Resigning from West Point

Recently, I decided to resign my appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This was not an easy decision, but I’m convinced it was the right one given the sum of evidence I had available. The bottom line is that this was a careful, dispassionate, utilitarian decision that I had to make in order to maximize my expected impact on the world. The primary supportive reason was the comparative advantage argument.

Comparative Advantage

In any organizations with a finite number of jobs available and more demand for the jobs than supply (e.g. the United States Army), the impact of one’s actions that one can take credit for is not merely all the good that one does through one’s role, but the marginal difference of the impact of one’s actions over the impact of the actions of the person who would have taken the job otherwise. Merely doing a good job, even if doing that job is very taxing on oneself, does not mean one is actually causing that much of an impact. Rather, one’s labor is only especially useful in a given job if the person they are replacing (the next best person who would get the job otherwise) would not do as good of a job.

The equation to calculate one’s impact of taking a job is a bit more complicated than this because one must also consider the marginal impact of the displaced person who doesn’t get your job over the impact that you would have had should you have not taken the job. In essence, although I was not quantifying my intuitive sense of impact with ‘utils’, this was the situation I was facing:

Evan Bob
Army 55 utils 50 utils
Non-Army careers X utils 30 utils

Bob is the person wanting to commission through OCS or ROTC that the Army would permit to commission if I resigned. As you can see, even if I would have done a slightly better job than Bob (which is not guaranteed), it still makes sense for me to resign so long as my impact outside of the Army is more than ‘5 utils’ greater than Bob’s would have been.

I do not wish to share a number for how relatively impactful a career I think I can have outside the Army is. However, I believe that I can likely have an impact greater than ‘5 utils’ more than Bob’s impact outside the Army and frankly, an impact greater than what I would have had in the Army if I use my talents to work hard in especially important, solvable, and neglected cause areas.

That’s essentially it. It wasn’t an emotionally easy decision–I have read my share of military books and had many dreams of leading troops and positively shaping my future units and the Army as a whole. I fully expected to come back to the big Army after I left my position as an enlisted Army engineer Diver to attend West Point.

I could go into more depth about all the details I considered. However, seeing that you know I want to work in impactful and neglected cause areas outside of the Army, I think you get the point that my decision to resign was optimal, or at least, respectable.

Economic Policies that Optimize for Future People

BLUF: This isn’t a profoundly deep post– it just shows my current, general views on a variety of current economic issues.

I do not believe future people are intrinsically less valuable than the people existing today. In fact, I think they might be more valuable because their lives will intrinsically be more worth living as their well-being will probably be greater. I also respect the validity of the 20% chance of extinction by 2100 that is the average of a number of researchers’ estimations, so I think that even considering a variety of extinction scenarios, there are many more future people expected to exist in the future. Thus, I think we should optimize our political and economic policies to serve their interests even more than the selfish interests of those people alive today. What does this look like in concrete policies?

  • Steep carbon taxes
  • Taxes on essential ecological service destruction in general priced at the cost of replacement
  • A land-value tax
  • Universal Basic Income at a cost to less-efficient government social programs like Social Security

Principles behind optimizing our economy for the long-term future

  • A willingness to bear the temporary economic losses, as a society, of implementing steep carbon taxes and essential ecological service destruction taxes.
  • More deliberate experimentation to test policies via states and charter cities.
  • Beyond concerns about environmental destruction, being willing to optimize for economic growth more than redistributing resources to satisfy the preferences of everyone who happens to be alive today. Social security recipients are no longer actively contributing to the economy, so we should cut their funding to give everyone a UBI.

Beyond optimizing for the long-term, I generally support:

  • lifting economically stifling regulation; we should make entrepreneurship as easy as possible. One shouldn’t need to consult a lawyer to start many personal businesses.
  • lifting barriers to competition like government-mandated licensing (e.g. taxicabs)
  • Free trade
  • Much greater immigration, especially of educated people, but not quite open borders.

My Secret Addiction: Project Euler Problems

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): This is a personal post how I become involved with programming and my continued interest in solving mathy programming problems.

I used to believe that programming was just beyond my abilities. I thought that only the hacker type that discovered programming books when they were 10 and had few other distractions could really do it, and that it was beyond the reach of most ordinary people, including me.

As a Plebe (freshman) at West Point, I had to take an introduction to information technology course based around Jython (Python on JVM). The course material was surprisingly confusing to me for a while (it didn’t help that we had a terrible REPL which didn’t color code language syntax versus permissible variable names and that we used a lot of obscure functions for picture editing).

I was over halfway through the course when I somehow discovered ProjectEuler.net and a better REPL. I ended up programming for nearly all of my free time for nearly 2 weeks straight and realized that I actually did have a knack for programming. I decided to transfer from being an operations research major to being a computer science major, which I was and still am excited about.

