Fading Past Blocks Simulation Argument

The simulation argument was famously elaborated by Nick Bostrom. The idea is that our descendants may be able to create simulated creatures like you, and put them in simulated environments that look like the one you now find yourself in. If so, you can’t be sure that you are not now one of these future simulated people. The chance that you should assign to this possibility depends on the number of such future creatures, relative to the number of real creatures like you today.

More precisely, let P be the fraction of descendant civs that become able to create these ancestors simulations, I the fraction of these that actually do so, N the average number of ancestors simulated by each such civ per ancestor who once existed, and S the chance that you are now such an ancestor sim. Bostrom says that S = P*I*N/(P*I*N+1), and that N is very large, which implies that either P or I is very small, or that S is near 1. That is, if the future will simulate many ancestors, then you are one.

However, I will now show that this argument collapses if we allow the inclination to simulate ancestors to depend on the time duration that has elapsed between those ancestors and the descendants who might simulate them. My main claim is that our interest in the past generally seems to fall away with time faster than the rate at which the population grows with time. For example, while over the last century world population has doubled roughly every 40 to 60 years, this graph shows much faster declines in how often books mention of each of these specific past years: 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940, 1960.

Let us now include this fading past effect in a simple formal model. Let t denote a cultural “time” (not necessarily clock time), relative to which population (really a density of observer-moments) grows exponentially forever, while interest in the past declines exponentially. More formally, assume that it is already possible to create ancestor sims, that population grows as eg*t, that a constant fraction a of this population is turned into simulated ancestors, and that the relative fraction of these simulated ancestors associated with simulating a time t units into the past goes as eb*g*t. Thus for b>1 per-person interest in past people falls as e-(b-1)*g*t.

Given these assumptions, the ratio of future ancestors simulations of the current population to that actual current population is F = a*b/(b-1), and S = F/(F+1). So, for example, if at any one time 10% of people are ancestor simulations, and if interest in the past falls by 12% every time population rises by 10%, then a = 0.1, b = 1.2, and F = 0.6, giving each person who seems to be real a S = 3/8 chance of instead being an ancestor simulation. If a = 0.001 instead, then F = 0.006, and each person should estimate a S =~0.6% chance of being an ancestor simulation.

The above assumed that ancestor sims are possible and are being done now. If instead sims can’t start being created until c time units in the future, then we instead have F = a*(b/(b-1))*e(b-1)*g*c, giving an even smaller chance S of your being an ancestor simulation.

By the way, these calculations can also be done in terms of rank. If all people in history are ordered in time, with r=0 being the first person ever, and all others having r>0, then we could assume that a fraction a of people are always ancestor simulations, and that interest in past people falls as rb, and we’d again get the same result F = a*b/(b-1).

Thus given the realistic tendency to have less interest in past people the further away they are in time, and the likely small fraction of future economies that could plausibly be devoted to simulating ancestors, I feel comfortable telling you: you are most likely not an ancestor simulation.

Added 9pm: See this more careful analysis by Anders Sandberg of falling interest in year names. Seems to me that fall in interest is in fact faster than the population growth rate, even a century after the date.

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Why Are We Weird?

The following has long been a useful heuristic: if your usual theory says that something important looks like a big outlier, seek another theory where it isn’t. For example, when some physics calculations suggested that most brains like ours in the history of the universe would be random fluctuation “Boltzman brains” in the distant future, many took that as suggesting that those calculations were wrong. Which it seems that they in fact were. Many now feel similarly about eternal inflation calculations suggesting we are very late in our inflation bubble’s lifetime compared to the average space-time volume.

This heuristic gives us doubts about theories which say that we today are weird compared to all the other “we”s that we could have been. For example, if the history of the universe so far is representative of its future, and if each of us could counterfactually have been any lump of matter in the universe, then we should be very surprised to find ourselves among the very rare sentient creatures. And even if we think we could only have been sentient creatures, we should still be pretty surprised (even if less surprised) to find ourselves among the few most complex conscious creatures that have ever been on our planet.

Yes, we have clear evidence that we are not dead lumps of matter, nor simpler creatures, but even so we can be surprised to see such evidence. Yes, only creatures as smart as we are with language could even ask such questions via language. But that needn’t stop our surprise. Is there alternate theory that makes these less surprising?

What if we don’t take the past of the universe to be representative of its future? For example, our grabby aliens model predicts that the universe will fill up within a few billion years and then be densely and efficiently populated with artificial life, much of it intelligent and sentient. If we include all that among the creatures that we could have been, then we should be surprised to find ourselves so early in the history of the universe, out of all those future sentient creatures.

