A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 10 August 2015

Response to Dylan Matthews on EA and X-Risk

Dylan Matthews wrote a review of EA Global Berkeley on Vox.com, complaining that too much attention was paid to existential risk concerns - and in particular to concerns about artificial intelligence - and not enough to global poverty eradication. I was not at the weekend, so I have particular reason to doubt his lived experience of the conference. That said, as a fellow Effective Altruist and having listened to the first couple of sessions of the weekend before they disappeared from Youtube, I feel that I am in a position to respond to him. This is not intended to be hostile, but I think there are some fairly serious problems with his piece and since no-one is especially likely to read this, I feel no particular need to be gentle.
In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty.
This is true in the sense that the term "Effective Altruism" came out of a philosophical tradition in which the key figures are Peter Singer and Toby Ord, a tradition which has tended to be highly concerned about global poverty. However, as Will MacAskill noted in his opening speech at the weekend, the modern EA movement comes from at least three different strands of people. There were those inspired by Singer, but there were also rich philanthropists - most notably Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld - who separately thought that they should look for effectiveness when "buying their philanthropy". There were also people around what is now MIRI, who were making arguments which have now become mainstays in the study of existential risk. Global poverty has always been a consideration of EA, but to find a time when there were movement leaders concerned about poverty but not about X-risk requires you to go back to before there was any single group recognisable as the modern EA movement.

Declaring that global poverty is a "rounding error" and everyone really ought to be doing computer science research is a great way to ensure that the movement remains dangerously homogenous and, ultimately, irrelevant.
If this is were being said to the general public as a key message of EA, I would agree. Indeed, I've previously made a very similar argument that, regardless of what is actually the most useful cause, third-world poverty is relatively non-weird and a very good cause to talk about when introducing new people to EA.

But this is not what we say to outsiders. In my experience, Sam (the founding president of Giving What We Can: Manchester) and I have occasionally mentioned AI risk to the unitiated because it's sexy and exciting, but the bread and butter of our outreach has always been third-world poverty. The TED talk that we point people to is Peter Singer's rather than Robin Hanson's. There have been some articles about AI risk in mainstream media, but to the best of my knowledge they have with a single exception focused squarely on AI risk without any comparison to global poverty. That exception? The very article I'm responding to right now.

Is it a problem if we say this kind of thing amongst ourselves? Well, the simple fact is that it may well be true, and if so then it's pretty important that we recognise that. Perhaps Dylan is concerned that we're engaging in a kind of "government house utilitarianism" when we make these claims which we wouldn't to outsiders for fear of bad publicity. But if that's really your concern, then you should be open about the relative effectiveness of different causes and be damned, rather than pretend that third-world poverty is really the most important cause and hope that the world adjusts to fit your tastes.
EA Global was dominated by talk of existential risks, or X-risks.
 It's hard for me to comment on this in any detail, not having been there. But I am aware that there were a variety of different streams of talks on different topics. I don't have a list of those streams and can only remember what a couple of them were, so it's theoretically possible that the majority were about X-risk. But this seems unlikely. My concern here is that, due either to primarily attending X-risk focused talks or due to the people he happened to meet over drinks, Dylan may be projecting his own experience of the conference onto other people's.
The only X-risk basically anyone wanted to talk about at the conference was artificial intelligence.
This is very believable, and if true it is something where I agree with Dylan's criticism. I hold no particular opinion on what the most likely X-risks are, but it does seem to me that AI risk has captured the imagination of many EAs in a way that no other X-risk has. (That's not to say it isn't the most dangerous risk, though: I genuinely hold no opinion).

And indeed, the AI risk panel — featuring Musk, Bostrom, MIRI's executive director Nate Soares, and the legendary UC Berkeley AI researcher Stuart Russell — was the most hyped event at EA Global.
It is certainly true that Elon Musk's appearance was hyped. But from my perspective it appeared the it was Musk himself who was hyped, rather than the particular panel on which he appeared. Which is fair enough, in that he is (among nerds, at least) a genuine celebrity, whereas it's hard to point to any other EAs who are famous outside the EA movement and outside academic philosophy.

