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It's that time of year again.
If you are reading this post and self-identify as a LWer, then you are the target population for the Less Wrong Census/Survey. Please take it. Doesn't matter if you don't post much. Doesn't matter if you're a lurker. Take the survey.
This year's census contains a "main survey" that should take about ten or fifteen minutes, as well as a bunch of "extra credit questions". You may do the extra credit questions if you want. You may skip all the extra credit questions if you want. They're pretty long and not all of them are very interesting. But it is very important that you not put off doing the survey or not do the survey at all because you're intimidated by the extra credit questions.
It also contains a chance at winning a MONETARY REWARD at the bottom. You do not need to fill in all the extra credit questions to get the MONETARY REWARD, just make an honest stab at as much of the survey as you can.
Please make things easier for my computer and by extension me by reading all the instructions and by answering any text questions in the simplest and most obvious possible way. For example, if it asks you "What language do you speak?" please answer "English" instead of "I speak English" or "It's English" or "English since I live in Canada" or "English (US)" or anything else. This will help me sort responses quickly and easily. Likewise, if a question asks for a number, please answer with a number such as "4", rather than "four".
The planned closing date for the survey is Friday, November 14. Instead of putting the survey off and then forgetting to do it, why not fill it out right now?
Okay! Enough preliminaries! Time to take the...
2014 Less Wrong Census/Survey
Thanks to everyone who suggested questions and ideas for the 2014 Less Wrong Census/Survey. I regret I was unable to take all of your suggestions into account, because of some limitations in Google Docs, concern about survey length, and contradictions/duplications among suggestions. The current survey is a mess and requires serious shortening and possibly a hard and fast rule that it will never get longer than it is right now.
By ancient tradition, if you take the survey you may comment saying you have done so here, and people will upvote you and you will get karma.
The heuristic that one should always resist blackmail seems a good one (no matter how tricky blackmail is to define). And one should be public about this, too; then, one is very unlikely to be blackmailed. Even if one speaks like an emperor.
But there's a subtlety: what if the blackmail is being used against a whole group, not just against one person? The US justice system is often seen to function like this: prosecutors pile on ridiculous numbers charges, threatening uncounted millennia in jail, in order to get the accused to settle for a lesser charge and avoid the expenses of a trial.
But for this to work, they need to occasionally find someone who rejects the offer, put them on trial, and slap them with a ridiculous sentence. Therefore by standing up to them (or proclaiming in advance that you will reject such offers), you are not actually making yourself immune to their threats. Your setting yourself up to be the sacrificial one made an example of.
Of course, if everyone were a UDT agent, the correct decision would be for everyone to reject the threat. That would ensure that the threats are never made in the first place. But - and apologies if this shocks you - not everyone in the world is a perfect UDT agent. So the threats will get made, and those resisting them will get slammed to the maximum.
Of course, if everyone could read everyone's mind and was perfectly rational, then they would realise that making examples of UDT agents wouldn't affect the behaviour of non-UDT agents. In that case, UDT agents should resist the threats, and the perfectly rational prosecutor wouldn't bother threatening UDT agents. However - and sorry to shock your views of reality three times in one post - not everyone is perfectly rational. And not everyone can read everyone's minds.
So even a perfect UDT agent must, it seems, sometimes succumb to blackmail.
Discussion article for the meetup : East Coast Solstice Megameetup
The weekend of December 20th will be the East Coast Solstice Megameetup. Rationalists and EA folk are invited to visit our group-house, Highgarden. We can provide crash space Friday night through Sunday night, although you're encouraged to fill out this form so we know how many people to expect:
Official activities begin at 2:00pm on Saturday, with an unconference running for 2 hours. At 7:00pm there'll be the Solstice concert. Tickets are still available on the kickstarter (ending 4:00pm on Sunday), here:
Discussion article for the meetup : East Coast Solstice Megameetup
A specific bias that Lesswrongers may often get from fiction is the idea that power is proportional to difficulty. The more power something gives you, the harder it should be to get, right?
