Posts

The illusion of science in comparative cognition 2019-11-02T19:17:18.322Z · score: 19 (6 votes)
IGDORE forum for discussing metascience 2019-10-23T18:28:07.141Z · score: 7 (3 votes)

Comments

Comment by gavintaylor on Is there a clear writeup summarizing the arguments for why deep ecology is wrong? · 2019-10-28T17:13:20.393Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Good links Max. I've often felt there is a conflict between ecosystems/species preservation and animal welfare and these are really useful for exploring that idea more.

However, I one point that I still get some cognitive dissonance from is the low-importance ascribed to (species) diversity. It seems like if resources are to be used to make more happy individuals (so using resources to improve the lives of unhappy individuals is not an option, maybe we're in a utopia where the lives of all sentient individuals are already net-positive and we value totalist population ethics), then it could, for instance, be better to produce more happy rhinos than happy humans, as there are far fewer rhinos than humans (if our utopia has the same current species numbers as the world today), so we will get more increase in the diversity of happy experiences. A moral weighting should also be applied between humans and rhinos, but if there is a huge difference in relative population numbers then it would probably be the dominating factor. How do others value a world with 7,700,000,000 people and 40,000 rhinos vs. a world with 7,700,010,000 people and 30,000 rhinos (using rough current species numbers and assuming all were fairly happy)?

I think my intuition is to incorporate diminishing returns (for a given species) into multi-species population ethics, given that the experiences (phenomenology) of species differs, so they experience happiness in different ways. Does this make any sense, and is there a name for such ethical views? It works best for me from the totalist population ethics standpoint, and I probably wouldn't extend this to saying we should help unhappy rhinos over unhappy humans, even given the current populations of both species.

Comment by gavintaylor on Ramiro's Shortform · 2019-10-24T12:14:22.307Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Ramiro.

I think that Point 1 will be difficult to test in this way. What you want to do sounds a bit like a regression discontinuity analysis, but (as I understand it) there isn't really a sharp time point for when you started promoting EA more; the translations/meetings etc. increased steadily since Oct 2018, right? I think this will make it harder to see the effect during the first year that you are scaling up outreach (particularly if compared by month, as there is probably seasonal variation in both donation and outreach). Brazil has also had a fairly distinct set of news worthy events (i.e. election and major political change, arrest of two former presidents during ongoing corruption scandals, amazon fires, etc.) over the same time period you increased outreach. If these events influence donation behaviour, then comparisons to other countries might not be particularly relevant (and it further complicates your monthly comparison). I think a better way to try and observe a quantitative effect would be if you compare the total donations for three years: pre-Oct 2018, Oct 2018-Oct 2019, post-Oct 2019 (provided you keep your level of outreach similar for the next year, and are patient). Aggregating over year will remove the seasonal effect of donations and some of the effect of current events, and if this shows an increase for 2019-2020, then you could (cautiously) look at comparing the monthly donation behaviour (three years of data will be better to compensate for monthly variation).


At this point, I think tracking your impact more subjectively by using questionnaires and interviews would produce more useful information. Not sure if charities would link their donors to you (maybe getting the contact of Brazilians who report donating in the EA survey would be more likely), but you could also try adding a annual questionnaire link to your newsletter/facebook/site like 80,000 hours does. I'd specifically try to ask people who made their first donations, or who increased their donations, this year what motivated them to do so.

Comment by gavintaylor on Reality is often underpowered · 2019-10-19T14:12:33.637Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I read an article about using logic to fill in the gaps around sparse or weak data that reminded me of this post. The article is focused on health science, but I think the idea is relevant to development as well.

https://nutritionalrevolution.org/2019/06/30/the-case-for-coming-to-conclusions-based-on-weak-evidence/

Comment by gavintaylor on Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science? · 2019-10-02T11:45:24.800Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

As far as I know all western universities take overheads, although the percentage varies a lot. I used to be at the Biology Department in Lund University and they took 50%!

But I think that refusing overheads is only really an option on the margin, for foundations and individual funders. Most researchers get the majority of their funding from government funding agencies (e.g. NIH, NSF) and as far as I know these all pay full overheads, but universities actually need these overheads to fund their operating expenses. I don't have first hand knowledge of this, but my understanding is that if overheads are 50% and you get $100 grant that doesn't pay overheads, the University actually has to source $50 from elsewhere in order to administer your grant.

I've never heard of a University turning down an grant without overheads, but I have heard that bringing in a majority of overhead free money reflects poorly on an academic during a career review for promotion/tenure/new job etc.

Comment by gavintaylor on My recommendations for RSI treatment · 2019-09-24T12:35:19.796Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA · GW

That's interesting you mention the psychological aspect - I searched a lot of material on RSI, but don't recall seeing this discussed before. When I initially developed RSI it didn't bother me much, but as the physical symptoms progressed it upset me more and probably ultimately contributed to some moderate depression I developed (it didn't help that my depression was related to difficulty reaching professional goals, and the RSI was slowing me down on achieving them). I put off treatment for both when they were at the mild stage and ultimately only treated the RSI after I treated the depression - maybe that was the wrong order to take.

Comment by gavintaylor on Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science? · 2019-08-27T20:08:48.125Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Also, if you donate to researcher at a University, try to make sure it goes directly to them and their institution doesn't take overheads from it.

Comment by gavintaylor on Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science? · 2019-08-27T12:38:18.705Z · score: 25 (13 votes) · EA · GW

OPP funds transformative basic science and might be able to make some suggestions about how to allocate the money.

https://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus-area/scientific-research/transformative-basic-science

Comment by gavintaylor on What are good reasons for or against working on protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services? · 2019-08-25T18:02:36.588Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I have wondered if species extinction should be treated as worse than simply the welfare/suffering of the last members of a species.

For example, I take it that most EAs would view the loss of the last 100 million humans as much worse than the 7.6 billion who might die before them in an existential catastrophe, particularly if the survivors still had a chance at re-building human civilizations. Likewise, if we lose a species, we lose any future value that was intrinsic to having that species in existence. And as most human value is likely to be in the far future this could also be true for animals, but this can only be realized if the species remains extant (i.e. future humans may wish to create zoo simulations or worlds after WBE or space colonization).

While I agree that a lot of both near- and long-term human related causes seem more important than protecting breeding populations of all endangered species, it could be that we are undervaluing the intrinsic benefit of biodiversity. A cheap way of safeguarding against the case we are currently under prioritizing species preservation would just be to take some genetic samples from those that are endangered (already being done). Then the opportunity exists to recreate extant species in the future if resources are available and we decide they should have been conserved.

Comment by gavintaylor on How to generate research proposals · 2019-08-22T12:18:59.078Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Nice, I particularly like the table and bullet-point forms you used for curating your ideas - I often find myself with too many ideas to work on and this seems like a good way to take an objective overview.

During my PhD I read 'Becoming a successful scientist' - this presented a strategic approach to scientific discovery and problem selection (Section 3.1) that I haven't really seen elsewhere. It focused on science, but the ideas of looking for contradictions, paradoxes, new viewpoints or different scales may also be helpful for generating research questions in philosophy/economics.

I have a PDF of the book I'm happy to send by email, PM me.

Comment by gavintaylor on How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation · 2019-08-20T12:03:55.969Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Another comment about the failings of peer-review and convoluted ways to circumvent them. It's quite common that reviewers will suggest extra experiments, and often these can improve the quality of the paper.

However, a Professor in Cognitive Psychology once told me that reviewers in his field seem to feel obliged to suggest extra experiments and almost always do. Even if the experiments in the paper are already quite complete, the reviewer will usually suggest an unnecessary control or a tangential experiment. So this Professor's strategy to speed things up was to do, but then leave out, a key control experiment when he wrote up his papers. Reviewers would then almost always pick up on this and only request this additional experiment, and so then he could easily include it and resubmit quickly.

Comment by gavintaylor on How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation · 2019-08-20T00:19:25.984Z · score: 11 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Very interesting post! I have worked in life science up to the postdoc level and think that is generally a reasonable summary of how life sciences research works (disclosure, Guzey interviewed me for this study).

One question is I have is how generalizable is this description geographically and across Universities? Based on the Universities/funders referenced I'd assume your thinking about Tier 1 Research Universities in the US. But did the demographics of your interviewee demographics suggest this could be situation more broadly?

A few other comments to e on some of the points:
Role of PIs
Agreed that senior PIs with large labs tend not to do very much bench work themselves. However, they aren't solely managing and writing grants - I think one of the most important things PIs do is knowledge synthesis through writing literature reviews. I haven't really met any postdocs that have the depth and breadth of knowledge of their lab head, which allows the later to both provide a high-level summary of their fields in reviews and also propose new ways forward in their grants.
A counterpoint I've come across is in mixed labs runs by a PI with a computational background who has postdocs and PhDs doing lab work while he works on using their biological results for computational modelling. From my perspective, these types of labs seem to function quite well as the PI usually relies on people coming into the lab to be well trained in the biological assays they'll use, but then teaches them computational techniques that end up using themselves by the end of their project.

Peer review
One of the big drawbacks of peer review is the hugely variable quality of reviews that are provided. As an example simply in terms of the level of detail provided, I have had comments of one paragraph and three pages for the same article.
I think a key reason for this is there isn't really any standardized format or expectations for reviews nor is there much training or feedback for reviewers. One thought I've had is that paying peer-reviewers would allow journals to both enforce review consistency and quality - although publishers have such large profit margins that it this could be feasible, they have no incentive to do so as scientists accept the status quo. In the absence of paid peer-review, I think that disclosing reviewer names and comments helps prevent 'niche guarding' and encourage reviewers to provide a useful and honest review (eLife does this currently, not sure if any other journals do so).

Permanent researchers
Agreed that letting postdocs move into staff scientist/researcher positions would be helpful - this has been discussed a bit in the Nature and Sciences career sections over the last few years (such as here). I've usually heard from postdocs who moved into staff scientist or lab/facility manager positions that they wanted to stop relying on grants for their employees and to get some job stability. But some then later regretted the move after finding the positions didn't have many options for career advancement relative the professor track. The staff scientists role is a relatively new academic position (although it has been around for a long time in government and private research labs) that doesn't yet have a lot of consistency between Universities - it would probably help to have more discussion and even formalize the roles expectations before a lot of people move into it.

Solo founders
This is an interesting observation and I hadn't thought about the individual lab head model in this way. I'd actually like to take this a step further and say that academia has a habit of breaking up good pairs of biologists. How so? In a few cases, I've seen two senior postdocs or a postdoc and junior PI (so essentially two researchers quite closely matched their level of experience and with complementary skills) work really well together and produce outstanding results over a few years, which will usually lead to one of the duo getting a permanent position. The other may be able to continue on as a postdoc for a while, but as their research speciality will overlap heavily with their colleague's field and it's unlikely that the hiring/promoting institution will open another position in a similar area for a few years, the postdoc will probably have to move elsewhere to continue their career. Although the two may continue to collaborate, the second person to be hired often starts working on different topics to show their intellectual independence (although the new topics may be less impactful than what they were working on as a pair). I only know of a few cases where duos separated in this way and I haven't really followed their outcomes, but I'd assume that the productivity of both researchers declined afterwards. Allowing one to move into a staff researcher position would help in this respect.

Big labs vs. small labs
Another option is a cluster of small labs working on a similar theme (I was in one in Lund that worked on Vision, another in the department worked on Pheromones). This seems to be more common in Northern Europe where high salaries tend to limit the group sizes that are possible (often PI, 1-2 postdocs, 1-2 PhDs). Clusters seemed to have the benefits noted for larger labs, but meant there were a lot of PIs around to mentor students, and also allowed the cost of lab facilities and support staff to be shared.

Research niches
Territorial PIs seem quite common, and as noted, the publication/grant review process allows them to be quite effective at delaying/blocking and even stealing ideas that encroach on their topic. A link was recently posted here to an economics paper taht even suggested new talent entering a field after the death of a gatekeeping PI could speed up research progress. If it seems that a gatekeeping PI is holding back research in an important field, I think that a confrontational grantmaking strategy could be used - whereby a grant agency offers to fund research on the topic but explicitly excludes the PI and his existing collaborators from applying and reviewing proposals.

Differing risk-aversion between PIs and students
Although a PI may seem risk-loving, he benefits from being able to diversify his risk across all of his students and may only need one to get a great result to keep the funding coming. He's unlikely to get all of his students working together on one hard problem, just like a student can't spend all his time on a high-risk problem.
I tend to think that developing the ability to judge a project's risk is an important skill during a PhD, and a good supervisor should be able to make sure student has at least one 'safe' project that they can write up. Realistically it is possible to recover from a PhD where nothing worked well during a postdoc, but it is a setback (particularly in applying for ECR fellowships).
I feel that postdocs are possibly where the highest risk projects get taken on at the individual level, both because they have the experience to pick an ambitious but achievable goal, and also because they want to publish something great to have a good chance at a faculty position.

