What is it with EA and AI?

Jan 1 JDN 2459946

Surprisingly, most Effective Altruism (EA) leaders don’t seem to think that poverty alleviation should be our top priority. Most of them seem especially concerned about long-term existential risk, such as artificial intelligence (AI) safety and biosecurity. I’m not going to say that these things aren’t important—they certainly are important—but here are a few reasons I’m skeptical that they are really the most important the way that so many EA leaders seem to think.

1. We don’t actually know how to make much progress at them, and there’s only so much we can learn by investing heavily in basic research on them. Whereas, with poverty, the easy, obvious answer turns out empirically to be extremely effective: Give them money.

2. While it’s easy to multiply out huge numbers of potential future people in your calculations of existential risk (and this is precisely what people do when arguing that AI safety should be a top priority), this clearly isn’t actually a good way to make real-world decisions. We simply don’t know enough about the distant future of humanity to be able to make any kind of good judgments about what will or won’t increase their odds of survival. You’re basically just making up numbers. You’re taking tiny probabilities of things you know nothing about and multiplying them by ludicrously huge payoffs; it’s basically the secular rationalist equivalent of Pascal’s Wager.

2. AI and biosecurity are high-tech, futuristic topics, which seem targeted to appeal to the sensibilities of a movement that is still very dominated by intelligent, nerdy, mildly autistic, rich young White men. (Note that I say this as someone who very much fits this stereotype. I’m queer, not extremely rich and not entirely White, but otherwise, yes.) Somehow I suspect that if we asked a lot of poor Black women how important it is to slightly improve our understanding of AI versus giving money to feed children in Africa, we might get a different answer.

3. Poverty eradication is often characterized as a “short term” project, contrasted with AI safety as a “long term” project. This is (ironically) very short-sighted. Eradication of poverty isn’t just about feeding children today. It’s about making a world where those children grow up to be leaders and entrepreneurs and researchers themselves. The positive externalities of economic development are staggering. It is really not much of an exaggeration to say that fascism is a consequence of poverty and unemployment.

4. Currently the main thing that most Effective Altruism organizations say they need most is “talent”; how many millions of person-hours of talent are we leaving on the table by letting children starve or die of malaria?

5. Above all, existential risk can’t really be what’s motivating people here. The obvious solutions to AI safety and biosecurity are not being pursued, because they don’t fit with the vision that intelligent, nerdy, young White men have of how things should be. Namely: Ban them. If you truly believe that the most important thing to do right now is reduce the existential risk of AI and biotechnology, you should support a worldwide ban on research in artificial intelligence and biotechnology. You should want people to take all necessary action to attack and destroy institutions—especially for-profit corporations—that engage in this kind of research, because you believe that they are threatening to destroy the entire world and this is the most important thing, more important than saving people from starvation and disease. I think this is really the knock-down argument; when people say they think that AI safety is the most important thing but they don’t want Google and Facebook to be immediately shut down, they are either confused or lying. Honestly I think maybe Google and Facebook should be immediately shut down for AI safety reasons (as well as privacy and antitrust reasons!), and I don’t think AI safety is yet the most important thing.

Why aren’t people doing that? Because they aren’t actually trying to reduce existential risk. They just think AI and biotechnology are really interesting, fascinating topics and they want to do research on them. And I agree with that, actually—but then they need stop telling people that they’re fighting to save the world, because they obviously aren’t. If the danger were anything like what they say it is, we should be halting all research on these topics immediately, except perhaps for a very select few people who are entrusted with keeping these forbidden secrets and trying to find ways to protect us from them. This may sound radical and extreme, but it is not unprecedented: This is how we handle nuclear weapons, which are universally recognized as a global existential risk. If AI is really as dangerous as nukes, we should be regulating it like nukes. I think that in principle it could be that dangerous, and may be that dangerous someday—but it isn’t yet. And if we don’t want it to get that dangerous, we don’t need more AI researchers, we need more regulations that stop people from doing harmful AI research! If you are doing AI research and it isn’t directly involved specifically in AI safety, you aren’t saving the world—you’re one of the people dragging us closer to the cliff! Anything that could make AI smarter but doesn’t also make it safer is dangerous. And this is clearly true of the vast majority of AI research, and frankly to me seems to also be true of the vast majority of research at AI safety institutes like the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Seriously, look through MIRI’s research agenda: It’s mostly incredibly abstract and seems completely beside the point when it comes to preventing AI from taking control of weapons or governments. It’s all about formalizing Bayesian induction. Thanks to you, Skynet can have a formally computable approximation to logical induction! Truly we are saved. Only two of their papers, on “Corrigibility” and “AI Ethics”, actually struck me as at all relevant to making AI safer. The rest is largely abstract mathematics that is almost literally navel-gazing—it’s all about self-reference. Eliezer Yudkowsky finds self-reference fascinating and has somehow convinced an entire community that it’s the most important thing in the world. (I actually find some of it fascinating too, especially the paper on “Functional Decision Theory”, which I think gets at some deep insights into things like why we have emotions. But I don’t see how it’s going to save the world from AI.)

Don’t get me wrong: AI also has enormous potential benefits, and this is a reason we may not want to ban it. But if you really believe that there is a 10% chance that AI will wipe out humanity by 2100, then get out your pitchforks and your EMP generators, because it’s time for the Butlerian Jihad. A 10% chance of destroying all humanity is an utterly unacceptable risk for any conceivable benefit. Better that we consign ourselves to living as we did in the Neolithic than risk something like that. (And a globally-enforced ban on AI isn’t even that; it’s more like “We must live as we did in the 1950s.” How would we survive!?) If you don’t want AI banned, maybe ask yourself whether you really believe the risk is that high—or are human brains just really bad at dealing with small probabilities?

I think what’s really happening here is that we have a bunch of guys (and yes, the EA and especially AI EA-AI community is overwhelmingly male) who are really good at math and want to save the world, and have thus convinced themselves that being really good at math is how you save the world. But it isn’t. The world is much messier than that. In fact, there may not be much that most of us can do to contribute to saving the world; our best options may in fact be to donate money, vote well, and advocate for good causes.

Let me speak Bayesian for a moment: The prior probability that you—yes, you, out of all the billions of people in the world—are uniquely positioned to save it by being so smart is extremely small. It’s far more likely that the world will be saved—or doomed—by people who have power. If you are not the head of state of a large country or the CEO of a major multinational corporation, I’m sorry; you probably just aren’t in a position to save the world from AI.

But you can give some money to GiveWell, so maybe do that instead?

Charity shouldn’t end at home

It so happens that this week’s post will go live on Christmas Day. I always try to do some kind of holiday-themed post around this time of year, because not only Christmas, but a dozen other holidays from various religions all fall around this time of year. The winter solstice seems to be a very popular time for holidays, and has been since antiquity: The Romans were celebrating Saturnalia 2000 years ago. Most of our ‘Christmas’ traditions are actually derived from Yuletide.

These holidays certainly mean many different things to different people, but charity and generosity are themes that are very common across a lot of them. Gift-giving has been part of the season since at least Saturnalia and remains as vital as ever today. Most of those gifts are given to our friends and loved ones, but a substantial fraction of people also give to strangers in the form of charitable donations: November and December have the highest rates of donation to charity in the US and the UK, with about 35-40% of people donating during this season. (Of course this is complicated by the fact that December 31 is often the day with the most donations, probably from people trying to finish out their tax year with a larger deduction.)

My goal today is to make you one of those donors. There is a common saying, often attributed to the Bible but not actually present in it: “Charity begins at home”.

Perhaps this is so. There’s certainly something questionable about the Effective Altruism strategy of “earning to give” if it involves abusing and exploiting the people around you in order to make more money that you then donate to worthy causes. Certainly we should be kind and compassionate to those around us, and it makes sense for us to prioritize those close to us over strangers we have never met. But while charity may begin at home, it must not end at home.

There are so many global problems that could benefit from additional donations. While global poverty has been rapidly declining in the early 21st century, this is largely because of the efforts of donors and nonprofit organizations. Official Development Assitance has been roughly constant since the 1970s at 0.3% of GNI among First World countries—well below international targets set decades ago. Total development aid is around $160 billion per year, while private donations from the United States alone are over $480 billion. Moreover, 9% of the world’s population still lives in extreme poverty, and this rate has actually slightly increased the last few years due to COVID.

There are plenty of other worthy causes you could give to aside from poverty eradication, from issues that have been with us since the dawn of human civilization (the Humane Society International for domestic animal welfare, the World Wildlife Federation for wildlife conservation) to exotic fat-tail sci-fi risks that are only emerging in our own lifetimes (the Machine Intelligence Research Institute for AI safety, the International Federation of Biosafety Associations for biosecurity, the Union of Concerned Scientists for climate change and nuclear safety). You could fight poverty directly through organizations like UNICEF or GiveDirectly, fight neglected diseases through the Schistomoniasis Control Initiative or the Against Malaria Foundation, or entrust an organization like GiveWell to optimize your donations for you, sending them where they think they are needed most. You could give to political causes supporting civil liberties (the American Civil Liberties Union) or protecting the rights of people of color (the North American Association of Colored People) or LGBT people (the Human Rights Campaign).

