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Astrobiology IV: Photosynthesis and energy

8 CellBioGuy 17 October 2016 12:30AM

Originally I sat down to write about the large-scale history of Earth, and line up the big developments that our biosphere has undergone in the last 4 billion years.  But after writing about the reason that Earth is unique in our solar system (that is, photosynthesis being an option here), I guess I needed to explore photosynthesis and other forms of metabolism on Earth in a little more detail and before I knew it I’d written more than 3000 words about it.  So, here we are, taking a deep dive into photosynthesis and energy metabolism, and trying to determine if the origin of photosynthesis is a rare event or likely anywhere you get a biosphere with light falling on it.  Warning:  gets a little technical.

In short, I think it’s clear from the fact that there are multiple origins of it that phototrophy, using light for energy, is likely to show up anywhere there is light and life.  I suspect, but cannot rigorously prove, that even though photosynthesis of biomass only emerged once it was an early development in life on Earth emerging very near the root of the Bacterial tree and just produced a very strong first-mover advantage crowding out secondary origins of it, and would probably also show up where there is life and light.  As for oxygen-producing photosynthesis, its origin from more mundane other forms of photosynthesis is still being studied.  It required a strange chaining together of multiple modes of photosynthesis to make it work, and only ever happened once as well.  Its time of emergence, early or late, is pretty unconstrained and I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to say one way or another if it is likely to happen anywhere there is photosynthesis.  It could be subject to the same ‘first mover advantage’ situation that other photosynthesis may have encountered as well.  But once it got going, it would naturally take over biomass production and crowd out other forms of photosynthesis due to the inherent chemical advantages it has on any wet planet (that have nothing to do with making oxygen) and its effects on other forms of photosynthesis.

Oxygen in the atmosphere had some important side effects, one which most people care about being allowing big complicated energy-gobbling organisms like animals – all that energy that organisms can get burning biomass in oxygen lets organisms that do so do a lot of interesting stuff.  Looking for oxygen in the atmospheres of other terrestrial planets would be an extremely informative experiment, as the presence of this substance would suggest that a process very similar to the process that created our huge diverse and active biosphere were underway.

Map and Territory: a new rationalist group blog

8 gworley 15 October 2016 05:55PM

If you want to engage with the rationalist community, LessWrong is mostly no longer the place to do it. Discussions aside, most of the activity has moved into the diaspora. There are a few big voices like Robin and Scott, but most of the online discussion happens on individual blogs, Tumblr, semi-private Facebook walls, and Reddit. And while these serve us well enough, I find that they leave me wanting for something like what LessWrong was: a vibrant group blog exploring our perspectives on cognition and building insights towards a deeper understanding of the world.

Maybe I'm yearning for a golden age of LessWrong that never was, but the fact remains that there is a gap in the rationalist community that LessWrong once filled. A space for multiple voices to come together in a dialectic that weaves together our individual threads of thought into a broader narrative. A home for discourse we are proud to call our own.

So with a lot of help from fellow rationalist bloggers, we've put together Map and Territory, a new group blog to bring our voices together. Each week you'll find new writing from the likes of Ben Hoffman, Mike Plotz, Malcolm Ocean, Duncan Sabien, Anders Huitfeldt, and myself working to build a more complete view of reality within the context of rationality.

And we're only just getting started, so if you're a rationalist blogger please consider joining us. We're doing this on Medium, so if you write something other folks in the rationalist community would like to read, we'd love to consider sharing it through Map and Territory (cross-positing encouraged). Reach out to me on Facebook or email and we'll get the process rolling.

Agential Risks: A Topic that Almost No One is Talking About

7 philosophytorres 15 October 2016 06:41PM

(Happy to get feedback on this! It draws from and expounds ideas in this article:

Consider a seemingly simple question: if the means were available, who exactly would destroy the world? There is surprisingly little discussion of this question within the nascent field of existential risk studies. But it’s an absolutely crucial issue: what sort of agent would either intentionally or accidentally cause an existential catastrophe?

The first step forward is to distinguish between two senses of an existential risk. Nick Bostrom originally defined the term as: “One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” It follows that there are two distinct scenarios, one endurable and the other terminal, that could realize an existential risk. We can call the former an extinction risk and the latter a stagnation risk. The importance of this distinction with respect to both advanced technologies and destructive agents has been previously underappreciated.

So, the question asked above is actually two questions in disguise. Let’s consider each in turn.

Terror: Extinction Risks

First, the categories of agents who might intentionally cause an extinction catastrophe are fewer and smaller than one might think. They include:

(1) Idiosyncratic actors. These are malicious agents who are motivated by idiosyncratic beliefs and/or desires. There are instances of deranged individuals who have simply wanted to kill as many people as possible and then die, such as some school shooters. Idiosyncratic actors are especially worrisome because this category could have a large number of members (token agents). Indeed, the psychologist Martha Stout estimates that about 4 percent of the human population suffers from sociopathy, resulting in about 296 million sociopaths. While not all sociopaths are violent, a disproportionate number of criminals and dictators have (or very likely have) had the condition.