Comment by gavintaylor on Do Long-Lived Scientists Hold Back Their Disciplines? · 2019-08-14T00:06:47.065Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

A simple suggestion to mitigate these problems could already be trialled well before life extension is available. It is probably possible to identify niche field where star scientists are acting as gatekeepers (either from citation patterns or conversations with scientists in a variety of fields) - an agency interested in that field could then simply offer some large and long term grants for work in the field provided that does not involve any of the star scientist or any of his collaborators. Hopefully the promise of substantial funding would be enough to encourage new entrants to the field.

Admittedly, this would be a very confrontational approach that might lead the star scientist to try and block publications or other grants from people entering his field in this way, but academic rivalries already occur via other causes so it should hopefully work itself out. If funding scientific competition like this resulted in similar gains as this publication shows for the death of a star scientist then it is not only a solution to the situation, but also suggests funding competitors could prove more effective than funding the incumbent gatekeepers in some cases.


Comment by gavintaylor on Do Long-Lived Scientists Hold Back Their Disciplines? · 2019-08-13T12:28:39.491Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I think a lot of this comes down to social factors rather than star scientist's productivity decreasing with age.

At least in neuroscience, and probably in the life sciences more broadly, PIs who are very influential in a subfield (or who start a new one) tend to be the go to people for a topic and often become the gatekeepers, so work on that topic is generally done in collaboration with them. Junior scientists (even ones trained by that PI) will usually try to establish a unique research focus that avoids conflict with the exisiting star PIs, even if that means they end up working in a less promising area.

I haven't read the linked paper, but I assume that one factor leading to increase in productivity is simply an increase in good people working in a promising research field where the gatekeeper was removed. In principle, this doesn't need the death of a star scientist to achieve.


Comment by gavintaylor on Concrete project lists · 2019-08-10T19:21:04.195Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Ryan, do you know of anybody in the EA space working on BCI, either on development or ethical considerations. BCI is mentioned surprisingly infrequently here.

Comment by gavintaylor on Extreme uncertainty in wild animal welfare requires resilient model-building · 2019-08-09T14:33:16.336Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Interesting article Michael, thanks for linking to it. I haven't thought much about measuring experience states before, but after briefly looking over Simon's essay I think happiness/suffering must, at minimum, be possible to indicate on an ordinal scale. But while many factors that lead to happiness/suffering can probably be measured on a ratio scale (pain could be measured objectively as nociceptor activity), I doubt that how they influence valanced experience is consistent interpersonally, or even intrapersonally at different times/conditions.

Nonetheless, I think suffering the Weber-Fechner argument can still be made if suffering/happiness is measured on an ordinal scale. For instance, say a person is suffering immensely because of being in a lot of pain, vs. someone suffering mildly from minor pain. Our intuition would be to help the person in immense pain, but we will probably have to do much more to relieve their pain for them to even notice we've helped, compared to the person being in minor pain.

I've also just realized that intuitive problem with this argument is asymmetric, in that it indicates that we are better of doing a nice thing for somebody who has is in a neutral state vs. somebody who is already very happy which does intuitively makes sense (and is how the Weber-Fechner law is usually applied to finance - a poor person appreciates a $100 gift a lot more than a millionaire).

Does this mean that for a given link between a factor and intrinsic state (say pain to suffering), we are likely to get a greater change in subjective experience by working to improve that factor for individuals who are already close to neutral to start with? This seems counterintuitive...


Comment by gavintaylor on Extreme uncertainty in wild animal welfare requires resilient model-building · 2019-08-08T18:21:27.206Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I am not sure if absolute suffering/pleasure should be measured on a linear scale, but there the Weber-Fechner law suggests that relative changes are likely to be perceived less than linearly.

The Weber-Fechner law indicates that the perceived change in a stimulus is inversely proportional to the initial strength. Example:

Weber found that the just noticeable difference (JND) between two weights was approximately proportional to the weights. Thus, if the weight of 105 g can (only just) be distinguished from that of 100 g, the JND (or differential threshold) is 5 g. If the mass is doubled, the differential threshold also doubles to 10 g, so that 210 g can be distinguished from 200 g.

This is true for the 5 main senses in humans and some animals, but I'm not sure if its been tested for pain (which is already quite a subjective sense), or subjective/emotional states in response to stimuli.

So while I intuitively agree that one person experiencing 10 units of suffering is worse than ten people experiencing 1 unit of suffering, the Weber-Fechner law counterintuitively suggests that a person who goes from 1 to 0 suffering will experience more subjective relief than somebody going from 10 to 9.

Comment by gavintaylor on How to evaluate neglectedness and tractability of aging research · 2019-08-02T18:55:46.583Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Nice post! Agreed that hard problems (or at least those that are likely to take more than the usual academic funding cycle to produce results) are likely to be relatively neglected.

It would also be good to consider that interdisciplinary research tends to be hard to fund but often produces outsized results (tool development for basic biology often falls into this category). So some of the hard problems could be more tractable to an interdisciplinary group, but getting funding for one is often impractical. I don't know enough about the priority areas you identify as neglected and important to know which might benefit from an such approach, but specifically allocating some funding for interdisciplinary work could might produce good results in these areas.



Comment by gavintaylor on [Link] Bolsonaro is cutting down the rainforest (nytimes) · 2019-08-02T13:19:27.931Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Both Bolsonaro and the Brazilian environment Minister Salles show strong support for loggers, even when the loggers are working illegally on (still) protected land. The Brazilian Institute for the Environment (IBAMA) does try to monitor and prevent illegal logging, but is limited in its ability to do so because of the threat of violence from loggers.

Unfortunately, IBAMA seems to receive little support from politicians - for instance, after loggers burned an IBAMA full tanker used to fuel helicopters that it was using to monitor illegal logging activities, Salles gave a speech to the loggers that seemed to generally support them more than his own department:

...there is a law that must be respected while it is still a law. On the other hand, there is the need for the products provided by the loggers...

(paywalled source and pdf copy - in Portuguese, and google translate doesn't do a great job)

IBAMA looks to have a very uncertain future, but it does sound like their capabilities to monitor logging activity are quite limited at the moment (and I'm not sure what enforcement options they have).

A tractable intervention could be to provide more modern and scalable remote monitoring capabilities (UAVS/drones or even satellite imagery) and the skills to analyse data from them. I don't know if IBAMA could receive such equipment directly as donations, or if the monitoring would be better done by a NGO that could then openly publish its results.

