Jackson Wagner

Engineer working on next-gen satellite navigation at Xona Space Systems. I write about effective-altruist and longtermist topics at nukazaria.substack.com, or you can read about puzzle videogames and other things at jacksonw.xyz

Wiki Contributions


Is there a plausible path towards gene therapies that edit dozens, hundreds, or thousands of different genes like this? I thought people were worried about off-target errors, etc? (Or at least problems like "you'll have to take 1000 different customized doses of CRISPR therapy, which will be expensive".) So my impression is that this kind of GWAS-inspired medicine would be most impactful with whole-genome synthesis? (Currently super-expensive?)

To be clear I agree with the main point this post is making about how we don't need animal models, etc, to do medicine if we have something that we know works!

(this comment is kind of a "i didn't have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one" situation)

re: Infowar between great powers -- the view that China+Russia+USA invest a lot of efforts into infowar, but mostly "defensively" / mostly trying to shape domestic opinion, makes sense.  (After all, it must be easier to control the domestic media/information lansdscape!)  I would tend to expect that doing domestically-focused infowar stuff at a massive scale would be harder for the USA to pull off (wouldn't it be leaked? wouldn't it be illegal somehow, or at least something that public opinion would consider a huge scandal?), but on the other hand I'd expect the USA to have superior infowar technology (subtler, more effective, etc).  And logically it might also be harder to percieve effects of USA infowar techniques, since I live in the USA, immersed in its culture.

Still, my overall view is that, although the great powers certainly expend substantial effort trying to shape culture, and have some success, they don't appear to have any next-gen technology qualitatively different and superior to the rhetorical techniques deployed by ordinary successful politicians like Trump, social movements like EA or wokeism, advertising / PR agencies, media companies like the New York Times, etc.  (In the way that, eg, engineering marvels like the SR-72 Blackbird were generations ahead of competitors' capabilities.)  So I think the overall cultural landscape is mostly anarchic -- lots of different powers are trying to exert their own influence and none of them can really control or predict cultural changes in detail.

re: Social media companies' RL algorithms are powerful but also "they probably couldn't prevent algorithms from doing this if they tried due to goodharts law".  -- Yeah, I guess my take on this is that the overt attempts at propaganda (aimed at placating the NYT) seem very weak and clumsy.  Meanwhile the underlying RL techniques seem potentially powerful, but poorly understood or not very steerable, since social media companies seem to be mostly optimizing for engagement (and not even always succeeding at that; here we are talking on LessWrong instead of tweeting / tiktoking), rather than deploying clever infowar superweapons.  If they have such power, why couldn't left-leaning sillicon valley prevent the election of Trump using subtle social-media-RL trickery?
(Although I admit that the reaction to the 2016 election could certainly be interpreted as sillicon valley suddenly realizing, "Holy shit, we should definitely try to develop social media infowar superweapons so we can maybe prevent this NEXT TIME."  But then the 2020 election was very close -- not what I'd have expected if info-superweapons were working well!)

With Twitter in particular, we've had such a transparent look at its operations during the handover to Elon Musk, and it just seems like both sides of that transaction have been pretty amateurish and lacked any kind of deep understanding of how to influence culture.  The whole fight seems to have been about where to tug one giant lever called "how harshly do we moderate the tweets of leftists vs rightists".  This lever is indeed influential on twitter culture, and thus culture generally -- but the level of sophistication here just seems pathetic.

Tiktok is maybe the one case where I'd be sympathetic to the idea that maybe a lot of what appears to be random insane trends/beliefs fueled by SGD algorithms and internet social dynamics, is actually the result of fairly fine-grained cultural influence by Chinese interests.  I don't think Tiktok is very world-changing right now (as we'd expect, it's targeting the craziest and lowest-IQ people first), but it's at least kinda world-changing, and maybe it's the first warning sign of what will soon be a much bigger threat?  (I don't know much about the details of Tiktok the company, or the culture of its users, so it's hard for me to judge how much fine-grained control China might or might not be exerting.)

Unrelated -- I love the kind of sci-fi concept of "people panic but eventually go back to using social media and then they feel fine (SGD does this automatically in order to retain users)".  But of course I think that the vast majority of users are in the "aren't panicking" / never-think-about-this-at-all category, and there are so few people in the "panic" category (panic specifically over subtle persuasion manipulation tech that isn't just trying to maximize engagement but instead achieve some specific ideological outcome, I mean) that there would be no impact on the social-media algorithms.  I think it is plausible that other effects like "try not to look SO clickbaity that users recognize the addictiveness and leave" do probably show up in algorithms via SGD.

