Tag Archives: Future

On Evolved Values

Biological evolution selects roughly for creatures that do whatever it takes to have more descendants in the long run. When such creatures have brains, those brains are selected for having supporting habits. And to the extent that such brains can be described as having beliefs and values that combine into actions via expected utility theory, then these beliefs and values should be ones which are roughly behaviorally-equivalent to the package of having accurate beliefs, and having values to produce many descendants (relative to rivals). Equivalent at least within the actual environments in which those creatures were selected.

Humans have unusually general brains, with which we can think unusually abstractly about our beliefs and values. But so far, we haven’t actually abstracted our values very far. We instead have a big mess of opaque habits and desires that implicitly define our values for us, in ways that we poorly understand. Even though what evolution has been selecting for in us can in fact be described concisely and effectively in an abstract way.

Which leads to one of the most disturbing theoretical predictions I know: with sufficient further evolution, our descendants are likely to directly and abstractly know that they simply value more descendants. In diverse and varying environments, such a simpler more abstract representation seems likely to be more effective at helping them figure out which actions would best achieve that value. And while I’ve personally long gotten used to the idea that our distant descendants will be weird, to (the admittedly few) others who care about the distant future, this vision must seem pretty disturbing.

Oh there are some subtleties regarding whether all kinds of long-term descendants get the same weight, to what degree such preferences are non-monotonic in time and number of descendants, and whether we care the same about risks that are correlated or not across descendants. But those are details: evolved descendants should more simply and abstractly value more descendants.

This applies whether our descendants are biological or artificial. And it applies regardless of the kind of environments our descendants face, as long as those environments allow for sufficient selection. For example, if our descendants live among big mobs, who punish them for deviations from mob-enforced norms, then our descendants will be selected for pleasing their mobs. But as an instrumental strategy for producing more descendants. If our descendants have a strong democratic world government that enforces rules about who can reproduce how, then they will be selected for gaining influence over that government in order to gain its favors. And for an autocratic government, they’d be selected for gaining its favors.

Nor does this conclusion change greatly if the units of future selection are larger than individual organisms. Even if entire communities or work teams reproduce together as single units, they’d still be selected for valuing reproduction, both of those entire units and of component parts. And if physical units are co-selected with supporting cultural features, those total physical-plus-cultural packages must still tend to favor the reproduction of all parts of those packages.

Many people seem to be confused about cultural selection, thinking that they are favored by selection if any part of their habits or behaviors is now growing due to their actions. But if, for example, your actions are now contributing to a growing use of the color purple in the world, that doesn’t at all mean that you are winning the evolutionary game. If wider use of purple is not in fact substantially favoring the reproduction of the other elements of the package by which you are now promoting purple’s growth, and if those other elements are in fact reproducing less than their rivals, then you are likely losing, not winning, the evolutionary game. Purple will stop growing and likely decline after those other elements sufficiently decline.

Yes of course, you might decide that you don’t care that much to win this evolutionary game, and are instead content to achieve the values that you now have, with the resources that you can now muster. But you must then accept that tendencies like yours will become a declining fraction of future behavior. You are putting less weight on the future compared to others who focus more on reproduction. The future won’t act like you, or be as much influenced by acts like yours.

For example, there are “altruistic” actions that you might take now to help out civilization overall. For example, you might build a useful bridge, or find some useful invention. But if by such actions you hurt the relative long-term reproduction of many or most of the elements that contributed to your actions, then you must know you are reducing the tendency of descendants to do such actions. Ask: is civilization really better off with more such acts today, but fewer such acts in the future?

Yes, we can likely identify some parts of our current packages which are hurting, not helping, our reproduction. Such as genetic diseases. Or destructive cultural elements. It makes sense to dump such parts of our reproduction “teams” when we can identify them. But that fact doesn’t negate the basic story here: we will mainly value reproduction.

The only way out I see is: stop evolution. Stop, or slow to a crawl, the changes that induce selection of features that influence reproduction. This would require a strong civilization-wide government, and it only works until we meet the other grabby aliens. Worse, in an actually changing universe, such stasis seems to me to seriously risk rot. Leading to a slowly rotting civilization, clinging on to its legacy values but declining in influence, at least relative to its potential. This approach doesn’t at all seems worth the cost to me.

