The real Existential Risk we should be concerned about

JDN 2457458

There is a rather large subgroup within the rationalist community (loosely defined because organizing freethinkers is like herding cats) that focuses on existential risks, also called global catastrophic risks. Prominent examples include Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Their stated goal in life is to save humanity from destruction. And when you put it that way, it sounds pretty darn important. How can you disagree with wanting to save humanity from destruction?

Well, there are actually people who do (the Voluntary Human Extinction movement), but they are profoundly silly. It should be obvious to anyone with even a basic moral compass that saving humanity from destruction is a good thing.

It’s not the goal of fighting existential risk that bothers me. It’s the approach. Specifically, they almost all seem to focus on exotic existential risks, vivid and compelling existential risks that are the stuff of great science fiction stories. In particular, they have a rather odd obsession with AI.

Maybe it’s the overlap with Singularitarians, and their inability to understand that exponentials are not arbitrarily fast; if you just keep projecting the growth in computing power as growing forever, surely eventually we’ll have a computer powerful enough to solve all the world’s problems, right? Well, yeah, I guess… if we can actually maintain the progress that long, which we almost certainly can’t, and if the problems turn out to be computationally tractable at all (the fastest possible computer that could fit inside the observable universe could not brute-force solve the game of Go, though a heuristic AI did just beat one of the world’s best players), and/or if we find really good heuristic methods of narrowing down the solution space… but that’s an awful lot of “if”s.

But AI isn’t what we need to worry about in terms of saving humanity from destruction. Nor is it asteroid impacts; NASA has been doing a good job watching for asteroids lately, and estimates the current risk of a serious impact (by which I mean something like a city-destroyer or global climate shock, not even a global killer) at around 1/10,000 per year. Alien invasion is right out; we can’t even find clear evidence of bacteria on Mars, and the skies are so empty of voices it has been called a paradox. Gamma ray bursts could kill us, and we aren’t sure about the probability of that (we think it’s small?), but much like brain aneurysms, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent them.

There is one thing that we really need to worry about destroying humanity, and one other thing that could potentially get close over a much longer timescale. The long-range threat is ecological collapse; as global climate change gets worse and the oceans become more acidic and the aquifers are drained, we could eventually reach the point where humanity cannot survive on Earth, or at least where our population collapses so severely that civilization as we know it is destroyed. This might not seem like such a threat, since we would see this coming decades or centuries in advance—but we are seeing it coming decades or centuries in advance, and yet we can’t seem to get the world’s policymakers to wake up and do something about it. So that’s clearly the second-most important existential risk.

But the most important existential risk, by far, no question, is nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are the only foreseeable, preventable means by which humanity could be destroyed in the next twenty minutes.

Yes, that is approximately the time it takes an ICBM to hit its target after launch. There are almost 4,000 ICBMs currently deployed, mostly by the US and Russia. Once we include submarine-launched missiles and bombers, the total number of global nuclear weapons is over 15,000. I apologize for terrifying you by saying that these weapons could be deployed in a moment’s notice to wipe out most of human civilization within half an hour, followed by a global ecological collapse and fallout that would endanger the future of the entire human race—but it’s the truth. If you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention.

I’ve intentionally linked the Union of Concerned Scientists as one of those sources. Now they are people who understand existential risk. They don’t talk about AI and asteroids and aliens (how alliterative). They talk about climate change and nuclear weapons.

We must stop this. We must get rid of these weapons. Next to that, literally nothing else matters.

“What if we’re conquered by tyrants?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a genocide?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a global economic collapse?” None of these things will matter, if the human race wipes itself out with nuclear weapons.

To speak like an economist for a moment, the utility of a global nuclear war must be set at negative infinity. Any detectable reduction in the probability of that event must be considered worth paying any cost to achieve. I don’t care if it costs $20 trillion and results in us being taken over by genocidal fascists—we are talking about the destruction of humanity. We can spend $20 trillion (actually the US as a whole does every 14 months!). We can survive genocidal fascists. We cannot survive nuclear war.

The good news is, we shouldn’t actually have to pay that sort of cost. All we have to do is dismantle our nuclear arsenal, and get other countries—particularly Russia—to dismantle theirs. In the long run, we will increase our wealth as our efforts are no longer wasted maintaining doomsday machines.

The main challenge is actually a matter of game theory. The surprisingly-sophisticated 1990s cartoon show the Animaniacs basically got it right when they sang: “We’d beat our swords into liverwurst / Down by the East Riverside / But no one wants to be the first!”

