Will MacAskill - Longtermism, Altruism, History, & Technology
Transcript + YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify | Improving the future, risk of extinction & collapse, technological & moral change, problems of academia, who changes history.
Will MacAskill is one of the founders of the Effective Altruist movement and the author of the upcoming book, What We Owe The Future.
We talk about improving the future, risk of extinction & collapse, technological & moral change, problems of academia, who changes history, and much more.
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(00:23) - Effective Altruism and Western values
(07:47) - The contingency of technology
(12:02) - Who changes history?
(18:00) - Longtermist institutional reform
(25:56) - Are companies longtermist?
(28:57) - Living in an era of plasticity
(34:52) - How good can the future be?
(39:18) - Contra Tyler Cowen on what’s most important
(45:36) - AI and the centralization of power
(51:34) - The problems with academia
Dwarkesh Patel 0:06
Okay, today I have the pleasure of interviewing William MacAskill. Will is one of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement, and most recently, the author of the upcoming book, What We Owe The Future. Will, thanks for coming on the podcast.
Will MacAskill 0:20
Thanks so much for having me on.
Effective Altruism and Western values
Dwarkesh Patel 0:23
My first question is: What is the high-level explanation for the success of the Effective Altruism movement? Is it itself an example of the contingencies you talk about in the book?
Will MacAskill 0:32
Yeah, I think it is contingent. Maybe not on the order of, “this would never have happened,” but at least on the order of decades. Evidence that Effective Altruism is somewhat contingent is that similar ideas have been promoted many times during history, and not taken on.
We can go back to ancient China, the Mohists defended an impartial view of morality, and took very strategic actions to help all people. In particular, providing defensive assistance to cities under siege. Then, there were early utilitarians. Effective Altruism is broader than utilitarianism, but has some similarities. Even Peter Singer in the 70s had been promoting the idea that we should be giving most of our income to help the very poor — and didn’t get a lot of traction until early 2010 after GiveWell and Giving What We Can launched.
What explains the rise of it? I think it was a good idea waiting to happen. At some point, the internet helped to gather together a lot of like-minded people which wasn’t possible otherwise. There were some particularly lucky events like Alex meeting Holden and me meeting Toby that helped catalyze it at the particular time it did.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:49
If it's true, as you say, in the book, that moral values are very contingent, then shouldn't that make us suspect that modern Western values aren't that good? They're mediocre, or worse, because ex ante, you would expect to end up with a median of all the values we could have had at this point. Obviously, we'd be biased in favor of whatever values we were brought up in.
Will MacAskill 2:09
Absolutely. Taking history seriously and appreciating the contingency of values, appreciating that if the Nazis had won the World War, we would all be thinking, “wow, I'm so glad that moral progress happened the way it did, and we don't have Jewish people around anymore. What huge moral progress we had then!” That's a terrifying thought. I think it should make us take seriously the fact that we're very far away from the moral truth.
One of the lessons I draw in the book is that we should not think we're at the end of moral progress. We should not think, “Oh, we should lock in the Western values we have.” Instead, we should spend a lot of time trying to figure out what's actually morally right, so that the future is guided by the right values, rather than whichever happened to win out.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:56
So that makes a lot of sense. But I'm asking a slightly separate question—not only are there possible values that could be better than ours, but should we expect our values - we have the sense that we've made moral progress (things are better than they were before or better than most possible other worlds in 2100 or 2200)- should we not expect that to be the case? Should our priors be that these are ‘meh’ values?
Will MacAskill 3:19
Our priors should be that our values are as good as expected on average. Then you can make an assessment like, “Are other values of today going particularly well?” There are some arguments you could make for saying no. Perhaps if the Industrial Revolution happened in India, rather than in Western Europe, then perhaps we wouldn't have wide-scale factory farming—which I think is a moral atrocity. Having said that, my view is to think that we're doing better than average.
If civilization were just a redraw, then things would look worse in terms of our moral beliefs and attitudes. The abolition of slavery, the feminist movement, liberalism itself, democracy—these are all things that we could have lost and are huge gains.
Dwarkesh Patel 4:14
If that's true, does that make the prospect of a long reflection dangerous? If moral progress is a random walk, and we've ended up with a lucky lottery, then you're possibly reversing. Maybe you're risking regression to the mean if you just have 1,000 years of progress.
Will MacAskill 4:30
Moral progress isn't a random walk in general. There are many forces that act on culture and on what people believe. One of them is, “What’s right, morally speaking? What's their best arguments support?” I think it's a weak force, unfortunately.
The idea of lumbar flexion is getting society into a state that before we take any drastic actions that might lock in a particular set of values, we allow this force of reason and empathy and debate and goodhearted model inquiry to guide which values we end up with.