Now there must be some average number of future descendants per alien civilization that would make us today more typical, sitting midway between all those sentient animals in our past, and all that future artificial life before our civilization ends. But there’s no particular good reason to expect civilizations to have anything near that average number of future descendants. And even then we’d be unusual in living in a rare short special dreamtime between those vast pasts and futures.

I don’t really have any answer to offer here. This situation puts me on the lookout for a plausible theory that would make us less weird, but so far I don’t see one. Seems we are in fact weird. You might think this would make us more sympathetic to the more weird among us, but no.

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Doing Intelligent Design Right?

The presence of information in even the simplest living cells suggests that intelligent design played a role in life’s origin. After all, we know computer programs come from programmers and information generally — in a book or newspaper, for example — always arises from an intelligent source. … In addition, no alien being within the universe can explain what scientists have discovered about the structure of the universe. … the fundamental parameters of physics have been finely tuned, against all odds, to make life possible. (More by Stephen Meyer, author of Return of the God Hypothesis)

I haven’t read this book, but this article doesn’t make me optimistic about it. However, I was for other reasons recently considering the (to-me-likely-false) hypothesis that our thoughts and feelings are more than complex patterns of physical processes, and in my recent poll belief in this has a big 0.58 correlation with belief in gods, spirits, or other non-physical agents.

People who believe such things often feel that we science types dismiss such possibilities out of hand. And another poll of mine finds that while 25.8% lean toward the “more than” position, 53.4% are “almost sure” of their position, which does seem overconfident. (32.4% of philosophers who take a position so lean.)

Dismissing out of hand does seem unfair here, so it occurs to me to try to explain a more reasonable standard to ask of advocates of this sort of intelligent design. A standard for how they could express their theories to enable a more careful and systematic evaluation. As I see their story as less likely than not, I don’t expect such an evaluation to favor them, but that’s a different issue. And as someone who recently estimated the prior for if UFOs are aliens, this seems like a task I may be suited for.

In our usual science story, there is all this physical stuff, which started in some initial state, and then evolved according the usual physical laws. In a big enough version of this, eventually some random fluctuations will get a self-reproduction process started, which then develops and spreads according to natural selection. Eventually this results in computers (= “brains”) in each organism assessing its situation and calculating its responses. And when those organisms interact a lot (i.e., are “social”), they should want to explain their motives and plans to each other, thus resulting in minds who talk to each other about their feelings and thoughts. Which is how under this story we end up with a universe containing both physical stuff and minds, with the experiences of those minds very closely connected to that of particular organisms.

As I understand it, many want to instead postulate that the universe started with minds as elemental primary things. Some of those minds are able to, and choose to, create or change physical stuff and processes, and tie some minds to that physical stuff in ways that are highly correlated with the computers of particular evolved organisms. That is, each tied mind only recalls events after that particular organism formed, only events which that organism could sense, and only in ways that brain could compute. This mind also only notices causing actions by that organism, and has a mental capacities connected closely to the size, design, and health of that organism’s brain. Furthermore, all the other elemental minds not attached to organisms (i.e., “spirits”), don’t seem to cause much in the way of noticeable deviations from what simple physical laws would cause in their absence.

Some of these folks claim that some special features of some organisms and their minds are much less plausible under the usual science story than under this alternate minds-as-primary view. These features include the beauty and meaning that these organism-tied minds see, and their mental tendencies toward spiritual experiences.

To compare these two categories of theories systematically and carefully, we want each class to be described as clearly and precisely as possible. And while I’m aware of many ambiguities and issues with the usual science story, it seems to me that the alternative minds-as-primitive story is described with vastly less precision and detail. For example, these seem to me some obvious big open questions about elemental minds:

  1. What sets the capacities, features, and structures, of elemental minds?
  2. In particular, what sets their capacities to create or experience beauty and meaning?
  3. What sets the capacities of some minds to create or modify or end themselves or other minds?
  4. How many elemental minds are there, and do they exist in time, if not in space?
  5. If elemental minds exist in time, when did that time start and will it ever end?
  6. Are there any resources they need to think or to continue existing, and if so what sets the dynamics of those resources?
  7. In the absence of physical stuff, what exactly do elemental minds experience, and how do they interact with each other?
  8. Why do elemental minds make or modify organism-tied-minds to become so intimately connected to and limited by particular organisms?
  9. Why don’t untied-minds show more clearly to organism-tied-minds that they can create and change physical stuff outside the organism-tied channel?
  10. Can physical stuff influence and change elemental minds, and if so how?
  11. What sets the degree to which these elemental minds encourage the frequency of existence of organisms among physical stuff, and which organisms get tied minds?

Note that it is fine to get probability distributions over possible answers to each question. But without clearer answers to many of these questions, I can’t see how to even begin to systematically compare these two classes of hypotheses. Again, while the usual science story still has missing parts, it looks vastly more specified than this alternate story.

Added 18July: Some on fb say that many answer these questions via the key assumption that there exists a “perfect” God, which implies uniqueness, always existing, needing no resources, max intelligent, able to know and do and create anything, and doing what is “best”. Predictions from this theory seem to mostly come down to what this God thinks is best, which is widely admitted to be hard to guess or understand. Making this theory even harder to evaluate than Freemasonry, alien zoo, simulation hypothesis, and other deep conspiracy theories.

For example, yes, the specific hypothesis of a God who shares human concepts of beauty and meaning (CBM) gives a higher likelihood to humans having those CBM, relative to the entire class of evolution scenarios wherein we could have had many different CBM. But for each other possible CBM we could have a different God hypothesis, one where God has those CBM. So when we compare the entire class of God and evolution scenarios, I can’t see this consideration giving a boost to the God hypothesis.

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Opinion Entrenchment

How do and should we form and change opinions? Logic tells us to avoid inconsistencies and incoherences. Language tells us to attend to how meaning is inferred from ambiguous language. Decision theory says to distinguish values from fact opinion, and says exactly how decisions should respond to these. Regarding fact opinion, Bayesian theory says to distinguish priors from likelihoods, and says exactly how fact opinion should respond to evidence.

Simple realism tells us to expect errors in actual opinions, relative to all of these standards. Computing theory says to expect larger errors on more complex topics, and opinions closer to easily computed heuristics. And many kinds of human and social sciences suggest that we see human beliefs as often like clothes, which in mild weather we use more to show our features to associates than to protect ourselves from the elements. Beliefs are especially useful for showing loyalty and morality.

There’s another powerful way to think about opinions that I’ve only recently appreciated: opinions get entrenched. In biology, natural selection picks genes that are adaptive, but adds error. These gene choices change as environments change, except that genes which are entangled with large complex and valued systems of genes change much less; they get entrenched.

We see entrenchment also all over our human systems. For example, at my university the faculty is divided into disciplines, the curricula into classes, and classes into assignments in ways that once made sense, but now mostly reflect inertia. Due to many interdependencies, it would be slow and expensive to change such choices, so they remain. Our legal system accumulates details that become precedents that many rely on, and which become hard to change. As our software system accrue features, they get fragile and harder to change. And so on.

Beliefs also get entrenched. That is, we are often in the habit of building many analyses from the same standard sets of assumptions. And the more analyses that we have done using some set of assumptions, the more reluctant we are to give up that set. This attitude toward the set is not very sensitive to the evidential or logical support we see for each of its assumptions. In fact, we are often pretty certain that individual assumptions are wrong, but because they greatly simplify our analysis, we hope that they are still enable a decent approximation from their set.

When we use such standard assumption sets, we usually haven’t thought much about the consequences of individually changing each assumption in the set. As long as we can see some plausible ways in which each assumption might change conclusions, we accept it as part of the set, and hold roughly the same reluctance to give it up as for all the other members.

For example, people often say “I just can’t believe Fred’s dead”, meaning not that the evidence of Fred’s death isn’t sufficient, but that it will take a lot of work to think through all the implications of this new fact. The existence of Fred had been a standard assumption in their analysis. A person tempted to have an affair is somewhat deterred from this because of their standard assumption that they were not the sort of person who has affairs; it would take a lot of work to think through their world under this new assumption. This similarly discourages people from considering that their spouses might be having affairs.

In academic theoretical analysis, each area tends to have standard assumptions, many of which are known to be wrong. But even so, there are strong pressures to continue using prior standard assumptions, to make one’s work comparable to that of others. The more different things that are seen to be explained or understood via an assumption set, the more credibility is assigned to each assumption in that set. Evidence directly undermining any one such assumption does little by itself to reduce use of the set.

In probability theory, the more different claims one adds to a bundle, the less likely is the conjunction of that bundle. However, the more analyses that one makes with an assumption set, the more entrenched it becomes. So by combining different assumption sets so that they all get credit for all of their analyses, one makes those sets more, not less, entrenched. Larger bundles get less probability but more entrenchment.

Note that fictional worlds that specify maximal detail are maximally large assumption sets, which thus maximally entrench.

