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2017 AI Safety Literature Review and Charity Comparison

Nice review! Two comments so far:

  • Re Critch's paper, the result is actually very intuitive once you understand the underlying mechanism. Critch considers a situation of, so to speak, Aumannian disagreement. That is, two agents hold different beliefs, despite being aware of each other's beliefs, because some assumption of Aumann's theorem is false: e.g. each agent considers emself smarter than the other. For example, imagine that Alice believes the Alpha Centauri system has more than 10 planets (call it "proposition P"), Bob believes it has less than 10 planets ("proposition not-P") and each is aware of the other's belief and considers it to be foolish. In this case, an AI that benefits Alice if P is true and benefits Bob if not-P is true would seem like an excellent deal for both of them, because each will be sure the AI is in eir own favor. In a way, the AI constitutes a bet between the two agents.

Critch writes: "It is also assumed that the players have common knowledge of one another’s posterior... Future work should design solutions for facilitating the process of attaining common knowledge, or to obviate the need to assume it." Indeed it is interesting to study what happens when each agents does not know the other's beliefs.

  • I will risk being accused of self-advertisement, but given that one of my papers appeared in the review it doesn't seem too arrogant to point at another which IMHO is not less important, namely "Forecasting using incomplete models", a paper that builds on Logical Induction in order to develop a way to reason about complex environments that doesn't require logic/deduction. I think it would be nice if this paper was included, although of course it's your review and your judgment whether it merits it.
Taking Systemic Change Seriously

I'm not sure what point you could see in continuing this conversation either way, since you clearly aren't armed with any claims which haven't already been repeated and answered over and over in the most basic of arguments over socialism and Marxist philosophy...

Indeed I no longer see any point, given that you now reduced yourself to insults. Adieu.

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

You still haven't provided a reference for "materialist epistemology".

I would say this is a good essay: https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch02.htm

So, "historical materialism" is some collection of vague philosophical ideas by Marx. Previously, you replied to my claim that "to the extent they [utopian socialism and Marxism] are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history" by saying that "Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology". This is extremely misleading to say that Marxism was derived from something when that something is itself an invention of Marx! To say that historical materialism is "evidence" for Marxism is to deprive to word "evidence" of all meaning. Evidence is not just something someone says that they claim justifies something else they say. Evidence is (by definition) objective, something that all participants in the conversation will agree upon given a minimal standard of intellectual honesty. If you honestly think "historical materialism" is an objective truth that everyone are obliged to accept (even if we assumed it is well defined at all, which it probably isn't), then I see no point in continuing this conversation.

What you certainly shouldn't expect is that everything be quantitative, or that everything be condensed into a meta-analysis that you can look at really quickly to save you the trouble of engaging with complicated and complex social and political issues. Sociopolitical systems are too complicated for that, which is why people who study political science and international relations do not condense everything into quantitative evidence.

Quantitative does not imply "you can look at it really quickly". Quantum field theory is very quantitative but I really want to meet someone who understood it by "looking at it really quickly." On the other hand, when something meets a high epistemic standard it makes it more worthwhile to spend time looking at it.

"Sociopolitical systems are complicated" does not imply "we should treat weak evidence as if it is strong evidence". If a question is so complicated that you cannot find any strong evidence to support an answer, it means that you should have low confidence in any answer that you can find. In other words, you should assign high probability to this answer being wrong. If some field of social sciences fails to provide strong evidence for its claims, this only means we should assign low confidence to its conclusions.

A singleminded emphasis on statistics is absolutely not what effective altruism is about. There are no meta-analyses citing data about the frequency of above-human-intelligence machines being badly aligned with values; there are no studies which quantify the sentience of cows and chickens; there are no regression tables showing whether the value of creating an active social movement is worth the expense. And yet we concern ourselves with those things anyway.

Yes, but you are ignoring two important considerations.

One is that e.g. becoming vegetarian will not cause a catastrophe if it turns outs that animals lack consciousness. On the other hand, a communist revolution will (and did) cause a catastrophe if our assumptions about its consequences are misguided.

The other is that the claim that a random AI is not aligned with human values is an "antiprediction". That is, a low information prior should not assign high probability to our values among all possible values. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the claim that the AI will be aligned. On the other hand, Marxist theories make complicated detailed claims about complicated detailed social systems. Such a claim is very far from the prior and strong evidence is required to justify it.