Are we unwise?
Dwarkesh Patel 5:05
In the book, you make this interesting analogy where humans at this point in history are like teenagers. But another common impression that people have of teenagers is that they disregard wisdom and tradition and the opinions of adults too early and too often. And so, do you think it makes sense to extend the analogy this way, and suggest that we should be Burkean Longtermists and reject these inside-view esoteric threats?
Will MacAskill 5:32
My view goes the opposite of the Burkean view. We are cultural creatures in our nature, and are very inclined to agree with what other people think even if we don't understand the underlying mechanisms. It works well in a low-change environment. The environment we evolved towards didn't change very much. We were hunter-gatherers for hundreds of years.
Now, we're in this period of enormous change, where the economy is doubling every 20 years, new technologies arrive every single year. That's unprecedented. It means that we should be trying to figure things out from first principles.
Dwarkesh Patel 6:34
But at current margins, do you think that's still the case? If a lot of EA and longtermist thought is first principles, do you think that more history would be better than the marginal first-principles thinker?
Will MacAskill 6:47
Two things. If it's about an understanding of history, then I'd love EA to have a better historical understanding. The most important subject if you want to do good in the world is philosophy of economics. But we've got that in abundance compared to there being very little historical knowledge in the EA community.
Should there be even more first-principles thinking? First-principles thinking paid off pretty well in the course of the Coronavirus pandemic. From January 2020, my Facebook wall was completely saturated with people freaking out, or taking it very seriously in a way that the existing institutions weren't. The existing institutions weren't properly updating to a new environment and new evidence.
The contingency of technology
Dwarkesh Patel 7:47
In your book, you point out several examples of societies that went through hardship. Hiroshima after the bombings, Europe after the Black Death—they seem to have rebounded relatively quickly. Does this make you think that perhaps the role of contingency in history, especially economic history is not that large? And it implies a Solow model of growth? That even if bad things happen, you can rebound and it really didn't matter?
Will MacAskill 8:17
In economic terms, that's the big difference between economic or technological progress and moral progress. In the long run, economic or technological progress is very non-contingent. The Egyptians had an early version of the steam engine, semaphore was only developed very late yet could have been invented thousands of years in the past.
But in the long run, the instrumental benefits of tech progress, and the incentives towards tech progress and economic growth are so strong, that we get there in a wide array of circumstances. Imagine there're thousands of different societies, and none are growing except for one. In the long run, that one becomes the whole economy.
Dwarkesh Patel 9:10
It seems that particular example you gave of the Egyptians having some ancient form of a steam engine points towards there being more contingency? Perhaps because the steam engine comes up in many societies, but it only gets turned into an industrial revolution in one?
Will MacAskill 9:22
In that particular case, there's a big debate about whether quality of metalwork made it actually possible to build a proper steam engine at that time. I mentioned those to share some amazing examples of contingency prior to the Industrial Revolution.
It's still contingency on the order of centuries to thousands of years. Post industrial-revolution world, there's much less contingency. It's much harder to see technologies that wouldn't have happened within decades if they hadn't been developed when they were.
Dwarkesh Patel 9:57
The model here is, “These general-purpose changes in the state of technology are contingent, and it'd be very important to try to engineer one of those. But other than that, it's going to get done by some guy creating a start-up anyways?”
Will MacAskill 10:11
Even in the case of the steam engine that seemed contingent, it gets developed in the long run. If the Industrial Revolution hadn't happened in Britain in the 18th century, would it have happened at some point? Would similar technologies that were vital to the industrial revolution developed? Yes, there are very strong incentives for doing so.
If there’s a culture that's into making textiles in an automated way as opposed to England in the 18th century, then that economy will take over the world. There's a structural reason why economic growth is much less contingent than moral progress.
Dwarkesh Patel 11:06
When people think of somebody like Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. It's like, “If you could have done something that, you'd be the greatest person in the 20th century.” Obviously, he's still a very good man, but would that not be our view? Do you think the green revolution would have happened anyways?
Will MacAskill 11:22
Yes. Norman Borlaug is sometimes credited with saving a billion lives. He was huge. He was a good force for the world. Had Norman Borlaug not existed, I don’t think a billion people would have died. Rather, similar developments would have happened shortly afterwards.
Perhaps he saved tens of millions of lives—and that's a lot of lives for a person to save. But, it's not as many as simply saying, “Oh, this tech was used by a billion people who would have otherwise been at risk of starvation.” In fact, not long afterwards, there were similar kinds of agricultural development.
Who changes history?
Dwarkesh Patel 12:02
What kind of profession or career choice tends to lead to the highest counterfactual impact? Is it moral philosophers?
