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The most urgent practical question

If you haven’t read Comfortably Numb yet, I recommend reading that post first.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails … I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of [philosophical] questions.

– Albert Camus

The most urgent philosophical question, Camus suggested, was the meaning of life. I will not try to speculate on that matter, for the phrase ‘meaning of life’ sounds vacuous and practically irrelevant. As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, not knowing the laws of gravity wasn’t reason enough to jump off a cliff.

Acknowledging the more practically relevant question of mortality can have profound implications. Is it the most urgent practical question – staying alive?

A weight balance with life extension on one side of the fulcrum makes little deviation regardless of what the other side of the balance holds. Nothing seems more relevant, more important. What, if anything, should we refuse to sacrifice in order to launch a relentless and mad pursuit of immortality? Is it rational to invest in anything else over the means to realize immortality?

Having realized how much more desirable being Methuselah is, as opposed to these fleeting, ephemeral lives we’ve resigned to, there is little doubt that fighting death is of paramount importance. Is it instrumentally rational to spend a single waking hour on anything else? What, if any, rational models of time discounting would assign higher utility to our current lives versus even an extremely improbable chance of extreme longevity?

I’m aware the optimal action is not to dive into gerontological research for all of us, but to leverage our comparative advantage. Nate Soares, albeit with some rationalizations, explains what an efficient society would do to maximize productivity and slay the dragon.  I’m not an opposer of diverse professional specializations, I’m against the illusion of immortality, the delusion that procrastination is okay because ‘there’s always tomorrow’.  There is no better example of decisive irrationality amongst the informed and more rational people than their lethargy towards saving their own lives. My thick hypocrisy here doesn’t go unnoticed, I keep forgetting what the most important thing to do is. But let’s not privilege the hypothesis, we can’t stay alive forever if nuclear missiles scorch our tiny mote of dust, or if bacteria that evolve faster than we can fathom decimate and decay us. The war for survival is multifaceted and there are several indispensable wheels that must all be running, at all times, for this is the red queen’s territory. Resting isn’t stagnation, resting is being pushed back by the ferocious tides of evolving pathogens and increasing entropy.

If the most urgent cause is surviving, the most urgent required actions are to make progress in ending aging and preventing existential risks. Failure to do so out of bikeshedding would be tantamount to taking a nap over paying the damn ransom. Failure to do so out of irrational skepticism would be to fall from a cliff because holding on to something seemed unreasonable.

EDF scheduling to save the planet

Real time systems need to execute processes, often within a hard time limit to avoid catastrophic consequences. ‘Tasks’ or ‘jobs’ arrive at the task scheduler queue with a deadline and a worst case computation requirement and must be performed in an order which minimizes the number of missed deadlines. Put it this way, real time scheduling adheres to the ‘better never than late’ policy.

I was quite intrigued to notice the striking resemblance between real-time scheduling and existential risks. Both require foresight and offer no second chances, irreversibly overruling any chances of survival or redemption. Real time systems, fortunately, have a provably optimal algorithm to schedule tasks – it’s called the Earliest Deadline First scheduling algorithm. As the name suggests, it prioritizes tasks based solely on their deadlines and seeks to meet the earliest deadline at all times.

Building an armoury to defend against an alien attack is utterly futile if we’re more likely to be be obliterated by a large-scale nuclear war or a global pandemic before that. Likewise, focusing the spotlight entirely on avoiding global pandemics isn’t a great idea if the melting ice-caps will drown us first. We must adopt an earliest deadline first strategy rigorously and spend more than we do on cigarette ads to ensure that humanity survives this century. Of course, X-risks arrive with probabilistic deadlines and the worst case cost of avoiding them is also highly uncertain. I’m not aware of any probabilistic EDF schedulers but I plan to read about them soon and see how they can be incorporated in policy making more rigorously.