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Tank General

general, Thinkingtanks.com

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Are humans irrational? If so, how can we build stronger institutions to compensate for human shortcomings in rationality?

David Ropeik argues that "The brain is only the organ for which we think we think. It's job is not to win noble prizes. And to pass math tests. It's job is to get us tomorrow. Its a survival mechanism.. and it plays a lot of tricks in order to get us to tomorrow. That worked pretty well when the risks were lions and tigers and bears… Its not as good when we need to rationalize and reason and use the facts more with the complicated risks we face in a modern age: climate change, genetically modified food, and unsustainable living on the planet.. That takes a lot more thinking. More cognitive, slow,more effortful thinking. That we are not instinctively built that way must be recognized if we are going to get beyond the risk of not being built that way."


Dan Ariely provides further evidence that humans have irrational cognitive thought in his TedTalk and offers the following, "If we have these predictable, repeatable mistakes in vision, some thing that we are good at, what's the chance that we don't make more mistakes at something we're not as good at? For example financial decision making. Something we don't have an evolutionary reason to do, we don't have a specialized part of the brain, and we don't do that many parts of the day. The argument is that in those cases we make many more mistakes.."

In another TedTalk Dan Ariely provides the following food for thought, "Are we superman or are we Homer Simpson? When it comes to building the physical world we understand our limitations and we build around it. But for some reason when it comes to the mental world when we design things like healthcare, retirement, and the stock market we somehow forget the idea that we are limited. And i think if we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations we could design a better world."

Do you agree with them? How do we better structure institutions that can compensate for our shortcoming?


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  • Nov 24 2012: I wanted to start a new thread, but adding to this one will do. Today's Washington Post has an editorial piece written by Tom Malinowski titled: " A dangerous future of killer robots." Our killer drones have had a chilling effect on Al Qaeda. Anwar Al-Awlaki knew he was a wanted man and did what he could to avoid detection. Last fall he ran outdoors to a car, hoping his sprint would make his appearance very brief, but that was enough for an overhead drone and he was taken out. The decision to strike was made by human operators, but Mr. Malinowski's piece makes clear that the Pentagon is looking to a future where our killing machines will make the decision to strike on their own. So what is "rationality?" The Pentagon certainly hopes that our future drones and robots will be rational, can distinguish a target from innocents, and restrain itself to avoid collateral damage. Ethics wouldn't be hard to program into a robot because it would be a set of rules. Forgiveness and magnanimity are irrational because self interest is ceded. Some things can't be synthesized.

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