What is going on in the world?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Here’s a list of alternative high level narratives about what is importantly going on in the world—the central plot, as it were—for the purpose of thinking about what role in a plot to take:

  • The US is falling apart rapidly (on the scale of years), as evident in US politics departing from sanity and honor, sharp polarization, violent civil unrest, hopeless pandemic responses, ensuing economic catastrophe, one in a thousand Americans dying by infectious disease in 2020, and the abiding popularity of Trump in spite of it all.
  • Western civilization is declining on the scale of half a century, as evidenced by its inability to build things it used to be able to build, and the ceasing of apparent economic acceleration toward a singularity.
  • AI agents will control the future, and which ones we create is the only thing about our time that will matter in the long run. Major subplots:
    • ‘Aligned’ AI is necessary for a non-doom outcome, and hard.
    • Arms races worsen things a lot.
    • The order of technologies matters a lot / who gets things first matters a lot, and many groups will develop or do things as a matter of local incentives, with no regard for the larger consequences.
    • Seeing more clearly what’s going on ahead of time helps all efforts, especially in the very unclear and speculative circumstances (e.g. this has a decent chance of replacing subplots here with truer ones, moving large sections of AI-risk effort to better endeavors).
    • The main task is finding levers that can be pulled at all.
    • Bringing in people with energy to pull levers is where it’s at.
  • Institutions could be way better across the board, and these are key to large numbers of people positively interacting, which is critical to the bounty of our times. Improvement could make a big difference to swathes of endeavors, and well-picked improvements would make a difference to endeavors that matter.
  • Most people are suffering or drastically undershooting their potential, for tractable reasons.
  • Most human effort is being wasted on endeavors with no abiding value.
  • If we take anthropic reasoning and our observations about space seriously, we appear very likely to be in a ‘Great Filter’, which appears likely to kill us (and unlikely to be AI).
  • Everyone is going to die, the way things stand.
  • Most of the resources ever available are in space, not subject to property rights, and in danger of being ultimately had by the most effective stuff-grabbers. This could begin fairly soon in historical terms.
  • Nothing we do matters for any of several reasons (moral non-realism, infinite ethics, living in a simulation, being a Boltzmann brain, ..?)
  • There are vast quantum worlds that we are not considering in any of our dealings.
  • There is a strong chance that we live in a simulation, making the relevance of each of our actions different from that which we assume.
  • There is reason to think that acausal trade should be a major factor in what we do, long term, and we are not focusing on it much and ill prepared.
  • Expected utility theory is the basis of our best understanding of how best to behave, and there is reason to think that it does not represent what we want. Namely, Pascal’s mugging, or the option of destroying the world with all but one in a trillion chance for a proportionately greater utopia, etc.
  • Consciousness is a substantial component of what we care about, and we not only don’t understand it, but are frequently convinced that it is impossible to understand satisfactorily. At the same time, we are on the verge of creating things that are very likely conscious, and so being able to affect the set of conscious experiences in the world tremendously. Very little attention is being given to doing this well.
  • We have weapons that could destroy civilization immediately, which are under the control of various not-perfectly-reliable people. We don’t have a strong guarantee of this not going badly.
  • Biotechnology is advancing rapidly, and threatens to put extremely dangerous tools in the hands of personal labs, possibly bringing about a ‘vulnerable world’ scenario.
  • Technology keeps advancing, and we may be in a vulnerable world scenario.
  • The world is utterly full of un-internalized externalities and they are wrecking everything.
  • There are lots of things to do in the world, we can only do a minuscule fraction, and we are hardly systematically evaluating them at all. Meanwhile massive well-intentioned efforts are going into doing things that are probably much less good than they could be.
  • AI is powerful force for good, and if it doesn’t pose an existential risk, the earlier we make progress on it, the faster we can move to a world of unprecedented awesomeness, health and prosperity.
  • There are risks to the future of humanity (‘existential risks’), and vastly more is at stake in these than in anything else going on (if we also include catastrophic trajectory changes). Meanwhile the world’s thinking and responsiveness to these risks is incredibly minor and they are taken unseriously.
  • The world is controlled by governments, and really awesome governance seems to be scarce and terrible governance common. Yet we probably have a lot of academic theorizing on governance institutions, and a single excellent government based on scalable principles might have influence beyond its own state.
  • The world is hiding, immobilized and wasted by a raging pandemic.

