Digital person

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  • WBE is usually defined in contrast to 'AI', rather than as a special case of 'AI'. I suggest "machine intelligence" as an umbrella term.
  • Holden doesn't define digital people as "moral patients"; he defines them as people ('human-ish things'?) that are digital, and he argues that they would (with high probability) have moral standing. (Presumably moral agency too, not just moral patienthood.)
  • I suggest including more quotations from source materials in the wiki, to reduce the risk that we'll mis-characterize claims like this. (Especially when the source material is itself an easy-to-understand introductory resource, rather than something dense and cryptic.)

Further to my previous comment, Holden kindly got back to me and provided a helpful answer. In short, his original draft of "Digital people would be an even bigger deal" used (a) and (b) as a definition of "digital person", but he later revised it (for reasons he cannot currently remember) and instead offered the vaguer statement included as the first quote in the current version of the article as his main characterization of digital personhood.

In light of Holden's clarification, I propose the current definition:

A digital person is a human-like entity running on digital computing hardware or a descendant of such an entity.

I also think that parts of the rest of the article should be revised. Given Holden's clarification, it doesn't seem correct to state that he is "arguing" for the claims in question. I'm inclined to just remove the final two paragraphs (i.e. the text starting with "In particular..."), perhaps expanding the article to include other things Holden has said about digital people that are less open to multiple interpretations.

It can't be right to say that every descendant of a digital person is by definition also a person. A digital person could spawn (by programming, or by any other means) a bot that plays RPS randomly, in one line of code. Clearly not a person!

I was assuming that "descendant" already carries a certain connotation that excludes these cases, but I agree ideally the definition should rule them out explicitly. Unfortunately, since Holden has dropped the explicit definition in terms of human ability and moral status, it's not entirely clear what sort of revision would be adequate. Maybe add something like "sufficiently similar to humans in the relevant respects", though it would later have to be clarified that these entities can also be very different from humans in other respects.

Yeah, I haven't analysed Holden's intended meaning whatsoever, but something like what you describe would make much more sense.

Thanks for your contributions. To address your points in turn:

  • After consulting some references, I conclude that you are right in that this is how the terms are commonly used. I'm still confused as to why the terms are used in this way, given that many common definitions of AI do not warrant this use. E.g. Wikipedia defines 'AI' as "intelligence demonstrated by machines, as opposed to the natural intelligence displayed by humans or animals." I've made a note to look into this more and perhaps add a section on terminology to the 'AI' entry.
  • You say that in the quoted passage Holden is making an argument, but my interpretation of it is rather that he is clarifying the concept of a digital person, and in particular noting two of its central characteristics. Moreover, defining "digital people" as "people that are digital" seems pretty unhelpful, since "people" is a notoriously contested term and Holden explicitly says that digital people may be very different from present-day people (and one of the meanings of "people" is precisely "moral patient"). One consideration favoring this interpretation is the final sentence in the passage: "With enough understanding of how (a) and (b) work, it could be possible to design digital people without imitating human brains." If (a) and (b) (i.e. moral personhood, and equal or greater than human-level ability) were not central for digital personhood, why would an understanding of these two characteristics be singled out as relevant for designing digital people? I emailed Holden in case he wants to chime in.
  • I think that quotes should not be used to reduce the risk of mischaracterization; the safeguard against this is provided by the citations. One of the ways in which the Wiki contributes value is by sparing the reader the need to consult the original source, and instead providing a succinct statement of the claims and arguments made in those sources. Quoting from the original, unless the quote itself makes the point succinctly (or is appropriate for other reasons, such as historical interest), is to that extent a failure to realize this ideal. I do agree it would be convenient to have the quotes that support a particular claim handy, and originally my plan was to provide such quotes as footnotes, but currently the editor does not support footnotes, as far as I know. (Sidenotes would be an even better solution.)

I think that quotes should not be used to reduce the risk of mischaracterization; the safeguard against this is provided by the citations.

I think citations are a vastly weaker safeguard against mischaracterization, compared to quoting the source (or at least giving a specific subsection or page number). This is especially true for citing a book, but reading a bunch of 30-page blog posts in order to dig up a source is a lot to ask too!

One of the ways in which the Wiki contributes value is by sparing the reader the need to consult the original source, and instead providing a succinct statement of the claims and arguments made in those sources.

