Monday, July 29, 2013

Should we worry about 1984 futures?

Summary. It seems that oppressive totalitarian regimes shouldn't be needed in the long-term future, although they might be prevalent in simulations.

When you hear the phrase "dystopic futures," one of the first images that may come to mind is a society like that of Oceania from Orwell's 1984. Big Brother eliminates opportunity for privacy, and orthodoxy is enforced by brainwashing and torture of those who fail to conform. As far as future suffering is concerned, the most troubling of these is torture.

In the short run, futures of this type are certainly possible, and indeed, governments like this already exist in some degree. However, my guess is in the long run, enforcing discipline by torture would become unnecessary. Torture is needed among humans as a hack to restrain motivations that would otherwise wander from those the authorities wanted to enforce. For arbitrary artificial minds, the subjects/slaves of the ruling AI can have whatever motivations the designer builds. We don't need to torture our computers to do what we ask. Even for more advanced computers of the future that have conscious thoughts and motivations, the motivations can simply be to want to follow orders. Organisms/agents that don't feel this way can just be killed and replaced.

Huxley's Brave New World approximates this idea somewhat for non-digitial minds in the form of drugs and social memes/rituals that inspire conformity. 1984 has plenty of these as well, and they don't represent an intrinsic concern for suffering reducers.

If we encountered aliens, it seems unlikely there would be much torture either (except maybe to extract some information before killing the other side). The side with more powerful technology would just decimate the one with less powerful technology.
Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not. (source)
Just wiping out your enemies is a lot cheaper than keeping them around subject to totalitarian rule.

The main context in which I would worry about 1984-style torture is actually in simulations. AIs of the future may find it useful to run vast numbers of sims of evolved societies in order to study the distribution of kinds of ETs in the universe, as well as to learn basic science. Depending on the AI's values, it might also run such sims because it finds them intrinsically worthwhile.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Counterfactual credit assignment


Effective altruists tend to assign credit based on counterfactuals: If I do X, how much better will the world be than if I didn't do X? This is the intuition behind the idea that the work you do in your job is at least somewhat replaceable, as well as the reason to seek out do-gooding activities that aren't likely to be done without you.

Perils of adding credit

We can get into tricky issues when trying to add up counterfactual credit, though. Let me give an example. Alice and Bob find themselves in a building that contains buttons. Each person is allowed to press only one button, at which point she/he is transported elsewhere and has no further access to the buttons. Thus, Alice and Bob want to maximize the effectiveness of their button pressing. There's a green button that, when pressed once, prevents 2 chickens from enduring life on a factory farm. There's also a red button that, when pressed twice in a row, prevents 3 chickens from enduring life on a factory farm. In order to make the red button effective, both Alice and Bob have to use their button press on it.

Alice goes first. Suppose she thinks it's very likely (say 99% likely) that Bob will press the red button. That means that if she presses the red button, she'll save 3 chickens, while if she presses the green button, she'll only save 2. There's more counterfactual credit for pressing the red button, so it seems she should do that. Then, Bob sees that Alice has pressed the red button. Now he faces the same comparison: If he presses red, he saves 3 chickens, while if he presses green, he saves only 2. He should thus press red. In this process, each person computed a counterfactual value of 3 for the red button vs. 2 for the green button. Added together, this implies a value of 3+3=6 vs. 2+2=4.

Unfortunately, in terms of the actual number of saved chickens, the comparison is 3 vs. 4. Both Alice and Bob should have pressed green to save 2+2=4 chickens. This shows that individual credit assignments can't just be added together naively.

Of course, the situation here depended on what Alice thought Bob would do. If Alice thought it was extremely likely Bob would press green, her counterfactual credit would have been 2 for green vs. 0 for red. Or, if she thought Bob would switch to red if and only if she pressed red, then the comparison was 2 for herself vs. 3-2=1 for Bob's switching to red and giving up his green.

Joint decision analysis

The decision analysis becomes more clear using a payoff matrix as in game theory, except in this case both Alice and Bob, being altruists, share the same payoff, which is total chickens helped:

Bob press red Bob press green
Alice press red 3 2
Alice press green 2 4

Alice and Bob should coordinate to each press green. Of course, if Alice has pressed red, at that point Bob should as well.

In this example, reasoning based on individual counterfactual credit still works. Imagine that Alice was going to press red but was open to suggestions from Bob. If he convinces her to press green and then presses green himself, the value will be 4 instead of 3 if he hadn't done that, so he gets more counterfactual credit if he persuades Alice to press green and then does the same himself than if he goes along with her choice of red.


This post was inspired by comments in "The Haste Consideration," which is a concrete case where counterfactual credit assignments can get tricky.