Technically Exists

How intelligent are we?

2018-03-02

Humans are generally thought of as the most intelligent beings to exist, as we have discovered nothing that appears to be more intelligent than us. But how intelligent are we compared to the theoretically attainable maximum? I believe that we are far less intelligent than is physically possible. This is because we possess roughly the minimum level of intelligence necessary to create a technological civilization.

To understand why this is so, we must look at how we came to have this level of intelligence in the first place. Over a period of about 50 million years, the brains of rat-like creatures evolved into the brains of chimps. This was a complex process that involved major structural changes. However, going from chimp brains to human brains only took about 5 million years and required only minor changes to brain structure, suggesting a faster but more gradual process that was unlikely to end at the exact time civilization started. So if one were to ask the question of why we stopped at our current level of intelligence, I would argue that we haven’t necessarily. Instead, we’re at this level because it allowed us to begin building civilization, a process that occurs on a much faster timescale than evolution.

The Agricultural Revolution occurred roughly 12,000 years ago. Since then, humanity has done all sorts of crazy things involved in building civilization, including at least one other major technological revolution, while evolution has only had time to make the most minor of changes. Thus, while there may still be room for evolutionary pressures to improve primate intelligence in the same way it’s been improving for the past 5 million years, the 12,000 years over which civilization has existed are simply too small for noticeable progress to occur. If a lower level of intelligence enabled the creation of civilization, then it would’ve moved too fast for us to be able to observe it in its current state with our current level of intelligence. Thus, whatever level of intelligence we observe ourselves to have from within a civilization is roughly the minimum level of intelligence capable of giving rise to that civilization.

This in turn suggests that there could be much more room for our intelligence to grow. It seems unlikely that the minimum level of intelligence that enables civilization would also be the maximum level of intelligence enabled by the laws of physics. Thus, I propose that humans are likely well below the theoretical maximum intelligence level.

Whether we are close to maximum intelligence is important for several topics. Brain-machine interfaces are much more important if there is significant room for them to augment our intelligence. Superintelligence is a greater concern the further we are from maximum intelligence. A distant maximum intelligence also leaves room for technologies like genetic engineering to possibly enhance human intelligence in the near-term. If these are all possible, then we would be wise to prepare for them ahead of time.

Singletons and universal inevitable threats

2018-02-09

One concept I find particularly fascinating is that of the singleton. As defined by Nick Bostrom, a singleton is “a world order in which there is a single decision-making agency at the highest level”. He states that such an agency would have “the ability to prevent any threats (internal or external) to its own existence and supremacy”. However, it is not at all obvious to me that this is true. To crystallize my intuition I would like to introduce my own concept: the universal inevitable threat.

An inevitable threat is defined as a threat that eliminates an agency regardless of the actions that agency takes. This leaves open the possibility of delaying the threat for a finite period of time, but beyond that, the agency may only choose how to spend the time it has prior to the threat’s realization. It can neither eliminate the threat nor hold it off indefinitely.

A universal inevitable threat is then defined as an inevitable threat that applies to all possible agencies. A notable property of such a threat is that it cannot be brought about by an agency, as this would imply that the agency had a course of action that would result in the threat not occurring and therefore that the threat was not inevitable relative to that agency. This concept is relevant because if a universal inevitable threat exists, then no agency is able to prevent all threats to itself, including a singleton. Furthermore, several plausible candidates for a universal inevitable threat can be identified.

The first possibility is simply the end of the universe. Exactly how the universe will end has yet to be determined, but most hypotheses posit scenarios that appear to be universal inevitable threats. One example is the heat death of the universe, which would result in a state of maximum entropy in which no information processing can take place. Since information processing seems to be essential for agencies to operate, this scenario would count as a universal inevitable threat.

Another potential end of the universe is the Big Rip scenario. In this case, the universe’s increasing expansion rips everything apart into elementary particles and radiation. Unless an agency can somehow develop a way to survive the infinite expansion rate that is eventually reached, all agencies are eliminated, making this a universal inevitable threat.

The Big Crunch is yet another possible end state of the universe. This possibility involves the universe collapsing into a dimensionless singularity. A related scenario is the Big Bounce, which follows the Big Crunch with another Big Bang to create a cycle. Unless some agency can survive a singularity of infinite density, both cases are universal inevitable threats.

Another category of universal inevitable threat candidates is resource depletion scenarios. Some scenarios for the end of the universe can actually be framed as falling under this category. For example, heat death can be viewed as the universe running out of negentropy. However, it is possible that some other resource is both essential for agencies to function and depleted prior to the end of the universe. The depletion of such a resource would be a universal inevitable threat.

The final category of candidates for universal inevitable threats is that of naturally occurring physics disasters. An example of this would be false vacuum decay. If the universe is currently part of a metastable vacuum, it could be disrupted, creating a bubble of lower-energy vacuum that expands at the speed of light. This could fundamentally alter the universe in such a way as to destroy any agencies in existence prior to the event. False vacuum decay and any similar physics disasters that occur naturally would likely be universal inevitable threats.