A mediocre student becomes a powerful mage through her terrible self-sacrifice and years of studying obscure scrolls. Even within the spells she can cast, the truly world-altering ones are those that demand the most laborious preparation, the most precise gestures, and the longest and most incomprehensible stream of syllables. A monk makes an arduous journey to ancient temples and learns secret techniques of spiritual oneness and/or martial asskickery, which require great dedication and self-knowledge. Otherwise, it would be cheating. The whole process of leveling up, of adding ever-increasing modifiers to die rolls, is based on the premise that power comes to those who do difficult things. And it's failsafe - no matter what you put your skill points in, you become better at something. It's a training montage, or a Hero's journey. As with other fictional evidence, these are not "just stories" -- they are powerful cultural narratives. This kind of narrative shapes moral choices and identity. So where do we see this reflected in less obviously fictional contexts?
There's the rags-to-riches story -- the immigrant who came with nothing, but by dint of hard work, now owns a business. University engineering programs are notoriously tough, because you are gaining the ability to do a lot of things (and for signalling reasons). A writer got to where she is today because she wrote and revised and submitted and revised draft after draft after draft.
In every case, there is assumed to be a direct causal link between difficulty and power. Here, these are loosely defined. Roughly, "power" means "ability to have your way", and "difficulty" is "amount of work & sacrifice required." These can be translated into units of social influence - a.k.a money -- and investment, a.k.a. time, or money. In many cases, power is set by supply and demand -- nobody needs a wizard if they can all cast their own spells, and a doctor can command much higher prices if they're the only one in town. The power of royalty or other birthright follows a similar pattern - it's not "difficult", but it is scarce -- only a very few people have it, and it's close to impossible for others to get it.
Each individual gets to choose what difficult things they will try to do. Some will have longer or shorter payoffs, but each choice will have some return. And since power (partly) depends on everybody else's choices, neoclassical economics says that individuals' choices collectively determine a single market rate for the return on difficulty. So anything you do that's difficult should have the same payoff.
Anything equally difficult should have equal payoff. Apparently. Clearly, this is not the world we live in. Admittedly, there were some pretty questionable assumptions along the way, but it's almost-kind-of-reasonable to conclude that, if you just generalize from the fictional evidence. (Consider RPGs: They're designed to be balanced. Leveling up any class will get you to advance in power at a more-or-less equal rate.)
So how does reality differ from this fictional evidence? One direction is trivial: it's easy to find examples where what's difficult is not particularly powerful.
Writing a book is hard, and has a respectable payoff (depending on the quality of the book, publicity, etc.). Writing a book without using the letter "e", where the main character speaks only in palindromes, while typing in the dark with only your toes on a computer that's rigged to randomly switch letters around is much much more difficult, but other than perhaps gathering a small but freakishly devoted fanbase, it does not bring any more power/influence than writing any other book. It may be a sign that you are capable of more difficult things, and somebody may notice this and give you power, but this is indirect and unreliable. Similarly, writing a game in machine code or as a set of instructions for a Turing machine is certainly difficult, but also pretty dumb, and has no significant payoff beyond writing the game in a higher-level language. [Edit - thanks to TsviBT: This is assuming there already is a compiler and relevant modules. If you are first to create all of these, there might be quite a lot of benefit.]
On the other hand, some things are powerful, but not particularly difficult. On a purely physical level, this includes operating heavy machinery, or piloting drones. (I'm sure it's not easy, but the power output is immense). Conceptually, I think calculus comes in this category. It can provide a lot of insight into a lot of disparate phenomena (producing utility and its bastard cousin, money), but is not too much work to learn.
As instrumental rationalists, this is the territory we want to be in. We want to beat the market rate for turning effort into influence. So how do we do this?
This is a big, difficult question. I think it's a useful way to frame many of the goals of instrumental rationality. What major should I study? Is this relationship worthwhile? (Note: This may, if poorly applied, turn you into a terrible person. Don't apply it poorly.) What should I do in my spare time?
These questions are tough. But the examples of powerful-but-easy stuff suggest a useful principle: make use of what already exists. Calculus is powerful, but was only easy to learn because I'd already been learning math for a decade. Bulldozers are powerful, and the effort to get this power is minimal if all you have to do is climb in and drive. It's not so worthwhile, though, if you have to derive a design from first principles, mine the ore, invent metallurgy, make all the parts, and secure an oil supply first.