Comment by gavintaylor on How urgent are extreme climate change risks? · 2019-08-02T12:25:24.429Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

From the Vox article:

I also talked to some researchers who study existential risks, like John Halstead, who studies climate change mitigation at the philanthropic advising group Founders Pledge, and who has a detailed online analysis of all the (strikingly few) climate change papers that address existential risk (his analysis has not been peer-reviewed yet).
...
Further, “the carbon effects don’t seem to pose an existential risk,” he told me. “People use 10 degrees as an illustrative example” — of a nightmare scenario where climate change goes much, much worse than expected in every respect — “and looking at it, even 10 degrees would not really cause the collapse of industrial civilization,” though the effects would still be pretty horrifying.

From Halstead's report (which Vox seems to represent as a reliable meta-analysis - my apologies for butchering the formatting):

I FOCUS ONLY ON DIRECT RISKS AND DO NOT DISCUSS THE INDIRECT RISKS, SUCH AS WAR DUE TO MASS MIGRATION
...
The big takeaway from looking at the literature on the impact of extreme warming is that the impact of >4 degrees is dramatically understudied. King et al characterise this as “knowing the most about what matters least”
...
-Is extreme warming an ex risk?
*6 degrees
On the models: For the impacts I have looked at, 6 degrees isn’t plausibly an ex risk, though it would be very bad. 6 degrees would drastically change the face of the globe, with multi-metre sea level rises, massive coastal flooding, and the uninhabitability of the tropics.
*10 degrees
On the models: It’s hard to come up with ways that this could directly be an ex risk, though it would be extremely bad.
-Model uncertainty
The impacts of extreme warming are chronically understudied suggesting some model uncertainty.
There might be some unforeseen process which makes human civilisation difficult to sustain.
-Indirect risks
None of this considers the indirect risks, like mass migration and political conflict. These could be a pretty substantial risk over the next 150 years.

It sounds like study on the effects and consequences of extreme warming, particularly indirect/secondary risks, are quite neglected and could benefit from some more work (although I'm not sure how tractable work on this is at this point).

Note that the Vox article also doesn't discuss existential risks arising from indirect effects.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-07-25T20:41:33.254Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

After hearing opinions about the Cammerts from another academic who knows them‚ I've unfortunately become a lot less confident that this study could replicate.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-16T13:17:08.922Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

All of the interventions in the 'helping now' section focus on preventing additional human caused harm to invertebrates. I agree these are important, but there may also be promising interventions that improve the welfare of invertebrates from their current baseline.


For example, a popular intervention for insect conservation is to plant wildflowers along curbsides, particularly in agricultural areas with monocultures. I'm not completely sure how insects choose nest sites, but I doubt that an evaluation of local food resources is made. So insects (bees for instance), that disperse into fields growing grasses probably suffer from food scarcity (as well as pesticides). All in all, I expect that this particular intervention is less effective at increasing insect welfare than the harm-prevention interventions proposed (and it would likely increase insect numbers in agricultural areas which may be net negative due to pesticide exposure), but there may be other life-improving options to consider. These may be quite tractable to implement if they fit into conservation groups existing agendas.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-16T12:43:04.397Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I would be cautious about using clock-speed to as a multiplier for consciousness experience, particularly for small flying animals. Insect flight is dynamically unstable (hovering hummingbirds probably are to), and their flight control systems respond on the order of one to a few wingbeat cycles, which does give them their appearance of very fast responses. But the speed of consciousness relevant cognitive processing is probably slower; for instance, bumblebee flower discrimination can take 10+ seconds.

That said, I do intuitively expect small mammals (like rats) with faster heart beats and shorter life spans to have a faster subjective experience that larger mammals, so I'd expect the same to be true for insects to some extent. I'd just avoid assuming that the fastest neural processing an animal is capable of (probably related to sensorimotor control of body stabilization) applies to all of its cognitive process.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-10T16:59:50.428Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Jason. The moral weighting is a tough question, so I hope you have the time to get to some conclusions about this.

With regards to the papers, around half of them are probably written in German so they are easily overlooked and why I highlighted them. Luckily many have an English abstract. Still, by the end of my PhD I knew quite a few words in German about die Bienen!

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-10T12:46:20.233Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Nice piece Jason. The research Rethink Priorities did also raised my credence that invertebrates have some level of consciousness. However, I'd like to know more about how the capacity for consciousness translates to morally valuable experiences. If consciousness is on a scale from 0 to 10 and humans are at 10 and a bee is at 3, are it's experiences 3/10th as important as mine? Or is there a further multiplier one should apply to account for 'value of experience given level of consciousness'? If so, how would we go about determining that weighting?

In relation to compiling extant scientific research, I have a some unusual advice that I just thought of. It's really worth looking at papers published in German from the 1950's until the 1980's. It's unlikely they will be directly addressing invertebrate sentiance or welfare, but it's likely they'll cover many topics on your table. When I a was doing honeybee sensorimotor research, there were many ideas I had (say 20 to 40%) that I found had been really thoroughly covered during that period (often using equipment that was really quite impressive!). This body of work doesn't receive much attention these days, but can often be found as references in papers up until the 90's, or in current publications by older German PI's.



Comment by gavintaylor on Impact of aging research besides LEV · 2019-07-08T21:18:50.178Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

To step back even earlier in the research pipeline, do you have any idea if there could be additional hallmarks to be found?

I look forward to the next post!

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-08T13:59:04.502Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Good point. I was commenting more on my perception of the conservation field rather than considering biases in the methodology of this study, but they keywords used were:

[insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey]

Which does is completely biased to finding studies showing insect declines. Fig 1. also shows that most of the included studies were done in the US and Europe, with very little data coming from the tropics where most insect diversity is.

Comment by gavintaylor on [Link] Ideas on how to improve scientific research · 2019-07-06T15:49:27.960Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Brian presents a lot of nice ideas in that article. Besides methods of improving academic publication and knowledge transfer, it sounds like a skill shortage exists:

People who understand both technology and business are rare. They are the intersection of two already rare groups. Many scientists have an allergic reaction to business, and many business people are unable to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. Perhaps, if we didn’t have to rely on these rare bilingual people, we’d see more innovative products in the world.

EA has a lot of experience identifying talent to fill gaps, maybe working out ways to find people with an aptitude for science and business could be a high value project.

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-06T14:42:19.127Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I did overlook addressing the change in biomass value in my original comment but I now see this was the focus of your post. The species in decline % was more striking and the point the authors of the article emphasised. I have now checked the article again to make sure I understand this point.

