Political Calculations has a post with an interesting table of life expectancy in OECD countries. In addition to the standard life expectancy numbers, there is an additional set that is standardized to eliminate differences in a category of deaths that is roughly described as accidents and homicide (those least likely to be connected to healthcare problems).
I haven’t found an online explanation of how they were standardized (it’s apparently explained in the book The Business of Health: The Role of Competition, Markets, and Regulation by Robert Ohsfeldt and John Schneider, which I haven’t checked), and I can’t evaluate the extent to which their desire to promote the U.S. medical system has biased their methods.
What surprised me most was that it implies that the differences in what we normally think of as health and healthcare explain a surprisingly small part of the difference between national life expectancies. The actual life expectancy shows a difference of 3.6 years between the highest (Japan) and lowest (Denmark), but the standardized life expectancy shows a difference of 1.2 years between the highest (U.S.) and the lowest (U.K.).
This implies that national difference in traffic accidents, homicides, and some similar (poorly identified) causes of death are a good deal more important than the following differences: healthcare systems, diet, serious vitamin D deficiencies (which I expect to vary by latitude), FDA rules, and litigation of medical outcomes.
On a loosely related note, the book A Farewell to Alms mentions a report that 16th century Japan had an unusual absence of disease (but no indication whether it’s possible to get any quantitative evidence of this). This made me think of the alleged high Cuban life expectancy. Could relatively isolated islands be healthier due to lower influx of disease? Not that this would make isolation nice, especially since it might mean increased vulnerability to disease when contact with the outside increases.
I’ve occasionally heard claims about Africa being poor because it was exploited by Europeans and Americans, and I’ve dismissed those claims because they were clearly based on superstitions.
Recently I’ve come across some scholarly writings on the effects of interactions between these cultures.
A paper on Colonial legacies and economic growth confirms my suspicions that areas which were colonized for longer times have higher economic growth.
As I mentioned recently, the book The Bottom Billion shows a connection between poverty and sale of natural resources, but explains several mechanisms by which the revenues could make bad governments more likely, independent of whether the buyers of those resources exploit the sellers. This suggests it’s not easy to resolve claims that such exploitation caused harm.
The most interesting study is The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trade (via Freakonomics and Andrew Sullivan), which demonstrates that slave trade between Africa and other continents between 1400 and 1900 is significantly correlated with poverty now. The paper presents a good argument that the causal connection was mainly increased violent conflict due to rewards for enslaving people from neighboring villages (as opposed to prior forms of slavery which resulted from conquest by ethnic groups from somewhat farther regions). This caused social and ethnic fragmentation and corruption. I have doubts about whether the details of the paper’s causal model are correct, but they appear to be approximately correct.
Book review: Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine by J. Storrs Hall
The first two thirds of this book survey current knowledge of AI and make some guesses about when and how it will take off. This part is more eloquent than most books on similar subjects, and its somewhat different from normal perspective makes it worth reading if you are reading several books on the subject. But ease of reading is the only criterion by which this section stands out as better than competing books.
The last five chapters that are surprisingly good, and should shame most professional philosophers whose writings by comparison are a waste of time.
His chapter on consciousness, qualia, and related issues is more concise and persuasive than anything else I’ve read on these subjects. It’s unlikely to change the opinions of people who have already thought about these subjects, but it’s an excellent place for people who are unfamiliar with them to start.
His discussions of ethics using game theory and evolutionary pressures is an excellent way to frame ethical discussions.
My biggest disappointment was that he starts to recognize a possibly important risk of AI when he says “disparities among the abilities of AIs … could negate the evolutionary pressure to reciprocal altruism”, but then seems to dismiss that thoughtlessly (“The notion of one single AI taking off and obtaining hegemony over the whole world by its own efforts is ludicrous”).
He probably has semi-plausible grounds for dismissing some of the scenarios of this nature that have been proposed (e.g. the speed at which some people imagine an AI would take off is improbable). But if AIs with sufficiently general purpose intelligence enhance their intelligence at disparate rates for long enough, the results would render most of the book’s discussion of ethics irrelevant. The time it took humans to accumulate knowledge didn’t give Neanderthals much opportunity to adapt. Would the result have been different if Neanderthals had learned to trade with humans? The answer is not obvious, and probably depends on Neanderthal learning abilities in ways that I don’t know how to analyze.
Also, his arguments for optimism aren’t quite as strong as he thinks. His point that career criminals are generally of low intelligence is reassuring if the number of criminals is all that matters. But when the harm done by one relatively smart criminal can be very large (e.g. Mao), it’s hard to say that the number of criminals is all that matters.
Here’s a nice quote from Mencken which this book quotes part of:
Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’
Another interesting tidbit is the anecdote that H.G. Wells predicted in 1907 that flying machines would be built. In spite of knowing a lot about attempts to build them, he wasn’t aware that the Wright brothers had succeeded in 1903.
If an AI started running in 2003 that has accumulated the knowledge of a 4-year old human and has the ability to continue learning at human or faster speeds, would we have noticed? Or would the reports we see about it sound too much like the reports of failed AIs for us to pay attention?