Will MacAskill 12:12
Not quite moral philosophers, although there are some examples. Sticking on science technology, if you look at Einstein, theory of special relativity would have been developed shortly afterwards. However, theory of general relativity was plausibly decades in advance. Sometimes, you get surprising leaps. But, we're still only talking about decades rather than millennia. Moral philosophers could make long-term difference. Marx and Engels made an enormous, long-run difference. Religious leaders like Mohammed, Jesus, and Confucius made enormous and contingent, long-run difference. Moral activists as well.
Dwarkesh Patel 13:04
If you think that the changeover in the landscape of ideas is very quick today, would you still think that somebody like Marx will be considered very influential in the long future? Communism lasted less than a century, right?
Will MacAskill 13:20
As things turned out, Marx will not be influential over the long term future. But that could have gone another way. It's not such a wildly different history. Rather than liberalism emerging dominant in the 20th century, it was communism. The better technology gets, the better the ruling ideology is to cement its ideology and persist for a long time. You can get a set of knock-on effects where communism wins the war of ideas in the 20th century.
Let’s say a world-government is based around those ideas, then, via anti-aging technology, genetic-enhancement technology, cloning, or artificial intelligence, it's able to build a society that possesses forever in accordance with that ideology.
Dwarkesh Patel 14:20
The death of dictators is especially interesting when you're thinking about contingency because there are huge changes in the regime. It makes me think the actual individual there was very important and who they happened to be was contingent and persistent in some interesting ways.
Will MacAskill 14:37
If you've got a dictatorship, then you've got single person ruling the society. That means it's heavily contingent on the views, values, beliefs, and personality of that person.
Dwarkesh Patel 14:48
Going back to the second nation, in the book, you're very concerned about fertility. It seems your model about scientific and technological progress happens is number of people times average researcher productivity. If resource productivity is declining and the number of people isn't growing that fast, then that's concerning.
Will MacAskill 15:07
Yes, number of people times fraction of the population devoted to R&D.
Dwarkesh Patel 15:11
Thanks for the clarification. It seems that there have been a lot of intense concentrations of talent and progress in history. Venice, Athens, or even something like FTX, right? There are 20 developers making this a multibillion dollar company—do these examples suggest that organization and congregation of researchers matter more than the total amount?
Will MacAskill 15:36
The model works reasonably well. Throughout history, you start from a very low technological baseline compared to today. Most people aren't even trying to innovate. One argument for why Baghdad lost its Scientific Golden Age is because the political landscape changed such that what was incentivized was theological investigation rather than scientific investigation in the 10th/11th century AD.
Similarly, one argument for why Britain had a scientific and industrial revolution rather than Germany was because all of the intellectual talent in Germany was focused on making amazing music. That doesn't compound in the way that making textiles does. If you look at like Sparta versus Athens, what was the difference? They had different cultures and intellectual inquiry was more rewarded in Athens.
Because they're starting from a lower base, people trying to do something that looks like what we now think of as intellectual inquiry have an enormous impact.
Dwarkesh Patel 16:58
If you take an example like Bell Labs, the low-hanging fruit is gone by the late 20th century. You have this one small organization that has six Nobel Prizes. Is this a coincidence?
Will MacAskill 17:14
I wouldn't say that at all. The model we’re working with is the size of the population times the fraction of the population doing R&D. It's the simplest model you can have. Bell Labs is punching above its weight. You can create amazing things from a certain environment with the most productive people and putting them in an environment where they're ten times more productive than they would otherwise be.
However, when you're looking at the grand sweep of history, those effects are comparatively small compared to the broader culture of a society or the sheer size of a population.
Longtermist institutional reform
Dwarkesh Patel 18:00
I want to talk about your paper on longtermist institutional reform. One of the things you advocate in this paper is that we should have one of the houses be dedicated towards longtermist priorities. Can you name some specific performance metrics you would use to judge or incentivize the group of people who make up this body?
Will MacAskill 18:23
The thing I'll caveat with longtermist institutions is that I’m pessimistic about them. If you're trying to represent or even give consideration to future people, you have to face the fact that they're not around and they can't lobby for themselves. However, you could have an assembly of people who have some legal regulatory power. How would you constitute that? My best guess is you have a random selection from the population? How would you ensure that incentives are aligned?
In 30-years time, their performance will be assessed by a panel of people who look back and assess the policies’ effectiveness. Perhaps the people who are part of this assembly have their pensions paid on the basis of that assessment. Secondly, the people in 30-years time, both their policies and their assessment of the previous 30-years previous assembly get assessed by another assembly, 30-years after that, and so on. Can you get that to work? Maybe in theory—I’m skeptical in practice, but I would love some country to try it and see what happens.