Similarly, if you're already a writer, writing a new book may gain you more influence than learning plumbing. And so on. This begins to suggest that we should not be too hasty to judge past investments as sunk costs. Your starting point matters in trying to find the closest available power boost. And as with any messy real-world problem, luck plays a major role, too.
Of course, there will always be some correlation between power and difficulty -- it's not that the classical economic view is wrong, there's just other factors at play. But to gain influence, you should in general be prepared to do difficult things. However, they should not be arbitrary difficult things -- they should be in areas you have specifically identified as having potential.
To make this more concrete, think of Methods!Harry. He strategically invests a lot of effort, usually at pretty good ratios -- the Gringotts money pump scheme, the True Patronus, his mixing of magic and science, and Partial Transfiguration. Now that's some good fictional evidence.
 Any kind of fiction, but particularly fantasy, sci-fi, and neoclassical economics. All works of elegant beauty, with a more-or-less tenuous relationship to real life.
 Dehghani, M., Sachdeva, S., Ekhtiari, H., Gentner, D., Forbus, F. "The role of Cultural Narratives in Moral Decision Making." Proceedings of the 31th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. 2009.
Imagine that the only way that civilization could be destroyed was by a large pandemic that occurred at the same time as a large recession, so that governments and other organisations were too weakened to address the pandemic properly.
Then if we looked at the past, as observers in a non-destroyed civilization, what would we expect to see? We could see years with no pandemics or no recessions; we could see mild pandemics, mild recessions, or combinations of the two; we could see large pandemics with no or mild recessions; or we could see large recessions with no or mild pandemics. We wouldn't see large pandemics combined with large recessions, as that would have caused us to never come into existence. These are the only things ruled out by anthropic effects.
Assume that pandemics and recessions are independent (at least, in any given year) in terms of "objective" (non-anthropic) probabilities. Then what would we see? We would see that pandemics and recessions appear to be independent when either of them are of small intensity. But as the intensity rose, they would start to become anti-correlated, with a large version of one completely precluding a large version of the other.
The effect is even clearer if we have a probabilistic relation between pandemics, recessions and extinction (something like: extinction risk proportional to product of recession size times pandemic size). Then we would see an anti-correlation rising smoothly with intensity.
Thus one way of looking for anthropic effects in humanity's past is to look for different classes of incidents that are uncorrelated at small magnitude, and anti-correlated at large magnitudes. More generally, to look for different classes of incidents where the correlation changes at different magnitudes - without any obvious reasons. Than might be the signature of an anthropic disaster we missed - or rather, that missed us.
The idea that being public about your giving can help inspire others is widespread, particularly in the effective altruism movement. And it’s also true that sharing your choice of charities can have a positive influence, particularly when that choice takes into account their effectiveness. With this in mind, we’ve created created an EA Donation Registry through which people can share plans to donate (of any form, and to any cause), as well as record past donations that they’ve made. We did so partly in response to requests for a cause neutral venue for donation plans, so if you give or plan to give to organisations which work to alleviate existential risk or aim to improve the far future in other ways then you may be interested in signing up.
You can already see hundreds of people’s past and planned donations on the Registry. There’s some inspiring material there, from the over $40 million that Jim Greenbaum has given over his lifetime, to the many people aiming to donate substantial portions of their income, such as Peter Singer. You can filter people’s donation plans by their cause area so as to see those planning to donate towards existential risk alleviation and other far future causes, as well as to charities working on animal welfare and global poverty.
If you’d like to read more about the reasons to share your giving, Peter Hurford’s post To Inspire People to Give, Be Public About Your Giving provides a good summary. As he discusses, it shows that giving large amounts to effective charities is something that people actually do, providing social proof and normalising and encouraging this, particularly among peer groups. We also hope that the EA Donation Registry can serve as a gentle prompt to action and commitment device, although understanding that plans change we’ve given donors the ability to edit them at any time - it'd be both expected and understood that many will do so. This a registry of plans, not necessarily pledges.