If you intend to go by quantitative data then I would suggest avoiding cases with a <10 sample size and I would also suggest correcting for significant confounding variables such as "dictatorship".

I'm not saying we have a lot of data. I'm saying we don't have much data but the data we do have points in the opposite direction. Regarding dictatorship, my hypothesis is that there is a causal link communism->dictatorship, so it is hardly a confounder.

In this case the USSR had no class since there were no capital owners.

Not entirely - the USSR's economy was complicated and changed significantly throughout the decades. The more general point of course is that the USSR did not succeed in abolishing political class.

You claimed USSR didn't abolish class. I said that abolishing class is hard because "class" can exist without being coded into law. You replied by saying "class" only refers to capital owners. Now you revert to the definition I assumed.

We might, but as I said above, many of the people who seriously engage with the relevant literature find these concerns to be small and other concerns to be large, for various reasons.

And many of "the people who seriously engage" reach the diametrically opposite conclusion.

The West has been successful, yes, but it's not clear how successful it's been in distributing its goods fairly and the extent to which its rise was due to exploitation of other countries.

I'm not sure what "fairly" means or why it should be ranked so high in importance. "Exploitation" is also a word that is used so often that its meaning became diluted (I also suspect that if all countries were liberal democracies it would be a win-win for almost everyone). If "fairness" is the main argument in favor of communist systems, then from my perspective it is paperclip maximization and there is no point in discussing it further.

There is a high standard of evidence whenever large ideas are discussed, but there's certainly no disproportionate 'burden of proof' to be placed against non capitalist ideas which haven't been tried or the non capitalist ideas which actually have been tried and have been quite successful in their own contexts.

There is is very high burden of proof for any policy proposal with potentially catastrophic consequences. The existing system (in Western-style democracies), with all its shortcomings, already underwent significant optimization and is pretty good compared to most alternatives. You can only risk destroying it if you have very strong evidence that the risk is negligible wrt the gains.

Also, don't misread me as saying "Communist countries worked so we should look into communism." I'm better interpreted as saying "lots of people from different perspectives have traced serious problems to the private ownership of the means of production, so we should look at the various ways to change that."

Yeah, and other people traced serious problems to other things like "the state exists and imposes regulation on the market" (for the record, I suspect that both groups are wrong). Let's not privilege the hypothesis.

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

What is the right way to approach things?

By combining insights from sociology, history, economics, and other domains. For instance, materialist epistemology is a method of analysis that draws upon sociology and history to understand economic developments.

You still haven't provided a reference for "materialist epistemology".

Anyone can claim to "combine insights" from anything. In fact, most political ideologies claim such insights, nevertheless reaching different, sometimes diametrically opposite, conclusions.

Sure, but not everything that counts as empirical data can be fit into a regression table and subjected to meta-analysis.

If you're proposing to overhaul the entire system of government and economics, at the very least I expect you to provide objective, quantitative evidence. This is what effective altruism is about: doing good using evidence based methods.

The Khmer Rouge abolished money.

Yes. They also killed a quarter of their population. So whether or not their economy succeeded seems to be more strongly governed by other factors.

There is remarkable correlation between communism and killing / imprisoning large numbers of innocent people. It is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Yes, well class in the Marxist definition is about the distinction between capital owners and laborers, which is a bit different from how it's used in other contexts.

In this case the USSR had no class since there were no capital owners.

We might think that inequality of wealth is bad as it allocates goods to those who can afford them rather than those who need them; we might think that capitalist markets lead to tragedies of the commons which exacerbate resource shortages and existential risks; we might think that unequal distribution of power in society corrupts politics.

Alternatively, we might think that markets are good since they create incentives for productivity and innovation; since they make sure decisions in the economy are made in a distributed way, not prone to a single point of failure; since this distributed way naturally assigns more weight to people who have proven themselves to be competent. We might think that tragedies of the commons can be solved by controlling market incentives through taxation and regulation; that there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by destroying the entire market.

All of this is speculation.

People in modern Western-style democracies (which are all capitalist) enjoy personal freedom and quality of life unrivaled in the entire history of the human race. On the other hand, virtually all attempts to implement communism lead to disaster.

