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Sam Harris on Global Priorities, Existential Risk, and What Matters Most

Human civilization increasingly has the potential both to improve the lives of everyone and to completely destroy everything. The proliferation of emerging technologies calls our attention to this never-before-seen power — and the need to cultivate the wisdom with which to steer it towards beneficial outcomes. If we’re serious both as individuals and as a species about improving the world, it’s crucial that we converge around the reality of our situation and what matters most. What are the most important problems in the world today and why? In this episode of the Future of Life Institute Podcast, Sam Harris joins us to discuss some of these global priorities, the ethics surrounding them, and what we can do to address them.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • The problem of communication 
  • Global priorities 
  • Existential risk 
  • Animal suffering in both wild animals and factory farmed animals 
  • Global poverty 
  • Artificial general intelligence risk and AI alignment 
  • Ethics
  • Sam’s book, The Moral Landscape

You can take a survey about the podcast here

Submit a nominee for the Future of Life Award here

 

Timestamps: 

0:00 Intro

3:52 What are the most important problems in the world?

13:14 Global priorities: existential risk

20:15 Why global catastrophic risks are more likely than existential risks

25:09 Longtermist philosophy

31:36 Making existential and global catastrophic risk more emotionally salient

34:41 How analyzing the self makes longtermism more attractive

40:28 Global priorities & effective altruism: animal suffering and global poverty

56:03 Is machine suffering the next global moral catastrophe?

59:36 AI alignment and artificial general intelligence/superintelligence risk

01:11:25 Expanding our moral circle of compassion

01:13:00 The Moral Landscape, consciousness, and moral realism

01:30:14 Can bliss and wellbeing be mathematically defined?

01:31:03 Where to follow Sam and concluding thoughts

 

You can follow Sam here: 

samharris.org

Twitter: @SamHarrisOrg

 

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You can listen to the podcast above or read the transcript below. 

Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today we have a conversation with Sam Harris where we get into issues related to global priorities, effective altruism, and existential risk. In particular, this podcast covers the critical importance of improving our ability to communicate and converge on the truth, animal suffering in both wild animals and factory farmed animals, global poverty, artificial general intelligence risk and AI alignment, as well as ethics and some thoughts on Sam’s book, The Moral Landscape. 

If you find this podcast valuable, you can subscribe or follow us on your preferred listening platform, like on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or whatever your preferred podcasting app is. You can also support us by leaving a review. 

Before we get into it, I would like to echo two announcements from previous podcasts. If you’ve been tuned into the FLI Podcast recently you can skip ahead just a bit. The first is that there is an ongoing survey for this podcast where you can give me feedback and voice your opinion about content. This goes a super long way for helping me to make the podcast valuable for everyone. You can find a link for the survey about this podcast in the description of wherever you might be listening. 

The second announcement is that at the Future of Life Institute we are in the midst of our search for the 2020 winner of the Future of Life Award. The Future of Life Award is a $50,000 prize that we give out to an individual who, without having received much recognition at the time of their actions, has helped to make today dramatically better than it may have been otherwise. The first two recipients of the Future of Life Award were Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, two heroes of the nuclear age. Both took actions at great personal risk to possibly prevent an all-out nuclear war. The third recipient was Dr. Matthew Meselson, who spearheaded the international ban on bioweapons. Right now, we’re not sure who to give the 2020 Future of Life Award to. That’s where you come in. If you know of an unsung hero who has helped to avoid global catastrophic disaster, or who has done incredible work to ensure a beneficial future of life, please head over to the Future of Life Award page and submit a candidate for consideration. The link for that page is on the page for this podcast or in the description of wherever you might be listening. If your candidate is chosen, you will receive $3,000 as a token of our appreciation. We’re also incentivizing the search via MIT’s successful red balloon strategy, where the first to nominate the winner gets $3,000 as mentioned, but there are also tiered pay outs where the first to invite the nomination winner gets $1,500, whoever first invited them gets $750, whoever first invited the previous person gets $375, and so on. You can find details about that on the Future of Life Award page. 

Sam Harris has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA and is the author of five New York Times best sellers. His books include The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying, Waking Up, and Islam and the Future of Tolerance (with Maajid Nawaz). Sam hosts the Making Sense Podcast and is also the creator of the Waking Up App, which is for anyone who wants to learn to meditate in a modern, scientific context. Sam has practiced meditation for more than 30 years and studied with many Tibetan, Indian, Burmese, and Western meditation teachers, both in the United States and abroad.

And with that, here’s my conversation with Sam Harris.

Starting off here, trying to get a perspective on what matters most in the world and global priorities or crucial areas for consideration, what do you see as the most important problems in the world today?

Sam Harris: There is one fundamental problem which is encouragingly or depressingly non-technical, depending on your view of it. I mean it should be such a simple problem to solve, but it’s seeming more or less totally intractable and that’s just the problem of communication. The problem of persuasion, the problem of getting people to agree on a shared consensus view of reality, and to acknowledge basic facts and to have their probability assessments of various outcomes to converge through honest conversation. Politics is obviously the great confounder of this meeting of the minds. I mean, our failure to fuse cognitive horizons through conversation is reliably derailed by politics. But there are other sorts of ideology that do this just as well, religion being perhaps first among them.

And so it seems to me that the first problem we need to solve, the place where we need to make progress and we need to fight for every inch of ground and try not to lose it again and again is in our ability to talk to one another about what is true and what is worth paying attention to, to get our norms to align on a similar picture of what matters. Basically value alignment, not with superintelligent AI, but with other human beings. That’s the master riddle we have to solve and our failure to solve it prevents us from doing anything else that requires cooperation. That’s where I’m most concerned. Obviously technology influences it, social media and even AI and the algorithms behind the gaming of everyone’s attention. All of that is influencing our public conversation, but it really is a very apish concern and we have to get our arms around it.

Lucas Perry: So that’s quite interesting and not the answer that I was expecting. I think that that sounds like quite the crucial stepping stone. Like the fact that climate change isn’t something that we’re able to agree upon, and is a matter of political opinion drives me crazy. And that’s one of many different global catastrophic or existential risk issues.

Sam Harris: Yeah. The COVID pandemic has made me, especially skeptical of our agreeing to do anything about climate change. The fact that we can’t persuade people about the basic facts of epidemiology when this thing is literally coming in through the doors and windows, and even very smart people are now going down the rabbit hole of this is on some level a hoax, people’s political and economic interests just bend their view of basic facts. I mean it’s not to say that there hasn’t been a fair amount of uncertainty here, but it’s not the sort of uncertainty that should give us these radically different views of what’s happening out in the world. Here we have a pandemic moving in real time. I mean, where we can see a wave of illness breaking in Italy a few weeks before it breaks in New York. And again, there’s just this Baghdad Bob level of denialism. The prospects of our getting our heads straight with respect to climate change in light of what’s possible in the middle of a pandemic, that seems at the moment, totally farfetched to me.

For something like climate change, I really think a technological elite needs to just decide at the problem and decide to solve it by changing the kinds of products we create and the way we manufacture things and we just have to get out of the politics of it. It can’t be a matter of persuading more than half of American society to make economic sacrifices. It’s much more along the lines of just building cars and other products that are carbon neutral that people want and solving the problem that way.

Lucas Perry: Right. Incentivizing the solution by making products that are desirable and satisfy people’s self-interest.

Sam Harris: Yeah. Yeah.

Lucas Perry: I do want to explore more actual global priorities. This point about the necessity of reason for being able to at least converge upon the global priorities that are most important seems to be a crucial and necessary stepping stone. So before we get into talking about things like existential and global catastrophic risk, do you see a way of this project of promoting reason and good conversation and converging around good ideas succeeding? Or do you have any other things to sort of add to these instrumental abilities humanity needs to cultivate for being able to rally around global priorities?

Sam Harris: Well, I don’t see a lot of innovation beyond just noticing that conversation is the only tool we have. Intellectual honesty spread through the mechanism of conversation is the only tool we have to converge in these ways. I guess the thing to notice that’s guaranteed to make it difficult is bad incentives. So we should always be noticing what incentives are doing behind the scenes to people’s cognition. There are things that could be improved in media. I think the advertising model is a terrible system of incentives for journalists and anyone else who’s spreading information. You’re incentivized to create sensational hot takes and clickbait and depersonalize everything. Just create one lurid confection after another, that really doesn’t get at what’s true. The fact that this tribalizes almost every conversation and forces people to view it through a political lens. The way this is all amplified by Facebook’s business model and the fact that you can sell political ads on Facebook and we use their micro-targeting algorithm to frankly, distort people’s vision of reality and get them to vote or not vote based on some delusion.

All of this is pathological and it has to be disincentivized in some way. The business model of digital media is part of the problem. But beyond that, people have to be better educated and realize that thinking through problems and understanding facts and creating better arguments and responding to better arguments and realizing when you’re wrong, these are muscles that need to be trained, and there are certain environments in which you can train them well. And there’s certain environments where they are guaranteed to atrophy. Education largely consists in the former, in just training someone to interact with ideas and with shared perceptions and with arguments and evidence in a way that is agnostic as to how things will come out. You’re just curious to know what’s true. You don’t want to be wrong. You don’t want to be self-deceived. You don’t want to have your epistemology anchored to wishful thinking and confirmation bias and political partisanship and religious taboos and other engines of bullshit, really.

I mean, you want to be free of all that, and you don’t want to have your personal identity trimming down your perception of what is true or likely to be true or might yet happen. People have to understand what it feels like to be willing to reason about the world in a way that is unconcerned about the normal, psychological and tribal identity formation that most people, most of the time use to filter against ideas. They’ll hear an idea and they don’t like the sound of it because it violates some cherished notion they already have in the bag. So they don’t want to believe it. That should be a tip off. That’s not more evidence in favor of your worldview. That’s evidence that you are an ape who’s disinclined to understand what’s actually happening in the world. That should be an alarm that goes off for you, not a reason to double down on the last bad idea you just expressed on Twitter.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. The way the ego and concern for reputation and personal identity and shared human psychological biases influence the way that we do conversations seems to be a really big hindrance here. And being aware of how your mind is reacting in each moment to the kinetics of the conversation and what is happening can be really skillful for catching unwholesome or unskillful reactions it seems. And I’ve found that non-violent communication has been really helpful for me in terms of having valuable open discourse where one’s identity or pride isn’t on the line. The ability to seek truth with another person instead of have a debate or argument is a skill certainly developed. Yet that kind of format for discussion isn’t always rewarded or promoted as well as something like an adversarial debate, which tends to get a lot more attention.

Sam Harris: Yeah.

Lucas Perry: So as we begin to strengthen our epistemology and conversational muscles so that we’re able to arrive at agreement on core issues, that’ll allow us to create a better civilization and work on what matters. So I do want to pivot here into what those specific things might be. Now I have three general categories, maybe four, for us to touch on here.

The first is existential risk that primarily come from technology, which might lead to the extinction of Earth originating life, or more specifically just the extinction of human life. You have a Ted Talk on AGI risk, that’s artificial general intelligence risk, the risk of machines becoming as smart or smarter than human beings and being misaligned with human values. There’s also synthetic bio risk where advancements in genetic engineering may unleash a new age of engineered pandemics, which are more lethal than anything that is produced by nature. We have nuclear war, and we also have new technologies or events that might come about that we aren’t aware of or can’t predict yet. And the other categories in terms of global priorities, I want to touch on are global poverty, animal suffering and human health and longevity. So how is it that you think of and prioritize and what is your reaction to these issues and their relative importance in the world?

Sam Harris: Well, I’m persuaded that thinking about existential risk is something we should do much more. It is amazing how few people spend time on this problem. It’s a big deal that we have the survival of our species as a blind spot, but I’m more concerned about what seems likelier to me, which is not that we will do something so catastrophically unwise as to erase ourselves, certainly not in the near term. And we’re capable of doing that clearly, but I think it’s more likely we’re capable of ensuring our unrecoverable misery for a good long while. We could just make life basically not worth living, but we’ll be forced or someone will be forced to live it all the while, basically a Road Warrior like hellscape could await us as opposed to just pure annihilation. So that’s a civilizational risk that I worry more about than extinction because it just seems probabilistically much more likely to happen no matter how big our errors are.

I worry about our stumbling into an accidental nuclear war. That’s something that I think is still pretty high on the list of likely ways we could completely screw up the possibility of human happiness in the near term. It’s humbling to consider what an opportunity cost this, compared to what’s possible, minor pandemic is, right. I mean, we’ve got this pandemic that has locked down most of humanity and every problem we had and every risk we were running as a species prior to anyone learning the name of this virus is still here. The threat of nuclear war has not gone away. It’s just, this has taken up all of our bandwidth. We can’t think about much else. It’s also humbling to observe how hard a time we’re having, even agreeing about what’s happening here, much less responding intelligently to the problem. If you imagine a pandemic that was orders of magnitude, more deadly and more transmissible, man, this is a pretty startling dress rehearsal.

I hope we learn something from this. I hope we think more about things like this happening in the future and prepare for them in advance. I mean, the fact that we have a CDC, that still cannot get its act together is just astounding. And again, politics is the thing that is gumming up the gears in any machine that would otherwise run halfway decently at the moment. I mean, we have a truly deranged president and that is not a partisan observation. That is something that can be said about Trump. And it would not be said about most other Republican presidents. There’s nothing I would say about Trump that I could say about someone like Mitt Romney or any other prominent Republican. This is the perfect circumstance to accentuate the downside of having someone in charge who lies more readily than any person in human history perhaps.

It’s like toxic waste at the informational level has been spread around for three years now and now it really matters that we have an information ecosystem that has no immunity against crazy distortions of the truth. So I hope we learn something from this. And I hope we begin to prioritize the list of our gravest concerns and begin steeling our civilization against the risk that any of these things will happen. And some of these things are guaranteed to happen. The thing that’s so bizarre about our failure to grapple with a pandemic of this sort is, this is the one thing we knew was going to happen. This was not a matter of “if.” This was only a matter of “when.” Now nuclear war is still a matter of “if”, right? I mean, we have the bombs, they’re on hair-trigger, overseen by absolutely bizarre and archaic protocols and highly outdated technology. We know this is just a doomsday system we’ve built that could go off at any time through sheer accident or ineptitude. But it’s not guaranteed to go off.

But pandemics are just guaranteed to emerge and we still were caught flat footed here. And so I just think we need to use this occasion to learn a lot about how to respond to this sort of thing. And again, if we can’t convince the public that this sort of thing is worth paying attention to, we have to do it behind closed doors, right? I mean, we have to get people into power who have their heads screwed on straight here and just ram it through. There has to be a kind of Manhattan Project level urgency to this, because this is about as benign a pandemic as we could have had, that would still cause significant problems. An engineered virus, a weaponized virus that was calculated to kill the maximum number of people. I mean, that’s a zombie movie, all of a sudden, and we’re not ready for the zombies.

Lucas Perry: I think that my two biggest updates from the pandemic were that human civilization is much more fragile than I thought it was. And also I trust the US government way less now in its capability to mitigate these things. I think at one point you said that 9/11 was the first time that you felt like you were actually in history. And as someone who’s 25, being in the COVID pandemic, this is the first time that I feel like I’m in human history. Because my life so far has been very normal and constrained, and the boundaries between everything has been very rigid and solid, but this is perturbing that.