I could spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out the optimal way to divide up your donations and give them to causes such as this—and then convincing you that it’s really the right one. (And there is even a time and place for that, because seemingly-small differences can matter a lot in this.) But instead I think I’m just going to ask you to pick something. Give something to an international charity with a good track record.

I think we worry far too much about what is the best way to give—especially people in the Effective Altruism community, of which I’m sort of a marginal member—when the biggest thing the world really needs right now is just more people giving more. It’s true, there are lots of worthless or even counter-productive charities out there: Please, please do not give to the Salvation Army. (And think twice before donating to your own church; if you want to support your own community, okay, go ahead. But if you want to make the world better, there are much better places to put your money.)

But above all, give something. Or if you already give, give more. Most people don’t give at all, and most people who give don’t give enough.

The era of the eurodollar is upon us

Oct 16 JDN 2459869

I happen to be one of those weirdos who liked the game Cyberpunk 2077. It was hardly flawless, and had many unforced errors (like letting you choose your gender, but not making voice type independent from pronouns? That has to be, like, three lines of code to make your game significantly more inclusive). But overall I thought it did a good job of representing a compelling cyberpunk world that is dystopian but not totally hopeless, and had rich, compelling characters, along with reasonably good gameplay. The high level of character customization sets a new standard (aforementioned errors notwithstanding), and I for one appreciate how they pushed the envelope for sexuality in a AAA game.

It’s still not explicit—though I’m sure there are mods for that—but at least you can in fact get naked, and people talk about sex in a realistic way. It’s still weird to me that showing a bare breast or a penis is seen as ‘adult’ in the same way as showing someone’s head blown off (Remind me: Which of the three will nearly everyone have seen from the time they were a baby? Which will at least 50% of children see from birth, guaranteed, and virtually 100% of adults sooner or later? Which can you see on Venus de Milo and David?), but it’s at least some progress in our society toward a healthier relationship with sex.

A few things about the game’s world still struck me as odd, though. Chiefly it has to be the weird alternate history where apparently we have experimental AI and mind-uploading in the 2020s, but… those things are still experimental in the 2070s? So our technological progress was through the roof for the early 2000s, and then just completely plateaued? They should have had Johnny Silverhand’s story take place in something like 2050, not 2023. (You could leave essentially everything else unchanged! V could still have grown up hearing tales of Silverhand’s legendary exploits, because 2050 was 27 years ago in 2077; canonically, V is 28 years old when the game begins. Honestly it makes more sense in other ways: Rogue looks like she’s in her 60s, not her 80s.)

Another weird thing is the currency they use: They call it the “eurodollar”, and the symbol is, as you might expect, €$. When the game first came out, that seemed especially ridiculous, since euros were clearly worth more than dollars and basically always had been.

Well, they aren’t anymore. In fact, euros and dollars are now trading almost exactly at parity, and have been for weeks. CD Projekt Red was right: In the 2020s, the era of the eurodollar is upon us after all.

Of course, we’re unlike to actually merge the two currencies any time soon. (Can you imagine how Republicans would react if such a thing were proposed?) But the weird thing is that we could! It almost is like the two currencies are interchangeable—for the first time in history.

It isn’t so much that the euro is weak; it’s that the dollar is strong. When I first moved to the UK, the pound was trading at about $1.40. It is now trading at $1.10! If it continues dropping as it has, it could even reach parity as well! We might have, for the first time in history, the dollar, the pound, and the euro functioning as one currency. Get the Canadian dollar too (currently much too weak), and we’ll have the Atlantic Union dollar I use in some of my science fiction (I imagine the AU as an expansion of NATO into an economic union that gradually becomes its own government).Then again, the pound is especially weak right now because it plunged after the new prime minister announced an utterly idiotic economic plan. (Conservatives refusing to do basic math and promising that tax cuts would fix everything? Why, it felt like being home again! In all the worst ways.)

This is largely a bad thing. A strong dollar means that the US trade deficit will increase, and also that other countries will have trouble buying our exports. Conversely, with their stronger dollars, Americans will buy more imports from other countries. The combination of these two effects will make inflation worse in other countries (though it could reduce it in the US).

It’s not so bad for me personally, as my husband’s income is largely in dollars while our expenses are in pounds. (My income is in pounds and thus unaffected.) So a strong dollar and a weak pound means our real household income is about £4,000 than it would otherwise have been—which is not a small difference!

In general, the level of currency exchange rates isn’t very important. It’s changes in exchange rates that matter. The changes in relative prices will shift around a lot of economic activity, causing friction both in the US and in its (many) trading partners. Eventually all those changes should result in the exchange rates converging to a new, stable equilibrium; but that can take a long time, and exchange rates can fluctuate remarkably fast. In the meantime, such large shifts in exchange rates are going to cause even more chaos in a world already shaken by the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Working from home is the new normal—sort of

Aug 28 JDN 2459820

Among people with jobs that can be done remotely, a large majority did in fact switch to doing their jobs remotely: By the end of 2020, over 70% of Americans with jobs that could be done remotely were working from home—and most of them said they didn’t want to go back.

This is actually what a lot of employers expected to happen—just not quite like this. In 2014, a third of employers predicted that the majority of their workforce would be working remotely by 2020; given the timeframe there, it required a major shock to make that happen so fast, and yet a major shock was what we had.

Working from home has carried its own challenges, but overall productivity seems to be higher working remotely (that meeting really could have been an email!). This may actually explain why output per work hour actually rose rapidly in 2020 and fell in 2022.

The COVID pandemic now isn’t so much over as becoming permanent; COVID is now being treated as an endemic infection like influenza that we don’t expect to be able to eradicate in the foreseeable future.

And likewise, remote work seems to be here to stay—sort of.

First of all, we don’t seem to be giving up office work entirely. As of the first quarter 2022, almost as many firms have partially remote work as have fully remote work, and this seems to be trending upward. A lot of firms seem to be transitioning into a “hybrid” model where employees show up to work two or three days a week. This seems to be preferred by large majorities of both workers and firms.

There is a significant downside of this: It means that the hope that remote working might finally ease the upward pressure on housing prices in major cities is largely a false one. If we were transitioning to a fully remote system, then people could live wherever they want (or can afford) and there would be no reason to move to overpriced city centers. But if you have to show up to work even one day a week, that means you need to live close enough to the office to manage that commute.

Likewise, if workers never came to the office, you could sell the office building and convert it into more housing. But if they show up even once in awhile, you need a physical place for them to go. Some firms may shrink their office space (indeed, many have—and unlike this New York Times journalist, I have a really hard time feeling bad for landlords of office buildings); but they aren’t giving it up entirely. It’s possible that firms could start trading off—you get the building on Mondays, we get it on Tuesdays—but so far this seems to be rare, and it does raise a lot of legitimate logistical and security concerns. So our global problem of office buildings that are empty, wasted space most of the time is going to get worse, not better. Manhattan will still empty out every night; it just won’t fill up as much during the day. This is honestly a major drain on our entire civilization—building and maintaining all those structures that are only used at most 1/3 of 5/7 of the time, and soon, less—and we really should stop ignoring it. No wonder our real estate is so expensive, when half of it is only used 20% of the time!

Moreover, not everyone gets to work remotely. Your job must be something that can be done remotely—something that involves dealing with information, not physical objects. That includes a wide and ever-growing range of jobs, from artists and authors to engineers and software developers—but it doesn’t include everyone. It basically means what we call “white-collar” work.

Indeed, it is largely limited to the upper-middle class. The rich never really worked anyway, though sometimes they pretend to, convincing themselves that managing a stock portfolio (that would actually grow faster if they let it sit) constitutes “work”. And the working class? By and large, they didn’t get the chance to work remotely. While 73% of workers with salaries above $200,000 worked remotely in 2020, only 12% of workers with salaries under $25,000 did, and there is a smooth trend where, across the board, the more money you make, the more likely you have been able to work remotely.

This will only intensify the divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers. They already think we don’t do “real work”; now we don’t even go to work. And while blue-collar workers are constantly complaining about contempt from white-collar elites, I think the shoe is really on the other foot. I have met very few white-collar workers who express contempt for blue-collar workers—and I have met very few blue-collar workers who don’t express anger and resentment toward white-collar workers. I keep hearing blue-collar people say that we think that they are worthless and incompetent, when they are literally the only ones ever saying that. I can’t stop saying things that I never said.

The rich and powerful may look down on them, but they look down on everyone. (Maybe they look down on blue-collar workers more? I’m not even sure about that.) I think politicians sometimes express contempt for blue-collar workers, but I don’t think this reflects what most white-collar workers feel.

