risks

All posts tagged risks

Or, why I don’t fear the p-zombie apocalypse.

This post analyzes concerns about how evolution, in the absence of a powerful singleton, might, in the distant future, produce what Nick Bostrom calls a “Disneyland without children”. I.e. a future with many agents, whose existence we don’t value because they are missing some important human-like quality.

The most serious description of this concern is in Bostrom’s The Future of Human Evolution. Bostrom is cautious enough that it’s hard to disagree with anything he says.

Age of Em has prompted a batch of similar concerns. Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has one of the better discussions (see section IV of his review of Age of Em).

People sometimes sound like they want to use this worry as an excuse to oppose the age of em scenario, but it applies to just about any scenario with human-in-a-broad-sense actors. If uploading never happens, biological evolution could produce slower paths to the same problem(s) [1]. Even in the case of a singleton AI, the singleton will need to solve the tension between evolution and our desire to preserve our values, although in that scenario it’s more important to focus on how the singleton is designed.

These concerns often assume something like the age of em lasts forever. The scenario which Age of Em analyzes seems unstable, in that it’s likely to be altered by stranger-than-human intelligence. But concerns about evolution only depend on control being sufficiently decentralized that there’s doubt about whether a central government can strongly enforce rules. That situation seems sufficiently stable to be worth analyzing.

I’ll refer to this thing we care about as X (qualia? consciousness? fun?), but I expect people will disagree on what matters for quite some time. Some people will worry that X is lost in uploading, others will worry that some later optimization process will remove X from some future generation of ems.

I’ll first analyze scenarios in which X is a single feature (in the sense that it would be lost in a single step). Later, I’ll try to analyze the other extreme, where X is something that could be lost in millions of tiny steps. Neither extreme seems likely, but I expect that analyzing the extremes will illustrate the important principles.

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NGDP targeting has been gaining popularity recently. But targeting market-based inflation forecasts will be about as good under most conditions [1], and we have good markets that forecast the U.S. inflation rate [2].

Those forecasts have a track record that starts in 2003. The track record seems quite consistent with my impressions about when the Fed should have adopted a more inflationary policy (to promote growth and to get inflation expectations up to 2% [3]) and when it should have adopted a less inflationary policy (to avoid fueling the housing bubble). It’s probably a bit controversial to say that the Fed should have had a less inflationary policy from February through July or August of 2008. But my impression (from reading the stock market) is that NGDP futures would have said roughly the same thing. The inflation forecasts sent a clear signal starting in very early September 2008 that Fed policy was too tight, and that’s about when other forms of hindsight switch from muddled to saying clearly that Fed policy was dangerously tight.

Why do I mention this now? The inflation forecast dropped below 1 percent two weeks ago for the first time since May 2008. So the Fed’s stated policies conflict with what a more reputable source of information says the Fed will accomplish. This looks like what we’d see if the Fed was in the process of causing a mild recession to prevent an imaginary increase in inflation.

What does the Fed think it’s doing?

  • It might be relying on interest rates to estimate what it’s policies will produce. Interest rates this low after 6.5 years of economic expansion resemble historical examples of loose monetary policy more than they resemble the stereotype of tight monetary policy [4].
  • The Fed could be following a version of the Taylor Rule. Given standard guesses about the output gap and equilibrium real interest rate [5], the Taylor Rule says interest rates ought to be rising now. The Taylor Rule has usually been at least as good as actual Fed policy at targeting inflation indirectly through targeting interest rates. But that doesn’t explain why the Fed targets interest rates when that conflicts with targeting market forecasts of inflation.
  • The Fed could be influenced by status quo bias: interest rates and unemployment are familiar types of evidence to use, whereas unbiased inflation forecasts are slightly novel.
  • Could the Fed be reacting to money supply growth? Not in any obvious way: the monetary base stopped growing about two years ago, M1 and MZM growth are slowing slightly, and M2 accelerated recently (but only after much of the Fed’s tightening).

Scott Sumner’s rants against reasoning from interest rates explain why the Fed ought to be embarrassed to use interest rates to figure out whether Fed policy is loose or tight.