While it is not yet possible to confirm the existence of a universal inevitable threat, there does seem to be a significant probability of one existing. In particular, the end of the universe is very likely to be one. If one exists, it would prove that no agency is able to prevent all threats to itself, and thus that singletons do not possess this power, as seems probable to me.

Colonizing Mars does not mean abandoning Earth

2018-02-04

Colonizing Mars is often talked about in the context of preventing the extinction of humanity. This has led to the unfortunate misconception that colonization results in the abandonment of Earth. I’d like to take the time to explain why this doesn’t happen.

Before we explore just why Earth wouldn’t be abandoned, it will be useful to review the extinction risk argument for colonizing another planet. The argument starts by noting that out of all species to ever live on Earth, 99.9% have gone extinct. It then goes on to point out how most of these extinctions occurred in planet-wide events called mass extinctions. Thus, establishing a species on another planet would be a good way to increase its chances of survival. If a cataclysmic event wipes the species off one planet, it is simply a matter of waiting for the dust to settle before reintroducing them from the other planet.

One detail of this plan is extremely important: so long as no such event has occurred, it is essential that the species be well-established on both planets. Once the species is wiped off one planet, it becomes as vulnerable as it used to be until its presence on that planet is restored. Abandoning the species’ home planet in favor of a newly colonized one thus completely fails to increase the species’ survival rate.

The misconception stems from the idea that once Mars is colonized, Earth will become unnecessary to the survival of the human race. Since the end of humanity on Earth no longer means the end of humanity, we are free to abandon it whenever we want. But this ignores that the whole purpose of colonizing Mars was to have two planets instead of one. Mars may be essential to the plan, but so is Earth.

But won’t having Mars as a backup mean we put less effort and resources toward preventing a catastrophe on Earth? No, because there will still be plenty of people living on Earth, and their lives will be as valuable as ever. Humanity will be wiped off the face of the Earth only if no way exists to prevent it.

However, if Mars is colonized, then Earth can actually be re-inhabited, given enough time. Therefore, colonizing Mars is actually the opposite of abandoning Earth; it is a means by which to remain on Earth. That is why many people see it not as the abandonment of our home, but as an important step to take for protecting both it and humanity.

Can boycotts be solved?

2018-02-01

In my last post, I talked about why individuals’ incentives will prevent video game boycotts from succeeding. Now I’d like to discuss potential solutions (or at least vague outlines for potential solutions) to this problem.

The first idea that comes to mind is looking at historical successes. Two successful boycotts that I’m aware of are the Continental Association and the Montgomery bus boycott. For those who don’t know, the Continental Association was a boycott of British goods by the American colonies prior to the American Revolutionary War, and the Montgomery bus boycott was a protest against the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama during the American Civil Rights Movement. In looking at these examples, I hope to identify both parts of a coordination mechanism: an agreement and an enforcement mechanism.

The Continental Association’s agreement is easy to find. The Association’s articles stated that colonists would refuse to import British goods and American merchants would avoid price gouging to ease the resulting burden. Likewise, the articles provide several enforcement mechanisms. Those violating the agreement were to be publicly ostracized and condemned. Committees of inspection were set up to monitor businesses. Colonies had to cease all dealings with any colony that did not comply. Additionally, violence was employed to force compliance on some occasions. These mechanisms were successful enough for all but one colony to comply up until the war began.

The Montgomery bus boycott also has a simple agreement. The buses would not be ridden until the city agreed to switch to a compromise between the current rules and desegregation. The enforcement mechanism is less obvious, but given the strength of the black community and its churches, it’s reasonable to assume it was social pressure. Community members often helped each other out, and losing that support could be devastating, so if the community said you should join the boycott, you probably joined the boycott. Similarly to before, this was enough for the boycott to last until the United States Supreme Court ruled segregation on public transportation illegal.

Coming back to video game boycotts, the agreement seems easy to create. Refuse to purchase the game until the game’s publisher stops whatever prompted the boycott. The difficult part is the enforcement mechanism. The Continental Association’s methods don’t seem particularly helpful. Committees of inspection could be ignored, no obvious analog to colonies exists, and violence is a poor solution for most problems. That leaves social mechanisms, the strategy that was also employed for the Montgomery bus boycott. This is probably the most plausible option, but it’s still pretty bad. The online disinhibition effect weakens social restrictions, reducing the chances that an online community will be able to pressure its members into coordination. Therefore, I think it would be wiser to look at other options.

The most powerful coordination mechanism ever created by civilization is probably government. In a government with legislative and executive branches, the legislative branch sets the agreements while the executive branch enforces them. Thus, one way to solve our problem is to get a law passed that bans the targeted activity. Then everyone is forced to “boycott” offending games by means of their nonexistence.

