Torture vs Dust Specks Yet Again

by sentientplatypus2 min read20th Aug 201356 comments


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The first time I read Torture vs. Specks about a year ago I didn't read a single comment because I assumed the article was making a point that simply multiplying can sometimes get you the wrong answer to a problem. I seem to have had a different "obvious answer" in mind.

And don't get me wrong, I generally agree with the idea that math can do better than moral intuition in deciding questions of ethics. Take this example from Eliezer’s post Circular Altruism which made me realize that I had assumed wrong:

Suppose that a disease, or a monster, or a war, or something, is killing people. And suppose you only have enough resources to implement one of the following two options:
1. Save 400 lives, with certainty.
2. Save 500 lives, with 90% probability; save no lives, 10% probability.

I agree completely that you pick number 2. For me that was just manifestly obvious, of course the math trumps the feeling that you shouldn't gamble with people’s lives…but then we get to torture vs. dust specks and that just did not compute. So I've read most every argument I could find in favor of torture(there are a great deal and I might have missed something critical), but...while I totally understand the argument (I think) I'm still horrified that people would choose torture over dust specks.

I feel that the way that math predominates intuition begins to fall apart when you the problem compares trivial individual suffering with massive individual suffering, in a way very much analogous to the way in which Pascal’s Mugging stops working when you make the credibility really low but the threat really high. Like this. Except I find the answer to torture vs. dust specks to be much easier...


Let me give some examples to illustrate my point.

Can you imagine Harry killing Hermione because Voldemort threatened to plague all sentient life with one barely noticed dust speck each day for the rest of time? Can you imagine killing your own best friend/significant other/loved one to stop the powers of the Matrix from hitting 3^^^3 sentient beings with nearly inconsquential dust specks? Of course not. No. Snap decision.

Eliezer, would you seriously, given the choice by Alpha, the Alien superintelligence that always carries out its threats, give up all your work, and horribly torture some innocent person, all day for fifty years in the face of the threat of a 3^^^3 insignificant dust specks barely inconveniencing sentient beings? Or be tortured for fifty years to avoid the dust specks?

I realize that this is much more personally specific than the original question: but it is someone's loved one, someone's life. And if you wouldn't make the sacrifice what right do you have to say someone else should make it? I feel as though if you want to argue that torture for fifty years is better than 3^^^3 barely noticeable inconveniences you had better well be willing to make that sacrifice yourself.

And I can’t conceive of anyone actually sacrificing their life, or themselves to save the world from dust specks. Maybe I'm committing the typical mind fallacy in believing that no one is that ridiculously altruistic, but does anyone want an Artificial Intelligence that will potentially sacrifice them if it will deal with the universe’s dust speck problem or some equally widespread and trivial equivalent? I most certainly object to the creation of that AI. An AI that sacrifices me to save two others - I wouldn't like that, certainly, but I still think the AI should probably do it if it thinks their lives are of more value. But dust specks on the other hand....

This example made me immediately think that some sort of rule is needed to limit morality coming from math in the development of any AI program. When the problem reaches a certain low level of suffering and is multiplied it by an unreasonably large number it needs to take some kind of huge penalty because otherwise to an AI it would be vastly preferable the whole of Earth be blown up than 3^^^3 people suffer a mild slap to the face.

And really, I don’t think we want to create an Artificial Intelligence that would do that.

I’m mainly just concerned that some factor be incorporated into the design of any Artificial Intelligence that prevents it from murdering myself and others for trivial but widespread causes. Because that just sounds like a sci-fi book of how superintelligence could go horribly wrong.

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