Anyways, I still spend some of my free time programming these Project Euler problems because they are so damn fun and a tractable way to improve my still basic programming skills. I lost all my computer files last semester, so below is the Project Euler problems that I have solved since then:

Understanding the True Cost of Land-Use Projects

Update: My team’s paper earned the coveted Outstanding rating! Further, our paper won the Rachel Carlson award, which “is presented to a team selected by the Head Judge of ICM Problem E for excellence in using scientific theory and data in its modeling.” Over 4,800 collegiate teams from around the world were competing in Problem E, so I am honored that our work was recognized as the best! Here are the results.

BLUF: My team of two other college sophomores competed in an academic competition involving 99 hours of modeling and paper writing. This post presents our work.

We ended up cranking this paper out: “Ecological Services Valuation Model: Understanding the True Cost of Land-Use Projects”

Intro: Our team was hired to tackle one of the greatest problems remaining in the 21st century: how do we prevent the “tragedy of the commons?” Specifically, our task was to “create an ecological services valuation model to understand the true economic costs of land use projects when ecosystem services (ES) are considered.” We discovered that answering this question is key for governments to rent land to entities for land-use projects at a price necessary to preserve the value of ES owned by all.

In our pursuit of creating a model, we began by researching the philosophical underpinnings of value. We decided that well-being, based off conscious-subjective experiences, is the only good which is intrinsically valuable. While we maintain a degree of moral uncertainty on this matter, we ultimately decided to base our valuation of ecosystem services from their expected impact on well-being of conscious creatures, most especially humans.

We then explored the economic systems that best support our value-theory, and settled on Georgism, an economic philosophy which asserts that, while individuals ought to own the fruits of their own labor, natural resources are a public good [1]. Then, we researched the possible frameworks we could use to price ecosystem services, and determined the price should reflect the cost of artificially replacing ES. In other words, the value of an ES depends on the price to replace its services. For services that are irreplaceable, we propose a method of converting lost environmental services into Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs), which may then converting into dollars based off the rate of producing QALYs.

We explored preexisting models for pricing the ES affected by land-use projects, and found several highly-developed, but difficult to apply models. To solve for this, we sought to create a model which balances accurate valuation with ease of applicability, while still maintaining our values of maximizing well-being. Thus, we designed a general model with only the most applicable variables.

Check out our paper for the full report.

 

Piano Songs [Overt Signaling]

I started playing piano in 7th grade and played up through 10th grade. I’ve been able to play here and then since then, and this is what I’ve played recently:

I used to like to play classically difficult songs like Maple Leaf Rag, but now I only make time to improvise and maintain the songs I can already play. Over the last few years, I’ve lost most of my sight reading ability, but I have far improved my ability to play artistically and with nuance.

Remember Neuroplasticity and Do Not Enjoy That Which Is Not Productive

And remember that you can learn to enjoy many productive actions.

Our attachments to activities grow as we do them. We browse Instagram once, we do it a second time, and if we aren’t careful, we find ourselves burning over an hour a week on an activity that offers almost no long-term benefit to ourselves or society.

Most people’s set of unproductive habits start off as innocent pleasures to escape boredom. Many of us often justify our nonproductive habits because “we need to destress”; the underlying assumption is that there is not a reasonable way to experience the same level of hedonic experience through more productive action.

The human mind is incredibly adaptable, and most people can learn to enjoy any number of activities, especially in a pleasure-scarce environment where other, more rewarding activities are not immediately available.

As obvious is this may sound, it seems we forget this all the time. People allow themselves to need Netflix to unwind, and they forget that they could have wired themselves to unwind to the same degree by writing or programming, which are usually going to help oneself and the world better.

If we don’t enjoy unproductive actions and focus exclusively on productive actions (which may be as simple as writing out our thoughts on Google Keep), we can wire our brains to reward us for productive actions. Then, our life can become a glorious dance of productivity where we have nothing to hide and we can feel good about feeling good. We can enjoy ourselves and fulfill our potential to have a positive impact.

My Army Train-Up

BLUF: This is a straight up brag (this is my own blog, after all) about how disciplined I was during the second half of my senior year before I enlisted. I want to share how single-mindedly focused I was towards this goal.

Let it be known that while I waited approximately 6 months to ship off for basic training, I stopped driving to school and starting biking about 100 miles per week until I got hit by a car after a few months and my bike got destroyed.

I also almost always got in 20-30k steps a day. My most memorable part of my train-up was several times a week, throwing on my 40lb ruck, putting on ‘altitude’ training mask which strains breathing muscles, and rucking for 1-2 hours while listening to podcasts like SOFREP radio and Freakonomics. Mind you this is all in Florida, much of this during the summer.

As I was training up for dive school as well, I was in the pool nearly everyday, alternating between swimming, finning, treading with weight, and breath holding. I did pushups all throughout the day (even at school), and frequently ended the day with a long pushup/pullup/situp grind.

I also took weight lifting and team sports classes at school, which meant I either lifted or played some sport M-F. During lunch, I often ran on the track which was against the rules, but the school administration tolerated.