But besides that, have a great day.

Added 7p: There many be many possible equilibria, in which case it may be possible to find an equilibrium in which maximizing reproduction also happens to maximize some other desired set of values. But it may be hard to maintain the context that allows that equilibrium over long time periods. And even if so, the equilibrium might itself drift away to support other values.

Added 8Dec: This basic idea expressed 14 years ago.

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The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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An ‘Amazon’ of Online College?

Once upon a time, stores sold things. Some stores specialized in selling particular things, while “department” stores sold a wider range of things. While there were some scale economies in branding and distribution, they were mild enough to allow many different department stores. With the internet, however, much bigger stores have been favored. Not only can huge online stores hold more variety, with scale economies in storage and distribution a single store can dominate that industry. Hence, Amazon.

While the internet favors a few huge platforms for some types of products and services, the strength of this effect varies with the kind of product or service. For example, there seems to be room for many movie streaming services, as there seem to be fewer scale or scope economies there. Yes, one can better price discriminate by selling many movies rather than just one, but that still leaves room for many services each of which has many movies. Though perhaps the current variety of streaming services won’t last long.

What about college? In the past, students attended class in person, and so each college arranged to have many classes all close enough that one could live nearby and travel to all of its classes. So travel time between classes set a maximum feasible size for a college. But now there are (for many non-lab-or-hands-on topics) online classes which one can attend from anywhere in the world. In a future of online college classes (and tests), will we still have the same size colleges, or will much larger platforms take over?

Clearly there is a big potential for much larger individual classes. Instead of a thousand profs teaching the same class all over the world to thirty students each, maybe only ten profs will teach to three thousand students each. At least when individual grading and talk isn’t the main cost. And if students can choose from classes made all over the world, a far wider variety of classes can be made available to each student, classes on more topics, at more levels, and with more different teaching/learning styles.

Yes, the most elite colleges would probably be the last to contribute their courses to large online catalogs of courses. They’d say, “if you want the very best college experience, you should come here and limit yourself to our classes.” But that pitch wouldn’t work so well coming from mid-rank colleges.

Still I wonder: will the thirty or so classes on a future student college transcript be mostly from teachers who all produce their classes near each other at the same “college”, or will student transcripts instead contain classes from twenty or more different sources? And if the latter, how many distributors or platforms will there be? That is, will there be a single “Amazon” from which most all students select their classes, or will there be many different strongly competing distributors of classes, more like movie streaming services today. Another way to ask this question is: what are the scale and scope economies that might favor a few big college class distributors, instead of the thousands of colleges we have today?

As mentioned above, price discrimination offers one scope economy, but this runs out near the scale of a typical college, so won’t push for much larger units. A similar logic applies to other scale and scope economies that mostly run out near the scale of typical colleges today. For example, an online college class platform may want to select and evaluate the classes that if offers, to judge which classes could serve as prerequisites for which other classes, and maybe also to select and evaluate students for their suitability for various classes. And yes, these tasks look easier for larger platforms. But such effects still seem to allow a lot of room for many competing platforms.

However, here is a scale and scope effect that may push more toward a more Amazon-like scenario: giving students grades that are comparable over wide scopes. Today employers mostly look at a college graduate’s school and major, and sometimes also at their GPA. This works because schools have known reputations, and majors are pretty similar across many colleges.

This is in stark contrast to most jobs that students might take instead of going to college; it is much harder to know how to compare letters of recommendation based on typical job performance. Even US military veterans face this problem; employers find it hard to know what school/major/GPA record is comparable to 2 years as a “helicopter repairer”. Superior college comparability is a big reason many go to college instead of starting work (or the military) right after high school.

Imagine a college class platform that gives you a transcript showing what classes you took, and what grades you got in each class, but that doesn’t do much to help employers know how to compare the grades obtained from different sources. That wouldn’t be so valuable. In contrast, a college platform is much more valuable to future employers, and thus to students, if it can rank and categorize student performance in comparable and meaningful ways.