The thinking, anyway, is that this is basically a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the US disarms and Russia doesn’t, Russia can destroy the US. Conversely, if Russia disarms and the US doesn’t, the US can destroy Russia. If neither disarms, we’re left where we are. Whether or not the other country disarms, you’re always better off not disarming. So neither country disarms.

But I contend that it is not, in fact, a Prisoner’s Dilemma. It could be a Stag Hunt; if that’s the case, then only multilateral disarmament makes sense, because the best outcome is if we both disarm, but the worst outcome is if we disarm and they don’t. Once we expect them to disarm, we have no temptation to renege on the deal ourselves; but if we think there’s a good chance they won’t, we might not want to either. Stag Hunts have two stable Nash equilibria; one is where both arm, the other where both disarm.

But in fact, I think it may be simply the trivial game.

There aren’t actually that many possible symmetric two-player nonzero-sum games (basically it’s a question of ordering 4 possibilities, and it’s symmetric, so 12 possible games), and one that we never talk about (because it’s sort of boring) is the trivial game: If I do the right thing and you do the right thing, we’re both better off. If you do the wrong thing and I do the right thing, I’m better off. If we both do the wrong thing, we’re both worse off. So, obviously, we both do the right thing, because we’d be idiots not to. Formally, we say that cooperation is a strictly dominant strategy. There’s no dilemma, no paradox; the self-interested strategy is the optimal strategy. (I find it kind of amusing that laissez-faire economics basically amounts to assuming that all real-world games are the trivial game.)

That is, I don’t think the US would actually benefit from nuking Russia, even if we could do so without retaliation. Likewise, I don’t think Russia would actually benefit from nuking the US. One of the things we’ve discovered—the hardest way possible—through human history is that working together is often better for everyone than fighting. Russia could nuke NATO, and thereby destroy all of their largest trading partners, or they could continue trading with us. Even if they are despicable psychopaths who think nothing of committing mass murder (Putin might be, but surely there are people under his command who aren’t?), it’s simply not in Russia’s best interest to nuke the US and Europe. Likewise, it is not in our best interest to nuke them.

Nuclear war is a strange game: The only winning move is not to play.

So I say, let’s stop playing. Yes, let’s unilaterally disarm, the thing that so many policy analysts are terrified of because they’re so convinced we’re in a Prisoner’s Dilemma or a Stag Hunt. “What’s to stop them from destroying us, if we make it impossible for us to destroy them!?” I dunno, maybe basic human decency, or failing that, rationality?

Several other countries have already done this—South Africa unilaterally disarmed, and nobody nuked them. Japan refused to build nuclear weapons in the first place—and I think it says something that they’re the only people to ever have them used against them.

Our conventional military is plenty large enough to defend us against all realistic threats, and could even be repurposed to defend against nuclear threats as well, by a method I call credible targeted conventional response. Instead of building ever-larger nuclear arsenals to threaten devastation in the world’s most terrifying penis-measuring contest, you deploy covert operatives (perhaps Navy SEALS in submarines, or double agents, or these days even stealth drones) around the world, with the standing order that if they have reason to believe a country initiated a nuclear attack, they will stop at nothing to hunt down and kill the specific people responsible for that attack. Not the country they came from; not the city they live in; those specific people. If a leader is enough of a psychopath to be willing to kill 300 million people in another country, he’s probably enough of a psychopath to be willing to lose 150 million people in his own country. He likely has a secret underground bunker that would allow him to survive, at least if humanity as a whole does. So you should be threatening the one thing he does care about—himself. You make sure he knows that if he pushes that button, you’ll find that bunker, drop in from helicopters, and shoot him in the face.

The “targeted conventional response” should be clear by now—you use non-nuclear means to respond, and you target the particular leaders responsible—but let me say a bit more about the “credible” part. The threat of mutually-assured destruction is actually not a credible one. It’s not what we call in game theory a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium. If you know that Russia has launched 1500 ICBMs to destroy every city in America, you actually have no reason at all to retaliate with your own 1500 ICBMs, and the most important reason imaginable not to. Your people are dead either way; you can’t save them. You lose. The only question now is whether you risk taking the rest of humanity down with you. If you have even the most basic human decency, you will not push that button. You will not “retaliate” in useless vengeance that could wipe out human civilization. Thus, your threat is a bluff—it is not credible.