More random thoughts about infowar campaigns that the USA might historically have wanted to infowar about:

  • Anti-communism during the cold war, maybe continuing to a kind of generic pro-corporate / pro-growth attitude these days. (But lots of people were pro-communist back in the day, and remain anti-corporate/anti-growth today!  And even the republican party is less and less pro-business... their basic model isn't to mind-control everyone into becoming fiscal conservatives, but instead to gain power by exploiting the popularity of social conservativism and then use power to implement fiscal conservativism.)
    • Maybe I am taking a too-narrow view of infowar as "the ability to change peoples' minds on individual issues", when actually I should be considering strategies like "get people hyped up about social issues in order to gain power that you can use for economic issues" as a successful example of infowar?  But even if I consider this infowar, then it reinforces my point that the most advanced stuff today all seems to be variations on normal smart political strategy and messaging, not some kind of brand-new AI-powered superweapon for changing people's minds (or redirecting their focus or whatever) in a radically new way.
  • Since WW2, and maybe continuing to today, the West has tried to ideologically immunize itself against Nazi-ism.  This includes a lot of trying to teach people to reject charismatic dictators, to embrace counterintuitive elements of liberalism like tolerance/diversity, and even to deny inconvenient facts like racial group differences for the sake of social harmony.  In some ways this has gone so well that we're getting problems from going too far in this direction (wokism), but in other ways it can often feel like liberalism is hanging on by a thread and people are still super-eager to embrace charismatic dictators, incite racial conflict, etc.

"Human brains are extremely predisposed to being hacked, governments would totally do this, and the AI safety community is unusually likely to be targeted."
-- yup, fully agree that the AI safety community faces a lot of peril navigating the whims of culture and trying to win battles in a bunch of diverse high-stakes environments (influencing superpower governments, huge corporations, etc) where they are up against a variety of elite actors with some very strong motivations.  And that there is peril both in the difficulty of navigating the "conventional" human-persuasion-transformed social landscape of today's world (already super-complex and difficult) and the potentially AI-persuasion-transformed world of tomorrow.  I would note though, that these battles will (mostly?) play out in pretty elite spaces, wheras I'd expect the power of AI information superweapons to have the most powerful impact on the mass public.  So, I'd expect to have at least some warning in the form of seeing the world go crazy (in a way that seems different from and greater than today's anarchic internet-social-dynamics-driven craziness), before I myself went crazy.  (Unless there is an AI-infowar-superweapon-specific hard-takeoff where we suddenly get very powerful persuasion tech but still don't get the full ASI singularity??)

re: Dath Ilan -- this really deserves a whole separate comment, but basically I am also a big fan of the concept of Dath Ilan, and I would love to hear your thoughts on how you would go about trying to "build Dath Ilan" IRL.

  • What should an individual person, acting mostly alone, do to try and promote a more Dath-Ilani future?  Try to practice & spread Lesswrong-style individual-level rationality, maybe (obviously Yudkowsky did this with Lesswrong and other efforts).  Try to spread specific knowledge about the way society works and thereby build energy for / awareness of ways that society could be improved (inadequate equilibria kinda tries to do this? seems like there could be many approaches here).  Personally I am also always eager to talk to people about specific institutional / political tweaks that could lead to a better, more Dath-Ilani world: georgism, approval voting, prediction markets, charter cities, etc.  Of those, some would seem to build on themselves while others wouldn't -- what ideas seem like the optimal, highest-impact things to work on?  (If the USA adopted georgist land-value taxes, we'd have better land-use policy and faster economic growth but culture/politics wouldn't hugely change in a broadly Dath-Ilani direction; meanwhile prediction markets or new ways of voting might have snowballing effects where you get the direct improvement but also you make culture more rational & cooperative over time.)
  • What should a group of people ideally do?  (Like, say, an EA-adjacent silicon valley billionaire funding a significant minority of the EA/rationalist movement to work on this problem together in a coordinated way.)  My head immediately jumps to "obviously they should build a rationalist charter city":
    • The city doesn't need truly nation-level sovereign autonomy, the goal would just be to coordinate enough people to move somewhere together a la the Free State Project, gaining enough influence over local government to be able to run our own policy experiments with things like prediction markets, georgism, etc.  (Unfortunately some things, like medical research, are federally regulated, but I think you could do a lot with just local government powers + creating a critical mass of rationalist culture.)
    • Instead of moving to a random small town and trying to take over, it might be helpful to choose some existing new-city project to partner with -- like California Forever, Telosa, Prospera, whatever Zuzalu or Praxis turn into, or other charter cities that have amenable ideologies/goals.  (This would also be very helpful if you don't have enough people or money to create a reasonably-sized town all by yourself!)
    • The goal would be twofold: first, run a bunch of policy experiments and try to create Dath-Ilan-style institutions (where legal under federal law if you're still in the USA, etc).  And second, try to create a critical mass of rationalist / Dath Ilani culture that can grow and eventually influence... idk, lots of people, including eventually the leaders of other governments like Singapore or the UK or whatever.  Although it's up for debate whether "everyone move to a brand-new city somewhere else" is really a better plan for cultural influence than "everyone move to the bay area", which has been pretty successful at influencing culture in a rationalist direction IMO!  (Maybe the rationalist charter city should therefore be in Europe or at least on the East Coast or something, so that we mostly draw rationalists from areas other than the Bay Area.  Or maybe this is an argument for really preferring California Forever as an ally, over and above any other new-city project, since that's still in the Bay Area.  Or for just trying to take over Bay Area government somehow.)
  • ...but maybe a rationalist charter city is not the only or best way that a coordinated group of people could try to build Dath Ilan?