Unfortunately the article is not particularly clear about the methods it used to get that value, but it the median 2.5% annual rate of biomass loss indicated in Fig. 2 comes from 5 studies measuring biomass loss in specific locations (the introduction lists Germany flying: -2.8% p.a., Puerto Rico: ground foraging -2.7% p.a., canopy dwelling -2.2% p.a., not sure what the other two data points are. They list UK Carabid beetles at -1.05% p.a. but don't include this in the figure).

My interpretation is that 2.5% should be taken to indicate the annual loss of biomass in habitats where many species are in extinction/decline. So although the authors don't state it explicitly, it seems they intend this to represent the gross decline in biomass attributable to species extinction/decline. Yet this should be offset by gains in biomass from habitats where species are increasing in abundance to reach a % for net change. And while the authors don't seem very optimistic about this:

Even if some declining insects might be replaced with others, it is difficult to envision how a net drop in overall insect biomass could be countered

Still, I think the 2.5% loss would be a 'worst-case' scenario. All in all, this value is based on very limited data and I think it should be interpreted cautiously. If more data was available to calculate a net change in insect biomass, I expect this would be much closer to 0%.

Reading this paper carefully actually left me feeling quite skeptical about how species population monitoring is conducted and reported. While I'm not an ecologist or conservationist and may be missing something, it seems there is a strong bias to studying insect groups that are declining vs. those that becoming more abundant (some are mentioned in the text, often generalist species). So the conclusions have to be pessimistic if all the studies you have to review focus on monitoring species with the highest risk of extinction.

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-05T21:07:30.761Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Not sure I agree with point i. If people are terraforming planets then introducing insects (or something like them) would be quite reasonable for both ascetic and ecological reasons. And simulations are likely to first be run on simpler brains (soon we will be able to simulate a nematode!), so many simpler animals may be simulated before we get to the point of simulating the first people.

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-05T20:28:44.503Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think you're confusing species extinction with changes in total insect population, when the two aren't necessarily linked. Most of the time that article is talking about the percentage of species in decline (although in some cases % is used to refer change in population), but if those species are not particularly numerous to start with, this may not affect total population levels much. The report also lists several situations where insect abundance is increasing:

A comparison of historical records of 74 butterflies in Finland showed how 60% of grassland species declined over the past 50 years, whereas 86% of generalist species and 56% of those living at forest edge ecotones increased in abundance.

So I don't think this article provides strong evidence about any change in wild insect populations, just that biodiversity will be reduced.

Comment by gavintaylor on Impact of aging research besides LEV · 2019-07-01T20:04:54.528Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Emanuele, is your work on LEV considering how to prioritise research on the different hallmarks of aging? I alluded to that in my previous comment about how to prioritise aging research for short term impact, but given your original post summary indicates that moving LEV closer by 1 year provides 36,500,000 people 1000 QALYs each, this does seem to be a fairly important consideration.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-25T16:18:03.669Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I mentioned Braitenberg vehicles in a reply to one of Jason's other posts and then realized I hadn't seen these mentioned elsewhere in relation to invertebrate sentience (or in EA really), so I thought it would be worth mentioning them here as the concept may provide some interesting perspectives. Essentially, the vehicles are a thought experiment by Braitenberg (a neuroscientist) on intelligence based on building up from something simple that moves faster when it doesn't like where it is (vehicle 1) to a vehicle that is practically human (vehicle 14). Essentially, the book explores at what point can we agree that the vehicle is intelligent, even if the mystery of biological intelligence isn't present because we built it (actually, this is almost exactly analogous to Mesh:Hero experiment described in the 2017 Consciousness report). Strangely, the work seems to be better known by roboticist than by neuroscientists.

I think Braitenberg vehicles could be a useful reference for this project as the vehicles were all based on biological concepts of different levels of intelligence, and the vehicles may already have been discussed by philosophers of intelligence as to what level constitutes a threshold for a intelligent (probably analogous to conscious) entity. Indeed, the vehicles could also provide inspiration for something analogous to the sentience score requested by Sammy, as each vehicle was intended to represent something of a 'step up' in intelligence. So one could take the max or average level that a taxa reaches on such a scale as its score.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-25T14:10:16.348Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Ok, finally got around to writing about navigation. A few comments I have about this:
-I agree that navigating known paths/areas is a fairly simple skill. However, if the animal increases the speed with which it traverses such areas it is usually taken as an indicator of becoming familiar with the route. If an animal always moves at a constant speed in a known environment, it may be an indicator that it is constantly in exploring without ever learning.

-The examples presented for navigating unknown areas in the Sentience Table are a bit less clear for me in terms of whether they reflect navigational learning or contextual conditioning. Mazes (as they are generally presented to humans) do seem a reasonable indicator of learning to navigate an unknown area, however, the way they are often used in insect studies means that they primarily test conditioning rather than navigational ability. For instance, the methods used to teach bees to navigate a maze in Zhang et al 2000, were:


Bees were trained to come to a feeder placed initially just outside the entrance to the maze. After they were marked, the feeder was moved slowly step by step through the maze, remaining for ∼1 h in each decision chamber.


As such, it seems to more of an indicator they learnt a series of choices they had to take quite slowly. Likewise, Zhang et al 1996 show bees learning symbolic cues to solve mazes (such as turn right if the wall is green) seem to be more of an indicator of rule learning.
The Drosophila heat aversion paradigm developed by Ofstad et al is quite similar to the Morris water maze, and although this paradigm is a good test of visual-spatial memory (when the animal then quickly changes its position to the new cool point based on movement in the visual panorama), reaching the safe point should be solvable by a Type 1 Braitenberg vehicle (which does not seem to be intelligent).
The examples of maze learning in cockroaches are perhaps a bit more like what humans generally associate with maze learning - I looked back through the references from Webb and Wystrach 2016 and found the original paper on maze learning in cockroaches, where roaches navigated an actual hot metal maze to find a cooler safe point, and it seems their speed and accuracy increased over time.
Perhaps an issue is that maze learning is difficult to motivate insects to do in the same way that vertebrates do. For instance, I think it would be very hard to train a bee to enter a maze and search it for food - placing it (or the entire hive) at the centre seeing if they navigate out might be a better analogy (but I suspect this may just end up with them getting stuck in the corners). That said, I think it is fairly clear that central place foragers navigate unfamiliar territories, it's just that I don't find most uses of mazes to be particularly relevant. The fact that a honeybee hive can be moved to a forest and the bees will quickly forage on available flowers seems a good indication of their ability to navigate unknown areas, but I don't know of anybody who has really tried to quantify this, it's just taken as a given.

