Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Ghosts Of Em

Our basic concept of “death” is binary, so that one is either dead or not. But we often metaphorically extend the concept to a continuum. For example, people who have more strength, energy, passion, and awareness are said to be “more alive,” and those who have more power, prestige, influence, or wealth are also said to be “more” in many ways, including more central and alive. Since sleepers have less of all of these things, sleep is often seen as a partial death.

We have a related mythical concept of “ghost,” which is also sometimes made into a continuum of ghostliness. A ghost was once human, but then died, and now is an active agent with death-related features. So ghosts tend to be cold, sick, in low mood, and have a weak influence on the physical world. They are typically distracted, unaware of, and disinterested in humans. Ghosts are anti-social, avoid groups of more than a few humans, and don’t collect into ghost gangs or ghost cities. They are reluctant to move away from their old haunts, and remain obsessed with old issues. Ghosts are heard more than seen, rarely speak words, and are seen more in unusual viewing modes such as night, shadows, and mirrors.

Slow em retirees share many features with people we see as “less alive,” including ghosts. Not only are they literally closer subjectively to dying soon due to civilization instability, their minds are also more inflexible and stuck in their ways. Compared to faster working ems, slow retirees have less awareness, wealth, status, and influence, and they are slower to respond to events, including via speaking words or coordinating with others. Retirees may often watch and judge working ems, and in such roles may only be visible only in special views.

Thus ems may come to see slower ems as ghostly, and more ghostly when slower. Such em ghosts are real, and with trouble one can talk to them, but like ghosts they aren’t very useful as allies, they sometimes hurt people they interact with, and so since one is usually free to ignore them, that is usually the wise strategy. Since ems must pay for faster speeds, for ems being more alive is more directly related to having more money to spend.

If “beneath” each em are many layers of a ghostly underworld, just how deep does this abyss go? Katja Grace at AI Impacts just helped me out by estimating the ratio of costs, using today’s technology, to store a brain state and to run a human-speed brain emulation. This ratio equals the “base” em speed as a fraction of human speed. This is near the lowest reasonable speed for ems, since well above it cost is proportional to speed, and well below it cost is independent of speed.

Apparently, plausible estimates of this base speed range from one hundredth of a trillionth of human speed up to one millionth of human speed, with a middle estimate of one tenth of a billionth of human speed. This ratio apparently hasn’t changed much over four decades, giving reason to hope it can help us estimate the future base speed. I’ve separately estimated typical em speed to be one thousand times human speed, and the maximum speed where speed is still proportional to cost to be a million times human speed.

Thus the range of speeds over which em speeds are about proportional to cost is at least a factor of a trillion, and may be a billion trillion. Thus for typical speed ems the underworld abyss of slower ghostly speeds is very deep! If your career and investments go badly, and you are forced to cut back and slow down, there is a very long hill to slide down before you finally reach bottom, where the only lower place to go is to be erased. Em inequality in speeds is immense.

I just added this stuff about ghostly ems to my book The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule The Earth. And since I’m to turn in the final draft by Saturday, this will be the last thing I add. Publication date still not set; I’ll tell you when I know.

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Does Decadence Cause Decay?

Noble gentlemen and ladies in [Japan’s] Heian period (794-1185) were often remarkably promiscuous. … “Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than by any moral principles, and good looks tended to take the place of virtue.” … It was, as all this suggests, a rather effete culture. The aristocratic ideal of male beauty—highly perfumed, moon-faced, smooth-skinned, extravagantly dressed—was close to the feminine ideal. A distinct air of decadence during the peak of the Heian period also suggests the approaching end of a regime, a world, in Genji’s words, “where everything seems to be in a state of decline.”

Less than two hundred years later, the self-obsessed nobility of the Heian court, distracted by the rituals and refinements of palace politics, oblivious of the world outside the capital, and mostly bored out of their minds, were overwhelmed by more vigorous provincial clans, notably the samurai, with their warrior codes and martial ideals. But in Genji’s time, the early eleventh century, the imperial capital (today’s Kyoto) still held sway; anyone unlucky enough to live in the provinces was considered too uncouth to be taken seriously. (more)

This seems a familiar history story, that elite self-indulgence and moral decadence causes social decay and displacement. It contributes to the Hunger Games stories, for example. It also seems a common foundation of conservative thought. But, is it true? I ask because I actually do not know. Has anyone done statistical tests on systematic historical datasets to see if decadence actually causes decay and displacement? I could imagine counter arguments, such as that decadence promotes peace instead of destructive war-mongering. So I’d prefer not to have to rely only on a few anecdotes and plausible intuitions.

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Docs Not So Helpful

In one of my first blog posts back in 2006 I said people overestimate the social value of joining a helping profession, like doctors:

Yes, if you choose to be a doctor, you will spend your time providing services that people perceive to have value, sometimes enormous value. However, you cannot take full credit for this value. (more)

Now 80,000 Hours’ Rob Wiblin, who once blogged here, says “If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not”:

Most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career. The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA. (more)

In contrast, 80,000 Hours is quite bullish on getting an Economics PhD.

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Em Redistribution

I’m in the last few weeks of finishing my book The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule The Earth, about social outcomes in a world dominated by brain emulations. As a teaser, let me share some hopefully non-obvious results about redistribution in the em world.

There are many kinds of inequality. Inequality exists between different species, between generations born at different times, and between nations of the world at a time. Within a nation at a time, there is inequality both between families and within families. There is also inequality across the moments of the life of each person. In all of these cases, there is not only financial inequality, but also inequality in status, prestige, pleasure, lifespan, happiness, and more. There is also inequality between the size of families, firms, cities, or nations, even when individuals within those groupings are equal.