(Copies from EA Forum for the benefit of lesswrongers following the discussion here)

Definitely agree that empathy and other social feelings provide indirect evidence for self-awareness (ie, "modeling stuff about yourself" in your brain) in a way that optimism/pessimism or pain-avoidance doesn't.  (Although wouldn't a sophisticated-enough RL circuit, interacting with other RL circuits in some kind of virtual evolutionary landscape, also develop social emotions like loyalty, empathy, etc?  Even tiny mammals like mice/rats display sophisticated social behaviors...)

I tend to assume that some kind of panpsychism is true, so you don't need extra "circuitry for experience" in order to turn visual-information-processing into an experience of vision.  What would such extra circuitry even do, if not the visual information processing itself?  (Seems like maybe you are a believer in what Daniel Dennet calls the "fallacy of the second transduction"?)
Consequently, I think it's likely that even simple "RL algorithms" might have a very limited, very shallow, non-self-aware kinds of experience: an image-classifier is doing visual-information-processing, so it probably also produces isolated "experiences of vision"!  But of course it would not have any awareness of itself as being a thing-that-sees, nor would those isolated experiences of vision be necessarily tied together into a coherent visual field, etc.

So, I tend to think that fish and other primitive creatures probably have "qualia", including something like a subjective experience of suffering, but that they probably lack any sophisticated self-awareness / self-model, so it's kind of just "suffering happening nowhere" or "an experience of suffering not connected to anything else" -- the fish doesn't know it's a fish, doesn't know that it's suffering, etc, the fish is just generating some simple qualia that don't really refer to anything or tie into a larger system.  Whether you call such a disconnected & shallow experience "real qualia" or "real suffering" is a question of definitions.

I think this personal view of mine is fairly similar to Eliezer's from the Sequences: there are no "zombies" (among humans or animals), there is no "second transduction" from neuron activity into a mythical medium-of-consciousness (no "extra circuitry for experience" needed), rather the information-processing itself somehow directly produces (or is equivalent to, or etc) the qualia.  So, animals and even simpler systems probably have qualia in some sense.  But since animals aren't self-aware (and/or have less self-awareness than humans), their qualia don't matter (and/or matter less than humans' qualia).

...Anyways, I think our core disagreement is that you seem to be equating "has a self-model" with "has qualia", versus I think maybe qualia can and do exist even in very simple systems that lack a self-model.  But I still think that having a self-model is morally important (atomic units of "suffering" that are just floating in some kind of void, unconnected to a complex experience of selfhood, seem of questionable moral relevance to me), so we end up having similar opinions about how it's probably fine to eat fish.

I guess what I am objecting to is that you are acting like these philosophical problems of qualia / consciousness / etc are solved and other people are making an obvious mistake.  I agree that I see a lot of people being confused and making mistakes, but I don't think the problems are solved!

Why would showing that fish "feel empathy" prove that they have inner subjective experience?  It seems perfectly possible to build a totally mechanical, non-conscious system that nevertheless displays signs of empathy.  Couldn't fish just have some kind of built-in, not-necessarily-conscious instinct to protect other fish (for instance, by swimming together in a large school) in order to obtain some evolutionary benefit?