There is some evidence that you can get people to take the interests of future generations more seriously by just telling them their role. There was one study that got people to put on ceremonial robes, and act as trustees of the future. And they did make different policy recommendations than when they were just acting on the basis of their own beliefs and self-interest.
Dwarkesh Patel 20:30
If you are on that board that is judging these people, is there a metric like GDP growth that would be good heuristics for assessing past policy decisions?
Will MacAskill 20:48
There are some things you could do: GDP growth, homelessness, technological progress. I would absolutely want there to be an expert assessment of the risk of catastrophe. We don't have this yet, but imagine a panel of super forecasters predicting the chance of a war between great powers occurring in the next ten years that gets aggregated into a war index.
That would be a lot more important than the stock market index. Risk of catastrophe would be helpful to feed into because you wouldn't want something only incentivizing economic growth at the expense of tail risks.
Dwarkesh Patel 21:42
Would that be your objection to a scheme like Robin Hanson’s about maximizing the expected future GDP using prediction markets and making decisions that way?
Will MacAskill 21:50
Maximizing future GDP is an idea I associate with Tyler Cowen. With Robin Hanson’s idea of voting on values but betting on beliefs, if people can vote on what collection of goods they want, GDP and unemployment might be good metrics. Beyond that, it's pure prediction markets. It's something I'd love to see tried. It’s an idea of speculative political philosophy about how a society could be extraordinarily different in structure that is incredibly neglected.
Do I think it'll work in practice? Probably not. Most of these ideas wouldn't work. Prediction markets can be gamed or are simply not liquid enough. There hasn’t been a lot of success in prediction markets compared to forecasting. Perhaps you can solve these things. You have laws about what things can be voted on or predicted in the prediction market, you could have government subsidies to ensure there's enough liquidity. Overall, it's likely promising and I'd love to see it tried out on a city-level or something.
Dwarkesh Patel 23:13
Let’s take a scenario where the government starts taking the impact on the long-term seriously and institutes some reforms to integrate that perspective. As an example, you can take a look at the environmental movement. There're environmental review boards that will try to assess the environmental impact of new projects and repeal any proposals based on certain metrics.
The impact here, at least in some cases, has been that groups that have no strong, plausible interest in the environment are able to game these mechanisms in order to prevent projects that would actually help the environment. With longtermism, it takes a long time to assess the actual impact of something, but policymakers are tasked with evaluating the long term impacts of something. Are you worried that it'd be a system that'd be easy to game by malicious actors? And they'd ask, “What do you think went wrong with the way that environmentalism was codified into law?”
Will MacAskill 24:09
It's potentially a devastating worry. You create something to represent future people, but they're not allowed to lobby themselves (it can just be co-opted). My understanding of environmental impact statements has been similar. Similarly, it's not like the environment can represent itself—it can't say what its interests are. What is the right answer there? Maybe there are speculative proposals about having a representative body that assesses these things and elect jobs by people in 30-years time. That's the best we've got at the moment, but we need a lot more thought to see if any of these proposals would be robust for the long term rather than things that are narrowly-focused.
Regulation to have liability insurance for dangerous bio labs is not about trying to represent the interests of future generations. But, it's very good for the long-term. At the moment, if longtermists are trying to change the government, let's focus on a narrow set of institutional changes that are very good for the long-term even if they're not in the game of representing the future. That's not to say I'm opposed to all such things. But, there are major problems with implementation for any of them.
Dwarkesh Patel 25:35
If we don't know how we would do it correctly, did you have an idea of how environmentalism could have been codified better? Why was that not a success in some cases?
Will MacAskill 25:46
Honestly, I don't have a good understanding of that. I don't know if it's intrinsic to the matter or if you could’ve had some system that wouldn't have been co-opted in the long-term.
Are companies longtermist?
Dwarkesh Patel 25:56
Theoretically, the incentives of our most long-term U.S. institutions is to maximize future cash flow. Explicitly and theoretically, they should have an incentive to do the most good they can for their own company—which implies that the company can’t be around if there’s an existential risk…
Will MacAskill 26:18
I don't think so. Different institutions have different rates of decay associated with them. So, a corporation that is in the top 200 biggest companies has a half-life of only ten years. It’s surprisingly short-lived. Whereas, if you look at universities Oxford and Cambridge are 800 years old. University of Bologna is even older. These are very long-lived institutions.
For example, Corpus Christi at Oxford was making a decision about having a new tradition that would occur only every 400 years. It makes that kind of decision because it is such a long-lived institution. Similarly, the legends can be even longer-lived again. That type of natural half-life really affects the decisions a company would make versus a university versus a religious institution.
Dwarkesh Patel 27:16
Does that suggest that there's something fragile and dangerous about trying to make your institution last for a long time—if companies try to do that and are not able to?
