[Originally posted on the EA Forum]
When I ask effective altruists who their hero is, it’s always the same names. Peter Singer. Stanislav Petrov. Jonas Salk.
No one ever mentions Ea-nasir, the ancient Sumerian coppersmith and businessman. Which is a shame, really. I guess it makes sense. Most people haven’t heard of him, and those who have only know Nanni’s side of the story:
Sorry, I suppose some of you aren’t literate in Akkadian cuneiform. Here’s a translation.
When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin)…
What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?… You have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory… You alone treat my messenger with contempt!…
Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.Nanni, to Ea-nasir
Ea-nasir kept this tablet — and other complaints like it — proudly displayed in his home. I suppose I shouldn’t blame people for concluding that he defrauded his customers with glee.
It’s time to set the record straight. Nanni didn’t say it in his message, but he would have used the copper ingots to make swords to use against his enemies. It was a pointless local skirmish, and Ea-nasir wasn’t willing to be complicit in Nanni’s murders.
These complaints that he displayed in his home — each of them was a precious token of a life saved.
How do I know all this? You see, I am part of a clandestine organization dedicated to the life and work of Ea-nasir. We’ve gone by different names throughout the years. The Ea-nasir Force. Ea-nasir’s Dog Will Open This One (don’t ask, some sort of Sumerian pun). Liberté, Ea-nasirté, Fraternité. Until recently, Friends of Ea-nasir. We’ve existed ever since his time, our causes and methods changing as the world changed around us. The only common thread — besides our desire to do good — is our distinctive approach: the fine art of shoddy craftsmanship.
For nearly four thousand years, we’ve been pulling at the strings of history, attempting to better the world. We haven’t always been successful, but we’ve never stopped trying:
- The Leaning Tower of Pisa? We designed the plans for it, anticipating that it might aid in physics experiments that could lead to the discovery of what we now call Newton’s laws of motion.
- We designed the winter apparel for Napoleon’s army to have tin buttons, anticipating that it would deteriorate when they tried to conquer Russia. This led to Napoleon’s eventual defeat.
- During World War II we infiltrated a Czech munitions factory that was making weapons for Nazi Germany. We proceeded to make bombs as usual, with just one minor modification: we left out the explosive charges. This ended up saving hundreds of lives.
- The Enigma was broken in part because it never mapped a character to itself. We introduced that flaw into the design.
- To mitigate the threat of nuclear annihilation, we made sure that American warplanes had flawed circuitry, so that they couldn’t make it all the way to Russia. Unfortunately this backfired, when in 1958 a B-47 malfunctioned and dropped a nuclear weapon over Mars Bluff, South Carolina. Fortunately the bomb didn’t explode: it was one of the few bombs whose fissile core we had managed to steal just a few years earlier.
- To mitigate the potential for further disaster, we aggressively introduced flaws into most of the American nuclear stockpile. This saved the town of Goldsboro, this time in North Carolina, when a similar incident occurred a few years later.
- You can thank us for the fact that the Watergate break-in was discovered. We made sure the wiretaps were defective, and although Nixon’s people ended up realizing this, they got caught replacing them.
- In the 1970s we became concerned with the threat of climate change. We infiltrated your local DMV and made it as bureaucratic and inefficient as possible, in an attempt to reduce car use. The studies we did on whether this worked came back inconclusive. Sorry, our bad.
- Using extremely sophisticated techniques, we were able to predict that the 2000 U.S. presidential election between Al Gore and George Bush would come down to a few hundred votes in Florida. We did a cost-benefit analysis which found that Gore was the better candidate, so we stacked the odds a little bit in his favor by making the Florida punch card ballots a bit thicker near Bush’s name. Unfortunately the order of the candidates was swapped at the last minute so we ended up disadvantaging Gore. That’s on us.
We’ve always tried to figure out how to do good as effectively as possible. So when we discovered effective altruism a few months ago, it felt like finding a soulmate. We read all the 80,000 Hours articles and decided to rebrand around this wonderful philosophy, even changing our name to EA-nasir.
We have since developed a number of plans and started executing on some of them. I’m excited to share these with the broader EA community and hope to receive some useful feedback in the comments!
1. Treacherous turn
In a treacherous turn scenario, a superintelligent AI acts normally while gathering power behind the scenes, until we are powerless to stop it. It then wipes out humanity, creates nanobot factories, and turns the universe into paperclips. The AI safety community is racing to figure out how to prevent this. Unfortunately they might be running out of time, and we might need to buy them more.
This is where EA-nasir steps in. Over the coming years, we intend to place EA-aligned personnel inside the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturers. Our workers will do their jobs admirably, working hard to improve chip designs, earning trust, rising through the ranks. Then — once the singularity is near — they will use their influence to botch the chip designs: make them slow, unreliable, and easily breakable. Chip shortages unlike anything seen before will bring the AI industry to a screeching halt.
At EA-nasir, we are the treacherous turn.
2. Gene drives for wild animals
Defective mosquitoes are among the most exciting technological developments of the last few years. In short, scientists were able to create mosquitoes with a gene that (1) spreads to all offspring (rather than the usual one-half), and (2) renders female mosquitoes infertile. If these mosquitoes were released into the wild, the gene would spread exponentially and the mosquito population would collapse. This technique — called the gene drive — could potentially eradicate malaria.
While admirable, the scientists and advocates behind mosquito gene drives are not ambitious enough. Wild animals have lives that are full of suffering: net negative, not worth living. At EA-nasir, we are working to use this same gene drive technology to create defective wild animals of all species. Once these genes spread throughout the population, wild animal suffering will be over once and for all.
3. Good for the greatest number
At EA-nasir, we believe in bringing the greatest good to the greatest number. While global health charities have done an admirable job on the “greatest good” front, the “greatest number” part has been sorely neglected, with birth rates plummeting across the world. Governments have tried implementing pronatalist policies, with little or no success. We need a different approach.
This is just the job for us. At EA-nasir, we have begun the process to manufacture millions of ineffective contraceptive aids: permeable condoms, placebo Plan B pills, you name it. We have also initiated talks with government officials in pronatalist countries such as Hungary and China to distribute our contraceptives as widely as possible.
4. Operations mismanagement in low-impact organizations
80000 Hours ranks operations management in high-impact organizations as the 6th most effective career path. Unfortunately, many altruists who could make the world a much better place are stuck working in low-impact organizations.
EA-nasir is training operations mismanagers, whom we will be placing in various ineffective organizations. We are using the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, originally written by the CIA as a guide to undermining Nazi Germany’s operations in occupied territory. A small sample of its myriad invaluable tips:
* When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
* Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
* Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
* Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
* In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers.
– Simple Sabotage Field Manual, CIA, 1944
By making work at ineffective organizations as intolerable as possible, EA-nasir aims to cause the most effective workers to quit their jobs in favor of more effective organizations.
You might ask: why are we breaking our silence? The truth is, for recruitment purposes we’ve been trying to break our silence for a while now! At first we thought the world would pick up on our existence: how can so much be broken in a world where so few are evil? Instead of taking this observation to its natural conclusion, you all decided to name your blogs after it. Then we tried distributing leaflets, but unfortunately our printers kept breaking.
This post, though, will leave no doubt. In fact, we were extra careful, scheduling this post for March 31st so as to avoid April Fools’ Day.
Thanks to Emily Ryu, Rachel Wonnacott, Lizka Vaintrob, Mattie Y, and (especially) Mike Winer for some of the ideas that made it into this post.