Friday, August 18, 2017

Scott Alexander at the Effective Altruism Conference

Scott Alexander attended the latest Effective Altruism conference, a meeting of people who try to calculate the amount of good done in the world by donations to various charities. In the main sessions there was a whole lot of earnest do-gooding, talks by people at GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project about all the millions they have helped to direct to beneficial causes. But off to the sides all sorts of other stuff was going on:
I got to talk to some people from Wild Animal Suffering Research. They start with the standard EA animal rights argument – if you think animals have moral relevance, you can save zillions of them for almost no cost. A campaign for cage-free eggs, minimal in the grand scheme of things, got most major corporations to change their policies and gave two hundred million chickens an improved quality of life. But WASR points out that even this isn’t the most neglected cause. There are up to a trillion reptiles, ten quintillion insects, and maybe a sextillion zooplankton. And as nasty as factory farms are, life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, short, and prone to having parasitic wasps paralyze you so that their larvae can eat your organs from the inside out while you are still alive. WASR researches ways we can alleviate wild animal suffering, from euthanizing elderly elephants (probably not high-impact) to using more humane insecticides (recommended as an ‘interim solution’) to neutralizing predator species in order to relieve the suffering of prey (still has some thorny issues that need to be resolved).

Wild Animal Suffering Research was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Altruism Global.

I got to talk to people from the Qualia Research Institute, who point out that everyone else is missing something big: the hedonic treadmill. People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is – unpack what we’re looking for when we describe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others – and then add that on to every other mental state directly. This isn’t quite the dreaded wireheading, the widely-feared technology that will make everyone so doped up on techno-super-heroin (or direct electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers) that they never do anything else. It’s a rewiring of the brain that creates a “perpetual but varied bliss” that “reengineers the network of transition probabilities between emotions” while retaining the capability to do economically useful work. . . .
But, you guessed in, they weren't the weirdest people Alexander met, either. Anyway, it's an interesting and very funny report and I recommend it.

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