The World Economic Forum at Davos is back in 2024 with its usual pessimistic Global Risks Report. The current big risk for the next decade as highlighted by the President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen, is Artificial Intelligence. Any coverage of the WEF this year finally ends up with the question:
Is Artificial Intelligence dangerous or useful?
However, there was a surprise silver lining to this year´s WEF. Argentinian President Javier Milei spoke out for Individualism and Freedom against Collectivism. The Individualism vs Collectivism debate is very important in engaging the question of skepticism about Artificial Intelligence. On one hand, you want entrepreneurs to freely use AI to build a bright future, while on the other hand fear-mongering about AI by calling it dangerous or a big risk ends up adding unnecessary regulations that disincentivize the entrepreneur.
This debate was originally raging in the Tech world. It was a lazy day of scrolling on Twitter when a tweet by Balaji Srinivasan @balajis caught my attention. It was about 3 freedoms namely in social media, crypto, and AI. This was tweeted around the time of the infamous Sam Altman fiasco at OpenAI in November 2023.
For social media, it expressed how Elon Musk´s acquisition of Twitter freed it from censorship and control. For crypto, it mentioned the famous FTX scam involving Sam Bankman-Fried who was one of the biggest donors to the democratic party. And finally, for AI it touches on how the EA executive orders meant to get rid of Sam Altman took a turn in about 2 weeks as he was reinstated after widescale Twitter outrage by e/acc users.
My tryst with e/acc vs EA began here with 2 simple silly questions to Balaji´s tweet.
The points about Elon buying Twitter and FTX getting unmasked made some sense, but the talk about EA and e/acc just went over my head. Fortunately, I had just recently read the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stefen R. Covey, so I decided to practice Habit 5 “Seek to understand before trying to be understood” and replied with my questions.
Soon enough, I was flooded with a lot of replies explaining e/acc and EA. But the most useful reply was by @erik_london who explained it to me like I was a 10-year-old.
1. EA or Effective Altruism is a group of highly wealthy/powerful "elite" business owners, politicians and bureaucrats that have the agenda to push more or less the WEF's policies on people through altruistic means.
Meaning a starving tribe in Africa could get food from EA,
I read the manifesto slowly for a few hours, trying to make sense of all the great insight. I emerged a smarter more well-informed person. But then, I took the next step and decided to read the work of one of the Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism i.e. The Road to Serfdom by F. A Hayek.
I read this for days slowly and steadily trying to make sense of the book by even using Artificial Intelligence tools to help me paraphrase and summarize lessons from passages.
I could now see the e/acc vs EA debate along the lines of the more well-known debate on Individualism vs Collectivism.
What is EA or Effective Altruism?
EA describes itself as a research field and a community that aims to identify the most pressing problems in the world, and the best solutions to them, and to use those findings to do good. A look at their website shows a lot of big centralized decisions and plans like funding the distribution of 200 million mosquito nets, campaigning on policies to prevent the next pandemic, and academic research on the future of AI.
EA claims to focus on big and neglected problems and they then look for solutions that have a chance of making a big contribution to solving these problems. However, the WEF is also focusing on the risks of AI and the next pandemic, thus making these two major issues hardly neglected.
They claim that focusing on issues that seem counterintuitive, obscure, or exaggerated can be more impactful.
One such exaggerated problem is the AI alignment research. Ironically the EA community which conducts big centralized planning is concerned about the extreme concentration of AI power in the hands of a tiny elite. But they also state their actual intentions and worries about AI when they mention losing control of the AI systems.
The EA community views this fear of loss of control as a long-term threat and hence claims to seek a long-term perspective for AI systems that align them to further human values.
What is e/acc or Effective Accelerationism?
e/acc or effective accelerationism is a philosophical movement of techno-optimists who see technological growth to be crucial in building a better world. They despise bad ideas that can dampen this growth as their enemies.
Hence, e/acc believes in individualism, merit, freedom, and the free markets. They detest collectivism, anti-merit policies like DEI of ESG, and central planning.
