Eliezer Yudkowsky on Politics – Part 1

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 20, 2016.)

In our previous post we examined how prospect theory helps explain why so many American voters were willing to risk voting for such a manifestly unqualified candidate for President as Donald Trump. Of course what citizens who are willing to take these risks fail to understand, as the artificial intelligence and decision theory expert Eliezer Yudkowsky writes on his Facebook page, is “how there’s a level of politics that’s theater and a level of politics that’s deadly serious.” For example, it’s deadly serious when a President talks about scrapping the NATO alliance or using nuclear weapons. In such cases you would hope that competent and conscientious people exercise power in the international relations realm.

Unfortunately some people don’t seem to understand the difference between entertainment and reality. Yudkowsky offers the example of those who believe the moon landing was faked. From an educated perspective this belief is self-evident nonsense, and I understand that TV shows that promulgates such nonsense are entertainment. But some people don’t know this; they don’t know there’s real science that allowed us to go to the moon, a serious level underneath the entertainment level. (There the entertainment level of having some ignorant evolution denier debating someone on TV, and the serious level where biological evolution underlies all of modern biology.) But often the scientifically illiterate only know the world that comes to them from their entertainment bubble.

Similarly, many people can’t differentiate political theater, Level A, with the deadly serious part, Level B. Perhaps they think that Level A is all that exists and there is no deadly serious politics, no Level B. They are mistaken.

But the Level B in Washington DC, the issues that people take seriously unlike insider trading, is also not just sociopaths reacting to disasters that are *so* bad that their own personal hometown might get a nuclear missile. The Level B does contain more stuff than that … it *is* the level where you worry about things like the stability of the Europe-Russia border, not because a journalist is going to clutch their pearls in offense because you don’t seem concerned enough, but because you actually care about the stability of the Europe-Russia border. Yes, there are people in Washington DC like that.

So there is a deadly serious level of politics that demands equanimity. In this context Yudkowsky notes: “Perhaps there are dozens of other cases where a country elected an impulsive, chaotic, populist leader and nothing whatsoever went wrong.” But in such situations something could go terribly wrong. Yudkowsky recalls playing a National Security Decision-Making Game with about 80 participants and finding out how much strategizing it takes to avoid oblivion.

By the end of NSDM, I left with a suddenly increased respect for any administration that gets to the end of 4 years without nuclear weapons being used … I left with a greatly increased appreciation of the real skill and competence possessed by the high-level bureaucrats … who keep everything from toppling over …

I think that a lot of the real function of government is to keep things from toppling over like they did in our NSDM session, and that this depends on the functionaries including the President staying inside certain bounds of behavior––people who understand how the game is supposed to be played. It’s not always a good game and you may be tempted to call for blowing it up rather than letting it continue as usual. Avoid this temptation. Randomly blowing it up will NOT end well. It CAN be so, so much worse than it already is.

The system isn’t as stable as it might look when you’re just strolling along your non-melted streets year after year, without any missiles ever falling on your own hometown. I don’t even know how much work it really takes to prevent everything from falling over.

Pursuant to the above, Yudkowsky argues how dangerous it is to have a President like Trump. It is bad to be ambiguous about who will defend who for example. Both world wars in the 20th century began because of such ambiguities. And it is deadly dangerous to wonder why we shouldn’t use nuclear weapons. This leads Yudkowsky to muse about the relative importance of otherwise important issues:

Like it or not, there is in Washington DC a perceived difference between ‘committed sexual assault’ and ‘violated the system guardrails that prevent World War III’ … Maybe you wish that Washington DC culture would take sexual assault more seriously, as something deadly serious in its own right … instead of some people laughing it off, some people being frankly offended, and everyone in Washington DC tacitly understanding that this is not one of the issues that everyone has agreed to take deadly seriously even when no journalists are looking.

Maybe you look at that, and conclude that this ‘deadly serious level of politics’ thingy does not respect your own values and priorities. Maybe you conclude that the kind of political issues people are fighting over theatrically in the newspapers are, yes, every bit as vital to you as that so-called ‘deadly serious’ stuff even if a lot of other people are treating them as entertainment.

I think you’re making a dreadful mistake. Scope is real. If you ever have to choose between voting a convicted serial abuser of children into the Presidential office—but this person otherwise seems stable and collected—versus a Presidential candidate who seems easy to provoke and who has ‘bad days’ and doesn’t listen to advisors and once said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?“, it is deadly important that you vote for the pedophile. It isn’t physically possible to abuse enough children per day over 4 years to do as much damage as you can do with one wrong move in the National Security Decision-Making Game.

An evil but sane NSDM player is far, far less dangerous than an impulsive one who doesn’t care all that much about what the rules of NSDM are supposed to be.

I suppose you can now see why Trump worries a deep thinker like Yudkowsky. As for me, I basically agree with everything Yudkowsky says here. We should remember that survival is a prerequisite for the existence of any beauty, joy, truth, or goodness in our fragile existence. Civilization bestows so many benefits compared to the state of nature most of us have long since forgotten. Civilization itself is fragile; it can end at any moment. The politics of Level B is deadly serious and our very survival depends on serious, knowledgeable people occupying positions of extreme power.


(I don’t know Mr. Yudkowsky but I taught his “Creating Friendly AI” to computer science students at the University of Texas at Austin.) I thank him sincerely for his various intellectual contributions.)

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