-When discussing spatial memory, it's important to consider the distinction of traversing routes vs. having a map like memory. Traversing route (or things like traplining) implies that a set path can be learnt (indicated by landmarks or odometry) but not necessarily that different paths can be linked. However, map memory is taken to imply that routes are placed on a topographic representation in its memory and that an animal can then use this map to link points on known routes with a novel shortcut (that isn’t based on shared landmarks visible between the routes). This is quite controversial and hard to motivate insects to do reliably (as bees and ants tend to try to go to and from their nest on specific routes, but don’t usually jump between routes). I would place this higher than detouring in terms of navigational ability. Actually, I was surprised to see detouring as a navigational ability as I’d never thought about it much. However, I agree that ant work indicates detouring shows a degree of navigational flexibility between direct route following and map navigation. Unfortunately it's probably quite hard to test detouring reliably in flying insects without building large 3D constructs, although some virtual reality work may have done this.


I've enjoyed looking through the criteria and evidence you've used in putting together the Invertebrate Sentinance Table, particularly in that its led me to think place my knowledge of invertebrate neuroscience in a consciousness framework. Feel free to get in touch if you'd like my opinion on any of your further work on this.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-24T21:26:48.853Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Jason, apologies for my delayed reply as well. I’m quite interested in Invertebrate Sentience project and am happy to share some of my knowledge on these topics. My background was originally in robotics and I’ve worked on invertebrate sensory neuroscience from a fairly reductionist viewpoint (and wouldn't previously have been very concerned by questions on consciousness!). While my research was always quite concentrated on vision in flying insects, I felt that I gained quite a well-rounded perspective on invertebrate neuroscience in the labs I worked at and the conference I went to. I think this might be quite common amongst invertebrate neuroscientists - compared to vertebrate fields there are a smaller number of people working on a larger range of organisms so I think there tends to be more intermingling of ideas. Funnily enough, the thing that probably took me longest to adapt to was not treating insects as little input-output automatons but I suspect that if you were to do some insect research your background would lead you to over-anthropomorphise. There is often a fine line between things you can reliably expect insects to do reflexively vs. similar tasks that result in much more variation in what they will do.

Agreed the learning is a complicated issue. My perspective was mostly in trying to separate out things that seem complicated because of the motor component compared to the complexity of the contextual component (which I agree is probably a more important indicator of cognitive flexibility). A taxonomy of learning capability would be interesting (I would assume psychologists have done this for human children), but I wonder if it would necessarily match between taxa - it is possible that different types of phenomenal learning can be performed by a variety of neural architectures, so some organisms may find non-elemental learning easier than elemental learning if that is what they have been exposed to most during evolution.

With regards to novelty, I think it could actually be something quite useful for indicating valanced experience. I’m not an expert on this, but I understand that as well as positively and negatively cued stimulus, novelty can act as a ‘bottom-up’ modulator for selective attention in flies. Further, mutant Drosophila that with abnormal response to novelty are found to have disturbances in learning and memory. Bruno van Swinderen’s lab is doing some interesting work on this, and he has discussed using ‘bottom-up’ modulators to investigate ‘top-down’ selective attention (which seems pretty key to subjective experience in humans). It is possible that novelty is analogous to positive reinforcement in some situations (like developmental learning) but I think Bruno would argue that it can be deeper, because it indicates the animal is actively engaged in learning new information about the world (and I’m sure he’d be happy to talk further on this if you’d like).

I hope to get to replying about navigation tomorrow :)

Comment by gavintaylor on Why I'm focusing on invertebrate sentience · 2019-06-24T12:41:07.447Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Nice post Max. I found this by backtracking from the recent posts from Rethink Priorities on invertebrate sentence and am glad that this is starting to gain research traction. A few comments:

Research might be less directly persuasive then more direct forms of advocacy (because it is not optimized for that purpose), but I think that there is also less worry about backlash from it.

Research on invertebrate sentiance is controversial in research, and I expect it will be hard to except for vertebrate focused researchers. For instance, Andy Barron's PNAS article received three rebuttal letters. It has also received a lot of citations, and while I have not looked through them in detail, I suspect it would not be referred to favourably in vertebrate literature (looking at these citations could in itself be an interesting subproject to see how this high profile paper was received in different fields). Academic research can be quite political, and professors often maintain their stance on controversial topics longer than the evidence suggests they should. It's hard to predict how this will influence public opinion, but as the media often likes to get both sides of a story, any press describing an invertebrate sentience study is likely to note the controversy with an unfavorable quote from a vertebrate researcher. Perhaps a form of research advocacy could involve synthesising the arguments for invertebrate sentience in a non-confrontational and comparative (to vertebrates) way for publication in a vertebrate focused specialist journal.

Many invertebrate biologists who might otherwise have a lot to contribute in the area are not philosophically inclined, and have not thought about the ethical implications of their knowledge, and so become confused about the question of insect sentience.

Agreed, I have a background in robotics and computational-behavioral-invertebrate-sensorimotor-neuroscience (ok, that a bit of smash together of fields) although I am now doing more work in computational physics and 3D imaging. When doing neuroscience studies on invertebrates explaining a behaviour as conscious would be completely unacceptable by publication stage (although invertebrate researchers do tend to anthropomorphize the actions of their study animals while in the lab). Even behaviour that seems quite intelligent (like learning) becomes practically reflexive as soon as you can pin down the underlying neural circuit in an invertebrate. This partly from my group's approach which which was always mechanistic and focused on a reductionist approach. However, I suspect that research on similar topics in humans doesn't result in the 'magic' of intelligence being lost when, say, learning can be described by a circuit. Since becoming involved with EA I have become more aware of the philosophical discussion around invertebrate neuroscience, but I suspect there are not many others.


Comment by gavintaylor on [Link] Ideas on how to improve scientific research · 2019-06-21T19:43:26.919Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'd really like to read this article, but I've reached my limit of free monthly reads on Medium. So it is somewhat ironic that Brian's last point is about the cost of academic journals.



Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-19T15:00:08.546Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

No worries! Yes, eusocial insects certainly are quite amazing creatures. There are actually studies looking at facultatively social bee species (whereby females can nest individually or in hives with multiple reproductive females) that suggest sociality leads to increase in brain volume. Besides cognitive demands, sociality also appears to lead to other things like increased hygiene and immune function prevent disease spread in a colony.