Most people feel it is quite reasonable to disagree, and that claim is a standard assumption in most reasoning about reasoning. But a philosophy literature did arise wherein some questioned that assumption, in the context of a certain standard disagreement scenario. I was able to derive some strong results, but in a different and to my mind more relevant scenario. But the fact of my using a different scenario, and being from a different discipline, meant my results got ignored.

Our book Elephant in the Brain says that social scientists have tended to assume the wrong motives re many common behaviors. While our alternate motives are about as plausible and easy to work with as the usual motives, the huge prior investment in analysis based on the usual motives means that few are interested in exploring our alternate motives. There is not just theory analysis investment, but also investment in feeling that we are good people, a claim which our alternate assumptions undermine.

Even though most automation today has little to do with AI, and has long followed steady trends, with almost no effect on overall employment, the favored assumption set among talking elites recently remains this: new AI techniques are causing a huge trend-deviating revolution in job automation, soon to push a big fraction of workers out of jobs, and within a few decades may totally surpass humans at most all jobs. Once many elites are talking in terms this assumption set, others also want to join the same conversation, and so adopt the same set. And once each person has done a lot of analysis using that assumption set, they are reluctant to consider alternative sets. Challenging any particular item in the assumption set does little to discourage use of the set.

The key assumption of my book Age of Em, that human level robots will be first achieved via brain emulations, not AI, has a similar plausibility to AI being first. But this assumption gets far less attention. Within my book, I picked a set of standard assumptions to support my analysis, and for an assumption that has an X% chance of being wrong, my book gave far less than X% coverage to that possibility. That is, I entrenched my standard assumptions within my book.

Physicists have long taken one of their standard assumptions to be denial of all “paranormal” claims, taken together as a set. That is, they see physics as denying the reality of telepathy, ghosts, UFOs, etc., and see the great success (and status) of physics overall as clearly disproving such claims. Yes, they once mistakenly included meteorites in that paranormal set, but they’ve fixed that. Yet physicists don’t notice that even though many describe UFOs as “physics-defying”, they aren’t that at all; they only plausibly defy current human tech abilities. Yet the habit of treating all paranormal stuff as the same denied set leads physicists to continue to staunchly ridicule UFOs.

I can clearly feel my own reluctance to consider theories wherein the world is not as it appears, because we are being fooled by gods, simulation sysops, aliens, or a vast world elite conspiracy. Sometimes this is because those assumptions seem quite unlikely, but in other cases it is because I can see how much I’d have to rethink given such assumptions. I don’t want to be bothered; haven’t I already considered enough weird stuff for one person?

Life on Mars is treated as an “extraordinary” claim, even though the high rate of rock transfer between early Earth and early Mars make it nearly as likely that life came from Mars to Earth as vice versa. This is plausibly because only life on Earth is the standard assumption used in many analyses, while life starting on Mars seems like a different conflicting assumption.

Across a wide range of contexts, our reluctance to consider contrarian claims is often less due to their lacking logical or empirical support, and more because accepting them would require reanalyzing a great many things that one had previously analyzed using non-contrarian alternatives.

In worlds of beliefs with strong central authorities, those authorities will tend to entrench a single standard set of assumptions, thus neglecting alternative assumptions via the processes outlined above. But in worlds of belief with many “schools of thought”, alternative assumptions will get more attention. It is a trope that “sophomores” tend to presume that most fields are split among different schools of thought, and are surprised to find that this is usually not true.

This entrenchment analysis makes me more sympathetic toward allowing and perhaps even encouraging different schools of thought in many fields. And as central funding sources are at risk of being taken over by a particular school, multiple independent sources of funding seem more likely to promote differing schools of thought.

The obvious big question here is: how can we best change our styles of thought, talk, and interaction to correct for the biases that entrenchment induces?

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DIY vs. PFR Matchmaking

Our tax system often encourages “doing it yourself” (DIY), because when you buy products or services from others, you pay sales taxes and they pay income taxes, none of which you pay if you just do it yourself. But I see larger forces encouraging DIY.

I’ve posted on how during the early industrial revolution people reasonably feared that the new regimentation that had so increased productivity at work would be applied to our leisure lives. But we chose to forgo the huge productivity gains often realized in military, school, and orphanage dorms, and instead we each did our own food, clothes, home decorations, etc. Our bodies and rooms would in general look better and be more comfy, all at less cost, if we let professionals make such choices. But we don’t.

I’ve also noticed that my grad students seem to feel a strong need to invent their own research ideas, instead of taking suggestions from professors. Even if that hurts their success chances. And I’ve recently seen a majority of my Twitter respondents oppose my proposal to, at no cost, give people a career agent with an interest in advising and promoting their career. And of course we often see people hostile to getting advice on most things, including careers.

