Suppose I told you about a certain country, somewhere in the world, in which some of the cities have degenerated into gang rule. Some such cities are ruled by a single gang leader, others have degenerated into almost complete lawlessness. You would probably conclude that the cities I was talking about were located inside what we call a "failed state".
So what does the existence of North Korea say about this Earth?
No, it's not a perfect analogy. But the thought does sometimes occur to me, to wonder if the camel has two humps. If there are failed Earths and successful Earths, in the great macroscopic superposition popularly known as "many worlds" - and we're not one of the successful. I think of this as the "failed Earth" hypothesis.
Of course the camel could also have three or more humps, and it's quite easy to imagine Earths that are failing much worse than this, epic failed Earths ruled by the high-tech heirs of Genghis Khan or the Catholic Church. Oh yes, it could definitely be worse...
...and the "failed state" analogy is hardly perfect; "failed state" usually refers to failure to integrate into the global economy, but a failed Earth is not failing to integrate into anything larger...
...but the question does sometimes haunt me, as to whether in the alternative Everett branches of Earth, we could identify a distinct cluster of "successful" Earths, and we're not in it. It may not matter much in the end; the ultimate test of a planet's existence probably comes down to Friendly AI, and Friendly AI may come down to nine people in a basement doing math. I keep my hopes up, and think of this as a "failing Earth" rather than a "failed Earth".
But it's a thought that comes to mind, now and then. Reading about the ongoing Market Complexity Collapse and wondering if this Earth failed to solve one of the basic functions of global economics, in the same way that Rome, in its later days, failed to solve the problem of orderly transition of power between Caesars.
Of course it's easy to wax moralistic about people who aren't solving their coordination problems the way you like. I don't mean this to degenerate into a standard diatribe about the sinfulness of this Earth, the sort of clueless plea embodied perfectly by Simon and Garfunkel:
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again
It's a cheap pleasure to wax moralistic about failures of global coordination.
But visualizing the alternative Everett branches of Earth, spread out and clustered - for me, at least, that seems to help trigger my mind into a non-Simon-and-Garfunkel mode of thinking. If the successful Earths lack a North Korea, how did they get there? Surely not just by signing a piece of paper saying they'd never fight again.
Indeed, our Earth's Westphalian concept of sovereign states is the main thing propping up Somalia and North Korea. There was a time when any state that failed that badly would be casually conquered by a more successful neighbor. So maybe the successful Earths don't have a Westphalian concept of sovereignty; maybe our Earth's concept of inviolable borders represents a failure to solve one of the key functions of a planetary civilization.
Maybe the successful Earths are the ones where the ancient Greeks, or equivalent thereof, had the "Aha!" of Darwinian evolution... and at least one country started a eugenics program that successfully selected for intelligence, well in advance of nuclear weapons being developed. If that makes you uncomfortable, it's meant to - the successful Earths may not have gotten there through Simon and Garfunkel. And yes, of course the ancient Greeks attempting such a policy could and probably would have gotten it terribly wrong; maybe the epic failed Earths are the ones where some group had the Darwinian insight and then successfully selected for prowess as warriors. I'm not saying "Go eugenics!" would have been a systematically good idea for ancient Greeks to try as policy...
But maybe the top cluster of successful Earths, among human Everett branches, stumbled into that cluster because some group stumbled over eugenic selection for intelligence, and then, being a bit smarter, realized what it was they were doing right, so that the average IQ got up to 140 well before anyone developed nuclear weapons. (And then conquered the world, rather than respecting the integrity of borders.)
What would a successful Earth look like? How high is their standard sanity waterline? Are there large organized religions in successful Earths - is their presence here a symptom of our failure to solve the problems of a planetary civilization? You can ring endless changes on this theme, and anyone with an accustomed political hobbyhorse is undoubtedly imagining their pet Utopia already. For my own part, I'll go ahead and wonder, if there's an identifiable "successful" cluster among the human Earths, what percentage of them have worldwide cryonic preservation programs in place.
One point that takes some of the sting out of our ongoing muddle - at least from my perspective - is my suspicion that the Earths in the successful cluster, even those with an average IQ of 140 as they develop computers, may not be in much of a better position to really succeed, to solve the Friendly AI problem. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Friendly AI is a race between cautiously developed AI and insufficiently-cautiously-developed AI. "Successful" Earths might even be worse off, if they solve their global coordination problems well enough to put the whole world's eyes on the problem and turn the development over to prestigious bureaucrats. It's not a simple issue like cryonics that we're talking about. If, in the end, "successful Earths" of the human epoch aren't in a much better position for the catastrophically high-level pass-fail test of the posthuman transition, than our own "failing Earth"... then this Earth isn't all that much more doomed just because we screwed up our financial system, international relations, and basic rationality training.
Is such speculation at all useful? "Live in your own world", as the saying goes...