One simple way to do this is to sometimes randomize which classes students take. That is, flatter, pay, or cajole many students into letting the platform sometimes pick which particular class they take, out of a set of similar classes offered on the platform. With enough students taking enough classes that give enough feedback on student performance, standard statistical models could estimate individual student abilities and specializations. Which helps not only future employers, but also the providers of classes when deciding which students to admit into their classes. It also helps to estimate student satisfaction in particular classes as expressed by student evaluation of classes.

Yes, if all student class performance info were made available to all platforms, many of them could produce similar statistical estimates. But the largest platforms may use privacy excuses to successfully resist efforts to force them to share their customer info, as have social media giants today. Yes, platforms with less data might claim that they had found clever uses of machine learning etc. that give similar quality evaluations of students. But it isn’t clear why students and employers should believe such claims.

Scale economies in using customer data to make student performance comparable across a wide scope of classes may push toward a single huge Amazon-like catalog of online college classes.

From a conversation with Phil Magness.

Added 9a: College admissions and grading has recently become a political battleground. While today such battles are limited by the fact that colleges must compete with each other, such limits might be less when one of a few big orgs dominated the online college catalog market.

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‘Long Reflection’ Is Crazy Bad Idea

Some futurist philosophers have recently become enthused by what seems to me a spectacularly bad idea. Here is their idea:

Some effective altruists … have argued that, if humanity succeeds in eliminating existential risk or reducing it to acceptable levels, it should not immediately embark on an ambitious and potentially irreversible project (such as space colonization) of arranging the universe’s resources in accordance to its values, but ought instead to spend considerable time— “centuries (or more)” (Ord 2020), “perhaps tens of thousands of years” (Greaves et al. 2019), “thousands or millions of years” (Dai 2019), “[p]erhaps… a million years” (MacAskill, in Perry 2018)—figuring out what is in fact of value. The long reflection may thus be seen as an intermediate stage in a rational long-term human developmental trajectory, following an initial stage of existential security when existential risk is drastically reduced and followed by a final stage when humanity’s potential is fully realized (Ord 2020). (More)

The long reflection. Perhaps it’s a period of a million years or something. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands. There’s really not the kind of scarce commodity, so there are various stages to get into that state. The first is to reduce extinction risks down basically to zero, put us a position of kind of existential security. The second then is to start developing a society where we can reflect as much as possible and keep as many options open as possible. William MacAskill

It seems that first comes computer science and global governance and coordination and strategy issues, and then comes long time of philosophy. Lucas Perry (more)

And here is Toby Old from his book The Precipice, quoted at length so we can all be very clear about what is this idea:

I find it useful to consider our predicament from humanity’s point of view: casting humanity as a coherent agent, … what all humans would do if we were sufficiently coordinated and had humanity’s long term interest at heart. … We should [proceed]… in three phases: 1. Reaching existential security 2. The long reflection 3. Achieving our potential … A place where existential risk is low and stays low. I call this existential security. …

This will involve major changes to our norms and institutions (giving humanity the prudence and patience we need), as well as ways of increasing our general resilience to catastrophe. … Take our time to reflect upon what we truly desire, … call this the Long Reflection. … What is essential is to be sufficiently confident in the broad shape of what we are among at before taking each bold and potentially irreversible action – each action that could plausibly lock in substantial aspects of your future trajectory. … For example, … genetically improving our biology … or giving people the freedom to adopt a stunning diversity of new biological forms.

We could think of these first two steps of existential security and the Long Reflection as designing a constitution for humanity. … We can’t rely on our current institutions and institution that have evolved to deal with small- or medium-scale risks. … Humanity typically manages risk via a heavy reliance on trial and error. …But this reactive trial and error approach doesn’t work at all when it comes to existential risk. …. This will require institutions with access to cutting edge information about the coming risks, capable of taking decisive actions, and with the will to actually do so. For many risks, this action may require swift coordination between many or all of the world’s nations.