Examining e/acc and EA in terms of Production/Production Capability Balance
The central concept of balancing Production and Production Capability is crucial when considering the merits of the e/acc versus EA discourse.
On the surface, it may appear that EA, with its emphasis on “Longtermism,” prioritizes Production Capability with a focus on the long term. While e/acc, centered on acceleration, is concerned with short-term Production.
However, the reality is more intricate than this initial impression suggests.
Major centralized decisions made by EA, such as the distribution of 200 million mosquito nets, resemble short-term Production efforts. Conversely, e/acc’s dedication to free markets and profits ensures an ongoing incentive to produce a supply that meets demand in the long run.
Hence, the e/acc approach seems to be more sustainable in the long term, while the EA approach planned by a few individuals with limited knowledge seems like an easy short-term solution with limited thought.
Let us examine how the e/acc vs EA mindset would apply in an example.
Case Study for EA vs e/acc: Malaria Prevention with and without Artificial Intelligence
Malaria which is caused by a mosquito-borne blood parasite, kills more than 600,000 people per year. 95% of malaria cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs) gained ground as an effective method of reducing malaria transmission. Lately, the use of artificial intelligence is helping identify malaria hotspots and optimize interventions.
Approach 1: EA´s Free Distribution of Bed Nets for Malaria Prevention
Contrary to the EA claims, this is hardly a neglected issue. Many organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and NGOs like the Against Malaria Foundation have been actively involved in distributing bed nets.
The EA community’s initiative involves choosing an organization such as the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). The goal is to rally donations for the distribution of 200 million insecticide-treated bed nets. They are estimated to cost between $800 million and $1.2 billion, considering a per-net cost of $4 to $6. GiveWell, a non-profit specializing in effective altruism and charity evaluation, selected the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) for the EA community. Interestingly, AMF´s founding partners include Microsoft. Furthermore, Bill Gates has endorsed GiveWell and this was shared by the Effective Altruism Twitter handle.
Approach 2: e/acc’s Free Market Startup Develops Artificial Intelligence-powered Mobile App to Tackle Malaria
A startup that capitalizes on Artificial Intelligence to prevent Malaria would qualify as an e/acc approach.
ZzappMalaria, an Israeli startup developed an app called the Zzapp which creates malaria elimination strategies powered by artificial intelligence. The software system analyzes satellite images and topographical maps to identify malaria transmission hotspots. It then optimizes malaria elimination strategies for each location. These strategies are conveyed to field workers as simple instructions.
Zzapp claims to be twice as cost-effective as bed nets in urban areas.
EA vs e/acc: Which approach is better?
The Techno-Optimist´s approach to Malaria eradication seems to be a clear winner in this case in multiple ways.
1. The Techno-optimist´s Artificial Intelligence based e/acc approach is cost-effective
Firstly, bed nets have been in use for more than two decades. Why would Bill Gates endorse such an archaic approach that requires up to $8-$1.2 billion every three years when technology provides more cost-effective solutions?
2. Centralized Planning can result in unintended second-order effects in comparison to a free market approach
Consider a nearby supplier of mosquito nets that initially benefited from the substantial demand from EA. However, if intense competition among suppliers for EA contracts prompts the winning supplier to seek nets externally to maintain profit margins and secure bids, it can adversely affect local businesses. Additionally, there may be a temporary oversaturation of the market following EA’s significant procurement and distribution efforts.
Local mosquito net suppliers might become reliant on these substantial EA procurements, making them susceptible to shifts in EA priorities.
To summarize, EA contributes minimally to the sustained supply of mosquito nets, while e/acc, driven by a profit-oriented approach, promotes enduring growth for mosquito net suppliers and their supply chains. In this context, e/acc prioritizes long-term Production Capability, whereas EA focuses on short-term Production.
EA vs e/acc approach: Food aid in Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake
Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, the response was to provide food aid to the affected population. This was very much in line with the EA approach to fixing things.