...Well, it might not be a saying here, but it's probably a saying in those successful Earths where the scientific community is long since trained in formal Bayesianism and they readily accepted the obvious truth of many-worlds... as opposed to our own world and its constantly struggling academia where senior scientists spend most of their time writing grant proposals...
(Michael Vassar has an extended thesis on how the scientific community in our Earth has been slowly dying since 1910 or so, but I'll let him decide whether it's worth his time to write up that post.)
It's usually not my intent to depress people. I have an accustomed saying that if you want to depress yourself, look at the future, and if you want to cheer yourself up, look at the past. By analogy - well, for all we know, we might be in the second-highest major cluster, or in the top 10% of all Earths even if not one of the top 1%. It might be that most Earths have global orders descended from the conquering armies of the local Church. I recently had occasion to visit the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, and it's shocking to think of how easily a human culture can spend thirty thousand years without inventing the bow and arrow. Really, we did do quite well for ourselves in a lot of ways... I think?
A sense of beleaguredness, a sense that everything is decaying and dying into sinfulness - these memes are more useful for gluing together cults than for inspiring people to solve their coordination problems.
But even so - it's a thought that I have, when I see some aspect of the world going epically awry, to wonder if we're in the cluster of Earths that fail. It's the sort of thought that inspires me, at least, to go down into that basement and solve the math problem and make everything come out all right anyway. Because if there's one thing that the intelligence explosion really messes up, it's the dramatic unity of human progress - if this were a world with a supervised course of history we'd be worrying about making it to Akon's world through a continuous developmental schema, not making a sudden left turn to solve a math problem.
It may be that in the fractiles of the human Everett branches, we live in a failing Earth - but it's not failed until someone messes up the first AI. I find that a highly motivating thought. Your mileage may vary.
I have to disagree here. First of all, North Korea has the world's third largest army. Any state that tried to conquer it would have its hands full. Additionally, counterinsurgency warfare has become damn hard these days - consider the Soviet failure in Afghanistan during the 1980s. As Stalin observed, it takes a generation and a half to pacify a country and convert it to your ideology by force.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, conquering poorly defended land isn't profitable any more; some time around World War I, conquest became far more trouble than it's worth. Nobody wants Somalia, even if the rest of the world would be okay with someone marching an army into it. It's just not worth anything. The British Empire, a more modern example of conquest for profit, never occupied Afghanistan. It would have cost far more to subdue the natives than it would ever produce in revenue. Today, far more wealth is created by Internet startups than could be stole... (read more)
Plato did advocate eugenics!
The very short version of my thesis on sci/tech change is that we have exponential increases in resources devoted to science and technology as a civilization, linear returns on many scales such as life expectancy, mean IQ, log GDP (which is still of mildly diminishing utility), etc.
Low hanging fruit depletion, the standard explanation for this, is very insufficient to produce the observed effect. Many other plausible effects have been proposed that could contribute to reduced scientific progress, including but not limited to excessive time in grant-writ... (read more)
"degradation in educational standards" And yet people are successfully learning calculus and the like at younger and younger ages, and getting higher and higher absolute scores on international math and logic tests/IQ subtests. I'd like to see you square this with Flynn.
I put the inflection point near 1970 instead, and a variety of reasons support this:
Disappearance of merit scholarships to elite universities in America
Explosion of the cost of attending elite universities in America
Explosion of income of doctors and lawyers, without any explosion of income for scientists and engineers
Leveling off of the US science
Sounds scary. Michael, if writing up the full post will take too long, could you post a short summary / key facts here in the comments?
after the civil war a pipeline was built from the heart of academia into the sewage of politics, hoping that the crystal pure waters of science would wash out the muck. no one remembered to install a backflow valve and the sewage of politics simply backed up into academia.
90% of grants come from the same place. You don't need conspiracy theories to explain coordination when everyone is getting checks with the same signature.
edit: before i get down modded to oblivion I'd just like to point out that standard history suffers from severe crippling hindsight bias. history properly interpreted is the search for decisions that had disproportionate impact on the future light cone. Because we dont have access to alternate presents this is extremely difficult and the standard methods strike me as guilty of the same curve fitting that evolution was in its infancy (lamarckianism, social darwinism, other sillyness).
Since the historically normal state of humanity is either static hunter-gatherer society or a crushing subsitence-agricultural poverty, even North Korea is doing fairly well. Up until about 200 years ago, there was really nothing for most people to look forward to than a life of hard, continuous labor, having hopefully at least one child survive long enough for you to pass whatever you may have accumulated to, and dying. Our world is doing pretty well. Your problem is you seem to be comparing the real world to some fantasy that you think could have been true somewhere.
Selecting so that the average IQ was 140 would solve nothing. It would be just as destructive as selecting for Greek super-warriors, only more so, because intelligence is dangerous in ways rippling muscles and aggression aren't; the danger of high IQ utterly transcends the brute ability to win physical contests.
Neither IQ, nor the aspects of cognition which it represents, are the solution to our problems. They're responsible for a large part of the problems that confront us in the first place!