But if your response is targeted and conventional, it suddenly becomes credible. It’s exactly reversed; you now have every reason to retaliate, and no reason not to. Your covert operation teams aren’t being asked to destroy humanity; they’re being tasked with finding and executing the greatest mass murderer in history. They don’t have some horrific moral dilemma to resolve; they have the opportunity to become the world’s greatest heroes. Indeed, they’d very likely have the whole world (or what’s left of it) on their side; even the population of the attacking country would rise up in revolt and the double agents could use the revolt as cover. Now you have no reason to even hesitate; your threat is completely credible. The only question is whether you can actually pull it off, and if we committed the full resources of the United States military to preparing for this possibility, I see no reason to doubt that we could. If a US President can be assassinated by a lone maniac (and yes, that is actually what happened), then the world’s finest covert operations teams can assassinate whatever leader pushed that button.

This is a policy that works both unilaterally and multilaterally. We could even assemble an international coalition—perhaps make the UN “peacekeepers” put their money where their mouth is and train the finest special operatives in the history of the world tasked with actually keeping the peace.

Let’s not wait for someone else to save humanity from destruction. Let’s be the first.

Why is our diet so unhealthy?

JDN 2457447

One of the most baffling facts about the world, particularly to a development economist, is that the leading causes of death around the world broadly cluster into two categories: Obesity, in First World countries, and starvation, in Third World countries. At first glance, it seems like the rich are eating too much and there isn’t enough left for the poor.

Yet in fact it’s not quite so simple as that, because in fact obesity is most common among the poor in First World countries, and in Third World countries obesity rates are rising rapidly and co-existing with starvation. It is becoming recognized that there are many different kinds of obesity, and that a past history of starvation is actually a major risk factor in future obesity.

Indeed, the really fundamental problem is malnutrition—people are not necessarily eating too much or too little, they are eating the wrong things. So, my question is: Why?

It is widely thought that foods which are nutritious are also unappetizing, and conversely that foods which are delicious are unhealthy. There is a clear kernel of truth here, as a comparison of Brussels sprouts versus ice cream will surely indicate. But this is actually somewhat baffling. We are an evolved organism; one would think that natural selection would shape us so that we enjoy foods which are good for us and avoid foods which are bad for us.

I think it did, actually; the problem is, we have changed our situation so drastically by means of culture and technology that evolution hasn’t had time to catch up. We have evolved significantly since the dawn of civilization, but we haven’t had any time to evolve since one event in particular: The Green Revolution. Indeed, many people are still alive today who were born while the Green Revolution was still underway.

The Green Revolution is the culmination of a long process of development in agriculture and industrialization, but it would be difficult to overstate its importance as an epoch in the history of our species. We now have essentially unlimited food.

Not literally unlimited, of course; we do still need land, and water, and perhaps most notably energy (oil-driven machines are a vital part of modern agriculture). But we can produce vastly more food than was previously possible, and food supply is no longer a binding constraint on human population. Indeed, we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. People who say that some new agricultural technology will end world hunger don’t understand what world hunger actually is. Food production is not the problem—distribution of wealth is the problem.

I often speak about the possibility of reaching post-scarcity in the future; but we have essentially already done so in the domain of food production. If everyone ate what would be optimally healthy, and we distributed food evenly across the world, there would be plenty of food to go around and no such thing as obesity or starvation.

So why hasn’t this happened? Well, the main reason, like I said, is distribution of wealth.

But that doesn’t explain why so many people who do have access to good foods nonetheless don’t eat them.

The first thing to note is that healthy food is more expensive. It isn’t a huge difference by First World standards—about $550 per year extra per person. But when we compare the cost of a typical nutritious diet to that of a typical diet, the nutritious diet is significantly more expensive. Worse yet, this gap appears to be growing over time.

But why is this the case? It’s actually quite baffling on its face. Nutritious foods are typically fruits and vegetables that one can simply pluck off plants. Unhealthy foods are typically complex processed foods that require machines and advanced technology. There should be “value added”, at least in the economic sense; additional labor must go in, additional profits must come out. Why is it cheaper?

In a word? Subsidies.

Somehow, huge agribusinesses have convinced governments around the world that they deserve to be paid extra money, either simply for existing or based on how much they produce. Of course, when I say “somehow”, I of course mean lobbying.

In the US, these subsidies overwhelmingly go toward corn, followed by cotton, followed by soybeans.

In fact, they don’t actually even go to corn as you would normally think of it, like sweet corn or corn on the cob. No, they go to feed corn—really awful stuff that includes the entire plant, is barely even recognizable as corn, and has its “quality” literally rated by scales and sieves. No living organism was ever meant to eat this stuff.

Humans don’t, of course. Cows do. But they didn’t evolve for this stuff either; they can’t digest it properly, and it’s because of this terrible food we force-feed them that they need so many antibiotics.

