Sunday, November 22, 2015

Suggested reading: Stop the robot apocalypse

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

Metropolis (dir: Fritz Lang, 1927)
1. Stop the robot apocalypse

There's a branch of moral philosophy called "effective altruism." William MacAskill is one of its founders, and he's written a book called Doing Good Better (Gotham, 2015), recently reviewed by Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books (24 September 2015).

MacAskill's basic argument is that you can do more good in the world by becoming rich and philanthropic than by making (in his view) pointless self-sacrificing gestures like becoming a schoolteacher in the inner city, a doctor in rural Kenya, or a librarian anywhere.

His calculation depends on two main arguments. First, the idea of impact: the greatest good we can do for others is that which will make the biggest improvement in the lives of the largest number of people. Second, the replacement theory: if you don't become a teacher, someone else will, who will be almost as good at it as you are. But if you don't become an investment banker, someone else will, who may not use their wealth for as much good as you would. In other words, philanthropy—paying other people to do good on your behalf—is better than doing good yourself.

That's not the only strange conclusion these arguments lead to. Taking the replacement theory first, it would seem to justify doing harm in one's daily life, as long as you compensate with sufficient charitable giving. By this logic, in a disaster Bill Gates should trample the rest of us to death to escape (and we should let him) because his survival will have so much more of a charitable impact than ours. The comparison that occurs to me is carbon offsets: charitable giving is like a moral offset. And as with, say, donating to the Nature Conservancy because you drive a gas-guzzling carbon emitter, it can be difficult to determine whether the good done by the charitable gift actually outweighs the harm of the daily activity.

But the idea of impact gets really odd: if doing the greatest good means having the biggest impact on the lives of the largest number of people, then working on ameliorating or preventing future species-threatening catastrophes--a large asteroid impact, say--is more important than helping individuals who are alive right now. And the greatest existential threat to humanity, in the eyes of many people in the tech industry? Robot apocalypse.

A robot Björk in "All is full of love"
2. Superintelligence and human insignificance

In his recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford, 2014), NIck Bostrom speculates on a posthuman future in which superintelligent machines colonize the universe. Sure, superintelligent robots might enslave or destroy us, but in Bostrom's view they also might ensure the essential immortality of human consciousness.

But this scenario actually makes the effective altruism paradox worse. As Raffi Khatchadourian writes in the New Yorker,
Imagining one of his utopian scenarios—trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos—he reasons that, if there is even a one-per-cent chance of this happening, the expected value of reducing an existential threat by a billionth of a billionth of one per cent would be worth a hundred billion times the value of a billion present-day lives.
That's a lot of "billions," but the message is clear: the future, especially the remote future, is vastly more important than the present.

There are a few things to say about this idea. First, robots colonizing the universe is only a "utopian scenario" in the most hopeful view. Second, it looks to me like the probability of humans eliminating ourselves through environmental destruction, nuclear conflagration, or bioengineered plague is higher than the likelihood that we will create "trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos." Thirdly, before they become repositories for our consciousnesses, intelligent machines are likely to put us out of work, creating a mass unemployment crisis that may itself have catastrophic consequences. Finally, the "billionth of a billionth of one per cent" standard for action against an existential threat seems laughably low—I think you might reach it when you take out the recycling.

A local business and an adjacent apartment building catch fire Sunday morning
3. Kicked to the curb by altruism

So if present-day humans are insignificant, and if getting rich so that you can make larger effective charitable donations is an imperative, then it is only logical for those who own property to forcibly remove lower-income residents in order to raise real-estate values and increase their own wealth—a process I see happening all around me. (And in a nicely closed feedback loop, evictions create the need for more altruism, which creates the need for greater wealth, ad infinitum.)

