I recently wrote about values spreading, and came out weakly in favor of focusing on global catastrophic risks over values spreading. However, I neglected an important consideration in favor of values spreading: feedback loops.
When we try to take actions that will benefit the long-term future but where we don’t get immediate feedback on our actions, it’s easy to end up taking actions that do nothing to achieve our goals. For instance, it is surprisingly difficult to predict in advance how effective a social intervention will be. This gives reason to be skeptical about the effectiveness of interventions with long feedback loops.
Interventions on global catastrophic risks have really, really bad feedback loops. It’s nearly impossible to tell if anything we do reduces the risk of a global pandemic or unfriendly AI. An intervention focused on spreading good values is substantially easier to test. An organization like Animal Ethics can produce immediate, measurable changes in people’s values. Measuring these changes is difficult, and evidence for the effectiveness of advocacy is a lot weaker than the evidence for, say, insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria. But short-term values spreading still has an advantage over GCR reduction in that it’s measurable in principle.
Still, will measurable short-term changes in values result in sustainable long-term changes? That’s a harder question to answer. It certainly seems plausible that values shifts today will lead to shifts in the long term; but, as mentioned above, interventions that sound plausible frequently turn out not to work. Values spreading may not actually have a stronger case here than GCR reduction.
We can find feedback loops on GCR reduction that measure proxy variables. This is particularly easy in the case of climate change, where we can measure whether an intervention reduces greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. But we can also find feedback loops for something like AI safety research: we might say MIRI is more successful if it publishes more technical papers. This is not a particularly direct metric of whether MIRI is reducing AI risk, but it’s still a place where we can get quick feedback.
Given that short-term value shifts don’t necessarily predict long-term shifts, and that we can measure proxy variables for global catastrophic risk reduction, it’s non-obvious that values spreading has better feedback loops than GCR reduction. There does seem to be some sense in which value shifts today and value shifts in a thousand years are more strongly linked than, say, number of AI risk papers published and a reduction in AI risk; although this might just be because both involve value shifts–they may not actually be that strongly tied, or tied at all.
Values spreading appears to have the advantage of short-term feedback loops. But it’s not clear that these changes have long-term effects, and this claim isn’t any easier to test than the claim that GCR work today reduces global catastrophic risk.