Conversely, isn't it possible for fish to have inner subjective experience but not feel empathy?  Fish are very simple creatures, while "empathy" is a complicated social emotion.  Especially in a solitary creature (like a shark, or an octopus), it seems plausible that you might have a rich inner world of qualia alongside a wide variety of problem-solving / world-modeling skills, but no social instincts like jealousy, empathy, loyalty, etc.  Fish-welfare advocates often cite studies that seem to show fish having an internal sense of pain vs pleasure (eg, preferring water that contains numbing medication), or that bees can have an internal sense of being optimistic/risky vs pessimistic/cautious -- if you think that empathy proves the existence of qualia, why are these similar studies not good enough for you?  What's special about the social emotion of empathy?

Personally, I am more sympathetic to the David Chalmers "hard problem of consciousness" perspective, so I don't think these studies about behaviors (whether social emotions like jealousy or more basic emotions like optimism/pessimism) can really tell us that much about qualia / inner subjective experience.  I do think that fish / bees / etc probably have some kind of inner subjective experience, but I'm not sure how "strong", or vivid, or complex, or self-aware, that experience is, so I am very uncertain about the moral status of animals.  (Personally, I also happily eat fish & shrimp all the time.)

In general, I think this post is talking about consciousness / qualia / etc in a very confused way -- if you think that empathy-behaviors are ironclad proof of empathy-qualia, you should also think that other (pain-related, etc) behaviors are ironclad proof of other qualia.

Hi Trevor!  I appreciate this thread of related ideas that you have been developing about intelligence agencies, AI-augmented persuasion techniques, social media, etc.

  • It seems important to "think ahead" about how the power-struggle over AI will play out as things escalate to increasingly intense levels, involving eg national governments and militaries and highly-polarized political movements and etc.
  • Obviously if some organization was hypercompetent and super-good at behind-the-scenes persuasion, we wouldn't really know about it!  So it is hard to 100% confidently dismiss the idea that maybe the CIA has next-gen persuasion tech, or whatever.
  • Obviously we are already, to a large extent, living in a world that is shaped by the "marketplace of ideas", where the truth often gets outcompeted by whatever sounds best / is most memetically fit.  Thinking about these dynamics (even without anything AI-related or any CIA conspiracies) is confusing, but seems very important.  Eg, I myself have been deeply shaped by the crazy memetic landscape in ways that I partially endorse and partially don't.  And everything I might try to do to achieve impact in the world needs to navigate the weird social landscape of human society, which in many respects is in a kind of memetic version of the "equilibrium of no free energy" that yudkowsky talks about in Inadequate Equilibria (although there he is talking mostly about an individual-incentives landscape, rather than a memetic landscape).
  • AI super-persuasion does seem like something we might plausibly get before we get general ASI, which seems like it could be extremely weird / dangerous / destabilizing.

That said, I think this post is too conspiratorial in assuming that some combination of social media companies / national governments understand how to actually deploy effective persuasion techniques in a puppetmaster-like way which is way beyond everyone else.  I think that the current situation is more like "we are living in an anarchic world influenced by an out-of-control memetic marketplace of ideas being influenced by many different actors of varying levels of sophistication, none of whom have amazing next-level gameboard-flipping dominance".  Some scattered thoughts on this theme:

  • If the CIA (or other entities affiliated with the US government, including tech companies being pressured by the government) is so good at persuasion ops, why are there so many political movements that seem to go against the CIA's interests?  Why hasn't the government been able to use its persuasion jiujitsu to neutralize wokeism and Trump/MAGA-ism?  From an establishment perspective, both of these movements seem to be doing pretty serious damage to US culture/institutions.  Maybe these are both in the process of being taken down by "clown attacks" (although to my eye, this looks less like an "attack" from CIA saboteurs, and more like a lot of genuine ordinary people in the movement themselves just being dumb / memetic dynamics playing out deterministically via social dynamics like yudkowsky's "evaporative cooling of group beliefs")?  Or maybe ALL of, eg, wokeism, is one GIANT psy-op to distract the American people from creating a left-wing movement that is actually smart and effective?  (I definitely believe something like this, but I don't believe it's a deliberate military psy-op... rather it's an emergent dynamic.  Consider how corporations are differentially friendlier to wokeism than they are to a more economically-focused, class-based Bernie-ism, so wokeism has an easier time spreading and looking successful, etc.  It also helps that wokeism is memetically optimized to appeal to people in various ways, versus a genuinely smart-and-effective left-wing policy idea like Georgism comes off as boring, technocratic, and hard-to-explain.)
    • Basically, what I am saying is that our national politics/culture looks like the product of anarchic memetic optimization (recently turbocharged by social media dynamics, as described by folks like Slate Star Codex and the book "Revolt of the Public") much moreso than the product of top-down manipulation.
  • If google & facebook & etc are so good at manipulating me, why do their efforts at influence often still seem so clumsy?  Yes, of course, I'm not going to notice the non-clumsy manipulations!  And yes, your "I didn't speak up, because I wasn't as predictable as the first 60%" argument certainly applies here -- I am indeed worried that as technology progresses, AI persuasion tech will become a bigger and bigger problem.  But still, in the here and now, Youtube is constantly showing me these ridiculous ideological banners about "how to spot misinformation" or "highlighting videos from Black creators" or etc... I am supposed to believe that these people are some kind of master manipulators?  (They are clearly just halfheartedly slapping the banners on there in a weak attempt to cover their ass and appease NYT-style complaints that youtube's algorithm is unintentionally radicalizing people into trumpism... they aren't even trying to be persuasive to the actual viewers, just hamfistedly trying to look good to regulators...)
  • Where is the evidence of super-persuasion techniques being used by other countries, or in geopolitical situations?  One of the most important targets here would be things like "convincing Taiwanese to identify mostly as ethnic Chinese, or mostly as an independent nation", or the same for trying to convince Ukrainians to align more with their Russian-like ethnicity and language or with the independent democracies of western Europe.  Ultimately, the cultural identification might be the #1 decisive factor in these countries' futures, and for sure there are lots of propaganda / political messaging attempts from all sides here.  But nobody seems like they have some kind of OP superweapon which can singlehandedly change the fate of nations by, eg, convincing Taiwanese people of something crazy, like embracing their history as a Japanese colony and deciding that actually they want to reunify with Japan instead of remaining independent or joining China!
    • Similarly, the Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, although initially portrayed as some kind of spooky OP persuasion technique, ultimately ended up looking pretty clumsy and humdrum and small-scale, eg just creating facebook groups on themes designed to inflame American cultural divisions, making wacky anti-Hillary memes, etc.
    • China's attempts at cultural manipulation are probably more advanced, but they haven't been able to save themselves from sinking into a cultural atmosphere of intense malaise and pessimism, one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, etc.  If persuasion tech was so powerful, couldn't China use it to at least convince people to keep plowing more money into real estate?
  • Have there been any significant leaks that indicate the USA is focused on persuasion tech and has seen significant successes with it?  If I recall correctly, the Edward Snowden leaks (admittedly from the NSA which focuses on collecting information, and from 10 years ago) seemed to mostly indicate a strategy of "secretly collect all the data" --> "search through and analyze it to identify particular people / threats / etc".  There didn't seem to be any emphasis on trying to shape culture more broadly.
    • Intelligence agencies in the USA devote some effort to "deradicalization" of eg islamist terrorists, extreme right-wingers, etc.  But this stuff seems to be mostly focused on pretty narrow interventions targeting individual people or small groups, and seems mostly based on 20th-century-style basic psychological understanding... seems like a far cry from A/B testing the perfect social-media strategy to unleash on the entire population of some middle-eastern country to turn them all into cosmopolitan neoliberals.

Anyways, I guess my overall point is that it just doesn't seem true that the CIA, or Facebook, or China, or anyone else, currently has access to amazing next-gen persuasion tech.  So IMO you are thinking about this in the wrong way, with too much of a conspiratorial / Tom Clancy vibe.  But the reason I wrote such a long comment is because I think you should keep exploring these general topics, since I agree with you about most of the other assumptions you are making!

  • We are already living in a persuasion-transformed world in the sense that the world is full of a lot of crazy ideas which have been shaped by memetic dynamics
  • Social media in particular seems like a powerful lever to influence culture (see Slate Star Codex & Revolt of the Public)
  • It seems like you probably COULD influence culture a ton by changing the design of social media, so it's a little funny that nobody seems to be intentionally using this to build a persuasion superweapon
    • (Nevertheless I think nobody really understands the long-term cultural effects of social media well enough to make deliberate changes to achieve eventual intended results.  And I think there are limits to what you could do with current techniques -- changing the design & policies of a site like Twitter might change the broad cultural vibe, but I don't think we could create an especially persuasive superweapon that could be aimed at particular targets, like making Taiwanese people culturally identify with Japan)
  • It definitely seems like AI could be used for all kinds of censorship & persuasion-related tasks, and this seems scary because it might indeed allow the creation of persuasion superweapons.
  • Totally separately from all the above stuff about persuasion, the shadowier parts of governments (military & intelligence-agency bureaucracies) seem very important to think about when we are trying to think ahead about the future of AI technology and human civilization.

