Stuart Armstrong’s Posts

Innovation’s low-hanging fruits: on the demand or supply sides?

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

This is an addendum to a previous post, which argued that we may be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it. I noted that we underestimated the innovative aspect of the CD because many other technologies partially overlapped with it, such as television, radio, cinema, ipod, walkman, landline phone, mobile phone, laptop, VCR and Tivo’s. Without these overlapping technologies, we could see the CD’s true potential and estimate it higher as an innovation. Many different technologies could substitute for each other.

But this argument brings out a salient point: if so many innovations overlap or potentially overlap, then there must be many more innovations that purposes for innovations. Tyler Cowen made the interesting point that the internet isn’t as innovative as the flushing toilet (or indeed the television). He certainly has a point here: imagine society without toilets or youtube, which would be most tolerable (or most survivable)? Continue reading

The innovation tree, overshadowed in the innovation forest

Cross-Posted at Less Wrong.

Many have pronounced that the era of innovation dead, peace be to its soul. From Tyler Cowen’s decree that we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit of innovation, through Robert Gordon’s idea that further innovation growth is threatened by “six headwinds”, to Gary Karparov’s and Peter Thiel’s theory that risk aversion has stifled innovation, there is no lack of predictions about the end of discovery.

I don’t propose to address the issue with something as practical and useful as actual data. Instead, staying true to my philosophical environment, I propose a thought experiment that hopefully may shed some light. The core idea is that we might be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it.

Imagine that technological innovation had for some reason stopped around the 1945 – with one exception: the CD and CD player/burner. Fast forwards a few decades, and visualise society. We can imagine a society completely dominated by the CD. We’d have all the usual uses for the CD – music, songs and similar – of course, but also much more. Continue reading

Embracing the “sadistic” conclusion

This is not the post I was planning to write. Originally, it was going to be a heroic post where I showed my devotion to philosophical principles by reluctantly but fearlessly biting the bullet on the sadistic conclusion. Except… it turns out to be nothing like that, because the sadistic conclusion is practically void of content and embracing it is trivial.

Sadism versus repugnance

The sadistic conclusion can be found in Gustaf Arrhenius’s papers such as “An Impossibility Theorem for Welfarist Axiologies.” In it he demonstrated that – modulo a few technical assumptions – any system of population ethics has to embrace either the Repugnant Conclusion, the Anti-Egalitarian Conclusion or the Sadistic conclusion. Astute readers of my blog posts may have noticed I’m not the repugnant conclusion’s greatest fan, evah! The anti-egalitarian conclusion claims that you can make things better by keeping total happiness/welfare/preference satisfaction constant but redistributing it in a more unequal way. Few systems of ethics embrace this in theory (though many social systems seem to embrace it in practice). Continue reading

How to get positive surveillance – a few ideas

I recently published an article on the possible upsides of mass surveillance (somewhat in the vein of David Brin’s “transparent society”). To nobody’s great astonishment, it has attracted criticism! Some of them accuse me of not knowing the negative aspects of surveillance. But that was not the article’s point; there is already a lot written on the negative aspects (Bruce Schneier and Cory Doctorow, for instance, have covered this extremely well). Others make the point that though these benefits may be conceivable in principle, I haven’t shown how they could be obtained in practice.

Again, that wasn’t the point of the article. But it’s a fair criticism – what can we do today to make a better surveillance outcomes more likely? Since I didn’t have space to go through that in my article, here are a few suggestions: Continue reading

US Congress shutsdown CDC, also other unimportant agencies

So the US government is likely being shutdown, which will suspend the work of many government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But, fair citizens, I reassure you – in its wisdom, the US Congress has decided that the military’s salaries will be excluded from the shutdown.

With all due respect to military personnel, this is ludicrous. The US military is by far the world’s largest, there is little likelihood of any major war (the last great power war was in 1953), and no sign of minor wars starting, either. Suspended salaries may be bad for morale and long term retention, but they aren’t going to compromise US military power.

Contrast with the CDC’s work. The world’s deadliest war was the second world war, with 60 million dead, over a period of years (other wars get nowhere close to this). The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million on its own, in a single year. Smallpox couldn’t match that yearly rate, but did polish off 300-500 million of us during the 20th century. Bog standard flu kills between a quarter and a half million every year, and if we wanted to go back further, the Black Death wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe. And let’s not forget HIV with its 30 million deaths to date.