And the highly-educated may express some vague sense of pity or disappointment in people who didn’t get college degrees, and sometimes even anger (especially when they do things like vote for Donald Trump), but the really vitriolic hatred is clearly in the opposite direction (indeed, I have no better explanation for how otherwise-sane people could vote for Donald Trump). And I certainly wouldn’t say that everyone needs a college degree (though I became tempted to, when so many people without college degrees voted for Donald Trump).

This really isn’t us treating them with contempt: This is them having a really severe inferiority complex. And as information technology (that white-collar work created) gives us—but not them—the privilege of staying home, that is only going to get worse.

It’s not their fault: Our culture of meritocracy puts a little bit of inferiority complex in all of us. It tells us that success and failure are our own doing, and so billionaires deserve to have everything and the poor deserve to have nothing. And blue-collar workers have absolutely internalized these attitudes: Most of them believe that poor people choose to stay on welfare forever rather than get jobs (when welfare has time limits and work requirements, so this is simply not an option—and you would know this from the Wikipedia page on TANF).

I think that what they experience as “contempt by white-collar elites” is really the pain of living in an illusory meritocracy. They were told—and they came to believe—that working hard would bring success, and they have worked very hard, and watched other people be much more successful. They assume that the rich and powerful are white-collar workers, when really they are non-workers; they are people the world was handed to on a silver platter. (What, you think George W. Bush earned his admission to Yale?)

And thus, we can shout until we are blue in the face that plumbers, bricklayers and welders are the backbone of civilization—and they are, and I absolutely mean that; our civilization would, in an almost literal sense, collapse without them—but it won’t make any difference. They’ll still feel the pain of living in a society that gave them very little and tells them that people get what they deserve.

I don’t know what to say to such people, though. When your political attitudes are based on beliefs that are objectively false, that you could know are objectively false if you simply bothered to look them up… what exactly am I supposed to say to you? How can we have a useful political conversation when half the country doesn’t even believe in fact-checking?

Honestly I wish someone had explained to them that even the most ideal meritocratic capitalism wouldn’t reward hard work. Work is a cost, not a benefit, and the whole point of technological advancement is to allow us to accomplish more with less work. The ideal capitalism would reward talent—you would succeed by accomplishing things, regardless of how much effort you put into them. People would be rich mainly because they are brilliant, not because they are hard-working. The closest thing we have to ideal capitalism right now is probably professional sports. And no amount of effort could ever possibly make me into Steph Curry.

If that isn’t the world we want to live in, so be it; let’s do something else. I did nothing to earn either my high IQ or my chronic migraines, so it really does feel unfair that the former increases my income while the latter decreases it. But the labor theory of value has always been wrong; taking more sweat or more hours to do the same thing is worse, not better. The dignity of labor consists in its accomplishment, not its effort. Sisyphus is not happy, because his work is pointless.

Honestly at this point I think our best bet is just to replace all blue-collar work with automation, thus rendering it all moot. And then maybe we can all work remotely, just pushing code patches to the robots that do everything. (And no doubt this will prove my “contempt”: I want to replace you! No, I want to replace the grueling work that you have been forced to do to make a living. I want you—the human being—to be able to do something more fun with your life, even if that’s just watching television and hanging out with friends.)

A guide to surviving the apocalypse

Aug 21 JDN 2459820

Some have characterized the COVID pandemic as an apocalypse, though it clearly isn’t. But a real apocalypse is certainly possible, and its low probability is offset by its extreme importance. The destruction of human civilization would be quite literally the worst thing that ever happened, and if it led to outright human extinction or civilization was never rebuilt, it could prevent a future that would have trillions if not quadrillions of happy, prosperous people.

So let’s talk about things people like you and me could do to survive such a catastrophe, and hopefully work to rebuild civilization. I’ll try to inject a somewhat light-hearted tone into this otherwise extraordinarily dark topic; we’ll see how well it works. What specifically we would want—or be able—to do will depend on the specific scenario that causes the apocalypse, so I’ll address those specifics shortly. But first, let’s talk about general stuff that should be useful in most, if not all, apocalypse scenarios.

It turns out that these general pieces of advice are also pretty good advice for much smaller-scale disasters such as fires, tornados, or earthquakes—all of which are far more likely to occur. Your top priority is to provide for the following basic needs:

1. Water: You will need water to drink. You should have some kind of stockpile of clean water; bottled water is fine but overpriced, and you’d do just as well to bottle tap water (as long as you do it before the crisis occurs and the water system goes down). Better still would be to have water filtration and purification equipment so that you can simply gather whatever water is available and make it drinkable.

2. Food: You will need nutritious, non-perishable food. Canned vegetables and beans are ideal, but you can also get a lot of benefit from dry staples such as crackers. Processed foods and candy are not as nutritious, but they do tend to keep well, so they can do in a pinch. Avoid anything that spoils quickly or requires sophisticated cooking. In the event of a disaster, you will be able to make fire and possibly run a microwave on a solar panel or portable generator—but you can’t rely on the electrical or gas mains to stay operational, and even boiling will require precious water.

3. Shelter: Depending on the disaster, your home may or may not remain standing—and even if it is standing, it may not be fit for habitation. Consider backup options for shelter: Do you have a basement? Do you own any tents? Do you know people you could move in with, if their homes survive and yours doesn’t?

4. Defense: It actually makes sense to own a gun or two in the event of a crisis. (In general it’s actually a big risk, though, so keep that in mind: the person your gun is most likely to kill is you.) Just don’t go overboard and do what we all did in Oregon Trail, stocking plenty of bullets but not enough canned food. Ammo will be hard to replace, though; your best option may actually be a gauss rifle (yes, those are real, and yes, I want one), because all they need for ammo is ferromagnetic metal of the appropriate shape and size. Then, all you need is a solar panel to charge its battery and some machine tools to convert scrap metal into ammo.

5. Community: Humans are highly social creatures, and we survive much better in groups. Get to know your neighbors. Stay in touch with friends and family. Not only will this improve your life in general, it will also give you people to reach out to if you need help during the crisis and the government is indisposed (or toppled). Having a portable radio that runs on batteries, solar power, or hand-crank operation will also be highly valuable for staying in touch with people during a crisis. (Likewise flashlights!)

Now, on to the specific scenarios. I will consider the following potential causes of apocalypse: Alien Invasion, Artificial Intelligence Uprising, Climate Disaster, Conventional War, Gamma-Ray Burst, Meteor Impact, Plague, Nuclear War, and last (and, honestly, least), Zombies.

I will rate each apocalypse by its risk level, based on its probability of occurring within the next 100 years (roughly the time I think it will take us to meaningfully colonize space and thereby change the game):

Very High: 1% or more

High: 0.1% – 1%

Moderate: 0.01% – 0.1%

Low: 0.001% – 0.01%

Very Low: 0.0001% – 0.001%

Tiny: 0.00001% – 0.0001%

Miniscule: 0.00001% or less

I will also rate your relative safety in different possible locations you might find yourself during the crisis:

Very Safe: You will probably survive.

Safe: You will likely survive if you are careful.

Dicey: You may survive, you may not. Hard to say.

Dangerous: You will likely die unless you are very careful.

Very Dangerous: You will probably die.

Hopeless: You will definitely die.

I’ll rate the following locations for each, with some explanation: City, Suburb, Rural Area, Military Base, Underground Bunker, Ship at Sea. Certain patterns will emerge—but some results may surprise you. This may tell you where to go to have the best chance of survival in the event of a disaster (though I admit bunkers are often in short supply).

All right, here goes!

Alien Invasion

Risk: Low

There are probably sapient aliens somewhere in this vast universe, maybe even some with advanced technology. But they are very unlikely to be willing to expend the enormous resources to travel across the stars just to conquer us. Then again, hey, it could happen; maybe they’re imperialists, or they have watched our TV commercials and heard the siren song of oregano.

City: Dangerous

Population centers are likely to be primary targets for their invasion. They probably won’t want to exterminate us outright (why would they?), but they may want to take control of our cities, and are likely to kill a lot of people when they do.

Suburb: Dicey

Outside the city centers will be a bit safer, but hardly truly safe.

Rural Area: Dicey

Where humans are spread out, we’ll present less of a target. Then again, if you own an oregano farm….

Military Base: Very Dangerous

You might think that having all those planes and guns around would help, but these will surely be prime targets in an invasion. Since the aliens are likely to be far more technologically advanced, it’s unlikely our military forces could put up much resistance. Our bases would likely be wiped out almost immediately.

Underground Bunker: Safe

This is a good place to be. Orbital and aerial weapons won’t be very effective against underground targets, and even ground troops would have trouble finding and attacking an isolated bunker. Since they probably won’t want to exterminate us, hiding in your bunker until they establish a New World Order could work out for you.