This is not really a good comparison, given many cases of success in socialist and communist economies (such as Cuba, which roundly beats other Latin American countries in human development standards) and many failures in capitalist economies (such as the widespread economic disaster which followed the end of the Soviet system).

Cuba is still a dictatorship with a track record of human right violations. I wouldn't want to live there. My point is that Western-style capitalist democracy is the most successful model of government we know, and there is a high burden of proof for claiming some alternative is better.

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

...asking for an empirical meta study of complex social ideologies is not the right way to approach things.

What is the right way to approach things? In order to claim that certain policies will have certain consequences, you need some kind of model. In order to know that a model is useful, you need to test it against empirical data. The more broad, unusual and complex policy changes you are proposing, the more stringent standard of evidence you need to meet.

I have seen several empirical analyses by economists showing positive economic and welfare data from Soviet countries.

My family lived in the Soviet Union for its entire history. I assure you that it was a hellhole.

Many types of socialism and communism have not been implemented. For instance, Marxism advocates a classless and moneyless society. The USSR was not classless and was not moneyless.

The Khmer Rouge abolished money. Abolishing class is much harder since class can exist without formal acknowledgement in the legal system. The real question, though, is why should we think these changes are possible or desirable.

I don't see how any of this takes away from the point it started from, namely that capitalism as an economic system has its own record of brutality as well as communism.

But the two are not on equal footing. People in modern Western-style democracies (which are all capitalist) enjoy personal freedom and quality of life unrivaled in the entire history of the human race. On the other hand, virtually all attempts to implement communism lead to disaster. So, although it is theoretically possible that some implementation of communism is superior, there is a very high burden of proof involved.

I said "public ownership of the means of production", and Marxism is just one of several frameworks for doing this.

Well, Marxism was your justification for it.

More importantly, I did not suggest that the EA community embrace it. I suggested that people look into it, see if was desirable, etc. Doing so requires serious engagement with the relevant literature and discussing it with people who can answer your questions better. If I was trying to argue for socialism or communism, of course I would be speaking much differently and with much more extensive sources and evidence.

In this case, I suggest formulating a much broader objective e.g. "alternative systems of government / economics". This might be communism, might be anarcho-capitalism, might be something else altogether. IMO, the best strategy is moving one level of "meta" up. Instead of promoting a specific political ideology, let's fund promising research into theoretical tools that enable evaluating policy proposals or government systems.

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

All economic systems make certain assumptions about the way wealth and society are organized, different perspectives make different assumptions and operate on different levels of analysis, so e.g. Marxists aren't concerned with computing DSGE.

This is a generic statement that conveys little information about Marxism in particular.

I don't know what that would even look like. Can you recommend me a good survey of studies (preferably meta analyses) supporting libertarian ideas? There is no such thing.

I never claimed that implementing libertarian ideas is effective altruism! I'm sorry but the burden of proof is on you.

Materialism has many different meaningw and you are referring to something completely different. I am referring not to materialism as a theory of mind but to materialist epistemology, a method of social analysis.

Do you have a reference for this? Googling "materialist epistemology" doesn't yield much. You claimed that "Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology", does materialist epistemology precede Marxism? What was "materialist epistemology" derived from?

I think most of the elites who supported Stalin are now dead. In any case this seems like a pretty strange thing to worry about, like saying we should disbelieve in evolution because of social darwinists and eugenics.

My point is that intellectual elites are untrustworthy about this sort of questions and we should only believe direct evidence. Reverse stupidity is not intelligence, but stupidity is also not intelligence.

Yes, but virtually all communist countries were terrible virtually all of the time.

Not really true, and we might think that various directions in Marxism and socialism can be implemented without following the same policies that they did.

Why is that not really true? Maybe they can be implemented differently or maybe implementing them differently won't help. If your theory keeps failing the experimental test despite all sorts of tweaking, maybe you should abandon it and consider a different theory.

Also, I don't know what it means for capitalism to be "wrong". Capitalism is just what happens when you allow people to free exchange goods and services and enter into contracts. It might be that limiting such exchange and replacing it but something state-controlled is useful but this clearly depends on the nature of limitations and replacement. So the question is not whether capitalism is "wrong" but whether the system you are proposing instead of capitalism is an improvement.

Harmful, immoral, etc.

