In this post, I'll try to tackle the question of whether this community and its members should focus more efforts and resources on improving their strength as individuals and as a community, than on directly tackling the problem of singularity. I'll start off with a personal anecdote, because, while I know it's not indispensable, I think anecdotes help the reader to think in near rather than far mode, and this post's topic is already too easily thought of in far mode in the first place.
The other day, I was in an idle conversation with a cab driver when he asked me: What would you do if you won the lottery? Is there some particular dream you have, such as travelling the world or something? I said (and I apologize in advance for the grandiosity and egotism of what follows, mostly because it might show a poor appraisal of my own competence and ability)
Well, it's not like I would ever play at the lottery, but if I did, and somehow won, I would
- Pay myself the very best tutors and the very best education (I'm thinking Master's Degrees, PhD, and so on, that's all pretty damned expensive depending on where you take it) in my chosen speciality.
- Pay myself the best aid in achieving peak sustainable physical, mental, and emotional condition (as optimized for the struggles and stresses of a daily life of extreme academic exertion, not for, say, performing in the battlefield, the olympics, or competitive chess). Coaches, gurus, chemicals, whatever it takes.
- Spend one or two or even three years around the world learning as many "important" languages as I can. Not in order of ease or priority: Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, and Turkish and Arabic and Hebrew and their Ancient variants, because of all the doors these could open... and Basque and Navajo (those two would be just for the hell of it). (I already know English, Spanish, French, and a fair amount of German and Arabic).
- With the acquired technical knowledge and skills, and the help of the contact network and the better understanding of human nature that learning so many languages and exploring so many cultures and travelling so much will have netted me, use the remaining money to start a business, one that involves as many people as possible in a way such that I can train them to be a Chaos Legion.
- Hopefully, once I have achieved enough profits to make the growth of my business secure, donate a constant stipendium to my favourite nonprofits.
- In my old age, use the returns from all the previous efforts to found a school (actually an integral education system, think something between Summerhill School and the Mahora Academy Complex) which would be optimized for great justice and the rigorous use and promotion and exponential spread of modern rationality
My reply surprised both of us. Him, because it was atypical (apparently most people would spend them on luxury items and so on, that is, they would spend their newfound money in signalling that they have it... I think the mistake comes from seeing rich people doing it and then assuming that that's what you should do if you become rich, the only other option apparently being saving it up in an account). That a modern rationalist came up with an atypical answer to such a question is only to be expected.
But I was surprised too, because I found it strange that what I thought I ought to do and what I wanted to do coincided so perfectly. I wasn't even expecting those last two points, they sort of naturally came out in the spur of the moment. Upon further thought, I was also surprised that this turned out to be merely an exaggeration and heavy of my pre-existing plan, which I am already attempting to follow with far less material means. That is to say, the dramatic change in money did not fundamentally change what I wanted to do with my (currently limited) lifetime.
But then I asked myself: if my priority is reducing existential risk, why am I not giving all the money to my favourite nonprofits immediately?
And that's where it hit me: I wanted to make myself stronger. And the point I'm trying to make is that, well, so should we all. Why?
There's a strong selfish component to that (not that there's anything wrong with healthy selfishness), but, for someone who considers existential risk an extremely important factor, enlightened self-interest might still be on the side of donating immediately.
But it might also be a sound strategy, sounder, perhaps, to exponentially increase our ability to help fight existential risk, in terms of fear, and improve the general level of human rationality, in terms of desire (I understand that we would all be happier in a world with more rational people, for many, many reasons, not all of which are altruistic). So, how would we go about this? I submit to you this tentative strategy draft.
- Step Zero: Improve our own physical and mental condition. We need the best possible hardware to operate on. This will give us raw ability. The ability to gain abilities, so to speak. This includes making ourselves happy (which itself overlaps with and is enabled by some of the following points: it's a virtuous cycle).
- Step One: Increasing our own personal, intrinsic worth: buying with our money goods that improve our ability to both obtain and enjoy more goods, and that could never be taken away from us by economic transaction. While we could teach ourselves those with only the cost of opportunity of not spending that time earning wages, well thought out and carefully applied expenditure can significantly accelerate and smooth the process. This will make us powerful, useful tools, for our own goals and for the goals of those that would associate with us (employers, allies, and so on). This will give us authority. We become acknowledged experts on or at a socially useful field. Scientists, Engineers, Artists and other highly skilled folks are on this level: they can already get a lot done, and change the world but, as the Creationism issue proves, among others, it isn't nearly enough. You often don't get to choose what to work on or how many resources are made available to you, you don't have any control on the fruit of your work once it's done and released, and you may always have trouble getting people to follow your advice, no matter how much you think you know better. Step one is the step of Intrinsic Power.
