My pet problem: Kim

Kim doesnt want to leaveSometimes a pet selects you – or perhaps your home – and moves in. In my case, I have been adopted by a small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae).

When it arrived last week I did the normal thing and opened the window, trying to shoo the little thing out. It refused. I tried harder. I caught it on my hand and tried to wave it out: I have never experienced a butterfly holding on for dear life like that. It very clearly did not want to fly off into the rainy cold of British autumn. So I relented and let it stay.

I call it Kim, since I cannot tell whether it is a male or female. It seems to only have four legs. Yes, I know this is probably the gayest possible pet.

Kim looks outOver the past days I have occasionally opened the window when it has been fluttering against it, but it has always quickly settled down on the windowsill when it felt the open air. It is likely planning to hibernate in my flat.

This poses an interesting ethical problem: I know that if it hibernates at my home it will likely not survive, since the environment is far too warm and dry for it. Yet it looks like it is making a deliberate decision to stay. In the case of a human I would have tried to inform them of the problems with their choice, but then would generally have accepted their decision under informed consent (well, maybe not letting they live in my home, but you get the idea, dear reader). But butterflies have just a few hundred thousand neurons: they do not ‘know’ many things. Their behaviour is largely preprogrammed instincts with little flexibility. So there is not any choice to be respected, just behaviour. I am a superintelligence relative to Kim, and I know what would be best for it. I ought to overcome my anthropomorphising of its behaviour and release it in the wild.

Kim eatsYet if I buy this argument, what value does Kim have? Kim’s “life projects” are simple programs that do not have much freedom (beyond some chaotic behaviour) or complexity. So what does it matter whether they will fail? It might matter in regards to me: I might show the virtue of compassion by making the gesture of saving it – except that it is not clear that it matters whether I do it by letting it out or feeding it orange juice. I might be benefiting in an abstract way from the aesthetic or intellectual pleasure from this tricky encounter – indeed, by blogging about it I am turning a simple butterfly life into something far beyond itself.

Another approach is of course to consider pain or other forms of suffering. Maybe insect welfare does matter (I sincerely hope it does not, since it would turn Earth into a hell-world). But again either choice is problematic: outside Kim would likely become bird- or spider-food, or die from exposure. Inside it will likely die from failed hibernation. In terms of suffering both seem about likely bad. If I was more pessimistic I might consider that killing Kim painlessly might be the right course of action. But while I do think we should minimize unnecessary suffering I suspect – given the structure of the insect nervous system – that there is not much integrated experience going on there. Pain, quite likely, but not much phenomenology.

So where does this leave me? I cannot defend any particular line of action. So I just fall back on a behavioural program myself, the pet program – adopting individuals of other species, no doubt based on overly generalized child-rearing routines (which historically turned out to be a great boon to our species through domestication). I will give it fruit juice until it hibernates, and hope for the best.

Cool risks outside the envelope of nature

How do we apply the precautionary principle to exotic, low-probability risks?

The CUORE collaboration at the INFN Gran Sasso National Laboratory recently set a world record by cooling a cubic meter 400 kg copper vessel down to 6 milliKelvins: it was the coldest cubic meter in the universe for over 15 days. Yay! Applause! (And the rest of this post should in no way be construed as a criticism of the experiment)

Cold and weird risks

CrystalsI have not been able to dig up the project documentation, but I would be astonished if there was any discussion of risk due to the experiment. After all, cooling things is rarely dangerous. We do not have any physical theories saying there could be anything risky here. No doubt there are risk assessment of liquid nitrogen or helium practical risks somewhere, but no analysis of any basic physics risks.

Compare this to the debates around the LHC, where critics at least could point to papers suggesting that strangelets, small black holes and vacuum decay were theoretically possible. Yet the LHC could argue back that particle processes like those occurring in the accelerator were already naturally occurring almost everywhere: if the LHC was risky, we ought to see plenty of explosions in the sky. Leaving aside the complications of correcting for anthropic bias, this kind of argument seems reasonably solid: if you do something that is within the envelope of what happens in the universe normally and there are no observed super-dangerous processes linked to it, then this activity is likely fine. We might wish for careful risk assessment, but given that the activity is already happening it can be viewed as just as benign as the normal activity of the universe.

However, the CUORE experiment is actually going outside of the envelope of what we think is going on in the universe. In the past, the universe has been hotter, so there would not have been any large masses at 6 milliKelvins. And with a 3 Kelvin background temperature, there would not be any natural objects this cold. (Since 1995 there have been small Bose-Einstein condensates in the hundred nanoKelvin range on Earth, but the argument is the same.)

