Ethical AI investments?
Had a bit of a freak out and liquidated my investments in Google, Microsoft, Nvidia and Meta after watching Eliezers interview with the bankless podcast, not because I thought it actually change the trajectory of AGI but because I don’t want to invest in the end of humanity. Are there any actually ethical safe AI investments to be had?
I think six to twelve months ago I cursed someone out on this forum for asking if investing in Google et. al. was a good idea, for the same reason you liquidated your position.
Nowadays my feelings are a little more mixed. I think if there are exist any “ethically safe” AI investments to be had, they’d plausibly be in the very largest technology companies that are not really constrained by cash. It’s not clear to me mechanically how buying or holding Google’s stock leads to faster AI research; Google is probably already spending as much as it can effectively spend, and is bottlenecked more on being able to e.g. identify talent and pick good research directions.
Which is not to say that it wouldn’t be bad. But certainly it would be much worse to invest in private AI companies directly.
This does sound a bit like the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. If you interact with the companies (e.g. by holding shares in them), you can be blamed for their actions. However, you actually have a far bigger interaction with these companies by buying and using computers at all.
Holding shares in a company has, to first and second order, no effect on their ability to do what they do. The main effect is a much more distant third-order one: by selling shares, you (very slightly) reduce the demand for shares, which (even more slightly) reduces their share price, which (more slightly still) reduces their ability to obtain further funding.
Buying a computer has a first- or second-order effect: Nvidia directly profits from every new computer that uses their products. Even if you are careful not to buy any computer that uses Nvidia chipsets or licensed designs (much harder than it might seem; they don’t just make GPUs), there is a second-order effect in which you are increasing demand for computers (which are largely fungible) so that the equilibrium price shifts (very slightly) upward and Nvidia has more profit potential.
Similar effects follow from using computers on the Internet, via advertising, network effects, and other metrics of interest that increase the revenues of these companies.
From a consequentialist point of view, there seems little reason to sell shares in those companies. Even an argument based on incentives doesn’t really go through very well. Nonetheless I do agree with you that choosing to profit from actions that plausibly risk destroying humanity seems wrong, in a way that consequentialist ethics does not adequately capture.
I don’t think there are any ethically safe AI investments right now, in the sense of making an expected profit from actions that reduce this risk. I think that such investments could exist in some hypothetical world, but I don’t see how to make it work in the real one.
That… Is not at all how the copenhagen interpretation of ethics works. You say someone has a “Copenhagen interpretation of ethics” when they criticize you for interacting with a problem even though you’re not contributing to it or even mildly ameliorating it. It’s not an “Copenhagen interpretation of ethics” to criticize someone for contributing to a problem in a way that’s milder than what they potentially could.
back of the napkin reasoning is that actually we have to PAY to reduce risk, so there’s no way to make money doing that
Does ‘ethical safe AI investments’ means ‘to help make AI safer and make some money at the same time’?
This is an important question. To what degree are both of these (naturally conflicting) goals important to you? How important is making money? How important is increasing AI-safety?
I think that unless you are investing a very large amount of money it’s reasonable to round the effect of your investment choices to zero. You presumably didn’t buy shares directly from Google, Microsoft, Nvidia and Meta, so the only way for your choice to invest in them or not can affect those companies’ ability to work on AI is via changes in the share price. When you sold those shares, did the price change detectably between the first share you sold and the last? If not, the transaction probably wasn’t large enough to alter the price by as much as a cent per share. A sub-1c-per-share difference in the amount of money MS or whoever can raise by selling shares doesn’t seem likely to have much impact on their ability to do whatever they might want to do.
I don’t think this is a good argument. A low probability of impact does not imply the expected impact is negligible. If you have an argument that the expected impact is negligible, I’d be happy to see it.
I’m not claiming “low probability implies expectation is negligible”, and I apologize if what I wrote gave the impression that I was. The thing that seems intuitively clear to me is pretty much “expectation is negligible”.