Thanks for writing this post, I 100% share your sentiment and appreciate the depth with which you've explored this topic, including some of the political considerations.

Here are some other potentially-relevant case studies of people doing similar-ish things, trying to make the world a better place while navigating touchy political fears related to biotech:

  • The "Enhanced Games" is organizing an alternative to the Olympic games where doping and other human enhancement technologies will be allowed.  Naturally, they try to put a heavy emphasis on the importance of human freedom, plus some random criticisms of the way the existing Olympics are organized.  But what I thought was especially striking was the way they leaned into social-justice-y rhetoric: "science is real", "stop exploitation", and even their logo is a dead ringer for the famous "equality" logo of the LGBT rights movement.  For an antimalarial gene drive, I think a similar approach could work well (at least for winning the support of Westerners) -- leaning into rhetoric about postcolonialism and how the gene-drive initiative represents the people taking charge of their own destiny instead of waiting for western aid/charity (bednets, vaccines, etc) that hasn't been sufficient.  (Charter Cities are in a somewhat similar situation, where it's very important for them to convince people that this is an empowering way of advancing human liberty while helping the developing world, rather than some kind of conniving neocolonialism intended to disempower people.)
  • The C4 Rice Project has been operating for a long time, working towards the dream of engineering rice to more efficiently photosynthesize and thus boosting yields around the world.
  • The Far-Out Initiative is hoping to trial gene editing to reduce animal suffering; their website has some interesting FAQs and in general the project has the same "activist genetics lab" vibe that a mosquito gene-drive lab might strive for.
  • Same deal for the project to revive Woolly Mammoths -- the awesome documentary "We Are As Gods" is basically a PR campaign for the righteousness of this cause, and a good portrait of a similar movement which is farther along in the PR pipeline.
  • Genomic embryo-selection companies like Lifeview and Orchid Health are also interesting in this context, although since they don't have to convince regulators or the wider public, they are keeping a lower profile for now.  There are also some essentially stealth-mode groups who are investigating enhancements to the current state-of-the-art in embryo selection.  These groups would be less interesting in terms of learning from their PR campaigns (they have none), but it might be helpful to study how they build a skilled team, raise funding, etc.

Some further questions I have about the political and theory-of-change considerations:

  • I think it could be helpful to explore a more detailed breakdown of who exactly might be opposed, and for what reasons.  And then try and figure out which of these sources actually matter the most / are the most real!  For example:
    • Maybe the people of a developing country will be opposed, because they just find GMOs scary / would be worried about being bitten by a GMO mosquito.
    • Maybe neighboring countries will be opposed because they'll see it as an imposition on their sovereignty that an important decision (even if the decision is just... curing malaria, lol) is being taken without their input.
    • Ordinary citizens and activists in the west might be opposed mostly because of some kind of "neocolonialism"/social-justice concerns, or mostly because of environmental concerns (removing mosquitoes might disrupt the environment), or mostly because of FDA-style biomedical caution and fear of GMOs.
    • Elites in the developed world might be concerned from a perspective of international diplomacy and norms -- sure, THIS unilateral genetic engineering project will have amazing consequences, but will it end up net-negative if it encourages OTHER unilateral actions in the future that are more harmful?  (Feels similar to the sentiment against climate geoengineering or human genetic editing.)  What could be done to ameliorate this concern?
  • Is there some way that a gene drive could be framed as partially accidental, or an inevitable by-product of some other necessary action?  Sometimes you need a good excuse to do something good for the world... I am thinking of situations like:
    • When an accidental freezer failure during covid vaccine distribution actually resulted in giving lots more people the vaccine, because it helped doctors get around onerous verification requirements about who was allowed to get one.
    • Geoengineering experiments are still very taboo, but a recent UN regulation reducing sulfur dioxide emissions is unintentionally warming the earth and also giving scientists tons of data about the efficacy of future SO2-based climate interventions.
    • Similarly, fertilizing the oceans with iron to fight climate change is considered taboo.  But it might be easier to argue for fertilizing the oceans with iron in order to help sperm whale populations recover, since sperm whales once naturally helped iron cycle through the oceans but our own human actions caused their populations to decline.  (Fighting climate change would thus just be an "accidental" benefit of helping the sperm whales.)
    • In the malaria gene-drive case, the best possible headline is probably always gonna be "unanimous international agreement reached to release gene drive!"  But as a second-best option, "truck carrying mosquitoes for gene-drive study crashes, thousands of GMO mosquitoes released, scientists very apologetic!" is DEFINITELY preferable to "rogue bio-activists publish manifesto, release thousands of GMO mosquitoes".  And it might even be preferable to something like "president of Ghana, citing failure of western aid and the hypocrisy of colonial powers, unilaterally begins GMO drive".
  • I'd also note that, although most prevalent in africa, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are common throughout the tropics.  So although africa might be ideal from an impact standpoint, getting a project off the ground in southeast asia or central america is also worth considering, if the politics are more favorable / if it would be easier to set up a genetics lab there!  CDC - Malaria - Malaria Worldwide - Impact of Malaria 

