Towards zero harm: animal-free and land-free food

Thanks for pointing out that paper. Yes, it does seem like some of these companies are relying on cheap hydropower and carbon pricing.

If photovoltaics keep falling in price they could ease the electricity situation, but their performance would be degraded in nuclear winter (although not in some other situations interfering with conventional agriculture).


Towards zero harm: animal-free and land-free food

Three forerunners are Air Protein (US), Solar Foods (Finland) and the Utilization of Carbon Dioxide Institute (Japan).

Thanks, I was familiar with the general concept here, and specific companies working with methane, but not the electrolysis based companies. I had thought that wouldn't be practical given the higher price of electrolysis hydrogen vs natural gas hydrogen.

 A production cost of $5-$6 per kilogram of 100 percent protein. It aims to have Solein on the market and in millions of meals by 2021, but before then it needs to scale-up from pilot plant to major commercial production, and Solein needs regulatory approval for human consumption.

Claims like these are many times more common than delivery, but this seems interesting enough to be worth examining.

Which is better for animal welfare, terraforming planets or space habitats? And by how much?

I think this has potential to be a crucial consideration with regard to our space colonization strategy

I see this raised often, but it seems like it's clearly the wrong order of magnitude to make any noticeable proportional difference to the broad story of a space civilization, and I've never seen a good counterargument to that point.

Wikipedia has a fine page on orders of magnitude for power.  Solar energy received by Earth from the Sun is 1.740*10^17 W, vs 3.846*10^26W for total solar energy output, a difference of 2 billion times. Mars is further from the Sun and smaller, so receives almost another order of magnitude less solar flux. 

Surfaces of planets are a miniscule portion of the habitable universe, whatever lives there won't meaningfully directly affect aggregate population or welfare statistics of an established space civilization. The frame of the question is quantitatively much more extreme than treating the state of affairs in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein as of comparable importance to the state of affairs for the rest of the Earth.

I currently would guess that space habitats are better because they offer a more controlled environment due to greater surveillance as well human proximity, whereas an ecosystem on a planet would by and large be unmanaged wilderness, 

Even on Mars (and moreso on the other even less hospitable planets in our system) support for life would have to be artificially constructed, and the life biologically altered (e.g. to deal with differences in gravity), moreso for planets around stars with different properties. So in terms of human control over the creation of the environment the tiny slice of extraterrestrial planets shouldn't be expected to be very different in expected pseudowild per unit of solar flux, within one OOM. 

if we can determine which method creates more wellbeing with some confidence, and we can tractably influence on the margin whether humanity chooses one or the other. e.g. SpaceX wants to colonize Mars whereas BlueOrigin wants to build O'Neill cylinders, so answering this question may imply supporting one company over the other.

Influence by this channel seems to be ~0. Almost all the economic value of space comes from building structures in space, not on planetary surfaces, and leaving planets intact wastes virtually all of the useful minerals in them. Early primitive Mars bases (requiring space infrastructure to get them there) that are not self-sustaining societies will in no way noticeably substitute for the use of the other 99.99999%+ of extraterrestrial resources in the Solar System that are not on the surface of Mars in the long run. Any effects along these lines would be negligible compared to other channels (like Elon Musk making money, or which is more successful at building space industry).

The scale of direct human impact on invertebrates

Thanks for the interesting post. Could you say more about the epistemic status of agricultural pesticides as the largest item in this category, e.g. what chance that in 3 years you would say another item (maybe missing from this list) is larger? And what ratio do you see between agricultural pesticides and other issues you excluded from the category (like climate change and partially naturogenic outcomes)?

'Existential Risk and Growth' Deep Dive #2 - A Critical Look at Model Conclusions
But this is essentially separate from the global public goods issue, which you also seem to consider important (if I'm understanding your original point about "even the largest nation-states being only a small fraction of the world"),

The main dynamic I have in mind there is 'country X being overwhelmingly technologically advantaged/disadvantaged ' treated as an outcome on par with global destruction, driving racing, and the necessity for international coordination to set global policy.

I was putting arms race dynamics lower than the other two on my list of likely reasons for existential catastrophe. E.g. runaway climate change worries me a bit more than nuclear war; and mundane, profit-motivated tolerance for mistakes in AI or biotech (both within firms and at the regulatory level) worry me a bit more than the prospect of technological arms races.

Biotech threats are driven by violence. On AI, for rational regulators of a global state, a 1% or 10% chance of destroying society looks enough to mobilize immense resources and delay deployment of dangerous tech for safety engineering and testing. There are separate epistemic and internal coordination issues that lead to failures of rational part of the rational social planner model (e.g. US coronavirus policy has predictably failed to serve US interests or even the reelection aims of current officeholders, underuse of Tetlockian forecasting) that loom large (it's hard to come up with a rational planner model explaining observed preparation for pandemics and AI disasters).

I'd say that given epistemic rationality in social policy setting, then you're left with a big international coordination/brinksmanship issue, but you would get strict regulation against blowing up the world for small increments of profit.

'Existential Risk and Growth' Deep Dive #2 - A Critical Look at Model Conclusions

I'd say it's the other way around, because longtermism increases both rewards and costs in prisoner's dilemmas. Consider an AGI race or nuclear war. Longtermism can increase the attraction of control over the future (e.g. wanting to have a long term future following religion X instead of Y, or communist vs capitalist). During the US nuclear monopoly some scientists advocated for preemptive war based on ideas about long-run totalitarianism. So the payoff stakes of C-C are magnified, but likewise for D-C and C-D.

On the other hand, effective bargaining and cooperation between players today is sufficient to reap almost all the benefits of safety (most of which depend more on not investing in destruction than investing in safety, and the threat of destruction for the current generation is enough to pay for plenty of safety investment).

And coordinating on deals in the interest of current parties is closer to the curent world than fanatical longtermism.

But the critical thing is that risk is not just an 'investment in safety' but investments in catastrophically risky moves driven by games ruled out by optimal allocation.

A New X-Risk Factor: Brain-Computer Interfaces

Thanks for this substantive and useful post. We've looked at this topic every few years in unpublished work at FHI to think about whether to prioritize it. So far it hasn't looked promising enough to pursue very heavily, but I think more careful estimates of the inputs and productivity of research in the field (for forecasting relevant timelines and understanding the scale of the research) would be helpful. I'll also comment on a few differences between the post and my models of BCI issues:

  • It does not seem a safe assumption to me that AGI is more difficult than effective mind-reading and control, since the latter requires complex interface with biology with large barriers to effective experimentation; my guess is that this sort of comprehensive regime of BCI capabilities will be preceded by AGI, and your estimate of D is too high
  • The idea that free societies never stabilize their non-totalitarian character, so that over time stable totalitarian societies predominate, leaves out the applications of this and other technologies to stabilizing other societal forms (e.g. security forces making binding oaths to principles of human rights and constitutional government, backed by transparently inspected BCI, or introducing AI security forces designed with similar motivations), especially if the alternative is predictably bad; also other technologies like AGI would come along before centuries of this BCI dynamic
  • Global dominance is blocked by nuclear weapons, but dominance of the long-term future through a state that is a large chunk of the world outgrowing the rest (e.g. by being ahead in AI or space colonization once economic and military power is limited by resources) is more plausible, and S is too low
  • I agree the idea of creating aligned AGI through BCI is quite dubious (it basically requires having aligned AGI to link with, and so is superfluous; and could in any case be provided by the aligned AGI if desired long term), but BCI that actually was highly effective for mind-reading would make international deals on WMD or AGI racing much more enforceable, as national leaders could make verifiable statements that they have no illicit WMD programs or secret AGI efforts, or that joint efforts to produce AGI with specific objectives are not being subverted; this seems to be potentially an enormous factor
  • Lie detection via neurotechnology, or mind-reading complex thoughts, seems quite difficult, and faces structural issues in that the representations for complex thoughts are going to be developed idiosyncratically in each individual, whereas things like optic nerve connections and the lower levels of V1 can be tracked by their definite inputs and outputs, shared across humans
  • I haven't seen any great intervention points here for the downsides, analogous to alignment work for AI safety, or biosecurity countermeasures against biological weapons;
  • If one thought BCI technology was net helpful one could try to advance it, but it's a moderately large and expensive field so one would likely need to leverage by advocacy or better R&D selection within the field to accelerate it enough to matter and be competitive with other areas of x-risk reduction activity

I think if you wanted to get more attention on this, likely the most effective thing to do would be a more rigorous assessment of the technology and best efforts nuts-and-bolts quantitative forecasting (preferably with some care about infohazards before publication). I'd be happy to give advice and feedback if you pursue such a project.

'Existential Risk and Growth' Deep Dive #2 - A Critical Look at Model Conclusions

My main issue with the paper is that it treats existential risk policy as the result of a global collective utility-maximizing decision based on people's tradeoffs between consumption and danger. But that is assuming away approximately all of the problem.