- Step Two: Increasing our ability to take advantage of social status: learning and perfecting languages, social skills, communication and manipulation tools, dress sense and sense of signalling, dancing, romantic an sexual intelligence and skill (how many powerful people had their careers and/or reputations ruined forever because of badly handled sex and romance?)... That is, we will learn and master the rules of the game, the game we are all playing all the time by virtue of associating with other human beings, and avoid defecting by accident, among other possible mistakes. This will give us urbanity. Together with authority, it already means both credit and influence. At this level, you can actually get a lot more stuff done, because you're much better at persuading people to want to follow your suggestions out of their own volition.
- This includes the ability to delegate, divide work and manage specialists, empower and motivate people to help you, helping them grow themselves in the process, etc. Step Two is the step of Soft Power.
A lot of effort has already been expended by the community in working on these first steps. But there's a third step that isn't getting worked on much, perhaps because of aesthetic values, perhaps because it's one of the most dangerous to wield, both to the world and to ourselves and our own personal integrity:
- Step Three: Increase how much coercive power we hold over how many of our fellow human beings: the ability to make them do things or else. My impression is that economic power (both affluence and assets) is much more secure and far less vulnerable than other sources such as, say, media influence or political clout, or social power brokering (which is greatly enhanced by joining support groups or becoming one ourselves), (although the feedback between these tends to be positive, on average, and overlap and migration between them is hardly unheard of). This power is increased exponentially, and is much easier to maintain, by having both Step One (you actually know what you're doing or at least where to get the information, and are more able to judge it) and Two (you know what not to do and how to achieve the greatest results with the minimal expenditure of your power) under your belt, and of course all three steps profit from Step Zero. At this level, to a certain extent, people will do what you want them to, their own feelings, initiatives and desires factoring far less into the actions they end up choosing than they otherwise would.
Those are partly selfish goals unto themselves: power means freedom to do what you want, and that and high social status are already very enjoyable for their own sake. Additionally, the more of us achieve them (and the larger the capacity in which they achieve them), the more resources they can get assigned and the more support they can gather (or force) for the sake of efforts towards preventing existential risk. But I suggest that they be mainly planned, optimized and instrumentalized for Step Four, the most dangerous of all:
- Step Four: Use the gained knowledge, skills, assets, and position to improve the overall level of both cognitive and instrumental rationality of humanity.
Which has the following advantages I can think of, listed without regard for altruism or selfishness:
- Humans are enabled to be far more successful in the pursuit of happiness, whatever that is, and in otherwise improving themselves, their lives, and the world around them. Their liberty in terms of choices is also greatly increased, once free of akrasia and with an enhanced ability to identify and accurately assess choices.
- We as rationalists feel far less isolated and vulnerable and far more at home in a world where there are more people like us and where people are more like us (not quite the same thing). Life will generally be more fun and interesting.
- We'll get a much wider pool of potential candidates from which people with the ability to help prevent existential risk, and the cost and difficulty of gathering more support and resources will be greatly diminished. In other words, we'll be much more effective at preventing existential risk.
Does achieving Step Four mean humanity will actually be in less of a danger of self-destructing at that point? It's not a rhetorical question, and I don't think its answer is trivial: in particular, having many half rationalists (I might well still be one myself) running around might represent a considerable danger, which could be sustained in time. However, projects such as Methods of Rationality or The Centre for Modern Rationality, as well as this site's very existence seem to hint that some of the smartest among us are willing to take the risk.
So, the immediate question I ask of you in earnest, the whole point of this post: How do we go about spending our money and effort in the most effective way to prevent existential risk? How much to de expend in directly attacking the problem as we are, how much do we expend in actually making ourselves stronger?
In sillier terms: Should the Z Warriors go and try to confront Cell right now, before he grows too strong to beat, or should they avoid the fight and go train instead? (assume that they do nothing with their lives but be in fights, train to prepare for fights, or run away from fights they are not prepared for yet)