What is the actual effect on Microsoft of a small decrease in their share price? Before trying to answer that in a principled way, let’s put an upper bound on it. The effect on MS of a transaction of size X cannot be bigger than X, because if e.g. every purchase of $1000 of MS stock made them $1000 richer then it would be to their advantage to buy stock; as they bought more the size of this effect would go down, and they would keep buying until the benefit from buying $1000 of MS stock became ⇐ $1000.
(MS does on net buy stock every year, or at least has for the last several years, but my argument isn’t “this can’t happen because if it did then MS would buy their own stock” but “if this happened MS would buy enough of their own stock to make the effect go away”.)
My intuition says that this sort of effect should be substantially less than the actual dollar value of the transaction, but if there’s some way to prove this it isn’t known to me. This intuition is the reason why I expect little effect on MS from you buying or selling MS shares. But let’s set that intuition aside and see if we can make some concrete estimates (they will definitely require a lot of guesswork and handwaving). How does a higher share price actually help them?
If they choose to raise money by selling shares, they can get a bit more money by doing so.
If they choose to use shares for money-like purposes (e.g., buying another company with MS shares rather than cash, incentivizing employees by giving them shares), any fixed fraction of the company they are willing to part with is worth a bit more.
If they choose to borrow money, they can probably get slightly better terms because their company is seen as more valuable, hence better able to raise money, hence less likely to default.
To estimate the impact of the first two of these, we could e.g. look at how the number of outstanding Microsoft shares changes each year; if we (crudely?) suppose that this doesn’t depend strongly on small changes in share price, then a decrease of x in the Microsoft share price lasting a year costs Microsoft (number of MS shares issued that year) times x, because that’s how much less money, or perceived money-equivalent benefit, they got from issuing those shares.
It turns out, as I mentioned above, that for the last several years the number of outstanding Microsoft shares has decreased every year, so that crude model suggests that a decrease in their share price actually helps them, because as they (on net) buy back shares they are paying less money to do it. Oops.
The third effect seems like it’s definitely of the right sign, since whatever the net chance in MS’s debt over time it isn’t literally taking out any anti-debt. Do we have any plausible way to estimate its size? We could look at e.g. Microsoft bond coupon figures and try to correlate them with the MSFT share price after correcting somehow for generally-prevailing interest rates, but I don’t have the expertise to do this in a meaningful way and also don’t have access to any information to speak of about Microsoft bond sales. Let’s try an incredibly crude model and see what we get: suppose that right now MS can borrow money at 2% interest, and that if their stock price dropped 3x then they would be seen as a much bigger risk and the figure would go up to 4%, and that what happens in between is linear. The current stock price is about $300, so this is saying that a $200 fall in stock price would mean a 2% rise in annual interest rate, so each cent of stock price change means a 1/10000% change in annual interest rate.
How much borrowing does MS do? Hard to tell. (At least for me; perhaps others with more info or more business expertise can do better.) Over the last several years their total debt has consistently decreased, but not by very much; it sits at about $60B. With total debt roughly steady, that total debt should be the number of “debt dollar-years incurred per year”. So one year of 1c-higher stock prices would mean a reduction of $60B x 1/10000 x 1% in debt interest payments; that is, of $60K.
There are also the other two effects, but crudely those appear to point in the other direction given MS’s decision to buy back more stock than it issues. I’ll assume they’re zero. Maybe there are other mechanisms too (e.g., some sort of intangible thing where MS is a more attractive employer if its stock price is high) but I expect these to be smaller than the three concrete ones listed above.
What should we assume about the lasting effect of your buying or selling MS stock? If we assume the price is a pure random walk then a 1c decrease in price lasts for ever, but that seems incredibly implausible (at least in the case where, as here, your reasons for selling don’t have anything to do with your opinion about the future value of the company). On the basis of pure handwaving I’m going to suppose that the effect of your selling your stock is to depress the share price by one cent for one month. (Both figures feel like big overestimates to me.) That would suggest that selling $300K of MS stock costs the company, via this particular mechanism, about 1⁄12 of $60K, or about $5K.