So you mentioned that you were slightly less worried about humanity just erasing ourselves via some kind of existential risk and part of the idea here seems to be that there are futures that are not worth living. Like if there’s such thing as a moment or a day that isn’t worth living then there are also futures that are not worth living. So I’m curious if you could unpack why you feel that these periods of time that are not worth living are more likely than existential risks. And if you think that some of those existential conditions could be permanent, and could you speak a little bit about the relative likely hood of existential risk and suffering risks and whether you see the higher likelihood of the suffering risks to be ones that are constrained in time or indefinite.

Sam Harris: In terms of the probabilities, it just seems obvious that it is harder to eradicate the possibility of human life entirely than it is to just kill a lot of people and make the remaining people miserable. Right? If a pandemic spreads, whether it’s natural or engineered, that has 70% mortality and the transmissibility of measles, that’s going to kill billions of people. But it seems likely that it may spare some millions of people or tens of millions of people, even hundreds of millions of people and those people will be left to suffer their inability to function in the style to which we’ve all grown accustomed. So it would be with war. I mean, we could have a nuclear war and even a nuclear winter, but the idea that it’ll kill every last person or every last mammal, it would have to be a bigger war and a worse winter to do that.

So I see the prospect of things going horribly wrong to be one that yields, not a dial tone, but some level of remaining, even civilized life, that’s just terrible, that nobody would want. Where we basically all have the quality of life of what it was like on a mediocre day in the middle of the civil war in Syria. Who wants to live that way? If every city on Earth is basically a dystopian cell on a prison planet, that for me is a sufficient ruination of the hopes and aspirations of civilized humanity. That’s enough to motivate all of our efforts to avoid things like accidental nuclear war and uncontrolled pandemics and all the rest. And in some ways it’s more of motivating because when you ask people, what’s the problem with the failure to continue the species, right? Like if we all died painlessly in our sleep tonight, what’s the problem with that?

That actually stumps some considerable number of people because they immediately see that the complete annihilation of the species painlessly is really a kind of victimless crime. There’s no one around to suffer our absence. There’s no one around to be bereaved. There’s no one around to think, oh man, we could have had billions of years of creativity and insight and exploration of the cosmos and now the lights have gone out on the whole human project. There’s no one around to suffer that disillusionment. So what’s the problem? I’m persuaded that that’s not the perfect place to stand to evaluate the ethics. I agree that losing that opportunity is a negative outcome that we want to value appropriately, but it’s harder to value it emotionally and it’s not as clear. I mean it’s also, there’s an asymmetry between happiness and suffering, which I think is hard to get around.

We are perhaps rightly more concerned about suffering than we are about losing opportunities for wellbeing. If I told you, you could have an hour of the greatest possible happiness, but it would have to be followed by an hour of the worst possible suffering. I think most people given that offer would say, oh, well, okay, I’m good. I’ll just stick with what it’s like to be me. The hour of the worst possible misery seems like it’s going to be worse than the highest possible happiness is going to be good and I do sort of share that intuition. And when you think about it, in terms of the future of humanity, I think it is more motivating to think, not that your grandchildren might not exist, but that your grandchildren might live horrible lives, really unendurable lives and they’ll be forced to live them because there’ll be born. If for no other reason, then we have to persuade some people to take these concerns seriously, I think that’s the place to put most of the emphasis.

Lucas Perry: I think that’s an excellent point. I think it makes it more morally salient and leverages human self-interest more. One distinction that I want to make is the distinction between existential risks and global catastrophic risks. Global catastrophic risks are those which would kill a large fraction of humanity without killing everyone, and existential risks are ones which would exterminate all people or all Earth-originating intelligent life. And this former risk, the global catastrophic risks are the ones which you’re primarily discussing here where something goes really bad and now we’re left with some pretty bad existential situation.

Sam Harris: Yeah.

Lucas Perry: Now we’re not locked in that forever. So it’s pretty far away from being what is talked about in the effective altruism community as a suffering risk. That actually might only last a hundred or a few hundred years or maybe less. Who knows. It depends on what happened. But now taking a bird’s eye view again on global priorities and standing on a solid ground of ethics, what is your perspective on longtermist philosophy? This is the position or idea that the deep future has overwhelming moral priority, given the countless trillions of lives that could be lived. So if an existential risk occur, then we’re basically canceling the whole future like you mentioned. There won’t be any suffering and there won’t be any joy, but we’re missing out on a ton of good it would seem. And with the continued evolution of life, through genetic engineering and enhancements and artificial intelligence, it would seem that the future could also be unimaginably good.

If you do an expected value calculation about existential risks, you can estimate very roughly the likelihood of each existential risk, whether it be from artificial general intelligence or synthetic bio or nuclear weapons or a black swan event that we couldn’t predict. And you multiply that by the amount of value in the future, you’ll get some astronomical number, given the astronomical amount of value in the future. Does this kind of argument or viewpoint do the work for you to commit you to seeing existential risk as a global priority or the central global priority?

Sam Harris: Well, it doesn’t do the emotional work largely because we’re just bad at thinking about longterm risk. It doesn’t even have to be that long-term for our intuitions and concerns to degrade irrationally. We’re bad at thinking about the well-being, even of our future selves as you get further out in time. The term of jargon is that we “hyperbolically discount” our future well being. People will smoke cigarettes or make other imprudent decisions in the present. They know they will be the inheritors of these bad decisions, but there’s some short-term upside.

The mere pleasure of the next cigarette say, that convinces them that they don’t really have to think long and hard about what their future self will wish they had done at this point. Our ability to be motivated by what we think is likely to happen in the future is even worse when we’re thinking about our descendants. Right? People we either haven’t met yet or may never meet. I have kids, but I don’t have grandkids. How much of my bandwidth is taken up thinking about the kinds of lives my grandchildren will have? Really none. It’s conserved. It’s safeguarded by my concern about my kids, at this point.

But, then there are people who don’t have kids and are just thinking about themselves. It’s hard to think about the comparatively near future. Even a future that, barring some real mishap, you have every expectation of having to live in yourself. It’s just hard to prioritize. When you’re talking about the far future, it becomes very, very difficult. You just have to have the science fiction geek gene or something disproportionately active in your brain, to really care about that.

Unless you think you are somehow going to cheat death and get aboard the starship when it’s finally built. You’re popping 200 vitamins a day with Ray Kurzweil and you think you might just be in the cohort of people who are going to make it out of here without dying because we’re just on the cusp of engineering death out of the system, then I could see, okay. There’s a self interested view of it. If you’re really talking about hypothetical people who you know you will never come in contact with, I think it’s hard to be sufficiently motivated, even if you believe the moral algebra here.

It’s not clear to me that it need run through. I agree with you that if you do a basic expected value calculation here, and you start talking about trillions of possible lives, their interests must outweigh the interests of the 7.8 or whatever it is, billion of us currently alive. A few asymmetries here, again. The asymmetry between actual and hypothetical lives, there are no identifiable lives who would be deprived of anything if we all just decided to stop having kids. You have to take the point of view of the people alive who make this decision.

If we all just decided, “Listen. These are our lives to live. We can decide how we want to live them. None of us want to have kids anymore.” If we all independently made that decision, the consequence on this calculus is we are the worst people, morally speaking, who have ever lived. That doesn’t quite capture the moment, the experience or the intentions. We could do this thing without ever thinking about the implications of existential risk. If we didn’t have a phrase for this and we didn’t have people like ourselves talking about this is a problem, people could just be taken in by the overpopulation thesis.

That that’s really the thing that is destroying the world and what we need is some kind of Gaian reset, where the Earth reboots without us. Let’s just stop having kids and let nature reclaim the edges of the cities. You could see a kind of utopian environmentalism creating some dogma around that, where it was no one’s intention ever to create some kind of horrific crime. Yet, on this existential risk calculus, that’s what would have happened. It’s hard to think about the morality there when you talk about people deciding not to have kids and it would be the same catastrophic outcome.

Lucas Perry: That situation to me seems to be like looking over the possible moral landscape and seeing a mountain or not seeing a mountain, but there still being a mountain. Then you can have whatever kinds of intentions that you want, but you’re still missing it. From a purely consequentialist framework on this, I feel not so bad saying that this is probably one of the worst things that have ever happened.

Sam Harris: The asymmetry here between suffering and happiness still seems psychologically relevant. It’s not quite the worst thing that’s ever happened, but the best things that might have happened have been canceled. Granted, I think there’s a place to stand where you could think that is a horrible outcome, but again, it’s not the same thing as creating some hell and populating it.

Lucas Perry: I see what you’re saying. I’m not sure that I quite share the intuition about the asymmetry between suffering and well-being. I feel somewhat suspect about that, but that would be a huge tangent right now, I think. Now, one of the crucial things that you said was, for those that are not really compelled to care about the long-term future argument, if you don’t have the science fiction geek gene and are not compelled by moral philosophy, the essential way it seems to be that you’re able to compel people to care about global catastrophic and existential risk is to demonstrate how they’re very likely within this century.

And so their direct descendants, like their children or grandchildren, or even them, may live in a world that is very bad or they may die in some kind of a global catastrophe, which is terrifying. Do you see this as the primary way of leveraging human self-interest and feelings and emotions to make existential and global catastrophic risk salient and pertinent for the masses?

Sam Harris: It’s certainly half the story, and it might be the most compelling half. I’m not saying that we should be just worried about the downside because the upside also is something we should celebrate and aim for. The other side of the story is that we’ve made incredible progress. If you take someone like Steven Pinker and his big books of what is often perceived as happy talk. He’s pointing out all of the progress, morally and technologically and at the level of public health.

It’s just been virtually nothing but progress. There’s no point in history where you’re luckier to live than in the present. That’s true. I think that the thing that Steve’s story conceals, or at least doesn’t spend enough time acknowledging, is that the risk of things going terribly wrong is also increasing. It was also true a hundred years ago that it would have been impossible for one person or a small band of people to ruin life for everyone else.

Now that’s actually possible. Just imagine if this current pandemic were an engineered virus, more like a lethal form of measles. It might take five people to create that and release it. Here we would be locked down in a truly terrifying circumstance. The risk is ramped up. I think we just have to talk about both sides of it. There is no limit to how beautiful life could get if we get our act together. Take an argument of the sort that David Deutsch makes about the power of knowledge.

Every problem has a solution born of a sufficient insight into how things work, i.e. knowledge, unless the laws of physics rules it out. If it’s compatible with the laws of physics, knowledge can solve the problem. That’s virtually a blank check with reality that we could live to cash, if we don’t kill ourselves in the process. Again, as the upside becomes more and more obvious, the risk that we’re going to do something catastrophically stupid is also increasing. The principles here are the same. The only reason why we’re talking about existential risk is because we have made so much progress. Without the progress, there’d be no way to make a sufficiently large mistake. It really is two sides of the coin of increasing knowledge and technical power.

Lucas Perry: One thing that I wanted to throw in here in terms of the kinetics of long-termism and emotional saliency, it would be stupidly optimistic I think, to think that everyone could become selfless bodhisattvas. In terms of your interest, the way in which you promote meditation and mindfulness, and your arguments against the conventional, experiential and conceptual notion of the self, for me at least, has dissolved much of the barriers which would hold me from being emotionally motivated from long-termism.

Now, that itself I think, is another long conversation. When your sense of self is becoming nudged, disentangled and dissolved in new ways, the idea that it won’t be you in the future, or the idea that the beautiful dreams that Dyson spheres will be having in a billion years are not you, that begins to relax a bit. That’s probably not something that is helpful for most people, but I do think that it’s possible for people to adopt and for meditation, mindfulness and introspection to lead to this weakening of sense of self, which then also opens one’s optimism, and compassion, and mind towards the long-termist view.

Sam Harris: That’s something that you get from reading Derek Parfit’s work. The paradoxes of identity that he so brilliantly framed and tried to reason through yield something like what you’re talking about. It’s not so important whether it’s you, because this notion of you is in fact, paradoxical to the point of being impossible to pin down. Whether the you that woke up in your bed this morning is the same person who went to sleep in it the night before, that is problematic. Yet there’s this fact of some degree of psychological continuity.

The basic fact experientially is just, there is consciousness and its contents. The only place for feelings, and perceptions, and moods, and expectations, and experience to show up is in consciousness, whatever it is and whatever its connection to the physics of things actually turns out to be. There’s just consciousness. The question of where it appears is a genuinely interesting one philosophically, and intellectually, and scientifically, and ultimately morally.

Because if we build conscious robots or conscious computers and build them in a way that causes them to suffer, we’ve just done something terrible. We might do that inadvertently if we don’t know how consciousness arises based on information processing, or whether it does. It’s all interesting terrain to think about. If the lights are still on a billion years from now, and the view of the universe is unimaginably bright, and interesting and beautiful, and all kinds of creative things are possible by virtue of the kinds of minds involved, that will be much better than any alternative. That’s certainly how it seems to me.

Lucas Perry: I agree. Some things here that ring true seem to be, you always talk about how there’s only consciousness and its contents. I really like the phrase, “Seeing from nowhere.” That usually is quite motivating for me, in terms of the arguments against the conventional conceptual and experiential notions of self. There just seems to be instantiations of consciousness intrinsically free of identity.

Sam Harris: Two things to distinguish here. There’s the philosophical, conceptual side of the conversation, which can show you that things like your concept of a self, or certainly your concept of a self that could have free will that, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t make sense when mapped onto physics. It doesn’t make sense when looked for neurologically. Any way you look at it, it begins to fall apart. That’s interesting, but again, it doesn’t necessarily change anyone’s experience.

It’s just a riddle that can’t be solved. Then there’s the experiential side which you encounter more in things like meditation, or psychedelics, or sheer good luck where you can experience consciousness without the sense that there’s a subject or a self in the center of it appropriating experiences. Just a continuum of experience that doesn’t have structure in the normal way. What’s more, that’s not a problem. In fact, it’s the solution to many problems.

A lot of the discomfort you have felt psychologically goes away when you punch through to a recognition that consciousness is just the space in which thoughts, sensations and emotions continually appear, change and vanish. There’s no thinker authoring the thoughts. There’s no experiencer in the middle of the experience. It’s not to say you don’t have a body. There’s every sign that you have a body is still appearing. There’s sensations of tension, warmth, pressure and movement.

There are sights, there are sounds but again, everything is simply an appearance in this condition, which I’m calling consciousness for lack of a better word. There’s no subject to whom it all refers. That can be immensely freeing to recognize, and that’s a matter of a direct change in one’s experience. It’s not a matter of banging your head against the riddles of Derek Parfit or any other way of undermining one’s belief in personal identity or the reification of a self.

Lucas Perry: A little bit earlier, we talked a little bit about the other side of the existential risk coin. Now, the other side of that is this existential hope, we like to call at The Future of Life Institute. We’re not just a doom and gloom society. It’s also about how the future can be unimaginably good if we can get our act together and apply the appropriate wisdom to manage and steward our technologies with wisdom and benevolence in mind.