Actually, it could be interesting to include naked mole-rats as a vertebrate comparison specific to social insects in this study. I'm not really familiar with their biology but they are generally considered eusocial , particularly that there is division of reproductive labour that creates queen and worker castes within colonies. Maybe impressive feats seen in social insects also appear in mole-rats more than you would expect compared to normal rats? In fact, there are also eusocial species shrimps from the Synalpheus genus which would probably display different traits to the other groups of crustaceans you're looking at.

I also updated the Aphid link, it should work now, but the link is below if it doesn't.

https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/25/3/627/2900485



Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-19T13:49:39.940Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

The example that first springs to mind is the work of Kanzaki's group who study odour plume tracking in silk moths. They have made robots controlled by both a moths walking action (also a movie) and also by its measured neural activity. However, when doing electrophysiology on insects it is common to completely wax their body in place and amputate their legs/wings to minimize electrical noise caused by muscle movement (which they did in the moth case). I'd forgotten this, and it does make it a bit harder for insects to demonstrate self-awareness in a similar way to the monkeys. Still, it's recently become more common to make recordings from actively behaving insects, as active behaviour has been found to modulate many neural responses (such as optic lobe processing of visual motion), so some more relevant examples might have been published recently.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-19T13:13:45.695Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Jason, I look a bit more into the idea of uncertainty modelling in both sensorimotor and learning activities. I must admit I couldn’t find much on learning to ignore completely random cues (maybe I picked this idea up at a talk or discussion, not a paper, or I can’t get the right search terms for it), but I did come across a few extra studies associated with sensory processing, navigation and foraging that you might be interested in.

In terms of sensorimotor learning, the idea of humans doing probabilistic weighting of sensory cues according to their reliability was proposed of by Wolpert quite recently. There aren’t many insect studies looking at this directly, although some have considered this indirectly as part of the study design. Other useful search terms are probabilistic/dynamic/bayesian/optimal/multisensory reweighting/integration, reliability, uncertainty, and this all links closely to adaptive motor control.

A basic example is the idea of neural correlates that works to determine when several different sensory measurements agree - this was found a long time ago in locust neurons which fire most strongly when visual motion (as seen by both ocelli and compound eyes) and air flow indicate the same direction of motion. More recently moths have been found to increase their visual integration time at lower light levels, which would allow them to see more accurately at the expense of moving slower. Aphids have also been found to respond to indicators of predators approaching by temporally correlating multiple sensory cues in the case where individual cues may be unreliable. The above are probably examples of systems that innately deal robustly with uncertain information. However, I once did a study where I waxed or amputated honeybee antenna, in both cases removing their main sensory perception of airflow. The honeybees reacted to airflow differently in both cases, and I (very speculatively) suggested this could be because the honeybees that still had intact antenna believed the information from it, while amputated honeybees then tried to use alternate cues (air flow on body hairs and legs for instance). I don't think my study is confirmation honeybees do sensory re-weighting (it wasn't intended to be), but such proof may already exist in a similar context using cue conflicts or ablations.

In terms of navigation, I also found studies claiming optimal usage of navigation cues by ants and Drosophila.

There are also studies looking at foraging decisions made by bumblebees, which suggests that they prefer flowers that provide consistent nectar rewards, and they change their visitation rate to flowers depending on how likely the flower is to provide a reward.

Finally, there is a study suggesting that individual ants assess their uncertainty when deciding how to contribute to colony level decisions.

Hope these are helpful references with regards to uncertain insects!

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-18T13:08:32.553Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for the comments Peter and Michael. I'm not very familiar with the mirror test in general so I can't comment with confidence about how well this compares to the results with other species. But after having looked back at Table 2 in the paper reporting the mirror test results I'd argue the results aren't so clear cut - one ant never cleaned itself, whereas the other ants cleaned themselves between 1 and 9 times over the six minute trial (also, the behaviour never occured in juvenile ants). I don't think this indicates that ants are smarter than chimps, another explanation is simply that, assuming cleaning occurs because the ants visually recognised the paint spot from their reflection, that this triggered a reflexive grooming behaviour. Chimps probably have more complex motivations - if they see the paint spot some may want to remove it, but others might not be in the mood for cleaning or could enjoy having it there. If the difference is then between reflexive ant cleaning vs. voluntary chimp cleaning you could then go onto discuss the relevance of each type of behaviour for demonstrating self-recognition, but I don't think we are there yet.

Admittedly, this study was not performed rigorously. The review Michael links to (Gallup 2018) presents some important criticism. The ants also could have perceived the paint through mechanosensory hairs on their head - although the difference in grooming between brown and blue paint seems to suggest this wasn't the case. Another point is that this study doesn't really define what was considered cleaning behaviour, and it may be that the threshold for this was lower than that used in by chimp researchers, raising the likelihood of false positives for the ants. In addition to clear monitoring of the ant grooming pre-, during, and post- mirror exposure, it would also be useful to do a recovery experiment whereby the blue paint was covered with brown paint - if this prevented later grooming behaviour it would strongly suggest that the grooming was related to the ants visual perception of its reflection.

It's also a fair point that both Caemmarts do not perform very rigorous research studies and generally publish them in lowly ranked to predatory journals. Publishing in low ranked journals isn't a crime in itself, although the peer review usually isn't very rigorous and I wouldn't be surprised if these authors simply keep submitting the same manuscript to a journal until one will take it without revisions (this is poor scholarship but not uncommon). However, it does present a bit of problem if the first report on a controversial topic (invertebrate self-recognition) comes out like this - it probably didn't get much attention from other ant cognition researchers (there might not be many anyway), and a simple replication study can't be published in highly ranked journal (if the results held up and the study was done well I think this would have made it into mid to top ranked generalist journal).

In reality, this is a pretty simple experiment to replicate with ants. I know a few ant navigation researchers in Europe who could easily supervise a student to replicate it over summer (the Myrmica genus is quite common). I can put you in contact if this is a useful point for RP to confirm for the invertebrate sentience project? I'd also wager $50 that this does replicate, insofar that the ants groom paint spots based on their reflection but besides any interpretation of self-awareness based on this result.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience: Summary of findings, Part 2 · 2019-06-17T18:31:11.238Z · score: 23 (10 votes) · EA · GW

Nice post Daniela.

You might be interested in the concept of the Devonian Toolkit raised a few years ago. It is mostly concerned with sensorimotor control in flight and suggests that because insect brains have remained relatively similar since the Devonian, and most flight control behaviours found in Drosophila are also found in other flying insects (and there are often similar behaviours for walking control), flying insects are likely to share a similar set of basic behavioural modules for flight control (the Devonian toolkit). This is hard to test but seems reasonable. I'd suggest that it is also possible that phylogenetically distant insects with a common ancestor may share similar capacities in the indicators this study uses for consciousness (like learning and memory traits). Thus, although insecta is a large taxa positive findings for some indicators could be quite generalizable.