From all this I conclude that we have a strong and increasing DIY norm. (Why exactly I’ll leave for another post.) We are especially wary of advice and help from those who are not close associates, or if they financially profit from helping. (And I’ve posted on how little we seem inclined to rely on track records when we do pay advisors.) 

Which brings us to matchmaking, an activity that we today mostly DIY (often via mate shopping apps), even though professional matchmakers were once far more popular. I posit the increased DIY norm as the main cause of this trend. Even so, I want to outline here how we could use paying-for-results (PFR) to do better matchmaking. To add to my list of suggested ways that we could pay more for results. 

Now, first I should note that it seems to me obvious that matchmakers could help many to find mates, and that better mates can be worth a lot. There is just so much that many older people understand about people and their mating that so many young people don’t understand. This seems confirmed by matchmaking being quite common in ancient societies. So I just can’t buy this common claim that it is impossible to make matches, that only the two people involved could possibly in any way predict their match; that’s just crazy. 

The hardest task in paying for results is finding a good enough proxy for the results desired. But for people who seek long term relations, we do seem to have a simple adequate proxy: how long the relation lasts. Thus my basic proposal is to agree to meet with a matchmaker’s suggestions for some period (say a year), and then if you marry (or move in with) someone so suggested within some period (say five more years), you after that pay the matchmaker $X per month (or perhaps Y% of income) until you divorce or die (or move out). 

Yes this doesn’t get at all of how much you like your marriage, but it gets at a key part of that. And it seems unlikely that a couple would pretend to split up, or long delay their relation, just to avoid paying the matchmaker.

Now this can’t be the whole proposal, as most anyone might be willing to give you a long list of names in exchange for being paid $X per month if you happen to marry someone on the list. You’d need a good way to decide who to pick as your matchmaker. 

My first idea here is to hold an auction; see who will pay you the most for the right to be paid $X/mo. if you marry one of their suggestions. But what if you hold an auction with no intention of marrying anyone, just to gain auction revenue? To fix that, we might have the auction revenue returned, with perhaps an added penalty, in the case where you marry none of the candidates suggested. But perhaps some would then plan to have a fast marriage and divorce, just to get the auction revenue. Maybe it would be enough to require that the auction revenue is only spent on meeting with suggested candidates. Or give the auction revenue to charity. Or maybe matchmakers could use other ways to check that you are serious about finding a mate. 

Another approach to choosing the matchmaker might be to use track records of success; how often do clients get married, and how long do those marriages last. With good enough data there, one might not even need the direct $X/mo. incentives. But today few matchmakers show any track records at all, and so it could take a while for new matchmakers to collect such data. The direct incentives could help until such track records are available, and might continue to help enough afterward.

In a few polls, 40% of my Twitter respondents said their main reason for wariness of a matchmaker is fear that their advice is random, while 60% said a clear track record is what would most make them likely to use a matchmaker. Which suggests there is an opportunity here; if we collect enough data, and use strong enough incentives, maybe matchmakers could actually help people to better find long-term love, to our overall benefit. 

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Seeing ANYTHING Other Than Huge-Civ Is Bad News

The great filter is whatever obstacles prevent simple dead matter from evolving into a civilization big and visible on astronomical scales. The fact that we see nothing big and visible in a huge universe says this filter must be large, and a key question is the size of the future filter: how much have we passed and how much remains ahead of us?

I’ve suggested that evidence of life elsewhere below our level makes the past filter look smaller, and thus our future filter larger. From which you might conclude that evidence of a civilization above our level is good news. That seems to be what  says here at Vox:

If (and I must stress that this is a quite unlikely “if”) UFO sightings on earth are actually evidence that an advanced alien civilization has developed a system of long-distance probes that it is using to monitor or contact humanity, then that would be an immensely hopeful sign in Great Filter terms. It would mean that at least one civilization has far surpassed humanity without encountering any insurmountable hurdles preventing its survival. (more)

But I don’t think that’s right. This would move the filter more to above their level, but below the level of becoming big and visible, without changing the size of the total filter. Which implies a larger future filter for us. In addition, any UFO aliens are likely here to actively impose a filter on us, i.e., to stop us from getting big and visible (or “grabby“).

So if UFOs as aliens is not good news, what would be good news re our future filter? Aside from detailed engineering and social calculations showing that we are in fact very close to becoming irreversibly grabby, the only good news I can imagine is actual concrete evidence of big visible aliens civilizations out there. Maybe we’ve misread their signatures somehow.