Yet some institutional incentives encourage the Fed to target interest rates rather than predicted inflation. It feels like an appropriate use of high-status labor to set interest rates once every few weeks based on new discussion of expert wisdom. Switching to more or less mechanical responses to routine bond price changes would undercut much of the reason for believing that the Fed’s leaders are doing high-status work.

The news media storytellers would have trouble finding entertaining ways of reporting adjustments that consisted of small hourly responses to bond market changes. Whereas decisions made a few times per year are uncommon enough to be genuinely newsworthy. And meetings where hawks struggle against doves fit our instinctive stereotype for important news better than following a rule does. So I see little hope that storytellers will want to abandon their focus on interest rates. Do the Fed governors follow the storytellers closely enough that the storytellers’ attention strongly affects the Fed’s attention? Would we be better off if we could ban the Fed from seeing any source of daily stories?

Do any other interest groups prefer stable interest rates over stable inflation rates? I expect a wide range of preferences among Wall Street firms, but I’m unaware which preferences are dominant there.

Consumers presumably prefer that their banks, credit cards, etc have predictable interest rates. But I’m skeptical that the Fed feels much pressure to satisfy those preferences.

We need to fight those pressures by laughing at people who claim that the Fed is easing when markets predict below-target inflation (as in the fall of 2008) or that the Fed is tightening when markets predict above-target inflation (e.g. much of 2004).

P.S. – The risk-reward ratio for the stock market today is much worse than normal. I’m not as bearish as I was in October 2008, but I’ve positioned myself much more cautiously than normal.

Notes:

[1] – They appear to produce nearly identical advice under most conditions that the U.S. has experienced recently.

I expect inflation targeting to be modestly safer than NGDP targeting. I may get around to explaining my reasons for that in a separate post.

[2] – The link above gives daily forecasts of the 5 year CPI inflation rate. See here for some longer time periods.

The markets used to calculate these forecasts have enough liquidity that it would be hard for critics to claim that they could be manipulated by entities less powerful than the Fed. I expect some critics to claim that anyway.

[3] – I’m accepting the standard assumption that 2% inflation is desirable, in order to keep this post simple. Figuring out the optimal inflation rate is too hard for me to tackle any time soon. A predictable inflation rate is clearly desirable, which creates some benefits to following a standard that many experts agree on.

[4] – providing that you don’t pay much attention to Japan since 1990.

[5] – guesses which are error-prone and, if a more direct way of targeting inflation is feasible, unnecessary. The conflict between the markets’ inflation forecast and the Taylor Rule’s implication that near-zero interest rates would cause inflation to rise suggests that we should doubt those guesses. I’m pretty sure that equilibrium interest rates are lower than the standard assumptions. I don’t know what to believe about the output gap.

Book review: Hive Mind: How your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, by Garett Jones.

Hive Mind is a solid and easy to read discussion of why high IQ nations are more successful than low IQ nations.

There’s a pretty clear correlation between national IQ and important results such as income. It’s harder to tell how much of the correlation is caused by IQ differences. The Flynn Effect hints that high IQ could instead be a symptom of increased wealth.

The best evidence for IQ causing wealth (more than being caused by wealth) is that Hong Kong and Taiwan had high IQs back in the 1960s, before becoming rich.

Another piece of similar evidence (which Hive Mind doesn’t point to) is that Saudi Arabia is the most conspicuous case of a country that became wealthy via luck. Its IQ is lower than countries of comparable wealth, and lower than neighbors of similar culture/genes.

Much of the book is devoted to speculations about how IQ could affect a nation’s success.

High IQ is associated with more patience, probably due to better ability to imagine the future:

Imagine two societies: one in which the future feels like a dim shadow, the other in which the future seems a real as now. Which society will have more restaurants that care about repeat customers? Which society will have more politicians who turn down bribes because they worry about eventually getting caught?

Hive Mind describes many possible causes of the Flynn Effect, without expressing much of a preference between them. Flynn’s explanation still seems strongest to me. The most plausible alternative that Hive Mind mentions is anxiety and stress from poverty-related problems distracting people during tests (and possibly also from developing abstract cognitive skills). But anxiety / stress explanations seem less likely to produce the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Saudi Arabia results.