If we extend that framework to determine how much society would spend on detonating nuclear bombs in war, the amount would be zero and there would be no nuclear arsenals. The world would have undertaken adequate investments in surveillance, PPE, research, and other capacities in response to data about previous coronaviruses such as SARS to stop COVID-19 in its tracks. Renewable energy research funding would be vastly higher than it is today, as would AI technical safety. As advanced AI developments brought AI catstrophic risks closer, there would be no competitive pressures to take risks with global externalities in development either by firms or nation-states.

Externalities massively reduce the returns to risk reduction, with even the largest nation-states being only a small fraction of the world, individual politicians much more concerned with their term of office and individual careers than national-level outcomes, and individual voters and donors constituting only a minute share of the affected parties. And conflict and bargaining problems are entirely responsible for war and military spending, central to the failure to overcome externalities with global climate policy, and core to the threat of AI accident catastrophe.

If those things were solved, and the risk-reward tradeoffs well understood, then we're quite clearly in a world where we can have very low existential risk and high consumption. But if they're not solved, the level of consumption is not key: spending on war and dangerous tech that risks global catastrophe can be motivated by the fear of competitive disadvantage/local catastrophe (e.g. being conquered) no matter how high consumption levels are.

Should We Prioritize Long-Term Existential Risk?
People often argue that we urgently need to prioritize reducing existential risk because we live in an unusually dangerous time. If existential risk decreases over time, one might intuitively expect that efforts to reduce x-risk will matter less later on. But in fact, the lower the risk of existential catastrophe, the more valuable it is to further reduce that risk.
Think of it like this: if we face a 50% risk of extinction per century, we will last two centuries on average. If we reduce the risk to 25%, the expected length of the future doubles to four centuries. Halving risk again doubles the expected length to eight centuries. In general, halving x-risk becomes more valuable when x-risk is lower.

This argument starts with assumptions implying that civilization has on the order of a 10^-3000 chance of surviving a million years, a duration typical of mammalian species. In the second case it's 10^-1250. That's a completely absurd claim, a result of modeling as though you have infinite certainty in a constant hazard rate.

If you start with some reasonable credence that we're not doomed and can enter a stable state of low risk, this effect becomes second order or negligible. E.g. leaping off from the Precipice estimates, say there's expected 1/6 extinction risk this century, and 1/6 for the rest of history. I.e. probably we stabilize enough for civilization to survive as long as feasible. If the two periods were uncorrelated, then this reduces the value of preventing an existential catastrophe this century by between 1/6 and 1/3rd compared to preventing one after the risk of this century. That's not negligible, but also not first order, and the risk of catastrophe would also cut the returns of saving for the future (your investments and institution/movement-building for x-risk 2 are destroyed if x-risk 1 wipes out humanity).

[For the Precipice estimates, it's also worth noting that part of the reason for risk being after this century is credence on critical tech developments like AGI happening after this century, so if we make it through that this century, then risk in the later periods is lower since we've already passed through the dangerous transition and likely developed the means for stabilization at minimal risk.]

Scenarios where we are 99%+ likely to go prematurely extinct, from a sequence of separate risks that would each drive the probability of survival low, are going to have very low NPV of the future population, but we should not be near-certain that we are in such a scenario, and with uncertainty over reasonable parameter values you wind up with the dominant cases being those with substantial risk followed by substantial likelihood of safe stabilization, and late x-risk reduction work is not favored over reduction soon.

The problem with this is similar to the problem with not modelling uncertainty about discount rates discussed by Weitzman. If you project forward 100 years, scenarios with high discount rates drop out of your calculation, while the low discount rates scenarios dominate at that point. Likewise, the longtermist value of the long term future is all about the plausible scenarios where hazard rates give a limited cumulative x-risk probability over future history.

This result might not hold up if:
In future centuries, civilization will reduce x-risk to such a low rate that it will become too difficult to reduce any further.

It's not required that it *will* do so, merely that it may plausibly go low enough that the total fraction of the future lost to such hazard rates doesn't become overwhelmingly high.

What are novel major insights from longtermist macrostrategy or global priorities research found since 2015?

"The post cites the Stern discussion to make the point that (non-discounted) utilitarian policymakers would implement more investment, but to my mind that’s quite different from the point that absent cosmically exceptional short-term impact the patient longtermist consequentialist would save."

That was explicitly discussed at the time. I cited the blog post as a historical reference illustrating that such considerations were in mind, not as a comprehensive publication of everything people discussed at the time, when in fact there wasn't one. That's one reason, in addition to your novel contributions, I'm so happy about your work! GPI also has a big hopper of projects adding a lot of value by further developing and explicating ideas that are not radically novel so that they have more impact and get more improvement and critical feedback.

If you would like to do further recorded discussions about your research, I'm happy to do so anytime.

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