A point good enough to be worth extending. What things other than bits of geography do we have Westphalian borders a... (read more)
Surprised no one linked to this yet on Somalia.
And you shouldn't, too. Ancient India tried both intelligence and warriors, infact it tried a 4-fold caste system.
It seems like a bit of a down post. My impression is that our position is pretty sweet. We face an almost-amazingly benign environment. Indeed, the environment seems better than we have reason to expect on anthropic grounds - curiously so, perhaps.
"Indeed, our Earth's Westphalian concept of sovereign states is the main thing propping up Somalia and North Korea."
Sure it is. It hasn't got anything to do with nukes/quagmire. I remember the Westphalian concept of sovereignty propping up Iraq in the spring of '03. How we laughed and laughed. Oh, Westphalia, you dog! I particularly enjoyed the part when Eliezer suggested that what Somalia needs is more Ethiopias.
There's a severe paucity of imagination in this post, or maybe empathy is the word I'm looking for. This planet doesn't fail Eliezer's ... (read more)
WRT eugenics and other seemly nasty solutions, it is as they say: sometimes it has to get worse to get better. No option that causes, obvious to the voting population, short term harm but long term benefits, to the population as a whole, is going to be considered by politicians that want to be elected again.
It seems to me that the science and rationality that allow more than a shot in the dark probability of some social engineering project to work only came about recently (for example for Eugenics, post Darwin time). By the time that it was possible to do ... (read more)
Agreed we're in the successful group, easily. Sucks that NK exists as it is, but they are isolated and have no way to expand or threaten the world system. The fact that we can have websites like this, and people actually can sit in the basement and work on the math means we are doing well, up to this point at least.
My guess is more of the failed earths were long ago. Like humans continue to wander around in small tribes for millions of years and never get beyond stone-age technology. We are eventually wiped out by a meteor or some such.
we don't have much of a choice about generalizing from one example in this case.
considering the space of all possible worlds I wouldn't hesitate to put us in the top 10^-30%
Well, there is that Playstation advertising slogan, "Live in your world, play in ours."
Perhaps I am missing something obvious (I am severely underversed in MWI), but we cannot see any of the other Earth's, right? Why are we supposed to assume that they are succeeding or failing? If I just need to read up on MWI let me know and ignore this comment.
Bullet-pointed because I like thinking that way:
According to CIA 2008 estimates life expectancy in North Korea is 71.92, which is far higher than global average and even slightly higher than that of EU members Romania and Latvia. HDI for North Korea is only available for 1995 where it was 0.766. Both figures show that life in North Korea is somewhere in the middle of modern world, far better than in real third world, and vastly better than historical average.
It seems to me that North Korea was used as an example for its connotations, not denotations - that's a cheap trick that we should be avoiding.
The extremely negative aspects of human history should be added in as priors to point to a fairly negative future, up to and including the realization of a man-made existential risk.
what does it say about your nation when your country's capital has by far the highest crime rates in the nation? (Washington D.C.)
And you shouldn't, too. Ancient India tried both intelligence and warriors, infact it tried a 4-fold caste system. Brahmins - intellects and priests Kshatriyas - Warriors and Ru... (read more)
I'd like to suggest an idea from "The Hitch hikers Guide to the Galaxy" and look at our earth as a big computer and people and all its problems as just being parts of the program. I think if you look at it this way and think of all the failures just being the program checking all possible solutions then instead of thinking the earth is failing heaps you can think we've checked out a lot of the different possibility's. If you think of it as in your political systems you have a group of parties, you pick the best two, take there ideas and combine ... (read more)
The best empirical estimate we have for the probability that the Earth will not fail, is the fraction of Earth-like planets around us that have succeeded. (Zero.)
That said, they don't seem to have failed after achieving AI, so I don't know if that really tells us much.
How do you know that this earth doesn't need a North Korea so that people have an appropriate example of how not to do things? And perhaps the global economic crash is saving us from future, even worse, collapses by allowing us to put in regulation before true catastrophe happens.
Perhaps failure, as an aspect of learning, must occur in many ways and through many times to properly teach every generation how to act and how to better themselves and the planet. A 'successful Earth' where North Korea and economic collapses don't exist may just be a fantasized Utopia (as linked in your post), when what we need to access a better future is a Weirdtopia that includes them as counterexamples or pressure points for change.
Considering the invention of the steam maschine and its improval the romans could have flown to the moon - if they had the right ideas regarding science and technology and how its usefull to improve on them. Likewise alot of early human inventions seem to be rather accidents than systematic work. So its easily imaginable that on other earth the way up to our current standard took way longer, or alot less long.
Now also one can imagine how Aristotle or Socrates could have dreamt up the scientific method and get it tought. Or that ppl. came to realize how kil... (read more)
(off topic) Please add a favicon, they make bookmarking much easier. The FHI diamond in green might work, but just about anything is better than nothing.