(2) Future ecoterrorists. As the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss (resulting in the sixth mass extinction) become increasingly conspicuous, and as destructive technologies become more powerful, some terrorism scholars have speculated that ecoterrorists could become a major agential risk in the future. The fact is that the climate is changing and the biosphere is wilting, and human activity is almost entirely responsible. It follows that some radical environmentalists in the future could attempt to use technology to cause human extinction, thereby “solving” the environmental crisis. So, we have some reason to believe that this category could become populated with a growing number of token agents in the coming decades.

(3) Negative utilitarians. Those who hold this view believe that the ultimate aim of moral conduct is to minimize misery, or “disutility.” Although some negative utilitarians like David Pearce see existential risks as highly undesirable, others would welcome annihilation because it would entail the elimination of suffering. It follows that if a “strong” negative utilitarian had a button in front of her that, if pressed, would cause human extinction (say, without causing pain), she would very likely press it. Indeed, on her view, doing this would be the morally right action. Fortunately, this version of negative utilitarianism is not a position that many non-academics tend to hold, and even among academic philosophers it is not especially widespread.

(4) Extraterrestrials. Perhaps we are not alone in the universe. Even if the probability of life arising on an Earth-analog is low, the vast number of exoplanets suggests that the probability of life arising somewhere may be quite high. If an alien species were advanced enough to traverse the cosmos and reach Earth, it would very likely have the technological means to destroy humanity. As Stephen Hawking once remarked, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

(5) Superintelligence. The reason Homo sapiens is the dominant species on our planet is due almost entirely to our intelligence. It follows that if something were to exceed our intelligence, our fate would become inextricably bound up with its will. This is worrisome because recent research shows that even slight misalignments between our values and those motivating a superintelligence could have existentially catastrophic consequences. But figuring out how to upload human values into a machine poses formidable problems — not to mention the issue of figuring out what our values are in the first place.

Making matters worse, a superintelligence could process information at about 1 million times faster than our brains, meaning that a minute of time for us would equal approximately 2 years in time for the superintelligence. This would immediately give the superintelligence a profound strategic advantage over us. And if it were able to modify its own code, it could potentially bring about an exponential intelligence explosion, resulting in a mind that’s many orders of magnitude smarter than any human. Thus, we may have only one chance to get everything just right: there’s no turning back once an intelligence explosion is ignited.

A superintelligence could cause human extinction for a number of reasons. For example, we might simply be in its way. Few humans worry much if an ant genocide results from building a new house or road. Or the superintelligence could destroy humanity because we happen to be made out of something it could use for other purposes: atoms. Since a superintelligence need not resemble human intelligence in any way — thus, scholars tell us to resist the dual urges of anthropomorphizing and anthropopathizing — it could be motivated by goals that appear to us as utterly irrational, bizarre, or completely inexplicable.

Terror: Stagnation Risks

Now consider the agents who might intentionally try to bring about a scenario that would result in a stagnation catastrophe. This list subsumes most of the list above in that it includes idiosyncratic actors, future ecoterrorists, and superintelligence, but it probably excludes negative utilitarians, since stagnation (as understood above) would likely induce more suffering than the status quo today. The case of extraterrestrials is unclear, given that we can infer almost nothing about an interstellar civilization except that it would be technologically sophisticated.

For example, an idiosyncratic actor could harbor not a death wish for humanity, but a “destruction wish” for civilization. Thus, she or he could strive to destroy civilization without necessarily causing the annihilation of Homo sapiens. Similarly, a future ecoterrorist could hope for humanity to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This is precisely what motivated Ted Kaczynski: he didn’t want everyone to die, but he did want our technological civilization to crumble. And finally, a superintelligence whose values are misaligned with ours could modify Earth in such a way that our lineage persists, but our prospects for future development are permanently compromised. Other stagnation scenarios could involve the following categories:

(6) Apocalyptic terrorists. History is overflowing with groups that not only believed the world was about to end, but saw themselves as active participants in an apocalyptic narrative that’s unfolding in realtime. Many of these groups have been driven by the conviction that “the world must be destroyed to be saved,” although some have turned their activism inward and advocated mass suicide.

Interestingly, no notable historical group has combined both the genocidal and suicidal urges. This is why apocalypticists pose a greater stagnation terror risk than extinction risk: indeed, many see their group’s survival beyond Armageddon as integral to the end-times, or eschatological, beliefs they accept. There are almost certainly less than about 2 million active apocalyptic believers in the world today, although emerging environmental, demographic, and societal conditions could cause this number to significantly increase in the future, as I’ve outlined in detail elsewhere (see Section 5 of this paper).