Of course, this idea is not without its problems. First of all, you need to grab the attention of your legislators while thousands of other causes also vie for their attention. Next, you need to convince them that supporting your law is in their best interests, even though there will almost certainly be objections and proposals for changes that no one will agree on. Additionally, you need to actually have a law for them to support. If you can’t specify the activity that needs banned well enough, your law will either be ineffective or ban actions that should be allowed. This brings up another problem, which is that your law restricts the freedom of others. If some people don’t mind a game with the opposed features and your law prevents it from being made, your actions may become rather questionable.

Perhaps we need to think outside the box more. In Inadequate Equilibria, Eliezer Yudkowsky mentions the idea of a timed-collective-action-threshold-conditional-commitment, essentially a generalized version of Kickstarter, as a means to coordinate action. In our case, the idea would be to have potential boycotters agree to the boycott if and only if a certain number of other people also agree to it. The problem is that there remains a need for an enforcement mechanism. In Kickstarter’s case, backers pay when they make the agreement and their money is returned if the project fails to meet its funding threshold. Thus, backers don’t have the option to not pay, but must instead trust the company to not keep the money for a failed project. A similar solution might work for boycotting video games, though there are multiple challenges to overcome.

First off, participants need to have not already bought the game. If those who have purchased the game are allowed to appear to participate, then we will once again end up in a situation where no one is incentivized to actually participate. For the same reason, participants must be incentivized to avoid purchasing the game in the middle of the boycott. We also want to ensure that all participants are actually interested in buying the game being boycotted so the publisher is incentivized to meet the boycott’s demands.

Taking this into account, here is my rough proposal for a Kickstarter-like boycott company. A boycott agreement would have participants deposit enough money to buy the game being boycotted. After a set time, if a set number of people has not been reached, the deposit is returned and no obligations remain. However, if the set number of people is reached prior to the set time, the boycott begins. At this point, any participant who buys the game will lose their deposit. Those who don’t buy the game will have one of two things happen to their deposit. If the boycott is judged successful, their deposit is used to purchase the game for them. However, if a set duration passes without the boycott being judged successful, the deposits are returned. Alternatively, they could be put towards purchasing a similar game by a rival publisher.

Why use something like this structure? The deposit is important because it serves as the enforcement mechanism. If you fail to remain in the boycott, you lose money. A successful boycott leads to the deposit buying the game for two reasons. First of all, it provides an incentive not to buy the game prior to the end of the boycott even if you could do so without being detected (such as by using an alternate account), since you’ll end up getting two copies of the game if it succeeds. It also helps discourage people who don’t care about the game from participating, which is important if they are otherwise incentivized to.

The reason such people might be incentivized to participate is that the deposits of anyone who buys the game during the boycott might be redistributed to those who didn’t buy it. This would create an opportunity for profit that might be exploited. Other ways to prevent this include forcing deposits to be put toward another game upon a failed boycott or letting the company running the boycott keep the forfeited deposits as extra profit. The first option has the advantage of reducing the chance that participants buy the game after the boycott is over, which makes the boycott more credible to the publisher. However, it may discourage people from participating since their control over the money they deposit is vastly reduced. Letting the boycott company keep the deposits has the drawback of incentivizing the company to have some people buy the game during the boycott.

There are still plenty of problems with this design, and I’m sure that, if it is not entirely useless, it would at the very least need to undergo several rounds of improvement to actually be viable. But it would be very interesting if a company loosely resembling this proposal arose one day. In the meantime, there is one last idea I’d like to take a look at.

Instead of using a boycott, we could instead treat the desired action as a public good that players would like the publisher to create. Normally public goods are provided by the government, but we’ve already considered a way the government could help, so let’s look at a more unique option.

Prediction markets are a special type of stock market involving assets that pay out only if a certain event happens. They are usually discussed in the context of their ability to aggregate information about currently unresolved facts. However, Paul Sztorc has proposed that a decentralized prediction market could be used to fund public goods. In our case, the “public good” is an end to whatever we wanted to boycott. To fund it, a special prediction market would be created, and players who wish to help fund the good would buy the state predicting that the good will not be created. If enough funds are raised, the company will choose to purchase a state predicting the creation of the good and discontinue the activity in order to claim the funds.

This strategy also has its share of problems. For one thing, a decentralized prediction market has to exist in order to implement this idea. Even if this condition is met, there’s still the issue of incentives to become a free rider instead of contributing to the funding of the public good. There’s also the question of whether it’s right for players to have to pay extra in order for publishers to listen to them.

There are a multitude of ways in which the weaknesses of boycotts could be overcome. While the ideas presented here are unrefined, I think there may be potential within them. That said, I have no plans to refine them myself, so it’s probable that nothing will ever come of them. However, I will not be surprised if someone eventually comes up with something.

