One of my pet peeves is people calling AI Safety a longtermist cause area. It is entirely reasonable to consider AI Safety a high priority cause area without putting significant value on future generations, let alone buying things like total utilitarianism or the astronomical waste arguments. Given fairly mainstream (among EAs) models of AI timelines and AI X-Risk, it seems highly likely that we get AGI within my lifetime, and that this will be a catastrophic/existential risk.
I think this misconception is actively pretty costly - I observe people introducing x-risk concerns via longtermism (eg in an EA fellowship) getting caught up in arguments over whether future people matter, total utilitarianism, whether expected value is the correct decision theory when using tiny probabilities and large utilities, etc. And people need to waste time debunking questions like ‘Is AI Safety a Pascal’s Mugging’. And yet, even if you convince people of these questions around longtermism, you still need to convince them of arguments around AI x-risk to get them to work on it.
I further think this is damaging, because the label ‘longtermist’ makes AI Safety seem like an abstract, far off thing. Probably not relevant to the world today, but maybe important to future generations, at some point, in the long-term future. And I think this is wildly incorrect. AI x-risk is a directly personal thing that will plausibly affect me, my loved ones, my community, and most people alive today. I think this is a pretty important motivator to some people to work on this - this is not some philosophical thought experiment that you only decide to work on if you buy into some particular philosophical assumptions. Instead, it entirely follows from common sense morality, so long as you buy a few empirical beliefs
To put this into perspective, I’m going to compare my probability of dying young from AI X-Risk to my probability of dying from other causes (operationalised as ‘probability of dying in the next 30 years). My headline result is that, as a 23 year old man living in the UK, conditional on dying in the next 30 years, the probability that I die due to AI x-risk is 41% (3.7% from AI, 5.3% from natural causes)
The main point I want to make in this post is that ‘AI x-risk is a pressing concern for people alive today’ is an obvious consequence of mainstream EA beliefs. Accordingly, rather than using my personal models of this, I try to combine Ajeya Cotra’s timelines report and Joseph Carlsmith’s report on AI X-risk (the best research I know of on AGI timelines and AGI x-risk respectively) to get the probability.
To get the probability of dying from any other cause, I use UK actuarial tables (giving the probability of death from all-cause mortality in each year of life). Ideally I’d have taken the probability of death by cause, but that’s much harder to find data for. Any one cause is <=25% of all-cause mortality, so showing that AI x-risk is roughly competitive with all-cause mortality shows that it’s by far the most likely cause of death.
Concretely, I take the distribution of the probability of AGI in each year from Ajeya’s spreadsheet (column B in sheet 2); the probability of AI x-risk from Joseph’s report (section 8) - this is 7.9% conditioning on AGI happening; and the probability of dying each year from natural causes starting from my current age (in the UK). To get my headline result of 41%, I take the ratio of the cumulative probabilities in 2052
Over the next 40 years, this gets the following chart:
- The biggest caveat is that these numbers are plausibly biased pretty far upwards - I’ve seen basically no one outside of the EA community do a serious analysis on the question of AGI timelines or AGI x-risk, so the only people who do it are people already predisposed towards taking the issue seriously
- Another big caveat is that the numbers are juiced up heavily by the fact that I am conditioning on dying young - if I extend the timelines long enough, then probability of dying naturally goes to 100% while probability of dying from AI X-risk goes to 7.9%
- Is this enough to justify working on AI X-risk from a purely selfish perspective?
- Probably not - in the same way that it’s not selfish to work on climate change. The effect any one person can have on the issue is tiny, even if the magnitude that it affects any individual is fairly high.
- But this does help it appeal to my deontological/virtue ethics side - I am directly working on one of the world’s most pressing problems. This isn’t some abstract nerdy problem that’s an indulgence to work on over bednets, it’s a real danger to most people alive today, and something worthy and valuable to work on.
- My personal take is that the numbers used are too low, and this matches my sense of the median AI Safety researchers opinion. My personal rough guess would be 25% x-risk conditional on making AGI, and median AGI by 2040, which sharply increase the probability of death from AI to well above natural causes.
- If you take Yudkowsky-style numbers you end up with even more ridiculous results, though IMO that take is wildly overblown and overly pessimistic.
- I’ve taken the 7.9% number from Joseph Carlsmith’s report, and assumed it’s the same, regardless of the year we get AGI. I expect it’s actually substantially higher with short timelines as we have less time to solve alignment.
- I’ve used actuarial tables for probability of death at each age today. I expect probability of death to go down over time with medical advances. In particular, if we do get close to AGI, I expect the rate of biotech advances to significantly accelerate.
- Does this mean that AI Safety is obviously the most important cause area even under a person-affecting view?
- Eh, probably not. You also need to think through tractability, cost effectiveness, what fraction of people alive today are alive by each time, etc. But I do expect it goes through if you just put some value on the long-term future (eg 2-10x the value of today), rather than 10^30 times more value.
- EDIT: This assumes all other forms of catastrophic risk (bio, nuclear, climate change, etc) are negligible. As pointed out by Jack_S, this is (depressingly) a pretty suspect assumption!
- In particular, just because AI is the dominant existential risk does not mean that it's significantly higher in terms of a personal risk of death, and I was incorrectly anchored on existential risk estimates. It's notably more plausible to me that future GCBRs kill, eg, 10-50% of the world population than that they kill 100%, which is still pretty substantial in terms of a personal risk of death.
- This doesn't really change the core point of 'AI Safety is important in a visceral, current-day sense', but does mean that this post shouldn't be taken as an argument for prioritising AI x-risk over over GCRs.
Meta: I wrote this under a pseudonym because I mildly prefer this kind of post to not come up when you Google my name - I don’t expect it to be hard to de-anonymise me, but would rather people didn’t!