Looking out further and in more detail at the universe and still finding it dead suggests the total filter is larger, which is bad news. And finding any evidence of anything other than death suggests the filter is smaller up to the level of that finding, but doesn’t revise our estimate of the total filter. Which is bad news re our future. Thus a perhaps surprising conclusion: finding anything other than a big visible civilization out there is bad news re our future prospects for becoming big and visible.

Remember also: the SIA indexical prior (IMHO the reasonable choice) favors larger future filters. Beware the future filter!

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You Don’t Want To Know Your Limit

I recently re-watched the long version of Scenes from a Marriage. A couple sees other couples around them in trouble, smugly feels safe, and then learns that they are not. A lesson not lost on the attentive viewer. The details are quite realistic, making the whole thing painful to watch.

The obvious big question is: what went wrong? And for that one need only watch the first 2 of the 6 episodes, on the period before the breakup. Which is in my mind the most realistic part of the movie. After the break, we see explosive and hurtful conflict, and hear titillating stories of promiscuity, but see less insight into the breakup.

The man initiates the break, and while he has several complaints, his biggest seems to be that she’s become too reluctant to have sex. She’s also been expressing unhappiness and seems to suggest (perhaps unconsciously) that he should give her more better attention. He suddenly declares he’s in love with someone else and is leaving. She is shocked, thinking she could read him better, and that he would talk before making such a decision. She begs him to let them try again, but he refuses.

If we see a marriage as a deal that can be continually renegotiated, then a simple interpretation here is that he saw her as grabbing better terms in their deal, by giving less while asking for more, and she moved past his limit, i.e., his reservation price. He didn’t try to explicitly negotiate over sex, instead of just leaving, plausibly because begging for sex makes us seem less attractive and we want our sex partners to be sincerely eager for us, instead of reluctantly accommodating.

It may seem sad that, even after knowing each other very well for many years, we can’t predict each other better to avoid such destructive outcomes. But in fact this unpredictability seems essential to the process. If we each knew the other person’s exact limits, then we might try to push them right up to but not past their limits. Making them unsure of our limits makes them wary of pushing us too far. And when your partner can read you very well, not knowing your own limits may be the best way to keep them from knowing.

So even with the people we know best, we don’t know their limits, nor our own, which warns each of us against pushing too far to grab more for ourselves at the expense of our partner. Don’t trust to your ability to read them, or expect to get a warning and or a chance to retreat should you push them too far. Treat them well, and be wary of our bias to remember our resentments for longer than our gratitudes.

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The Coming Cosmic Control Conflict

We moderns like to join factions associated with ideologies, and many of our most inspiring stories are of great conflicts between ideologically-affiliated factions. We like such stories more when they have more morally-intense ideologies, bigger conflicts in space, time, and social scope, more impressive combatants, and more real and well-defined events.

At a cost in realism, science fiction and fantasy often turn up the other dials, making ideologies extreme, conflicts galaxy-wide, and giving combatants god-like powers. But for realism and definition, we tend to retreat to WWII, which ranks high on moral intensity, but less high on other criteria. Or more recent struggles for group respect. Our true stories of the largest scope, about our vast universe, tend to fail badly; past stories lack conflict or combatants, while future stories lack definition.

Having recently given a lot of thought to grabby aliens and UFOs as aliens, it occurs to me that they can offer great conflict stories of substantial moral intensity, plausible realism and definition, and quite unprecedented size, scope, and combatant impressiveness. Let us consider telling such stories!

The combatants in which we can be most confident are grabby aliens; the fact that we have appeared so early in the universe tells us that they are out there, and three other datums tell us we’ll meet them in roughly a billion years, if we last that long. Grabby civilizations will come into direct conflict with each other at their borders, and will compete more widely to influence the culture of the next hundred billion years. These conflicts rate high on reality, scope, and impressive combatants, but alas it seems hard to guess how such civilizations will differ, and thus to guess the ideologies that might orient their conflicts.

We can have less confidence that aliens are behind some UFOs. But they plausibly exist, and we can say a lot about a big ideological conflict they must have with grabby aliens. We can reasonably guess that UFO aliens have developed many millions of years past our level, are not changing fast now, and have coordinated to prevent any part of them from getting grabby, i.e., from aggressively expanding and filling the universe with their descendants. To achieve this, we can be pretty sure that they created a strong persistent “world” governments. And enforcing their anti-grabby rules on us is the obvious reason for them to be here now coyly showing themselves to us.

