Some scenario planning role-plays

My favorite genre of group activity with Harvard EA for fostering high-resolution thinking on macrostrategy and differential technological development were counterfactual history thought experiments to role-play.

Naval exploration

This one is focused on unilateralist’s curse and global coordination.

Basic setup
You live in Italy 1400 / 1450 / 1480 / 1485.
Suppose you know (somehow) that to the west of Europe, there is a continent (America).
If Eurasian explorers reach the continent, there is a 50% chance that they will be infected by a pathogen with a particularly long incubation period (think years).
If they come back before you develop vaccination/drugs (say, 1950’s, or a distribution), all people in Eurasia will die with X% chance (default: 50%).
There is a strong profit motive for finding a new trade route to India.
Unbeknownst to everyone, America, in fact, contains a lot of gold.
Nobody believes you that there is another continent, much less that there is this pathogen.
For ~1400, assume that Zheng He is also on the verge of going to America and there is some chance that the emperor succession will work out such that China doesn’t lose interest in further naval exploration.
Main problems with analogy to keep in mind
  • Technology has been ripe for centuries, only a problem of deployment
  • More centralized / state-controlled by default
  • “Hardware” (ships) has been ripe for centuries, with bottleneck being navigation and the insight that the Earth is spherical.

  • Outcomes
    • Deterministic – as history of our world unfolded
    • Probabilistic
      • e.g. 20% chance that Zheng He decides to navigate towards America
      • e.g. probability distribution over timelines
  • Your time
    • 700, Vikings
    • 1200
  • Your location
    • China
    • India
    • Songhai
  • Technological
    • Drug development timeline
    • Bottlenecks in ship building / navigation
  • Social
    • Private projects
  • Knowledge
    • Arguments, instead of revealed wisdom
    • Uncertainty


Nuclear energy

Imagine a world where Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all born female. It is an unfortunate fact of our history that they almost certainly wouldn’t have climbed the politica


A walk with Leonardo

This one is focused on community building with highly intelligent and creative people, building the trade-offs between curiosity and prioritization in research, building an efficient idea ecosystem and differential technological development.

In this thought experiment, Leonardo da Vinci is a latent EA by hypothesis.

1. You can take a stroll with him through medieval Florence. If this goes well, you can then hang out for the rest of his life. How do you approach this conversation?

2. Some of Leonardo’s most original correct hypotheses and biggest scientific breakthroughs were based on extremely fishy analogies that most analytical thinkers would find incredibly suspicious. How do you build a community that has good bullshit filtering mechanisms but doesn’t filter out half-baked ideas too early?

An example:

Leonardo’s greatest achievement in his heart studies, and indeed in all of his anatomical work, was his discovery of the way the aortic valve works, a triumph that was confirmed only in modern times

To get a sense of how far ahead Leonardo was, consider that

It took 450 years for anatomists to realize that Leonardo was correct. In the 1960s a team of medical researchers led by Brian Bellhouse at Oxford used dyes and radiography methods to observe blood flows.

ut the origin of this insight was a suspicious analogy between the human body and the universe:

The ancients called man a lesser world, and certainly the use of this name is well bestowed, because his body is an analog for the world. As man has in him bones that support his flesh, the world has its rocks that support the earth. As man has a pool of blood in which the lungs rise and fall in breathing, so the body of the earth has its ocean tide which likewise rises and falls every six hours, as if the world breathed. As the blood veins originate in that pool and spread all over the human body, so likewise the ocean sea fills the body of the earth with infinite springs of water.

3. Clearly, Leonardo had the potential to make many more scientific breakthroughs if he spent his time on better things than designing weapons and preparing pageants for Sforza. What can you do to free up his time, ideally without losing his good relations with the court?

4. Leonardo generated lots of ideas but he kept most of the best ones in his sketchbook. How do you get value from his creative ideas without undermining his relationship to the process of idea generation?

5. Do you try to get him into the standard EA causes (preventing black death, making overseas exploration go better, cultural change, improving institutions, peace and international coordination, …) or let him mess around and find his own niche?

6. What career advice do you give him with respect to developing his skills, if any? Do you try to move him away from the fine arts or direct his artistic talent to help with some worthy cause?

7. Leonardo’s workflow was extremely suspect. His to-do list included items like “examine the tongue of a woodpecker” or “figure out why the sky is blue”. From the outside, it probably seemed like he was blindly following his curiosity – and he probably mostly was. But often, his System 1 made him curious because there were, in fact, good reasons for studying the tongue of the woodpecker or the jaw of the crocodile.


8. How do you give Leonardo a greater sense of priority without losing the information value contained in his curiosity? How do you prevent an outcome where he always crosses out the seemingly silly items and instead prioritizes “making marginal progress on preventing the black death”?

9. The first chapter of the Russell-Norvig textbook on artificial intelligence mentions that Leonardo’s designs for a mechanical calculator were viable and successfully implemented in the 20th century. What do you do with those designs? Would it be net positive or negative to have them implemented in the 15th century?

10. By hypothesis, Leonardo had the raw potential to spark the scientific revolution, given the right circumstances. What levers can you pull to do that? Should you?

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