There would be benefits to centralizing some of this international work on safeguarding humanity. … Our options range from incremental improvements to minor agencies through to major changes to key bodies such as the UN Security Council, all th way up to entirely new institutions for governing the most important world affairs. …

Some important early thinkers on existential risk suggested that the growing possibility of existential catastrophe required moving toward a form of world government. … But the term [world government] is also used to refer to a politically homogenized word with a single point of control (roughly, the world as one big country). This is much more contentious and could increase over existential risk via global totalitarianism, or by permanently locking in bad values. Instead my guess is that existential security could be better achieved with the bare minimum of internationally binding constraints needed to prevent actors in one or two countries from jeopardizing humanity’s future.

Okay, they want to first greatly cut our risk of extinction, and then somehow stop irreversible change and have us talk and think for a very long time, after which we would then act again once we had reached a sufficiently strong consensus. But that’s kinda crazy, as discussed here by Felix Stocker:

Is there any way humanity could reach a ‘Long Reflection’ period? Could we sustain it? Could it really discover the way to the ‘optimal’ future? … Can we actually eliminate x-risks without taking any momentous and irreversible decisions, … we would have to have radically different political and governmental structures – perhaps a global government, or a global hegemon … it seems really hard to achieve and sustain. … a significant number of individuals and groups would be forced to sacrifice short term gains … authoritarian political institutions would have to be developed which could prevent individuals and groups from acting in their own rational self-interest. … We couldn’t expect to be able to ‘solve moral philosophy’ just by doing it in a vacuum. … I’m struggling to see the Long Reflection as anything other than impossible and pointless. … If we genuinely could engage in a collective philosophy project for 10,000 years, why would we ever want to stop?

In our world today, many small local choices are often correlated, across both people and time, and across actions, expectations, and desires. Within a few decades, such correlated changes often add up to changes are which are so broad and deep that they could only be reversed at an enormous cost, even if they are in principle reversible. Such irreversible change is quite common, and not at all unusual. To instead prevent this sort of change over timescales of centuries or longer would require a global coordination that is vastly stronger and more intrusive than that required to merely prevent a few exceptional and localized existential risks, such as nuclear war, asteroids, or pandemics. Such a global coordination really would deserve the name “world government”.

Furthermore, the effect of preventing all such changes over a long period, allowing only the changes required to support philosophical discussions, would be to have changed society enormously, including changing common attitudes and values regarding change. People would get very used to a static world of value discussion, and many would come to see such a world as proper and even ideal. If any small group could then veto proposals to end this regime, because a strong consensus was required to end it, then there’s a very real possibility that this regime could continue forever.

While it might be possible to slow change in a few limited areas for limited times in order to allow a bit more time to consider especially important future actions, wholesale prevention of practically irreversible change over many centuries seems simply inconsistent with anything like our familiar world.

So how did all these people get so stuck on such a crazy bad idea? My guess is that they don’t talk enough to social scientists. But that’s just my guess.

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The Insular Fertile Future

Fertility (= kids per adult) has been falling worldwide for centuries. It seems to be correlated strongly with societal (not individual) wealth, and mediated by norms transmitted via mass media. World elite culture supports falling fertility by celebrating professional more than parenting accomplishment. Among many rich world elites, fertility has fallen below replacement level, and is still falling further. More others should join them as the world gets richer and more culturally integrated.

With seven billion humans today, if the population were to fall in half every two generations it would take roughly 1600 years for humanity to go extinct. So the risk isn’t immediate, and lots of things might change before then. (E.g., see my book Age of Em.) But as this trend has been consistent for centuries, it’s hardly crazy to think that it may continue for many more centuries.

Yes, extinction isn’t that likely, as a more likely scenario has selection stepping in to promote higher fertility. However, on reflection I think it also makes sense to worry about that better scenario, as the most likely way for selection to promote fertility is by promoting insular subcultures, especially re gender/mating/fertility. Let me explain.

Today the cultures associated with higher fertility tend to be more “traditional”, and less integrated with the dominant world elite culture. And a few small subcultures, like Mennonites and Amish, or Mormons and Orthodox Jews, even manage to maintain high fertility while staying closely connected to the dominant culture. However, as a big fraction of the youth of such subcultures leave them, it isn’t obvious that these subcultures can long sustain net growth.