Hive Mind talks about the importance of raising national IQ, especially in less-developed countries. That goal would be feasible if differences in IQ were mainly caused by stress or nutrition. Flynn’s cultural explanation points to causes that are harder for governments or charities to influence (how do you legislate an increased desire to think abstractly?).

What about the genetic differences that contribute to IQ differences? The technology needed to fix that contributing factor to low IQs is not ready today, but looks near enough that we should pay attention. Hive Mind implies [but avoids saying] that potentially large harm from leaving IQ unchanged could outweigh the risks of genetic engineering. Fears about genetic engineering of IQ often involve fears of competition, but Hive Mind shows that higher IQ means more cooperation. More cooperation suggests less war, less risk of dangerous nanotech arms races, etc.

It shouldn’t sound paradoxical to say that aggregate IQ matters more than individual IQ. It should start to seem ordinary if more people follow the example of Hive Mind and focus more attention on group success than on individual success as they relate to IQ.

At a cryonics social event yesterday Keith Henson mentioned a mysterious cosmic event in 774 or 775 which appears drastic enough that if it were to repeat today it would likely destroy all technology in orbit, and possibly enough planetary electronics to cause major problems. People are wondering why it apparently didn’t wipe out the ozone layer.

Attempts to find historical records of observed anomalies from that time have so far only produced a few vague hints.

Book review: This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff.

This book documents better than any prior book the history of banking and government debt crises. Most of it is unsurprising to those familiar with the subject. It has more comprehensive data than I’ve seen before.

It is easier reading than the length would suggest (it has many tables of data, and few readers will be tempted to read all the data). It is relatively objective. That makes it less exciting than the more ideological writings on the subject.

The comparisons between well governed and poorly governed countries show that governments can become mature enough that defaults on government debt and hyperinflation are rare or eliminated, but there is little different in banking crises between different types of government / economies.

They claim that international capital mobility has produced banking crises, but don’t convince me that they understand the causality behind the correlation. I’d guess that one causal factor is that the optimism that produces bubbles causes more investors to move money into countries they understand less well than their home country, which means their money is more likely to end up in reckless institutions.

The book ends with tentative guesses about which countries are about to become mature enough to avoid sovereign debt crises. Among the seven candidates is Greece, which is now looking like a poor guess less than a half year after it was published.

The Global Catastrophic Risks conference last Friday was a mix of good and bad talks.
By far the most provocative was Josh‘s talk about “the Weather Machine”. This would consist of small (under 1 cm) balloons made of material a few atoms thick (i.e. needed nanotechnology that won’t be available for a couple of decades) filled with hydrogen and having a mirror in the equatorial plane. They would have enough communications and orientation control to be individually pointed wherever the entity in charge of them wants. They would float 20 miles above the earth’s surface and form a nearly continuous layer surrounding the planet.
This machine would have a few orders of magnitude more power over atmospheric temperatures to compensate for the warming caused by greenhouse gasses this century, although it would only be a partial solution to the waste heat farther in the future that Freitas worries about in his discussion of the global hypsithermal limit.
The military implications make me wish it won’t be possible to make it as powerful as Josh claims. If 10 percent of the mirrors target one location, it would be difficult for anyone in the target area to survive. I suspect defensive mirrors would be of some use, but there would still be serious heating of the atmosphere near the mirrors. Josh claims that it could be designed with a deadman switch that would cause a snowball earth effect if the entity in charge were destroyed, but it’s not obvious why the balloons couldn’t be destroyed in that scenario. Later in the weekend Chris Hibbert raised concerns about how secure it would be against unauthorized people hacking into it, and I wasn’t reassured by Josh’s answer.

James Hughes gave a talk advocating world government. I was disappointed with his inability to imagine that that would result in power becoming too centralized. Nick Bostrom’s discussions of this subject are much more thoughtful.

Alan Goldstein gave a talk about the A-Prize and defining a concept called the carbon barrier to distinguish biological from non-biological life. Josh pointed out that as stated all life fit Goldstein’s definition of biological (since any information can be encoded in DNA). Goldstein modified his definition to avoid that, and then other people mentioned reports such as this which imply that humans don’t fall within Goldstein’s definition of biological due to inheritance of information through means other than DNA. Goldstein seemed unable to understand that objection.