The US provided significant amounts of rice as part of its food aid efforts. However, an unintended consequence was the impact on local farmers. The heavily subsidized or free rice from abroad led to a decline in domestic production. The livelihoods of local farmers were disrupted and this created dependency on external assistance. This even had long-term economic challenges in rebuilding Haiti´s agricultural sector and the country became more reliant on imported food.
The e/acc approach to helping Haiti could have involved market-driven initiatives like cash-based assistance. This would enable individuals to purchase what they need locally. This would thus help in stimulating the local economy and prevent market distortions. Microfinance initiatives, Open Market Access, and Knowledge and Technology transfers are examples of other e/acc or free market methods that could have helped the Haitians better.
Friedrich Hayek´s perspective on e/acc vs EA for Malaria prevention based on “The Road to Serfdom”
Examining the e/acc and EA approaches to Malaria prevention using Friedrich Hayek´s “The Road to Serfdom” is an insightful exercise.
Decentralized Knowledge: Zzapp leverages AI and local data to efficiently predict mosquito breeding patterns and optimize interventions.
Inefficient Centralized Planning: The Artificial Intelligence-based software system offers a more cost-effective solution compared to a blanket ITN distribution. This resonates with inefficient centralized planning and unnecessary resource allocation.
Individual Freedom and Responsibility: As local communities engage in data collection and action using the AI tool for guidance, they take more ownership in addressing Malaria Prevention. They do not have to rely on the huge funding from the EA community and are more self-sufficient.
Competition: If Zzapp fails, there can always be another startup that will aim to be more efficient and cost-effective. But in the case of EA, the donations for ITNs are going to the same old organizations. These organizations have been using the same solutions for ages without adapting any innovations.
Hence, Hayek´s arguments on Individualism vs Collectivism provide insightful food for thought on the e/acc vs EA approaches to Malaria prevention. Collectivism leads to inefficiencies, loss of innovation, and ultimately totalitarianism. Individualism with its emphasis on decentralized knowledge and free markets, fosters adaption, progress, and individual well-being.
Conclusion: Is Artificial Intelligence dangerous or useful?
The World Economic Forum 2024 at Davos presented two major global leaders: Ursula Von Der Leyen who represented Collectivism from the EU and Javier Milei who represented Individualism from Argentina. Ursula focuses on pessimism about AI as a major risk, while Javier speaks out on freedom for entrepreneurs from unnecessary regulations.
To examine how the two mindsets play out in the real world, we examine the EA vs the e/acc approach to Malaria prevention.
The EA´s centralized planning approach to making big decisions hardly seems optimal in the case of Malaria prevention. By shunning innovative technological solutions they rely on outdated methods.
The implementation of the EA approach can also ruin the local economy and supply chains. Just like how heavily subsidized Food aid in Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake ruined domestic agriculture, disrupted the livelihoods of local farmers, and created dependency.
Similarly, the EA approach to Malaria Prevention may look good at first glance but is hardly a sustainable solution. The EA approach seems rife with corruption and conflict of interest. For example, Bill Gates supports EA, and EA selects a Microsoft-founded charity. After all, Sam Bankman-Fried the founder of FTX who was convicted of fraud and related crimes always claimed to be acting on EA principles.
However, the e/acc message is practical and is inspired by the lessons of Austrian Economist F.A. Hayek. It argues that individualism fosters a society less susceptible to corruption compared to collectivism and central planning.
In the e/acc approach, you have:
Decentralization of power
Transparency and accountability
All of this makes the e/acc approach much more optimal than the EA approach in solving big complex problems.
Hence, the opportunity cost of not building useful applications is the actual risk of Artificial Intelligence for the world. Unnecessary regulations on AI that act as obstacles for entrepreneurs are the real danger and not AI.
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Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) dangerous or useful?
This is one of the biggest debates in the Tech world between the Techno-Pessimists (EA) and the Techno-Optimists (e/acc).
Liberal part time Blogger and full time Researcher with a broad range of experience, professionally and personally in Austria, Italy, UAE & India. Loves Finance, Business & Technology. Cares about society.