This training helped me get meritoriously promoted to E-3 after Basic Combat Training, helped me pass the three week diver selection course, which had an 86% attrition rate for my cycle, and helped me be the honor graduate of my 6-month diver phase 2 class.

/endBrag

Necessary EA Institutions Part 1: Daily Impact Journaling

Here, I present the case that one aspiring to do as much good as possible with their lives should experiment with keeping a daily log of their impact.

Journaling about impact forces one to reflect on what is, by definition, the most important thing in life. This helps hold one accountable for how they spend their time and helps one pin down their most impactful actions in order to learn from them and replicate them more. Further, where one perceives themselves as failing, it should be easier to muster the motivation to brainstorm how one can be more impactful with their time in the future.

Logging serves as an anchor which can keep even the most aspiring effective altruist grounded.  Even if one thinks about having an impact throughout the day, logging the concrete expected effects of one’s various actions can keep one grounded with the actual impact they are making.

It may be scary to actually write out the expected effects of one’s concrete actions. One can no longer rely on long-term future ideals to satisfy their superego and make one feel like they are living in line with their values.  If it is indeed painful to log one’s impact, this will likely serve as a powerful, necessary motive for change. In the long-run, this active self-accountability should ultimately help one avoid future regrets and it will almost certainly lead to one having a bigger impact on the world.

Our Responsibility to Reduce Personal Risk

Insofar as the (expected value of the world with us alive) minus (the expected value of the world with us dead) is positive, we have an obligation to remain alive.  Therefore, it is unethical to bear personal risks of death when the expected benefits of doing so do not outweigh the expected marginal benefit of one remaining alive.

What does this mean? One has a responsibility to live carefully.

When I grew up, I frequently bore considerable personal risk to try to display bravado and skill to my friends and have fun.  Yes, this had personal utility in the form of positive subjective experiences and confidence building, but it probably did not outweigh my (risk of death) times (the value of the future with me in it).

Just for a quick list of some of the unnecessary risks I chose to bear:

  • Climbed dozens of trees to heights greater than 20 feet.
  • Drifted 4-wheelers and road way too fast through narrow snowy trails in the woods, even after wiping out a few times and nearly having one land on me.
  • Sprinted through dense Florida forest at night to avoid getting tagged in games of ‘manhunt’.  Looking back on it, this gave me a relatively great probability of getting a stick in my eye, which would, sans a personal mindset revolution, be expected to reduce my life-long productivity.
  • Skiied down all of the black diamond trails at a park the first day I learned how to ski.
  • I was a very alert, focused driver, but I drove way too aggressively when I was 16-17. I would drift and weave aggressively through traffic to save a couple minutes on my commute.
  • I’ve done lots of breath holding activities alone in the water.

I know many (perhaps you) have assumed greater unnecessary risks, but my actions were morally problematic.  Combined, I say they easily gave me a 3% chance of death.  I expect to avert, at the minimum, 10,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years over the course of my life through effective giving ($300,000 to Against Malaria Foundation or the like).  Just counting this impact alone, I statistically allowed 300 years of human suffering to happen that I could have prevented.  But I certainly had fun doing these risky activities- perhaps it all adds up to .25 Quality Adjusted Life Years worth of well-being.

As you can see, the cost of these actions is somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 1200 times greater than the benefits.  I am not going to beat myself up for what already happened, but the question I have to ask myself now is, how can I reduce unnecessary risk in my life?

As much as part of me wants to continue to flirt with danger and downhill mountain bike, ski, and continue doing road cycling, I now plan on mitigating these risks as much as possible.  The world doesn’t need me to be fast at getting down mountains on my bike.  It needs me to have only enough leisure to be happy so that I can maximize my productivity and impact.

My Philosophical Beliefs

Evan Sandhoefner’s post, Read This First – My Beliefs , almost perfectly describes how I see ethics. I plan on writing my own post on my views in the near future, but I am glad I can share his post in the meantime.  These are beliefs I take for granted in much of my other writing.

On Leadership Qualities [short essay]

I just found this 2500 character-limit essay I wrote when applying to West Point.  To be honest, I am pretty satisfied with it:

From my short time in the Army, I have concluded the most important qualities for becoming a successful USMA cadet and Army officer are humility, balance, vision, grit, and extreme ownership.

Humility
Humility is essential to long-term, successful leadership. Without it, prideful leaders cannot make an honest self-assessment and will have difficulty owning up to and learning from their mistakes. They are less willing to consult the opinions of others and risk becoming a toxic leader, which can have disastrous effects on unit morale and mission accomplishment. In an organization with as high stakes as the Army, this kind of egotism is unacceptable. A USMA cadet’s purpose is to prepare to lead Soldiers, and he must not have his ability to learn and grow be obstructed by something as pointless as pride.

