Stuart Armstrong’s Posts

The times they are a changing…

In 1920, Jackson Scholz set the men’s 100m world record at 10.6 seconds. The 100m race is one where progress is very hard; we’re getting towards the limit of human possibility. It’s very tricky to squeeze out another second or fraction of a second. Still, in 2009, Usain Bolt set the men’s 100m world record at 9.58 seconds.

Apart from the Bolt, who else today can run faster than Jackson Scholz? Well, the fastest 16 year old ran the 100m in 10.27 second. The visually impaired world record is 10.46 seconds. The woman’s world record is 10.49 seconds.

The point of this extended metaphor is that we are focused on the differences we see today: between teenagers and adults, between men and women, between the able-bodied and those not. But the difference that swamps all of these is the difference between the present and the past. In 1920, prohibition had just been instituted in the USA. Some women were voting for the first time, though most couldn’t (neither could most men, in fact). The British empire was at its height, communism had just triumphed in Russia (the only country in the world to legalise abortion), homosexuality was a crime in most places, GDP was about a 30th of what it is now, life expectancy was 54 in the USA and tuberculosis was incurable.

How dissimilar will the world look like in 2099, then? More dissimilar that any difference we can see by looking around the world today. People will think differently, act differently, and have completely different lives and opinions, to anything that currently exists.

Organ donation is not all about the donors

Another article discusses the morality of different methods of organ transplant. Strangely absent from the discussion, is any indication of the scale of the problem – something that should be front and centre. The numbers are strangely hard to find, but seem to lie between 400 and 1000 deaths per year, with many more suffering from pain and reduced quality of life because of the lack of available organs.

That should be the main focus of the discussion – those people who would now be living, breathing, enjoying life, contributing to the world and spending time with their friends and family, had they got the organ they needed. It matters not whether our ‘system of organ donation [is] based on generosity and compassion’ – the point is not to show personal virtue for the donor, but to save lives. It is truly bizzare to argue that we must ensure, on compassionate grounds, that more people must die. If you truly want to show generosity and compassion, there are no lack of methods to do so.

As for the argument that changing systems would make our bodies become the property of the state – it’s important to ignore the appeal to emotion, and focus on what’s happening here. We are talking about allowing doctors to take organs from people who are already dead, and using them to keep living people alive. That’s it. Nothing more. And it all happens under a system of presumed consent, so that if you really felt strongly about it, you could opt out entirely.

Remember – if your organs aren’t the property of the state after your death, then they’re usually the property of the worms.

Artificial organs: “good guys” finish last to technology

It is hardly a keen insight to note that there are a lot of problems in the world today, and that there are also lots of suggested solutions. Often these can be classified under three different labels:

  • “Good guy” solutions which rely on changing individual people’s attitudes and behaviours.
  • Institutional solutions which rely on designing good institutions to address the problem.
  • Technological solutions which count on technology to resolve the problem.

In this view, it is tremendously good news that scientists are getting closer to producing artificial organs. If this goal is achieved, it will be a technological solution to the problem of transplant organ shortages – and technological solutions tend to be better than institutional solutions, which are generally much better than “good guy” solutions. The “good guy” solution to organ donation was to count on people to volunteer to donate when they died. Better institutions (such as an opt-out system where you have to make a special effort not to be a donor, rather than a special effort to be a donor) have resulted in much improved donation rates. But cheap artificial organs would really be the ultimate solution.

Of course I don’t denigrate the use of getting people on your side, nor the motivations of those who sincerely want to change things. But changes to people’s attitudes only tend to stick around as long term solutions if this is translated into actual institutional or technological changes.

Take slavery, for instance. Continue reading

The Queen’s an anachronism: another problem with predicting the future

The Queen serve many roles, it seems. She provides stability to the British government, fosters links with the ex-colonies, promotes tourism, serves a safe focus for nationalist sentiment, gives the nation a centralised way of taking care of various palaces, provides nationalised opportunities for neighbours to come together, warms that deep part of the human heart that admires leaders but disdains those that make hard choices, is a focal point for unity, tradition and precedent, a link to history… The list is long, and to some extent genuine: she does provide these services to the nation.

But say we’d sat down, without any knowledge of the monarchy, and looked at that long list of desires, included in a list of a million other things we’d want. Nobody would have said: “You know, thinking about it, for issues 137, 2220 and 3558b… Well, the most efficient way we could deal with these is to institute an unelected hereditary figurehead, passing down by primogeniture. Come to think about it, that would also help with issue 344c…” The monarchy is certainly not the best way of accomplishing all the tasks we want it to accomplish, is likely very far from the best way. But it is the way we currently do so, changing it would require a lot of effort, and it has adapted itself to work in practice, within our current society.