It sounds like you completely ignored my explanation.

Instead of arguing with me you would probably learn more by going to serious readings such as Marx, postwar socialist theory or to communities which are specifically oriented to discuss this sort of thing, such as reddit.com/r/asksocialscience.

That is an extremely condescending comment. You came here suggesting that the EA community embraces Marxism as an effective cause. I'm asking you for supporting evidence. You refuse to provide the evidence, or even explain the nature of the evidence, suggesting that I should read whatnot before I gain the right to talk about it. If I claimed that Mahayana Buddhism is an excellent recipe to systemic change, you would be right to demand at least an outline of supporting evidence before being sent to read the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

Mainstream economics doesn't seek to answer the same questions that Marxian economics does...

I'm not so sure, can you spell it out in more detail? Maybe you're saying that Marxian economics is mostly prescriptivist while mainstream economics is mostly descriptivist. But then, we have welfare economics and mechanism design which are more or less mainstream and have a prescriptivist bend.

...much of the 19th century socialist work was very mainstream and derived from the ordinary economic thought of the time.

I suspect it depends on the socialist work. For example, do you think Fourier's phalanstère is derived from ordinary economic thought of the time? Or their prediction that the seas will become lemonade?

Needless to say, modern heterodox economists use studies quite frequently.

Can you recommend a good survey of studies (preferably meta analyses) supporting Marxist ideas?

To the extent they are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history.

Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology.

Materialism is a school of philosophy. In what sense does it qualify as "evidence"? In any case, it seems perfectly consistent to be a materialist / physicalist and deny Marxism?

We might think that intellectual elites who engage with socialist thought or with Marxist thought differentiate between the various doctrines and directions within this ideological space and accept some ideas while rejecting others.

What reason do we have to think the opinions of these elites today are much more accurate than when they supported Stalin?

Or we might think that the behavior of a state doesn't make all of its policies wrong: for instance, we might dispute the idea that capitalist states' rampant imperialism demonstrates that capitalism is always wrong.

Yes, but virtually all communist countries were terrible virtually all of the time.

Also, I don't know what it means for capitalism to be "wrong". Capitalism is just what happens when you allow people to free exchange goods and services and enter into contracts. It might be that limiting such exchange and replacing it but something state-controlled is useful but this clearly depends on the nature of limitations and replacement. So the question is not whether capitalism is "wrong" but whether the system you are proposing instead of capitalism is an improvement.

Bottom line, the most important question is this: what evidence do we have that implementing Marxist ideas is effective or at least beneficial?

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

Well the original strands of thought mostly came from early 19th century utopian socialists and were updated by Marx and Engels. There has been a lot of post-Marxian analysis as well.

AFAICT, the strands of thought you are talking about are poorly correlated with reality. Marxist thought is largely outside of mainstream economics. They use neither studies nor mathematical models (at least they didn't in the 19th century). To the extent they are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history. Finally, Marxist revolutions caused suffering and death on massive scale.

I suspect that Marxism is popular with intellectual elites for purely political reasons that have little to do with its objective intellectual merit. The same sort of elites supported Stalin and Mao in their time. To me it seems like a massive failure to update.

Taking Systemic Change Seriously

Of the examples you give here, I think #1 is the best by far.

Regarding #2, I think that world government is a great idea (assuming it's a liberal, democratic world government!) but it's highly unobvious how to get there. In particular, am very skeptical about giving more power to the UN. The UN is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, both because each country has 1 vote regardless of size and because (more importantly) many countries are represented by undemocratic governments. I am not at all convinced removing the security council veto power would have positive consequences. IMHO the first step towards world government or any similar goal would be funding a research programme that will create a plan that is evidence based, nonpartisan and incremental / reversible.

Regarding #3, I am really not sure who these theorists are and why should we believe them.

Another potentially relevant cause area (although I'm not sure whether this is "systemic change" as you understand it) is reforming the education system: setting more well-defined goals, using evidence based methods, improving incentive mechanisms, educating for rationality.

Ask MIRI Anything (AMA)

So you claim that you have values related to animals that most people don't have and you want your eccentric values to be overrepresented in the AI?

I'm asking unironically (personally I also care about wild animal suffering but I also suspect that most people would care about if they spent sufficient time thinking about it and looking at the evidence).

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