Balance
An officer must be able to find and maintain a balance between contradictory qualities. For example, he must be close to subordinates and understand their motivations, but not so close that he shows favoritism. He must act with confidence to instill it in his team, but he must avoid being overconfident, which brings complacency. A cadet must practice balance in his daily life between athletics and schoolwork, and in the relationships he builds with his superiors and subordinates.

Vision
Vision is the ability to see the big picture when only limited details are available. The success and failure of a team often rest on the ability of the leader to see the big picture and adjust accordingly. An officer cannot lead his unit to success without having a clear vision of how his unit’s efforts fit in with the operational environment and his commander’s intent. A cadet must be able to see past his daily struggles at the academy and understand how his actions are affecting his future ability to lead troops.

Grit
Grit is a key component of resilience and is an especially important quality for leaders in an organization as demanding as the Army. When good intentions and motivation give way due to physical and mental exhaustion, grit will keep one driving onward towards success. Upon finishing a long patrol, an officer, exercising grit, will require himself and his men to execute the priorities of work. Thus, food and sleep must come after security, weapons cleaning, and hygiene. Likewise, a USMA cadet must develop grit to complete all of his duties satisfactorily and bounce back to his feet when he fails in doing so.

Extreme Ownership
Extreme ownership truly defines leaders. It’s based on the principle that leaders are ultimately responsible for the success and failure of their teams. “There are no bad regiments; there are only bad colonels,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. It is not an officer’s job to blame his men or his superiors. It’s his duty to own his entire world and figure out the solutions to the problems. If his Soldiers are making mistakes, then he probably is not ensuring they receive proper training. There is no room for blame.
Likewise, a cadet must take extreme ownership over his educational, athletic, and leadership development and understand that he is responsible for his progress–USMA can only facilitate growth.

A Mathematical Model for Visual Threat Response

BLUF: This post describes a personal victory, as well as some math to understand an interesting phenomenon.

In April of 2018, I participated in a math modeling competition where my three-person team had a week to tackle one of three problems and then go to Columbia to compete in-person. Ultimately, we walked away with first place, which felt pretty good considering we were freshmen and some of our competition consisted of senior math majors.  Our paper (only part of the competition) is here:mathVisualThreatPaper

After this competition while on our way to dinner, I checked to see if the 2018 Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling results were released yet, and I discovered that my team for that placed in the top 11 of 3150+ teams! So not to toot my own horn too much, but I was the only person on the two winningest math teams at West Point (as a freshman!), so I felt great for like the next day. /endBrag Beyond being a celebration, I included this post because I think it’s interesting how even the simplest creatures (e.g. house flies) have the computational power to adequately assess visual threat, and I think the math in the paper adequately describes how creatures actually assess visual threat.

My Current Career Path

Update (19 April 2019): My thinking has evolved since this post! Thus, I have submitted my resignation memorandum and plan to leave the Army as I believe this is the personal route that best allows me to maximize expected utility.  This was motivated primarily by the replaceability argument (in the Army, I can only claim credit for the marginal impact I would have over the officer who would otherwise fill my shoes).

I also came to the conclusion that I overemphasized the career capital I would gain from graduating from West Point and serving as an officer (I am still a veteran after all), and underestimated the career capital I could gain from forging my own route should I resign.  I also realized that the skills I would gain in the Army would not translate well to what I want to do afterward and that whatever I started to do while 29 years old, I would be significantly behind my peers.  I have a lot more reasons for leaving the Army which I might post about later.


I am fairly certain that utilitarianism is true, and that I have an obligation to live my life in a way so as to maximize expected utility (I consider the well-being/suffering of all expected future creatures to be the one utility to be maximized).

Obviously, it’s very difficult to know and predict the precise Nth-order effects of our actions; I’m very uncertain about what actions are necessary to maximize net expected utility. Fortunately, I have a few solid options available to me:

  • Drop out of West Point to attend Lambda School (or another coding school), which would reliably lead me to begin earning $80k+ annually within the next year. This might allow me to maximize earning to give in the short term.
  • Drop out of West Point and work full time on effective altruism research, either inside or outside of an organization. This could allow me to maximize short-term intellectual contributions to the world.
  • Finish West Point, serve in the Army for 5 years, and probably maximize my career capital. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that serving as an officer is good in itself, but the impact that I can claim credit for is the marginal benefit I would cause to the Army, the mission, and my Soldiers compared to the officer that I am replacing.

Despite having 120+ credit hours and probably being developed enough at this point to move past college (bold claim, I know), I don’t actually have a Bachelors degree yet (West Point doesn’t take transfer credits). As we all know, this piece of paper carries immense signaling benefits, and I’d probably tremendously limit the jobs I could interview for by failing to get a degree.

Of course, I don’t have to get a degree from West Point, but I do not believe my academic GPA at West Point is good enough to get me into a comparably prestigious school. Thus, my current plan is to graduate from West Point in 2.25 years, serve in the Army as an officer for 5 years (which I am excited about out and have wanted to do since middle school, and then move on and do something different.