Which brings us to the problem of prediction. Continue reading

Key moments of supreme importance

If you want to effectively change the world, it helps to know which levers to push, and which ones can be moved most effectively. For instance reducing HIV suffering through the treatement of Kaposi’s sarcoma is about a thousand times less efficient that treating HIV through peer and education programs for high-risk groups. So if you were doing good through donating to the first types of intervention, you can do about a thousand times more good by switching your donation to the second.

I didn’t know that fact; I had to look it up. Charity evaluators like Giving What We Can or Givewell do the hard work of finding these key levers for us. Because it isn’t easy to sift through the list of things that we could do, to find those things that are of great significance. At the Future of Humanity Institute, we like to believe we’re pulling on the levers of human history, pressing to avoid the bad futures and promote the good ones. In the most effective way this small institute can.

But that’s extremely hard to do! Even before we can start to think about our own putative influence over events, we have first to figure out what changes are important in the first place. If we follow the path of human history, it isn’t easy to see what were the key moments, and what were basically bumps in the dross of passing time. Some important moments are obvious – Pearl Harbour was pretty big, Watt’s steam engine had some uses, and Columbus’s trip was not the most insignificant event in human history. But others are much more obscure: Norman Borlaug‘s contribution to the green revolution saved millions of lives, and Cai Lun‘s invention of paper has probably changed the world more than any other single invention. And there are other important events that lie forgotten or overlooked.

In a hundred year’s time, nobody will know who won the X-Factor. But in a hundred year’s time, barely anyone will remember who Obama, Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Manmohan Singh or Hu Jintao were either. Not that memory is a reliable guide to importance; but nearly every event that occurs today, up to and including most wars, will leave no long term mark on the planet and on our species.

But some will. And if I had to hazard a guess, one of these monumental events is coming up soon. Tomorrow, on the 19th of May, if it isn’t delayed (yet again), SpaceX, a private space exploration company, will attempt to launch a rocket into space and have its payload reach the International Space Station. If anything will make a difference to humanity in a century, then the potential success of private sector space-flight ranks very high on the list. Close your eyes and imagine how different the future looks in SpaceX succeeds, or if it (and all similar endeavours) end in failure. A key moment is probably upon us.

Now we just need to isolate a key moment that we actually have influence over…

The price of uncertainty: geoengineering climate change through stratospheric sulfate

With thanks to Clive Hamilton for his talk.

Stratospheric sulfate seems to be one of the most promising geoengineering methods to combat climate change. It involves the injection of  hydrogen sulfide (H2S), sulfur dioxide (SO2) or other sulfates, into the stratosphere. Similar to what happens after major volcanic eruptions, this would reflect off part of the sun’s energy and cool the Earth, counterbalancing the effect of greenhouse gases (see for instance the “Year without a Summer” that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora).

It is probably the best geoengineering solution to climate change, in that it’s likely to work, should be technically feasible, can be done by a single nation if need be (no need for global consensus), and is likely to be very cheap – especially in comparison with cutting emissions. But it has a few drawbacks:

  1. It will have unpredictable effects on the weather across the globe.
  2. We can’t really test it – the test would be doing it, on a global scale.
  3. We wouldn’t know if it worked until we’d had about a decade of temperature measurements.
  4. Once started, it’s extremely dangerous to stop it – especially if carbon emissions keep rising.

So, should we do it? Narrow cost-benefit analysis suggests yes, but that doesn’t take into account the uncertainty, the unknown unknowns – the very likely probability that things will not go as expected, and that we’ll have difficulty dealing with the side effects. This includes the political side effects when some areas of the globe suffer more than others from this process.

How bad does global warming have to get before we consider this type of nearly irreversible geoengineering? If we had to choose between this and cutting emissions, how high would the cost of cutting have to go before we sprang for this instead? In short, what price do we put on avoiding uncertainty on the global scale? Can we estimate a dollar amount, or some alternative measure of the cost – quality-adjusted life years, or some other human-scale estimate? Or is this an illusionary precision, and do our intuitions and qualitative arguments (precautionary principle?) give us a better estimate of whether we should go ahead with this?

How will the future change your politics?

Your politics are determined by your values, your opinions about the facts of the world, and, let’s be honest, just a little bit of tribalism. But the future is approaching, as it often does, and great transformations may be in the cards. Transformations that could dramatically affect the facts of the world. So whatever your values are, there is a chance that you may soon be arguing for the opposite of your usual policies. For instance, what if the future were necessarily…

Communist: one of the easiest ones to conceive of. Here it turns out that as barriers to trade are removed and transaction costs go to zero, the natural state of the economy is one of perpetual crashes. Celebrity and fame feed upon themselves: everyone demands the best, and the definition of the best is shared widely: niche markets don’t exist. Incomes follow such a sharp power law that only a few percent of the population have any wealth at all. Automation means that most people can’t earn enough to sustain themselves: their income drops below the costs of keeping them alive. Hence a large, bloated, over-regulating government becomes a matter of survival.