But this does point to the plausibly winning strategy: subcultures that are both highly fertile and highly insular, keeping enough youth from wanting to defect from their subculture to join the dominant low fertility culture. Through some combination of genes, culture, and tech, they find a way isolate their members more from outside cultural influence, and thereby to support sustained population growth (or at least less rapid decline).

That scenario is a win relative to human extinction, but it should worry those who see much value embodied in the dominant culture, and much harm that could come from more cultural isolation, or from the religions or ideologies that might be used to sustain such insularity. For example, as traditional cultures are the main source today of insular fertile cultures, they seem likely to also be the main source of such winning subcultures in a few centuries. Maybe we’ll get a traditional culture who happens to take a lot from the dominant culture. But also maybe not.

What other options do we have? We could hope that genetic evolution will turn out to be faster than we fear, that global culture will change its mind and switch to promoting fertility, or that cheap nurturing robot parents will appear in time. But these seem faint hopes. The dominant culture may well seek to repress divergent insular fertile subcultures, but that would raise the risk of human extinction.

One possible fix that comes to mind here is for the dominant culture to tolerate and even encourage mating and gender variance among new cultural descendants of that dominant culture. That is, encourage the creation of new subcultures that inherit most of their cultural elements from the dominant culture, but that explore different approaches to mating, gender , and parenting within each subculture. Swinging, polyamory, and home schooling subcultures of today show that such cultural descendants are at least possible. Hopefully such subcultures would mainly be more culturally insular only regarding their mating, gender, and parenting aspects.

With enough such experiments, we might find new subcultures that promote much higher fertility, and yet which also inherit many aspects of dominant culture. And these might have a fighting chance against insular subcultures descended from more traditional cultures. Alas, this fix requires that the dominant culture become much more tolerant of local variations in gender, mating, and parenting, which may not be much more likely than their just coming to see the wisdom of promoting fertility. After all we are currently in an increasingly Puritan era of more not less conformity on such things.

I’m afraid I really don’t see a good solution here yet. But I at least want to flag the problem for consideration.

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Envisioning Artificial Life

For billions of years Earth has been filled with a great many small biological organisms. Each one is designed to not die, and to collect and process enough resources to make close but not exact copies of itself, copies which then must each search for and defend a niche wherein this story can be repeated.

Recently humans have introduce some new kinds of entities, including human organizations and artificial devices. It seems obvious to me that within a millennia all these things will merge into something new: “artificial life”. Which will then forever more dominate the universe (if it survives). And it seems worth trying to think through what this will look like. Here are eight key features I predict for artificial life:

Advanced – Over billions of years bio life has developed some amazing innovations, and used these to colonize a wide range of niches on Earth. But there are still many places near here where life has had at most only a mild impact. And in far less than billions of years humans have found a great many innovations that bio never found, or made much use of. Such as metal smelting, trains, jet engines, nuclear power, rocket ships, radio, computers, and far far more. Using these, humans have been able to go more places, use more kinds of energy, and do more things. Artificial life will mix up these bio- and human-discovered design elements in a huge variety of ways, and colonize a far wider range of niches. Artificial life will live on and in a wide range of planets, stars, rocks, clouds, and volumes, and reorganize such things to make whole new places and things. Artificial life will grow faster, at least until the solar system is nearly filled.

Specialized – Lone bio cells have to do basically everything themselves. Which means they can’t achieve the very large scale and scope economies possible via a division of labor. Multi-cellular organisms have more of an internal specialization, but still each organism must do most everything itself. Social animals allow still more division of labor, but even so only over relatively small scales. In contrast, artificial life can manage a civilization-wide division of labor, limited mainly by transport costs, allowing each particular part to take on very specialized roles. Most artificial creatures can’t forage, digest, reproduce, etc. by themselves very well, but are designed to function well mainly within large complex societies. Artificial life is quite inter-dependent.

Informed – Bio organisms mainly know about what they can directly see, and the insight implicitly embodied in their genes. In contrast, artificial creatures can also use large specialized communication networks and institutions to learn about a great many things. The main limits are data, costs of distance and computation, and strategic incentives to deceive.