Pivoting in here and reflecting a little bit on the implications of some of this no self conversation we’ve been having for global priorities, the effective altruism community has narrowed down on three of these global priorities as central issues of consideration, existential risk, global poverty and animal suffering. We talked a bunch about existential risk already. Global poverty is prolific, and many of us live in quite nice and abundant circumstances.

Then there’s animal suffering, which can be thought of as in two categories. One being factory farmed animals, where we have billions upon billions of animals being born into miserable conditions and being slaughtered for sustenance. Then we also have wild animal suffering, which is a bit more esoteric and seems like it’s harder to get any traction on helping to alleviate. Thinking about these last two points, global poverty and animal suffering, what is your perspective on these?

I find the lack of willingness for people to empathize and be compassionate towards animal suffering to be quite frustrating, as well as global poverty, of course. If you view the perspective of no self as potentially being informative or helpful for leveraging human compassion and motivation to help other people and to help animals. One quick argument here that comes from the conventional view of self, so isn’t strictly true or rational, but is motivating for me, is that I feel like I was just born as me and then I just woke up one day as Lucas.

I, referring to this conventional and experientially illusory notion that I have of myself, this convenient fiction that I have. Now, you’re going to die and you could wake up as a factory farmed animal. Surely there are those billions upon billions of instantiations of consciousness that are just going through misery. If the self is an illusion then there are selfless chicken and cow experiences of enduring suffering. Any thoughts or reactions you have to global poverty, animal suffering and what I mentioned here?

Sam Harris: I guess the first thing to observe is that again, we are badly set up to prioritize what should be prioritized and to have the emotional response commensurate with what we could rationally understand is so. We have a problem of motivation. We have a problem of making data real. This has been psychologically studied, but it’s just manifest in oneself and in the world. We care more about the salient narrative that has a single protagonist than we do about the data on, even human suffering.

The classic example here is one little girl falls down a well, and you get wall to wall news coverage. All the while there could be a genocide or a famine killing hundreds of thousands of people, and it doesn’t merit more than five minutes. One broadcast. That’s clearly a bug, not a feature morally speaking, but it’s something we have to figure out how to work with because I don’t think it’s going away. One of the things that the effective altruism philosophy has done, I think usefully, is that it has separated two projects which up until the emergence of effective altruism, I think were more or less always conflated.

They’re both valid projects, but one has much greater moral consequence. The fusion of the two is, the concern about giving and how it makes one feel. I want to feel good about being philanthropic. Therefore, I want to give to causes that give me these good feels. In fact, at the end of the day, the feeling I get from giving is what motivates me to give. If I’m giving in a way that doesn’t really produce that feeling, well, then I’m going to give less or give less reliably.

Even in a contemplative Buddhist context, there’s an explicit fusion of these two things. The reason to be moral and to be generous is not merely, or even principally, the effect on the world. The reason is because it makes you a better person. It gives you a better mind. You feel better in your own skin. It is in fact, more rewarding than being selfish. I think that’s true, but that doesn’t get at really, the important point here, which is we’re living in a world where the difference between having good and bad luck is so enormous.

The inequalities are so shocking and indefensible. The fact that I was born me and not born in some hell hole in the middle of a civil war soon to be orphaned, and impoverished and riddled by disease, I can take no responsibility for the difference in luck there. That difference is the difference that matters more than anything else in my life. What the effective altruist community has prioritized is, actually helping the most people, or the most sentient beings.

That is fully divorceable from how something makes you feel. Now, I think it shouldn’t be ultimately divorceable. I think we should recalibrate our feelings or struggle to, so that we do find doing the most good the most rewarding thing in the end, but it’s hard to do. My inability to do it personally, is something that I have just consciously corrected for. I’ve talked about this a few times on my podcast. When Will MacAskill came on my podcast and we spoke about these things, I was convinced at the end of the day, “Well, I should take this seriously.”

I recognize that fighting malaria by sending bed nets to people in sub-Saharan Africa is not a cause I find particularly sexy. I don’t find it that emotionally engaging. I don’t find it that rewarding to picture the outcome. Again, compared to other possible ways of intervening in human misery and producing some better outcome, it’s not the same thing as rescuing the little girl from the well. Yet, I was convinced that, as Will said on that podcast and as organizations like GiveWell attest, giving money to the Against Malaria Foundation was and remains one of the absolute best uses of every dollar to mitigate unnecessary death and suffering.

I just decided to automate my giving to the Against Malaria Foundation because I knew I couldn’t be trusted to wake up every day, or every month or every quarter, whatever it would be, and recommit to that project because some other project would have captured my attention in the meantime. I was either going to give less to it or not give at all, in the end. I’m convinced that we do have to get around ourselves and figure out how to prioritize what a rational analysis says we should prioritize and get the sentimentality out of it, in general.

It’s very hard to escape entirely. I think we do need to figure out creative ways to reformat our sense of reward. The reward we find in helping people has to begin to become more closely coupled to what is actually most helpful. Conversely, the disgust or horror we feel over bad outcomes should be more closely coupled to the worst things that happen. As opposed to just the most shocking, but at the end of the day, minor things. We’re just much more captivated by a sufficiently ghastly story involving three people than we are by the deaths of literally millions that happen some other way. These are bugs we have to figure out how to correct for.

Lucas Perry: I hear you. The person running in the burning building to save the child is sung as a hero, but if you are say, earning to give for example and write enough checks to save dozens of lives over your lifetime, that might not go recognized or felt in the same way.

Sam Harris: And also these are different people, too. It’s also true to say that someone who is psychologically and interpersonally not that inspiring, and certainly not a saint might wind up doing more good than any saint ever does or could. I don’t happen to know Bill Gates. He could be saint-like. I literally never met him, but I don’t get that sense that he is. I think he’s kind of a normal technologist and might be normally egocentric, concerned about his reputation and legacy.

He might be a prickly bastard behind closed doors. I don’t know, but he certainly stands a chance of doing more good than any person in human history at this point, just based on the checks he’s writing and his intelligent prioritization of his philanthropic efforts. There is an interesting uncoupling here where you could just imagine someone who might be a total asshole, but actually does more good than any army of Saints you could muster. That’s interesting. That just proves a point that a concern about real world outcomes is divorceable from the psychology that we tend to associate with doing good in the world. On the point of animal suffering, I share your intuitions there, although again, this is a little bit like climate change in that I think that the ultimate fix will be technological. It’ll be a matter of people producing the Impossible Burger squared that is just so good that no one’s tempted to eat a normal burger anymore, or something like Memphis Meats, which actually, I invested in.

I have no idea where it’s going as a company, but when I had its CEO on my podcast back in the day, Uma Valeti, I just thought, “This is fantastic to engineer actual meat without producing any animal suffering. I hope he can bring this to scale.” At the time, it was like an $18,000-meatball. I don’t know what it is now, but it’s that kind of thing that will close the door to the slaughterhouse more than just convincing billions of people about the ethics. It’s too difficult and the truth may not align with exactly what we want.

I’m going to reap the whirlwind of criticism from the vegan mafia here, but it’s just not clear to me that it’s easy to be a healthy vegan. Forget about yourself as an adult making a choice to be a vegan, raising vegan kids is a medical experiment on your kids of a certain sort and it’s definitely possible to screw it up. There’s just no question about it. If you’re not going to admit that, you’re not a responsible parent.

It is possible, it is by no means easier to raise healthy vegan kids than it is to raise kids who eat meat sometimes and that’s just a problem, right? Now, that’s a problem that has a technical solution, but there’s still diversity of opinion about what constitutes a healthy human diet even when all things are on the menu. We’re just not there yet. It’s unlikely to be just a matter of supplementing B12.

Then the final point you made does get us into a kind of, I would argue, a reductio ad absurdum of the whole project ethically when you’re talking about losing sleep over whether to protect the rabbits from the foxes out there in the wild. If you’re going to go down that path, and I will grant you, I wouldn’t want to trade places with a rabbit, and there’s a lot of suffering out there in the natural world, but if you’re going to try to figure out how to minimize the suffering of wild animals in relation to other wild animals then I think you are a kind of antinatalist with respect to the natural world. I mean, then it would be just better if these animals didn’t exist, right? Let’s just hit stop on the whole biosphere, if that’s the project.

Then there’s the argument that there are many more ways to suffer and to be happy as a sentient being. Whatever story you want to tell yourself about the promise of future humanity, it’s just so awful to be a rabbit or an insect that if an asteroid hit us and canceled everything, that would be a net positive.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. That’s an actual view that I hear around a bunch. I guess my quick response is as we move farther into the future, if we’re able to reach an existential situation which is secure and where there is flourishing and we’re trying to navigate the moral landscape to new peaks, it seems like we will have to do something about wild animal suffering. With AGI and aligned superintelligence, I’m sure there could be very creative solutions using genetic engineering or something. Our descendants will have to figure that out, whether they are just like, “Are wild spaces really necessary in the future and are wild animals actually necessary, or are we just going to use those resources in space to build more AI that would dream beautiful dreams?”

Sam Harris: I just think it may be, in fact, the case that nature is just a horror show. It is bad almost any place you could be born in the natural world, you’re unlucky to be a rabbit and you’re unlucky to be a fox. We’re lucky to be humans, sort of, and we can dimly imagine how much luckier we might get in the future if we don’t screw up.

I find it compelling to imagine that we could create a world where certainly most human lives are well worth living and better than most human lives ever were. Again, I follow Pinker in feeling that we’ve sort of done that already. It’s not to say that there aren’t profoundly unlucky people in this world, and it’s not to say that things couldn’t change in a minute for all of us, but life has gotten better and better for virtually everyone when you compare us to any point in the past.

If we get to the place you’re imagining where we have AGI that we have managed to align with our interests and we’re migrating into of spaces of experience that changes everything, it’s quite possible we will look back on the “natural world” and be totally unsentimental about it, which is to say, we could compassionately make the decision to either switch it off or no longer provide for its continuation. It’s like that’s just a bad software program that evolution designed and wolves and rabbits and bears and mice, they were all unlucky on some level.

We could be wrong about that, or we might discover something else. We might discover that intelligence is not all it’s cracked up to be, that it’s just this perturbation on something that’s far more rewarding. At the center of the moral landscape, there’s a peak higher than any other and it’s not one that’s elaborated by lots of ideas and lots of creativity and lots of distinctions, it’s just this great well of bliss that we actually want to fully merge with. We might find out that the cicadas were already there. I mean, who knows how weird this place is?

Lucas Perry: Yeah, that makes sense. I totally agree with you and I feel this is true. I also feel that there’s some price that is paid because there’s already some stigma around even thinking this. I think it’s a really early idea to have in terms of the history of human civilization, so people’s initial reaction is like, “Ah, what? Nature’s so beautiful and why would you do that to the animals?” Et cetera. We may come to find out that nature is just very net negative, but I could be wrong and maybe it would be around neutral or better than that, but that would require a more robust and advanced science of consciousness.

Just hitting on this next one fairly quickly, effective altruism is interested in finding new global priorities and causes. They call this “Cause X,” something that may be a subset of existential risk or something other than existential risk or global poverty or animal suffering probably still just has to do with the suffering of sentient beings. Do you think that a possible candidate for Cause X would be machine suffering or the suffering of other non-human conscious things that we’re completely unaware of?

Sam Harris: Yeah, well, I think it’s a totally valid concern. Again, it’s one of these concerns that’s hard to get your moral intuitions tuned up to respond to. People have a default intuition that a conscious machine is impossible, that substrate independence, on some level, is impossible, they’re making an assumption without ever doing it explicitly… In fact, I think most people would explicitly deny thinking this, but it is implicit in what they then go on to think when you pose the question of the possibility of suffering machines and suffering computers.

That just seems like something that never needs to be worried about and yet the only way to close the door to worrying about it is to assume that consciousness is totally substrate-dependent and that we would never build a machine that could suffer because we’re building machines out of some other material. If we built a machine out of biological neurons, well, then, then we might be up for condemnation morally because we’ve taken an intolerable risk analogous to create some human-chimp hybrid or whatever. It’s like obviously, that thing’s going to suffer. It’s an ape of some sort and now it’s in a lab and what sort of monster would do that, right? We would expect the lights to come on in a system of that sort.

If consciousness is the result of information processing on some level, and again, that’s an “if,” we’re not sure that’s the case, and if information processing is truly substrate-independent, and that seems like more than an “if” at this point, we know that’s true, then we could inadvertently build conscious machines. And then the question is: What is it like to be those machines and are they suffering? There’s no way to prevent that on some level.

Certainly, if there’s any relationship between consciousness and intelligence, if building more and more intelligent machines is synonymous with increasing the likelihood that the lights will come on experientially, well, then we’re clearly on that path. It’s totally worth worrying about, but it’s again, judging from what my own mind is like and what my conversations with other people suggest, it seems very hard to care about for people. That’s just another one of these wrinkles.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. I think a good way of framing this is that humanity has a history of committing moral catastrophes because of bad incentives and they don’t even realize how bad the thing is that they’re doing, or they just don’t really care or they rationalize it, like subjugation of women and slavery. We’re in the context of human history and we look back at these people and see them as morally abhorrent.

Now, the question is: What is it today that we’re doing that’s morally abhorrent? Well, I think factory farming is easily one contender and perhaps human selfishness that leads to global poverty and millions of people drowning in shallow ponds is another one that we’ll look back on. With just some foresight towards the future, I agree that machine suffering is intuitively and emotionally difficult to empathize with if your sci-fi gene isn’t turned on. It could be the next thing.

Sam Harris: Yeah.

Lucas Perry: I’d also like to pivot here into AI alignment and AGI. In terms of existential risk from AGI or transformative AI systems, do you have thoughts on public intellectuals who are skeptical of existential risk from AGI or superintelligence? You had a talk about AI risk and I believe you got some flak from the AI community about that. Elon Musk was just skirmishing with the head of AI at Facebook, I think. What is your perspective about the disagreement and confusion here?

Sam Harris: It comes down to a failure of imagination on the one hand and also just bad argumentation. No sane person who’s concerned about this is concerned because they think it’s going to happen this year or next year. It’s not a bet on how soon this is going to happen. For me, it certainly isn’t a bet on how soon it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the implications of continually making progress in building more and more intelligent machines. Any progress, it doesn’t have to be Moore’s law, it just has to be continued progress, will ultimately deliver us into relationship with something more intelligent than ourselves.

To think that that is farfetched or is not likely to happen or can’t happen is to assume some things that we just can’t assume. It’s to assume that substrate independence is not in the cards for intelligence. Forget about consciousness. I mean, consciousness is orthogonal to this question. I’m not suggesting that AGI need be conscious, it just needs to be more competent than we are. We already know that our phones are more competent as calculators than we are, they’re more competent chess players than we are. You just have to keep stacking cognitive-information-processing abilities on that and making progress, however incremental.

I don’t see how anyone can be assuming substrate dependence for really any of the features of our mind apart from, perhaps, consciousness. Take the top 200 things we do cognitively, consciousness aside, just as a matter of sheer information-processing and behavioral control and power to make decisions and you start checking those off, those have to be substrate independent: facial recognition, voice recognition, we can already do that in silico. It’s just not something you need meat to do.