(7) States. Like terrorists motivated by political rather than transcendent goals, states tend to place a high value on their continued survival. It follows that states are unlikely to intentionally cause a human extinction event. But rogue states could induce a stagnation catastrophe. For example, if North Korea were to overcome the world’s superpowers through a sudden preemptive attack and implement a one-world government, the result could be an irreversible decline in our quality of life.

So, there are numerous categories of agents that could attempt to bring about an existential catastrophe. And there appear to be fewer agent types who would specifically try to cause human extinction than to merely dismantle civilization.

Error: Extinction and Stagnation Risks

There are some reasons, though, for thinking that error (rather than terror) could constitute the most significant threat in the future. First, almost every agent capable of causing intentional harm would also be capable of causing accidental harm, whether this results in extinction or stagnation. For example, an apocalyptic cult that wants to bring about Armageddon by releasing a deadly biological agent in a major city could, while preparing for this terrorist act, inadvertently contaminate its environment, leading to a global pandemic.

The same goes for idiosyncratic agents, ecoterrorists, negative utilitarians, states, and perhaps even extraterrestrials. (Indeed, the large disease burden of Europeans was a primary reason Native American populations were decimated. By analogy, perhaps an extraterrestrial destroys humanity by introducing a new type of pathogen that quickly wipes us out.) The case of superintelligence is unclear, since the relationship between intelligence and error-proneness has not been adequately studied.

Second, if powerful future technologies become widely accessible, then virtually everyone could become a potential cause of existential catastrophe, even those with absolutely no inclination toward violence. To illustrate the point, imagine a perfectly peaceful world in which not a single individual has malicious intentions. Further imagine that everyone has access to a doomsday button on her or his phone; if pushed, this button would cause an existential catastrophe. Even under ideal societal conditions (everyone is perfectly “moral”), how long could we expect to survive before someone’s finger slips and the doomsday button gets pressed?

Statistically speaking, a world populated by only 1 billion people would almost certainly self-destruct within a 10-year period if the probability of any individual accidentally pressing a doomsday button were a mere 0.00001 percent per decade. Or, alternatively: if only 500 people in the world were to gain access to a doomsday button, and if each of these individuals had a 1 percent chance of accidentally pushing the button per decade, humanity would have a meager 0.6 percent chance of surviving beyond 10 years. Thus, even if the likelihood of mistakes is infinitesimally small, planetary doom will be virtually guaranteed for sufficiently large populations.

The Two Worlds Thought Experiment

The good news is that a focus on agential risks, as I’ve called them, and not just the technological tools that agents might use to cause a catastrophe, suggests additional ways to mitigate existential risk. Consider the following thought-experiment: a possible world A contains thousands of advanced weapons that, if in the wrong hands, could cause the population of A to go extinct. In contrast, a possible world B contains only a single advanced “weapon of total destruction” (WTD). Which world is more dangerous? The answer is obviously world A.

But it would be foolishly premature to end the analysis here. Imagine further that A is populated by compassionate, peace-loving individuals, whereas B is overrun by war-mongering psychopaths. Now which world appears more likely to experience an existential catastrophe? The correct answer is, I would argue, world B.

In other words: agents matter as much as, or perhaps even more than, WTDs. One simply can’t evaluate the degree of risk in a situation without taking into account the various agents who could become coupled to potentially destructive artifacts. And this leads to the crucial point: as soon as agents enter the picture, we have another variable that could be manipulated through targeted interventions to reduce the overall probability of an existential catastrophe.

The options here are numerous and growing. One possibility would involve using “moral bioenhancement” techniques to reduce the threat of terror, given that acts of terror are immoral. But a morally enhanced individual might not be less likely to make a mistake. Thus, we could attempt to use cognitive enhancements to lower the probability of catastrophic errors, on the (tentative) assumption that greater intelligence correlates with fewer blunders.

Furthermore, implementing stricter regulations on CO2 emissions could decrease the probability of extreme ecoterrorism and/or apocalyptic terrorism, since environmental degradation is a “trigger” for both.

Another possibility, most relevant to idiosyncratic agents, is to reduce the prevalence of bullying (including cyberbullying). This is motivated by studies showing that many school shooters have been bullied, and that without this stimulus such individuals would have been less likely to carry out violent rampages. Advanced mind-reading or surveillance technologies could also enable law enforcement to identify perpetrators before mass casualty crimes are committed.

As for superintelligence, efforts to solve the “control problem” and create a friendly AI are of primary concern among many many researchers today. If successful, a friendly AI could itself constitute a powerful mitigation strategy for virtually all the categories listed above.