Ship at Sea: Dicey

As long as it’s a civilian vessel, you should be okay. A naval vessel is just as dangerous as a base, if not more so; they would likely strike our entire fleets from orbit almost instantly. But the aliens are unlikely to have much reason to bother attacking a cruise ship or a yacht. Then again, if they do, you’re toast.

Artificial Intelligence Uprising

Risk: Very High

While it sounds very sci-fi, this is one of the most probable apocalypse scenarios, and we should be working to defend against it. There are dozens of ways that artificial intelligence could get out of control and cause tremendous damage, particularly if the AI got control of combat drones or naval vessels. This could mean a superintelligent AI beyond human comprehension, but it need not; it could in fact be a very stupid AI that was programmed to make profits for Hasbro and decided that melting people into plastic was the best way to do that.

City: Very Dangerous

Cities don’t just have lots of people; they also have lots of machines. If the AI can hack our networks, they may be able to hack into not just phones and laptops, but even cars, homes, and power plants. Depending on the AI’s goals (which are very hard to predict), cities could become disaster zones almost immediately, as thousands of cars shut down and crash and all the power plants get set to overload.

Suburb: Dangerous

Definitely safer than the city, but still, you’ve got plenty of technology around you for the AI to exploit.

Rural Area: Dicey

The further you are from other people and their technology, the safer you’ll be. Having bad wifi out in the boonies may actually save your life. Then again, even tractors have software updates now….

Military Base: Very Dangerous

The military is extremely high-tech and all network-linked. Unless they can successfully secure their systems against the AI very well, very fast, suddenly all the guided missiles and combat drones and sentry guns will be deployed in service of the robot revolution.

Underground Bunker: Safe

As long as your bunker is off the grid, you should be okay. The robots won’t have any weapons we don’t already have, and bunkers are built because they protect pretty well against most weapons.

Ship at Sea: Hopeless

You are surrounded by technology and you have nowhere to run. A military vessel is worse than a civilian ship, but either way, you’re pretty much doomed. The AI is going to take over the radio, the GPS system, maybe even the controls of the ship themselves. It could intentionally overload the engines, or drive you into rocks, or simply shut down everything and leave you to starve at sea. A sailing yacht with a hand-held compass and sextant should be relatively safe, if you manage to get your hands on one of those somehow.

Climate Disaster

Risk: Moderate

Let’s be clear here. Some kind of climate disaster is inevitable; indeed, it’s already in progress. But what I’m talking about is something really severe, something that puts all of human civilization in jeopardy. That, fortunately, is fairly unlikely—and even more so after the big bill that just passed!

City: Dicey

Buildings provide shelter from the elements, and cities will be the first places we defend. Dikes will be built around Manhattan like the ones around Amsterdam. You won’t need to worry about fires, snowstorms, or flooding very much. Still, a really severe crisis could cause all utility systems to break down, meaning you won’t have heating and cooling.

Suburb: Dicey

The suburbs will be about as safe as the cities, maybe a little worse because there isn’t as much shelter if you lose your home to a disaster event.

Rural Area: Dangerous

Remote areas are going to have it the worst. Especially if you’re near a coast that can flood or a forest that can burn, you’re exposed to the elements and there won’t be much infrastructure to protect you. Your best bet is to move in toward the city, where other people will try to help you against the coming storms.

Military Base: Very Safe

Military infrastructure will be prioritized in defense plans, and soldiers are already given lots of survival tools and training. If you can get yourself to a military base and they actually let you in, you really won’t have much to worry about.

Underground Bunker: Very Safe

Underground doesn’t have a lot of weather, it turns out. As long as your bunker is well sealed against flooding, earthquakes are really your only serious concern, and climate change isn’t going to affect those very much.

Ship at Sea: Safe

Increased frequency of hurricanes and other storms will make the sea more dangerous, but as long as you steer clear of storms as they come, you should be okay.

Conventional War

Risk: Moderate

Once again, I should clarify. Obviously there are going to be wars—there are wars going on this very minute. But a truly disastrous war, a World War 3 still fought with conventional weapons, is fairly unlikely. We can’t rule it out, but we don’t have to worry too much—or rather, it’s nukes we should worry about, as I’ll get to in a little bit. It’s unlikely that truly apocalyptic damage could be caused by conventional weapons alone.

City: Dicey

Cities will often be where battles are fought, as they are strategically important. Expect bombing raids and perhaps infantry or tank battalions. Still, it’s actually pretty feasible to survive in a city that is under attack by conventional weapons; while lots of people certainly die, in most wars, most people actually don’t.

Suburb: Safe

Suburbs rarely make interesting military targets, so you’ll mainly have to worry about troops passing through on their way to cities.

Rural Area: Safe

For similar reasons to the suburbs, you should be relatively safe out in the boonies. You may encounter some scattered skirmishes, but you’re unlikely to face sustained attack.

Military Base: Dicey

Whether military bases are safe really depends on whether your side is winning or not. If they are, then you’re probably okay; that’s where all the soldiers and military equipment are, there to defend you. If they aren’t, then you’re in trouble; military bases make nice, juicy targets for attack.

Ship at Sea: Safe

There’s a reason it is big news every time a civilian cruise liner gets sunk in a war (does the Lusitania ring a bell?); it really doesn’t happen that much. Transport ships are at risk of submarine raids, and of course naval vessels will face constant threats; but cruise liners aren’t strategically important, so military forces have very little reason to target them.

Gamma-Ray Burst

Risk: Tiny

While gamma-ray bursts certainly happen all the time, so far they have all been extremely remote from Earth. It is currently estimated that they only happen a few times in any given galaxy every few million years. And each one is concentrated in a narrow beam, so even when they happen they only affect a few nearby stars. This is very good news, because if it happened… well, that’s pretty much it. We’d be doomed.

If a gamma-ray burst happened within a few light-years of us, and happened to be pointed at us, it would scour the Earth, boil the water, burn the atmosphere. Our entire planet would become a dead, molten rock—if, that is, it wasn’t so close that it blew the planet up completely. And the same is going to be true of Mars, Mercury, and every other planet in our solar system.

Underground Bunker: Very Dangerous

Your one meager hope of survival would be to be in an underground bunker at the moment the burst hit. Since most bursts give very little warning, you are unlikely to achieve this unless you, like, live in a bunker—which sounds pretty terrible. Moreover, your bunker needs to be a 100% closed system, and deep underground; the surface will be molten and the air will be burned away. There’s honestly a pretty narrow band of the Earth’s crust that’s deep enough to protect you but not already hot enough to doom you.

Anywhere Else: Hopeless

If you aren’t deep underground at the moment the burst hits us, that’s it; you’re dead. If you are on the side of the Earth facing the burst, you will die mercifully quickly, burned to a crisp instantly. If you are not, your death will be a bit slower, as the raging firestorm that engulfs the Earth, boils the oceans, and burns away the atmosphere will take some time to hit you. But your demise is equally inevitable.

Well, that was cheery. Remember, it’s really unlikely to happen! Moving on!

Meteor Impact

Risk: Tiny

Yes, “it has happened before, and it will happen again; the only question is when.” However, meteors with sufficient size to cause a global catastrophe only seem to hit the Earth about once every couple hundred million years. Moreover, right now the first time in human history where we might actually have a serious chance of detecting and deflecting an oncoming meteor—so even if one were on the way, we’d still have some hope of saving ourselves.

Underground Bunker: Dangerous

A meteor impact would be a lot like a gamma-ray burst, only much less so. (Almost anything is “much less so” than a gamma-ray burst, with the lone exception of a supernova, which is always “much more so”.) It would still boil a lot of ocean and start a massive firestorm, but it wouldn’t boil all the ocean, and the firestorm wouldn’t burn away all the oxygen in the atmosphere. Underground is clearly the safest place to be, preferably on the other side of the planet from the impact.

Anywhere Else: Very Dangerous

If you are above ground, it wouldn’t otherwise matter too much where you are, at least not in any way that’s easy to predict. Further from the impact is obviously better than closer, but the impact could be almost anywhere. After the initial destruction there would be a prolonged impact winter, which could cause famines and wars. Rural areas might be a bit safer than cities, but then again if you are in a remote area, you are less likely to get help if you need it.

Plague

Risk: Low

Obviously, the probability of a pandemic is 100%. You best start believing in pandemics; we’re in one. But pandemics aren’t apocalyptic plagues. To really jeopardize human civilization, there would have to be a superbug that spreads and mutates rapidly, has a high fatality rate, and remains highly resistant to treatment and vaccination. Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of bacteria or viruses like that; the last one we had was the Black Death, and humanity made it through that one. In fact, there is good reason to believe that with modern medical technology, even a pathogen like the Black Death wouldn’t be nearly as bad this time around.

City: Dangerous

Assuming the pathogen spreads from human to human, concentrations of humans are going to be the most dangerous places to be. Staying indoors and following whatever lockdown/mask/safety protocols that authorities recommend will surely help you; but if the plague gets bad enough, infrastructure could start falling apart and even those things will stop working.

