Summary

I've built a site hosting an EA alternative to the Doomsday Clock.

Doom

The Doomsday Clock is the most prominent symbol of existential risk. While it's helped highlight the risks of nuclear war, it's misaligned with EA values in various ways:

  • It does not use quantified probabilities. "100 seconds to midnight" has an ordinal relationship to "90 seconds to midnight" but is not itself a prediction of anything.
  • It is fundamentally pessimistic. A doomsday clock implies an inevitable countdown. One can turn back the clock, but midnight still looms.
  • It focuses on nuclear war and climate change, whereas EAs tend to see more existential risk in AI.

With this in mind, I thought about what effective altruists would make as an alternative symbol if we got to choose the main symbol of existential risk. Then I made it. Check it out and let me know what you think, I'm hoping to promote it further. I also have open questions below.

Potential

The X-Risk Tree is a symbol of the branching possibilities facing humanity. Its primary audience are people concerned by global catastrophic risk but who feel unable to do anything about it. I think there's a chunk of people in this situation, especially among environmentalists. The tree is intended to show that we can prune the branches of our future, that we have the agency to choose a path that avoids doom. Ideally it feels like an interactive display at a museum.

The numbers are sourced from Metaculus's Ragnarok series. I believe this is an important step up over the Doomsday Clock's non-quantified predictions. However, there are still issues with this approach, as Linch has pointed out.

Note that alternative predictions from EAs are included on the collections page.

Ongoing Questions

  • Would people enjoy being able to input data to generate a tree of their own predictions?
  • Would a sharing option for social media (image of tree and text of predictions) be useful?
  • I am not totally happy with the title. If you can convince me of a better one, I will provide a $100 bounty.
  • What could be high-leverage ways to promote it?
  • What could be done on the site to more thoroughly communicate the idea of "existential risk is serious but we can work on it"?
  • Is there a better word than 'sustenance' for outcomes where humanity does not suffer a global catastrophe?

Credits

This was made possible by a Long-Term Future Fund grant.

Linch's feedback was very helpful.

MichaelA's Database of existential risk estimates was crucial for the Collections page.

By The Way!

Shameless plug: If you need a developer, I am currently working for work!

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New Comment
27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:38 AM

Another thought is that the title "x-risk tree" is slightly misleading:

  • The two things I think it visualises are drops in global population of 10% or 95% before 2100
  • So it doesn't visualise the risk of extinction (although it does provide an upper bound)
  • It also doesn't visualise existential risk (x-risk), which could be much higher than extinction risk, so the upper bound doesn't hold

How about replacing the title with something like "How likely is a global catastrophe in our lifetimes?"

Agreed. I think it needs a 'name' as a symbol, but the current one is a little fudged. My placeholder for a while was 'the tree of forking paths' as a Borges reference, but that was a bit too general...

What about something relating to hope? Say "the Tree of Hope". Combining the positive "tree" and the more negative "x-risk" may be slightly odd. But it depends on what framing you want to go for.

A positive title would definitely help! I'll think on this.

Thanks for making this, it looks great! Visualizations like this are great for explaining the importance of x-risk and GCR mitigation efforts, providing an intuitive way of understanding the associated probabilities. 

One recommendation would be to be to make the non-selected paths more transparent when 'survival' or 'extinction' is selected this would make the different cases more obvious. 

In terms of what other names might be. The image is round so words that come to mind when I viewed it where barometer or compass. I think both fit in terms of what the visualization is doing, either showing the state of risk like a barometer shows the air pressure, or providing information to (hopefully) steer to better futures similar to a compass.  

Beautifully made! I love the visuals and my first impressions are that it communicates x-risk in a more hopeful way. The app looks great on mobile too.

Some quick thoughts:

- I anticipated that clicking on a node would either give me a tooltip to explain what that particular node should represent or take me to another page/section of the site which explained these scenarios in more detail. 
- I initially found it strange that all of the green nodes appear to link to the same prediction about population decline. I vaguely understood that this was a source of evidence for the number of green nodes, but the connection is not very clear. I think the app might benefit from a short explanation of why a user might want to click on these nodes. It might also help if hovering over one node highlighted all nodes which send you to the same place.
- I feel that the text on the graph is sufficient enough for me to understand the different clusters in the graph. Yet, I wonder if it might look better to use icons to represent these different clusters, and have the longer text appear on hover instead. Of course, I'd keep it as it is if user testing suggested that this change increased confusion.
- I will cast a vote for being able to input my own data. If I could input my own data, I also think it would be fun to share the resulting graphs.
- I don't think I have any ideas for a better title. I do feel that another title should aim to be of a similar length.
- A few ideas for promoting the app to other EAs. It might be nice to give a talk about the web app, or for someone whose work is closely related to predictions for x-risk to show it off in a talk. Also, perhaps you could reach out to one of the university EA groups to see if they'd be interested in having a visual like this to show in some of their introductory talks.

