William_MacAskill

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Gordon Irlam: an effective altruist ahead of his time

I agree that Gordon deserves great praise and recognition! 

One clarification: My discussion of Zhdanov was based on Gordon's work: he volunteered for GWWC in the early days, and cross-posted about Zhdanov on the 80k blog. In DGB, I failed to  cite him, which was a major oversight on my part, and I feel really bad about that. (I've apologized to him about this.)  So that discussion shouldn't be seen as independent convergence. 

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

Thanks Greg  - I asked and it turned out I had one remaining day to make edits to the paper, so I've made some minor ones in a direction you'd like, though I'm sure they won't be sufficient to satisfy you. 

Going to have to get back on with other work at this point, but I think your  arguments are important, though the 'bait and switch' doesn't seem totally fair - e.g. the update towards living in a simulation only works when you appreciate the improbability of living on a single planet.

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

Thanks for this, Greg.

"But what is your posterior? Like Buck, I'm unclear whether your view is the central estimate should be (e.g.) 0.1% or 1 / 1 million."

I'm surprised this wasn't clear to you, which has made me think I've done a bad job of expressing myself.  

It's the former, and  for the reason of your explanation  (2): us being early, being on a single planet, being at such a high rate of economic growth, should collectively give us an enormous update. In the  blog post I describe what I call the outside-view arguments, including that we're very early on, and say: "My view is that, in the aggregate, these outside-view arguments should substantially update one from one’s prior towards HoH, but not all the way to significant credence in HoH.[3]
[3] Quantitatively: These considerations push me to put my posterior on HoH into something like the [1%, 0.1%] interval. But this credence interval feels very made-up and very unstable."


I'm going to think more about your claim that in the article I'm 'hiding the ball'. I say in the introduction that "there are some strong arguments for thinking that this century might be unusually influential",  discuss the arguments  that I think really should massively update us in section 5 of the article, and in that context I say "We have seen that there are some compelling arguments for thinking that the present time is unusually influential. In particular, we are growing very rapidly, and civilisation today is still small compared to its potential future size, so any given unit of resources is a comparatively large fraction of the whole. I believe these arguments give us reason to think that the most influential people may well live within the next few thousand years."   Then in the conclusion I say: "There are some good arguments for thinking that our time is very unusual, if we are at the start of a very long-lived civilisation: the fact that we are so early on, that we live on a single planet, and that we are at a period of rapid economic and technological progress, are all ways in which the current time is very distinctive, and therefore are reasons why we may be highly influential too." That seemed clear to me, but I should judge clarity by how  readers interpret what I've written. 

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

Actually, rereading my post I realize I had already made an edit similar to the one you suggest  (though not linking to the article which hadn't been finished) back in March 2020:

"[Later Edit (Mar 2020): The way I state the choice of prior in the text above was mistaken, and therefore caused some confusion. The way I should have stated the prior choice, to represent what I was thinking of, is as follows:

The prior probability of us living in the most influential century, conditional on Earth-originating civilization lasting for n centuries, is 1/n.

The unconditional prior probability over whether this is the most influential century would then depend on one's priors over how long Earth-originating civilization will last for. However, for the purpose of this discussion we can focus on just the claim that we are at the most influential century AND that we have an enormous future ahead of us. If the Value Lock-In or Time of Perils views are true, then we should assign a significant probability to that claim. (i.e. they are claiming that, if we act wisely this century, then this conjunctive claim is probably true.) So that's the claim we can focus our discussion on.

It's worth noting that my proposal follows from the Self-Sampling Assumption, which is roughly (as stated by Teru Thomas ('Self-location and objective chance' (ms)): "A rational agent’s priors locate him uniformly at random within each possible world." I believe that SSA is widely held: the key question in the anthropic reasoning literature is whether it should be supplemented with the self-indication assumption (giving greater prior probability mass to worlds with large populations). But we don't need to debate SIA in this discussion, because we can simply assume some prior probability distribution over sizes over the total population - the question of whether we're at the most influential time does not require us to get into debates over anthropics.]"

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

Thanks, Greg.  I really wasn't meaning to come across as super confident in a particular posterior (rather than giving an indicative number for a central estimate), so I'm sorry if I did.


"It seems more reasonable to say 'our' prior is rather some mixed gestalt on considering the issue as a whole, and the concern about base-rates etc. should be seen as an argument for updating this downwards, rather than a bid to set the terms of the discussion."