I am currently planning on attending grad school for computer science, economics, business school, or something else. Then, the options are endless. I want to do direct effective altruism (EA) research, but I think I would prefer to hold a high-income job and fund the EA research that I want to get done.  I also am thinking about working in startups as it has the potential for great reward and benefit to society, and I will be able to bear the statistically-expected repeated failures for a while due to the support of my future wife, who will be a physicians assistant.

Thanks for reading! If you want to talk careers, feel free to DM me on Twitter (@EvanWard97).

Is Life Insurance Rational?

BLUF: Life insurance might be rational for many effective altruism-minded people, but the devil is in the details- that is, one’s probable risk of death and the payout/cost of a plan.

US military servicemembers are afforded the option of paying $29 a month for $400,000 in life insurance. The norm is that the overwhelming majority of servicemembers pay for this. I decided that if I happen to die while in the military, I wanted the $400k to go to the most effective charities. The separate $100k death gratuity would go to my family members, but I would divide up the $400k payout among four think-tanks/charities I care about:
the Machine Intelligence Research Institute,
80,000 Hours,
GiveDirectly
the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

While this may not be the optimal way of distributing funds and there is an argument that in a sufficiently-sized donation market, it’s optimal for people to just donate to the one charity they think is the best, I still hate the idea of putting all my eggs in one basket. Additionally, if I die, I expect my donations to go on the local news or at least be on my obituary, and I think it would be better for people to see four organizations than one. Hence, I decided to focus on the four cause areas of AI-alignment (MIRI), meta- effective altruism (80,000 Hours), direct impact on global poverty (GiveDirectly), and general existential risk research (FHI).

Are my odds of death good enough to warrant this $29 a month that cannot go to these charities? I assumed my odds of death were good enough when I was an enlisted deep sea diver (laundry list of diving hazards for the uninitiated). I feel they are still decent enough as a West Point Triathlete who frequently bikes on terrible New York roads 8+ months of the year to warrant the $29 a month. However, I recently realized that EA is probably big enough now that I don’t need to make sure that these organizations get a minimum amount of money from me, but that the community is big enough now that I should just maximize the expected utility of my donations. In other words, I might actually be wasting a portion of $29 a month depending on my actual risk of death. Thus, I figured it was time to just shut up and multiply:

It turns out the calculus really doesn’t have to be that hard. $29 a month * 12 months a year * 7.3 more years in the Army= $2540. $400k/2540= 157. Essentially, if I have greater than a 1 in 157 chance in dying over my expected time remaining in the Army, it makes sense that I buy the life insurance. I think this is definitely within a natural log order-of-magnitude of the true probability, which is between a 1 in 55 chance and a 1 in 403 chance (ln157=5 ; e^4= 55 ; e^6= 403). Generic actuarial data supports this (average odds of dying while a 25 year old male (my average age over the next 7 years) is 0.001451. This yields a 1 in 94 chance of dying, which is riskier than 1 in 157. Additionally, while I may not be doing the risky driving which fuels deaths for people my age, I think the road cycling and risks while on deployment (assuming we don’t go to war with a near-peer) will keep my number at least in the ballpark of the national average. Hence, it seems rational for me and others in the military to buy life insurance if we want to maximize expected dollars donated to the causes we care about.

Why is SGLI so cheap if the expected utility works out for most people? This could signal my math is faulty.  Contributing factors include:
-SGLI is run by the Department of Veteran Affairs and they are not making a profit.
-they probably make a lot of interest from investing the money.

Does my math check out? Thanks for reading!

One Post, Every Day

I saw an idea about writing an essay/blog post each day here, and I am interested in trying it out. Why should I?

Upsides

  • Practice formalizing my thoughts to be more persuasive. There are few skills more important in the grand scheme of things than being able to convince others of one’s ideas (assuming one’s ideas are marginally meritorious).
  • Refine my specific thoughts. There is no better way of doing this than writing.
  • Get my ideas out there for others to read. Perhaps I will update someone’s knowledge in an important way.
  • Positive signaling. If someone likes my writing, perhaps I can make a new friend or increase my chances of getting a job I want down the road.
  • Public writing gives me an increased opportunity to be proved wrong. A conversation can take place if someone disagrees with me, and perhaps they will change my mind.
  • Facilitate longer-length thoughts. Let me break this down: I’ve noticed that when I Tweet a lot, I tend to propagate ideas in my mind that are tweetable. These tend to be relatively short ideas that get likes. It’s probably not ideal for me to walk around thinking at this shallow of a level. Yet, I like to publish my ideas and be thinking about ideas I can share. So if I transfer to sharing predominantly longer-winded thoughts, then perhaps my thinking throughout the day can be of higher quality.

