Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Some Answers about Policy Outreach on Artificial Intelligence

I asked a question last week about whether efforts to ensure that artificial intelligence is developed safely should include public outreach. This goes significantly against the grain of most people working on AI safety, as the predominant view is that all that is useful right now is research, and even outreach to elites should wait. While I'm still not persuaded that public outreach would be harmful, I was moved toward seeing why it might be a bad idea from a few answers I got:

1) On the core issues, the policy asks have yet to be worked out for ensuring safe development of artificial intelligence. Nobody knows how we actually program AI to be safe, yet. We are so far from that there is little to say.

2) Regulation could tie the ethical AI developers' hands and let bad actors be the ones who develop AI. This argument closely resembles arguments about other regulations: industries flee countries with the most regulations, causing industries to move to less-regulated countries. In most cases I think it's still worth passing the regulation, but it's at least plausible that AI is a case where regulation right now would be bad, especially given (1).

3) Working on AI safety today is very different from working on a risk like climate change because climate change is already happening, and AI safety problems are almost entirely in the future. (There are some today, though.) Working on AI safety today is like working on climate change in 1900.

4) On the specific question of lethal autonomous weapons, it's not clear how harmful these are. A recent post on the effective altruism forum persuaded me that the effect of AI weapons is closer to ambiguous than I'd thought.

Still, I have reservations:

1) It seems there are policy goals that could be achieved in this area. One would be more coordination by the main actors. Another would be regulation on the things that are here today like lethal offensive autonomous weapons, even if a ban may not make sense. Getting the infrastructure in place to deal with these issues could pay off down the road.

2) I don't buy the idea that getting members of the public on board with AI safety would be counterproductive. Sure, members of the public have a worse time understanding and explaining things, but most people are somewhat literate, and scientific literacy is increasing. Polarization does not seem an inevitable result of careful, friendly public outreach–only confrontational outreach. Also, poor explanations and polarization can be outweighed by upsides.

At the end of the day, it does seem clear that this is a conversation to keep having. Outreach directly on the topic of superintelligence may not be helpful, but I still wonder about whether more preparations for the day that superintelligence is near might make sense.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Insects Are Going out the Window. How Should We Think About This?

Insect populations are rapidly declining according to scientists (and our cars' windshields):
An amateur German group called the Krefeld Entomological Society has been monitoring insect numbers at 100 nature reserves in Western Europe since the 1980s. Although there were the annual fluctuations they discovered that by 2013 numbers began to plummet by nearly 80 per cent.

Most people likely see this as a huge loss, particularly animal advocates. Environmentalists will of course see this as a huge loss given the effects on many ecosystems.

There's a growing body of literature, however, that suggests a different reaction (for instance, see Simon Knutsson). Much of it is done by lay people, but I hope to be able to study this question academically before long. If insects do feel pleasure and pain, then their lives look pretty lousy. In the vast majority of cases, "being an insect" means being born and promptly starving, being eaten alive, or dying in another horrific way.

It seems too early to take much action on insect suffering (besides research), but it is thought-provoking to wonder whether this trend is instead a merciful one.

Monday, August 28, 2017

I'm a City Dweller

I woke up living in an apartment building for the first time in my life. (I'd previously woken up in apartment buildings, but did not live in them.) Having spent most of my life in the suburbs and my high school years having envy for my friends' access to public transit, this is an interesting moment for me. I've always admired cities, and the moment has had me reflect on my place in one.

It had me thinking about cities and what I've read and learned about them. In college I did a program called FOCUS on New Haven that introduced us to urban politics and then took a course on New Haven and American cities based off the book City: Urbanism and Its End. There's a lot more to learn from reading about New Haven than many people think. Its history has a rare degree of historical documentation given the presence of Yale. It typifies the history of many formerly great American cities, going from a geographically blessed religious haven to an industrial behemoth (in this case guns and cotton gins) with a thriving arts scene and machine politics to a city mired in racial tumult and failed urban renewal programs to, now, an increasingly gentrified city buoyed by "meds and eds." I guess I'm part of this last wave, though I wish in lieu of segregation or gentrification cities could have genuine racial equity.

The Working Families Party took the Bridgeport Board of Education by storm when I was teaching, prompting a showdown with the more corporate, charter-friendly superintendent and school administration.
I never was particularly enthralled by urban politics until I started reading more about how many global problems really come down to local arrangements. I first saw this as a teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I was witness to the intense wars raging over education with children and their families in the center of it. Money, power, politics, and systemic racism all appear in striking form. You can read the story from the hopeful first day of school to the decline and scandal at the school.

I still struggle to understand what created the problems I saw in Bridgeport. The best explanations I can see all center on the racism at the core of American cities. This American Life captures the problem of school segregation in "The Problem We All Live With" and Ta-Nehisi Coates nails residential segregation and the concentration of poverty and oppression in black neighborhoods in "The Case for Reparations". Many other policies, from education reform to urban renewal efforts, are piecemeal attempts to get around the real problems of structural racism and generational poverty.

I see cities, though, as ultimately places of hope: places where, often, problems do get worked out. Steven Pinker discusses how the coming together of different people in cities has driven many declines in violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Cities are the places where social change tends to happen. There's salons during the Enlightenment era, labor movements in the 19th century, the Castro district in the gay rights movement, and the births of everything from recycling to prohibitions on smoking. I want to live a life of creating change, now and in the future, and cities more than anywhere else symbolize change.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

RIP Village Voice

The Village Voice is ending its print addition today and is being hailed for its long run. It was once introduced to me as a gay newspaper, which I think indicates the way people think about it. The funny thing is that the paper had a huge fight with gay rights activists in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, which it referred to as "The Great Faggot Rebellion" and refusing ads with the word "gay" in them. Here's their article from the night of the Stonewall riots, a fun historical artifact:
Here, on the other hand, is their guide to 2017 Pride. Let's just say #SocialChange.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Does AI Safety (and the Effective Altruist Technocracy) Need More of a Grassroots?