Suburb: Safe

In a suburb, you are much more isolated from other people. You can stay in your home and be fairly safe from the plague, as long as you are careful.

Rural Area: Dangerous

The remoteness of a rural area means that you’d think you wouldn’t have to worry as much about human-to-human transmission. But as we’ve learned from COVID, rural areas are full of stubborn right-wing people who refuse to follow government safety protocols. There may not be many people around, but they probably will be taking stupid risks and spreading the disease all over the place. Moreover, if the disease can be carried by animals—as quite a few can—livestock will become an added danger.

Military Base: Safe

If there’s one place in the world where people follow government safety protocols, it’s a military base. Bases will have top-of-the-line equipment, skilled and disciplined personnel, and up-to-the-minute data on the spread of the pathogen.

Underground Bunker: Very Safe

The main thing you need to do is be away from other people for awhile, and a bunker is a great place to do that. As long as your bunker is well-stocked with food and water, you can ride out the plague and come back out once it dies down.

Ship at Sea: Dicey

This is an all-or-nothing proposition. If no one on the ship has the disease, you’re probably safe as long as you remain at sea, because very few pathogens can spread that far through the air. On the other hand, if someone on your ship does carry the disease, you’re basically doomed.

Nuclear War

Risk: Very High

Honestly, this is the one that terrifies me. I have no way of knowing that Vladmir Putin or Xi Jinping won’t wake up one morning any day now and give the order to launch a thousand nuclear missiles. (I honestly wasn’t even sure Trump wouldn’t, so it’s a damn good thing he’s out of office.) They have no reason to, but they’re psychopathic enough that I can’t be sure they won’t.

City: Dangerous

Obviously, most of those missiles are aimed at cities. And if you happen to be in the center of such a city, this is very bad for your health. However, nukes are not the automatic death machines that they are often portrayed to be; sure, right at the blast center you’re vaporized. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki both had lots of survivors, many of whom lived on for years or even decades afterward, even despite the radiation poisoning.

Suburb: Dangerous

Being away from a city center might provide some protection, but then again it might not; it really depends on how the nukes are targeted. It’s actually quite unlikely that Russia or China (or whoever) would deploy large megaton-yield missiles, as they are very expensive; so you could only have a few, making it easier to shoot them all down. The far more likely scenario is lots of kiloton-yield missiles, deployed in what is called a MIRV: multiple independent re-entry vehicle. One missile launches into space, then splits into many missiles, each of which can have a different target. It’s sort of like a cluster bomb, only the “little” clusters are each Hiroshima bombs. Those clusters might actually be spread over metropolitan areas relatively evenly, so being in a suburb might not save you. Or it might. Hard to say.

Rural Area: Dicey

If you are sufficiently remote from cities, the nukes probably won’t be aimed at you. And since most of the danger really happens right when the nuke hits, this is good news for you. You won’t have to worry about the blast or the radiation; your main concerns will be fallout and the resulting collapse of infrastructure. Nuclear winter could also be a risk, but recent studies suggest that’s relatively unlikely even in a full-scale nuclear exchange.

Military Base: Hopeless

The nukes are going to be targeted directly at military bases. Probably multiple nukes per base, in case some get shot down. Basically, if you are on a base at the time the missiles hit, you’re doomed. If you know the missiles are coming, your best bet would be to get as far from that base as you can, into as remote an area as you can. You’ll have a matter of minutes, so good luck.

Underground Bunker: Safe

There’s a reason we built a bunch of underground bunkers during the Cold War; they’re one of the few places you can go to really be safe from a nuclear attack. As long as your bunker is well-stocked and well-shielded, you can hide there and survive not only the initial attack, but the worst of the fallout as well.

Ship at Sea: Safe

Ships are small enough that they probably wouldn’t be targeted by nukes. Maybe if you’re on or near a major naval capital ship, like an aircraft carrier, you’d be in danger; someone might try to nuke that. (Even then, aircraft carriers are tough: Anything short of a direct hit might actually be survivable. In tests, carriers have remained afloat and largely functional even after a 100-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated a mile away. They’re even radiation-shielded, because they have nuclear reactors.) But a civilian vessel or even a smaller naval vessel is unlikely to be targeted. Just stay miles away from any cities or any other ships, and you should be okay.

Zombies

Risk: Miniscule

Zombies per se—the literal undeadaren’t even real, so that’s just impossible. But something like zombies could maybe happen, in some very remote scenario in which some bizarre mutant strain of rabies or something spreads far and wide and causes people to go crazy and attack other people. Even then, if the infection is really only spread through bites, it’s not clear how it could ever reach a truly apocalyptic level; more likely, it would cause a lot of damage locally and then be rapidly contained, and we’d remember it like Pearl Harbor or 9/11: That terrible, terrible day when 5,000 people became zombies in Portland, and then they all died and it was over. An airborne or mosquito-borne virus would be much more dangerous, but then we’re really talking about a plague, not zombies. The ‘turns people into zombies’ part of the virus would be a lot less important than the ‘spreads through the air and kills you’ part.

Seriously, why is this such a common trope? Why do people think that this could cause an apocalypse?

City: Safe

Yes, safe, dammit. Once you have learned that zombies are on the loose, stay locked in your home, wearing heavy clothing (to block bites; a dog suit is ideal, but a leather jacket or puffy coat would do) with a shotgun (or a gauss rifle, see above) at the ready, and you’ll probably be fine. Yes, this is the area of highest risk, due to the concentration of people who could potentially be infected with the zombie virus. But unless you are stupid—which people in these movies always seem to be—you really aren’t in all that much danger. Zombies can at most be as fast and strong as humans (often, they seem to be less!), so all you need to do is shoot them before they can bite you. And unlike fake movie zombies, anything genuinely possible will go down from any mortal wound, not just a perfect headshot—I assure you, humans, however crazed by infection they might be, can’t run at you if their hearts (or their legs) are gone. It might take a bit more damage to drop them than an ordinary person, if they aren’t slowed down by pain; but it wouldn’t require perfect marksmanship or any kind of special weaponry. Buckshot to the chest will work just fine.

Suburb: Safe

Similar to the city, only more so, because people there are more isolated.

Rural Area: Very Safe

And rural areas are even more isolated still—plus you have more guns than people, so you’ll have more guns than zombies.

Military Base: Very Safe

Even more guns, plus military training and a chain of command! The zombies don’t stand a chance. A military base would be a great place to be, and indeed that’s where the containment would begin, as troops march from the bases to the cities to clear out the zombies. Shaun of the Dead (of all things!) actually got this right: One local area gets pretty bad, but then the Army comes in and takes all the zombies out.

Underground Bunker: Very Safe

A bunker remains safe in the event of zombies, just as it is in most other scenarios.

Ship at Sea: Very Safe

As long as the infection hasn’t spread to the ship you are currently on and the zombies can’t swim, you are at literally zero risk.

The radical uncertainty of life

Jul 31 JDN 2459792

It’s a question you get a lot in job interviews, and sometimes from elsewhere as well: “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”

I never quite know how to answer such a question, because the future is so full of uncertainty.

Ten years from now:

I could be a tenured professor, or have left academia entirely. I could be teaching here at Edinburgh, or at an even more prestigious university, or at a tiny, obscure school. I could be working in private industry, or unemployed. I could be working as a full-time freelance writer.

I could have published nothing new, or have published a few things, or have won a Fields Medal. (It’s especially unlikely to have won a Nobel by then, but it’s a bit less unlikely that I might have done work that would one day lead to one.)

I could be still living in the United Kingdom, or back in the United States, or in some other country entirely.

I could be healthier than I am now, or permanently disabled. I could even be dead, from a variety of diseases, or a car accident, or a gunshot wound.

I could have adopted three children, or none. I could be divorced. My spouse could be dead.

It could even all be moot because the Russian war in Ukraine—or some other act of Russian aggression—has escalated into a nuclear Third World War.

These are the relatively likely scenarios.

I’m not saying I’m going to win a Fields Medal—but I am the sort of person who wins Fields Medals, surely far more likely than any randomly selected individual. I’m not saying we’re going to have WW3, but we’re definitely closer to it than we’ve been since the end of the Cold War.

There are plenty of other, unlikely scenarios that still remain possible:

I could be working in finance, or engineering, or medicine. I could be living on a farm. I could be President of the United States. I could have won a multi-million-dollar lottery and retired to a life of luxury and philanthropy. Those seem rather unlikely for me personally—but they are all true of someone, somewhere.

I could be living on a space station, or a Lunar base. I could be cybernetically enhanced. 2032 seems early for such things—but it didn’t to folks writing in the 1980s, so who knows? (Maybe it will even happen so gradually we won’t notice: Is a glucose-monitoring implant a cybernetic enhancement? It doesn’t seem so unlikely I might one day have one of those.)