Furthermore, even if there are no aliens behind UFOs, we can forsee this same conflict in our future; we are likely to coordinate to try to prevent parts of our civilization from getting grabby. Thus the pro- vs. anti- grabby conflict is plausibly the big future ideological divide, whether or not UFOs are aliens. Let me explain.

For at least a million years, human foragers coordinated within each band to enforce local norms; individual humans were not free to do whatever they wanted. With farming, societies became larger and had more contact with outsiders, but within each society they enforced many norms and laws. And in our world today we actually have pretty strong global coordination enforcing many global norms via local laws. Human organizations have consistently been rising in size and scope, making much stronger global governance a likely outcome over the coming centuries. (It certainly happens in Age of Em.)

As an economist, I see that most people feel strongly that individual freedoms must be constrained by governance, and many seem to regret that we do not have stronger and larger scale governance to deal with our biggest problems. Few favor cutting our scales of governance. Even when governments seem to consistently fail at a task they’ve been assigned, like the unwinnable war on drugs, most are reluctant to give up; instead budgets and powers are continually increased.

Furthermore, I see these laments especially among futurists, who consider longer timescales and bigger problems. For example, many are uncomfortable with “capitalist” competition, which they hope will end soon or at least become globally managed, to prevent capitalist competition between nations. And many are wary of plain old biological competition, even without capitalism. For example, many see a big problem with overpopulation, for which their natural solution is global regulation of fertility. Some imagine that local unconstrained evolution might eliminate consciousness from future agents, or allow the values of our descendants to drift far from our own values, and suggest strong global governance as remedies for these.

In addition, we should expect rates of change due to natural selection to greatly increase with the rise of artificial life, which is likely to dominate our future starting in a few centuries. So whatever problems result from unmanaged natural selection are likely to become much stronger soon, and at a time when we in fact have a pretty strong world government.

If within a few centuries we have a strong world government managing capitalist competition, overpopulation, value drift, and much more, we might come to notice that these and many other governance solutions to pressing problems are threatened by unrestrained interstellar colonization. Independent colonies able to change such solutions locally could allow population explosions and value drift, as well as capitalist competition that beats out home industries. That is, colony independence suggests unmanaged colony competition. In addition, independent colonies would lower the status of those who control the central government.

So authorities would want to either ban such colonization, or to find ways to keep colonies under tight central control. Yet it seems very hard to keep a tight lid on colonies. The huge distances involved make it hard to require central approval for distant decisions, and distant colonists can’t participate as equals in governance without slowing down the whole process dramatically. Worse, allowing just one sustained failure, of some descendants who get grabby, can negate all the other successes. This single failure problem gets worse the more colonies there are, the further apart they spread, and the more advanced technology gets.

Thus if our descendants strongly value the regulations and coordinations that their world government allows, and are unwilling to give them up, then they may be strongly tempted to simply ban interstellar colonization beyond some manageable limits. Which it exactly what it seems that any aliens behind UFOs must have done successfully for millions of years. The exact opposite of the aggressive expansion that, for billions of years, has been and will continue to be chosen by grabby aliens.

Yes, banning internal expansion should put any civilization at a great disadvantage should they ever encounter a grabby one. But that distant possibility in perhaps a billion years may just not carry much weight against more immediate concerns. It might be easier to slip into denial, emphasizing the lack of solid proof that there will ever be any grabby aliens.

And there we have it: the grand cosmic conflict between authorities who use a strong world government to prevent local expansion, and grabby-wannabe rebels seeking a way to slip through this blockage and expand. A conflict with big values at stake, very impressive combatants, that takes places on the greatest scales of space, time, and social range, and which seems likely to be very real. Don’t you want to hear stories about that? Won’t someone write stories about that?

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Replace Govt As Career Agent

Agents for actors, musicians, and artists get 10-20% of their payments in order to advise, promote and negotiate on their behalf. Sports agents get 4-10%, while speaker agents get 20-30%. Headhunters get 18-25% of first year salary. The idea is simple: when someone gets a big fraction of your income, they have an incentive to increase your income. (In addition to reputation and repeat business incentives.)

True, you might not be willing to part with a big fraction of your income just to create such an agent. But it turns out that you already have a career agent who takes 1/4 to 1/3 of your income: your government. But while your government may sometimes pay for guidance counselors and jobs listings, overall they do a terrible job as your career agent. They do far far less than would a private agent paid that big a fraction of your income.

However, it would cost very little to transfer this career agency role from your government to a private actor. All we need is for the government to auction off the right to be paid the amount in taxes that you will pay to the government. The government is no worse off; it could use that auction revenue to pay off its debt, or to buy stock index funds. The auction winner gains strong incentives to increase the taxes you pay, such as by helping you to earn more money. And investors gain a new asset class to diversify over.