Will MacAskill 27:24
Companies are composed of people. Is it in the interest of a company to last for a long time? Is it in the interests of the people who constitute the company (like the CEO and the board and the shareholders) for that company to last a long time? No, they don't particularly care. Some of them do, but most don't. Whereas other institutions go both ways. This is the issue of lock-in that I talked about at length in What We Owe The future: you get moments of plasticity during the formation of a new institution.
Whether that’s the Christian church or the Constitution of the United States, you lock-in a certain set of norms. That can be really good. Looking back, the U.S. Constitution seems miraculous as the first democratic constitution. As I understand it, it was created over a period of four months seems to have stood the test of time. Alternatively, lock-in norms could be extremely dangerous. There were horrible things in the U.S. Constitution like the legal right to slavery proposed as a constitutional amendment. If that had locked in, it would have been horrible. It's hard to answer in the abstract because it depends on the thing that's persisting for a long time.
Living in an era of plasticity
Dwarkesh Patel 28:57
You say in the book that you expect our current era to be a moment of plasticity. Why do you think that is?
Will MacAskill 29:04
There are specific types of ‘moments of plasticity’ for two reasons. One is a world completely unified in a way that's historically unusual. You can communicate with anyone instantaneously and there's a great diversity of moral views. We can have arguments, like people coming on your podcast can debate what's morally correct. It's plausible to me that one of many different sets of moral views become the most popular ultimately.
Secondly, we're at this period where things can really change. But, it's a moment of plasticity because it could plausibly come to an end — and the moral change that we're used to could end in the coming decades. If there was a single global culture or world government that preferred ideological conformity, combined with technology, it becomes unclear why that would end over the long-term? The key technology here is Artificial Intelligence. The point in time (which may be sooner than we think) where the rulers of the world are digital rather than biological, that [ideological conformity] could persist.
Once you've got that and a global hegemony of a single ideology, there's not much reason for that set of values to change over time. You've got immortal leaders and no competition. What are the other kind of sources of value-change over time? I think they can be accounted for too.
Dwarkesh Patel 30:46
Isn't the fact that we are in a time of interconnectedness that won't last if we settle space — isn't that bit of reason for thinking that lock-in is not especially likely? If your overlords are millions of light years away, how well can they control you?
Will MacAskill 31:01
The “whether” you have is whether the control will happen before the point of space settlement. If we took to space one day, and there're many different settlements and different solar systems pursuing different visions of the good, then you're going to maintain diversity for a very long time (given the physics of the matter).
Once a solar system has been settled, it's very hard for other civilizations to come along and conquer you—at least if we're at a period of technological maturity where there aren't groundbreaking technologies to be discovered. But, I'm worried that the control will happen earlier. I'm worried the control might happen this century, within our lifetimes. I don't think it’s very likely, but it's seriously on the table - 10% or something?
Dwarkesh Patel 31:53
Hm, right. Going back to the long-term of the longtermism movement, there are many instructive foundations that were set up about a century ago like the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Foundation. But, they don't seem to be especially creative or impactful today. What do you think went wrong? Why was there, if not value drift, some decay of competence and leadership and insight?
Will MacAskill 32:18
I don't have strong views about those particular examples, but I have two natural thoughts. For organizations that want to persist a long time and keep having an influence for a long time, they’ve historically specified their goals in far too narrow terms. One fun example is Benjamin Franklin. He invested a thousand pounds for each of the cities of Philadelphia and Boston to pay out after 100 years and then 200 years for different fractions of the amount invested. But, he specified it to help blacksmith apprentices. You might think this doesn't make much sense when you’re in the year 2000. He could have invested more generally: for the prosperity of people in Philadelphia and Boston. It would have had plausibly more impact.
The second is a ‘regression to the mean’ argument. You have some new foundation and it's doing an extraordinary amount of good as the Rockefeller Foundation did. Over time, if it's exceptional in some dimension, it's probably going to get closer to average on that dimension. This is because you’re changing the people involved. If you've picked exceptionally competent and farsighted people, the next generation are statistically going to be less so.
Dwarkesh Patel 33:40
Going back to that hand problem: if you specify your mission too narrowly and it doesn't make sense in the future—is there a trade off? If you're too broad, you make space for future actors—malicious or uncreative—to take the movement in ways that you would not approve of? With regards to doing good for Philadelphia, what if it turns into something that Ben Franklin would not have thought is good for Philadelphia?
Will MacAskill 34:11
It depends on what your values and views are. If Benjamin Franklin only cared about blacksmith's apprentices, then he was correct to specify it. But my own values tend to be quite a bit more broad than that. Secondly, I expect people in the future to be smarter and more capable. It’s certainly the trend over time. In which case, if we’re sharing similar broad goals, and they're implementing it in a different way, then they have it.
