Tejas Subramaniam

Student of math and economics @ Stanford University
Pursuing an undergraduate degree
155Joined Jun 2020

Bio

Stanford student (math/economics). Formerly intern at Rethink Priorities (animal welfare) and J-PAL South Asia (IDEA Initiative). Currently SERI Summer Fellow. 

Comments
20

She co-authored a piece a few months back about finding AI safety emotionally compelling. I’d be interested in her thoughts on the following two questions related to that!

  • How worried should we be about suspicious convergence between AI safety being one of the most interesting/emotionally compelling questions to think about and it being the most pressing problem? There used to be a lot of discussion around 2015 about how it seemed like people were working on AI safety because it’s really fun and interesting to think about, rather than because it’s actually that pressing. I think that argument is pretty clearly false, but I’d be curious how she views this post as interacting with those concerns. 
  • It seems a bit like the post doesn’t draw a clean distinction between capabilities and safety. I agree that, to some extent, they’re inseparable (the people building transformative AI should care about making it safe), but how does she view the downside risks of, e.g., some of the most compelling parts of AI work being capabilities-related? More generally, how worried should we be, as a community, about how interconnected safety and capabilities work are? 
    • Somewhat related: As Patrick Collison puts it, people working on making more effective engineered viruses aren’t high-status among people working on pandemic prevention, so why are capabilities researchers high-status among safety researchers? 
    • (I have a decent sense of different answers within the community – this is not really a top concern of mine – but I’d nonetheless be interested in her take! My sense is that (1) the distinction isn’t nearly as clean since you want to build AI and make it go safely and (2) it’s good for capabilities work to be more safety-geared than the counterfactual.) 

Thanks for writing this up! I disagree for a few reasons:

  • This feels more like a problem at the point between “alternative proteins have scaled up and we’ve replaced a bunch of meat” and “this results in a meat ban.” It seems possible to me that moral advocacy efforts can happen after alternative proteins have scaled up, but before there are laws to stop factory farming for food entirely. I don’t think alternative proteins replacing, say, 80% of meat will result in people thinking non-meat uses of animals is morally okay in a lock-in kind of way. 
  • I think a lot of people’s moral reasoning about animals is posthoc/based on cognitive dissonance. That is, people like eating meat, or it’s a valuable part of their culture, and their moral intuitions around animal exploitation are built around that. So it seems plausible to me that moral advocacy efforts become substantially more effective if we’re able to quickly replace one of the biggest uses of animals. 
  • I’m not sure I’m compelled by the mechanism for lock-in. One mechanism appears to be overconfidence/complacency as a society, which reduces the drive toward moral progress. This seems somewhat plausible, but it feels like this is possible to solve (for instance, animal advocacy organizations pivot toward other uses of animals, and are more able to dedicate resources focused on animal advocacy). Another mechanism seems to be that “letting automobiles replace horses as practical transport instead of listening to the horse advocates and becoming better humans, humanity has lost a great opportunity to do something for the animals for moral reasons, and do so by accepting an economic loss.” But I guess I’m not sure why – in either the horse case or the factory farming case – this is a unique opportunity. I don’t think the existence of factory farming necessarily strengthens the argument, to an average person, about the urgency of animal advocacy, because if people don’t buy the moral reasoning for caring about animals, I’m not sure the scale of suffering that exists currently affects whether they buy the moral reasoning. So in the case of horses, for example, I don’t think it was easier to convince people that horses matter before they were replaced as practical transport. 
  • I feel like this is just intractable. Meat has the advantage of being embedded in culture and identity for generations. Without proposing any alternative, and going entirely through the moral route, means going up against this generational idea that eating meat is okay. Success seems hard. I’m wary of taking such a risk, when there’s also the possibility of factory farming for food persisting into the future (and I’d guess, in business-as-usual scenarios, it remains a bigger problem than other kinds of factory farming). I will also say I’m not convinced that expanding our moral circle to animals helps expand our moral circle to things like digital minds in the far future, though that’s a conversation for another day. 
  • I’m uncomfortable about this argument for nonconsequentialist reasons. If factory farming is a grave injustice that ought be abolished (even if you’re a consequentialist who buys moral uncertainty), it seems like letting it stay for much longer and taking a huge risk that it stays forever because you want to do it for the right reasons could be a massive negligent injustice in itself. It feels like, in a moral way, saying “it’s bad to hire more beat cops to deter crime, because deterring crime through fear doesn’t convince anyone that their crime is wrong.” One reason a lot of people would find that intuitively bad is because it feels like it’s instrumentalizing the victims of crime for a dubious future consequence. 

These two pieces are of interest. Lots of similar conclusions.

Greg Mankiw’s introductory econ textbook has a good explanation of a similar point:

LeBron James is a great athlete. One of the best basketball players of all time, he can jump higher and shoot better than most other people. Most likely, he is talented at other physical activities as well. For example, let’s imagine that LeBron can mow his lawn faster than anyone else. But just because he can mow his lawn fast, does this mean he should? 

Let’s say that LeBron can mow his lawn in 2 hours. In those same 2 hours, he could film a television commercial and earn $30,000. By contrast, Kaitlyn, the girl next door, can mow LeBron’s lawn in 4 hours. In those same 4 hours, Kaitlyn could work at McDonald’s and earn $50. 

In this example, LeBron has an absolute advantage in mowing lawns because he can do the work with a lower input of time. Yet because LeBron’s opportunity cost of mowing the lawn is $30,000 and Kaitlyn’s opportunity cost is only $50, Kaitlyn has a comparative advantage in mowing lawns.

(From Mankiw, G., Principles of Economics, p. 54, 9th edition)

Suppose we modify this example, such that:

  • LeBron was the best in the world at mowing lawns.
  • LeBron doesn’t make more money from television commercials than any other celebrity in the world.

Even though LeBron is better at mowing lawns than at television commercials, and also ranks higher among those who mow lawns than among those who film television commercials, he should film the commercial. 

Thanks for the link! I will look into this soon. 

My immediate reaction is that that depends on the specific objectives of the advocacy organizations, as well as who they’re aiming to influence. 

For example, the article mentions the patent waiver a lot. While this is (I think) a point of difference between Manya and me, I’m currently unsure (50-50 split, in fact) about the sign of the effect of the patent waiver, and pretty convinced the magnitude is small (and that it obscures the deeper problems with vaccine supply). 

From talking to the people helping the Swasti fundraiser in question, they seem to be working on data and coordination, but appear to be working separately on procurement and distribution! In any case, our point was more that Swasti and Swasth are separate organizations (and the similar name seems like a coincidence). 

That’s why our third recommendation (not in order of importance) under oxygen is the Swasth/ACT Grants fundraiser! From our post: “Swasth’s Oxygen for India concentrator fundraiser on Milaap (for the price at which they are buying oxygen concentrators, room for more funding, and transparency about procurement and funding).”

From a conversation with the people running the Swasti Oxygen for All fundraiser, our guess is the two are equally cost-effective. 

Hi! So the Swasti Oxygen for All fundraiser does not offer a tax deduction for the United States (I asked them recently). Swasth’s Oxygen for India fundraiser offers tax deductions for donations from the United States for donations above $1,000 (the details are specified in the link). We are happy to check about other countries!

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