Ultra-capitalist: as barriers to trade are removed and transaction costs go to zero, the whole market segments into small niches. Everyone can find some buyer for their work, as new demands and new suppliers spring up immediately, connected by new technologies. Technology solves known externalities (like global warming), so there is little need for a centralised controlling authority. Change happens so rapidly that any governmental intervention is counterproductive: by the time the change is implemented, the benefits and costs the government was trying to influence are things of the past. The efficient market, the only thing fast enough to keep up with itself, flows like a river around any blundering governmental efforts, rendering them moot.

Continue reading

Should the government have policies to deal with fear of zombies?

From the always sublime Dara O’Briain:

I give out when people talk about crime going up, but the numbers are definitely down. And if you go, “The numbers are down”, they go, “Ahh, but the fear of crime is rising.” Well, so fucking what? Zombies are at an all-time low level, but the fear of zombies could be incredibly high. It doesn’t mean you have to have government policies to deal with the fear of zombies.

But let’s look at this in more detail. If there was a large demand for it, should the government have policies to deal with the fear of zombies? By zombies, we do mean non-existent flesh-eating fictional undead monstrosities that don’t exist.

Continue reading

Old threats never die, they fade away from our minds: nuclear winter

In 1983, scientists published a paper on nuclear winter. This boosted the death toll of all-out nuclear war from ‘only’ 200-500 million to the very real possibility of the complete extinction of the human race*. But some argued the report was alarmist, and there did seem to be some issues with the assumptions. So – a military phenomena that might cause megadeaths, possibly true but requiring further study, and a huge research defense budget that could be used to look into this critical phenomena and that was already spending millions on all aspects of nuclear weapons – can you guess what happened next?

Correct – the issue was ignored for decades. For over twenty years, there were but a tiny handful of papers on the most likely way we could end our own existence, and a vague and persistent sense that nuclear winter had been ‘disproved’. But in 2007, we finally had a proper followup – with the help of modern computers, better models and better observations, what can we now say? Well, that nuclear winter is still a major threat; the initial fear was right. Their most likely scenario was:

A global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C […]. Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 yr ago was about –5°C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race. The temperature changes are largest over land […] Cooling of more than –20°C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

Also, precipitation would be cut in half and we’d lose most of the ozone layer. But there was a more worrying development: it also seems that a small-scale nuclear war could generate its own mini nuclear winter.

Continue reading

When politicians are undemocratic, there’s something to learn

Politicians often do things which are blatantly undemocratic, in that they poll poorly and are thus presumably against the will of the people: bailing out banks, nixing referendums on the EU, protecting the city of London, negotiating often unpopular free trade agreements, increasing certain taxes or cutting certain services. When this happens, the first question should always be: why are they doing it?

The first explanation given is always corruption: such and such a politician gets kickbacks from someone objectionable and rich. But this is a feeble explanation: money is good for a politician, but staying in power is much better. If there is evidence of corruption, or if the deal was done in secret and exposed by some heroic reporting, then well and good; but if not, corruption is unlikely to be the reason. The rich always get a better deal from a politician than the rest; but seriosuly annoying 10% of the rest is not worth doing for any rich 1%.

A second reason could be ideological: politicians operate in parties with particular collections of ideologies, and going against them would cost the politician support. But parties are managed as well, with the aim of reaching and retaining power; if the ideology didn’t have some support in the public, it would be quietly pushed out. So maybe some measure is unpopular among people who wouldn’t support that party anyway, but popular for the motivated core supporters: in that case, it’s rational for the politician to go along with it. But some measures, such as bailing out banks, have no real support on any ideology, so this cannot be the whole explanation.

This brings us to the third explanation: politicians really believe that not pushing through their unpopular measure will cost them more votes than letting it slide. The economy is roughly what wins politicians elections, so this effect will be particularly strong in economic matters.  The bank bailouts are a case in point: (apparently) very unpopular with the population, but politicians do them anyway, ever since the collapse of Lehman brothers. In this case, the population don’t know what they’re talking about, if they believe what they’re claimed to believe: few people have experienced genuine banks runs, which would collapse the economy into far greater misery than bailing out a few undeserving rich bankers. Politicians know this, and so – correctly – don’t let the banks fail, no matter what flak it costs them.

So when a politician does something unpopular but not obviously corrupt or blatantly ideological, the question we should ask ourselves is “What do they know, or think that they know, that we don’t?” They might be wrong in their beliefs – but so might we, and they do have a lot more sources of information than most of us. And they are much more motivated to get their beliefs right: their power depends on it.

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