I was really bugged about this rationality paper for Prof. Kilo, who had degrees from the best Ivy League schools, a reputation for being smart, and an intimidating manner. Let me take a moment to explain my reasoning behind taking this goofy rationality class. I had studied artificial intelligence (AI) with a Course 6 (EE/CS) alumnus professor at Kansas Poly, Prof. Thayer, so I had an okay background in cognition and computational theory. However, I thought it was important to see how Course 17, political science, thought about how — people thought. The course was strange. It was team taught by multiple faculty, who gave lectures mostly on probability and game theory. Now of course that all makes sense given the impact of Judea Pearl on AI, but at the time I saw no empirical referent. That is, I didn’t see how all this discussion of cognition actually mapped to cognition in the real world because it all seemed to assume that actors had unlimited information and cognitive capacity to process that information, which just wasn’t plausible because it didn’t square with computational theory. A visiting professor lectured one afternoon on prospect theory, which argued people viewed equivalent positive gains and negative losses very differently. This made sense to me because it was based on experiments that showed how people’s actual cognition varied from strict rationality.
The class met in a small and dark room just off the Infinite Corridor, and I kept reading and figured that at some point I would “get it,” but I just never got it. It wasn’t just me though: after the last class, I saw another student in the hallway who commented to me in a low, conspiratorial tone, “The end of an error.” I went to see Kilo, and he was decidedly unhelpful. He just told me to write a paper on something. He had written a book on democracy, so I read it in hopes of figuring out what he was interested in as well as coming up with a paper topic. To put it bluntly, Kilo’s book was like the worst book I ever read — just plain dumb! His “idea” was that in an ideal society people would vote on everything. As an engineer, I figured it didn’t make too much sense to have people vote on circuit and software designs, and so I didn’t make sense to have people vote on all manner of public policy. Not only that, but the California recalls, referendums, and initiatives haven’t helped run the state any better or more efficiently. At the time I was familiar with the work of Friedrich von Hayek, who won the Nobel in Economics in 1974 and wrote that the central planning of the socialist economies did not have sufficient knowledge of the economy and computational capacity — that is, rationality — to process that knowledge even if they did, to set prices, which caused their economies, like that of the Soviet Union, to fail. The idea was that prices are best set in a decentralized manner by people throughout the economy in a distributed manner. Note that this does not sit well with politicians who, as a rule, have a nigh on insatiable appetite for power and its correlate, centralization.
So I reasoned that it was pretty obvious that having people vote on everything instead of having a central committee decide on everything was an analogous situation in that it still introduced excessive centralization. That is, how do people learn enough about an issue to vote and decide? Mostly people learn through television, and that introduced centralization because those who produce the programming can shape what ideas people are exposed to and how they are exposed to it. It seemed to me that Kilo was simply trading one form of centralization for another, so the societies the implemented his voting scheme would suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union because it would hinder the distributed decision-making necessary for a healthy economy because of limited information and limited rationality to process that information. I figure Kilo must have thought this through because it was so obvious — after all, the argument was based on the work of a Nobel Prize winner, so it wasn’t like it was secret — and after the fall of the Soviet Union, such concepts were certainly policy relevant. I wrote this up, but I was pretty sure I was wrong because Kilo had such a sterling academic background and reputation that he was sure to have thought of this, but I trusted my teacher that he would correct me gently, that I would learn something, and that this paper would likely lead to a productive conversation.
The first indication that there was trouble on the horizon was that Kilo did not turn my paper back and did not have a grade for me. I had already received three A’s, so I thought I was doing well, but this was my first semester in Course 17, so I didn’t really understand how things worked. He finally told me to meet him in his other office across the MIT campus. The building was an old wooden structure that had warped with age, which kind of had an out-of-kilter, fun house feel. I knocked on Kilo’s door and was invited in. The office was spare, and he was seated behind his desk, and I sat in a chair in front. There was a fading yellow light from the sunset. Kilo didn’t look me in the eye, and took the time to kill a fly before turning to me. He asked me how I could have done such a terrible thing. He said that was the worst paper he had ever seen as a professor. Kilo said the standard was clear, and I didn’t meet it. He said I had earned an F, but he was going to do me a favor and give me an incomplete. Kilo said he had checked my other grades, and he wanted to know what I had to say for myself. I was caught completely by surprise and didn’t know what to say. I told him my motivation that I hoped we could have a follow-on conversation, and he said he didn’t think that was possible. The paper was so bad that it was unrecoverable and couldn’t be re-written. He then said perhaps we should talk in couple of weeks after I had a chance to think about it.
It was dark when I left Kilo’s building, and the walk across campus was surreal. I felt as if I was in a fog. I felt sick. I had left my job, and started my studies in a whole new field, and it had all been going so well but in a single meeting, all my hopes and dreams had been dashed. How could I have been so wrong? I went back to my room and reviewed my logic and arguments, and it all still made sense to me. I scheduled another appointment with Kilo, and made my way to Kilo’s fun house, which to be completely honest, wasn’t that fun. I went into his office with as much confidence as I could muster. I apologized for the paper and said I was sorry that it had upset him. I then tried to guide the conversation in a productive direction by stating what I had been trying to do, to which Kilo interrupted and shouted me down, “Your paper meant nothing — NOTHING!” I looked at him evenly as he composed himself and said there was little benefit for us continuing this conversation, and it would be best if I just concentrated on my next semester’s classes. That made sense to me, and I left Kilo’s office. As I walked across campus this time though, I felt strangely better because even though I had an incomplete on my record, I thought to myself, “If my paper meant nothing Professor Kilo, then why were you so upset?”