The Future of Life Institute released a letter today to the UN’s Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) conveying concerns regarding lethal autonomous weapons (signed by Elon Musk and covered in The Washington Post and elsewhere). The concerns are grave:
Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.
I used to be unduly dismissive of far future concerns (as did many other EAs), but I've been persuaded by books like Superintelligence that getting artificial general intelligence right is one of the most pressing global problems. Given the danger an AI smarter than humans poses, preventing an AI from having lethal weapons at its disposal seems like a really, really big deal.

If that's the case, then I have a knot in my stomach about the circumstances surrounding the UN's decision-making on the matter. A ban on "killer robots" (not explicitly called for in the letter but something the WaPo and others took as implied) is not an easy policy for a government to stomach. What happens when the UN rejects the proposal and adopts an overly weak one that leaves the world as unprepared for killer AI as it was for nuclear weapons?

With many of the countries signing the convention being at least partially democratic, I wonder if public pressure is part of the answer. Even for non-democratic governments, public pressure can matter. I've previously made the case, which I believe still stands for pressing causes, that collective action is an effective way of creating change. Is there a need for a grassroots movement on this issue?

I know many people who have studied this more than me disagree, but there needs to be a way to translate expert opinion and knowledge into policy. How do we do this, and why is or is not a public movement part of the answer?

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Washington Post's Omission on Voter Suppression

The Washington Post this weekend had a sharply-worded editorial condemning efforts to disenfranchise voters with which I of course agree, but the editorial missed the crucial point. Here's the key paragraph:

Yet even if all 1,500 Confederate symbols across the country were removed overnight by some sudden supernatural force, the pernicious crusade to roll back voting rights would continue apace, with voters of color suffering its effects disproportionately. Pushing back hard against those who would purge voter rolls, demand forms of voter ID that many Americans don’t possess, and limit times and venues for voting — this should be a paramount cause for the Trump era.
All the forms of voter suppression listed deserve to be combatted, but the chief cause of disenfranchisement in the United States is one that is still rarely challenged: disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions. It's difficult to get a good estimate of the number of people prevented from voting by the most-talked-about forms of voter suppression, but estimates put the number in the hundreds of thousands or low millions. Felony disenfranchisement alone revokes the right to vote for 6.1 million people according to the Sentencing Project, including nearly 10% of African Americans. Of course, many if not most of those barred from voting would not vote anyway, but if even a third did, that would likely outweigh the number of people disenfranchised by all voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other restrictions.

Felony disenfranchisement, in turn, has huge knock-on effects by enabling the continued incarceration of a massive portion of the American populace and a particularly large portion of the African American populace. Any effort to fight for voting rights in the 21st century that wants to do more than tinker around the edges needs to fight felony disenfranchisement.

Friday, August 18, 2017

How Should Animal Advocates Think About Anti-Big Ag Political Coalitions?

Pooh-poohing the weakness of mainstream political parties toward Big Ag is rightly a hobby for animal advocates. The laxness (or supportiveness) of U.S. federal and state agencies toward Big Ag is strikingly out of step with the American publicAnimal advocates should be heartened this week by a piece in The Nation that argues that Democrats can seize the current anti-corporate fervor to challenge the Cargills and Smithfields of the world. The wrinkles of the piece, though, lay out some more complex strategic challenges than animal advocates may notice.

The article introduces us to Joe Maxwell, "a fourth-generation hog farmer and former lieutenant governor of Missouri" who led the fight against Oklahoma's "Right to Farm" bill, which ended in a rout of Big Ag. A "Right to Farm" bill is well worth fighting. So too are efforts to up the ante on USDA regulations and enforcement.

Then the piece gets to the biggest goal:
But the biggest demand from Family Farm Action is for the government to reinvigorate the antitrust laws that ensure open competition and prevent collusion. A major case involved the rigging of a key benchmark price grocery stores use to buy poultry, which cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars. “If the legal definition of collusion doesn’t give the Department of Justice the ability to prosecute, then we need to change the laws,” Maxwell said. The organization also supports using the Sherman and Clayton Acts to break up concentrated agricultural markets.
The catch here should be evident to many: anti-competitive practices, collusion, and price gouging may generally sound like bad things, but one key effect of them is to decrease the amount of a "product" being produced: that is, they should lead to fewer animals being raised. For consumers, small farmers, and potentially environmentalists, anti-competitive practices are indeed bad, but for animal advocates it may be a good thing that agriculture is so monopolized.

That does not necessarily mean that animal advocates should hop off this political bandwagon. It may be worth trading this issue for others. Even on this demand, though, there are more wrinkles than the number of animals raised. Monopoly power gives the industry extra money with which to lobby politicians, push anti-animal policies (even laws penalizing animal advocates), and get away with more egregious abuses. That said, it's not clear how much government policies actually do prop up industry. The Open Philanthropy Project's Lewis Bollard looked into a few of these policies and found that they did not make as much of a difference as many of us think.

There may be a greater reason for a political coalition, though, that outweighs the concern about how such a coalition would affect the numbers of animals raised for food in the short term. An anti-Big Ag rural coalition may reshape the social landscape in ways that down the road may lead to greater change. Connecting animal advocates with greater resources and voters could pave the way for bigger battles ahead. Public mobilization around Big Ag may be far more critical to the future of nonhuman animals than the policies of today. If political coalitions can pave the way for public mobilization, they may be worth doing despite problems like those above.