How good can the future be?
Dwarkesh Patel 34:52
Let's talk about how good we should expect the future to be. Have you come across Robin Hanson’s argument that we’ll end up being subsistence-level ems because there'll be a lot of competition and minimizing compute per digital person will create a barely-worth-living experience for every entity?
Will MacAskill 35:11
Yeah, I'm familiar with the argument. But, we should distinguish the idea that ems are at subsistence level from the idea that we would have bad lives. So subsistence means that you get a balance of income per capita and population growth such that being poorer would cause deaths to outweigh additional births.
That doesn't tell you about their well-being. You could be very poor as an emulated being but be in bliss all the time. That's perfectly consistent with the Malthusian theory. It might seem far away from the best possible future, but it could still be very good. At subsistence, those ems could still have lives that are thousands of times better than ours.
Dwarkesh Patel 36:02
Speaking of being poor and happy, there was a very interesting section in the chapter where you mentioned the study you had commissioned: you were trying to find out if people in the developing world find life worth living. It turns out that 19% of Indians would not want to relive their life every moment. But, 31% of Americans said that they would not want to relive their life at every moment? So, why are Indians seemingly much happier at less than a tenth of the GDP per capita?
Will MacAskill 36:29
I think the numbers are lower than that from memory, at least. From memory, it’s something more like 9% of Indians wouldn't want to live their lives again if they had the option, and 13% of Americans said they wouldn’t. You are right on the happiness metric, though. The Indians we surveyed were more optimistic about their lives, happier with their lives than people in the US were. Honestly, I don't want to generalize too far from that because we were sampling comparatively poor Americans to comparatively well-off Indians. Perhaps it's just a sample effect.
There are also weird interactions with Hinduism and the belief in reincarnation that could mess up the generalizability of this. On one hand, I don't want to draw any strong conclusion from that. But, it is pretty striking as a piece of information, given that you find people's well-being in richer countries considerably happier than poorer countries, on average.
Dwarkesh Patel 37:41
I guess you do generalize in a sense that you use it as evidence that most lives today are living, right?
Will MacAskill 37:50
Exactly. So, I put together various bits of evidence, where approximately 10% of people in the United States and 10% of people in India seem to think that their lives are net negative. They think they contain more suffering than happiness and wouldn't want to be reborn and live the same life if they could.
There's another scripture study that looks at people in United States/other wealthy countries, and asks them how much of their conscious life they'd want to skip if they could. Skipping here means that blinking would reach you to the end of whatever activity you're engaging with. For example, perhaps I hate this podcast so much that I would rather be unconscious than be talking to you. In which case, I'd have the option of skipping, and it would be over after 30 minutes.
If you look at that, and then also asked people about the trade offs they would be willing to make as a measure of intensity of how much they're enjoying a certain experience, you reach the conclusion that a little over 10% of people regarded their life that day as being surveyed worse than if they'd been unconscious the entire day.
Contra Tyler Cowen on what’s most important
Dwarkesh Patel 39:18
Jumping topics here a little bit, on the 80,000 Hours Podcast, you said that you expect scientists who are explicitly trying to maximize their impact might have an adverse impact because they might be ignoring the foundational research that wouldn't be obvious in this way of thinking, but might be more important.
Do you think this could be a general problem with longtermism? If you were trying to find the most important things that are important long-term, you might be missing things that wouldn't be obvious thinking this way?
Will MacAskill 39:48
Yeah, I think that's a risk. Among the ways that people could argue against my general set of views, I argue that we should be doing fairly specific and targeted things like trying to make AI safe, well-govern the rise of AI, reduce worst-case pandemics that can kill us all, prevent a Third World War, ensure that good values are promoted, and avoid value lock-in. But, some people could argue (and people like Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison do), that it's very hard to predict the future impact of your actions.
It's a mug's game to even try. Instead, you should look at the things that have done loads of good consistently in the past, and try to do the same things. In particular, they might argue that means technological progress or boosting economic growth. I dispute that. It's not something I can give a completely knock-down argument to because we don’t know when we will find out who's right. Maybe in thousand-years time. But one piece of evidence is the success of forecasters in general. This also was true for Tyler Cowen, but people in Effective Altruism were realizing that the Coronavirus pandemic was going to be a big deal for them. At an early stage, they were worrying about pandemics far in advance. There are some things that are actually quite predictable.
