Comment author: Daniel_Eth 21 February 2018 12:23:26AM *  9 points [-]

I thought this piece was good. I agree that MCE work is likely quite high impact - perhaps around the same level as X-risk work - and that it has been generally ignored by EAs. I also agree that it would be good for there to be more MCE work going forward. Here's my 2 cents:

You seem to be saying that AIA is a technical problem and MCE is a social problem. While I think there is something to this, I think there are very important technical and social sides to both of these. Much of the work related to AIA so far has been about raising awareness about the problem (eg the book Superintelligence), and this is more a social solution than a technical one. Also, avoiding a technological race for AGI seems important for AIA, and this also is more a social problem than a technical one.

For MCE, the 2 best things I can imagine (that I think are plausible) are both technical in nature. First, I expect clean meat will lead to the moral circle expanding more to animals. I really don't see any vegan social movement succeeding in ending factory farming anywhere near as much as I expect clean meat to. Second, I'd imagine that a mature science of consciousness would increase MCE significantly. Many people don't think animals are conscious, and almost no one thinks anything besides animals can be conscious. How would we even know if an AI was conscious, and if so, if it was experiencing joy or suffering? The only way would be if we develop theories of consciousness that we have high confidence in. But right now we're very limited in studying consciousness, because our tools at interfacing with the brain are crude. Advanced neurotechnologies could change that - they could allow us to potentially test hypotheses about consciousness. Again, developing these technologies would be a technical problem.

Of course, these are just the first ideas that come into my mind, and there very well may be social solutions that could do more than the technical solutions I mentioned, but I don't think we should rule out the potential role of technical solutions, either.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 17 February 2018 02:55:32AM 0 points [-]

As long as we're talking about medical research from an EA perspective, I think we should consider funding therapies for reversing aging itself. In terms of scale, aging undoubtedly is by far the largest (100,000 people die from age-related diseases every single day, not to mention the psychological toll that aging causes). Aging is also quite neglected - very few researchers focus on trying to reverse it. Tractability is of course a concern here, but I think this point is a bit nuanced. Achieving a full and total cure for aging would clearly be quite hard. But what about a partial cure? What about a therapy that made 70 year olds feel and act like they were 50, and with an additional 20 years of life expectancy? Such a treatment may be much more tractable. At least a large part of aging seems to be due to several common mechanisms (such as DNA damage, accumulation of senescent cells, etc), and reversing some of these mechanisms (such as by restoring DNA, clearing the body of senescent cells, etc) might allow for such a treatment. Even the journal Nature (one of the 2 most prestigious science journals in the world) had a recent piece saying as much:

If anyone is interesting in funding research toward curing aging, the SENS Foundation ( is arguably your best bet.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 24 January 2018 04:04:05PM 11 points [-]

Quick comment - I broadly agree. I think if you want to maximise impact within global poverty, then you should first look for potential large-scale solutions, such as policy change, even if they have weak evidence behind them. We might not find any, but we should try hard first. It's basically hits based giving.

In practice, however, the community members who agree with this reasoning, have moved on to other problem areas. This leaves an odd gap for "high risk global poverty" interventions. Though GiveWell has looked into some options here, and I hope they'll do more.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 25 January 2018 12:01:01AM 6 points [-]

"the community members who agree with this reasoning, have moved on to other problem areas"

I've seen this problem come up with other areas as well. For instance, funding research to combat aging (eg the SENS foundation) gets little support, because basically anyone who will "shut up and multiply" - coming to the conclusion that SENS is higher EV than GiveWell charities, will use the same logic to conclude that AI safety is higher EV than GiveWell charities or SENS.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 24 January 2018 09:02:25AM *  1 point [-]

I really like this type of reasoning - I think it allows for easier comparisons than the standard expected value assessments people have occasionally tried to do for systemic changes. A couple points, though.

1) I think very few systemic changes will affect 1B people. Typically I assume a campaign will be focussed on a particular country, and likely only a portion of the population of that country would be positively affected by change - meaning 10M or 100M people is probably much more typical. This shifts the cutoff cost to closer to around $1B to $10B, which seem plausibly in the same ballpark as GD.