The registry is an open, community-owned project coordinated through .impact, so we’d love to hear of any uses that you might make of it, and you can also send us suggestions or feedback via our contact form. But most of all, we’d encourage you to share your past or planned donations on it for the reasons above. You can share plans of any form and size via a free text field, so take a moment to consider if there are any that you’d like to share - and if you’ve yet to think about where you might donate, we hope that this will provide a great opportunity to do so!
Consider Nick Bostrom's Incubator Gedankenexperiment, phrased as a decision problem. In my mind, this provides the purest and simplest example of a non-trivial anthropic decision problem. In an otherwise empty world, the Incubator flips a coin. If the coin comes up heads, it creates one human, while if the coin comes up tails, it creates two humans. Each created human is put into one of two indistinguishable cells, and there's no way for created humans to tell whether another human has been created or not. Each created human is offered the possibility to buy a lottery ticket which pays 1$ if the coin has shown tails. What is the maximal price that you would pay for such a lottery ticket? (Utility is proportional to Dollars.) The two traditional answers are 1/2$ and 2/3$.
We can try to answer this question for agents with different utility functions: total utilitarians; average utilitarians; and selfish agents. UDT's answer is that total utilitarians should pay up to 2/3$, while average utilitarians should pay up to 1/2$; see Stuart Armstrong's paper and Wei Dai's comment. There are some heuristic ways to arrive at UDT prescpriptions, such as asking "What would I have precommited to?" or arguing based on reflective consistency. For example, a CDT agent that expects to face Counterfactual Mugging-like situations in the future (with predictions also made in the future) will self-modify to become an UDT agent, i.e., one that pays the counterfactual mugger.
Now, these kinds of heuristics are not applicable to the Incubator case. It is meaningless to ask "What maximal price should I have precommited to?" or "At what odds should I bet on coin flips of this kind in the future?", since the very point of the Gedankenexperiment is that the agent's existence is contingent upon the outcome of the coin flip. Can we come up with a different heuristic that leads to the correct answer? Imagine that the Incubator's subroutine that is responsible for creating the humans is completely benevolent towards them (let's call this the "Benevolent Creator"). (We assume here that the humans' goals are identical, such that the notion of benevolence towards all humans is completely unproblematic.) The Benevolent Creator has the power to program a certain maximal price the humans pay for the lottery tickets into them. A moment's thought shows that this leads indeed to UDT's answers for average and total utilitarians. For example, consider the case of total utilitarians. If the humans pay x$ for the lottery tickets, the expected utility is 1/2*(-x) + 1/2*2*(1-x). So indeed, the break-even price is reached for x=2/3.
But what about selfish agents? For them, the Benevolent Creator heuristic is no longer applicable. Since the humans' goals do not align, the Creator cannot share them. As Wei Dai writes, the notion of selfish values does not fit well with UDT. In Anthropic decision theory, Stuart Armstrong argues that selfish agents should pay up to 1/2$ (Sec. 3.3.3). His argument is based on an alleged isomorphism between the average utilitarian and the selfish case. (For instance, donating 1$ to each human increases utility by 1 for both average utilitarian and selfish agents, while it increases utility by 2 for total utilitarians in the tails world.) Here, I want to argue that this is incorrect and that selfish agents should pay up to 2/3$ for the lottery tickets.
(Needless to say that all the bold statements I'm about to make are based on an "inside view". An "outside view" tells me that Stuart Armstrong has thought much more carefully about these issues than I have, and has discussed them with a lot of smart people, which I haven't, so chances are my arguments are flawed somehow.)
In order to make my argument, I want to introduce yet another heuristic, which I call the Submissive Gnome. Suppose each cell contains a gnome which is already present before the coin is flipped. As soon as it sees a human in its cell, it instantly adopts the human's goal. From the gnome's perspective, SIA odds are clearly correct: Since a human is twice as likely to appear in the gnome's cell if the coin shows tails, Bayes' Theorem implies that the probability of tails is 2/3 from the gnome's perspective once it has seen a human. Therefore, the gnome would advise the selfish human to pay up to 2/3$ for a lottery ticket that pays 1$ in the tails world. I don't see any reason why the selfish agent shouldn't follow the gnome's advice. From the gnome's perspective, the problem is not even "anthropic" in any sense, there's just straightforward Bayesian updating.