Invited – Bio tends to just make stuff when it can, without attending much to if there is a demand for that stuff. In contrast, artificial stuff tends to be made when and where demand is envisioned. New firms are made when investors guess they can make a profit. New couches are made and shipped to stores where firms guess buyers are likely to want them. And so on. Invited creatures have to worry less about their place in the world, or wonder why they exist; they wouldn’t exist unless there had been at least a reasonable place for them.

Designed – New bio things tend to be quite similar to their creators, adding mostly random variations. In contrast, artificial stuff is often more carefully designed to be suitable for some demand, and substantially different from prior things. A building is designed to fit its lot, a firm is designed to fit its market, and so on. Compared to bio designs, artificial designs draw on a much wider range of prior designs, and a lot more effort goes into figuring out these new designs. Artificial life is more like one big civ-wide species, and less breaks into separate lineages with designs only derived from its species. Some artificial creatures specialize in designing parts of other ones.

Governed – Artificial creatures coordinate to avoid destructive conflicts via empowering governance organizations, such as firms, clubs, law, and government. Such governance tends to be of wider scope and more stable than other structures, and is thus harder to influence. Yet each such structure has some ultimate owners who control it over larger scopes of space and time. When interacting with an artificial creature, one may want to know about the larger governance units with which it is allied.

Varied – While before humans biological organisms had a huge range of sizes and abilities, our more recent era has been dominated by creatures with quite similar sizes and abilities. Namely humans. With artificial life variety will return, and greatly expand. Trying to count military or political power by counting heads just won’t work at all.

Owned – The bio world has little property; stuff can and is oft stolen. Only property that can be directly created and defended exists. But the artificial world has far more property (and liability) rights. As a result, to use resources one must create, purchase, or inherit them. Thus someone will have to pay for the resources and design effort needed to make each new piece of artificial life. Those who pay to create something will often reserve some property (or liability) rights over it, often in the form of debt or equity. Though the created thing will usually hold some rights in itself. Creatures and groups will often trade shares in each other as a way to align their interests more closely.

This last owned features seems the most likely to bother people today. But my job is to tell you what seems most likely, not what you want to hear.

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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, or even any small volume, 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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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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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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Would UFO Aliens Be Our Gods?

In ancient societies, leaders and elites gained legitimacy in the minds of the masses via impressive displays of clothes, music, furniture, food, buildings, parades, etc., which made more plausible their claims to actually be a higher class of creatures. Religions also gained legitimacy by claiming to represent even higher classes of creatures, i.e., gods, with which they also associated impressive luxury displays. The masses worshipped and obeyed these leaders and gods, and deferred to their judgment.

One of the main reasons that we less worship and defer to such leaders and gods today is that we know more about them; we see leaders as less clearly superior, and gods as less clearly existing. But we are still the same sort of humans as the ancients, and so are capable of their actions, should we share their beliefs.

Which brings us to an interesting hypothetical that I will now consider: What if the world soon comes to a general consensus that some UFOs actually are aliens? And what if our direct physical relation to these aliens doesn’t change much? That is, they still don’t talk to us, we only see them rarely, and we don’t find their “bases”, their origins, or figure out any of their tech. And what if this situation persists for another century, or for many centuries?

In this postulated scenario, I think the main way that our world changes is this: in our minds, these UFO aliens take over the top of our status hierarchy; we see them as the top dog in our “pack”. And as status is a big deal to we social animals, this ends up being a big deal.

The first obvious implication is that acting or looking alien-like would start to become higher status. Hovering, fast movement and acceleration, bright fuzzy lights, making no sounds, geometric shapes, and smooth shiny surfaces without protuberances. Because that’s just how status works; if aliens are high status, we want to look like them.

Some would fall in status as a result of aliens being top status. The highest would fall, as would those who seemed to have opposed them, such as governments who lied about them and elite academics who dismissed them. We’d also see our familiar human elites and leaders as less in charge of our long term future.