2) Instead of asking "how much would this campaign cost to definitely succeed", you could ask "how much would it cost to run a campaign that had at least a 50% chance of succeeding" and then divide the HALYS by 2. I'd imagine this is a much easier question to answer, as you'd never be certain that an effort at systemic change would be successful, but you could become confident that the chances were high.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 23 January 2018 03:16:35AM 4 points [-]

It seems like a lot of these are for funding particular researchers. I don't know of a way to do this in a tax-deductible manner. I think it would be good if someone created an organization that got tax exempt status and allowed for people to donate to them and specify specific researchers they wanted the donation to go towards.

Comment author: RyanCarey 20 January 2018 09:56:31AM 7 points [-]

obviously the universe is finite

We can go only as far as to say that the accessible universe is finite according to prevailing current theories.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 21 January 2018 03:11:34AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I was referring to the accessible universe, though I guess you are right that I can't even be 100% certain that our theories on that won't be overturned at some point.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 19 January 2018 11:48:01PM *  18 points [-]

Thanks for taking the time to write this post. I have a few comments - some supportive, and some in disagreement with what you wrote.

I find your worries about Peak Oil to be unsupported. In the last several years, the US has found tons of natural gas that it can access - perhaps even 100 years or more. On top of this, renewables are finally starting to really prove their worth - with both wind and solar reaching new heights. Solar in particular has improved drastically - exponential decay in cost over decades (with cost finally reaching parity with fossil fuels in many parts of the world), exponential increase in installations, etc. If fossil fuels really were running out that would arguably be a good thing - as it would increase the price of fossil fuels and make the transition to solar even quicker (and we'd have a better chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change). Unfortunately, the opposite seems more likely - as ice in the arctic melts, more fossil fuels (that are now currently under the ice) will become accessible.

I think "The Limits of Growth" is not a particularly useful guide to our situation. This report might have been a reasonable thing to worry about in 1972, but I think a lot has changed since then that we need to take into account. First off, yes, obviously exponential growth with finite resources will eventually hit a wall, and obviously the universe is finite. But the truth is that while there are limits - we're not even remotely close to these limits. There are several specific technological trends in that each seem likely to turn LTG type thinking about limits in the near term on their head, including clean energy, AI, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. We are so far from the limits of these technologies - yet even modest improvements will let us surpass the limits of the world today. Regarding the fact that the 1970-2000 data fits with the predictions of LTG - this point is just silly. LTG's prediction can be roughly summarized as "the status quo continues with things going good until around 2020 to 2030, and then stuff starts going terribly." The controversial claim isn't the first part about stuff continuing to go well for a while, but the second part about stuff then going terribly. The fact that we've continued to do well (as their model predicted!) doesn't mean that the second part of their model will go as predicted and things will follow by going terribly.

I have no idea how plausible a Malthusian disaster in Sub-Saharan Africa is. I know that climate change has the potential to cause massive famines and mass migrations - and I agree that has the potential to increase right wing extremists in Europe (and that this would all be terrible). I don't know what the projected timeframe on that is, though. I also hadn't heard of most of the other problems you listed in this section. Unfortunately, after reading your section on peak oil which struck me as both unsubstantiated (I mean no offense by this - just being straightforward) and also somewhat biased (for instance I can sense some resentment of "elites" in your writing, among other things), I now don't know how much faith to have in your analysis of the Sub-Saharan African situation (which I feel much less qualified to judge than the other section).

I agree it is good for people to be thinking about these sorts of things, and I would encourage more research into the area. Also, I hadn't heard of Transafrican Water pipeline Project, and agree that it would make sense for EAs to evaluate it for whether it would be an effective use of charitable donations.

Comment author: Lila 17 January 2018 12:47:53PM 0 points [-]

Technology to do something like this is already being developed, but it's not nanotechnology:

Nanotechnology is rarely the most practical way to probe very small things. People have been able to infer molecular structures since the 19th century. Modern molecular biology/biochemistry makes use of electron microscope, fluorescent microscopy, and sequencing-based assays, among other techniques.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 18 January 2018 12:59:33AM *  0 points [-]

Nanotechnology is technology that has parts operating in the range of between 1 nm and 100 nm, so actually this technology is nanotechnology - as is much of the rest of biotechnology.

You're right that the usefulness of non-biotech based nanotechnology (what people typically think of as nanotechnology) hasn't been used much - that's largely due to it being a nascent area. I expect that to change over the coming decades as the technology improves. It might not, though, as biotech based nanotechnology might stay in the lead.

Comment author: Lila 15 January 2018 05:46:00PM 0 points [-]

What do you mean by nanoscale neural probes? What are the questions that these probes would answer?