I think there's similar value in finding a specific sentence or paragraph in a much larger work, and quoting it alongside other unusually-important content. If the author already put it about as clearly and concisely as you can, no need to reinvent the wheel.

(Especially since reinventing the wheel actively loses value insofar as each more possibility for error is introduced each time info is summarized. A quote passed on from source A to B to C retains its original content, whereas if wiki A summarizes wiki B's summary of source C, there's liable to be some degradation of information each step along the way.

We can try to minimize that degradation, but including quotations helps make that task easier, while also allowing the reader to verify more things for themselves rather than having to choose between 'take our word for it' vs. 'spend the next 45 minutes trying to figure out why you think the source supports the claim you're making'.)

I also want to make a general complaint about how bad normal impersonal citation style is for clarity / epistemics / understanding.

If I cite a source in normal conversation, it's usually very clear why I'm citing it and what role the citation plays in my argument. In contrast, sticking a '(Smith 2007)' parenthetical at the end of a paragraph often leaves it unclear what role the citation is playing. E.g. (picking an example at random, not trying to find an especially bad one or anything like that):

The inside view and the outside view are two alternative approaches to forecasting. Whereas the inside view attempts to make predictions based on an understanding of the details of a problem, the outside view—also called reference class forecasting—instead looks at similar past situations and predicts based on those outcomes. For example, in trying to predict the time it will take a team to design an academic curriculum, a forecaster can either look at the characteristics of the curriculum to be designed and of the curriculum designers (inside view) or consider the time it has taken past teams to design similar curricula (outside view) (Kahneman & Lovallo 1993).

What should the reader infer about K&L 1993 here?

  • Is K&L 1993 a good introduction to inside vs. outside view? To reference class forecasting? Or is it a good introduction to neither -- are the authors instead citing it even though it's a bad introduction? Say, because of its historical importance (did K&L 1993 coin one of the terms in question, or initiate study of the phenomenon?), or because it provides unusually strong evidence for... something? (For what, exactly?)
  • Is K&L 1993 specifically about the academic curriculum design case (hence its being cited at the end of the paragraph, rather than in an earlier sentence)?
  • Was K&L 1993 chosen because it's a relatively important, useful, or well-known source? Or is it just the source the author(s) happened to be familiar with, or the first source they found on a quick Google Scholar check?

If I say 'K&L argue X' or 'K&L showed X', or better yet 'The most cited academic article on X is K&L' or 'K&L is an example of a study showing X (the first result this page's authors found on Google)', then the relationship of the source of the source to the claims made is much clearer.

The general point I want to gesture at is the one made in Rationality and the English Language:

[...] “Writers are told to avoid usage of the passive voice.” A rationalist whose background comes exclusively from science may fail to see the flaw in the previous sentence; but anyone who’s done a little writing should see it right away. I wrote the sentence in the passive voice, without telling you who tells authors to avoid passive voice. Passive voice removes the actor, leaving only the acted-upon. “Unreliable elements were subjected to an alternative justice process”—subjected by whom? What does an “alternative justice process” do? With enough static noun phrases, you can keep anything unpleasant from actually happening.

Journal articles are often written in passive voice. (Pardon me, some scientists write their journal articles in passive voice. It’s not as if the articles are being written by no one, with no one to blame.) It sounds more authoritative to say “The subjects were administered Progenitorivox” than “I gave each college student a bottle of 20 Progenitorivox, and told them to take one every night until they were gone.” If you remove the scientist from the description, that leaves only the all-important data. But in reality the scientist is there, and the subjects are college students, and the Progenitorivox wasn’t “administered” but handed over with instructions. Passive voice obscures reality. [...]

Journal articles try to sound authoritative and objective, at the cost of being informative and useful. I think a more conversational style is just better for thinking, because you can come closer to providing the actual chains of reasoning and evidence that led you to generate this article rather than a different one.

If twisting our wiki into the shape of an academic-style encyclopedia effectively epistemically self-handicaps us, then I think we should at least consider finding a way to rebrand/reorganize the wiki so we don't feel a need to put it in that style, and can instead make the style more closely resemble 'the ideal way for two people to share information' or 'the ideal way for an EA to think', or something like that.

Thank you for this very thoughtful and useful comment.

It may help to distinguish two separate claims you make, and address them separately:

  1. "impersonal citation style" is bad for clarity and mutual understanding.
  2. academic style is worse than impersonal style.

