Tentative thoughts on “problem stickiness”
When it comes to comparing non-longtermist problems from a longtermist perspective, I find it useful to evaluate them based on their “stickiness”: the rate at which they will grow or shrink over time.
A problem’s stickiness is its annual growth rate. So a problem has positive stickiness if it is growing, and negative stickiness if it is shrinking. For long-term planning, we care about a problem’s expected stickiness: the annual rate at which we think it will grow or shrink. Over the long term—i.e. time frames of 50 years or more—we want to focus on problems that we expect to grow over time without our intervention, instead of problems that will go away on their own.
For example, global poverty has negative stickiness because the poverty rate has declined over the last 200 years. I believe its stickiness will continue to be negative, barring a global catastrophe like climate change or World War III.
On the other hand, farm animal suffering has not gone away over time; in fact, it has gotten worse, as a growing number of people around the world are eating meat and dairy. This trend will continue at least until alternative proteins become competitive with animal products. Therefore, farm animal suffering has positive stickiness. (I would expect wild animal suffering to also have positive stickiness due to increased habitat destruction, but I don’t know.)
The difference in stickiness between these problems motivates me to focus more on animal welfare than on global poverty, although I’m still keeping an eye on and cheering on actors in that space.
I wonder which matters more, a problem’s “absolute” stickiness or its growth rate relative to the population or the size of the economy. But I care more about differences in stickiness between problems than the numbers themselves.
We’re probably surveilling poor and vulnerable people in developing and developed countries too much in the name of aiding them, and we should give stronger consideration to the privacy rights of aid recipients. Personal data about these people collected for benign purposes can be weaponized against them by malicious actors, and surveillance itself can deter people from accessing vital services.
“Stop Surveillance Humanitarianism” by Mark Latonero
Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks makes a similar argument regarding aid recipients in developed countries.
Interesting op-ed! I wonder to what extent these issues are present in work being done by EA-endorsed global health charities; my impression is that almost all of their work happens outside of the conflict zones where some of these privacy concerns are especially potent. It also seems like these charities are very interested in reaching high levels of usage/local acceptance, and would be unlikely to adopt policies that deter recipients unless fraud concerns were very strong. But I don’t know all the Top Charities well enough to be confident of their policies in this area.
This would be a question worth asking on one of GiveWell’s occasional Open Threads. And if you ask it on Rob Mather’s AMA, you’ll learn how AMF thinks about these things (given Rob’s response times, possibly within a day).
Thank you for sharing this! I took a class on surveillance and privacy last semester, so I already have basic knowledge about this subject. I agree that it’s important to reject false tradeoffs. Personally, my contribution to this area would be in formulating a theory of privacy that can be used to assess surveillance schemes in this context.
Shafi Goldwasser at Berkeley is currently working on some definitions of privacy and their applicability for law. See this paper or this talk. In a talk she gave last month she talked about how to formalize some aspects of law related to cryptographic concepts to formalize “the right to be forgotten”. The recording is not up yet, but in the meantime I paste below my (dirty/partial) notes from the talk. I feel somewhat silly for not realizing the possible connection there earlier, so thanks for the opportunity to discover connections hidden in plain sight!
Shafi is working directly with judges, and this whole program is looking potentially promising. If you are seriously interested in pursuing this, I can connect you to her if that would help. Also, we have someone in our research team at EA Israel doing some work into this (from a more tech/crypto solution perspective) so it may be interesting to consider a collaboration here.
There is a big language barrier between Law and CS, following a knowledge barrier.
People in law study the law of governing algorithms, but there is not enough participation of computer scientists to help legal work.
But, CS can help with designing algorithms and formalizing what these laws should be.
Shafi suggests a crypto definition for “The right to be forgotten”. This should help
Privacy regulation like CCPA and GDPR have a problem—how to test whether one is compliant?
Do our cryptographic techniques satisfy the law?
that requires a formal definition
A first suggestion:
after deletions, the state of the data collector and the history of the interaction with the environment should be similar as to the case where information was never changed. [this is clearly inadequate—Shafi aims at starting a conversation]
Application of cryptographic techniques
History Oblivious Data Structure
Data Summarization using Differential Privacy leaves no trace
ML Data Deletion
The talk is here
Do emergency universal pass/fail policies improve or worsen student well-being and future career prospects?
I think a natural experiment is in order. Many colleges are adopting universal pass/fail grading for this semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others aren’t. Someone should study the impact this will have on students to inform future university pandemic response policy.
I think improving bus systems in the United States (and probably other countries) could be a plausible Cause X.