Video game boycotts

2018-01-26

Recently, many people have been upset by the direction some video games have been taking in regard to certain ideas like loot boxes. One proposed solution is to boycott the offending games. However, there is a fundamental problem with boycotting that makes this very difficult to pull off.

Participating in a boycott is generally not worth it to an individual. A good way to observe this is to use marginal analysis. The marginal cost of participating in a boycott is pretty easy to identify, since it’s simply being unable to purchase and play the game targeted by the boycott. However, identifying the marginal benefit is a bit more complicated.

One way to think of the marginal benefit is to assume that there is a single threshold at which it becomes more profitable for the game developer to give in to the boycott than to continue on with whatever activity is being boycotted. Below this threshold, the revenue lost to the boycotters is less than that gained by continuing the boycotted activity. At and above this threshold, continuing the activity will cost the firm more than it earns them. Thus, the firm will cease the activity if and only if the boycott meets the threshold.

What does this mean for boycotting’s marginal benefit? Well, there’s exactly one person who will bump the number of boycotters up to the threshold. The marginal benefit for this individual is the success of the boycott in changing the company’s behavior. However, for everyone else the marginal benefit of participating in the boycott is nothing. After all, they have no effect on whether or not the company continues the activity. Since the marginal cost is greater than the marginal benefit for at least all but one individual, including everyone who joins the boycott early on (well before the threshold is reached), no one is actually incentivized to participate unless exactly one specific large number of disincentivized people are already participating.

One detail this model fails to account for is uncertainty regarding the location of the threshold. Unless the boycotters can figure out how much the company is profiting from the boycotted activity, they aren’t able to determine which person will reach the threshold. Thus, instead of giving definitive marginal benefits for each person, we can instead model individuals as having a marginal benefit based on the subjective probability that they will reach an unknown threshold.

Let’s say that, without a boycott, a game would be purchased by 10 million people. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that every additional person has an equal chance to reach the threshold. We’ll also assume that there is no chance of reaching the threshold with zero participants, and that all 10 million people participating guarantees that the threshold will be reached. This means that every person increases the probability of a successful boycott by .00001%. Since the expected value of the marginal benefit is equal to the probability of the threshold being reached multiplied by the value of reaching the threshold, we find that a person must value purchasing and playing the game less than .00001% as much as they value the boycott succeeding in order to be incentivized to participate. In other words, unless they want to end the boycotted activity 10 million times as badly as they want to buy and play the game, they will not join the boycott. In fact, that number will always be equal to the number of potential players, so a game that is bought by only 1 million people still requires the players to want the boycott to succeed 1 million times as much as they want to buy and play the game.

Why is it such a big deal that boycotts normally fail? Sure, it’s upsetting that the company won’t stop doing whatever the players hate, but some trade-off has to be made, and getting the game seems to be worth more to them than stopping the company. The problem becomes apparent when you consider what would happen if the players were able to perfectly coordinate as a single group. In this case, the group’s marginal cost and marginal benefit for participating in a boycott are equal to the total cost and total benefit of the boycott. The marginal cost is still being unable to purchase and play the game, but the marginal benefit is now a guaranteed successful boycott. Thus, every player in the group wants the group to boycott the game, assuming the players are willing to wait a short period prior to the boycott’s success to purchase the game in return for actually getting that success.

Why is this result different from when we consider the players acting individually? Because the additional cost for each player joining the boycott is only born by that player while the additional benefit is shared among every player, the fraction of the total benefit the player receives is too small to incentivize them to participate. However, if participating meant they received that sliver of benefit plus a sliver of benefit from every other player, and not participating meant they received no benefit at all, then their marginal benefit is increased to the point where they will participate. Without the players coordinating as a group, the second condition cannot be met thanks to players receiving the benefit from boycotters even if they do not participate themselves.

This situation is an example of what is known as a coordination problem. Without coordination, each player will take an action that makes them better off but leaves everyone else worse off, leading to the group as a whole being worse off as well. However, if the players are able to coordinate, than they can take an action that leaves themselves worse off but makes everyone else better off, leading to all members of the group being better off.

Currently, players are unable to coordinate effectively, leading to situations in which supposed boycotters are actually playing the game they wish for everyone to boycott. This is the optimal strategy for individuals since it allows the players to gain the benefits of continuing to play the game while also giving them some additional benefit from anyone foolish enough to actually do as they say and boycott the game. But from the perspective of the group, it’s a terrible outcome that both causes the boycott to fail and encourages deception.

A photo showing members of a boycott group playing the game they want boycotted

Not exactly the most effective group

Are there ways to resolve this problem? Possibly, but I don’t think there are any easy solutions. Coordinating large groups is a very complex task, and I’m not sure how much insight I really have regarding this issue. Nonetheless, I will likely propose potential solutions in another post.