No need to belabour the point… Actually there is: infectious diseases are the greatest killers in human history, bar none. If any point needs belabouring, that’s one. And a shutdown would have an immediate negative impact on public health: for instance, the CDC would halt its influenza monitoring program. Now, of course, this year’s flu may not turn out to be pandemic – we can but hope, because that’s all we can do now! And if we have another SARS starting somewhere in the United States, it will be a real disaster.

We’re closing our eyes and hoping that the greatest killer in human history will be considerate enough to not strike while we sort out our politics.

In the genetic supermarket, should parents be allowed to buy?

Imagine a world in which genetic interventions (for hair/eye colour, health, strength, happiness, morality…) were tested, safe, effective and accepted. In this genetic supermarket, who should be allowed to buy – to decide how children should be modified? Parents seem the obvious choice – but on reflection, there seem few reasons to allow this.

Why is it good for people to make their own choices? Firstly, out of liberty: everyone should have the right to do what they want with themselves. Secondly, because people know their own preferences much better than anyone else (one of the reasons that the communist command economies failed). And thirdly because people can experience the consequences of their choices, and become more skilled consumers, driving poor products out of business.

None of these applies to parents choosing their children’s genes. Here they are making the choice for other people, whose preferences they don’t know (because they don’t even exist yet!). And unless parents plan to have ten or twenty children, they have no relevant personal experience to draw on for comparing genetic interventions. And the main effects of these interventions are very long term, making the parents even less suited to making the choice in an informed way. Continue reading

Pay politicians much more

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) just proposed a rise of MPs’ annual salary to £74,000, from the current £66,396.

This is a stupid idea. The MPs should be paid a lot more. In the private sector, and even in most NGOs, it’s well understood that if you want to attract high quality workers, you need to pay them higher salaries.

The UK government budget in 2012 was £682 billion. The UK civil service employs 6 million people. There are 650 MPs in total. So a crude estimate is that, on average, each MP controls a budget of over a billion pounds and directs nearly ten thousand people (of which a significant portion are heavily armed). They also vote on regulations that affect the whole country. Only in public service would it seem sensible to pay people with that kind of responsibility, that kind of salary.

Some might feel that increasing MPs salary may reduce their commitment to public service, or cut them off from the concerns of the people they serve. But £66,396 a year already cuts them off from most people, and I haven’t seen any evidence that their current lower salary is causing an irresistible stampede of public minded individuals to swarm parliament.

State versus parental authority: morality or efficiency?

In a previous post, I touched briefly upon the role of the state in child-rearing. The state takes on a very specific set of roles, while parents fulfil others. The rhetoric surrounding parental rights or government power seem to imply that we’ve reached this division after careful consideration of the rights of all parties, based on fundamental moral principles.

However, it seems suspicious to me that this principled division corresponds nearly perfectly to practical considerations. In other words, the government has all the rights in the areas they’re good at, while parents have all the rights in the remaining areas.

Consider, for instance, that the government is quite good a detecting blatant physical abuse. You just have to send someone to have a look, and in most places, the government can and does just that. Teachers are on the lookout for this, and social workers generally have the right to investigate and intervene. Continue reading

Why are we not much, much, much better at parenting?

We’ve come a long way, as a species. And we’re better at many things than we ever were before – not just slightly better, but unimaginably, ridiculously better. We’re better at transporting people and objects, we’re better a killing, we’re better at preventing infectious diseases, we’re better at industrial production, agricultural and economic output, we’re better at communications and sharing of information.

But in some areas, we haven’t made such dramatic improvements. And one of those areas is parenting. We’re certainly better parents than our own great-great-grandparents, if we measure by outcomes, but the difference is of degree, not kind. Why is that? Continue reading

We may need to end all war. Quickly.

Public opinion and governments wrestle with a difficult problem: whether or not to intervene in Syria. The standard arguments are well known – just war theory, humanitarian protection of civilian populations, the westphalian right of states to non-intervention, the risk of quagmires, deterrence against chemical weapons use… But the news that an American group has successfully 3D printed a working handgun may put a new perspective on things.

Why? It’s not as if there’s a lack of guns in the world – either in the US or in Syria – so a barely working weapon, built from still-uncommon technology, is hardly going to upset any balance of power. But that may just be the beginning. As 3D printing technology gets better, as private micro-manufacturing improves (possibly all the way to Drexlerian nanotechnology), the range of weapons that can be privately produced increases. This type of manufacturing could be small scale, using little but raw material, and be very fast paced. We may reach a situation where any medium-sized organisation (a small country, a corporation, a town) could build an entire weapons arsenal in the blink of an eye: 20,000 combat drones, say, and 10,000 cruise missiles, all within a single day. All that you’d need are the plans, cheap raw materials, and a small factory floor. Continue reading

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