None of us really knows what the future is going to hold. We could say what we want, or what we expect is the most likely, but more often than not, the world will surprise us.

What does this mean for our lives now? Should we give up trying to make plans, since the future is so unpredictable? Should we “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”?

I think the key is to realize that there is a kind of planning that’s still useful even if you can’t predict what will happen—and that is to plan to be flexible and resilient.

You can keep your eyes open for opportunities, rather than trying too hard to hold onto what you already have. Rather than trying in vain to keep everything the same, you can accept that your life is going to change and try to direct that change in better directions.

Rather than planning on staying in the same career for your whole life—which hardly anyone in our generation does—you should expect to change careers, and be working on building a wide range of transferable skills and a broad network of friends and colleagues. Maybe sooner or later you’ll find the right place to settle down, but it could be awhile.

You may not know where you’ll be living or working in ten years, but odds are pretty good that it’ll still be useful for you to have some money saved up, so you should probably save some money. If we end up in a post-scarcity utopia, you won’t need it, but you also won’t care. If we end up in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, it really won’t matter one way or the other. And those two extremes are about what would need to happen for you not to be able to make use of savings.

And where should you put that saved money? Stocks, bonds, cryptocurrency? Well, crypto would give you a chance at spectacular gains—but a much larger chance of spectacular losses. Bonds are very safe, but also don’t grow very much. So, as I’ve said before, you probably want to buy stocks. Yes, you could end up better off by choosing something else; but you have to play the odds, and stocks give you the best odds.

You will have setbacks at some point, either small or large. Everyone does. You can’t plan for what they will be, but you can plan to have resources available to deal with them.

Hey, maybe you should even buy life insurance, just in case you really do die tomorrow. You probably won’t—but somebody will, and doesn’t know it yet.

Will we ever have the space opera future?

May 22 JDN 2459722

Space opera has long been a staple of science fiction. Like many natural categories, it’s not that easy to define; it has something to do with interstellar travel, a variety of alien species, grand events, and a big, complicated world that stretches far beyond any particular story we might tell about it.

Star Trek is the paradigmatic example, and Star Wars also largely fits, but there are numerous of other examples, including most of my favorite science fiction worlds: Dune, the Culture, Mass Effect, Revelation Space, the Liaden, Farscape, Babylon 5, the Zones of Thought.

I think space opera is really the sort of science fiction I most enjoy. Even when it is dark, there is still something aspirational about it. Even a corrupt feudal transplanetary empire or a terrible interstellar war still means a universe where people get to travel the stars.

How likely is it that we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad sense, humanity and its descendants—will actually get the chance to live in such a universe?

First, let’s consider the most traditional kind of space opera, the Star Trek world, where FTL is commonplace and humans interact as equals with a wide variety of alien species that are different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be relatable.

This, sad to say, is extremely unlikely. FTL is probably impossible, or if not literally impossible then utterly infeasible by any foreseeable technology. Yes, the Alcubierre drive works in theory… all you need is tons of something that has negative mass.

And while, by sheer probability, there almost have to be other sapient lifeforms somewhere out there in this vast universe, our failure to contact or even find clear evidence of any of them for such a long period suggests that they are either short-lived or few and far between. Moreover, any who do exist are likely to be radically different from us and difficult to interact with at all, much less relate to on a personal level. Maybe they don’t have eyes or ears; maybe they live only in liquid hydrogen or molten lead; maybe they communicate entirely by pheromones that are toxic to us.

Does this mean that the aspirations of space opera are ultimately illusory? Is it just a pure fantasy that will forever be beyond us? Not necessarily.

I can see two other ways to create a very space-opera-like world, one of which is definitely feasible, and the other is very likely to be. Let’s start with the one that’s definitely feasible—indeed so feasible we will very likely get to experience it in our own lifetimes.

That is to make it a simulation. An MMO video game, in a way, but something much grander than any MMO that has yet been made. Not just EVE and No Man’s Sky, not just World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Second Life, but also Facebook and Instagram and Zoom and so much more. Oz from Summer Wars; OASIS from Ready Player One. A complete, multifaceted virtual reality in which we can spend most if not all of our lives. One complete with not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, even taste.

Since it’s a simulation, we can make our own rules. If we want FTL and teleportation, we can have them. (And I would like to note that in fact teleportation is available in EVE, No Man’s Sky, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and even Second Life. It’s easy to implement in a simulation, and it really seems to be something people want to have.) If we want to meet—or even be—people from a hundred different sapient species, some more humanoid than others, we can. Each of us could rule entire planets, command entire starfleets.

And we could do this, if not right now, today, then very, very soon—the VR hardware is finally maturing and the software capability already exists if there is a development team with the will and the skills (and the budget) to do it. We almost certainly will do this—in fact, we’ll do it hundreds or thousands of different ways. You need not be content with any particular space opera world, when you can choose from a cornucopia of them; and fantasy worlds too, and plenty of other kinds of worlds besides.

Yet, I admit, there is something missing from that future. While such a virtual-reality simulation might reach the point where it would be fair to say it’s no longer simply a “video game”, it still won’t be real. We won’t actually be Vulcans or Delvians or Gek or Asari. We will merely pretend to be. When we take off the VR suit at the end of the day, we will still be humans, and still be stuck here on Earth. And even if most of the toil of maintaining this society and economy can be automated, there will still be some time we have to spend living ordinary lives in ordinary human bodies.

So, is there some chance that we might really live in a space-opera future? Where we will meet actual, flesh-and-blood people who have blue skin, antennae, or six limbs? Where we will actually, physically move between planets, feeling the different gravity beneath our feet and looking up at the alien sky?

Yes. There is a way this could happen. Not now, not for awhile yet. We ourselves probably won’t live to see it. But if humanity manages to continue thriving for a few more centuries, and technology continues to improve at anything like its current pace, then that day may come.

We won’t have FTL, so we’ll be bounded by the speed of light. But the speed of light is still quite fast. It can get you to Mars in minutes, to Jupiter in hours, and even to Alpha Centauri in a voyage that wouldn’t shock Magellan or Zheng He. Leaving this arm of the Milky Way, let alone traveling to another galaxy, is out of the question (at least if you ever want to come back while anyone you know is still alive—actually as a one-way trip it’s surprisingly feasible thanks to time dilation).

This means that if we manage to invent a truly superior kind of spacecraft engine, one which combines the high thrust of a hydrolox rocket with the high specific impulse of an ion thruster—and that is physically possible, because it’s well within what nuclear rockets ought to be capable of—then we could travel between planets in our solar system, and maybe even to nearby solar systems, in reasonable amounts of time. The world of The Expanse could therefore be in reach (well, the early seasons anyway), where human colonies have settled on Mars and Ceres and Ganymede and formed their own new societies with their own unique cultures.

We may yet run into some kind of extraterrestrial life—bacteria probably, insects maybe, jellyfish if we’re lucky—but we probably ever won’t actually encounter any alien sapients. If there are any, they are probably too primitive to interact with us, or they died out millennia ago, or they’re simply too far away to reach.

But if we cannot find Vulcans and Delvians and Asari, then we can become them. We can modify ourselves with cybernetics, biotechnology, or even nanotechnology, until we remake ourselves into whatever sort of beings we want to be. We may never find a whole interplanetary empire ruled by a race of sapient felinoids, but if furry conventions are any indication, there are plenty of people who would make themselves into sapient felinoids if given the opportunity.

Such a universe would actually be more diverse than a typical space opera. There would be no “planets of hats“, no entire societies of people acting—or perhaps even looking—the same. The hybridization of different species is almost by definition impossible, but when the ‘species’ are cosmetic body mods, we can combine them however we like. A Klingon and a human could have a child—and for that matter the child could grow up and decide to be a Turian.

Honestly there are only two reasons I’m not certain we’ll go this route:

One, we’re still far too able and willing to kill each other, so who knows if we’ll even make it that long. There’s also still plenty of room for some sort of ecological catastrophe to wipe us out.

And two, most people are remarkably boring. We already live in a world where one could go to work every day wearing a cape, a fursuit, a pirate outfit, or a Starfleet uniform, and yet people don’t let you. There’s nothing infeasible about me delivering a lecture dressed as a Kzin Starfleet science officer, and nor would it even particularly impair my ability to deliver the lecture well; and yet I’m quite certain it would be greatly frowned upon if I were to do so, and could even jeopardize my career (especially since I don’t have tenure).

Would it be distracting to the students if I were to do something like that? Probably, at least at first. But once they got used to it, it might actually make them feel at ease. If it were a social norm that lecturers—and students—can dress however they like (perhaps limited by local decency regulations, though those, too, often seem overly strict), students might show up to class in bunny pajamas or pirate outfits or full-body fursuits, but would that really be a bad thing? It could in fact be a good thing, if it helps them express their own identity and makes them more comfortable in their own skin.

But no, we live in a world where the mainstream view is that every man should wear exactly the same thing at every formal occasion. I felt awkward at the AEA conference because my shirt had color.