Possible downsides

  • A blog could hurt me financially or socially. I could be rejected from a job for making a claim that is just repugnant to a potential employer.
  • An AI down the road could use my essays to make a predictive model of me and I could thus lose some of my power. To illustrate, to the degree life is a chess game, an opponent could develop a heat map of positions I tend to play.
  • Could be a time waste in the sense that I may not necessarily be working on the deepest ideas. This could encourage quantity over quality to a fault.
  • If I don’t post every day, people can clearly see that I am not perfectly reliable.

These are fair downsides, but I’m going to try this out. So I don’t give myself a life-long burden, I am going to set a time-bounded goal: at a minimum, publish a post every day until April 1. Thanks for reading!

Update: I was overall successful, accept that I sometimes wrote 2 posts one day and then on days where I didn’t write a new post, I updated one of these posts to count for my post for that day. I also lasted until March 24, which was a month from when I started, but not fully until April 1. I don’t want to make excuses, but I was running out of ideas at the time and didn’t want to dilute what I had written so far with lesser-quality posts.

Update 2: Here are some more excellent reasons to start a blog!

Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling Victory (personal post)

In January 2018, I competed in COMAP’s Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling. Over a period of about 100 hours, I worked with my team of two other freshmen on our 20-page report addressing ICM problem D. Essentially, we were looking at how a nation could implement an all-electric vehicle network and had to answer a variety of specific prompts in a cohesive report.

Despite having easily 10 waking day hours taken from us for having to conduct a Saturday A.M. Inspection (a strict barracks room inspection that takes hours to prepare for) and a ruck march for military weekend training, my team was pleased to discover in April that our report got a Finalist rating! In other words, our paper was rated between the top 11 and top 7 of over 3100 reports submitted by collegiate teams from around the world.

I have a team ready to compete again in this January 2019. With another year of study under our belts (and no Saturday military training this year), hopefully we will get the coveted Outstanding rating, win ourselves $10,000, have our report actually influence policy, learn even more than last year, and signal to the world that we can crank out great work in a short amount of time.

Exploring Accountability in Autonomous Drone Warfare

In June of 2018, I had the privilege of attending a writing workshop at Pembroke College, Oxford, UK.  There, I presented my developing work on an effects-based accountability scheme to address an apparent legal and moral accountability gap in future autonomous drone warfare.

I had drafted a rough proposal that involved increasing the liability of high-level combatant commanders and acquisition committee members for mistakes committed by autonomous weapon systems.  I wrote about this here.

Ultimately, the fantastic discussion at the conference made me realize that this idea was neither practical nor desirable in our current geopolitical climate.  Russia and China understand the power of autonomous drones to affordably close the military strength-gap between themselves and the US, and I think it is likely they would refuse to pass the resolution to hold key leaders more liable.  Further, the US is already the most careful power developing autonomous weapon systems; passing such a law would effectively shoot ourselves in the foot.

“Getting the Hands Dirty for a Good Cause”- a Short Story

In my Plebe (freshman) year literature class, about 7 months ago, I wrote an adventurous short story (~2600 words) that combines effective altruism, the tech world, fake news, and a moral lesson about the possible tragic consequences of naive unilateral action.  Let me know what you think!

Getting the Hands Dirty for a Good Cause

“I know. You’re disappointed that I didn’t turn out to be like you,” boomed out of the surround-sound system connected to the 68 inch plasma TV, which blocked the view of the Pacific from San Francisco.

“No. No, nonono. I was disappointed… that you tried.”

 

Morgan clicked off the television, intent to use this temporary wave of positive emotion to do something good with his time. He refused to let himself fall victim to this modern societal “curse” of ennui and complacency that seemed to naturally follow from having his basic evolutionary needs so easily met. He was intent on escaping the boredom this summer day.

 

He pulled out an index card with 3 things he set for himself last night to do today. He knew that if he didn’t write out goals and accomplish them early in the day, he would probably wind up with little to show for his time. But it was summer, so he certainly didn’t feel like going too crazy. But 3 things was reasonable, and his list for today was:

Create and distribute a flyer for teaching piano lessons.

Get in a sprint workout at the track.

Figure out something really good to do for society.

 

He had created the flyer in the morning and hung up a few around his neighborhood community center at the beginning of his run to the track, where he had gotten in his track workout. He checked both those off.

He had just finished his lunch of tofu and vegetable stir fry, which was eaten while lounging on the couch and watching Inception, which he found playing on TV.

As it was summer, he had virtually no external obligations, which was awesome at first, but he had found his that life was void of the usual meaning he found when he was busy during the school year.

 

He had brought up this boredom to his parents and they suggested he volunteer, and he was bored enough that he took their advice: he went online, found a local food bank, and went in for about 6 hours. It helped his boredom a little, but by the end of the day, he felt like he did more good for himself just moving heavy boxes of food around than he did for the hungry people of his area. He wasn’t really redirecting resources to places they wouldn’t go otherwise, he figured; he was just processing them in a job that probably would have been filled by someone else had he not committed to volunteering the hours he did.