That doesn’t mean $5K less for AI work, of course. I think MS spends about $50B per year. MS’s total investment in OpenAI is $10B but that isn’t happening every year, and presumably they do some internal AI work too. Let’s suppose they spend $5B on AI per year, which feels like a substantial overestimate to me. Then giving them an extra $5K means an extra $500 spent on AI.
So, after all this very rigorous and precise analysis, my crude estimate is that by selling a $300K stake in Microsoft you might effectively reduce their AI spending by $500. I’m pretty comfortable calling that negligible. But, of course, the error bars are rather larger than the number itself :-).
(Counter-argument: “Duh, the value of a company as measured by the market, which knows best, is just its total market capitalization. So if something you do changes the share price by x and there are y outstanding shares, then you changed the value of the company by exactly xy. This value is much larger than your estimate, so your estimate is bullshit.” But I claim that this argument is bullshit: if, as I believe, transactions that are independent of any sort of estimation the actual future value of the company have only transient effects, then it is just not true that you have changed any actually meaningful measure of the value of the company by exactly xy.)
Remark: It is hard to know what to make of a comment that has a decently positive approval score, a substantially negative agreement score, and no comments expressing disagreement. Clearly … hmm, actually, clearly one person strong-agreement-downvoted it and chose not to say what they didn’t like. So all I know is that of the several lines of argument in the lengthy comment above, something seemed very bad to someone.
It’s not for me to tell anyone else what they ought to do, but personally I think that if I were strong-agreement-downvoting something and it wasn’t perfectly obvious what might be wrong with it, then I would also want to leave a comment saying what I thought was wrong. (Maybe not if I thought the writer was an aggressive bozo who shouldn’t be responded to, or something.)
I expressed some disagreement in my comment, but I didn’t disagree-vote.
It seemed pretty clear from the text of your comment that you didn’t think mine deserved a strong disagree-vote.
I like your upper bound. The way I’d put it is: If you buy $1 of Microsoft stock, the most impact that can have is if Microsoft sells it to you, in which case Microsoft gets one more dollar to invest in AI today.
And Microsoft won’t spend the whole dollar on AI. Although they’d plausibly spend most of a marginal dollar on AI, even if they don’t spend most of the average dollar on AI.
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Microsoft is buying back stock. I’d guess it doesn’t make a difference either way? Perhaps if they were going to buy back $X worth of shares but then you offer to buy $1 of shares from them at market price, they’d buy back $X and sell you $1 for a net buyback of $(X-1) and you still have an impact of $1.
I like the idea that buying stock only has a temporary effect on price. If the stock price is determined by institutional investors that take positions on the price, then maybe when you buy $1 of stock, these investors correct the price immediately, and the overall effect is to give those investors $1, which is ethically neutral? James_Miller makes this point here. But I’d like to have a better understanding of where the boundary lies between tiny investors who have zero impact and big investors who have all the impact.
Or maybe the effect of buying $1 of stock is giving $1 to early Microsoft investors and employees? The ethics of that are debatable since the early investors didn’t know they were funding an AGI lab.
This is like saying it’s ok to vote for Hitler because you personally are unlikely to swing the vote in any particular direction. The game theory, social science, and economics required to confirm that buying GOOG is a bad idea would be pretty complicated, but it’s not obviously benign.
Voting for Hitler does nothing for you personally unless you actually want a Nazi government. If you have investments in say NVIDIA then presumably you expect them to make you more money than whatever else you’re proposing to invest in instead. I am suggesting that the first-order effects of having more money are likely to outweigh the second-order (or whatever higher order they actually are) where you sell what in the big picture is a rather small number of NVIDIA shares, this has a probably imperceptible effect on NVIDIA’s stock price, this makes them an imperceptibly more favourable company to lend money to, they borrow more money on better terms and make imperceptibly better GPUs, and all the AI research happens a tiny bit faster.
To be clear, I warmly endorse getting out of NVIDIA if owning shares of a company that might contribute to AI development makes you feel terrible. That’s a first-order effect too. But it still looks to me as if the effects are likely negligible, and I don’t think I buy any superrationality-style arguments along the lines of “whatever you do, other similar people are also likely to do, so you should multiply your estimate of the effect severalfold”.