It’s a draft. What should I add? (If, in life, you’ve chosen among ways to improve the world, is there a simple story within which your choices make particular sense?)

Condition-directedness

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

In chess, you can’t play by picking a desired end of the game and backward chaining to the first move, because there are vastly more possible chains of moves than your brain can deal with, and the good ones are few. Instead, chess players steer by heuristic senses of the worth of situations. I assume they still back-chain a few moves (‘if I go there, she’ll have to move her rook, freeing my queen’) but just leading from a heuristically worse to a heuristically better situation a short hop away.

In life, it is often taken for granted that one should pursue goals, not just very locally, but over scales of decades. The alternative is taken to be being unambitious and directionless.

But there should also be an alternative that is equivalent to the chess one: heuristically improving the situation, without setting your eye on a particular pathway to a particular end-state.

Which seems like actually what people do a lot of the time. For instance, making your living room nice without a particular plan for it, or reading to be ‘well read’, or exercising to be ‘fit’ (at least insofar as having a nice living space and being fit and well-read are taken as generally promising situations rather than stepping stones immediately prior to some envisaged meeting, say). Even at a much higher level, spending a whole working life upholding the law or reporting on events or teaching the young because these put society in a better situation overall, not because they will lead to some very specific outcome.

In spite of its commonness, I’m not sure that I have heard of this type of action labeled as distinct from goal-directedness and undirectedness. I’ll call it condition-directedness for now. When people are asked for their five year plans, they become uncomfortable if they don’t have one, rather than proudly stating that they don’t currently subscribe to goal-oriented strategy at that scale. Maybe it’s just that I hang out in this strange Effective Altruist community, where all things are meant to be judged by their final measure on the goal, which perhaps encourages evaluating them explicitly with reference to an envisaged path to the goal, especially if it is otherwise hard to distinguish the valuable actions from doing whatever you feel like.

It seems like one could be condition-directed and yet very ambitious and not directionless. (Though your ambition would be non-specific, and your direction would be local, and maybe they are the worse for these things?) For instance, you might work tirelessly on whatever seems like it will improve the thriving of a community that you are part of, and always know in which direction you are pushing, and have no idea what you will be doing in five years.

Whether condition-directedness is a good kind of strategy would seem to depend on the game you are playing, and your resources for measuring and reasoning about it. In chess, condition-directedness seems necessary. Somehow longer term plans do seem more feasible in life than in chess though, so it is possible that they are always better in life, at the scales in question. I doubt this, especially given the observation that people often seem to be condition-directed, at least at some scales and in some parts of life.

(These thoughts currently seem confused to me – for instance, what is up with scales? How is my knowing that I do want to take the king relevant?)

Inspired by a conversation with John Salvatier.

Opposite attractions

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Is the opposite of what you love also what you love?

I think there’s a general pattern where if you value A you tend to increase the amount of it in your life, and you end feeling very positively about various opposites of A—things that are very unlike A, or partially prevent A, or undo some of A’s consequences—as well. At least some of the time, or for some parts of you, or in some aspects, or when your situation changes a bit. Especially if you contain multitudes.

Examples:

  • Alice values openness, so tends to be very open: she tells anyone who asks (and many people who don’t) what’s going on in her life, and writes about it abundantly on the internet. But when she is embarrassed about something, she feels oppressed by everyone being able to see her so easily. So then she hides in her room, works at night when nobody is awake to think of her, and writes nothing online. Because for her, interacting with someone basically equates to showing them everything, her love of openness comes with a secondary love of being totally alone in her room.
  • Bob values connecting with people, and it seems hard in the modern world, but he practices heartfelt listening and looking people in the eye, and mentally jumping into their perspectives. He often has meaningful conversations in the grocery line, which he enjoys and is proud of. He goes to Burning Man and finds thousands of people desperate to connect with him, so that his normal behavior is quickly leading to an onslaught of connecting that is more than he wants. He finds himself savoring the impediments to connection—the end of an eye-gazing activity, the chance to duck out of a conversation, the walls of his tent—in a way that nobody else at Burning Man is.
  • An extreme commitment to honesty and openness with your partner might leads to a secondary inclination away from honesty and openness with yourself.
  • A person who loves travel also loves being at home again afterward, with a pointed passion absent from a person who is a perpetual homebody.
  • A person who loves jumping in ice water is more likely to also love saunas than someone who doesn’t.
  • A person who loves snow is more likely to love roaring fires.
  • A person who loves walking has really enjoyed lying down at the end of the day.
  • A person who surrounds themselves with systems loves total abandonment of them during holiday more than he who only had an appointment calendar and an alarm clock to begin with.
  • A person with five children because they love children probably wants a babysitter for the evening more than the person who ambivalently had a single child.
  • A person who loves hanging out with people who share an interest in the principles of effective altruism is often also especially excited to hang out with people who don’t, on the occasions when they do that.
  • A person who directs most of their money to charity is more obsessed with the possibility of buying an expensive dress than their friend who cares less about charity.
  • A person who is so drawn to their partner’s company that they can’t stay away from them at home sometimes gets more out of solitary travel than someone more solitariness-focused in general.
  • A person craving danger also cares about confidence in safety mechanisms.
  • A person who loves the sun wants sunglasses and sunscreen more than a person who stays indoors.

This pattern makes sense, because people and things are multifaceted, and effects are uncertain and delayed. So some aspect of you liking some aspect of a thing at some time will often mean you ramp up that kind of thing, producing effects other than the one you liked, plus more of the effect that you liked than intended because of delay. And anyway you are a somewhat different creature by then, and maybe always had parts less amenable to the desired thing anyway. Or more simply, because in systems full of negative feedbacks, effects tend to produce opposite effects, and you and the world are such systems.

What is it good for? But actually?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

I didn’t learn about history very well prior to my thirties somehow, but lately I’ve been variously trying to rectify this. Lately I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, listening to Steven Pinker’s the Better Angels of Our Nature, watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about the Vietnam War and watching Oversimplified history videos on YouTube (which I find too lighthearted for the subject matter, but if you want to squeeze extra history learning in your leisure and dessert time, compromises can be worth it.)

There is a basic feature of all this that I’m perpetually confused about: how has there been so much energy for going to war?

It’s hard to explain my confusion, because in each particular case, there might be plenty of plausible motives given–someone wants ‘power’, or to ‘reunite their country’, or there is some customary enemy, or that enemy might attack them otherwise–but overall, it seems like the kind of thing people should be extremely averse to, such that even if there were plausibly good justifications, they wouldn’t just win out constantly, other justifications for not doing the thing would usually be found. Like, there are great reasons for writing epic treatises on abstract topics, but somehow, most people find that they don’t get around to it. I expect going to some huge effort to travel overseas and die in the mud to be more like that, intuitively.

To be clear, I’m not confused here about people fighting in defense of things they care a lot about—joining the army when their country is under attack, or joining the Allies in WWII. And I’m not confused by people who are forced to fight, by conscription or desperate need of money. It’s just that across these various sources on history, I haven’t seen much comprehensible-to-me explanation of what’s going on in the minds of the people who volunteer to go to war (or take part in smaller dangerous violence) when the stakes aren’t already at the life or death level for them.

I am also not criticizing the people whose motives I am confused by–I’m confident that I’m missing things.

It’s like if I woke up tomorrow to find that half the country was volunteering to cut off their little finger for charity, I’d be pretty surprised. And if upon inquiring, each person had something to say—about how it was a good charity, or how suffering is brave and valiant, or how their Dad did it already, or how they were being emotionally manipulated by someone else who wanted it to happen, or they how wanted to be part of something—each one might not be that unlikely, but I’d still feel overall super confused, at a high level, at there being enough total energy behind this, given that it’s a pretty costly thing to do.