 

So he got interested in doing something good this summer that was a better use of his time.

The only problem was that any ideas he could come up with were far too unappealing. They would constitute a lot of work, and just not have an impact that really made it worth it to him.

 

But he kept thinking. “How can I do the most good?”, he punched into his Google search bar on his laptop.

The Most Good You Can Do -Wikipedia was his 2nd hit, and he clicked on the link.

 

Chapter 2

“Mate, toss me another Red Bull” commanded Arthur, who never looked away from his code. He had 4 minutes left out of an hour for this problem in the hackathon, and he was not about to lose this early on the competition. He was almost done 10 minutes ago, but his computer restarted without his permission and he ended up with having to retype everything. You might think a Google software engineer with a Ph.D. in computer science would have automated his computer saving by now, but unfortunately, you would be wrong.

 

Anyways, there was money on the line- $50,000 for 1st place- and equally important, his pride. He would never hear the end of his coworker’s jokes if he failed to complete this problem. Hiding Moby Dick in a picture with fewer pixels than characters in the text didn’t require learning anything particularly new, but it did require some techniques he hadn’t practiced since his undergrad years at CalTech.

 

2:59, 2:58, 2:57 the clock went down.

 

He wasn’t going to make it. He was going to have to have to play one of his strongest cards now. He was going to freeze Gmail. Yes, disable all Gmail transfers. It was a trick he set up while working in the G-suite department and one that only would work once after the patch would be emplaced within probably 2 hours. He was hoping he would end up using it for something bigger, like shorting Alphabet stock, but he was also concerned the Feds and Google’s investigation team would trace it back. This seemed petty enough that no one would trace it back to him. He texted “stop” from his burner phone to his trigger mechanism he implanted in Google’s server farm. He tried to send an email from an account not connected to him to his Gmail account. Nothing showed up in his inbox. It had worked!

1:59, 1:58. 1:57

He got up and took his laptop to the bathroom and got back to his coding and hoped enough people haven’t sent their submissions yet so that competition regulators would extend the time. Obviously, something was wrong if half the people didn’t submit anything this early on.

Arthur’s adrenaline was pumping. He would get blasted by the courts- civil and criminal- if his trick was ever traced back to him. He was fine though, he knew he was. He finished up his text compression algorithm, compressed Moby Dick to about a third of its original size, and hid it into a picture that was not even 2 megabytes. It was already 3 minutes after the clock had run down, but he submitted his work to the competition officials, knowing that he was still in the competition. He checked Gmail’s Twitter, and sure enough, they were already apologizing for technical errors. He felt like how the Inception team must have felt when they woke up on the 747 after implanting an idea in Fischer’s mind. He felt amazing.

 

Chapter 3

1 week later.

 

Morgan was typing away passionately. His life had changed so much in the past week. He had discovered the effective altruism movement, which was about using science and rationality to do the most good possible, which generally meant finding charities in developing countries that added the most years of quality human life per dollar. Apparently, some charities were 1000x better than others, and some could reliably add a year of human life for about $100.

 

But soon later, he had discovered the existential risk reduction movement, whose basic idea was: it would be great to help out some of the 7.5 billion people alive today, but even better to ensure that trillions of people got to exist in the future, which could only happen if humanity does not become extinct. He felt like there was a pretty good chance of happening in the next century, considering the Tweets being exchanged by Trump and “The Little Rocket Man” Kim Jung Un.

 

Anyways, he found the ideas so compelling that he turned down requests from his friends to hang out. He was just reading the major works in the field and taking detailed notes while he did so. Mainly, he was frustrated by the lack of concern policymakers, or even scientists, seemed to make about this. “There is more scholarly work on the life-habits of the dung fly than on existential risks” he read from Nick Bostrom. Ensuring humanity’s survival was obviously a more critical problem than almost anything else, but it was just not salient enough for the public to vote on. Politicians would be accountable for spending billions on preventing something that over the coming century, would most likely not happen.

 

While he was doing so, an insane idea came to him: what if he could spread enough fake news about a biological superbug that would get society to actually care about the threat and invest in protecting against it? That would certainly raise the salience of the issue to the American people and get the extra billions he thought was needed for the CDC.

 

Morgan decided he needed a machine learning expert to help him optimally spread fake news, and was posting to all sorts of websites like StackExchange looking for one, saying how he would pay top dollar for a short-term altruistic problem. By the evening, Morgan had got several Gmails with resumes attached, which he just thought was insane. One of them, in particular, stood out- a Google AI researcher with a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley named Arthur. He figured he was getting trolled by some scam artist, but sure enough, he found the guy’s name on a Google website and his thesis published online.

 

He emailed Arthur back with his phone number and insisted they call to explain his proposal. Sure enough, Morgan’s phone number rang within 5 minutes, which might have sounded needy except if he did not offer $20,000 for the gig.

“Good evening, this is Arthur Oppenheimer. Is this Jack Rutherford?”