Most of your comment focuses on (1), but towards the end you seem to suggest this is part of a much broader argument for (2).

Concerning (1):

  1. I fully agree with you that this is how citations are often used in academia and that this is bad for the reasons you note.
  2. I don't think the problem is inherent to either citations or academia: sentences like "The most cited academic article on reference class forecasting is Kahneman & Lovallo 1993" or "The most cited academic article on reference class forecasting (Kahneman & Lovallo 1993)" conform to an academic style equally well. Citations are so often used in the annoying way you describe because doing so requires less effort and perhaps also because it protects authors from criticism, combined with the absence of a strong academic norm requiring citations to be more informative.
  3. The Wiki doesn't encourage citing in that way: the only requirement is that citations be used instead of hyperlinks. So instead of writing e.g. "Nick Bostrom has discussed the vulnerable world hypothesis in numerous publications", editors are asked to write "Nick Bostrom has discussed the vulnerable world hypothesis in numerous publications (Bostrom 2019; Bostrom & van der Merwe 2021)". This is orthogonal to the issues you raise.
  4. In the specific EA Wiki example you mention, the source of the problem was probably just carelesless on my part. I've made a note to improve that paragraph and also check for similar problems in other articles. I'll also revise the style guide to encourage editors to be mindful of this issue and cite in ways that minimize ambiguity and communicate relevant information.

Concerning (2):

  1. My own view is that academic and informal writing each have their pros and cons, and I don't have a settled position on which of the two is better on balance. An informal style seems better for many of the reasons you and Eliezer note, while an academic style is better for other reasons, such as requiring certain standards of clarity, precision and concision. I do think academic norms could be revised in a way that mostly retained the positives and avoided the negatives, and I think that revision would constitute a major improvement over what we have today.
  2. With that said, it doesn't seem to me that the problems with academic writing extend to an encyclopedia like the Wiki. Perhaps I'm not understanding you well, but I don't quite see how the issues Eliezer complains about apply to a work of reference, which is supposed to offer a neutral summary of existing research rather than produce original research. To make this more concrete: Do you find Wikipedia's style constraining? If so, in what ways? The EA Wiki is meant to be written in that same style, so any problems you can identify with the former would help me diagnose potential issues with the latter. Alternatively, perhaps you can take a look at a decent EA Wiki article (e.g. the one on iterated embryo selection) and indicate some ways in which you'd wish it was written differently.

I passed the above comment on to the LW team and added:

maybe relevant to LW norms on what we want wiki pages to look like. the main thing that feels weird to me about LW wiki pages is how they sort of encourage you to remove yourself from the picture -- I'd rather if there were an easy/normal way to say something like 'The present author ([insert name here]) believes that...'

I think "artificial" and "machine" are both sort of ambiguous -- ems are products of artifice/engineering/design in some respects but not in others. I think I've seen some people use "AI" to subsume ems, but I think this is less common, especially in EA-ish circles.

Also, I think the strategic significance of AI systems is wildly different from that of ems, so I think if we had one term "X" referring to AI, another "Y" referring to ems, and another "Z" referring to both, then we'd end up using the words X and Y a lot and the term Z rarely. I also don't know of a good word for X other than "AI", so we might need to invent a new one.

Moreover, defining "digital people" as "people that are digital" seems pretty unhelpful, since "people" is a notoriously contested term and Holden explicitly says that digital people may be very different from present-day people (and one of the meanings of "people" is precisely "moral patient").

Holden can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think his goal in introducing the term "digital people" was to have a colloquial term whose meaning will be obvious to a general, non-philosophical audience. In ordinary English, we use "person" / "people" to refer to humans (and I think it's used especially often to refer to adult humans).

Philosophers tend to want crisp definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions. I see Holden as deliberately avoiding that route and just gesturing at the thing laypeople ordinarily use "people" to mean and saying "You know that thing? Well, imagine that but run on a computer. Now, here are some important things I think happen once you have that..."

Building the "important things" in to the definition (including e.g. moral patienthood) would undermine Holden's argument, because it might now seem (to the smart non-philosopher reader) that he's trying to sneak those properties in via nonstandard definitions of words. As I read it, Holden's posts are trying to avoid putting focus on the word 'digital people', in favor of trying to take two pre-theoretic, totally ordinary empirical thingies ('digital' and 'person') and showing how their combination has crazy real-world consequences.