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 17 January 2018 09:26:25AM 0 points [-]

Broadly speaking, nanoparticles (or nanorobots, depending on how complicated they are) that scan the brain from the inside, in vivo. The sort of capabilities I'm imagining is the ability to monitor every neuron in large neural circuits simultaneously, each for many different chemical signals (such as certain neurotransmitters). Of course, since this technology doesn't exist yet, the specifics are necessarily uncertain - these probes might include CMOS circuitry, they might be based on DNA origami, or they might be unlike any technology that currently exists. Such probes would allow for building much more accurate maps of brain activity.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 12 January 2018 03:01:14PM *  1 point [-]

Hi Daniel,

you argue in section 3.3 of your paper that nanoprobes are likely to be the only viable route to WBE, because of the difficulty in capturing all of the relevant information in a brain if an approach such as destructive scanning is used.

You don't however seem to discuss the alternative path of neuroprosthesis-driven uploading:

we propose to connect to the human brain an exocortex, a prosthetic extension of the biological brain which would integrate with the mind as seamlessly as parts of the biological brain integrate with each other. [...] we make three assumptions which will be further fleshed out in the following sections:

There seems to be a relatively unified cortical algorithm which is capable of processing different types of information. Most, if not all, of the information processing in the brain of any given individual is carried out using variations of this basic algorithm. Therefore we do not need to study hundreds of different types of cortical algorithms before we can create the first version of an exocortex.
We already have a fairly good understanding on how the cerebral cortex processes information and gives rise to the attentional processes underlying consciousness. We have a good reason to believe that an exocortex would be compatible with the existing cortex and would integrate with the mind.
The cortical algorithm has an inbuilt ability to transfer information between cortical areas. Connecting the brain with an exocortex would therefore allow the exocortex to gradually take over or at least become an interface for other exocortices.

In addition to allowing for mind coalescence, the exocortex could also provide a route for uploading human minds. It has been suggested that an upload can be created by copying the brain layer-by-layer [Moravec, 1988] or by cutting a brain into small slices and scanning them [Sandberg & Bostrom, 2008]. However, given our current technological status and understanding of the brain, we suggest that the exocortex might be a likely intermediate step. As an exocortex-equipped brain aged, degenerated and eventually died, an exocortex could take over its functions, until finally the original person existed purely in the exocortex and could be copied or moved to a different substrate.

This seems to avoid the objection of it being too hard to scan the brain in all detail. If we can replicate the high-level functioning of the cortical algorithm, then we can do so in a way which doesn't need to be biologically realistic, but which will still allow us to implement the brain's essential functions in a neural prosthesis (here's some prior work that also replicates some aspect of brain's functioning and re-implements it in a neuroprosthesis, without needing to capture all of the biological details). And if the cortical algorithm can be replicated in a way that allows the person's brain to gradually transfer over functions and memories as the biological brain accumulates damage, the same way that function in the biological brain gets reorganized and can remain intact even as it slowly accumulates massive damage, then that should allow the entirety of the person's cortical function to transfer over to the neuroprosthesis. (of course, there are still the non-cortical parts of the brain that need to be uploaded as well)

A large challenge here is in getting the required amount of neural connections between the exocortex and the biological brain; but we are already getting relatively close, taking into account that the corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres "only" has on the order of 100 million connections:

Earlier this year, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a project called Neural Engineering System Design. It aims to win approval from the US Food and Drug Administration within 4 years for a wireless human brain device that can monitor brain activity using 1 million electrodes simultaneously and selectively stimulate up to 100,000 neurons. (source)

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 13 January 2018 02:20:09AM *  1 point [-]

Neuroprosthesis-driven uploading seems vastly harder for several reasons:

• you'd still need to understand in great detail how the brain processes information (if you don't, you'll be left with an upload that, while perhaps intelligent, would not act like how the person acted, and perhaps even drastically so that it might be better to imagine it as a form of NAGI than as WBE)

• integrating the exocortex with the brain would likely still require nanotechnology able to interface with the brain

• ethical/ regulatory hurdles here seem immense

I'd actually expect that in order to understand the brain enough for neuroprosthesis-driven uploading, we'd still likely need to run experiments with nanoprobes (for the same arguments as in the paper: lots of the information processing happens on the sub-cellular level - this doesn't mean that we have to replicate this information processing in a biologically realistic manner, but we likely will need to at least understand how the information is processed)

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