Lastly, I'd like to congratulate you on launching the site. I'm sure you've put in a lot of work to get it to this point, and as a result it looks fantastic! 

Thanks for all the feedback! I think the buffs to interactivity are all great ideas. They should mostly be implemented this week. 

Great to see the Predict feature. I might have missed this when you first added it, but I've seen it now. It looks great and the tool is easy to use! I also like the additional changes you've made to make the site more polished. Myself and a friend had some issues when clicking the 'share' button which I'll post as an issue on the Github later.

I'm really glad to hear it! Polishing is ongoing. Replied on GH too!

Thanks for pushing the fix for Windows. The share buttons work on my device now.

This is cool, thanks for doing this

  • Is there a better word than 'sustenance' for outcomes where humanity does not suffer a global catastrophe?

There is some discussion here about such a term
 

This isn't exactly what I'm looking for (though I do think that concept needs a word). 

 

The way I'm conceptualizing it right now is that there are three non-existential outcomes:

1. Catastrophe
2. Sustenance  / Survival
3. Flourishing 

If you look at Toby Ord's prediction, he includes a number for flourishing, which is great. There isn't a matching prediction in the Ragnarok series, so I've squeezed 2 and 3 together as a "non-catastrophe" category.  

Lovely idea, lovely presentation, neglected area!

Quick impressions: Toggling the survival/extinction button wasn't clear at first. I thought each branch was going to be a link to an end scenario, imagine my surprise when I clicked on one of the sustenance branches and was linked to the decimation of our civilization.

Thank you! And yeah, this is an artifact of the green nodes being filled in from the implicit  inverse percent of the Ragnarok prediction and not having its own prediction. I could link to somewhere else, but it would need to be worth breaking the consistency of the links (all Metaculus Ragnarok links).

I am delighted that someone is finally having a crack at this. I've had this idea on my longlist for many years.

Thoughts on naming:

  1. Given that x-risk is a specialist term, and this is a public outreach thing, that's an argument for a more familiar term.

Brainstorm:

  1. Disaster Tree

  2. Tree of Fear and Hope

  3. 10,000 year tree

  4. Future Tree

  5. Possibility Tree

  6. Future Garden

I don't love any of these but maybe (6) is the best.

On (7): you could shift from tree to garden and then have roots for beautiful plants and dead plants, or something.

  1. There are marketing people who specialise in naming. Since the name is so critical to the project, it might be worth hiring a world-class professional to help. There's one guy I know personally (I'll ask him and email you if he's interested). Otherwise it's possible that studiomast.co could help (I don't know them, but someone at Founders Pledge recommended them for branding and visual identity).

I was inspired to brainstorm by your list. 🙂

Tree of Possible Futures 
Survival Tree 
Survival Map
 Our Future of Fire or Ashes 
Branches of Light and Darkness 
Branches of Life and Death 
Map of Cliffs and Crossings 
Tree of Paths Forward 
Navigating the Future 
Map of Futures 
Possible Worlds Tree 
     (pun on Yggdrasil, the world tree) 
The Choices Before Us 
What Lies Ahead 
The Branches Of Time 
Our Branching Futures 
Hopes and Endings 
Tree of Tomorrows

I love Possible Worlds Tree! It's aligned with the optimistic outlook, conveys the content better, and has a mythology pun. I couldn't be happier. Messaging re: bounty!

Not sure about this one. Main concerns:

  1. Too long
  2. Most people don't know the phrase possible worlds in the philosophy/logical sense. The more natural interpretation may be fine.

Overall my take is that "Possibility Tree" is better.

In other news I nearly wrote "Pissability Tree" here.

Of the other suggestions in the thread, I think Schubert's "Tree of Hope" is the best.

I like the idea of visualising important things to make them feel more salient, and it's fun that this is linked to predictions on Metaculus! I also liked the visualisation of other predictions once I found them. Thanks for making it.

You mention that the purpose is to give doomy people a sense that there is hope and we can take action to survive. I would be very interested for you to find some of these people and do user interviews or similar to understand whether it has the effect you hope! And you might learn how to improve it for that goal. Have you done anything like this yet?

Thanks! I hadn't thought of user interviews, that's a great idea!

At some point it'd be worth hiring a professional designer and illustrator to develop the idea. Plausibly an actual tree with roots going downwards would be easier to understand, visually.

Perhaps tree at bottom, then branches instead of roots. That feels more optimistic to me.