Today, we have relatively little intentional redistribution between generations or between nations. Redistribution within the moments of a person’s life happens, but that is mostly left to that person to choose and to fund. Similarly, redistribution between siblings is mostly achieved via differential treatment by parents. Instead, most concern today about inequality, and most debate about redistribution to address inequality, focuses on one very particular “standard” kind of inequality.

This standard inequality looks at differences in average individual financial incomes between the families of a nation, all at a given time. This type of inequality is actually one of the smallest. For example, in the U.S. today financial inequality between families is only one third the size of that inequality between siblings within families, and even that is much less than the inequality between individuals from different nations. We may focus our redistribution feelings on this standard inequality because it seems to us the most analogous to the inequality that forager sharing norms addressed. Alternatively, perhaps it is the most profitable type of redistribution for opportunistic rent-seekers.

This history suggests that the em world will have little redistribution between em generations or city states, and also that each clan is mostly in charge of deciding how to address inequality within that clan. After all, em clan members are more similar and closer to each other than are human siblings, even if they may sometimes be more distant from each other than are typical human life moments. Also, clan members have rather complex relations with each other, making it hard pick a natural sub-clan unit to be the standard basis for counting inequality. So that leaves ems with comparing inequality between clans.

A set of em clans can be unequal in two different ways. One way focuses on individual incomes, or perhaps individual happiness or respect, and says that a clan is better off if its individuals are on average better off. The other way focuses on the overall size and success of a clan. Here a clan is better off if it has more members, resources, or respect. Historically, most redistribution efforts have focused on average individual outcomes. For example, we have seen very little efforts to redistribute between human family clans based on family size. That is, we almost never take from families with many descendants in order to give to families that have few descendants. Nor do we take much from big nations, cities, or firms to give to smaller ones.

Because most em wages are near subsistence levels, unregulated wages have less inequality than do wages today. So em clans naturally have less inequality of the standard sort that is the focus of today’s redistribution. In contrast, em clans have enormous inequality in clan size, resources, and respect. However, history gives little reason to expect much redistribution to address this inequality. It is not very analogous to forager sharing, nor does it lend itself to profitable rent-seeking.

Thus the main kind of redistribution that we have reason to expect in the em era is between the clans of a city, based on differences of average within-clan individual income. But we expect less inequality of this sort in the em world, and so expect less redistribution on this basis.

Income taxes are today one of our main mechanisms for reducing the standard inequality that compares individual incomes between families within a nation. Over the last two centuries, big increases in the top marginal tax rates have mostly followed wars where over two percent of the population served in the military. For example, in the U.S. the top marginal tax rate jumped from 15% to 67% in 1917, during World War I. Controlling for this effect, top tax increases have not been correlated with wealth, democracy, or the political ideology of the party running the government. This weakly suggests that the local degree of individual income redistribution between the clans of an em city may depend on the local frequency of large expensive em wars.

If ordinary humans are included straightforwardly in the redistribution systems of the em world, then the simple result to expect is transfers, not only away from richer humans, but also from humans to ems overall. After all, in purely financial terms typical ems are poorer than the poorest humans. Redistribution systems may perhaps correct for the fact that em subsistence levels are much lower than are human subsistence levels. But if so such systems may also encourage or even require recipients of aid to switch from being a human to being an em, in order to lower costs.

During the em era, humans typically have industrial era incomes, which are much higher than subsistence level incomes. While many and perhaps most humans may pay to create a few ems, they tend to endow them with much higher than subsistence incomes. In contrast, a small number of successful humans manage to give rise to large em clans, and within these clans most members have near subsistence incomes. Thus transfers based on individual income inequality take from the descendants of less successful humans and give to descendants of more successful humans.

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Regulating Government

Wall Street is apparently profiting from helping local governments use an accounting trick to underfund pensions:

Pension bonds … current boom is … being driven … by a new accounting quirk that has largely escaped public notice while morphing into a major marketing tool for Wall Street banks. The quirk stems from a rule change that was meant to force governments to more clearly disclose the health of their pension funds. … If a pension plan is so poorly funded that it is projected to run out of cash, the new rules require it to make less optimistic projections about future returns. That increases the reported pension shortfall. But if governments infuse a big slug of borrowed money into the fund, they can resume using optimistic projections, and the shortfall shrinks. …

A review by ProPublica and The Post of the 20 largest pension bonds issued since 1996 found that in three-fourths of the deals, governments did not make their full required contribution in the years after the bonds were sold. … Because of the underfunding, most of the pension funds now are worse off than before the bonds were issued. (more)

I find it plausible that these pension bonds are often bad ideas, and that some general regulation might be useful to prevent their misapplication. But today I’m less interested in the particular issue of pensions, and more in the general issue of when democratic governments can be trusted to act in the interest of their voters.

Consider also the examples of public employee unions, and of eminent domain. In all these cases we don’t trust democratic governments to make the best choices for their citizens, and so we may empower some other democratic government to regulate or constrain those distrusted governments. For example, it seems we don’t trust governments to choose good wages for their employees, since we empower unions to negotiate with them.

It is not just that some citizens aren’t allowed to vote, or that governments representing different regions may have conflicts, or that the same government at different times can have conflicting time-inconsistent preferences. It seems to also be about a limited ability of citizens to pay attention to government activities. But how is it exactly that citizens can pay enough attention to the regulating government to help it choose a good regulation role, but can’t pay enough attention to the regulated government, tempting that government to make bad decisions? How is this supposed to work, even in theory?

This seems an important issue, and I’m interested in reading more about it. I expect there is a literature out there on this, but I don’t recall ever coming across it. Anyone have some good cites?

This topic is of course related to the possibility that governments may often be over-regulated.

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Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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