We’re going to build machines that get better and better at all of these things and ultimately, they will pass the Turing test and ultimately, it will be like chess or now Go as far as the eye can see, where it will be in relationship to something that is better than we are at everything that we have prioritized, every human competence we have put enough priority in that we took the time to build it into our machines in the first place: theorem-proving in mathematics, engineering software programs. There is no reason why a computer will ultimately not be the best programmer in the end, again, unless you’re assuming that there’s something magical about doing this in meat. I don’t know anyone who’s assuming that.

Arguing about the time horizon is a non sequitur, right? No one is saying that this need happen soon to ultimately be worth thinking about. We know that whatever the time horizon is, it can happen suddenly. We have historically been very bad at predicting when there will be a breakthrough. This is a point that Stuart Russell makes all the time. If you look at what Rutherford said about the nuclear chain reaction being a pipe dream, it wasn’t even 24 hours before Leo Szilard committed the chain reaction to paper and had the relevant breakthrough. We know we can make bad estimates about the time horizon, so at some point, we could be ambushed by a real breakthrough, which suddenly delivers exponential growth in intelligence.

Then there’s a question of just how quickly that could unfold and whether this something like an intelligence explosion. That’s possible. We can’t know for sure, but you need to find some foothold to doubt whether these things are possible and the footholds that people tend to reach for are either nonexistent or they’re non sequiturs.

Again, the time horizon is irrelevant and yet the time horizon is the first thing you hear from people who are skeptics about this: “It’s not going to happen for a very long time.” Well, I mean, Stuart Russell’s point here, which is, again, it’s just a reframing, but in the persuasion business, reframing is everything. The people who are consoled by this idea that this is not going to happen for 50 years wouldn’t be so consoled if we receive a message from an alien civilization which said, “People of Earth, we will arrive on your humble planet in 50 years. Get ready.”

If that happened, we would be prioritizing our response to that moment differently than the people who think it’s going to take 50 years for us to build AGI are prioritizing their response to what’s coming. We would recognize a relationship with something more powerful than ourselves is in the often. It’s only reasonable to do that on the assumption that we will continue to make progress.

The point I made in my TED Talk is that the only way to assume we’re not going to continue to make progress is to be convinced of a very depressing thesis. The only way we wouldn’t continue to make progress is if we open the wrong door of the sort that you and I have been talking about in this conversation, if we invoke some really bad roll of the dice in terms of existential risk or catastrophic civilizational failure, and we just find ourselves unable to build better and better computers. I mean, that’s the only thing that would cause us to be unable to do that. Given the power and value of intelligent machines, we will build more and more intelligent machines at almost any cost at this point, so a failure to do it would be a sign that something truly awful has happened.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. From my perspective, the people that are skeptical of substrate independence, I wouldn’t say that those are necessarily AI researchers. Those are regular persons or laypersons who are not computer scientists. I think that’s motivated by mind-body dualism, where one has a conventional and experiential sense of the mind as being non-physical, which may be motivated by popular religious beliefs, but when we get into the area of actual AI researchers, for them, it seems to either be like they’re attacking some naive version of the argument or a straw man or something

Sam Harris: Like robots becoming spontaneously malevolent?

Lucas Perry: Yeah. It’s either that, or they think that the alignment problem isn’t as hard as it is. They have some intuition, like why the hell would we even release systems that weren’t safe? Why would we not make technology that served us or something? To me, it seems that when there are people from like the mainstream machine-learning community attacking AI alignment and existential risk considerations from AI, it seems like they just don’t understand how hard the alignment problem is.

Sam Harris: Well, they’re not taking seriously the proposition that what we will have built are truly independent minds more powerful than our own. If you actually drill down on what that description means, it doesn’t mean something that is perfectly enslaved by us for all time, I mean, because that is by definition something that couldn’t be more intelligent across the board than we are.

The analogy I use is imagine if dogs had invented us to protect their interests. Well, so far, it seems to be going really well. We’re clearly more intelligent than dogs, they have no idea what we’re doing or thinking about or talking about most of the time, and they see us making elaborate sacrifices for their wellbeing, which we do. I mean, the people who own dogs care a lot about them and make, you could argue, irrational sacrifices to make sure they’re happy and healthy.

But again, back to the pandemic, if we recognize that we had a pandemic that was going to kill the better part of humanity and it was jumping from dogs to people and the only way to stop this is to kill all the dogs, we would kill all the dogs on a Thursday. There’d be some holdouts, but they would lose. The dog project would be over and the dogs would never understand what happened.

Lucas Perry: But that’s because humans aren’t perfectly aligned with dog values.

Sam Harris: But that’s the thing: Maybe it’s a solvable problem, but it’s clearly not a trivial problem because what we’re imagining are minds that continue to grow in power and grow in ways that by definition we can’t anticipate. Dogs can’t possibly anticipate where we will go next, what we will become interested in next, what we will discover next, what we’ll prioritize next. If you’re not imagining minds so vast that we can’t capture their contents ourselves, you’re not talking about the AGI that the people who are worried about alignment are talking about.

Lucas Perry: Maybe this is like a little bit of a nuanced distinction between you or I, but I think that that story that you’re developing there seems to assume that the utility function or the value learning or the objective function of the systems that we’re trying to align with human values is dynamic. It may be the case that you can build a really smart alien mind and it might become super-intelligent, but there are arguments that maybe you could make its alignment stable.

Sam Harris: That’s the thing we have to hope for, right? I’m not a computer scientist, so as far as the doability of this, that’s something I don’t have good intuitions about, but Stuart Russell’s argument that we would need a system whose ultimate value is to more and more closely approximate our current values that would continually, no matter how much its intelligence escapes our own, it would continually remain available to the conversation with us where we say, “Oh, no, no. Stop doing that. That’s not what we want.” That would be the most important message from its point of view, no matter how vast its mind got.

Maybe that’s doable, right, but that’s the kind of thing that would have to be true for the thing to remain completely aligned to us because the truth is we don’t want it aligned to who we used to be and we don’t want it aligned to the values of the Taliban. We want to grow in moral wisdom as well and we want to be able to revise our own ethical codes and this thing that’s smarter than us presumably could help us do that, provided it doesn’t just have its own epiphanies which cancel the value of our own or subvert our own in a way that we didn’t foresee.

If it really has our best interest at heart, but our best interests are best conserved by it deciding to pull the plug on everything, well, then we might not see the wisdom of that. I mean, it might even be the right answer. Now, this is assuming it’s conscious. We could be building something that is actually morally more important than we are.

Lucas Perry: Yeah, that makes sense. Certainly, eventually, we would want it to be aligned with some form of idealized human values and idealized human meta preferences over how value should change and evolve into the deep future. This is known, I think, as “ambitious value learning” and it is the hardest form of value learning. Maybe we can make something safe without doing this level of ambitious value learning, but something like that may be deeper in the future.

Now, as we’ve made moral progress throughout history, we’ve been expanding our moral circle of consideration. In particular, we’ve been doing this farther into space, deeper into time, across species, and potentially soon, across substrates. What do you see as the central way of continuing to expand our moral circle of consideration and compassion?

Sam Harris: Well, I just think we have to recognize that things like distance in time and space and superficial characteristics, like whether something has a face, much less a face that can make appropriate expressions or a voice that we can relate to, none of these things have moral significance. The fact that another person is far away from you in space right now shouldn’t fundamentally affect how much you care whether or not they’re being tortured or whether they’re starving to death.

Now, it does. We know it does. People are much more concerned about what’s happening on their doorstep, but I think proximity, if it has any weight at all, it has less and less weight the more our decisions obviously affect people regardless of separation and space, but the more it becomes truly easy to help someone on another continent because you can just push a button in your browser, then you’re caring less about them is clearly a bug. And so it’s just noticing that the things that attenuate our compassion tend to be things that for evolutionary reasons we’re designed to discount in this way, but at the level of actual moral reasoning about a global civilization it doesn’t make any sense and it prevents us from solving the biggest problems.

Lucas Perry: Pivoting into ethics more so now. I’m not sure if this is the formal label that you would use but your work on the moral landscape lands you pretty much it seems in the moral realism category.

Sam Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lucas Perry: You’ve said something like, “Put your hand in fire to know what bad is.” That seems to disclose or seems to argue about the self intimating nature of suffering about how it’s clearly bad. If you don’t believe me, go and do the suffering things. From other moral realists who I’ve talked to and who argued for moral realism, like Peter Singer, they make similar arguments. What view or theory of consciousness are you most partial to? And how does this inform this perspective about the self intimating nature of suffering as being a bad thing?

Sam Harris: Well, I’m a realist with respect to morality and consciousness in the sense that I think it’s possible not to know what you’re missing. So if you’re a realist, the property that makes the most sense to me is that there are facts about the world that are facts whether or not anyone knows them. It is possible for everyone to be wrong about something. We could all agree about X and be wrong. That’s the realist position as opposed to pragmatism or some other variant, where it’s all just a matter, it’s all a language game, and the truth value of a statement is just the measure of the work it does in conversation. So with respect to consciousness, I’m a realist in the sense that if a system is conscious, if a cricket is conscious, if a sea cucumber is conscious, they’re conscious whether we know it or not. For the purposes of this conversation, let’s just decide that they’re not conscious, the lights are not on in those systems.

Well, that’s a claim that we could believe, we could all believe it, but we could be wrong about it. And so the facts exceed our experience at any given moment. And so it is with morally salient facts, like the existence of suffering. If a system can be conscious whether I know it or not a system can be suffering whether I know it or not. And that system could be me in the future or in some counterfactual state. I could think I’m doing the right thing by doing X. But the truth is I would have been much happier had I done Y and I’ll never know that. I was just wrong about the consequences of living in a certain way. That’s what realism on my view entails. So the way this relates to questions of morality and good and evil and right and wrong, this is back to my analogy of the moral landscape, I think morality really is a navigation problem. There are possibilities of experience in this universe and we don’t even need the concept of morality, we don’t need the concept of right and wrong and good and evil really.

That’s shorthand for, in my view, the way we should talk about the burden that’s on us in each moment to figure out what we should do next. Where should we point ourselves across this landscape of mind and possible minds? And knowing that it’s possible to move in the wrong direction, and what does it mean to be moving in the wrong direction? Well, it’s moving in a direction where everything is getting worse and worse and everything that was good a moment ago is breaking down to no good end. You could conceive of moving down a slope on the moral landscape only to ascend some higher peak. That’s intelligible to me that we might have to all move in the direction that seems to be making things worse but it is a sacrifice worth making because it’s the only way to get to something more beautiful and more stable.

I’m not saying that’s the world we’re living in, but it certainly seems like a possible world. But this just doesn’t seem open to doubt. There’s a range of experience on offer. And, on the one end, it’s horrific and painful and all the misery is without any silver lining, right? It’s not like we learn a lot from this ordeal. No, it just gets worse and worse and worse and worse and then we die, and I call that the worst possible misery for everyone. Alright so, the worst possible misery for everyone is bad if anything is bad, if the word bad is going to mean anything, it has to apply to the worst possible misery for everyone. But now some people come in and think they’re doing philosophy when they say things like, “Well, who’s to say the worst possible misery for everyone is bad?” Or, “Should we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone? Can you prove that we should avoid it?” And I actually think those are unintelligible noises that they’re making.

You can say those words, I don’t think you can actually mean those words. I have no idea what that person actually thinks they’re saying. You can play a language game like that but when you actually look at what the words mean, “the worst possible misery for everyone,” to then say, “Well, should we avoid it?” In a world where you should do anything, where the word should make sense, there’s nothing that you should do more than avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. By definition, it’s more fundamental than the concept of should. What I would argue is if you’re hung up on the concept of should, and you’re taken in by Hume’s flippant and ultimately misleading paragraph on, “You can’t get an ought from an is,” you don’t need oughts then. There is just this condition of is. There’s a range of experience on offer, and the one end it is horrible, on the other end, it is unimaginably beautiful.

And we clearly have a preference for one over the other, if we have a preference for anything. There is no preference more fundamental than escaping the worst possible misery for everyone. If you doubt that, you’re just not thinking about how bad things can get. It’s incredibly frustrating. In this conversation, you’re hearing the legacy of the frustration I’ve felt in talking to otherwise smart and well educated people who think they’re on interesting philosophical ground in doubting whether we should avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. Or that it would be good to avoid it, or perhaps it’s intelligible to have other priorities. And, again, I just think that they’re not understanding the words “worst possible misery and everyone”, they’re not letting those words and land in language cortex. And if they do, they’ll see that there is no other place to stand where you could have other priorities.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. And my brief reaction to that is, I still honestly feel confused about this. So maybe I’m in the camp of frustrating people. I can imagine other evolutionary timelines where there are minds that just optimize for the worst possible misery for everyone, just because in mind space those minds are physically possible.

Sam Harris: Well, that’s possible. We can certainly create a paperclip maximizer that is just essentially designed to make every conscious being suffer as much as it can. And that would be especially easy to do provided that intelligence wasn’t conscious. If it’s not a matter of its suffering, then yeah, we could use AGI to make things awful for everyone else. You could create a sadistic AGI that wanted everyone else to suffer and it derived immense pleasure from that.

Lucas Perry: Or immense suffering. I don’t see anything intrinsically motivating about suffering as navigating a mind necessarily away from it. Computationally, I can imagine a mind just suffering as much as possible and spreads that as much as possible. And maybe the suffering is bad in some objective sense, given consciousness realism, and that that was disclosing the intrinsic valence of consciousness in the universe. But the is-ought distinction there still seems confusing to me. Yes, suffering is bad and maybe the worst possible misery for everyone is bad, but that’s not universally motivating for all possible minds.

Sam Harris: The usual problem here is, it’s easy for me to care about my own suffering, but why should I care about the suffering of others? That seems to be the ethical stalemate that people worry about. My response there is that it doesn’t matter. You can take the view from above there and you can just say, “The universe would be better if all the sentient beings suffered less and it would be worse if they suffered more.” And if you’re unconvinced by that, you just have to keep turning the dial to separate those two more and more and more and more so that you get to the extremes. If any given sentient being can’t be moved to care about the experience of others, well, that’s one sort of world, that’s not a peak on the moral landscape. That will be a world where beings are more callous than they would otherwise be in some other corner of the universe. And they’ll bump into each other more and they’ll be more conflict and they’ll fail to cooperate in certain ways that would have opened doors to positive experiences that they now can’t have.

And you can try to use moralizing language about all of this and say, “Well, you still can’t convince me that I should care about people starving to death in Somalia.” But the reality is an inability to care about that has predictable consequences. If enough people can’t care about that then certain things become impossible and those things, if they were possible, lead to good outcomes that if you had a different sort of mind, you would enjoy. So all of this bites its own tail in an interesting way when you imagine being able to change a person’s moral intuitions. And then the question is, well, should you change those intuitions? Would it be good to change your sense of what is good? That question has an answer on the moral landscape. It has an answer when viewed as a navigation problem.

Lucas Perry: Right. But isn’t the assumption there that if something leads to a good world, then you should do it?