“Yes, it is” Morgan replied in a professional voice, relieved that Arthur sounded just like he did on a video he found on YouTube of him lecturing. And yes, he wasn’t about to give up his name this early on.

“I saw your ad posted for an AI gig, what is it that I can help you with?”

“Yeah, I am not comfortable talking on this unsecured line, do you have Signal?” Morgan asked, writing about an encrypted internet phone app.

“Yes, of course,” Morgan replied, knowing that many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were paranoid about getting their ideas stolen. “Same number?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll call you right back then.” Arthur hung up and called back “Jack” on Signal.

 

“Hey Jack, what can I help you with?”

“I am looking to spread a message.”

“Like marketing?”

“No, well yes, but I need an AI researcher to help me do it because I need the message to be adaptable and look like news.”

Arthur, although alone in his apartment, raised an eyebrow, concerned this was some kind of trap. “What kind of news?” he asked.

 

“Do you believe the ends justify the means?” Morgan asked as calmly as possible, his palms sweating, as he realized the implication of what he was doing.

“Sure”

“I am very concerned organizations like the CDC and the NIH are not being funded enough to do research into preventing abuse of CRISPR and the creation of superbugs. I think there is a significant risk of a catastrophic outbreak, and do to the interconnectedness of everyone, a chance that 99% of people could become infected with a bug that could be made in a lab or inadvertently in a factory farm.”

“I hear you. What are you asking of me?”

“I want you to help me create a fake pandemic and get as many people to believe it as possible.” Morgan was sweating profusely now.

Arthur was shocked by the question, and while he hated what Cambridge Analytica did, this didn’t sound bad to him. He thought about some of the algorithms he could write to propagate this “news” to himself, but he was getting nervous too. What if this was a trap, or even if it wasn’t, what if this idiot would mess something up and get him caught?

 

“Nah mate, not interested. You really ought to go about the proper channel to make the change you want to see in the world.” Arthur hung up, glad that he had made the right call. He had a great job, and he just got the $50,000 in his bank account from the hackathon. He didn’t need to risk what he had built for himself over $20,000.

 

Morgan felt relieved in the ensuing silence, but he also felt ashamed that he wasn’t going through the proper channels. No, he told himself, the proper channels don’t work, and you have to take this into your own hands. He knew that existential risk movement was doing all they could, petitioning Congress, writing books. No one was getting their hands dirty, so he had to do it. If he were caught, the world would eventually thank him, although he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t end up in jail.

 

Arthur had trouble sleeping that night, mad at himself for failing to exercise at all. His mind wandered back to the strange conversation he had earlier, and he considered the offer again. It would be an excellent opportunity to apply one of his algorithms he had developed in grad school, but he was concerned about getting caught. Other people were so careless about their digital footprint. He himself narrowly dodged a bullet from today, when he almost considered calling Jack with his burner phone from the hackathon, which was still off and with the battery out. The idea came to him: What if he did it himself? He could anonymously reach out to Jack with his Monero (anonymous cryptocurrency) public key, and offer to do it, so long that he got, say $5,000 after the first bit of news surrounding the article appeared on Twitter, and $15,000 after he got mention of it on the local news.

 

He got up then and emailed Jack anonymously and inquired about the job offer, pretending to be a new person.

 

Morgan had been up, responding to more emails, generally focusing on ensuring the quality of the applicants more than he was explaining his job. He did not want to get hung up on again. He needed to find the right person.

 

“Send your CV for further consideration, please” Morgan replied.

“How many people have you interviewed for the job?” asked Arthur.

“Plenty” lied Morgan, unsure of the real usefulness of the question.

Arthur sent back, “I know your job, and I’ll do it. I’ll need you to look for the hashtag #biothreat on Twitter when I tell you to, and then you will pay me, and then I will do more, and then you will pay me more, and we can do this. But I am going to do this myself.” Arthur also attached his Monero public key along with instructions on how to pay.

“Ok, I trust you,” replied Morgan. What else could he do?

“Save the Monero key, and delete these emails, and I’ll contact you in a couple weeks.

 

Chapter 4

Two weeks later, after the two exchanged their emails, the #biothreat hashtag started trending on Twitter, but more significant than that, reports started trending about a nuclear bomb detonating over Delhi, India. Initial fingers naturally pointed at Pakistan, and situation rooms all around the world were rapidly filled with their leaders and staff. However, the Indian’s claimed responsibility- they said they had made the extremely difficult call to neutralize a rapidly spreading virus that was released from a biological warfare lab and killing people within the hour. India’s president reported that scientist said the virus had likely already spread to 100,000 people, and they believed it was being dispersed by the wind.

 

Little did they know, except for Morgan and Arthur at the time, that Arthur’s black box AI algorithm, designed to maximize reshares and retweets, had acted a horribly wrong. Except it hadn’t. It had acted right, per the goals programmed into it. Way too right.