Suppose we want to use the Submissive Gnome heuristic to solve the problem for utilitarian agents. (ETA: Total/average utilitarianism includes the well-being and population of humans only, not of gnomes.) The gnome reasons as follows: "With probability 2/3, the coin has shown tails. For an average utilitarian, the expected utility after paying x$ for a ticket is 1/3*(-x)+2/3*(1-x), while for a total utilitarian the expected utility is 1/3*(-x)+2/3*2*(1-x). Average and total utilitarians should thus pay up to 2/3$ and 4/5$, respectively." The gnome's advice disagrees with UDT and the solution based on the Benevolent Creator. Something has gone terribly wrong here, but what? The mistake in the gnome's reasoning here is in fact perfectly isomorphic to the mistake in the reasoning leading to the "yea" answer in Psy-Kosh's non-anthropic problem.
Things become clear if we look at the problem from the gnome's perspective before the coin is flipped. Assume, for simplicity, that there are only two cells and gnomes, 1 and 2. If the coin shows heads, the single human is placed in cell 1 and cell 2 is left empty. Since the humans don't know in which cell they are, neither should the gnomes know. So from each gnome's perspective, there are four equiprobable "worlds": it can be in cell 1 or 2 and the coin flip can result in heads or tails. We assume, of course, that the two gnomes are, like the humans, sufficiently similar such that their decisions are "linked".
We can assume that the gnomes already know what utility functions the humans are going to have. If the humans will be (total/average) utilitarians, we can then even assume that the gnomes already are so, too, since the well-being of each human is as important as that of any other. Crucially, then, for both utilitarian utility functions, the question whether the gnome is in cell 1 or 2 is irrelevant. There is just one "gnome advice" that is given identically to all (one or two) humans. Whether this advice is given by one gnome or the other or both of them is irrelevant from both gnomes' perspective. The alignment of the humans' goals leads to alignment of the gnomes' goals. The expected utility of some advice can simply be calculated by taking probability 1/2 for both heads and tails, and introducing a factor of 2 in the total utilitarian case, leading to the answers 1/2 and 2/3, in accordance with UDT and the Benevolent Creator.
The situation looks different if the humans are selfish. We can no longer assume that the gnomes already have a utility function. The gnome cannot yet care about that human, since with probability 1/4 (if the gnome is in cell 2 and the coin shows heads) there will not be a human to care for. (By contrast, it is already possible to care about the average utility of all humans there will be, which is where the alleged isomorphism between the two cases breaks down.) It is still true that there is just one "gnome advice" that is given identically to all (one or two) humans, but the method for calculating the optimal advice now differs. In three of the four equiprobable "worlds" the gnome can live in, a human will appear in its cell after the coin flip. Two out of these three are tail worlds, so the gnome decides to advise paying up to 2/3$ for the lottery ticket if a human appears in its cell.
There is a way to restore the equivalence between the average utilitarian and the selfish case. If the humans will be selfish, we can say that the gnome cares about the average well-being of the three humans which will appear in its cell with equal likelihood: the human created after heads, the first human created after tails, and the second human created after tails. The gnome expects to adopt each of these three humans' selfish utility function with probability 1/4. It makes thus sense to say that the gnome cares about the average well-being of these three humans. This is the correct correspondence between selfish and average utilitarian values and it leads, again, to the conclusion that the correct advise is to pay up to 2/3$ for the lottery ticket.
In Anthropic Bias, Nick Bostrom argues that each human should assign probability 1/2 to the coin having shown tails ("SSA odds"). He also introduces the possible answer 2/3 ("SSA+SIA", nowadays usually simply called "SIA") and refutes it. SIA odds have been defended by Olum. The main argument against SIA is the Presumptuous Philosopher. Main arguments for SIA and against SSA odds are that SIA avoids the Doomsday Argument1, which most people feel has to be wrong, that SSA odds depend on whom you consider to be part of your "reference class", and furthermore, as pointed out by Bostrom himself, that SSA odds allow for acausal superpowers.