The discussion of Pascal's Mugging is fair enough.
The other problem is that the AI crowd seems to be assuming that people who might exist in the future should be counted equally to people who definitely exist today. That's by no means an obvious position, and tons of philosophers dispute it.
There are genuine arguments in favour of a "social discount rate", it is true. What surprises me is that Dylan links not to a discussion of this but of the non-identity problem. The non-identity problem is less obviously connected to this issue than the issue of a discount rate, but it's also not a problem. Then again, it's probably unfair to expect Dylan to have read the paper which proves it not to be a problem when that paper has yet to be written, let along published, and currently only exists outside my brain as a couple of tweets. (Basically, I'm going to consider the non-identity problem from various meta-ethical standpoints, and show that none of them would suggest the non-identity problem has any force. Hence if your normative ethics contain the non-identity problem, then that's a problem for your ethics rather than a reflection of how the moral world really is.)

More to the point, suppose potential (or, if you're a determinist, future) lives ought to be treated as having lower value than current lives. (Incidentally, suppose we could change the past. Would we regard past lives as being of lower significance than present lives? And would we advocate that our descendants view our lives as less important than their own?) So what? Unless you think they are worth many orders of magnitude less, this won't have a hope of possibly making X-risk from a uniquely imperative concern to merely one concern among many. Remember, the future is unimaginably huge.
To be fair, the AI folks weren't the only game in town. Another group emphasized "meta-charity," or giving to and working for effective altruist groups. The idea is that more good can be done if effective altruists try to expand the movement and get more people on board than if they focus on first-order projects like fighting poverty.
I understand his concern about this very well. Last year I was at the UK Effective Altruists retreat, and one of the sessions was a debate in which one side (Paul Christiano and Carl Shulman, IIRC) were supposed to argue in favour of holding off on donating and instead investing in order to donate more money later, while their opponents (I can't remember who they were) were supposed to argue that it is better to donate now. Both sides ended up agreeing that really it would be better to invest in making more people into EAs, which to me felt rather... cultish, maybe?

But I would dispute the claim that the current movement appeals only to computer science types. In the UK student EA population we have plenty of Philosophy and Economics students, with the occasional mathematician. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to introduce my flatmates over the last year to EA, and got precisely nowhere. One is a current CS undergrad, while another is a professional software engineer. I think it is true that EA appeals primarily, indeed almost exclusively, to highly-educated people, but the idea that they are all computer science people is, to me, laughable. Indeed Dylan's claim seems like it may well be a textbook case of selection bias. "All these people in a movement do CS!" Well, try attending a conference which isn't held at the Googleplex in Silicon Valley. Come to Oxford and we'll show you the most armchair-ridden horde of philosophers you can imagine, all of them EAs. Come to Melbourne and we'll show you a beer-chugging army of EAs of all sorts. (Incidentally: San Fransisco EAs are one-boxers. Oxford EAs are two-boxers. Melbourne EAs are kangaroo-boxers.)

While I'm writing this, there's one other thing I want to mention: in his original Voxsplainer about EA, Dylan claimed that EAs "tend to be favourable to the domestic welfare state", or something to that effect. I forget the wording, and it's an hour and a half after I intended to be in bed (hence the awful puns and racist stereotyping) so I'm not going looking for it now. Anyway: that's not my experience. EAs are in my experience no more left-wing than any other young and well-educated social group, and indeed contain a disproportionate number of libertarians.

Indeed, one of the things that originally got me interested in EA is how it completely wrecks the case for the welfare state: if you think we have positive duties to help other people, then within-country redistribution is a ridiculously poor way to go about that. If you want to defend domestic welfare from an EA perspective, then you should do it by coming up with some argument that a robust welfare system will help aid domestic growth and so allow more donations to the third world. Claiming that domestic aid is a good way to directly promote global utility isn't even bullshit, it's a dirty great lie.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review of Volpone

(Spoilers ahead).