How risky is it to generate such an outside of the envelope phenomenon? There is no evidence from the past. There is no cause for alarm given the known laws of physics. Yet this lack of evidence does not argue against risk either. Maybe there is an ice-9 like phase transition of matter below a certain temperature. Maybe it implodes into a black hole because of some macroscale quantum(gravity) effect. Maybe the alien spacegods get angry. There is an endless number of possible hypotheses that cannot be ruled out.

We might think that such “small theories” can safely be ignored. But we have some potential evidence that the universe may be riskier than it looks: the Fermi paradox, the apparent absence of alien intelligence. If we are alone, it is either because there are one or more steps in the evolution of life and intelligence that are very unlikely (the “great filter” is behind us), or there is a high likelihood that intelligence disappears without a trace (a future great filter). Now, we might freely assign our probabilities to (1) that there are aliens around, (2) that the filter is behind us, and (3) that it is ahead. However, given our ignorance we cannot rationally give zero probability to any of these possibilities, and probably not even give any of them less than 1% (since that is about the natural lowest error rate of humans on anything). Anybody saying one of them is less likely than one in a million is likely very overconfident. Yet a 1% risk of a future great filter implies a huge threat. It is a threat that not only reliably wipes out intelligent life, but also does it to civilizations aware of its potential existence!

We then have a slightly odd reason to be slightly concerned with experiments like CUORE. We know there is some probability that intelligence gets reliably wiped out. We know intelligence is likely to explore conditions not found in the natural universe. So a potential explanation could be that there is some threat in this exploration. The probability is not enormous – we might think the filter is behind us or the universe is teeming with aliens, and even if there is a future filter there are many possibilities for what it could be besides low-temperature physics – but nearly any non-infinitesimal probability multiplied by the value of our species (at least 7 billion lives) tends to lead to a too large risk.


A tad chillyAt this point the precautionary principle rears its stupid head (the ugly head is asleep). The stupid head argues that we should hence never do anything that is outside the natural envelope.

The ugly head would argue we should investigate before doing anything risky, but since in this case the empirical studying is causing the risk the head would hence advice just trying out theoretical risk scenarios – not very useful given that we are dealing with something where all potential risk comes from scenarios unconstrained by evidence!

We cannot obey the stupid head much, since most human activity is about pushing the envelope. We are trying to have more and happier people than has ever existed in the universe before. Maybe that is risky (compare to Stapledon’s Last and First Men where it turned out to be dangerous to have too much intelligence in one spot), but it is both practically hard to prevent and this kind of open-ended “let’s not do anything that has not happened in the past” seems unreasonable given that most events are new ones and generally do not lead to disasters. But the pushing of the envelope into radically new directions does carry undefinable risk. We cannot avoid that. What we can do is to discuss whether we are willing to take on such hard to pin down risk.

However, this example also shows a way precaution can break down. Nobody has, to my knowledge, worried about cooling down matter besides me. There is no concerned group urging precaution since there is no empirical nor normative reason to think there is anything wrong specifically with CUORE: we only have a general Fermi paradox-induced inchoate worry. Yet proper precaution requires considering weak possibilities. I suspect that most future big new disasters will turn out to have avoided precautionary considerations just because there was no obvious reason to invoke the principle.


Many people are scared more by uncertainty than actual risk. But we cannot escape it. Especially if we want to reduce existential risk, which tends to be more uncertain than most. This little essay is about some of the really tricky limits to what we can know about new risks. We should expect them to be unexpected. And we should expect that the standard decision methods will not behave sensibly.

As for the CUORE team, I wish them the best of luck to find neutrinoless double beta decay. But they should keep an eye open for weird anomalies too – they have a chance to peek outside the envelope of the natural in a well controlled setting, and that is valuable.

Pass the pith helmet, we are going to do epistemology!

Recognized outfittersEuronews has a series on explorers. Most are the kind of people you expect – characters who go off to harsh locations. But they also interviewed me, since I do a kind of exploration too: Anders Sandberg : Explorer of the mind.

“Explorer of the mind” sounds pretty awesome. Although the actual land I try to explore is the abstract and ill-defined spaces of the future, ethics, epistemology and emerging technology.

When I gave the interview I noticed how easy it was to slip into the explorer metaphor: we have a pretty clear cultural idea of what explorers are supposed to be and how their adventures look. Explaining how you do something very abstract like come up with robust decision procedures for judging emerging technology is hard, so it is very easy (and ego-stroking) to describe it as exploration. I think there is some truth in the metaphor, though.

Exploration is basically about trying to gather information about a domain. Some exploration is about the nature of the domain itself, some about its topography/topology, some about the contents of the domain. Sometimes it is about determining the existence of a location or not. In philosophical and mathematical exploration we are partially creating the domain as we go there, but because of consistency (and, sometimes, the need to fit with known facts about the world) it isn’t arbitrary. We might say it is procedurally generated (by a procedure we really would like to know more about!) Since the implications of any logical statement can go infinitely far and we have both limited mental resources and limited logical reach (as per Gödel) there will always be unknown and unknowable things out there. However, most of the unknown is boring and random. Real explorers try to find the important, useful, unique or just aesthetic things – something which again is really hard.

One of the things that fascinate me most about intellectual effort is that different domains have different “topographies”. Solving problems in discrete mathematics is very different from exploring probability or ethics. We know some corners are tough and others easy. Part of it is experience: people have been trying to understand consciousness or number theory for a long time and we see that they have moved less far than the people in geometry. But part of it is also a “feel” for how the landscape works. Getting from one useful result to another one requires different amounts of effort in logic (in my mind a mesa landscape where there are many plateaus of easy walk separated by immense canyons and deserts requiring real genius) and future studies (a thick jungle of fog, mud and creepers where you cannot see far and it is a huge slog to even move, but there is fascinating organisms everywhere within arms reach). Maybe category theory is like an Arctic vista of abstraction where one can move far but there is almost nothing to see. I don’t know, I keep to the mathematical tropics of calculus and geometry.

Another angle of exploration is how much exploitation to do. We want to learn things because of some value of knowledge. Understanding the topography of a domain helps us to direct efforts, so it is valuable at the very least for that (we might of course also value the knowledge about the domain itself). In some domains like engineering or surgery exploitation is so valuable that it tends to dominate: inventors or exploratory engineers/surgeons are rare. I suspect that this means these domains are seriously under-explored: were more people to investigate their limits, topography and nature we would probably learn some very valuable things. Maybe this is the curse of being rich in resources: there is little need to go far, and domains that are less useful get explored more widely. However, when such a broadly explored domain becomes useful it might be colonized on a huge scale (consider the shifts from being just philosophy to becoming proper somewhat mapped disciplines like natural science, economics, psychology etc.)

Of course, some domains are underexplored simply because the tools and opportunities for exploration are expensive or few. We cannot try wild surgical ideas on that many patients, and space engineering is still rather expensive. Coming up with a way of reducing these limitations and opening up their explorative frontiers ought to have big effects. We have seen this happening in scientific disciplines when new instruments arrive (think of the microscope, telescope or computer), or when costs come down (think computers, sequencing). If we could do something similar in abstract domains we might discover awesome things.

One of the best reasons to go exploring is to recognize how fantastic the stuff we already know is. Out there in the unknown there is likely equally fantastic things waiting to be discovered – and there is much more unknown than known.

Anthropic negatives

Inverted cumulusStuart Armstrong has come up with another twist on the anthropic shadow phenomenon. If existential risk needs two kinds of disasters to coincide in order to kill everybody, then observers will notice the disaster types to be anticorrelated.

The minimal example would be if each risk had 50% independent chance of happening: then the observable correlation coefficient would be -0.5 (not -1, since there is 1/3 chance to get neither risk; the possible outcomes are: no event, risk A, and risk B). If the probability of no disaster happening is N/(N+2) and the risks are equal 1/(N+2), then the correlation will be -1/(N+1).

I tried a slightly more elaborate model. Assume X and Y to be independent power-law distributed disasters (say war and pestillence outbreaks), and that if X+Y is larger than seven billion no observers will remain to see the outcome. If we ramp up their size (by multiplying X and Y with some constant) we get the following behaviour (for alpha=3):

(Top) correlation between observed power-law distributed independent variables multiplied by an increasing multiplier, where observation is contingent on their sum being smaller than 7 billion. Each point corresponds to 100,000 trials. (Bottom) Fraction of trials where observers were wiped out.
(Top) correlation between observed power-law distributed independent variables multiplied by an increasing multiplier, where observation is contingent on their sum being smaller than 7 billion. Each point corresponds to 100,000 trials. (Bottom) Fraction of trials where observers were wiped out.