Sam Harris: Yes. You can even drop your notion of should. I’m sure it’s finite, but a functionally infinite number of worlds on offer and there’s ways to navigate into those spaces. And there are ways to fail to navigate into those spaces. There are ways to try and fail, and worse still, there are ways to not know what you’re missing, to not even know where you should be pointed on this landscape, which is to say, you need to be a realist here. There are experiences that are better than any experience that you are going to have and you are never going to know about them, possible experiences. And granting that, you don’t need a concept of should, should is just shorthand for how we speak with one another and try to admonish one another to be better in the future in order to cooperate better or to realize different outcomes. But it’s not a deep principle of reality.

What is a deep principle of reality is consciousness and its possibilities. Consciousness is the one thing that can’t be an illusion. Even if we’re in a simulation, even if we’re brains in vats, even if we’re confused about everything, something seems to be happening, and that seeming is the fact of consciousness. And almost as rudimentary as that is the fact that within this space of seemings, again, we don’t know what the base layer of reality is, we don’t know if our physics is the real physics, we could be confused, this could be a dream, we could be confused about literally everything except that in this space of seemings there appears to be a difference between things getting truly awful to no apparent good end and things getting more and more sublime.

And there’s potentially even a place to stand where that difference isn’t so captivating anymore. Certainly, there are Buddhists who would tell you that you can step off that wheel of opposites, ultimately. But even if you buy that, that is some version of a peak on my moral landscape. That is a contemplative peak where the difference between agony and ecstasy is no longer distinguishable because what you are then aware of is just that consciousness is intrinsically free of its content and no matter what its possible content could be. If someone can stabilize that intuition, more power to them, but then that’s the thing you should do, just to bring it back to the conventional moral framing.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. I agree with you. I’m generally a realist about consciousness and still do feel very confused, not just because of reasons in this conversation, but just generally about how causality fits in there and how it might influence our understanding of the worst possible misery for everyone being a bad thing. I’m also willing to go that far to accept that as objectively a bad thing, if bad means anything. But then I still get really confused about how that necessarily fits in with, say, decision theory or “shoulds” in the space of possible minds and what is compelling to who and why?

Sam Harris: Perhaps this is just semantic. Imagine all these different minds that have different utility functions. The paperclip maximizer wants nothing more than paperclips. And anything that reduces paperclips is perceived as a source of suffering. It has a disutility. If you have any utility function, you have this liking and not liking component provided your sentient. That’s what it is to be motivated consciously. For me, the worst possible misery for everyone is a condition where, whatever the character of your mind, every sentient mind is put in the position of maximal suffering for it. So some things like paperclips and some things hate paperclips. If you hate paperclips, we give you a lot of paperclips. If you like paperclips, we take away all your paperclips. If that’s your mind, we tune your corner of the universe to that torture chamber. You can be agnostic as to what the actual things are that make something suffer. It’s just suffering is by definition the ultimate frustration of that mind’s utility function.

Lucas Perry: Okay. I think that’s a really, really important crux and crucial consideration between us and a general point of confusion here. Because that’s the definition of what suffering is or what it means. I suspect that those things may be able to come apart. So, for you, maximum disutility and suffering are identical, but I guess I could imagine a utility function being separate or inverse from the hedonics of a mind. Maybe the utility function, which is purely a computational thing, is getting maximally satisfied, maximizing suffering everywhere, and the mind that is implementing that suffering is just completely immiserated while doing it. But the utility function, which is different and inverse from the experience of the thing, is just getting satiated and so the machine keeps driving towards maximum-suffering-world.

Sam Harris: Right, but there’s either something that is liked to be satiated in that way or there isn’t right now. If we’re talking about real conscious society, we’re talking about some higher order satisfaction or pleasure that is not suffering by my definition. We have this utility function ourselves. I mean when you take somebody who decides to climb to the summit of Mount Everest where the process almost every moment along the way is synonymous with physical pain and intermittent fear of death, torture by another name. But the whole project is something that they’re willing to train for, sacrifice for, dream about, and then talk about for the rest of their lives, and at the end of the day might be in terms of their conscious sense of what it was like to be them, the best thing they ever did in their lives.

That is this sort of bilayered utility function you’re imagining, whereas if you could just experience sample what it’s like to be in the death zone on Everest, it really sucks and if imposed on you for any other reason, it would be torture. But given the framing, given what this person believes about what they’re doing, given the view out their goggles, given their identity as a mountain climber, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. You’re imagining some version of that, but that fits in my view on the moral landscape. That’s not the worst possible misery for anyone. The source of satisfaction that is deeper than just bodily, sensory pleasure every moment of the day, or at least it seems to be for that person at that point in time. They could be wrong about that. There could be something better. They don’t know what they’re missing. It’s actually much better to not care about mountain climbing.

The truth is, your aunt is a hell of a lot happier than Sir Edmund Hillary was and Edmund Hillary was never in a position to know it because he was just so into climbing mountains. That’s where the realism comes in, in terms of you not knowing what you’re missing. But I just see any ultimate utility function, if it’s accompanied by consciousness, it can’t define itself as the ultimate frustration of its aims if its aims are being satisfied.

Lucas Perry: I see. Yeah. So this just seems to be a really important point around hedonics and computation and utility function and what drives what. So, wrapping up here, I think I would feel defeated if I let you escape without maybe giving a yes or no answer to this last question. Do you think that bliss and wellbeing can be mathematically defined?

Sam Harris: That is something I have no intuitions about it. I’m not enough of a math head to think in those terms. If we mathematically understood what it meant for us neurophysiologically in our own substrate, well then, I’m sure we can characterize it for creatures just like us. I think substrate independence makes it something that’s hard to functionally understand in new systems and it’ll just pose problems of our just knowing what it’s like to be something that on the outside seems to be functioning much like we do but is organized in a very different way. But yeah, I don’t have any intuitions around that one way or the other.

Lucas Perry: All right. And so pointing towards your social media or the best places to follow you, where should we do that?

Sam Harris: My website is just samharris.org and I’m SamHarrisorg without the dot on Twitter, and you can find anything you want about me on my website, certainly.

Lucas Perry: All right, Sam. Thanks so much for coming on and speaking about this wide range of issues. You’ve been deeply impactful in my life since I guess about high school. I think you probably partly at least motivated my trip to Nepal, where I overlooked the Pokhara Lake and reflected on your terrifying acid trip there.

Sam Harris: That’s hilarious. That’s in my book Waking Up, but it’s also on my website and it’s also I think I read it on the Waking Up App and it’s in a podcast. It’s also on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. But anyway, that acid trip was detailed in this piece called Drugs and The Meaning of Life. That’s hilarious. I haven’t been back to Pokhara since, so you’ve seen that lake more recently than I have.

Lucas Perry: So yeah, you’ve contributed much to my intellectual and ethical development and thinking, and for that, I have tons of gratitude and appreciation. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about these issues today.

Sam Harris: Nice. Well, it’s been a pleasure, Lucas. And all I can say is keep going. You’re working on very interesting problems and you’re very early to the game, so it’s great to see you doing it.

Lucas Perry: Thanks so much, Sam.

FLI Podcast: Distributing the Benefits of AI via the Windfall Clause with Cullen O’Keefe

As with the agricultural and industrial revolutions before it, the intelligence revolution currently underway will unlock new degrees and kinds of abundance. Powerful forms of AI will likely generate never-before-seen levels of wealth, raising critical questions about its beneficiaries. Will this newfound wealth be used to provide for the common good, or will it become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few who wield AI technologies? Cullen O’Keefe joins us on this episode of the FLI Podcast for a conversation about the Windfall Clause, a mechanism that attempts to ensure the abundance and wealth created by transformative AI benefits humanity globally.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • What the Windfall Clause is and how it might function
  • The need for such a mechanism given AGI generated economic windfall
  • Problems the Windfall Clause would help to remedy 
  • The mechanism for distributing windfall profit and the function for defining such profit
  • The legal permissibility of the Windfall Clause 
  • Objections and alternatives to the Windfall Clause

Timestamps: 

0:00 Intro

2:13 What is the Windfall Clause? 

4:51 Why do we need a Windfall Clause? 

06:01 When we might reach windfall profit and what that profit looks like

08:01 Motivations for the Windfall Clause and its ability to help with job loss

11:51 How the Windfall Clause improves allocation of economic windfall 

16:22 The Windfall Clause assisting in a smooth transition to advanced AI systems

18:45 The Windfall Clause as assisting with general norm setting

20:26 The Windfall Clause as serving AI firms by generating goodwill, improving employee relations, and reducing political risk

23:02 The mechanism for distributing windfall profit and desiderata for guiding it’s formation 

25:03 The windfall function and desiderata for guiding it’s formation 

26:56 How the Windfall Clause is different from being a new taxation scheme

30:20 Developing the mechanism for distributing the windfall 

32:56 The legal permissibility of the Windfall Clause in the United States

40:57 The legal permissibility of the Windfall Clause in China and the Cayman Islands

43:28 Historical precedents for the Windfall Clause

44:45 Objections to the Windfall Clause

57:54 Alternatives to the Windfall Clause

01:02:51 Final thoughts

 

This podcast is possible because of the support of listeners like you. If you found this conversation to be meaningful or valuable consider supporting it directly by donating at futureoflife.org/donate. Contributions like yours make these conversations possible.

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You can listen to the podcast above or read the transcript below. 

Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today’s conversation is with Cullen O’Keefe about a recent report he was the lead author on called The Windfall Clause: Distributing the Benefits of AI for the Common Good. For some quick background, the agricultural and industrial revolutions unlocked new degrees and kinds of abundance, and so too should the intelligence revolution currently underway. Developing powerful forms of AI will likely unlock levels of abundance never before seen, and this comes with the opportunity of using such wealth in service of the common good of all humanity and life on Earth but also with the risks of increasingly concentrated power and resources in the hands of the few who wield AI technologies. This conversation is about one possible mechanism, the Windfall Clause, which attempts to ensure that the abundance and wealth likely to be created by transformative AI systems benefits humanity globally.

For those not familiar with Cullen, Cullen is a policy researcher interested in improving the governance of artificial intelligence using the principles of Effective Altruism.  He currently works as a Research Scientist in Policy at OpenAI and is also a Research Affiliate with the Centre for the Governance of AI at the Future of Humanity Institute.

The Future of Life Institute is a non-profit and this podcast is funded and supported by listeners like you. So if you find what we do on this podcast to be important and beneficial, please consider supporting the podcast by donating at futureoflife.org/donate. You can also follow us on your preferred listening platform, like on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, by searching for us directly or following the links on the page for this podcast found in the description.

And with that, here is Cullen O’Keefe on the Windfall Clause.

We’re here today to discuss this recent paper, that you were the lead author on called the Windfall Clause: Distributing the Benefits of AI for the Common Good. Now, there’s a lot there in the title, so we can start of pretty simply here with, what is the Windfall Clause and how does it serve the mission of distributing the benefits of AI for the common good?

Cullen O’Keefe: So the Windfall Clause is a contractual commitment AI developers can make, that basically stipulates that if they achieve windfall profits from AI, that they will donate some percentage of that to causes that benefit everyone.

Lucas Perry: What does it mean to achieve windfall profits?

Cullen O’Keefe: The answer that we give is that when a firm’s profits grow in excess of 1% of gross world product, which is just the sum of all countries GDP, then that firm has hit windfall profits. We use this slightly weird measurement of profits is a percentage of gross world product, just to try to convey the notion that the thing that’s relevant here is not necessarily the size of profits, but really the relative size of profits, relative to the global economy.

Lucas Perry: Right. And so an important background framing and assumption here seems to be the credence that one may have in transformative AI or in artificial general intelligence or in superintelligence, creating previously unattainable levels of wealth and value and prosperity. I believe that in terms of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, this work in particular is striving to serve the common good principal, that superintelligence or AGI should be created in the service of and the pursuit of the common good of all of humanity and life on Earth. Is there anything here that you could add about the background to the inspiration around developing the Windfall Clause.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. That’s exactly right. The phrase Windfall Clause actually comes from Bostrom’s book. Basically, the idea was something that people inside of FHI were excited about for a while, but really hadn’t done anything with because of some legal uncertainties. Basically, the fiduciary duty question that I examined in the third section of the report. When I was an intern there in the summer of 2018, I was asked to do some legal research on this, and ran away with it from there. My legal research pretty convincingly showed that it should be legal as a matter of corporate law, for a corporation to enter in to such a contract. In fact, I don’t think it’s a particularly hard case. I think it looks like things that operations do a lot already. And I think some of the bigger questions were around the implications and design of the Windfall Clause, which is also addressed in the report.

Lucas Perry: So, we have this common good principal, which serves as the moral and ethical foundation. And then the Windfall Clause it seems, is an attempt at a particular policy solution for AGI and superintelligence, serving the common good. With this background, could you expand a little bit more on why is that we need a Windfall Clause?

Cullen O’Keefe: I guess I wouldn’t say that we need a Windfall Clause. The Windfall Clause might be one mechanism that would solve some of these problems. The primary way in which cutting edge AI is being develop is currently in private companies. And the way that private companies are structured is perhaps not maximally conducive to the common good principal. This is not due to corporate greed or anything like that. It’s more just a function of the roles of corporations in our society, which is that they’re primarily vehicles for generating returns to investors. One might think that those tools that we currently have for taking some of the returns that are generated for investors and making sure that they’re distributed in a more equitable and fair way, are inadequate in the face of AGI. And so that’s kind of the motivation for the Windfall Clause.

Lucas Perry: Maybe if you could speak a little bit to the surveys of researchers of credence’s and estimates about when we might get certain kinds of AI. And then what windfall in the context of an AGI world actually means.

Cullen O’Keefe: The surveys of AGI timelines, I think this is an area with high uncertainty. We cite Katja Grace’s survey of AI experts, which is a few years old at this point. I believe that the median timeline that AI experts gave in that was somewhere around 2060, of attaining AGI as defined in a specific way by that paper. I don’t have opinions on whether that timeline is realistic or unrealistic. We just take it as a baseline, as the best specific timeline that has at least some evidence behind it. And what was the second question?

Lucas Perry: What other degrees of wealth might be brought about via transformative AI.

Cullen O’Keefe: The short and unsatisfying answer to this, is that we don’t really know. I think that the amount of economic literature really focusing on AGI in particular is pretty minimal. Some more research on this would be really valuable. A company earning profits that are defined as windfall via the report, would be pretty unprecedented in history, so it’s a very hard situation to imagine. Forecasts about the way that AI will contribute to growth are pretty variable. I think we don’t really have a good idea of what that might mean. And I think especially because the interface between economists and people thinking about AGI has been pretty minimal. A lot of the thinking has been more focused on more mainstream issues. If the strongest version of AGI were to come, the economic gains could be pretty huge. There’s a lot on the line that circumstance.

Part of what motivated the Windfall Clause, is trying to think of mechanisms that could withstand this uncertainty about what the actual economics of AGI will be like. And that’s kind of what the contingent commitment and progressively scaling commitment of the Windfall Clause is supposed to accomplish.

Lucas Perry: All right. So, now I’m going to explore here some of these other motivations that you’ve written in your report. There is the need to address loss of job opportunities. The need to improve the allocation of economic windfall, which if we didn’t do anything right now, there would actually be no way of doing that other than whatever system of taxes we would have around that time. There’s also this need to smooth the transition to advanced AI. And then there is this general norm setting strategy here, which I guess is an attempt to imbue and instantiate a kind of benevolent ethics based on the common good principle. Let’s start of by hitting on addressing the loss of job opportunities. How might transformative AI lead to the loss of job opportunities and how does the Windfall Clause help to remedy that?