(Note: these strategies should be explicitly distinguished from proposals that target the relevant tools rather than agents. For example, Bostrom’s idea of “differential technological development” aims to neutralize the bad uses of technology by strategically ordering the development of different kinds of technology. Similarly, the idea of police “blue goo” to counter “grey goo” is a technology-based strategy. Space colonization is also a tool intervention because it would effectively reduce the power (or capacity) of technologies to affect the entire human or posthuman population.)

Agent-Tool Couplings

Devising novel interventions and understanding how to maximize the efficacy of known strategies requires a careful look at the unique properties of the agents mentioned above. Without an understanding of such properties, this important task will be otiose. We should also prioritize different agential risks based on the likely membership (token agents) of each category. For example, the number of idiosyncratic agents might exceed the number of ecoterrorists in the future, since ecoterrorism is focused on a single issue, whereas idiosyncratic agents could be motivated by a wide range of potential grievances.[1] We should also take seriously the formidable threat posed by error, which could be nontrivially greater than that posed by terror, as the back-of-the-envelope calculations above show.

Such considerations, in combination with technology-based risk mitigation strategies, could lead to a comprehensive, systematic framework for strategically intervening on both sides of the agent-tool coupling. But this will require the field of existential risk studies to become less technocentric than it currently is.

[1] Although, on the other hand, the stimulus of environmental degradation would be experienced by virtually everyone in society, whereas the stimuli that motivate idiosyncratic agents might be situationally unique. It’s precisely issues like these that deserve further scholarly research.

*How* people shut down thought because of high-status respectable halos

6 NancyLebovitz 20 October 2016 02:09PM

A detailed look at the belief that high status social structures can be so much better than anything one can think of that there's no point in even trying to think about the details of what to do, and how debilitating this is.

Discussion of the essay

[Link] There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd? / Math Education

6 James_Miller 17 October 2016 12:12AM

[Link] Reducing Risks of Astronomical Suffering (S-Risks): A Neglected Global Priority

6 ignoranceprior 14 October 2016 07:58PM

A problem in anthropics with implications for the soundness of the simulation argument.

5 philosophytorres 19 October 2016 09:07PM

What are your intuitions about this? It has direct implications for whether the Simulation Argument is sound.


Imagine two rooms, A and B. Between times t1 and t2, 100 trillion people sojourn in room A while 100 billion sojourn in room B. At any given moment, though, exactly 1 person occupies room A while 1,000 people occupy room B. At t2, you find yourself in a room, but you don't know which one. If you have to place a bet on which room it is (at t2), what do you say? Do you consider the time-slice or the history of room occupants? How do you place your bet?


If you bet that you're in room B, then the Simulation Argument may be flawed: there could be a fourth disjunct that Bostrom misses, namely that we become a posthuman civilization that runs a huge number of simulations yet we don't have reason for believing that we're stimulants.



[Link] AI-ON is an open community dedicated to advancing Artificial Intelligence

3 morganism 18 October 2016 10:17PM

Open thread, Oct. 17 - Oct. 23, 2016

3 MrMind 17 October 2016 07:02AM

If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post, then it goes here.

Notes for future OT posters:

1. Please add the 'open_thread' tag.

2. Check if there is an active Open Thread before posting a new one. (Immediately before; refresh the list-of-threads page before posting.)

3. Open Threads should start on Monday, and end on Sunday.

4. Unflag the two options "Notify me of new top level comments on this article" and "

[Link] Program good ethics into artificial intelligence

2 XFrequentist 19 October 2016 04:28PM

[Link] Video to induce hallucinations , meme implanter?

2 morganism 16 October 2016 08:33PM

[Link] The Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence officially launches.

1 ignoranceprior 21 October 2016 01:22AM

[Link] The Non-identity Problem - Another argument in favour of classical utilitarianism

1 casebash 18 October 2016 01:41PM

[Link] H+Pedia opens projects and editorial portal

1 Deku-shrub 16 October 2016 09:41PM

New LW Meetup: Zurich

0 FrankAdamek 21 October 2016 10:47AM

Weekly LW Meetups

0 FrankAdamek 14 October 2016 03:56PM

This summary was posted to LW Main on October 14th. The following week's summary is here.

Irregularly scheduled Less Wrong meetups are taking place in:

The remaining meetups take place in cities with regular scheduling, but involve a change in time or location, special meeting content, or simply a helpful reminder about the meetup:

Locations with regularly scheduled meetups: Austin, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Buffalo, Canberra, Columbus, Denver, Kraków, London, Madison WI, Melbourne, Moscow, New Hampshire, New York, Philadelphia, Research Triangle NC, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, St. Petersburg, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Vienna, Washington DC, and West Los Angeles. There's also a 24/7 online study hall for coworking LWers and a Slack channel for daily discussion and online meetups on Sunday night US time.

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[Link] Animated explainer video promoting EA-themed effective giving ideas and meta-charities

-2 Gleb_Tsipursky 16 October 2016 10:44PM