As the situation gets more deadly the correlation becomes more negative. This also happens when allowing the exponent run from the very fat (alpha=1) to the thinner (alpha=3):

(top) Correlation between observed independent power-law distributed variables  (where observability requires their sum to be smaller than seven billion) for different exponents. (Bottom) fraction of trials ending in existential disaster. Multiplier=500 million.
(top) Correlation between observed independent power-law distributed variables (where observability requires their sum to be smaller than seven billion) for different exponents. (Bottom) fraction of trials ending in existential disaster. Multiplier=500 million.

The same thing also happens if we multiply X and Y.

I like the phenomenon: it gives us a way to look for anthropic effects by looking for suspicious anticorrelations. In particular, for the same variable the correlation ought to shift from near zero for small cases to negative for large cases. One prediction might be that periods of high superpower tension would be anticorrelated with mishaps in the nuclear weapon control systems. Of course, getting the data might be another matter. We might start by looking at extant companies with multiple risk factors like insurance companies and see if capital risk becomes anticorrelated with insurance risk at the high end.

Galactic duck and cover

How much does gamma ray bursts (GRBs) produce a “galactic habitable zone”? Recently the preprint “On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the Universe” by Piran and Jimenez has made the rounds, arguing that we are near (in fact, inside) the inner edge of the zone due to plentiful GRBs causing mass extinctions too often for intelligence to arise.

This is somewhat similar to James Annis and Milan Cirkovic’s phase transition argument, where a declining rate of supernovae and GRBs causes global temporal synchronization of the emergence of intelligence. However, that argument has a problem: energetic explosions are random, and the difference in extinctions between lucky and unlucky parts of the galaxy can be large – intelligence might well erupt in a lucky corner long before the rest of the galaxy is ready.

I suspect the same problem is true for the Piran and Jimenez paper, but spatially. GRBs are believed to be highly directional, with beams typically a few degrees across. If we have random GRBs with narrow beams, how much of the center of the galaxy do they miss?

I made a simple model of the galaxy, with a thin disk, thick disk and bar population. The model used cubical cells 250 parsec long; somewhat crude, but likely good enough. Sampling random points based on star density, I generated GRBs. Based on Frail et al. 2001 I gave them lognormal energies and power-law distributed jet angles, directed randomly. Like Piran and Jimenez I assumed that if the fluence was above 100 kJ/m^2 it would be extinction level. The rate of GRBs in the Milky Way is uncertain, but a high estimate seems to be one every 100,000 years. Running 1000 GRBs would hence correspond to 100 million years.

Galactic model with gamma ray bursts (red) and density isocontours (blue).
Galactic model with gamma ray bursts (red) and density isocontours (blue).

If we look at the galactic plane we find that the variability close to the galactic centre is big: there are plenty of lucky regions with many stars.

Unaffected star density in the galactic plane.
Unaffected star density in the galactic plane.
Affected (red) and unaffected (blue) stars at different radii in the galactic plane.
Affected (red) and unaffected (blue) stars at different radii in the galactic plane.

When integrating around the entire galaxy to get a measure of risk at different radii and altitudes shows a rather messy structure:

Probability that a given volume would be affected by a GRB. Volumes are integrated around axisymmetric circles.
Probability that a given volume would be affected by a GRB. Volumes are integrated around axisymmetric circles.

One interesting finding is that the most dangerous place may be above the galactic plane along the axis: while few GRBs happen there, those in the disk and bar can reach there (the chance of being inside a double cone is independent of distance to the center, but along the axis one is within reach for the maximum number of GRBs).

Density of stars not affected by the GRBs.
Density of stars not affected by the GRBs.

Integrating the density of stars that are not affected as a function of radius and altitude shows that there is a mild galactic habitable zone hole within 4 kpc. That we are close to the peak is neat, but there is a significant number of stars very close to the center.

This is of course not a professional model; it is a slapdash Matlab script done in an evening to respond to some online debate. But I think it shows that directionality may matter a lot by increasing the variance of star fates. Nearby systems may be irradiated very differently, and merely averaging them will miss this.

If I understood Piran and Jimenez right they do not use directionality; instead they employ a scaled rate of observed GRBs, so they do not have to deal with the iffy issue of jet widths. This might be sound, but I suspect one should check the spatial statistics: correlations are tricky things (and were GRB axes even mildly aligned with the galactic axis the risk reduction would be huge). Another way of getting closer to their result is of course to bump up the number of GRBs: with enough, the centre of the galaxy will naturally be inhospitable. I did not do the same careful modelling of the link between metallicity and GRBs, nor the different sizes.

In any case, I suspect that GRBs are weak constraints on where life can persist and too erratic to act as a good answer to the Fermi question – even a mass extinction is forgotten within 10 million years.