Re: The inevitability of death, or the death of inevitability?

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Sun Dec 09 2001 - 12:55:55 MST

Ben Goertzel wrote:
> Eli wrote:
> > > I'm not accusing you of that. I'm merely pointing out that
> > it's very hard for humans to
> > > accurately assess their priors and reason about things in a
> > manner divorced from sentiment.
> >
> > I agree, it's very hard. But you have provided no evidence supporting the
> > assertion that I am guilty of this flaw in any of the specific cases in
> > question; *first* you must establish this, *then* you may sigh over the
> > fallibility of humans in general and me in particular.
> OK, so it's "psychoanalyze Eli" time is it? What could be more exciting,
> and more relevant to the future of AI and the universe? ;)

Our annual imports and exports of dental floss? No, just kidding. I'm a
volunteer; I have no right to complain.

> I would propose that our friend Eliezer has a strong personal desire to be
> useful and helpful, on a grand scale.

And this is bad... because of why?

It's true that up to, say, age fourteen or so, I had an emotional desire
to be helpful on a grand scale; this was later rationalized (that's in the
sense of "made normative", not "irrationally justified") into a desire to
accomplish the largest possible amount of good through my actions.
Practically the definition of a goal system, really.

I want to accomplish as much good as possible with my life. The grand
scale happens to be available, so I go for that.

In emotional terms, you might phrase the transition as follows, from:

"I want to do a huge amount of good"
"I have the capability to do a huge amount of good, so of course I want to
do it; who wouldn't?"

> (I won't go so far as to call it a
> "savior complex" ;). I would propose that this desire is biasing (in a +
> direction) his estimate of the probability that it's possible for *any*
> human being to be useful and helpful in terms of the Singularity and
> associated events.

One should be aware that there are psychological forces pushing in the
opposite direction as well. There are psychological forces pushing for
passivity and refusal of responsibility - if the Singularity is beyond
your ability to affect, you don't have to do anything about it. There are
social forces pushing toward modesty. There is a prevailing memetic
environment designed to provide consolation for insignificance instead of
motivation to attempt significance.

The truth is that whatever we as humans may be, the last thing we are is
insignificant. Humanity's entire future hinges on us, and this future
contains an unimaginable number of sentient beings. Simple division says
that if the future contains at least six quintillion beings, then each
living human carries the responsibility for at least a billion lives. The
moral weight flowing through pre-Singularity Earth is so heavy that it
doesn't even begin to diminish when divided by a paltry number like six

I can only assume that you are measuring 'usefulness' as a percentage of
the Singularity, rather than weighing it in absolute terms. Very well.
There's no point in blowing our fuses by trying to measure all moral
quantities in units of trillions. Nonetheless, I can still hardly be
accused of irrationality for focusing on the Singularity as opposed to
other things.

> But, the thing is, our probability estimates as regarding such things are
> *inevitably* pretty damn shaky anyway, and hence very highly susceptible to
> bias.... Where do you draw the line between bias and intuition?

In normative terms, the line is very definite. If your desires influence
your conclusions, that's bias. If not, that's intuition.

The processes by which desires influence conclusions (in humans) is not
invisible. They have distinct mental 'feels'. It's just that these
feelings usually goes unrecognized.

> Where there is very little data, we have to use sentiment to guide our
> intuitions. There's not enough data to proceed by pure conscious reason.

What's wrong with trying to remain calm and letting our intuitions run on
their own rails?

> [By the way, in my view, "sentiment" may be analyzed as "a lot of little
> tiny unconfident reasoning steps merged together, many of them analogies
> based on personal experience". so you can say it's a kind of reason, but
> it's different than "conscious reason", which is based on a smaller number
> of reasoning steps, most of which are fairly confident, and each of which
> can be scrutinized extensively.]

I rarely have the experience of having an intuition, or any subjective
feeling, without being able to figure out where it comes from. I guess I
basically see intuition as an extension of rationality by other means.

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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