Several posts on EconLog recently have assumed that human capital will be sufficient for their children to prosper in a Kurzweilian future.
That is a very risky assumption. Human capital has historically been a good investment largely because there have been few innovations that made it easier to produce more humans. Kurzweil’s forecasts imply that around 2040 or 2050 the cost of duplicating a human-equivalent intelligence will plunge. Which means that for most kinds of jobs, the supply of labor should be expected to become nearly unlimited, and in the absence of substantial monopoly, we should expect the price of labor under a Kurzweil scenario to approach zero. Maybe something will guarantee everyone a luxurious lifestyle in a world where there’s little reason for salaries, but I’d rather hedge my bets and accumulate financial assets.
See Robin Hanson’s analysis for a more detailed argument.

Why did many people decide not to leave New Orleans in advance of Katrina? Part of the problem may have been that they relied on storytellers rather than weather experts.
NBC’s Brian Williams reports on his blog NBC’s reaction to this weather alert:

URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005
…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…
HURRICANE KATRINA…A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED
STRENGTH…RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.
MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER.
AT LEAST HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL
FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING
APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. … WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE
HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

Williams says “The wording and contents were so incendiary that our folks were concerned that it wasn’t real”, and implies that he and others at NBC translated this into something less scary for their viewers.
My most memorable experience with hurricane forecasts was with hurricane Gloria in 1985 when I was in Block Island (off Rhode Island). I recall a TV weather forecast that winds might reach 135 to 175 mph, and marine weather radio forecasts of 50 to 70 knot sustained winds with gusts to 90 knots (i.e. less than 105 mph). The marine radio forecasts seem to be more direct relays of what the weather service puts out, and it was fairly simple for me to determine that the TV forecast was bogus (the marine radio forecasts proved pretty accurate).
So it’s easy to imagine that people are aware that TV forecasts have a habit of overstating the threat from storms, and thought they could infer expert forecasts from TV forecasts by assuming a simple pattern of exaggeration, when it may be that the storytellers have a more complex model of how viewers’ behavior should be manipulated by biasing their reports. Do people actually rely on TV reports rather than more direct and reliable sources of expert opinion when accurate forecasts are important? If so, is it because they use weather forecasts mainly as entertainment or a catalyst for smalltalk at parties, and don’t want to be aware of the flaws?
And of course there was the problem of key government leaders failing to believe the expert forecast: (from The Agitator) [then] FEMA Director Brown:

Saturday and Sunday, we thought it was a typical hurricane
situation — not to say it wasn’t going to be bad, but that the
water would drain away fairly quickly. Then the levees broke and
(we had) this lawlessness. That almost stopped our
efforts…Katrina was much larger than we expected.

I was recently surprised to discover that California has price controls which are designed to encourage hoarding in emergencies and to discourage stockpiling in preparation for emergencies. The law in question is called an anti-gouging law, and temporarily limits price increases to 10 percent in some emergencies. I’ve seen conflicting reports about whether Bush’s declaration of emergency triggers the price controls, or whether it requires a state declaration of emergency. The governator has indicated that he has no plans to join the Bush/Lockyer exploitation of Katrina, but my limited observations suggest that gas stations in the bay area have limited their gas prices increases to 10 percent, and a few of them ran out of gas over the weekend.
It looks like the gas supply problems will ease soon enough that the price controls won’t have done much harm this time (diversions of gas shipments that were intended for other parts of the world will any week now spread the supply reduction over large enough regions that a fairly small price premium over what would have prevailed without Katrina should keep supply and demand in balance).
On a related note, Alex Tabarrok made a claim that suspending gas taxes won’t help consumers. I’m suspicious of his belief that a temporary suspension will have little effect on supply. I expect that oil companies will have an important incentive to draw down their inventory more than they otherwise would, especially just before the taxes are reinstated (since their profit margins will decline when taxes resume). I expect this effect to reduce prices to consumers by a modest fraction of the amount of tax relief. This will come at the cost of increased vulnerability to new supply disruptions. I doubt that the voters who have caused politicians to suspend gas taxes have given much thought to the wisdom of this tradeoff.