This means that there is really one major obstacle to building the space opera future: Social norms. If we don’t get to live in this world one day, it will be because the world is ruled by the sort of person who thinks that everyone should be the same.

The alienation of labor

Apr 10 JDN 2459680

Marx famously wrote that capitalism “alienates labor”. Much ink has been spilled over interpreting exactly what he meant by that, but I think the most useful and charitable reading goes something like the following:

When you make something for yourself, it feels fully yours. The effort you put into it feels valuable and meaningful. Whether you’re building a house to live in it or just cooking an omelet to eat it, your labor is directly reflected in your rewards, and you have a clear sense of purpose and value in what you are doing.

But when you make something for an employer, it feels like theirs, not yours. You have been instructed by your superiors to make a certain thing a certain way, for reasons you may or may not understand (and may or may not even agree with). Once you deliver the product—which may be as concrete as a carburetor or as abstract as an accounting report—you will likely never see it again; it will be used or not by someone else somewhere else whom you may not even ever get the chance to meet. Such labor feels tedious, effortful, exhausting—and also often empty, pointless, and meaningless.

On that reading, Marx isn’t wrong. There really is something to this. (I don’t know if this is really Marx’s intended meaning or not, and really I don’t much care—this is a valid thing and we should be addressing it, whether Marx meant to or not.)

There is a little parable about this, which I can’t quite remember where I heard:

Three men are moving heavy stones from one place to another. A traveler passes by and asks them, “What are you doing?”

The first man sighs and says, “We do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

The second man shrugs and says, “We pick up the rocks here, we move them over there.”

The third man smiles and says, “We’re building a cathedral.”

The three answers are quite different—yet all three men may be telling the truth as they see it.

The first man is fully alienated from his labor: he does whatever the boss says, following instructions that he considers arbitrary and mechanical. The second man is partially alienated: he knows the mechanics of what he is trying to accomplish, which may allow him to improve efficiency in some way (e.g. devise better ways to transport the rocks faster or with less effort), but he doesn’t understand the purpose behind it all, so ultimately his work still feels meaningless. But the third man is not alienated: he understands the purpose of his work, and he values that purpose. He sees that what he is doing is contributing to a greater whole that he considers worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine that the third man will be the happiest, and the first will be the unhappiest.

There really is something about the capitalist wage-labor structure that can easily feed into this sort of alienation. You get a job because you need money to live, not because you necessarily value whatever the job does. You do as you are told so that you can keep your job and continue to get paid.

Some jobs are much more alienating than others. Most teachers and nurses see their work as a vocation, even a calling—their work has deep meaning for them and they value its purpose. At the other extreme there are corporate lawyers and derivatives traders, who must on some level understand that their work contributes almost nothing to the world (may in fact actively cause harm), but they continue to do the work because it pays them very well.

But there are many jobs in between which can be experienced both ways. Working in retail can be an agonizing grind where you must face a grueling gauntlet of ungrateful customers day in and day out—or it can be a way to participate in your local community and help your neighbors get the things they need. Working in manufacturing can be a mechanical process of inserting tab A into slot B and screwing it into place over, and over, and over again—or it can be a chance to create something, convert raw materials into something useful and valuable that other people can cherish.

And while individual perspective and framing surely matter here—those three men were all working in the same quarry, building the same cathedral—there is also an important objective component as well. Working as an artisan is not as alienating as working on an assembly line. Hosting a tent at a farmer’s market is not as alienating as working the register at Walmart. Tutoring an individual student is more purposeful than recording video lectures for a MOOC. Running a quirky local book store is more fulfilling than stocking shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Moreover, capitalism really does seem to push us more toward the alienating side of the spectrum. Assembly lines are far more efficient than artisans, so we make most of our products on assembly lines. Buying food at Walmart is cheaper and more convenient than at farmer’s markets, so more people shop there. Hiring one video lecturer for 10,000 students is a lot cheaper than paying 100 in-person lecturers, let alone 1,000 private tutors. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t drive out local book stores by some nefarious means: It just provides better service at lower prices. If you want a specific book for a good price right now, you’re much more likely to find it at Barnes & Noble. (And even more likely to find it on Amazon.)

Finding meaning in your work is very important for human happiness. Indeed, along with health and social relationships, it’s one of the biggest determinants of happiness. For most people in First World countries, it seems to be more important than income (though income certainly does matter).

Yet the increased efficiency and productivity upon which our modern standard of living depends seems to be based upon a system of production—in a word, capitalism—that systematically alienates us from meaning in our work.

This puts us in a dilemma: Do we keep things as they are, accepting that we will feel an increasing sense of alienation and ennui as our wealth continues to grow and we get ever-fancier toys to occupy our meaningless lives? Or do we turn back the clock, returning to a world where work once again has meaning, but at the cost of making everyone poorer—and some people desperately so?

Well, first of all, to some extent this is a false dichotomy. There are jobs that are highly meaningful but also highly productive, such as teaching and engineering. (Even recording a video lecture is a lot more fulfilling than plenty of jobs out there.) We could try to direct more people into jobs like these. There are jobs that are neither particularly fulfilling nor especially productive, like driving trucks, washing floors and waiting tables. We could redouble our efforts into automating such jobs out of existence. There are meaningless jobs that are lucrative only by rent-seeking, producing little or no genuine value, like the aforementioned corporate lawyers and derivatives traders. These, quite frankly, could simply be banned—or if there is some need for them in particular circumstances (I guess someone should defend corporations when they get sued; but they far more often go unjustly unpunished than unjustly punished!), strictly regulated and their numbers and pay rates curtailed.

Nevertheless, we still have decisions to make, as a society, about what we value most. Do we want a world of cheap, mostly adequate education, that feels alienating even to the people producing it? Then MOOCs are clearly the way to go; pennies on the dollar for education that could well be half as good! Or do we want a world of high-quality, personalized teaching, by highly-qualified academics, that will help students learn better and feel more fulfilling for the teachers? More pointedly—are we willing to pay for that higher-quality education, knowing it will be more expensive?

Moreover, in the First World at least, our standard of living is… pretty high already? Like seriously, what do we really need that we don’t already have? We could always imagine more, of course—a bigger house, a nicer car, dining at fancier restaurants, and so on. But most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our tables.

Economic growth has done amazing things for us—but maybe we’re kind of… done? Maybe we don’t need to keep growing like this, and should start redirecting our efforts away from greater efficiency and toward greater fulfillment. Maybe there are economic possibilities we haven’t been considering.

Note that I specifically mean First World countries here. In Third World countries it’s totally different—they need growth, lots of it, as fast as possible. Fulfillment at work ends up being a pretty low priority when your children are starving and dying of malaria.

But then, you may wonder: If we stop buying cheap plastic toys to fill the emptiness in our hearts, won’t that throw all those Chinese factory workers back into poverty?

In the system as it stands? Yes, that’s a real concern. A sudden drop in consumption spending in general, or even imports in particular, in First World countries could be economically devastating for millions of people in Third World countries.

But there’s nothing inherent about this arrangement. There are less-alienating ways of working that can still provide a decent standard of living, and there’s no fundamental reason why people around the world couldn’t all be doing them. If they aren’t, it’s in the short run because they don’t have the education or the physical machinery—and in the long run it’s usually because their government is corrupt and authoritarian. A functional democratic government can get you capital and education remarkably fast—it certainly did in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Automation is clearly a big part of the answer here. Many people in the First World seem to suspect that our way of life depends upon the exploited labor of impoverished people in Third World countries, but this is largely untrue. Most of that work could be done by robots and highly-skilled technicians and engineers; it just isn’t because that would cost more. Yes, that higher cost would mean some reduction in standard of living—but it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as many people seem to think. We would have slightly smaller houses and slightly older cars and slightly slower laptops, but we’d still have houses and cars and laptops.

So I don’t think we should all cast off our worldly possessions just yet. Whether or not it would make us better off, it would cause great harm to countries that depend on their exports to us. But in the long run, I do think we should be working to achieve a future for humanity that isn’t so obsessed with efficiency and growth, and instead tries to provide both a decent standard of living and a life of meaning and purpose.

Cryptocurrency and its failures

Jan 30 JDN 2459620

It started out as a neat idea, though very much a solution in search of a problem. Using encryption, could we decentralize currency and eliminate the need for a central bank?

Well, it’s been a few years now, and we have now seen how well that went. Bitcoin recently crashed, but it has always been astonishingly volatile. As a speculative asset, such volatility is often tolerable—for many, even profitable. But as a currency, it is completely unbearable. People need to know that their money will be a store of value and a medium of exchange—and something that changes price one minute to the next is neither.

Some of cryptocurrency’s failures have been hilarious, like the ill-fated island called [yes, really] “Cryptoland”, which crashed and burned when they couldn’t find any investors to help them buy the island.