Cullen O’Keefe: So I want to start of with a couple of caveats. So number one, I’m not an economist. Second is, I’m very wary of promoting Luddite views. It’s definitely true that in the past, technological innovation has been pretty universally positive in the long run, notwithstanding short term problems with transitions. So, it’s definitely by no means inevitable that advances in AI will lead to joblessness or decreased earnings. That said, I do find it pretty hard to imagine a scenario in which we achieve very general purpose AI systems, like AGI. And there are still bountiful opportunities for human employment. I think there might be some jobs which have human only employment or something like that. It’s kind of unclear, in an economy with AGI or something else resembling it, why there would be a demand for humans. There might be jobs I guess, in which people are inherently uncomfortable having non-humans. Good examples of this would be priests or clergy, probably most religions will not want to automate their clergy.

I’m not a theologian, so I can’t speak to the proper theology of that, but that’s just my intuition. People also mentioned things like psychiatrists, counselors, teachers, child care, stuff like that. That doesn’t look as automatable. And then the human meaning aspect of this, John Danaher, philosopher, recently released a book called Automation and Utopia, talking about how for most people work is the primary source of meaning. It’s certainly what they do with the great plurality of their waking hours. And I think for people like me and you, we’re lucky enough to like our jobs a lot, but for many people work is mostly a source of drudgery. Often unpleasant, unsafe, etcetera. But if we find ourselves in world in which work is largely automated, not only will we have to deal with the economic issues relating to how people who can no longer offer skills for compensation, will feed themselves and their families. But also how they’ll find meaning in life.

Lucas Perry: Right. If the category and meaning of jobs changes or is gone altogether, the Windfall Clause is also there to help meet fundamental universal basic human needs, and then also can potentially have some impact on this question of value and meaning. If the Windfall Clause allows you to have access to hobbies and nice vacations and other things that give human beings meaning.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. I would hope so. It’s not a problem that we explicitly address in the paper. I think this is kind of in the broader category of what to actually do with the windfall, once it’s donated. You can think of this as like the bottom of the funnel. Whereas the Windfall Clause report is more focused at the top of the funnel, getting companies to actually commit to such a thing. And I think there’s a huge rich area of work to think about, what do we actually do with the surplus from AGI, once it manifests. And assuming that we can get it in to the coffers of a public minded organization. It’s something that I’m lucky enough to think about in my current job at OpenAI. So yeah, making sure that both material needs and psychological higher needs are taken care of. That’s not something I have great answers for yet.

Lucas Perry: So, moving on here to the second point. We also need a Windfall Clause or function or mechanism, in order to improve the allocation of economic windfall. So, could you explain that one?

Cullen O’Keefe: You can imagine a world in which employment kind of looks the same as it is today. Most people have jobs, but a lot of the gains are going to a very small group of people, namely shareholders. I think this is still a pretty sub-optimal world. There are diminishing returns on money for happiness. So all else equal and ignoring incentive effects, progressively distributing money seems better than not. Primarily firms looking to develop the AI are based in a small set of countries. In fact, within those countries, the group of people who are heavily invested in those companies is even smaller. And so in a world, even where employment opportunities for the masses are pretty normal, we could still expect to see pretty concentrated accrual of benefits, both within nations, but I think also very importantly, across nations. This seems pretty important to address and the Windfall Clause aims to do just that.

Lucas Perry: A bit of speculation here, but we could have had a kind of Windfall Clause for the industrial revolution, which probably would have made much of the world better off and there wouldn’t be such unequal concentrations of wealth in the present world.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think there’s sort of a Rawlsian or Harsanyian motivation there, that if we didn’t know whether we would be in an industrial country or a country that is later to develop, we would probably want to set up a system that has a more equal distribution of economic gains than the one that we have today.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. By Rawlsian, you meant the Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and then what was the other one you said?

Cullen O’Keefe: Harsanyi is another philosopher who is associated with the veil of ignorance idea and he argues, I think pretty forcefully, that actually the agreement that you would come to behind the veil of ignorance, is one that maximizes expected utility, just due to classic axioms of rationality. What you would actually want to do is maximize expected utility, whereas John Rawls has this idea that you would want to maximize the lot of the worst off, which Harsanyi argues doesn’t really follow from the veil of ignorance, and decision theoretic best practices.

Lucas Perry: I think that the veil of ignorance, which for listeners who don’t know what that is, it’s if you can imagine yourself not knowing how you were going to be born as in the world. You should make ethical and political and moral and social systems, with that view in mind. And if you do that, you will pretty honestly and wholesomely come up with something to your best ability, that is good for everyone. From behind that veil of ignorance, of knowing who you might be in the world, you can produce good ethical systems. Now this is relevant to the Windfall Clause, because going through your paper, there’s the tension between arguing that this is actually something that is legally permissible and that institutions and companies would want to adopt, which is in clear tension with maximizing profits for shareholders and the people with wealth and power in those companies. And so there’s this fundamental tension behind the Windfall Clause, between the incentives of those with power to maintain and hold on to the power and wealth, and the very strong and important ethical and normative views and compunctions, that say that this ought to be distributed to the welfare and wellbeing of all sentient beings across the planet.

Cullen O’Keefe: I think that’s exactly right. I think part of why I and others at the Future of Humanity Institute were interested in this project, is that we know a lot of people working in AI at all levels. And I think a lot of them do want to do the genuinely good thing. But feel the constraints of economics but also of fiduciary duties. We didn’t have any particular insights in to that with this piece, but I think part of the motivation is just that we want to put resources out there for any socially conscious AI developers to say, “We want to make this commitment and we feel very legally safe doing so,” for the reasons that I lay out.

It’s a separate question whether it’s actually in their economic interest to do that or not. But at least we think they have the legal power to do so.

Lucas Perry: Okay. So maybe we can get in to and explore the ethical aspect of this more. I think we’re very lucky to have people like you and your fellow colleagues who have the ethical compunction to follow through and be committed to something like this. But for the people that don’t have that, I’m interested in discussing more later about what to do with them. So, in terms of more of the motivations here, the Windfall Clause is also motivated by this need for a smooth transition to transformative AI or AGI or superintelligence or advanced AI. So what does that mean?

Cullen O’Keefe: As I mentioned, it looks like economic growth from AI will probably be a good thing if we manage to avoid existential and catastrophic risks. That’s almost tautological I suppose. But just as in the industrial revolution where you had a huge spur of economic growth, but also a lot of turbulence. So part of the idea of the Windfall Clause is basically to funnel some of that growth in to a sort of insurance scheme that can help make that transition smoother. An un-smooth transition would be something like a lot of countries are worried they’re not going to see any appreciable benefit from AI and indeed, might lose out a lot because a lot of their industries would be off shored or re-shored and a lot of their people would no longer be economically competitive for jobs. So, that’s the kind of stability that I think we’re worried about. And the Windfall Clause is basically just a way of saying, you’re all going to gain significantly from this advance. Everyone has a stake in making this transition go well.

Lucas Perry: Right. So I mean there’s a spectrum here and on one end of the spectrum there is say a private AI lab or company or actor, who is able to reach AGI or transformative AI first and who can muster or occupy some significant portion of the world GDP. That could be anywhere from one to 99 percent. And there could or could not be mechanisms in place for distributing that to the citizens of the globe. And so one can imagine, as power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, that there could be quite a massive amount of civil unrest and problems. It could create very significant turbulence in the world, right?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. Exactly. And it’s our hypothesis that having credible mechanisms ex-ante to make sure that approximately everyone gains from this, will make people and countries less likely to take destabilizing actions. It’s also a public good of sorts. You would expect that it would be in everyone’s interest for this to happen, but it’s never individually rational to commit that much to making it happen. Which is why it’s a traditional role for governments and for philanthropy to provide those sort of public goods.

Lucas Perry: So that last point here then on the motivations for why we need a Windfall Clause, would be general norm setting. So what do you have to say about general norm setting?

Cullen O’Keefe: This one is definitely a little more vague than some of the others. But if you think about what type of organization you would like to see develop AGI, it seems like one that has some legal commitment to sharing those benefits broadly is probably correlated with good outcomes. And in that sense, it’s useful to be able to distinguish between organizations that are credibly committed to that sort of benefit, from ones that say they want that sort of broad benefit but are not necessarily committed to making it happen. And so in the Windfall Clause report, we are basically trying to say, it’s very important to take norms about the development of AI seriously. One of the norms that we’re trying to develop is the common good principal. And even better is when you and develop those norms through high cost or high signal value mechanisms. And if we’re right that a Windfall Clause can be made binding, then the Windfall Clause is exactly one of them. It’s a pretty credible way for an AI developer to demonstrate their commitment to the common good principal and also show that they’re worthy of taking on this huge task of developing AGI.

The Windfall Clause makes the performance or adherence to the common good principal a testable hypothesis. It’s sets kind of a base line against which commitments to the common good principal can be measured.

Lucas Perry: Now there are also here in your paper, firm motivations. So, incentives for adopting a Windfall Clause from the perspective of AI labs or AI companies, or private institutions which may develop AGI or transformative AI. And your three points here for firm motivations are that it can generate general goodwill. It can improve employee relations and it could reduce political risk. Could you hit on each of these here for why firms might be willing to adopt the Windfall Clause?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. So just as a general note, we do see private corporations giving money to charity and doing other pro-social actions that are beyond their legal obligations, so nothing here is particularly new. Instead, it’s just applying traditional explanations for why companies engage in, what’s sometimes called corporate social responsibility or CSR. And see whether that’s a plausible explanation for why they might be amenable to a Windfall Clause. The first one that we mentioned in the report, is just generating general goodwill, and I think it’s plausible that companies will want to sign a Windfall Clause because it brings some sort of reputational benefit with consumers or other intermediary businesses.

The second one we talk about is managing employee relationships. In general, we see that tech employees have had a lot of power to shape the behavior of their employers. Fellow FLI podcast guest Haydn Belfield just wrote a great paper, saying AI specifically. Tech talent is in very high demand and therefore they have a lot of bargaining power over what their firms do and I think it’s potentially very promising that tech employers lobby for commitments like the Windfall Clause.

The third is termed in a lot of legal and investment circles, as political risk, so that’s basically the risk of governments or activists doing things that hurt you, such as tighter regulation or expropriation, taxation, things like that. And corporate social responsibility, including philanthropy, is just a very common way for firms to manage that. And could be the case for AI firms as well.

Lucas Perry: How strong do you think these motivations listed here are, and what do you think will be the main things that drive firms or institutions or organizations to adopt the Windfall Clause?

Cullen O’Keefe: I think it varies from firm to firm. I think a big one that’s not listed here is how management likes the idea of a Windfall Clause. Obviously, they’re the ones ultimately making the decisions, so that makes sense. I think employee buy-in and enthusiasm about the Windfall Clause or similar ideas will ultimately be a pretty big determinate about whether this actually gets implemented. That’s why I would love to hear and see engagement around this topic from people in the technology industry.

Lucas Perry: Something that we haven’t talked about yet is the distribution mechanism. And in your paper, you come up with desiderata and important considerations for an effective and successful distribution mechanism. Philanthropic effectiveness, security from improper influences, political legitimacy and buy in from AI labs. So, these are just guiding principals for helping to develop the mechanism for distribution. Could you comment on what the mechanism for distribution is or could be and how these desiderata will guide the formation of that mechanism?

Cullen O’Keefe: A lot of this thinking is guided by a few different things. One is just involvement in the effective altruism community. I as a member of that community, spend a lot of time thinking about how to make philanthropy work well. That said, I think that the potential scale of the Windfall Clause requires thinking about factors other than effectiveness, in the way that effectiveness altruists think of that. Just because the scale of potential resources that you’re dealing here, begins to look less and less like traditional philanthropy and more and more like psuedo or para-government institution. And so that’s why I think things like accountability and legitimacy become extra important in the Windfall Clause context. And then firm buy-in I mentioned, just because part of the actual process of negotiating an eventual Windfall Clause would presumably be coming up with distribution mechanism that advances some of the firms objectives of getting positive publicity or goodwill from agreeing to the Windfall Clause, both with their consumers and also with employers and governments.

And so they’re key stakeholders in coming up with that process as well. This all happens in the backdrop of a lot of popular discussion about the role of philanthropy in society, such as recent criticism of mega-philanthropy. I take those criticisms pretty seriously and want to come up with a Windfall Clause distribution mechanism that manages those better than current philanthropy. It’s a big task in itself and one that needs to be taken pretty seriously.

Lucas Perry: Is the windfall function synonymous with the windfall distribution mechanism?

Cullen O’Keefe: No. So, the windfall function, it’s the mathematical function that determines how much money, signatories to the Windfall Clause are obligated to give.

Lucas Perry: So, the windfall function will be part of the windfall contract, and the windfall distribution mechanism is the vehicle or means or the institution by which that output of the function is distributed?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Again, I like to think of this as top of the funnel, bottom of the funnel. So the windfall function is kind of the top of the funnel. It defines how much money has to go in to the Windfall Clause system and then the bottom of the funnel is like the output, what actually gets done with the windfall, to advance the goals of the Windfall Clause.

Lucas Perry: Okay. And so here you have some desiderata for this function, in particular transparency, scale sensitivity, adequacy, pre-windfall commitment, incentive alignment and competitiveness. Are there any here that you want to comment on with regards to the windfall function.

Cullen O’Keefe: Sure. If you look at the windfall function, it looks kind of like a progressive tax system. You fall in to some bracket and the bracket that you’re in determines the marginal percentage of money that you owe. So, in a normal income tax scheme, the bracket is determined by your gross income. In the Windfall Clause scheme, the bracket is determined by a slightly modified thing, which is profits as a percent of gross world product, which we started off talking about.

We went back and forth for a few different ways that this could look, but we ultimately decided upon a simpler windfall function that looks much like an income tax scheme, because we thought it was pretty transparent and easy to understand. And for a project as potentially important as the Windfall Clause, we thought that was pretty important that people be able to understand the contract that’s being negotiated, not just the signatories.

Lucas Perry: Okay. And you’re bringing up this point about taxes. One thing that someone might ask is, “Why do we need a whole Windfall Clause when we could just have some kind of tax on benefits accrued from AI?” But the very important feature to be mindful here, about the Windfall Clause, is that it does something that taxing cannot do, which is redistribute funding from tech heavy first world countries to people around the world, rather than just to the government of the country able to tax them. So that also seems to be a very important consideration here for why the Windfall Clause is important, rather than just some new tax scheme.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. Absolutely. And in talking to people about the Windfall Clause, this is one of the top concerns that comes up. So, you’re right to emphasize it. I agree that the potential for international distribution is one of the main reasons that I personally are more excited about the Windfall Clause than standard corporate taxation. Other reasons are just that it seems just more tractable to negotiate this individually with firms, a number of firms potentially in a position of developing advanced AI is pretty small now and might continue to be small for the foreseeable future. So the number of potential entities that you have persuaded to agree to this might be pretty small.

There’s also the possibility that we mention, but don’t propose an exact mechanism for in the paper of allowing taxation to supersede the Windfall Clause. So, if a government came up with a better taxation scheme, you might either release the signatories from the Windfall Clause or just have the windfall function compensate for that by reducing or eliminating total obligation. Of course, it gets tricky because then you would have to decide which types of taxes would you do that for, if you want to maintain the international motivations of the Windfall Clause. And you would also have to kind of figure out what the optimal tax rate is, which is obviously no small task. So those are definitely complicated questions, but at least in theory, there’s the possibility for accommodating those sorts of ex-post taxation efforts in a way that doesn’t burden firms too much.

Lucas Perry: Do you have any more insights or positives or negatives to comment here about the windfall function. It seems like in the paper, it is as you mention, open for a lot more research. Do you have directions for further investigation of the windfall function?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. It’s one of the things that we lead out with, and it’s actually as you’re saying. This is primarily supposed illustrative and not the right windfall function. I’d be very surprised if this was ultimately the right way to do this. Just because the possibility in this space is so big and we’ve explored so little of it. One of the ideas that I am particularly excited about, and I think more and more might ultimately be the right thing to do, is instead of having a profits based trigger for the windfall function, instead having a market tap based trigger. And there are just basic accounting reasons why I’m more excited about this. Tracking profits is not as straight forward as it seems, because firms can do stuff with their money. They can spend more of it and reallocate it in certain ways. Whereas it’s much harder and they have less incentive to downward manipulate their stock price or market capitalization. So I’d be interested in potentially coming up with more value based approaches to the windfall function rather than our current one, which is based on profits.

That said, there is a ton of other variables that you could tweak here, and would be very excited to work with people or see other proposals of what this could look like.

Lucas Perry: All right. So this is an open question about how the windfall function will exactly look. Can you provide any more clarity on the mechanism for distribution, keeping mind here the difficulty of creating an effective way of distributing the windfall, which you list as the issues of effectiveness, accountability, legitimacy and firm buy-in?

Cullen O’Keefe: One concrete idea that I actually worked closely with FLI on, specifically with Anthony Aguirre and Jared Brown, was the windfall trust idea, which is basically to create a trust or kind of psuedo-trust that makes every person in world or as many people as we can, reach equal beneficiaries of a trust. So, in this structure, which is on page 41 of the report if people are interested in seeing it. It’s pretty simple. The idea is that the successful developer would satisfy their obligations by paying money to a body called the Windfall Trust. For people who don’t know what trust is, it’s a specific type of legal entity. And then all individuals would be either or actual or potential beneficiaries of the Windfall Trust, and would receive equal funding flows from that. And could even receive equal input in to how the trust is managed, depending on how the trust was set up.

Trusts are also exciting because they are very flexible mechanisms that you can arrange the governance of in many different ways. And then to make this more manageable, obviously a single trust with eight billion beneficiaries seems hard to manage, so you take a single trust for every 100,000 people or whatever number you think is manageable. I’m kind of excited about that idea, I think it hits a lot of the desiderata pretty well and could be a way in which a lot of people could see benefit from the windfall.

Lucas Perry: Are there any ways of creating proto-windfall clauses or proto-windfall trusts to sort of test the idea before transformative AI comes on the scene?

Cullen O’Keefe: I would be very excited to do that. I guess one thing I should say, OpenAI where I currently work, has a structure called a capped-profit structure, which is similar in many ways to the Windfall Clause. Our structure is such that profits above a certain cap that can be returned to investors, go to a non-profit, which is the OpenAI non-profit, which then has to use those funds for charitable purposes. But I would be very excited to see new companies and potentially companies aligned with the mission of the FLI podcast, to experiment with structures like this. In the fourth section of the report, we talk all about different precedents that exist already, and some of these have different features that are close to the Windfall Clause. And I’d be interested in someone putting all those together for their start-up or their company and making a kind of pseudo-windfall clause.

Lucas Perry: Let’s get in to the legal permissibility of the Windfall Clause. Now you said that this is actually one of the reasons why you first got in to this, was because it got tabled because people were worried about the fiduciary responsibilities that companies would have. Let’s start by reflecting on whether or not this is legally permissible in America, and then think about China, because these are the two biggest AI players today.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. There’s actually a slight wrinkle there that we might also have to talk about, the Cayman Islands. But we’ll get to that. I guess one interesting fact about the Windfall Clause report, is that it’s slightly weird that I’m the person that ended up writing this. You might think an economist should be the person writing this, since it deals so much with labor economics and inequality, etcetera, etcetera. And I’m not an economist by any means. The reason that I got swept up in this is because of the legal piece. So I’ll first give a quick crash course in corporate law, because I think it’s an area than not a lot of people understand and it’s also important for this.

Corporations are legal entities. They are managed by a board of directors for the benefit of the shareholders, who are the owners of the firm. And accordingly, since the directors have the responsibility of managing a thing which is owned in part by other people, they owe certain duties to the shareholders. There are known as fiduciary duties. The two primary ones are the duty of loyalty and the duty of care. So, duty of loyalty, we don’t really talk about a ton in this piece, just the duty to manage the corporation for the benefit of the corporation itself, and not for the personal gain of the directors.

The duty of care is kind of what it sounds like, just the duty to take adequate care that the decisions made for the corporation by the board of directors will benefit the corporation. The reason that this is important for the purposes of a Windfall Clause and also for the endless speculation of corporate law professors and theorists, is when you engage in corporate philanthropy, it kind of looks like you’re doing something that is not for the benefit of the corporation. By definition, giving money to charity is primarily a philanthropic act or at least that’s kind of the prima facie case for why that might be a problem from the standpoint of corporate law. Because this is other people’s money largely, and the corporation is giving it away, seemingly not for the benefit of the corporation itself.

There actually hasn’t been that much case law, so actual court decisions on this issue. I found some of them across the US. As a side note, we primarily talk about Delaware law, because Delaware is the state in which the plurality of American corporations are incorporated for historical reasons. Their corporate law is by far the most influential in the United States. So, even though you have this potential duty of care issue, with making corporate donations, the standard by which directors are judged is the business judgment rule. Quoting from the American Law Institute, a summary of the business judgment rule is, “A director or officer who makes a business judgment in good faith, fulfills the duty of care if the director or officer, one, is not interested,” that means there is no conflict of interest, “In the subject of the business judgment. Two, is informed with respect to the business judgment to the extent that the director or officer reasonably believes to be appropriate under the circumstances. And three, rationally believes that the business judgment is in the best interests of the corporation.” So this is actually a pretty forgiving standard. It’s basically just use your best judgement standard, which is why it’s very hard for shareholders to successfully make a case that a judgement was a violation of the business judgement rules. It’s very rare for such challenges to actually succeed.

So a number of cases have examined the relationship of the business judgement rule to corporate philanthropy. They basically universally held that this is a permissible invocation or permissible example of the business judgement rule. That there are all these potential benefits that philanthropy could give to the corporation, therefore corporate directors decision to authorize corporate donations would be generally upheld under the business judgement rule, provided all these other things are met.

Lucas Perry: So these firm motivations that we touched on earlier were generating goodwill towards the company, improving employee relations and then reducing political risk I guess is also like having good faith with politicians who are, at the end of the day, hopefully being held accountable by their constituencies.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah, exactly. So these are all things that could plausibly, financially benefit the corporation in some form. So in this sense, corporate philanthropy looks less like a donation and more like an investment in the firm’s long term profitability, given all these soft factors like political support and employee relations. Another interesting wrinkle to this, if you read the case law of these corporate donation cases, they’re actually quite funny. The only case I quote from would be Sullivan v. Hammer. A corporate director wanted to make a corporate donation to an art museum, that had his name and kind of served basically as his personal art collection, more or less. And the court kind of said, this is still okay under business judgement rule. So, that was a pretty shocking example of how lenient this standard is.

Lucas Perry: So then they synopsis version here, is that the Windfall Clause is permissible in the United States, because philanthropy in the past has been seen as still being in line with fiduciary duties. And the Windfall Clause would do the same.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah, exactly. The one interesting wrinkle about the Windfall Clause that might distinguish it from most corporate philanthropy but though definitely not all, is that it has this potentially very high ex-post cost, even though it’s ex-ante cost might be quite low. So in a situation which a firm actually has to pay out the Windfall Clause, it’s very, very costly to the firm. But the business judgement rule, there’s actually a post to protect these exact types of decisions, because the things that courts don’t want to do is be second guessing every single corporate decision with the benefit of hindsight. So instead, they just instruct people to look at the ex-ante cost benefit analysis, and defer to that, even if ex-post it turns out to have been a bad decision.

There’s an analogy that we draw to stock option compensation, which is very popular, where you give an employee a block of stock options, that at the time is not very valuable because it’s probably just in line with the current value of the stock. But ex-post might be hugely valuable and this how a lot of early employees of companies get wildly rich, well beyond what they would have earned at fair market and cash value ex-ante. That sort of ex-ante reasoning is really the important thing, not the fact that it could be worth a lot ex-post.

One of the interesting things about the Windfall Clause is that it is a contract through time, and potentially over a long time. A lot of contracts that we make are pretty short term focus. But the Windfall Clause is in agreement now to do stuff, is stuff happens in the future, potentially in the distant future, which is part of the way the windfall function is designed. It’s designed to be relevant over a long period of time especially given the uncertainty that we started off talking about, with AI timelines. The important thing that we talked about was the ex-ante cost which means the cost to the firm in expected value right now. Which is basically the probability that this ever gets triggered, and if it does get triggered, how much will it be worth, all discounted by the time value of money etcetera.

One thing that I didn’t talk about is that there’s some language in some court cases about limiting the amount of permissible corporate philanthropy to a reasonable amount, which is obviously not a very helpful guide. But there’s a court case saying that this should be determined by looking to the charitable giving deduction, which is I believe about 10% right now.

Lucas Perry: So sorry, just to get the language correct. It’s the ex-post cost is very high because after the fact you have to pay huge percentages of your profit?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah.

Lucas Perry: But it still remains feasible that a court might say that this violates fiduciary responsibilities right?

Cullen O’Keefe: There’s always the possibility that a Delaware court would invent or apply new doctrine in application to this thing, that looks kind of weird from their perspective. I mean, this is a general question of how binding precedent is, which is an endless topic of conversation for lawyers. But if they were doing what I think they should do and just straight up applying precedent, I don’t see a particular reason why this would be decided differently than any of the other corporate philanthropy cases.

Lucas Perry: Okay. So, let’s talk a little bit now about the Cayman Islands and China.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. So a number of significant Chinese tech companies are actually incorporated in the Cayman Islands. It’s not exactly clear to me why this is the case, but it is.

Lucas Perry: Isn’t it for hiding money off-shore?

Cullen O’Keefe: So I’m not sure if that’s why. I think even if taxation is a part of that, I think it also has to do with capital restrictions in China, and also they want to attract foreign investors which is hard if they’re incorporated in China. Investors might not trust Chinese corporate law very much. This is just my speculation right now, I don’t actually know the answer to that.

Lucas Perry: I guess the question then just is, what is the US and China relationship with the Cayman Islands? What is it used for? And then is the Windfall Clause permissible in China?

Cullen O’Keefe: Right. So, the Cayman Islands is where the big three Chinese tech firms, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are incorporated. I’m not a Caymanian lawyer by any means, nor am I an expert in China law, but basically from my outsider reading of this law, applying my general legal knowledge, it appears that similar principals of corporate law apply in the Cayman Islands which is why it might be a popular spot for incorporation. They have a rule that looks like the business judgement rule. This is in footnote 120 if anyone wants to dig in to it in the report. So, for the Caymanian corporations, it looks like it should be okay for the same reason. China being a self proclaimed socialist country, also has a pretty interesting corporate law that actually not only allows but appears to encourage firms to engage in corporate philanthropy. From the perspective of their law, at least it looks potentially more friendly than even Delaware law, so kind of a-fortiori should be permissible there.

That said, obviously there’s potential political reality to be considered there, especially also the influence of the Chinese government on state owned enterprises, so I don’t want to be naïve as to just thinking what the law says is what is actually politically feasible there. But all that caveating aside, as far as the law goes, the People’s Republic of China looks potentially promising for a Windfall Clause.

Lucas Perry: And that again matter, because China is currently second to the US in AI and are thus also likely potentially able to reach windfall via transformative AI in the future.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. I think that’s the general consensus, is that after the United States, China seems to be the most likely place to develop AGI for transformative AI. You can listen and read a lot of the work by my colleague Jeff Ding on this, who recently appeared on 80,000 Hours podcast, talking about China’s AI dream and has a report by the same name, from FHI, that I would highly encourage everyone to read.

Lucas Perry: All right. Is it useful here to talk about historical precedents?

Cullen O’Keefe: Sure. I think one that’s potentially interesting is that a lot of sovereign nations have actually dealt with this problem of windfall governance before. It’s actually like natural resource based states. So Norway is kind of the leading example of this. They had a ton of wealth from oil, and had to come up with a way of distributing that wealth in a fair way. And as a sovereign wealth fund as a result, as do a lot of countries and provides for all sorts of socially beneficial applications.

Google actually when it IPO’d, gave one percent of its equity to it’s non-profit arm, the Google Foundation. So that’s actually significantly like the Windfall Clause in the sense that it gave a commitment that would grow in value as the firm’s prospects engaged. And therefore had low ex-ante costs but potentially higher ex-post-cost. Obviously, in personal philanthropy, a lot of people will be familiar with pledges like Founders Pledge or the Giving What We Can Pledge, where people pledge a percentage of their personal income to charity. The Founders Pledge kind of most resembles the Windfall Clause in this respect. People pledge a percentage of equity from their company upon exit or upon liquidity events and in that sense, it looks a lot like a Windfall Clause.

Lucas Perry: All right. So let’s get in to objections, alternatives and limitations here. First objection to the Windfall Clause, would be that the Windfall Clause will never be triggered.

Cullen O’Keefe: That certainly might be true. There’s a lot of reasons why that might be true. So, one is that we could all just be very wrong about the promise of AI. Also AI development could unfold in some other ways. So it could be a non-profit or an academic institution or a government that develops windfall generating AI and no one else does. Or it could just be that the windfall from AI is spread out sufficiently over a large number of firms, such that no one firm earns windfall, but collectively the tech industry does or something. So, that’s all certainly true. I think that those are all scenarios worth investing in addressing. You could potentially modify the Windfall Clause to address some of those scenarios.

hat said, I think there’s a significant non-trivial possibility that such a windfall occurs in a way that would trigger a Windfall Clause, and if it does, it seems worth investing in solutions that could mitigate any potential downside to that or share the benefits equally. Part of the benefit of the Windfall Clause is that if nothing happens, it doesn’t have any obligations. So, it’s quite low cost in that sense. From a philanthropic perspective, there’s a cost in setting this up and promoting the idea, etcetera, and those are definitely non-trivial costs. But the actual costs, signing the clause, only manifests upon actually triggering it.