I spent the day in Stratford-upon-Avon, a picturesque but rather dull town which is chiefly famous as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. After a walk along the River Avon and a traipse through the Moving Arts and Design (MAD) Museum, in the afternoon I could find nothing better to do than to watch a play put on at the Swan Theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The play, Volpone, was written by Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson.

For the most part I've found marble runs are much the same,
but this was a nice one.
From a more serious part of the MAD Museum. I didn't understand most of the
"artistic" "sculpture" type things, but I liked this one.
The play was well-performed and enjoyable. It tells the story of the greedy nobleman Volpone, who feigns sickness unto death in order to procure gifts from those who wish to ingratiate themselves unto him, and so be named his heir. The title character was very convincingly played by Henry Goodman. although to me it felt like just as important a character was his assistant Mosca (Orion Lee). Lee was less convincing - his flattery seemed to be laid on impossibly thick - but it was still an entirely competent performance.

The play was originally set in Renaissance Venice. This clearly was not - despite keeping the Elizabethan language, they used modern dress and a variety of modern gizmos (mobile phones, a stock exchange tracker, etc) and updated many of the references. The accents were varied - businessman Corvino (Matthew Kelly) spoke in a broad Yorkshire accent, his much-abused wife Celia (Rhiannon Handy) in a vaguely east-European accent, traveller Peregrine (Colin Ryan) is firmly American, and the only Italian accent to be heard is when Volpone disguises himself as a travelling seller of snake-oil.

The ending of the play seemed very accelerated. An attempt by Volpone, Mosca and their various avaricious fools to frame Celia and Bonario (Andy Apollo) for adultery and battery goes awry when Volpone's love of mischief and Mosca's greed causes all to turn upon each other. Celia and Bonario are subsequently exonerated, which is fair enough; the judges then, with no further investigation, are somehow aware of all the underhanded dealings to which hitherto only the audience has been privy. There was some satisfaction in seeing so many unpleasant characters punished and the only two good characters (not the only likeable characters, to be sure, but the only good characters) leaving the court hand in hand (Celia having been granted a divorce "with her dowry returned in triple", and Bonario being granted the lands of his father, "who could not live well but may perhaps die well") but given that until not ten minutes hence all had been entirely under control, the sudden downfall of the main characters combined with a moralistic epilogue made the ending rather unconvincing.

I didn't buy the program, although the cast-list which I do have mentions that it contains among various essays one by "leading financial journalist Gillian Tett on greed of modern-day bankers". Similarly in the trailer (below), director Trevor Nunn refers to the "fact" that "greed has not gone away, but has in fact increased". It didn't spoil my enjoyment, but it was disappointing to be reminded of how Guardianista the arts world is.

All in all, the play is well worth seeing if you're around Stratford. But putting a major national theatre in Stratford is stupid, because it takes a solid hour to get there even from Birmingham. I blame public funding of the arts, which moves theatre away from what people want to see not only by changing the plays which are performed, but also by moving genuinely worthwhile plays like this one away from audiences. In any case, is it worth going to Stratford to see? Probably.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

On Jeremy Corbyn

The Parliamentary Labour Party are currently very flustered by the possibility that their next leader could be militant hard-leftist Jeremy Corbyn, a man who saw the 1983 election manifesto as poorly presented but otherwise tremendous in every way. The Conservative Party are torn between those who see it as a guaranteed third term, and those who are concerned about the effect this will have upon the government.

I hold no position upon whether Corbyn being elected as the Labour leader would be good for the country. However, I feel that it is worth explaining precisely why I hold no position.

Like most observers, I think that Corbyn's election would be a disaster for the Labour party as it currently exists. Some have suggested that either he will get knifed by some upstart or there will be a schism with many members leaving to form a new party. I wouldn't count on this, largely because no-one ever looked at all like doing this to Ed Miliband despite him facing many of the same criticisms of being too left-wing and union-dominated. The Green Party will probably lose a lot of voters, given that Corbyn appeals to the same demographic that they rely on (i.e. white, public sector, high self-perception of intelligence).