Others have been darkly comic, but tragic in their human consequences. Chief among these was the failed attempt by El Salvador to make Bitcoin an official currency.

At the time, President Bukele justified it by an economically baffling argument: Total value of all Bitcoin in the world is $680 billion, therefore if even 1% gets invested in El Salvador, GDP will increase by $6.8 billion, which is 25%!

First of all, that would only happen if 1% of all Bitcoin were invested in El Salvador each year—otherwise you’re looking at a one-time injection of money, not an increase in GDP.

But more importantly, this is like saying that the total US dollar supply is $6 trillion, (that’s physically cash; the actual money supply is considerably larger) so maybe by dollarizing your economy you can get 1% of that—$60 billion, baby! No, that’s not how any of this works. Dollarizing could still be a good idea (though it didn’t go all that well in El Salvador), but it won’t give you some kind of share in the US economy. You can’t collect dividends on US GDP.

It’s actually good how El Salvador’s experiment in bitcoin failed: Nobody bought into it in the first place. They couldn’t convince people to buy government assets that were backed by Bitcoin (perhaps because the assets were a strictly worse deal than just, er, buying Bitcoin). So the human cost of this idiotic experiment should be relatively minimal: It’s not like people are losing their homes over this.

That is, unless President Bukele doubles down, which he now appears to be doing. Even people who are big fans of cryptocurrency are unimpressed with El Salvador’s approach to it.

It would be one thing if there were some stable cryptocurrency that one could try pegging one’s national currency to, but there isn’t. Even so-called stablecoins are generally pegged to… regular currencies, typically the US dollar but also sometimes the Euro or a few other currencies. (I’ve seen the Australian Dollar and the Swiss Franc, but oddly enough, not the Pound Sterling.)

Or a country could try issuing its own cryptocurrency, as an all-digital currency instead of one that is partly paper. It’s not totally clear to me what advantages this would have over the current system (in which most of the money supply is bank deposits, i.e. already digital), but it would at least preserve the key advantage of having a central bank that can regulate your money supply.

But no, President Bukele decided to take an already-existing cryptocurrency, backed by nothing but the whims of the market, and make it legal tender. Somehow he missed the fact that a currency which rises and falls by 10% in a single day is generally considered bad.

Why? Is he just an idiot? I mean, maybe, though Bukele’s approval rating is astonishingly high. (And El Salvador is… mostly democratic. Unlike, say, Putin’s, I think these approval ratings are basically real.) But that’s not the only reason. My guess is that he was gripped by the same FOMO that has gripped everyone else who evangelizes for Bitcoin. The allure of easy money is often irresistible.

Consider President Bukele’s position. You’re governing a poor, war-torn country which has had economic problems of various types since its founding. When the national currency collapsed a generation ago, the country was put on the US dollar, but that didn’t solve the problem. So you’re looking for a better solution to the monetary doldrums your country has been in for decades.

You hear about a fancy new monetary technology, “cryptocurrency”, which has all the tech people really excited and seems to be making tons of money. You don’t understand a thing about it—hardly anyone seems to, in fact—but you know that people with a lot of insider knowledge of technology and finance are really invested in it, so it seems like there must be something good here. So, you decide to launch a program that will convert your country’s currency from the US dollar to one of these new cryptocurrencies—and you pick the most famous one, which is also extremely valuable, Bitcoin.

Could cryptocurrencies be the future of money, you wonder? Could this be the way to save your country’s economy?

Despite all the evidence that had already accumulated that cryptocurrency wasn’t working, I can understand why Bukele would be tempted by that dream. Just as we’d all like to get free money without having to work, he wanted to save his country’s economy without having to implement costly and unpopular reforms.

But there is no easy money. Not really. Some people get lucky; but they ultimately benefit from other people’s hard work.

The lesson here is deeper than cryptocurrency. Yes, clearly, it was a dumb idea to try to make Bitcoin a national currency, and it will get even dumber if Bukele really does double down on it. But more than that, we must all resist the lure of easy money. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Reasons for optimism in 2022

Jan 2 JDN 2459582

When this post goes live, we will have begun the year 2022.

That still sounds futuristic, somehow. We’ve been in the 20th century long enough that most of my students were born in it and nearly all of them are old enough to drink (to be fair, it’s the UK, so “old enough to drink” only means 18). Yet “the year 2022” still seems like it belongs in science fiction, and not on our wall calendars.

2020 and 2021 were quite bad years. Death rates and poverty rates surged around the world. Almost all of that was directly or indirectly due to COVID.

Yet there are two things we should keep in perspective.

First, those death rates and poverty rates surged to what we used to consider normal 50 years ago. These are not uniquely bad times; indeed, they are still better than most of human history.

Second, there are many reasons to think that 2022—or perhaps a bit later than that, 2025 or 2030—will be better.

The Omicron variant is highly contagious, but so far does not appear to be as deadly as previous variants. COVID seems to be evolving to be more like influenza: Catching it will be virtually inevitable, but dying from it will be very rare.

Things are also looking quite good on the climate change front: Renewable energy production is growing at breathtaking speed and is now cheaper than almost every other form of energy. It’s awful that we panicked and locked down nuclear energy for the last 50 years, but at this point we may no longer need it: Solar and wind are just that good now.

Battery technology is also rapidly improving, giving us denser, cheaper, more stable batteries that may soon allow us to solve the intermittency problem: the wind may not always blow and the sun may not always shine, but if you have big enough batteries you don’t need them to. (You can get a really good feel for how much difference good batteries make in energy production by playing Factorio, or, more whimsically, Mewnbase.)

If we do go back to nuclear energy, it may not be fission anymore, but fusion. Now that we have nearly reached that vital milestone of break-even, investment in fusion technology has rapidly increased.


Fusion has basically all of the benefits of fission with none of the drawbacks. Unlike renewables, it can produce enormous amounts of energy in a way that can be easily scaled and controlled independently of weather conditions. Unlike fission, it requires no exotic nuclear fuels (deuterium can be readily attained from water), and produces no long-lived radioactive waste. (Indeed, development is ongoing of methods that could use fusion products to reduce the waste from fission reactors, making the effective rate of nuclear waste production for fusion negative.) Like both renewables and fission, it produces no carbon emissions other than those required to build the facility (mainly due to concrete).

Of course, technology is only half the problem: we still need substantial policy changes to get carbon emissions down. We’ve already dragged our feet for decades too long, and we will pay the price for that. But anyone saying that climate change is an inevitable catastrophe hasn’t been paying attention to recent developments in solar panels.

Technological development in general seems to be speeding up lately, after having stalled quite a bit in the early 2000s. Moore’s Law may be leveling off, but the technological frontier may simply be moving away from digital computing power and onto other things, such as biotechnology.

Star Trek told us that we’d have prototype warp drives by the 2060s but we wouldn’t have bionic implants to cure blindness until the 2300s. They seem to have gotten it backwards: We may never have warp drive, but we’ve got those bionic implants today.

Neural interfaces are allowing paralyzed people to move, speak, and now even write.

After decades of failed promises, gene therapy is finally becoming useful in treating real human diseases. CRISPR changes everything.

We are also entering a new era of space travel, thanks largely to SpaceX and their remarkable reusable rockets. The payload cost to LEO is a standard measure of the cost of space travel, which describes the cost of carrying a certain mass of cargo up to low Earth orbit. By this measure, costs have declined from nearly $20,000 per kg to only $1,500 per kg since the 1960s. Elon Musk claims that he can reduce the cost to as low as $10 per kg. I’m skeptical, to say the least—but even dropping it to $500 or $200 would be a dramatic improvement and open up many new options for space exploration and even colonization.

To put this in perspective, the cost of carrying a human being to the International Space Station (about 100 kg to LEO) has fallen from $2 million to $150,000. A further decrease to $200 per kg would lower that to $20,000, opening the possibility of space tourism; $20,000 might be something even upper-middle-class people could do as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. If Musk is really right that he can drop it all the way to $10 per kg, the cost to carry a person to the ISS would be only $1000—something middle-class people could do regularly. (“Should we do Paris for our anniversary this year, or the ISS?”) Indeed, a cost that low would open the possibility of space-based shipping—for when you absolutely must have the product delivered from China to California in the next 2 hours.

Another way to put this in perspective is to convert these prices per mass in terms of those of commodities, such as precious metals. $20,000 per kg is nearly the price of solid platinum. $500 per kg is about the price of sterling silver. $10 per kg is roughly the price of copper.

The reasons for optimism are not purely technological. There has also been significant social progress just in the last few years, with major milestones on LGBT rights being made around the world in 2020 and 2021. Same-sex marriage is now legally recognized over nearly the entire Western Hemisphere.

None of that changes the fact that we are still in a global pandemic which seems to be increasingly out of control. I can’t tell you whether 2022 will be better than 2021, or just more of the same—or perhaps even worse.

But while these times are hard, overall the world is still making progress.