I agree with this (though see for the discussion with Lukas for some clarification about what we're talking about when we say  'priors', i.e. are we building the fact that we're early into our priors or not.).

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

Richard’s response is about right. My prior with respect to influentialness, is such that either: x-risk is almost surely zero, or we are almost surely not going to have a long future, or x-risk is higher now than it will be in the future but harder to prevent than it will be in the future or in the future there will be non-x-risk-mediated ways of affecting similarly enormous amounts of value in the future, or the idea that most of the value is in the future is false.

I do think we should update away from those priors, and I think that update is sufficient to make the case for longtermism. I agree that the location in time that we find ourselves in (what I call ‘outside-view arguments’ in my original post) is sufficient for a very large update.

Practically speaking, thinking through the surprisingness of being at such an influential time made me think: 

  • Maybe I was asymmetrically assessing evidence about how high x-risk is this century. I think that’s right; e.g. I now don’t think that x-risk from nuclear war is as high as 0.1% this century, and I think that longtermist EAs have sometimes overstated the case in favour.
  • If we think that there’s high existential risk from, say, war, we should (by default) think that such high risk will continue into the future. 
  • It’s more likely that we’re in a simulation

It also made me take more seriously the thoughts that in the future there might be non-extinction-risk mechanisms for producing comparably enormous amounts of (expected) value, and that maybe there’s some crucial consideration(s) that we’re currently missing such that our actions today are low-expected-value compared to actions in the future.

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

"Only using a single, simple function for something so complicated seems overconfident to me. And any mix of functions where one of them assigns decent probability to early people being the most influential is enough that it's not super unlikely that early people are the most influential."

I strongly agree with this. The fact that under a mix of  distributions, it becomes not super unlikely that early people are the most influential, is really important and was somewhat buried in the original comments-discussion. 

And then we're also very distinctive in other ways: being on one planet, being at such a high-growth period, etc. 

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

Thanks, I agree that this is  key. My thoughts: 

  • I agree that our earliness gives a dramatic update in favor of us being influential. I don't have a stable view on the magnitude of that. 
  • I'm not convinced that the negative exponential form of Toby's distribution is the right one, but I don't have any better suggestions 
  • Like Lukas, I think that Toby's distribution gives too much weight to early people, so the update I would make is less dramatic than Toby's
  • Seeing as Toby's prior is quite sensitive to choice of reference-class, I would want to choose the reference class of all observer-moments, where an observer is a conscious being. This means we're not as early as we would say if we used the distribution of Homo sapiens, or of hominids. I haven't thought about what exactly that means, though my intuition is that it means the update isn't nearly as big.    

So I guess the answer to your question is 'no': our earliness is an enormous update, but not as big as Toby would suggest.

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

"If we're doing things right, it shouldn't matter whether we're building earliness into our prior or updating on the basis of earliness."

Thanks, Lukas, I thought this was very clear and exactly right. 

"So now we've switched over to instead making a guess about P(X in E | X in H), i.e. the probability that one of the 1e10 most influential people also is one of the 1e11 earliest people, and dividing by 10. That doesn't seem much easier than making a guess about P(X in H | X in E), and it's not obvious whether our intuitions here would lead us to expect more or less influentialness."

That's interesting, thank you - this statement of the debate has helped clarify things for me.  It does seem to me that doing the update -  going via P(X in E | X in H) rather than directly trying to assess P(X in H | X in E)  - is helpful, but I'd understand the position of someone who wanted just to assess P(X in H | X in E) directly. 

I think it's helpful  to assess P(X in E | X in H) because it's not totally obvious how one should update on the basis of earliness. The arrow of causality and the possibility of lock-in over time definitely gives reasons in favor of  influential people being earlier. But there's still the big question of  how  great an update that should be. And the cumulative nature of knowledge and understanding gives reasons in favor thinking that later people are more likely to be more influential.

This seems important to me because, for someone claiming that we should think that we're at the HoH, the update on the basis of earliness is doing much more work than updates on the basis of, say, familiar arguments about when AGI is coming and what will happen when it does.  To me at least, that's a striking fact and wouldn't have been obvious before I started thinking about these things.

Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

This comment of mine in particular seems to have been downvoted. If anyone were willing, I'd be interested to understand why: is that because (i) the tone is off (seemed too combative?); (ii) the arguments themselves are weak; (iii) it wasn't clear what I'm saying; (iv) it wasn't engaging with Buck's argument; (v) other?

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