Lucas Perry: This next one is that firms will find a way to circumvent their commitments under the clause. So it could never trigger because they could just keep moving money around in skillful ways such that the clause never ends up getting triggered. Some sub-points here are that firms will evade the clause by nominally assigning profits to subsidiary, parent or sibling corporations. That firms will evade the clause by paying out profits in dividends. That firms will sell all windfall generating AI assets to a firm that is not bound by the clause. Any thoughts on these here.

Cullen O’Keefe: First of all, a lot of these were raised by early commentators on the idea, and so I’m very thankful to those people for helping raise this. I think we probably haven’t exhausted the list of potential ways in which firms could evade their commitments, so in general I would want to come up with solutions that are not just patch work solutions, but also more like general incentive alignment solutions. That said, I think most of these problems are mitigable by careful contractual drafting. And then potentially also searching to other forms of the Windfall Clause like something based on firm share price. But still, I think there are probably a lot of ways to circumvent the clause in its kind of early form that we’ve proposed. And we would want to make sure that we’re pretty careful about drafting it and simulating potential ways that signatory could try to wriggle out of its commitment.

Cullen O’Keefe: I think it’s also worth noting that a lot of those potential actions would be pretty clear violations of general legal obligations that signatories to a contract have. Or could be mitigated with pretty easy contractual clauses.

Lucas Perry: Right. The solution to these would be foreseeing them and beefing up the actual windfall contract to not allow for these methods of circumvention.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah.

Lucas Perry: So now this next one I think is quite interesting. No firm with a realistic chance of developing windfall generating AI would sign the clause. How would you respond to that?

Cullen O’Keefe: I mean, I think that’s certainly a possibility, and if that’s the case, then that’s the case. It seems like our ability to change that might be pretty limited. I would hope that most firms in the potential position to be generating windfall, would take that opportunity as also carrying with it responsibility to follow the common good principle. And I think that a lot of people in those companies, both in leadership and the rank and file employee positions, do take that seriously. We do also think that the Windfall Clause could bring non-trivial benefits as we spent a lot of time talking about.

Lucas Perry: All right. The next one here is that quote, “If the public benefits of the Windfall Clause are supposed to be large, that is inconsistent with stating that the cost to firms will be small enough, that they would be willing to sign the clause.” This has a lot to do with this distinction with the ex-ante and the ex-post differences in cost. And also how there is probabilities and time involved here. So, your response to this objection.

Cullen O’Keefe: I think there’s some a-symmetries between the costs and benefit. Some of the costs are things that would happen in the future. So from a firms perspective, they should probably discount the costs of the Windfall Clause because if they earn windfall, it would be in future. From a public policy perspective, a lot of those benefits might not be as time sensitive. So you might no super-care when exactly those costs happen and therefore not really discount them from a present value standpoint.

Lucas Perry: You also probably wouldn’t want to live in the world in which there was no distribution mechanism or windfall function for allocating the windfall profits from one of your competitors.

Cullen O’Keefe: That’s an interesting question though, because a lot of corporate law principals suggest that firms should want to behave in a risk neutral sense, and then allow investors to kind of spread their bets according to their own risk tolerances. So, I’m not sure that this risks spreading between firms argument works that well.

Lucas Perry: I see. Okay. The next is that the Windfall Clause reduces incentives to innovate.

Cullen O’Keefe: So, I think it’s definitely true that it will probably have some effect on the incentive to innovate. That almost seems like kind of necessary or something. That said, I think people in our community are kind of the opinion that there are significant externalities to innovation and not all innovation towards AGI is strictly beneficial in that sense. So, making sure that those externalities are balanced seems important. And the Windfall Clause is one way to do that. In general, I think that the disincentive is probably just outweighed by the benefits of the Windfall Clause, but I would be open to reanalysis of that exact calculus.

Lucas Perry: Next objection is, the Windfall Clause will shift investment to competitive non-signatory firms.

Cullen O’Keefe: This was another particularly interesting comment and it has a potential perverse effect actually. Suppose you have two types of firms, you have nice firms and less nice firms. And all the nice firms sign the Windfall Clause. And therefore their future profit streams are taxed more heavily than the bad firms. And this is bad, because now investors will probably want to go to bad firms because they offer potentially more attractive return on investment. Like the previous objection, this is probably true to some extent. It kind of depends on the empirical case about how many firms you think are good and bad, and also what the exact calculus is regarding how much this disincentives investors from giving to good firms and causes the good firms to act better.

We do talk a little bit about different ways in which you could potentially mitigate this with careful mechanism design. So you could have the Windfall Clause consist in subordinated obligations but the firm could raise senior equity or senior debt to the Windfall Clause such that new investors would not be disadvantaged by investing in a firm that has signed the Windfall Clause. Those are kind of complicated mechanisms, and again, this is another point where thinking through this from a very careful micro-economic point in modeling this type of development dynamic would be very valuable.

Lucas Perry: All right. So we’re starting to get to the end here of objections or at least objections in the paper. The next is, the Windfall Clause draws attention to signatories in an undesirable way.

Cullen O’Keefe: I think the motivation for this objection is something like, imagine that tomorrow Boeing came out and said, “If we built a Death Star, we’ll only use it for good.” What are you talking about, building a Death Star? Why do you even have to talk about this? I think that’s kind of the motivation, is talking about earning windfall is itself drawing attention to the firm in potentially undesirable ways. So, that could potentially be the case. I guess the fact that we’re having this conversation suggests that this is not a super-taboo subject. I think a lot of people are generally aware of the promise of artificial intelligence. So the idea that the gains could be huge and concentrated in one firm, doesn’t seem that worrying to me. Also, if a firm was super close to AGI or something, it would actually be much harder for them to sign on to the Windfall Clause, because the costs would be so great to them in expectation, that they probably couldn’t justify it from a fiduciary duty standpoint.

So in that sense, signing on to the Windfall Clause at least from a purely rational standpoint, is kind of negative evidence that a firm is close to AGI. That said, there is certainly psychological elements that complicate that. It’s very cheap for me to just make a commitment that says, oh sure if I get a trillion dollars, I’ll give 75% of it some charity. Sure, why not? I’ll make that commitment right now in fact.

Lucas Perry: It’s kind of more efficacious if we get firms to adopt this sooner rather than later, because as time goes on, their credences in who will hit AI windfall will increase.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Assuming timelines are constant, the clock is ticking on stuff like this. Every year that goes by, committing to this gets more expensive to firms, and therefore rationally, less likely.

Lucas Perry: All right. I’m not sure that I understand this next one, but it is, the Windfall Clause will lead to moral licensing. What does that mean?

Cullen O’Keefe: So moral licensing is a psychological concept, that if you do certain actions that either are good or appear to be good, that you’re more like to do bad things later. So you have a license to act immorally because of the times that you acted morally. I think a lot of times this is a common objection to corporate philanthropy. People call this ethics washing or green washing, in the context of environmental stuff specifically. I think you should again, do pretty careful cost benefit analysis here to see whether the Windfall Clause is actually worth the potential licensing effect that it has. But of course, one could raise this objection to pretty much any pro-social act. Given that we think the Windfall Clause could actually have legally enforceable teeth, it seems kind of less likely unless you think that the licensing effects would just be so great that they’ll overcome the benefits of actually having an enforceable Windfall Clause. It seems kind of intuitively implausible to me.

Lucas Perry: Here’s another interesting one. The rule of law might not hold if windfall profits are achieved. Human greed and power really kicks in and the power structures which are meant to enforce the rule of law no longer are able to, in relation to someone with AGI or superintelligence. How do you feel about this objection?

Cullen O’Keefe: I think it’s a very serious one. I think it’s something that perhaps the AI safety maybe should be investing more in. I’m also having an interesting discussion, asynchronously on this with Rohin Shah on the EA Forum. I do think there’s a significant chance that if you have an actor that is potentially as powerful as a corporation with AGI and all the benefits that come with that at its disposal, could be such that it would be very hard to enforce the Windfall Clause against it. That said, I think we do kind of see Davids beating Goliaths in the law. People do win lawsuits against the United States government or very large corporations. So it’s certainly not the case that size is everything, though it would be naïve to suppose that it’s not correlated with the probability of winning.

Other things to worry about, are the fact that this corporation will have very powerful AI that could potentially influence the outcome of cases in some way or perhaps hide ways in which it was evading the Windfall Clause. So, I think that’s worth taking seriously. I guess just in general, I think this issue is worth a lot of investment from the AI safety and AI policy communities, for reasons well beyond the Windfall Clause. And it seems like a problem that we’ll have to figure out how to address.

Lucas Perry: Yeah. That makes sense. You brought up the rule of law not holding up because of its power to win over court cases. But the kind of power that AGI would give, would also potentially far extend beyond just winning court cases right? In your ability to not be bound by the law.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. You could just act as a thug and be beyond the law, for sure.

Lucas Perry: It definitely seems like a neglected point, in terms of trying to have a good future with beneficial AI.

Cullen O’Keefe: I’m kind of the opinion that this is pretty important. It just seems like that this is just also a thing in general, that you’re going to want of a post-AGI world. You want the actor with AGI to be accountable to something other than its own will.

Lucas Perry: Yeah.

Cullen O’Keefe: You want agreements you make before AGI to still have meaning post-AGI and not just depend on the beneficence of the person with AGI.

Lucas Perry: All right. So the last objection here is, the Windfall Clause undesirably leaves control of advanced AI in private hands.

Cullen O’Keefe: I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument that AGI is just such an important technology that it ought to be governed in a pro-social way. Basically, this project doesn’t have a good solution to that, other than to the extent that you could use Windfall Clause funds to perhaps purchase share stock from the company or have a commitment in shares of stock rather than in money. On the other hand, private companies are doing a lot of very important work right now, in developing AI technologies and are kind of the current leading developers of advanced AI. It seems to me like their behaving pretty responsibility overall. I’m just not sure what the ultimate ideal arrangement of ownership of AI will look like and want to leave that open for other discussion.

Lucas Perry: All right. So we’ve hit on all of these objections, surely there are more objections, but this gives a lot for listeners and others to consider and think about. So in terms of alternatives for the Windfall Clause, you list four things here. They are windfall profits should just be taxed. We should rely on anti-trust enforcement instead. We should establish a sovereign wealth fund for AI. We should implement a universal basic income instead. So could you just go through each of these sequentially and give us some thoughts and analysis on your end?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. We talked about taxes already, so is it okay if I just skip that?

Lucas Perry: Yeah. I’m happy to skip taxes. The point there being that they will end up only serving the country in which they are being taxed, unless that country has some other mechanism for distributing certain kinds of taxes to the world.

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. And it also just seems much more tractable right now to work on, private commitments like the Windfall Clause rather than lobbying for pretty robust tax code.

Lucas Perry: Sure. Okay, so number two.

Cullen O’Keefe: So number two is about anti-trust enforcement. This was largely spurred by a conversation with Haydn Belfield. The idea here is that in this world, the AI developer will probably be a monopoly or at least extremely powerful in its market, and therefore we should consider anti-trust enforcement against it. I guess my points are two-fold. Number one is that just under American law, it is pretty clear that merely possessing monopoly power is not itself a reason to take anti-trust action. You have to have acquired that monopoly power in some illegal way. And if some of the stronger hypothesis about AI are right, AI could be a natural monopoly and so it seems pretty plausible that an AI monopoly could develop without any illegal actions taken to gain that monopoly.

I guess second, the Windfall Clause addresses some of the harms from monopoly, though not all of them, by transferring some wealth from shareholders to everyone and therefore transferring some wealth from shareholders to consumers.

Lucas Perry: Okay. Could focusing on anti-trust enforcement alongside the Windfall Clause be beneficial?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. It certainty could be. I don’t want to suggest that we ought not to consider anti-trust, especially if there’s a natural reason to break up firms or if there’s a natural violation of anti-trust law going on. I guess I’m pretty sympathetic to the anti-trust orthodoxy that monopoly is not in itself a reason in itself to break up a firm. But I certainly think that we should continue to think about anti-trust as a potential response to these situations.

Lucas Perry: All right. And number three is we should establish a sovereign wealth fund for AI.

Cullen O’Keefe: So this is an idea that actually came out of FLI. Anthony Aguirre has been thinking about this. The idea is to set up something that looks like the sovereign wealth funds that I alluded to earlier, that places like Norway and other resource rich countries have. Some better and some worse governed, I should say. And I think Anthony’s suggestion was to set this up as a fund that held shares of stock of the corporation, and redistributed wealth in that way. I am sympathetic to this idea overall as I mentioned, I think stock based Windfall Clause could be potentially be an improvement over the cash based one that we suggest. That said, I think there are significant legal problems here if that’s kind of make this harder to imagine working. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine the government buying up all these shares of stock companies, just to acquire a significant portion of them so that you have a good probability of capturing a decent percentage of future windfall, you would have to just spend a ton of money.

Secondly, they couldn’t expropriate the shares of stock, but it would require just compensation under the US Constitution. Third, there are ways that corporations can prevent from accumulating a huge share of its stock if they don’t want it to, the poison pills, the classic example. So if the firms didn’t want a sovereign automation fund to buy up significant shares of their fund, which they might not want to since it might not govern in the best interest of other shareholders, they could just prevent it from acquiring a controlling stake. So all those seem like pretty powerful reasons why contractual mechanisms might be preferable to that kind of sovereign automation fund.

Lucas Perry: All right. And the last one here is, we should implement a universal basic income instead.

Cullen O’Keefe: Saving kind of one of the most popular suggestions for last. This isn’t even really an alternative to the Windfall Clause, it’s just one way that the Windfall Clause could look. And ultimately I think UBI is a really promising idea that’s been pretty well studied. Seems to be pretty effective. It’s obviously quite simple, has widespread appeal. And I would be probably pretty sympathetic to a Windfall Clause that ultimately implements a UBI. That said, I think there are some reasons that you might you prefer other forms of windfall distribution. So one is just that UBI doesn’t seem to target people particularly harmed by AI for example, if we’re worried about a future with a lot of automation of jobs. UBI might not be the best way to compensate those people that are harmed.

Others address that it might not be the best opportunity for providing public goods, if you thought that that’s something that the Windfall Clause should do, but I think it could be a very promising part of the Windfall Clause distribution mechanism.

Lucas Perry: All right. That makes sense. And so wrapping up here, are there any last thoughts you’d like to share with anyone particularly interested in the Windfall Clause or people in policy in government who may be listening or anyone who might find themselves at a leading technology company or AI lab?

Cullen O’Keefe: Yeah. I would encourage them to get in touch with me if they’d like. My email address is listed in the report. I think just in general, this is going to be a major challenge for society in the next century. At least it could be. As I said, I think there’s substantial uncertainty about a lot of this, so I think there’s a lot of potential opportunities to do research, not just in economics and law, but also in political science and thinking about how we can govern the windfall that artificial intelligence brings, in a way that’s universally beneficial. So I hope that other people will be interested in exploring that question. I’ll be working with the Partnership on AI to help think through this as well and if you’re interested in those efforts and have expertise to contribute, I would very much appreciate people getting touch, so they can get involved in that.

Lucas Perry: All right. Wonderful. Thank you and everyone else who helped to help work on this paper. It’s very encouraging and hopefully we’ll see widespread adoption and maybe even implementation of the Windfall Clause in our lifetime.

Cullen O’Keefe: I hope so too, thank you so much Lucas.