We’d guess that these aliens have some agendas, and so even if they haven’t actually done much yet, they may well intervene in some scenarios. Maybe we’d worry less about killing ourselves, if we think they’d stop that. And if aliens don’t seem worried that our AI experiments might create super-intelligences that suddenly explode to remake the universe, maybe we would worry less about that too.

We would gossip a lot trying to guess alien priorities, priorities we’d be reluctant to visibly resist. We’d more want to adopt their priorities as our priorities, because, again, that is just how status works. Just as people in firms gossip a lot about CEO priorities, and as courtiers of a king gossip a lot about king priorities. They gossip, and also try to pretend that the CEO/king priorities always were their own deepest priorities.

People do seem to believe that they can guess UFO alien motives. In a recent poll, 65.2% of respondents guessed that these aliens main motive for visiting Earth is to “study us as independent example of life evolution.” Which is a pretty high status motive, you have to admit.

No doubt the people who push each priority X would try to also push the view that aliens also prefer X. But we also have some more direct evidence on alien priorities.

First, aliens must be very old and stable, so they less want or experience innovation and change compared to us. Second, they aren’t remaking the universe much around here, or anywhere we can see, yet such remaking would have happened naturally unless they had coordinated strongly to prevent it. Thus they must have a strong “world” government which enforces a policy of preventing mass colonization and remaking of the universe.

They haven’t killed us yet, and they also let us see them, so they can’t feel very threatened by us at our current level. Also, they refuse to talk to us, so they don’t respect us that much, and aren’t that interested in running the details of our world or our lives, or in converting us to their beliefs. In a great many ways, we are just “beneath” them.

Now when humans treat us like this, we are often offended, and expect observers to support our outrage. For example, 81% of respondents said that a small nation should see it an insult if the US refused to respond in any way to their request for a meeting. But only 36.6% of respondents said we should feel insulted if UFO aliens keep refusing to talk to us for another century. (And 52.3% said it would be an insult for a human to treat you like aliens are treating us now, in refusing to talk.)

This all suggests to me that we treat UFO aliens as very high status. You are far more likely to be offended if your sister refused to talk to you, relative to Bill Gates refusing to talk, as you accept that Gates is much higher status than you or your sister. Similarly, even though UFO aliens have come to visit our home, and are showing off their vast abilities, which they must know makes us nervous, most still don’t think we should be offended by their refusing to talk to us. Perhaps because they are as gods to us?

These inferred alien priorities have implications for our behavior. As the aliens have a world government, we’d be more inclined to give substantial powers to a world organization through which we study and deal with them. We’d also be more inclined to limit our physical and tech expansion, as the aliens seem to have also done this. We’d be more willing to slow down our rates of innovation and change, as aliens seem okay with this in their society. And we’d be more okay with just ignoring and refusing to talk to humans we see as beneath us, like the aliens seem to do with us. We’d also be less eager to preach and proselytize, as aliens don’t do that. Finally, if we keep thinking that aliens are mainly here to study us, we’ll be more eager to (from a distance) study other creatures of all sorts.

Of course not everyone would be eager fans of the aliens. Some would resent their ignoring us, and seek to resist their presumed dominance. In fact, being pro- or anti-aliens might become a big new axis of political orientation. Maybe even the main one. For every other existing political axis, we’d ask ourselves which side is more naturally the pro- or anti-alien side. Even racism.

To me this isn’t that pretty a picture overall. But the universe doesn’t consult me before it paints its pictures, and I will first try to see what it has painted, before I think about how I might change it, if that became possible.

Yes, many of these predictions might apply if alien behavior did change after we became convinced of them. But its hard to say more there without knowing more about in what ways their behaviors change. For example, if they acted more hostile we might not see them as top dog in our pack, but as a powerful enemy pack.

Note that this scenario seems to work out well for the aliens, which seems to vindicate their choice to not talk yet also not completely hide. And talking could easily risk their being forced to admit strange repulsive stuff that would really put us off. Maybe their show-not-talk strategy isn’t as crazy and a priori unlikely as many claim.

Added 15Jun: If we come to believe, as I do, that aliens are most likely artificial, having transcended their biological origins, we may then respect artificial things more.

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