But that's not something I especially care about. The Labour Party will fix itself or it won't, and if it doesn't then it will be shut out of power until the next major crisis. (By "major crisis" I mean something sufficient to render a government party unelectable, such as the Suez Crisis or one of those European-style debt crises).

The effect on the governing Conservative party is what worries me. I really don't know how they will behave, because I really lack a model for the behaviour of political parties.

As an analogy to my difficulty in modelling parties, let's go into how economists model firms. This is a field which was opened by the late Ronald Coase in a 1937 paper called "The Nature of the Firm". Coase assumed that, just as individuals were until recently taken to maximise their utility, firms would act so as to maximise their profit. It's a plausible assumption, clearly true to at least some extent (firms which fail to make profits will go out of business) and above all it makes models tractable.

But then William Baumol came along and pointed out that many firms are owned by shareholders but managed by people who may not themselves be shareholders. Under these conditions, especially in uncompetitive markets, firms may act so as to achieve other ends unless the shareholders can effectively exercise control over the managers' actions - and if they could, then what would be the point of having managers? Baumol suggested that firms act so as to raise the prestige of managers, which may be done less by maximising profit so much as maximising market share or sales.

Later, Oliver Williamson came along with yet another theory. He thought that managers face pressure to "satisfice" on profit - to acheive a certain minimum level of profitability for the firm. Beyond this, he thought, money can be frittered away in all kinds of ways, generally with minimal real effect upon the actual productivity of the firm (chauffeur-driven cars, fancy offices, charity programs, etc).

When modelling the behaviour of a firm, an economist must choose one of these models (or one of the presumably many others - there were only the ones covered in first-year microeconomics). Similarly, when modelling the actions of a government one needs a model for how it behaves.

One possibility is that parties act so as to maximise vote share. In a two-party system this leads to virtually indistinguishable parties; once you add in more parties it becomes more complicated, but I think that this is a plausible model for most actions. This would imply that in response to Labour unilaterally moving to the left, the Tories would also move left. I would view this as bad.

Alternatively, perhaps parties satisfice on votes and maximise ideological purity. This is another plausible theory, and suggests that the government may become more right-wing economically (maybe yay?) and/or more authoritarian (boo!). (This is of course assuming that politics follows the two-axis model of economic left-right and social liberal-authoritarian. I actually think that, in terms of practical politics, this does a reasonable job, even though in the world of ideas it is grossly inadequate).

Perhaps parties simply reflect the feelings of those in charge of determining policy. In which there is no particular reason to think that Corbyn's election would change the actions of the government, but would make a Tory third term more likely than a Labour takeover of government. This is maybe good?

If I put more thought in, I daresay I could come up with a whole bunch of other models and look at their implications. The problem is that I don't know which of them is most accurate (indeed, if Corbyn were actually elected and ran a far-left opposition then this would seem like a severe challenge to at least two of the models I have suggested, whereas rebellion against him would severely undermine the remaining one). So I really have no idea what the effects of Corbyn being elected would be.

All that said, it would be funny if he won.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Empirical Uncertainty is not Choice

One problem for standard theistic positions is the "Problem of Divine Hiddenness": if God wanted us to worship Him, why did He not make his presence more obvious?

The most popular reply, which I first encountered in Tim Keller's The Reason for God and is also trotted out in the Oxford University Philosophy of Religion course which is available on iTunes U, is that it gives us the option of choosing to love God. We can draw an analogy to a child who ought to love her sister. Her parents threaten to punish her if she does not love her sister. It seems sensible to think that even if the child does love her sister, if this love is motivated only by the threat of punishment then it is not love for the right reason. The child needs to make a choice to love her sister.

Take this back to the case of religion. For God to make his existence obvious, theist philosophers claim, would be equivalent to standing over all men with a fiery whip and proclaiming that men had better follow Him, or else! By giving us counter-evidence to His existence, God then secures for us the all-important good of freedom, freedom to choose to love Him.