Yeah, I am interested in this from the "about to have an infant" perspective (my wife is almost 20 weeks pregnant).  Interestingly this means she will be able to get both the flu, covid, and newly-approved RSV shot.

  • Presumably you want to space out the vaccines a lot -- I would guess two weeks at least, but maybe more?
  • Is there a difference between when covid, flu, and RSV peak in activity, which might justify getting one before the other?  (The RSV vaccine is apparently only approved for weeks 32 - 36 of pregnancy, so we will at least have to wait at least another 12 weeks I guess, which annoyingly takes us all the way past the holidays.)
  • Like you say, I am thinking that earlier is better (rather "play it safe" and have some immunity, even if it later wears off), so she has already gotten her flu shot.  (Does flu or covid immunity wane faster?)
    • I think part of the reason RSV is only approved for the third trimester is to transfer some immunity to the child, so that the newborn is protected in its first months of life.  Presumably that logic applies less for influenza (which is not particularly severe in newborns) or covid (which seems especially mild in children)?

Good point that rationalism is over-emphasizing the importance of Bayes theorem in a pretty ridiculous way, even if most of the individual statements about Bayes theorem are perfectly correct.  I feel like if one was trying to evaluate Eliezer or the rationalist community on some kind of overall philosophy scorecard, there would be a lot of situations like this -- both "the salience is totally out of whack here even though it's not technically /wrong/...", and "this seems like a really important and true sentiment, but it's not really the kind of thing that's considered within the purview of academic philosophy..."  (Such as the discussion about ethics / morality / value, and many other parts of the Sequences... I think there is basically a lot of helpful stuff in those posts, some of which might be controversial, but it isn't really an Official Philosophical Debate over stuff like whether anti-realism is true.  It's more like "here's how I think you should live your life, IF anti-realism is true".)

Didn't mention many-worlds because it doesn't feel like the kind of thing that a philosopher would be fully equipped to adjudicate?  I personally don't feel like I know enough to have opinions on different quantum mechanics interpretations or other issues concerning the overall nature / reality of the universe -- I still feel very uncertain and confused about that stuff, even though long ago I was a physics major and hoped to some day learn all about it.  Although I guess I am sorta more sympathetic to Many Worlds than some of the alternatives??  Hard to think about, somehow...

Philosophers having hot takes on linguistics and the relationship between words and concepts -- not good or bad that they have so many takes, and I'm also not sure if the takes themselves are good or bad.  It is just my impression that, unlike some of the stuff above, philosophy seems to have really spent a lot of time debating these issues, and thus it would be ripe for finding well-formed disagreements between EY and various mainstream schools of thought.  I do think that maybe philosophers over-index a little on thinking about the nature of words and language (ie that they have "too many takes"), but that doesn't seem like such a bad thing -- I'm glad somebody's thinking about it, even if it doesn't strike me as the most important area of inquiry!

Yeah, agreed that that Solomonoff induction argument feels very bizzarre!  I had never encountered that before.  I meant to refer to the many different arguments for atheism sprinkled throughout the Sequences, including many references to the all-time classic idea that our discovery of the principles of evolution and the mechanics of the brain are sufficient to "explain away" the biggest mysteries about the origin of humanity, and should thus sideline the previously-viable hypothesis of religious claims being true.  (See here and here.)  EY seems to (rightly IMO) consider the falseness of major religious claims to be a "slam dunk", ie, totally overdetermined to be false -- the Sequences are full of funny asides and stories where various religious people are shown to be making very obvious reasoning errors, etc.