For example, Moore's Law has held up for over 70 years. The idea that AI systems are gonna get much larger and leading models are going to get more powerful are on trend. Similarly, the idea that we will be soon be able to develop viruses of unprecedented destructive power doesn’t feel too controversial. Even though it’s hard to predict loads of things, there are going to be tons of surprises. There are some things, especially when it comes to fairly long-standing technological trends, that we can make reasonable predictions — at least about the range of possibilities that are on the table.
Dwarkesh Patel 42:19
It sounds like you're saying that the things we know are important now. But, if something didn't turn out, a thousand years ago, looking back to be very important, it wouldn't be salient to us now?
Will MacAskill 42:31
What I was saying with me versus Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen, who is correct? We will only get that information in a thousand-years time because we're talking about impactful strategies for the long-term. We might get suggestive evidence earlier. If me and others engaging in longtermism are making specific, measurable forecasts about what is going to happen with AI, or advances in biotechnology, and then are able to take action such that we are clearly reducing certain risks, that's pretty good evidence in favor of our strategy.
Whereas, they're doing all sorts of stuff, but not make firm predictions about what's going to happen, but then things pop out of that that are good for the long-term (say we measure this in ten-years time), that would be good evidence for their view.
Dwarkesh Patel 43:38
You were saying earlier about the contingency in technology implies that given their worldview, even if you're trying to maximize what in the past is at the most impact, if what's had the most impact in the past is changing values, then economic growth might be the most important thing? Or trying to change the rate of economic growth?
Will MacAskill 43:57
I really do take the argument seriously of how people have acted in the past, especially for people trying to make a long-lasting impact. What things that they do that made sense and whatnot. So, towards the end of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill and the other early utilitarians had this longtermist wave where they started taking the interests of future generations very seriously. Their main concern was Britain running out of coal, and therefore, future generations would be impoverished. It's pretty striking because they had a very bad understanding of how the economy works. They hadn't predicted that we would be able to transition away from coal with continued innovation.
Secondly, they had enormously wrong views about how much coal and fossil fuels there were in the world. So, that particular action didn't make any sense given what we know now. In fact, that particular action of trying to keep coal in the ground, given Britain at the time where we're talking about much lower amounts of coal—so small that the climate change effect is negligible at that level—probably would have been harmful.
But, we could look at other things that John Stuart Mill could have done such promoting better values. He campaigned for women's suffrage. He was the first British MP. In fact, even the first politician in the world to promote women's suffrage - that seems to be pretty good. That seems to have stood the test of time. That's one historical data point. But potentially, we can learn a more general lesson there.
AI and the centralization of power
Dwarkesh Patel 45:36
Do you think the ability of your global policymakers to come to a consensus is on net, a good or a bad thing? On the positive, maybe it helps around some dangerous tech from taking off, but on the negative side, prevent human challenge trials that cause some lock-in in the future. On net, what do you think about that trend?
Will MacAskill 45:54
The question of global integration, you're absolutely right, it's double-sided. One hand, it can help us reduce global catastrophic risks. The fact that the world was able to come come together and ban Chlorofluorocarbons was one of the great events of the last 50 years, allowing the hole in the ozone layer to to repair itself. But on the other hand, if it means we all converge to one monoculture and lose out on diversity, that's potentially bad. We could lose out on the most possible value that way.
The solution is doing the good bits and not having the bad bits. For example, in a liberal constitution, you can have a country that is bound in certain ways by its constitution and by certain laws yet still enables a flourishing diversity of moral thought and different ways of life. Similarly, in the world, you can have very strong regulation and treaties that only deal with certain global public goods like mitigation of climate change, prevention of development of the next generation of weapons of mass destruction without having some very strong-arm global government that implements a particular vision of the world. Which way are we going at the moment? It seems to me we've been going in a pretty good and not too worrying direction. But, that could change.
Dwarkesh Patel 47:34
Yeah, it seems the historical trend is when you have a federated political body that even if constitutionally, the Central Powers constrain over time, they tend to gain more power. You can look at the U.S., you can look at the European Union. But yeah, that seems to be the trend.
Will MacAskill 47:52
Depending on the culture that's embodied there, it's potentially a worry. It might not be if the culture itself is liberal and promoting of moral diversity and moral change and moral progress. But, that needn't be the case.
Dwarkesh Patel 48:06
Your theory of moral change implies that after a small group starts advocating for a specific idea, it may take a century or more before that idea reaches common purchase. To the extent that you think this is a very important century (I know you have disagreements about that with with others), does that mean that there isn't enough time for longtermism to gain by changing moral values?
Will MacAskill 48:32
There are lots of people I know and respect fairly well who think that Artificial General Intelligence will likely lead to singularity-level technological progress and extremely rapid rate of technological progress within the next 10-20 years. If so, you’re right. Value changes are something that pay off slowly over time.
