seem to be doing better than average now), I can expect about 60 more days per year free of URI symptoms.  If I’d known about this 25 years ago, that would be a cumulative 4 years saved!

I could have started a whole other startup with the time I spent sick in bed or barely functional at work.

It seems like as our health diagnostic, tracking, and analytic technologies progress, we should be able to identify these situations where simple interventions can result in dramatic health improvements.  I imagine we could see a tremendous improvement in economic productivity if my experience is any barometer.

Written by Kevin

May 10, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in Health