Thus, these corn subsides are really primarily beef subsidies—they are a means of externalizing the cost of beef production and keeping the price of hamburgers artificially low. In all, 2/3 of US agricultural subsidies ultimately go to meat production. I haven’t been able to find any really good estimates, but as a ballpark figure it seems that meat would cost about twice as much if we didn’t subsidize it.

Fortunately a lot of these subsidies have been decreased under the Obama administration, particularly “direct payments” which are sort of like a basic income, but for agribusinesses. (That is not what basic incomes are for.) You can see the decline in US corn subsidies here.

Despite all this, however, subsidies cannot explain obesity. Removing them would have only a small effect.

An often overlooked consideration is that nutritious food can be more expensive for a family even if the actual pricetag is the same.

Why? Because kids won’t eat it.

To raise kids on a nutritious diet, you have to feed them small amounts of good food over a long period of time, until they acquire the taste. In order to do this, you need to be prepared to waste a lot of food, and that costs money. It’s cheaper to simply feed them something unhealthy, like ice cream or hot dogs, that you know they’ll eat.

And this brings me to what I think is the real ultimate cause of our awful diet: We evolved for a world of starvation, and our bodies cannot cope with abundance.

It’s important to be clear about what we mean by “unhealthy food”; people don’t enjoy consuming lead and arsenic. Rather, we enjoy consuming fat and sugar. Contrary to what fad diets will tell you, fat and sugar are not inherently bad for human health; indeed, we need a certain amount of fat and sugar in order to survive. What we call “unhealthy food” is actually food that we desperately need—in small quantities.

Under the conditions in which we evolved, fat and sugar were extremely scarce. Eating fat meant hunting a large animal, which required the cooperation of the whole tribe (a quite literal Stag Hunt) and carried risk of life and limb, not to mention simply failing and getting nothing. Eating sugar meant finding fruit trees and gathering fruit from them—and fruit trees are not all that common in nature. These foods also spoil quite quickly, so you eat them right away or not at all.

As such, we evolved to really crave these things, to ensure that we would eat them whenever they are available. Since they weren’t available all that often, this was just about right to ensure that we managed to eat enough, and rarely meant that we ate too much.

 

But now fast-forward to the Green Revolution. They aren’t scarce anymore. They’re everywhere. There are whole buildings we can go to with shelves upon shelves of them, which we ourselves can claim simply by swiping a little plastic card through a reader. We don’t even need to understand how that system of encrypted data networks operates, or what exactly is involved in maintaining our money supply (and most people clearly don’t); all we need to do is perform the right ritual and we will receive an essentially unlimited abundance of fat and sugar.

Even worse, this food is in processed form, so we can extract the parts that make it taste good, while separating them from the parts that actually make it nutritious. If fruits were our main source of sugar, that would be fine. But instead we get it from corn syrup and sugarcane, and even when we do get it from fruit, we extract the sugar instead of eating the whole fruit.

Natural selection had no particular reason to give us that level of discrimination; since eating apples and oranges was good for us, we evolved to like the taste of apples and oranges. There wasn’t a sufficient selection pressure to make us actually eat the whole fruit as opposed to extracting the sugar, because extracting the sugar was not an option available to our ancestors. But it is available to us now.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are also more abundant now, but were already fairly abundant. Indeed, it may be significant that we’ve had enough time to evolve since agriculture, but not enough time since fertilizer. Agriculture allowed us to make plenty of wheat and carrots; but it wasn’t until fertilizer that we could make enough hamburgers for people to eat them regularly. It could be that our hunter-gatherer ancestors actually did crave carrots in much the same way they and we crave sugar; but since agriculture we have no further reason to do so because carrots have always been widely available.

One thing I do still find a bit baffling: Why are so many green vegetables so bitter? It would be one thing if they simply weren’t as appealing as fat and sugar; but it honestly seems like a lot of green vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, are really quite actively aversive, at least until you acquire the taste for them. Given how nutritious they are, it seems like there should have been a selective pressure in favor of liking the taste of green vegetables; but there wasn’t. I wonder if it’s actually coevolution—if perhaps broccoli has been evolving to not be eaten as quickly as we were evolving to eat it. This wouldn’t happen with apples and oranges, because in an evolutionary sense apples and oranges “want” to be eaten; they spread their seeds in the droppings of animals. But for any given stalk of broccoli, becoming lunch is definitely bad news.

Yet even this is pretty weird, because broccoli has definitely evolved substantially since agriculture—indeed, broccoli as we know it would not exist otherwise. Ancestral Brassica oleracea was bred to become cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, savoy, kohlrabi and kai-lan—and looks like none of them.

It looks like I still haven’t solved the mystery. In short, we get fat because kids hate broccoli; but why in the world do kids hate broccoli?