Effective Altruism bogged down in semantic games


Computer scientists believing that computer science has all the answers, have apparently led Effective Altruism, a movement using science to better direct charitable efforts, to determine the coming AI uprising is far more important than any other humanitarian effort. World poverty is "a rounding error."

Via Vox:

To hear effective altruists explain it, it comes down to simple math. About 108 billion people have lived to date, but if humanity lasts another 50 million years, and current trends hold, the total number of humans who will ever live is more like 3 quadrillion. Humans living during or before 2015 would thus make up only 0.0036 percent of all humans ever.

The numbers get even bigger when you consider — as X-risk advocates are wont to do — the possibility of interstellar travel. Nick Bostrom — the Oxford philosopher who popularized the concept of existential risk — estimates that about 10^54 human life-years (or 10^52 lives of 100 years each) could be in our future if we both master travel between solar systems and figure out how to emulate human brains in computers.

Even if we give this 10^54 estimate "a mere 1% chance of being correct," Bostrom writes, "we find that the expected value of reducing existential risk by a mere one billionth of one billionth of one percentage point is worth a hundred billion times as much as a billion human lives."

Put another way: The number of future humans who will never exist if humans go extinct is so great that reducing the risk of extinction by 0.00000000000000001 percent can be expected to save 100 billion more lives than, say, preventing the genocide of 1 billion people. That argues, in the judgment of Bostrom and others, for prioritizing efforts to prevent human extinction above other endeavors. This is what X-risk obsessives mean when they claim ending world poverty would be a "rounding error."

It does sound as if Effective Altruisists are still doing plenty of good work, on other problems. Hopefully there are enough of them to support the Tech-Com resistance and solve a few other issues. Remember, "There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves."