Changing accepted public opinion and Skynet

by[deleted]10y22nd May 200971 comments


Michael Annisimov has put up a website called Terminator Salvation: Preventing Skynet, which will host a series of essays on the topic of human-friendly artificial intelligence. Three rather good essays are already up there, including an old classic by Eliezer. The association with a piece of fiction is probably unhelpful, but the publicity surrounding the new terminator film is probably worth it.

What rational strategies can we employ to maximize the impact of such a site, or of publicity for serious issues in general? Most people who read this site will probably not do anything about it, or will find some reason to not take the content of these essays seriously. I say this because I have personally spoken to a lot of clever people about the creation of human-friendly artificial intelligence, and almost everyone finds some reason to not do anything about the problem, even if that reason is "oh, ok, that's interesting. Anyway, about my new car... ".

What is the reason underlying people's indifference to these issues? My personal suspicion is that most people make decisions in their lives by following what everyone else does, rather than by performing a genuine rational analysis.

Consider the rise in social acceptability of making small personal sacrifices and political decisions based on eco-friendliness and your carbon footprint. Many people I know have become very enthusiastic for recycling used food containers and for unplugging appliances that use trivial amounts of power (for example unused phone chargers and electrical equipment on standby). The real reason that people do these things is that they have become socially accepted factoids. Most people in this world, even in this country, lack the mental faculties and knowledge to understand and act upon an argument involving notions of per capita CO2 emissions; instead they respond, at least in my understanding, to the general climate of acceptable opinion, and to opinion formers such as the BBC news website, which has a whole section for "science and environment". Now, I don't want to single out environmentalism as the only issue where people form their opinions based upon what is socially acceptable to believe, or to claim that reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is not a worthy cause.

Another great example of socially acceptable factoids (though probably a less serious one) is the detox industry - see, for example, this Times article. I quote:

“Whether or not people believe the biblical story of the Virgin birth, there are plenty of other popular myths that are swallowed with religious fervour over Christmas,” said Martin Wiseman, Visiting Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Southampton. “Among these is the idea that in some way the body accumulates noxious chemicals during everyday life, and that they need to be expunged by some mysterious process of detoxification, often once a year after Christmas excess. The detox fad — or fads, as there are many methods — is an example of the capacity of people to believe in (and pay for) magic despite the lack of any sound evidence.”

Anyone who takes a serious interest in changing the world would do well to understand the process whereby public opinion as a whole changes on some subject, and attempt to influence that process in an optimal way. How strongly is public opinion correlated with scientific opinion, for example? Particular attention should be paid to the history of the environmentalist movement. See, for example, McKay's Sustainable energy without the hot air for a great example of a rigorous quantitative analysis in support of various ways of balancing our energy supply and demand, and for a great take on the power of socially accepted factoids, see Phone chargers - the Truth.

So I submit to the wisdom of the Less Wrong groupmind - what can we do to efficiently change the opinion of millions of people on important issues such as freindly AI? Is a site such as the one linked above going to have the intended effect, or is it going to fall upon rationally-deaf ears? What practical advice could we give to Michael and his contributors that would maximize the impact of the site? What other intervantions might be a better use of his time?

Edit: Thanks to those who made constructive suggestions for this post. It has been revised - R