Some other potentially controversial views that a philosopher might be able to fact-check Eliezer on, based on skimming through an index of the sequences:

  • Assorted confident statements about the obvious supremacy of Bayesian probability theory and how Frequentists are obviously wrong/crazy/confused/etc.  (IMO he's right about this stuff.  But idk if this counts as controversial enough within academia?)
  • Probably a lot of assorted philosophy-of-science stuff about the nature of evidence, the idea that high-caliber rationality ought to operate "faster than science", etc.  (IMO he's right about the big picture here, although this topic covers a lot of ground so if you looked closely you could probably find some quibbles.)
  • The claim / implication that talk of "emergence" or the study of "complexity science" is basically bunk.  (Not sure but seems like he's probably right?  Good chance the ultimate resolution would probably be "emergence/complexity is a much less helpful concept than its fans think, but more helpful than zero".)
  • A lot of assorted references to cognitive and evolutionary psychology, including probably a number of studies that haven't replicated -- I think Eliezer has expressed regret at some of this and said he would write the sequences differently today.  But there are probably a bunch of somewhat-controversial psychology factoids that Eliezer would still confidently stand by.  (IMO you could probably nail him on some stuff here.)
  • Maybe some assorted claims about the nature of evolution?  What it's optimizing for, what it produces ("adaptation-executors, not fitness-maximizers"), where the logic can & can't be extended (can corporations be said to evolve?  EY says no), whether group selection happens in real life (EY says basically never).  Not sure if any of these claims are controversial though.
  • Lots of confident claims about the idea of "intelligence" -- that it is a coherent concept, an important trait, etc.  (Vs some philosophers who might say there's no one thing that can be called intelligence, or that the word intelligence has no meaning, or generally make the kinds of arguments parodied in "On the Impossibility of Supersized Machines".  Surely there are still plenty of these philosophers going around today, even though I think they're very wrong?)
  • Some pretty pure philosophy about the nature of words/concepts, and "the relationship between cognition and concept formation".  I feel like philosophers have a lot of hot takes about linguistics, and the way we structure concepts inside our minds, and so forth?  (IMO you could at least definitely find some quibbles, even if the big picture looks right.)
  • Eliezer confidently dismissing what he calls a key tenet of "postmodernism" in several places -- the idea that different "truths" can be true for different cultures.  (IMO he's right to dismiss this.)
  • Some pretty confident (all things considered!) claims about moral anti-realism and the proper ethical attitude to take towards life?  (I found his writing helpful and interesting but idk if it's the last word, personally I feel very uncertain about this stuff.)
  • Eliezer's confident rejection of religion at many points.  (Is it too obvious, in academic circles, that all major religions are false?  Or is this still controversial enough, with however many billions of self-identified believers worldwide, that you can get credit for calling it?)
  • It also feels like some of the more abstract AI alignment stuff (about the fundamental nature of "agents", what it means to have a "goal" or "values", etc) might be amenable to philosophical critique.

Maybe you toss out half of those because they aren't seriously disputed by any legit academics.  But, I am pretty sure that at least postmodern philosophers, "complexity scientists", people with bad takes on philosophy-of-science / philosophy-of-probability, and people who make "On the Impossibility of Supersized Machines"-style arguments about intelligence, are really out there!  They at least consider themselves to be legit, even if you and I are skeptical!  So I think EY would come across with a pretty good track record of correct philosophy at the end of the day, if you truly took the entire reference class of "controversial philosophical claims" and somehow graded how correct EY was (in practice, since we haven't yet solved philosophy -- how close he is to your own views?), and compared this to how correct the average philosopher is.

I suggest maybe re-titling this post to:
"I strongly disagree with Eliezer Yudkowsky about the philosophy of consciousness and decision theory, and so do lots of other academic philosophers"

or maybe:
"Eliezer Yudkowsky is Frequently, Confidently, Egregiously Wrong, About Metaphysics"

or consider:
"Eliezer's ideas about Zombies, Decision Theory, and Animal Consciousness, seem crazy"

Otherwise it seems pretty misleading / clickbaity (and indeed overconfident) to extrapolate from these beliefs, to other notable beliefs of Eliezer's -- such as cryonics, quantum mechanics, macroeconomics, various political issues, various beliefs about AI of course, etc.  Personally, I clicked on this post really expecting to see a bunch of stuff like "in March 2022 Eliezer confidently claimed that the government of Russia would collapse within 90 days, and it did not", or "Eliezer said for years that X approach to AI couldn't possibly scale, but then it did".

Personally, I feel that beliefs within this narrow slice of philosophy topics are unlikely to correlate to being "egregiously wrong" in other fields.  (Philosophy is famously hard!!  So even though I agree with you that his stance on animal consciousness seems pretty crazy, I don't really hold this kind of philosophical disagreement against people when they make predictions about, eg, current events.)

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