Importance: Improving bus service would:
Increase economic output in cities
Dramatically improve quality of life for low-income residents
Reduce cities’ carbon footprint, air pollution, and traffic congestion
Neglectedness: City buses probably don’t get much attention because most people don’t think very highly of them, and focus much more on novel transportation technologies like electric vehicles.
Tractability: According to Higashide, improving bus systems is a matter of improving how the bus systems are governed. Right now, I think a nationwide movement to improve bus transit would be less polarizing than the YIMBY movement has been. While YIMBYism has earned a reputation as elitist due to some of its early advocates’ mistakes, a pro-bus movement could be seen as aligned with the interests of low-income city dwellers provided that it gets the messaging right from the beginning.
Also, bus systems are less costly to roll out, upgrade, and alter than other public transportation options like trains.
Interesting post! Curious what you think of Jeff Kaufman’s proposal to make buses more dangerous in the first world, the idea being that buses in the US are currently too far in the “safety” direction of the safety vs. convenience tradeoff.
GiveWell also has a standout charity (Zusha!) working in the opposite direction, trying to get public service vehicles in Kenya to be safer.
I like Kaufman’s second, third, and fourth ideas:
Allow the driver to start while someone is still at the front paying. (The driver should use judgment if they’re allowed to do this, because the passenger at the front might lose their balance when the bus starts. Wheelchairs might be especially vulnerable to rolling back.)
Allow buses to drive 25mph on the shoulder of the highway in traffic jams where the main lanes are averaging below 10mph.
Higher speed limits for buses. Lets say 15mph over. (I’m not so sure about this: speed limits exist in part to protect pedestrians. Buses still cause fewer pedestrian and cyclist deaths than cars, though.)
But these should be considered only after we’ve exhausted the space of improvements to bus service that don’t sacrifice safety. For example, we should build more bus-only lanes first.
Wait, do buses some place not start moving until… everyone’s sitting down? Does that mean there’s enough seats for everyone?
I don’t have statistics, but my best guess is that if you sample random points across all public buses running in America, in over 3⁄4 of the time, less than half of the seats are filled.
This is extremely unlike my experiences in Asia (in China or Singapore).
John, Katherine, Sarah, and Hank Green are making a $6.5M donation to Partners in Health to address the maternal mortality crisis in Sierra Leone, and are trying to raise $25M in total. PIH has been working with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health to improve the quality of maternal care through facility upgrades, supplies, and training.
PIH blog post • vlogbrothers video
[crossposted to r/neoliberal]
Joan Gass (2019) recommends four areas of international development to focus on:
New modalities to foster economic productivity
New modalities or ways to develop state capabilities
Global catastrophic risks, particularly pandemic preparedness
Meta EA research on cause prioritization within global development
Improving state capabilities, or governments’ ability to render public services, seems especially promising for public-interest technologists interested in development (ICT4D). For example, the Zenysis platform helps developing-world governments make data-driven decisions, especially in healthcare. Biorisk management also looks promising from a tech standpoint.
A social constructivist perspective on long-term AI policy
I think the case for addressing the long-term consequences of AI systems holds even if AGI is unlikely to arise.
The future of AI development will be shaped by social, economic and political factors, and I’m not convinced that AGI will be desirable in the future or that AI is necessarily progressing toward AGI. However, (1) AI already has large positive and negative effects on society, and (2) I think it’s very likely that society’s AI capabilities will improve over time, amplifying these effects and creating new benefits and risks in the future.
A series of polls by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs show that Americans increasingly support free trade and believe that free trade is good for the U.S. economy (87%, up from 59% in 2016). This is probably a reaction to the negative effects and press coverage of President Trump’s trade wars—anecdotally, I have seen a lot of progressives who would otherwise not care about or support free trade criticize policies such as Trump’s steel tariffs as reckless.
I believe this presents a unique window of opportunity to educate the American public about the benefits of globalization. Kimberly Clausing is doing this in her book, Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital, in which she defends free trade and immigration to the U.S. from the standpoint of American workers.
I’m playing Universal Paperclips right now, and I just had an insight about AI safety: Just programming the AI to maximize profits instead of paperclips wouldn’t solve the control problem.
You’d think that the AI can’t destroy the humans because it needs human customers to make money, but that’s not true. Instead, the AI could sell all of its paperclips to another AI that continually melts them down and turns them back into wire, and they would repeatedly sell paperclips and wire back and forth to each other, both powered by free sunlight. Bonus points if the AIs take over the central bank.
Can someone please email me a copy of this article?
I’m planning to update the Wikipedia article on Social discount rate, but I need to know what the article says.