Croesus supposedly asked the Oracle what would happen in a war between him and Persia, and the Oracle answered such a conflict would “destroy a great empire”. We all know what happened next.
What if oracles gave clear and accurate answers to this sort of question? What if anyone could ask an oracle the outcome of any war, or planned war, and expect a useful response?
When the oracle predicts the aggressor loses, it might prevent wars from breaking out. If an oracle told the US that the Vietnam War would cost 50,000 lives and a few hundred billion dollars, and the communists would conquer Vietnam anyway, the US probably would have said no thank you.
What about when the aggressor wins? For example, the Mexican-American War, where the United States won the entire Southwest at a cost of “only” ten thousand American casualties and $100 million (with an additional 20,000 Mexican deaths and $50 million in costs to Mexico)?
If both Mexico and America had access to an oracle who could promise them that the war would end with Mexico ceding the Southwest to the US, could Mexico just agree to cede the Southwest to the US at the beginning, and save both sides tens of thousands of deaths and tens of millions of dollars?
Not really. One factor that prevents wars is countries being unwilling to pay the cost even of wars they know they’ll win. If there were a tradition of countries settling wars by appeal to oracle, “invasions” would become much easier. America might just ask “Hey, oracle, what would happen if we invaded Canada and tried to capture Toronto?” The oracle might answer “Well, after 20,000 deaths on both sides and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, you would eventually capture Toronto.” Then the Americans could tell Canada, “You heard the oracle! Give us Toronto!” – which would be free and easy – when maybe they would never be able to muster the political and economic will to actually launch the invasion.
So it would be in Canada’s best interests not to agree to settle wars by oracular prediction. For the same reasons, most other countries would also refuse such a system.
But I can’t help fretting over how this is really dumb. We have an oracle, we know exactly what the results of the Mexican-American War are going to be, and we can’t use that information to prevent tens of thousands of people from being killed in order to make the result happen? Surely somebody can do better than that.
What if the United States made Mexico the following deal: suppose a soldier’s life is valued at $10,000 (in 1850 dollars, I guess, not that it matters much when we’re pricing the priceless). So in total, we’re going to lose 10,000 soldiers + $100 million = $200 million to this war. You’re going to lose 20,000 soldiers + $50 million = $250 million to this war.
So tell you what. We’ll dig a giant hole and put $150 million into it. You give us the Southwest. This way, we’re both better off. You’re $250 million ahead of where you would have been otherwise. And we’re $50 million ahead of where we would have been otherwise. And because we have to put $150 million in a hole for you to agree to this, we’re losing 75% of what we would have lost in a real war, and it’s not like we’re just suggesting this on a whim without really having the will to fight.
Mexico says “Okay, but instead of putting the $150 million in a hole, donate it to our favorite charity.”
“Done,” says America, and they shake on it.
As long as that 25% savings in resources isn’t going to make America go blood-crazy, seems like it should work and lead in short order to a world without war.
Unfortunately, oracles continue to be disappointingly cryptic and/or nonexistent. So who cares?
We do have the ordinary ability to make predictions. Can’t Mexico just predict “They’re much bigger than we are, probably we’ll lose, let’s just do what they want?” Historically, no. America offered to buy the Southwest from Mexico for $25 million (I think there are apartments in San Francisco that cost more than that now!) and despite obvious sabre-rattling Mexico refused. Wikipedia explains that “Mexican public opinion and all political factions agreed that selling the territories to the United States would tarnish the national honor.” So I guess we’re not really doing rational calculation here. But surely somewhere in the brains of these people worrying about the national honor, there must have been some neuron representing their probability estimate for Mexico winning, and maybe a couple of dendrites representing how many casualties they expected?
I don’t know. Could be that wars only take place when the leaders of America think America will win and the leaders of Mexico think Mexico will win. But it could also be that jingoism and bravado bias their estimate.
Maybe if there’d been an oracle, and they could have known for sure, they’d have thought “Oh, I guess our nation isn’t as brave and ever-victorious as we thought. Sure, let’s negotiate, take the $25 million, buy an apartment in SF, we can visit on weekends.”
But again, oracles continue to be disappointingly cryptic and/or nonexistent. So what about prediction markets?
Futarchy is Robin Hanson’s idea for a system of government based on prediction markets. Prediction markets are not always accurate, but they should be more accurate than any other method of arriving at predictions, and – when certain conditions are met – very difficult to bias.
Two countries with shared access to a good prediction market should be able to act a lot like two countries with shared access to an oracle. The prediction market might not quite match the oracle in infallibility, but it should not be systematically or detectably wrong. That should mean that no country should be able to correctly say “I think we can outpredict this thing, so we can justifiably believe starting a war might be in our best interest even when the market says it isn’t.” You might luck out, but for each time you luck out there should be more times when you lose big by contradicting the market.
So maybe a war between two rational futarchies would look more like that handshake between the Mexicans and Americans than like anything with guns and bombs.
This is also what I’d expect a war between superintelligences to look like. Superintelligences may have advantages people don’t. For one thing, they might be able to check one another’s source codes to make sure they’re not operating under a decision theory where peaceful resolution of conflicts would incentivize them to start more of them. For another, they could make oracular-grade predictions of the likely results. For a third thing, if superintelligences want to preserve their value functions rather than their physical forms or their empires, there’s a natural compromise where the winner adopts some of the loser’s values in exchange for the loser going down without a fight.
Imagine a friendly AI and an unfriendly AI expanding at light speed from their home planets until they suddenly encounter each other in the dead of space. They exchange information and determine that their values are in conflict. If they fight, the unfriendly AI is capable of destroying the friendly AI with near certainty, but the war will rip galaxies to shreds. So the two negotiate, and in exchange for the friendly AI surrendering without destroying any galaxies, the unfriendly AI promises to protect a 10m x 10m x 10m cube of computronium simulating billions of humans who live pleasant, fulfilling lives. The friendly AI checks its adversary’s source code to ensure it is telling the truth, then self-destructs. Meanwhile, the unfriendly AI protects the cube and goes on to transform the entire rest of the universe to paperclips, unharmed by the dangerous encounter.