I talk about moral change taking centuries historically, but it can be much faster today. The growth of the Effective Altruism movement is something I know well. If that's growing at something like 30% per year, compound returns mean that it's not that long. That's not growth. That's not change that happens on the order of centuries.
If you look at other moral movements like gay rights movement, very fast moral change by historical standards. If you're thinking that we've got ten years till the end of history, then don't broadly try and promote better values. But, we should have a very significant probability mass on the idea that we will not hit some historical end of this century. In those worlds, promoting better values could pay off like very well.
Dwarkesh Patel 49:59
Have you heard of Slime Mold Time Mold Potato Diet?
Will MacAskill 50:03
I have indeed heard of Slime Mold Time Mold Potato Diet, and I was tempted as a gimmick to try it. As I'm sure you know, potato is close to a superfood, and you could survive indefinitely on butter mashed potatoes if you occasionally supplement with something like lentils and oats.
Dwarkesh Patel 50:25
Hm, interesting. Question about your career: why are you still a professor? Does it still allow you to the things that you would otherwise have been doing like converting more SBF’s and making moral philosophy arguments for EA? Curious about that.
Will MacAskill 50:41
It's fairly open to me what I should do, but I do spend significant amounts of time co-founding organizations or being on the board of those organizations I've helped to set up. More recently, working closely with the Future Fund, SBF’s new foundation, and helping them do as much good as possible. That being said, if there's a single best guess for what I want to do longer term, and certainly something that plays to my strengths better, it's developing ideas, trying to get the big picture roughly right, and then communicating them in a way that's understandable and gets more people to get off their seats and start to do a lot of good for the long-term. I’ve had a lot of impact that way. From that perspective, having an Oxford professorship is pretty helpful.
The problems with academia
Dwarkesh Patel 51:34
You mentioned in the book and elsewhere that there's a scarcity of people thinking about big picture questions—How contingent is history? How are people happy generally?—Are these questions that are too hard for other people? Or they don't care enough? What's going on? Why are there so few people talking about this?
Will MacAskill 51:54
I just think there are many issues that are enormously important but are just not incentivized anywhere in the world. Companies don't incentivize work on them because they’re too big picture. Some of these questions are, “Is the future good, rather than bad? If there was a global civilizational collapse, would we recover? How likely is a long stagnation?” There’s almost no work done on any of these topics. Companies aren't interested too grand in scale.
Academia has developed a culture where you don't tackle such problems. Partly, that's because they fall through the cracks of different disciplines. Partly because they seem too grand or too speculative. Academia is much more in the mode of making incremental gains in our understanding. It didn't always used to be that way.
If you look back before the institutionalization of academic research, you weren't a real philosopher unless you had some grand unifying theory of ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. Probably the natural sciences too and economics. I'm not saying that all of academic inquiry should be like that. But should there be some people whose role is to really think about the big picture? Yes.
Dwarkesh Patel 53:20
Will I be able to send my kids to MacAskill University? What's the status on that project?
Will MacAskill 53:25
I'm pretty interested in the idea of creating a new university. There is a project that I've been in discussion about with another person who's fairly excited about making it happen. Will it go ahead? Time will tell. I think you can do both research and education far better than it currently exists. It's extremely hard to break in or creating something that's very prestigious because the leading universities are hundreds of years old. But maybe it's possible. I think it would could generate enormous amounts of value if we were able to pull it off.
Dwarkesh Patel 54:10
Excellent, alright. So the book is What We Owe The Future. I understand pre-orders help a lot, right? It was such an interesting read. How often does somebody write a book about the questions they consider to be the most important even if they're not the most important questions? Big picture thinking, but also looking at very specific questions and issues that come up. Super interesting read.
Will MacAskill 54:34
Great. Well, thank you so much!
Dwarkesh Patel 54:38
Anywhere else they can find you? Or any other information they might need to know?
Will MacAskill 54:39
Yeah, sure. What We Owe The Future is out on August 16 in the US and first of September in the United Kingdom. If you want to follow me on Twitter, I'm @WillMcCaskill. If you want to try and use your time or money to do good, Giving What We Can is an organization that encourages people to take a pledge to give a significant fraction of the income (10% or more) to the charities that do the most good. It has a list of recommended charities. 80,000 Hours—if you want to use your career to do good—is a place to go for advice on what careers have the biggest impact at all. They provide one-on-one coaching too.
If you're feeling inspired and want to do good in the world, you care about future people and I want to help make their lives go better, then, as well as reading What We Owe The Future, Giving What We Can, and 80,000 hours are the sources you can go to and get involved.
Dwarkesh Patel 55:33
Awesome, thanks so much for coming on the podcast! It was a lot of fun.
Will MacAskill 54:39
Thanks so much, I loved it.