Notice that you’d be under no obligation to listen to agent advice, or to accept any of the deals they find for you. And they’d have no powers to enforce or change taxes, or to prevent the government from changing taxes. Though they might report you if they found you cheating on your taxes. This is nothing like tax farming. Seems crazy to me to claim (as many do) that they’d illegally censor you or threaten to break your kneecaps.

Note also that this asset is worth less to someone who can’t get you to listen to or work with them. So the asset will tend to be traded to someone who can get you to listen, if any such person exists. So you’d have a lot of influence over who held the asset. This asset on you could be held by a parent, school, employer, or even by you yourself.

Yes, this agent doesn’t weigh all of your interests the way you do; you’d pick fun over work more often than would they. But such a conflict also exists for all of the other kinds of career agents mentioned above, and for the other agents in your life, such as your lawyer, sport coach, priest, parent, and teacher. They can all help you even though you know to not just believe everything they say. Note also that some of these agents, e.g., parents and teachers, are assigned to you; you don’t get to pick them.

To avoid problems with auction bidders fearing that others know more than they, best to do the auction early, such as at birth, when few know anything. And to tell bidders then some basic stats on the parents. Individual auction prices don’t need to be made public, though seems fair to tell the parents of kid whose rights are sold. (And maybe also to give parents a cut.) There should be a way to contact the asset holder of a person, so one can offer to buy that asset.

You might fear that asset holders would lobby to increase taxes, but they are easily outvoted by ordinary taxpayers. Conversely, you might fear that governments would lower tax rates to please voters while hurting asset holders. But governments would fear cutting revenue in new auctions; governments similarly don’t usually inflate to pay off bonds for fear of raising their cost of new bonds. These tax assets can function as well as does government debt, which is pretty well.

Yes, the risk of unpredictable changes to economic growth and tax rates would impose a risk premium on the cash that auction bidders would pay for these assets. But that’s much less of an issue if the auction itself is denominated in a risky asset, such as a stock index fund, instead of cash..

Yes, people might try to extort asset holders to sell their tax asset to them cheap via threatening to choose a tax-free life. But asset holders would likely call their bluff and just refuse to sell in such circumstances.

Yes, it makes sense to try to start first with small experiments, such as perhaps in a small nation. Maybe also do an experiment where only a random subset get their taxes sold at auction.

Added 8p: To avoid extortion scenarios, it might help to fix the tax system to cut situations where someone gains nearly the same value and consumption, but via very different personal lifetime taxes paid, merely by different formal approaches to what is treated how tax-wise.

Added 2July: 53% of my Twitter followers reject this proposal, including these two variations: let parents veto the auction at birth, and impose a Harberger tax on the assets, to make them more easily transferred.

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We Moderns Are Status-Drunk

Twelve years ago I posted on how our era is a rare unique “dreamtime” of fast growth, wide cultural integration, and delusional beliefs. But I think I missed a big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. Let me explain.

The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that evolution shaped our behaviors to be adaptive in our ancestral environments. That is, we do stuff that gives us more descendants. But because our ancestors only experienced a limited range of environments, we only evolved behavior rules sufficient to induce adaptive behavior in those actual environments. This made our behavior indeterminate in the other new environments which humans have experienced since then. So a re-run of the process of evolution could easily lead to different behaviors in these new environments. That is, human behavior today results not just from adaptation to ancestral environments, but also from the many random ways that evolution happened to encode our behavior in rules.

For example, our ancestors needed to drink water to avoid dehydration, but because in their environments water always had the same combination of water smell and water feel, we could have evolved either to check that stuff is water by its smell, or by its feel. If those two water features always go together, and if both methods are just as easy, then this difference won’t make much difference to behavior. We find water, check that it is water, and drink it. But if later we encountered stuff that had water smell but not water feel, or water feel but not water smell, then these two different ways to detect water might lead to very different behaviors. For example, water-smell humans might drink stuff that smells but doesn’t feel like water, while water-feel humans would not drink such stuff.

In this post, I want to suggest that much of the “modern” human style which has arisen since the industrial revolution results from a particular way that evolution happened to encode human detection of relative status. This has made human history go surprisingly well in some ways, and surprisngly badly in others. Had evolution happened to have coded our status detection machinery differently, these last few centuries might have played out very differently. And perhaps they did, in alien histories. But before we get into that, let us first see how our status detection methods have shaped the modern human style. Continue reading "We Moderns Are Status-Drunk" »

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