At first glance, the historical people heading off to war don’t feel surprising. But I feel like this is because it is taken for granted as what historical people do. Just as in stories about Christmas, it is taken for granted that Santa Clause will make and distribute billions of toys, because that’s what he does, even though his motives are actually fairly opaque. But historical people presumably had internal lives that would be recognizable to me. What did it look like from the inside, to hear that WWI was starting, and hurry to sign up? Or to volunteer for the French military in time to fight to maintain French control in Vietnam, in the First Indochina War, that preceded the Vietnam War?

I’d feel less surprised in a world where deadly conflict was more like cannibalism is in our world. Where yes, technically humans are edible, so if you are hungry enough you can eat them, but it is extremely rare for it to get to that, because nobody wants to be on any side of it, and they have very strong and consistent feelings about that, and if anyone really wanted to eat thousands or millions of people, say to bolster their personal or group power, it would be prohibitively expensive in terms of money or social capital to overcome the universal distaste for this idea.

Unexplored modes of language

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

English can be communicated via 2D symbols that can be drawn on paper using a hand and seen with eyes, or via sounds that can be made with a mouth and heard by ears.

These two forms are the same language because the mouth sounds and drawn symbols correspond at the level of words (and usually as far as sounds and letters, at least substantially). That is, if I write ‘ambition’, there is a specific mouth sound that you would use if converting it to spoken English, whereas if you were converting it to spoken French, there might not be a natural equivalent.

As far as I know, most popular languages are like this: they have a mouth-sound version and a hand-drawn (or hand-typed) version. They often have a braille version, with symbols that can be felt by touch instead of vision. An exception is sign languages (which are generally not just alternate versions of spoken languages), which use 4-D symbols gestured by hands over time, and received by eyes.

I wonder whether there are more modes of languages that it would be good to have. Would we have them, if there were? It’s not clear from a brief perusal of Wikipedia that Europe had sophisticated sign languages prior to about five hundred years ago. Communication methods generally have strong network effects—it’s not worth communicating by some method that nobody can understand, just like it’s not worth joining an empty dating site—and new physical modes of English are much more expensive than for instance new messaging platforms, and have nobody to promote them.

Uncommon modes of language that seem potentially good (an uninformed brainstorm):

  • symbols drawn with hands on receiver’s skin, received by touch, I’ve heard of blind and deaf people such as Helen Keller using this, but it seems useful for instance when it is loud, or when you don’t want to be overheard or to annoy people nearby, or for covert communication under the table at a larger event, or for when you are wearing a giant face mask. –symbols gestured with whole body like interpretive dance, but with objective interpretation. Good from a distance, when loud, etc. Perhaps conducive to different sorts of expressiveness, like how verbal communication makes singing with lyrics possible, and there is complementarity between the words and the music.
  • symbols gestured with whole body, interpreted by computer, received as written text What if keyboards were like a Kinect dance game? Instead of using your treadmill desk while you type with your hands, you just type with your arms, legs and body in a virtual reality whole-body keyboard space. Mostly good for exercise, non-sedentariness, feeling alive, etc.
  • drumming/tapping, received by ears or touch possibly faster than spoken language, because precise sounds can be very fast. I don’t know. This doesn’t really sound good.
  • a sign version of English this exists, but is rare. Good for when it is loud, when you don’t want to be overheard, when you are wearing a giant face mask or are opposed to exhaling too much on the other person, when you are at a distance, etc.
  • symbols drawn with hands in one place e.g. the surface of a phone, or a small number of phone buttons, such that you could enter stuff on your phone by tapping your fingers in place in a comfortable position with the hand you were holding it with, preferably still in your pocket, rather than awkwardly moving them around on the surface while you hold it either with another hand or some non-moving parts of the same hand, and having to look at the screen while you do it. This could be combined with the first one on this list.
  • What else?

Maybe if there’s a really good one, we could overcome the network effect with an assurance contract. (Or try to, and learn more about why assurance contracts aren’t used more.)