As Neil Smith points out in The New Urban Frontier (Routledge, 1996), it is in the interest of those who own property to raise rents. In Alex Pareene's Bookforum review of DW Gibson's oral history of gentrification, The Edge Becomes the Center (Overlook Press, 2015)—a sequel of sorts to Smith's book—he writes that landlords and developers:
  • would rather leave a building empty than rent to the poor,
  • deliberately thin housing stock by converting multi-unit buildings into single-household dwellings,
  • destroy the earning power of middle-class renters by pushing city planning departments to rezone manufacturing areas as residential, because manufacturers put their capital into expanding their businesses rather than using it to raise the value of their real estate,
  • displace lower-income renters (you and me) in favor of the global rich who can pay what the market will bear—even as that increases radically from year to year.
More market-rate development doesn't redress these issues, it just creates more "ultraluxurious pieds-à-terre." Pareene writes,
The pro-development crowd also likes to remind us that “people don’t have the right to live wherever they want”—and that if certain of them can’t afford “hip” neighborhoods anymore, that hardly rises to the level of a tragedy worthy of government intervention. Of course, it’s always been the case in America that certain people have the right to live wherever they want—that’s the right that allowed the republic to stretch from sea to shining sea—but let’s concede the point. Once you’re there, though, and once you’ve established yourself in a community, it seems profoundly antithetical to any intelligible notion of liberty that you should be forced to leave merely because someone else shows up with a briefcase full of more cash than you can put together on short notice.


4. The inevitability of climate change

If combatting gentrification is almost impossible because it's in the interest of rich property owners and the city governments which regulate them, combatting increasing carbon emissions is almost impossible because it's in the interest of all of us—at least, in the short term. Increased carbon emissions directly correlate with economic growth, something that all nations seek to ensure. If the arguments of "effective altruism" lead to the radical discounting of the present in favor of the future, failure to act on carbon emissions radically discounts the future in favor of the present.

The United Nations climate change conference will take place in Paris in late November and early December, and many journalists are writing hopefully about its possible outcomes. Unlike most journalists, though, David Campbell has actually read the documents being submitted as a basis for a potential agreement at the conference. And as he writes in the LRB, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change enshrined a distinction between developed and developing countries which will doom any attempt to reduce global carbon emissions for at least the next several decades.

Currently the major industrializing countries—including China and India—are classified as developing countries. And as a matter of "climate justice" (rather, economic justice), the burden of reducing emissions has been placed on developed countries. It is impossible to argue with the culpability of the developed world for getting us into this mess—and the US Congress has famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for developed nations to reduce their emissions. US emissions fell slightly between 2007 and 2012, but that was due to the Great Recession, and they have begun to climb again. And the per capita carbon emissions of the US are more than twice those of China, and about ten times those of India.

However, China is now the largest absolute carbon emitter by a factor of nearly two. (The US is in second place, followed by India, Russia, and Japan.) China has submitted to the conference its 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions' (INDC) document, which declares that it will continue to increase its annual emissions until at least 2030. India's INDC does not even mention a future target year for peak emissions.

India's Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, said in a recent interview:
We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice. It’s our right as a nation. It’s our right as people of India, and we want that carbon space.
Only, there is no "carbon space." In 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time since about 15 million years ago, when seas were at least 80 feet higher than they are now. We are in uncharted territory.

I must not procrastinate

5. Procrastination

With individuals, as with nations, the ultimate consequences of procrastination tend to get worse with passing time. So why are most of us still prone to put off necessary action? Forget working to prevent climate change or robot apocalypse—I can't even clear off my desk.

The tendency to procrastinate is present in all of us to some degree. However, for some it is so powerful an impulse that it becomes impossible to hold a job or maintain a romantic relationship. Clearly procrastination has deep roots which can be difficult or impossible to overcome rationally. As Robert Hanks writes about his own almost crippling levels of procrastination in his heartrending essay "On putting things off" (LRB, 10 September 2015),
The broken promises, the unprofessionalism, the evasions and quasi-explanations you offer to others, the outright lies you tell yourself: better leave this till after the weekend; I’ll have it finished by the end of Tuesday; they won’t mind getting it on Wednesday...Reading as a way of putting off thinking; thinking as a way of putting off feeling.

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