Desiderata #7: links and commentary
EA funding implodes, bees play, Chinese sci-fi takes over, lab leak redux
1/14. This last month The Intrinsic Perspective published:
Exit the supersensorium: The neuroscientific case for art in the age of Netflix
Karens and the nature of evil: On the necessity of the Karen meme
How geniuses used to be raised: Aristocratic tutoring: The day-to-day practices
2/14. In a truly shocking turn, the US-based FTX Cryptocurrency Exchange has suddenly gone bust. You might remember them from their Superbowl ads with Tom Brady or Larry David:
The platform had a sterling reputation, so a large number of users have lost their money with no warning. It looks devastating for the wealth and reputation of FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), who has personally been bankrolling a significant portion of the Effective Altruism movement (including William MacAskill, whose bestselling book “What We Owe the Future” I reviewed). It’s hard to overstate SBF’s importance to EA. Without him, the hefty funds for EA charitable projects will likely dry up.
Most of FTX’s legal and compliance teams have quit. Originally it looked like Binance, another big crypto exchange, was going acquire FTX for pennies on the dollar, but. . .
How did this happen? There’s obviously some material reason, but there’s also been speculation on Twitter it was driven by SBF’s commitment to utilitarianism, since it provided justification for taking on greater and greater financial risk, all for the longterm good of humanity. If true, the FTX bust would then be a real-world example of the sort of utilitarian repugnancy I wrote about in “Why I am not an effective altruist:”
Therefore, the effective altruist movement has to come up with extra tacked-on axioms that explain why becoming a cut-throat sociopathic business leader who is constantly screwing over his employees, making their lives miserable, subjecting them to health violations, yet donates a lot of his income to charity, is actually bad.
And I went on to warn that many of the prominent leaders of the movement flirt with accepting these repugnant conclusions head on. SBF being no exception, as seen in interviews and press profiles, e.g.:
SBF needed extreme risk to maximize the expected value of his lifetime earnings—and, therefore, the good his earn-to-give strategy could do.
If true, the EA movement will need to do a lot of soul searching around precisely how seriously their members should take utilitarian reasoning. At the same time, crypto is a notoriously volatile asset class, and plenty of exchanges have gone bust without the help of moral philosophy. Also, the situation is unfolding: SBF might find a buyer, customer funds might return, it’s too early to do a postmortem, etc.
I want to emphasize this is a sucker punch I’d wish on no one, and certainly not on the EA movement, despite my criticisms of it. If EA foundations like FTX Future Fund or 80,000 Hours have had their funding vanish, that is a loss for the world, since it means billions promised in charity have evaporated.
3/14. Speaking of losing money through cryptography, turns out it’s a long tradition.
4/14. National Geographic has an interesting piece on the discovery that bees play:
New research published in the journal Animal Behaviour suggests that bumblebees seem to enjoy rolling around wooden balls, without being trained or receiving rewards—presumably just because it’s fun.
The high-tech experimental design looked, uh, like this:
During this project the scholars realized some of the bumblebees on the sidelines seemed to enjoy rolling around the balls, for no obvious reason or benefit. To test the hypothesis that the bees were doing this for fun, Galpayage carried out a couple of experiments. In one, 45 bumblebees were placed in an arena connected to a separate feeding area by a path surrounded by 18 colorful wooden balls. The route was unobstructed, but the bees could deviate from their lane and interact with the yellow, purple, and plain wooden balls, over the course of three hours every day, for 18 days. The balls were glued to the ground on one side of the path, and were mobile on the other.
The bees, which were tagged according to age and gender, preferred the area with mobile balls. And they made the most of it. On several occasions, they were recorded rolling the balls around the arena floor with their bodies. Some bees did this only once, others rolled balls 44 times during a single day, and one did so a whopping 117 times over the course of the study.
There’s a clear take away from this experiment. Be the 117 times bee.
5/14. Matt Clancy at What’s New Under the Sun asked how contingent the evolution of technology is:
In a 1989 book, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould posed a thought experiment:
I call this experiment “replaying life’s tape.” You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past… then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.”
Gould’s main argument is:
…any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken… Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.
Gould is interested in the role of contingency in the history of life. But we can ask the same question about technology. Suppose in some parallel universe history proceeded down a quite different path from our own, shortly after Homo sapiens evolved. If we fast forward to 2022 of that universe, how different would the technological stratum of that parallel universe be from our own? Would they have invented the wheel? Steam engines? Railroads? Cars? Computers? Internet? Social media?
Clancy thinks, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a mix: while certain discoveries are inevitable, there is evidence of path dependency in technology, and therefore things could have gone quite differently. I cannot but be reminded of the fictional world of pre-apocalypse Fallout, wherein their society never invented the microchip, thus explaining the retro 1950s aesthetics of the games where all technology is big and clunky because it’s made of vacuum tubes, instead of being sleek and Apple-esque. In the Fallout universe, what got miniaturized and made ubiquitous was not computing but atomic power. Of course, such miniaturization of atomic technology would be absurd, right? Right?