Robots vs. Aliens vs. …

There are a many kinds of potentially powerful creatures one might consider.  These include: robots, aliens, spirits, gods, alters, revived hominids (e.g., neanderthals, hobbits), time-travelers (e.g., ancestors, descendants), and extreme human personality types (e.g., aspergers, psychopaths).

For each creature type, consider the degree to which you might:

  1. accept/want to live intermingled with them?
  2. seek/expect to gain via deals & trade with them?
  3. worry if they have similar enough values?
  4. exterminate them if you could?
  5. enslave them if you could?
  6. hide us from them if you could?
  7. fear them killing us all?
  8. fear them enslaving us?
  9. fear them out competing us?
  10. mind them marrying your child?
  11. take their advice?
  12. mind killing a single one of them?
  13. help them lots if that were cheap for you?
  14. mind becoming one of them?
  15. mind if they dominate the universe?

OK, now here is the interesting meta question: what patterns are there in how different sorts of people answer these questions differently for the different possibly-powerful creature types?  Once we have some patterns, we can seek explanations for them.

For example, compared to other types of creatures, we seem to less fear alters having differing values or our-competing us, seem more willing to take their advice and kill them, but seem less willing to enslave them.

Added 7Apr: For spirits or time-travelers, stories about dominance or gift-exchange relations sometimes go well, but stories about trade relations usually go very badly.

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  • William H. Stoddard

    What’s an alter? I’ve never seen that word used as a noun.

    • Zack M. Davis

      It’s Robin’s coinage referring to one of the personalities of a disassociative-identity-disorder patient. See the recent “Ems Like Alters?

      • tut

        It’s Robin’s coinage…

        I doubt that. IIRC it was used in Peter Watt’s Blindsight. And there it is referred to in a way that made me believe that it comes from 20th century psychology. The usage fits yours though.

  • Steven Schreiber

    Why do you assume that the nexus is “creature type”? Generally speaking, we use different creature types to connote or simply denote different sets of priorities, preferences or outlooks.

    If we’re not playing the “what if” game, we think of:

    …robots in terms of very advanced versions of our tools and not as people implemented in a different way;

    ..aliens as being humans of a different genetic lineage (or, for New Agers, as pseudo-gods);

    …spirits as primal forces which have singular or very narrow priorities;

    …gods as being, well, Greco-Roman in most cases;

    …alters as being personalities which fall into the uncanny valley; revived hominids as the premise of Pauly Shore movies;

    …time-travelers as chrono-tourists.

    Our opinions of extreme human personalities varies widely depending on whether they correspond with what society values or not and whether we are able to effectively communicate.

    So asking the question “what are our preferences with each one” is the same as obtaining rough explanations for generalized fears about other beings. They don’t need to be sought. When we put on our analyst hats, we’re just admitting that each of these categories need not necessarily be so but we’re also, in essence, getting away from what we mean by each one linguistically.

    • Steven Schreiber

      And, by extension, when we answer the question about whether we’d want to be one, we’re just revealing something about where our personal value set diverges unless, as noted, we have on our analyst hats and recognize that we should have indifferent preferences because, frankly, any of these (save revived hominids and extreme people) could be like us in every way we care about and not like us in every way we’d wish to be.

      We should, in fact, prefer to be anything but us because we’re just playing a very advanced version of “if you could be anything”.

      I elect to be a god or a spirit. They’re both generally immortal, so far as I care to conceive; I like the long theological cachet that comes with each one; the idea of being part of a well-connected and continuant piece of history appeals to me more than being part of a well-connected and continuant piece of future.

  • http://www.johnson.cornell.edu/faculty/profiles/bl Robert Bloomfield

    The key organizing principles would be intent and ability of an individual to cause harm, and intent and ability to work together with others of the same type to cause harm.

    The reason we are always forced to wipe out human-created artificial life forms in movies and books is that they inevitably see it as their mission to band together and wipe us out. I am watching Battlestar Galactica these days, and the motives of the Cylons are utterly confused. But it is more interesting than “Cylons get their freedom from humans and find other lands.’ (The battle isn’t even a competition for resources, which would make some sense).

    Even more bizarre to me is that zombies not only always want to kill people, but despite a disease that debilitates any reasoning powers they might have once had (they can’t even talk, only groan) they still seem to cooperate pretty well with one another to secure human brains. Oh, and I might be a little more willing to allow one to marry my child if at least once one of them would eat another zombie (which seem pretty foodlike to me), or perhaps a dog.

    By the way, my rule also explains why people with autistic spectrum disorder should be treated pretty darn well, and I am surprised to see them on the list. I am surprised the first comment here isn’t from Tyler Cowen saying “Aspergers??? WTF!!”

    Finally, you left out two important categories: people with highly communicable diseases (great ability to harm, but without the zombie’s intent ), and people of different races or hailing from different cultures (no special ability to harm, but often perceived intent, and sometimes actual intent.)

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I wasn’t trying to ask you for your general theory of how you think you should answer these questions. I was wondering about your guesses for how real people would actually answer these questions. That was how I produced the alter examples.

  • Doug S.

    I don’t believe in alters.

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  • Lord

    Forgot monsters. I can see how beliefs, values, knowledge, and power could affect these. If religious, you have to decide where they belong. If value centered, you may feel you or they can’t live up, or may impose or offend or contaminate. The unknown may be feared while the known may just be dreaded. The less powerful may be more threatened while the more powerful may see the means to acquire more, or the less powerful may see new opportunity while the more powerful fearful of losing their position.

  • Bill

    Are you talking about inflatable plastic female mannequins that some persons form an intimate and personal bond with?

  • Bill

    Why not include imaginary beings–angels and other such things?

    Doesn’t a person who creates imaginary demons or angels have the power to decide its attributes and powers, and thus decide, in that process, how it will interact with the imaginary being. Does the existence of self created demons and angels, and the powers ascribed to them by the individual creator, tell something about the creator of the angel or demon more than it does of the imaginary being.

  • http://www.funkyj.com Funky J

    I think Gods ARE extreme human personality types.

    Reading any religious text shows the Gods involved as being extremely psychotic.

    Imagine if I said:
    “Hey Robin, I’m going to set off this huge pyrotechnics show behind your back, one of the most amazing destructive displays ever, but you’re not allowed to look at it, otherwise I’ll turn kill your family.”

    You’d think I was mentally ill.

    Yet that’s precisely what the Bible is full of.

    And it’s not just the Bible. There’s stuff in Asian and early western religions which are equally as insane.

    Which means the answers to the question about Gods should be the same as the ones about alters.

    Unfortunately, because people don’t understand these stories are all made up and none of it was real, they don’t equate Gods with people, so you’ll never actually get a true pattern out of the data.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Doug S. and Bill, I don’t think Robin believes in spirits or gods either. So alters (which I am also skeptical of) aren’t that special by virtue of their non-existence, and angels/demons could presumably be added to the list. Robin’s response about how ordinary people would answer such questions seems to indicate that the reality of these entities (or belief in their reality) is supposed to be assumed so we analyze a person’s attitudes toward such hypothetical creatures.

    Funky J, that point is often used as evidence that Gods were made up by people rather than being some unrelated race (I suppose being made in their image could help explain the similarities). But consider also that “the past is a different country” and when life is cheap, death is cheap. What we would consider psychopathy might have been more normal back then, and equivalently our ancestors might be horrified by how their descendants turned out.

  • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/ Katja Grace

    Q1. I think popular opinion is against wanting to live intermingled with any of these creatures except for time travelers, gods and sometimes spirits.

    The pattern I see: we don’t want to live intermingled with anyone who has different concerns to us. Time travel in fiction is usually from the perspective of the traveler, so we think of time travelers as being like us. The kinds of gods and spirits who people want to live intermingled with are even more concerned about the details of ones life than other people are.

    Q2,3. I would expect people to mostly answer yes to all.

    Q4. I think people want to exterminate robots and alters, plus sometimes aliens and spirits.

    Robots and alters can be explained by their being the creatures who people are least likely to think of as conscious beings – robots aren’t conscious and alters don’t have their own consciousness; they are but imaginings in a mind that will go on. Some desire to kill aliens and spirits is due to the scale of their danger – revived hominids, alters and extreme personality types aren’t usually pictured as powerful enough to be a worthy foe, and God is so powerful you will surely lose, plus so right and good that your battle can’t even be a noble defeat.

    Enough for now.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    TGGP, yes I intended assuming their existence, and to study patterns of common reactions.

    Katja, excellent, those are just the sort of purported patterns I was looking for.

  • Erisiantaoist

    I anticipate, in most cases where the potentially powerful creature seems overwhelmingly powerful, the average internet user’s reaction will be to, for one, welcome our new [x] overlords.

  • Sunset Shazz

    Robin, if you haven’t already, you must watch this:

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/guide/806/

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Fun; thanks. Marred by crazy theories at end about what makes future more liveable.