It's a nice story, but it's one I find utterly unconvincing. In fact, when properly viewed this argument is in fact a very serious concession to non-theists.

Returning to the case of the sisters. Suppose the parents want their daughters to love each other, but do not want to force this. In order to achieve this, they first establish a pattern of only sometimes going through with threatened punishments. They then issue the original threat. There is therefore a degree of uncertainty, at least from the perspective of the child, as to whether the threat is genuine.

Suppose she decides to act as though it is. This is surely no different from the original case! In both scenarios she is motivated not by an intrinsic desire to love her sister, but by the threat of what her parents will do. The fact that the threat may not be entirely genuine is irrelevant.

Note, however, the concession made by the theist to get here. They had to argue that it would be wrong for God to give us strong or incontrovertible evidence for his existence. Consider Richard Swinburne's claim that "it is 97% probable that God exists." Is this really something that they want to be arguing?

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Fifteen Minutes of Mild Notoriety

On Wednesday around lunchtime, I tweeted "We care about African animals and British people, but ignore African people and British animals. #openborders #veggie." At time of writing this has 57 retweets and 28 favourites, which is not much in the grand scale of things but makes it by a significant margin my most popular tweet. More significantly, it was picked up by Tyler Cowen, who linked to it at Marginal Revolution and quite soon I saw myself being quoted elsewhere.

There have been no phone calls from the media, no reporters on my doorstep, the sky hasn't even fallen in. I've spent more than the average amount of time dancing around the house over the last couple of days, Ben Southwood and I exchanged celebratory tweets, and that's about it. Appearing on an (admittedly notable) blog doesn't make you famous, who'd have thought it?!

It was fun being slagged off in the comments section at MR. dearieme's comment was especially amusing, while bellisaurius came dangerously close to being self-aware.

The tweet itself was elegantly phrased, grossly oversimplified, but basically correct. We do ignore African people: you can look at any debate over immigration and observe that the one thing no-one in the UK talks about (aside from other Open Borders folks) is the vast, vast benefits to actual immigrants of coming here. At this very moment Immanuel Kant is spit-roasting in his grave at the way immigrants are viewed merely as a means to a functioning NHS. We don't actually ignore all British animals - see the hunting ban - but I will maintain that unless you are vegetarian, you are ridiculously hypocritical to be getting annoyed at the murder of a single animal, one which is itself responsible for a great many more animal deaths.

(Originally the tweet was going to say "We ignore animals which are far away", but this really doesn't have the same ring to it.)
(Also, I think there's a strong case to be made that the hunting ban is not really about animal rights and is in fact class warfare - albeit, somewhat unusually, aimed at the upper class).

It is oversimplified, but (a) I was on Twitter, a medium highly unsuited to nuance, and (b) I sacrificed some literal truth for the sake of elegance. If I hadn't sacrificed precision for elegance then no-one would be quoting me. Call it poetic licence.

The other thing I would like to note it what it's like to be quoted. I enjoy being quoted by high-status people, because it shows that they think my thoughts are worthwhile. But I also wish they would attribute the quote. At least one high-status person quoted me, making it clear that it was a quote but without a link either to MR or to the original tweet.

I'm not at all angry - (a) as I said, I enjoy being quoted and (b) they weren't trying to claim credit -  and it would have been a bit gauche* to actually ask for recognition. But it is a bit disappointing to miss out on status - especially given that this isn't just the result of a signalling game. In future I'll be sure to attribute quotes, at least in cases where the original person is still alive, and would encourage others to do the same.

Overall, I've enjoyed the experience. My ego has been inflated rather nicely, I've picked up a few new followers (though I'm still well below the point where I need to follow more people in order to keep my Following > Followers), and the next time I write my bio I can include "His writing has been featured in a variety of venues, including the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution". That instantly makes you sound more impressive, and technically it's even true.

*For "gauche" read "low-status"