The consensus view on LW seems to be that much of the SSA vs. SIA debate is confused and due to discussing probabilities detached from decision problems of agents with specific utility functions. (ETA: At least this was the impression I got. Two commenters have expressed scepticism about whether this is really the consensus view.) I think that "What are the odds at which a selfish agent should bet on tails?" is the most sensible translation of "What is the probability that the coin has shown tails?" into a decision problem. Since I've argued that selfish agents should take bets following SIA odds, one can employ the Presumptuous Philosopher argument against my conclusion: it seems to imply that selfish agents, like total but unlike average utilitarians, should bet at extreme odds on living in a extremely large universe, even if there's no empirical evidence in favor of this. I don't think this counterargument is very strong. However, since this post is already quite lengthy, I'll elaborate more on this if I get encouraging feedback for this post.
1 At least its standard version. SIA comes with its own Doomsday conclusions, cf. Katja Grace's thesis Anthropic Reasoning in the Great Filter.
Discussion article for the meetup : Moscow meetup: Quantum physics is fun
Here's our plan:
- Calibration excercise announce.
- Temporal symmetry in quantum theory and/or philosophical problems of the modern quantum physics.
- Structuring excercise in pairs/microgroups.
- A talk about Chomsky and/or Pinker.
Details and schedule:
Yudcoins, positive reinforcement and pizza will all be present. If you've been to our meetups, you know what I'm talking about, and if you didn't, the best way to find out is to come and see for yourself.
Info for newcomers: We gather in the Yandex office, you need the first revolving door under the archway. Here is a guide how to get there:
Try to come in time, we will allow latecomers to enter every 15 minutes. Call Slava or send him SMS at +7(926)313-96-42 if you're late. We start at 14:00 and stay until at least 19-20. Please pay attention that we only gather near the entrance and then come inside.
Discussion article for the meetup : Moscow meetup: Quantum physics is fun
In the not too distant past, people thought that our universe might be capable of supporting an unlimited amount of computation. Today our best guess at the cosmology of our universe is that it stops being able to support any kind of life or deliberate computation after a finite amount of time, during which only a finite amount of computation can be done (on the order of something like 10^120 operations).
Consider two hypothetical people, Tom, a total utilitarian with a near zero discount rate, and Eve, an egoist with a relatively high discount rate, a few years ago when they thought there was .5 probability the universe could support doing at least 3^^^3 ops and .5 probability the universe could only support 10^120 ops. (These numbers are obviously made up for convenience and illustration.) It would have been mutually beneficial for these two people to make a deal: if it turns out that the universe can only support 10^120 ops, then Tom will give everything he owns to Eve, which happens to be $1 million, but if it turns out the universe can support 3^^^3 ops, then Eve will give $100,000 to Tom. (This may seem like a lopsided deal, but Tom is happy to take it since the potential utility of a universe that can do 3^^^3 ops is so great for him that he really wants any additional resources he can get in order to help increase the probability of a positive Singularity in that universe.)
You and I are not total utilitarians or egoists, but instead are people with moral uncertainty. Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord proposed the Parliamentary Model for dealing with moral uncertainty, which works as follows:
Suppose that you have a set of mutually exclusive moral theories, and that you assign each of these some probability. Now imagine that each of these theories gets to send some number of delegates to The Parliament. The number of delegates each theory gets to send is proportional to the probability of the theory. Then the delegates bargain with one another for support on various issues; and the Parliament reaches a decision by the delegates voting. What you should do is act according to the decisions of this imaginary Parliament.
It occurred to me recently that in such a Parliament, the delegates would makes deals similar to the one between Tom and Eve above, where they would trade their votes/support in one kind of universe for votes/support in another kind of universe. If I had a Moral Parliament active back when I thought there was a good chance the universe could support unlimited unlimited computation, all the delegates that really care about astronomical waste would have traded away their votes in the kind of universe where we actually seem to live for votes in universes with a lot more potential astronomical waste. So today my Moral Parliament would be effectively controlled by delegates that care little about astronomical waste.
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