Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Sam Bankman-Fried Is Simple


tl:dr: Michael Lewis on SBF on Freakonomics.

So much ink and so many electrons have been spent trying to "explain" SBF and the rise and fall of FTX. The reason so few people understand what happened is that we lack sufficient empathy.*

Very roughly speaking, those of us who are "neurotypical"** tend to project our minds onto others. We ask ourselves, "What would I think / feel / want in their situation?" That doesn't work great (note all the conflict and failed relationships in the world) but it helps us muddle through the world. 

Projecting our minds doesn't work for Sam Bankman-Fried. Our standard "empathy" leaves "normies" thinking FTX must have been driven by greed, cons, etc. - because that is how we would react to so much money.

But like many,*** Sam's brain doesn't work like the median mind. He has very little (no?) connection to "normal" human feeling. In mathematical means, his mind is extraordinary, probably savant-like. It is a Beautiful Mind

But this didn't connect him to anyone or anything. He was isolated and adrift with no purpose.

Will MacAskill (né Crouch) provided Sam with his god, his cult, his meaning: "Effective Altruism."

Normies tend to have one of three reactions to EA:

  1. Don't tell me it is immoral to keep all my money (or donate it to my alma mater). (Standard greed.)
  2. It seems like a decent idea to try to do the most good in the world. (Superficial read.)
  3. They crazy. (More accurate read, but still lacking empathy.)

What most people don't get is that for people like Sam Bankman-Fried, EA provides a simple equation for living a meaningful life: maximize "good." And MacAskill convinced Sam that "good" = "money." 

To the exclusion of all else.

Sam is not alone in falling under the spell. Different EAs I know: 

  1. Devote themselves to living in as much poverty as possible (near-starvation, only having one towel in a household);
  2. Focus on insects (or wild animals) instead of people (or vertebrates) because there are more bugs; 
  3. Not washing to "spare" microscopic creatures living on them; 
  4. Advocating literal bombing to supposedly prevent AI from supposedly destroying everyone; 
  5. Believe that what they themselves do right now will impact the salvation of trillions of souls across the universe into the depths of time.

So yeah: Religion. Complete with abasement, holy wars, and the greatest missionary mission of all time. And a Devil (AI). And non-falsifiable.

Sam just happened to have the right (beautiful) mind at the right place (meeting MacAskill) at the right time (crypto frenzy). His success taught him that taking risks based on expected value works (as he said here). The EA (and business) community treated him like a god. 

Like most people, simply Sam ended up in the wrong religion. 

Want more? This podcast (Michael Lewis on Freakonomics) is the best I've heard.

* Trying to improve people's cognitive empathy is one of Robert Wright's main purposes. We need to temper (but not destroy) our emotional empathy if we want to do actual good.

** I don't think there are "normal" and "abnormal" brains. It is a spectrum.

*** If you are interested in other minds, check out the books of Oliver Sacks; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a good starting point.

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