I also have a comment about positive publication bias, particularly in behavioral experiments. Although such a bias certainly exists, and lack of evidence against a trait is not the same as evidence against a trait, evidence against a trait also has quite a high likelihood of being a false negative in a behavioral experiment. The reason for this is that even if an invertebrate is capable of displaying some behavioral trait, it can be quite hard design the correct experimental paradigm to encourage them to display it. In general I'd be put more faith in negative results reported for reflexive behaviours; anything involving a training task can become really difficult if the animal isn't motivated to participate. For example, I've had colleagues working with polychaetes and toads (ok, not an invertebrate) who both struggled just to get these animals to respond reflexively to big obvious visual stimuli, let alone train them to do perform a discrimination task.




Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-17T17:51:09.330Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

It looks like that ant-self recognition study should have been published somewhere better - it could be better presented and is missing some controls, but otherwise seems sound and was done by two established researchers.

Comment by gavintaylor on What Do Unconscious Processes in Humans Tell Us About Sentience? · 2019-06-17T01:33:11.216Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Are studies on the capabilities of people with impaired conciousness (vegitative or minimally conciousness states, maybe dementia or delerium) considered by studies looking at the limits of human conciousness? I assume doing something like learning and memory research with such patients isn't high priority for their carers, but I assume that, for instance, tasks a person in a vegitative state can do are unlikely to require conciousness.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-14T13:54:51.419Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

My comments are certainly biased towards bees because of my background. I hope there are relevant examples available for other invertebrates groups, although it may be that a lot of these concepts have mostly been tested in Drosophila or eusocial insects.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-14T01:48:04.931Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Ok, I'll discuss operant conditioning a bit here. I may have discounted this a too easily in my comment on part 1 (which was related to sensorimotor control) - I don't think all aspects of operant conditioning necessarily require valanced experience, but it probably does at least require a predictive world model (or efferent copy) which, in itself, seems to be quite cognitively sophisticated.

I've thought a fair bit about operant conditioning in the context of adaptive sensorimotor control that 'fine-tunes' reflexive behaviours (see chapters 3 and 4 of my thesis). I mentioned fixation in my other comment, which is where an insect (say a bee) centers a visual object frontally - the bee has an intrinsically desired world state (object in front) and acts to realize that state, but I do not believe that positioning the object frontally really counts as positive valance for her. However, the bee is able to learn to change how it responds to discrepancies in the desired world state (say the polarity coupling her yaw torque to the world is inverted, she will learn to turn right to make the object turn right, instead of the normal situation of turning left to make an object on her left move rightwards) and one hypothesis is that the bee can make this adaption because it not only has both a desired world state and motor control program it would normally use to achieve that state, but also makes a prediction of how it's actions will affect the world. In the event that the bee observes the results of its actions no longer match its predictions, and before she reverses the polarity of its yaw control, the bee may first update her world model to reflect the fact that it should now expect the world to turn in the opposite direction, from which the new predictions can be used to update the world model. Predictive models are an old idea from psychology that were explored in Drosophila using behavioral experiments before a neural circuit implementing an efferent copy was identified in them. The whole world model thing sounds rather abstract but has some real world examples, such as a growing animal learns that adapts its gait to longer legs, or an insect that adapts its flight muscle output to compensate for wing wear, and it also seems to have a relatively simple neural implementation in Drosophila that doesn't really code for much information about about the world. Of course the appearance of adaptive sensory motor control may not necessarily require a predictive world model, and it is possible that a robust motor control scheme could pre-code responses to enough conditions to appear adaptive, but given that insects have small brains I'd suggest a basic adaptive process is involved. See Section 6.2.4 in my thesis for a more in depth discussion on adaptive control and extra literature references.

I agree that the classic case of operant conditioning (like learning to do something for a reward) does imply valanced experience (I don't think that showing a conditioned reflex like salivating necessarily reduces the strength of this evidence). However, I don't entirely agree with how you are phrasing learning new or unfamiliar actions - it would help to be more specific. In most cases what is being learnt is the use of known actions in new contexts or novel combinations of known actions (in known or novel contexts) - I think that learning a new action is quite rare. Let me elaborate - an adult rat (post development) probably knows how to push things in general (and indeed make most other motor actions its body is capable of) but it needs to form the association that applying the known pushing action to a lever gives it a reward. Likewise, the soccer playing bumblebees knew how to walk and probably more or less knew how to push things, but they had to learn to do this in sequence to get the ball to the reward point. Teach a rat (or bumblebee) to handstand an I will agree you've taught it a new action. Why make this distinction? The cognitive flexibility associated with learning to use known actions in new contexts seems different from learning new motor skills, and what should be assessed be assessed is the novelty of the context in the former case and the novelty of the action in the later case. Learning new combinations of known movements seems somewhere in between contextual and motor learning. Most organisms do motor learning during development when they have an intrinsic motivation to learn how to use their bodies (and the learning probably involves changing spinal cord type circuits), so I'd suggest that contextual learning provides stronger evidence for cognitive flexibility (I don't know if any literature supports this, this is a distinction just became apparent to me when reading this post).

As an aside, I don't think you've mentioned novelty seeking behaviour yet? I was peripherally involved in a study that shows honeybee choose to look a novel stimulus over a recently experienced stimulus in the absence of any specific reward. I'm not really sure how this fits into the framework of this study, but learning could be a good place to consider this.

I hope to get to navigation in the next of my mini-series of comments..

Edited a bit for clarity and grammar (without breaking the formatting as I did in my other comment).

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-13T13:30:42.508Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Great post Jason! I have a good background in insect conditioning and navigation from my PhD so I hope that I can provide a useful contribution here.


I would have previously placed a higher weighting on classical conditioning as an indicator for valenced experience, but I wasn't aware of the spinal cord conditioning studies on rodents. The spinal cord is classed as part of the central nervous system so we shouldn't really surprised that it has some capacity for learning. Brains evolved simpler nervous structures which would also have benefited from some learning capability (so I'd expect some learning capacity in jellyfish nerve nets although I'm not sure they've been tested) so it makes sense that peripheral nervous circuits have maintained some capacity for learning, and this is probably evolutionary advantageous as it doesn't put extra cognitive load on the brain.


A headless insect might even have quite a high relative learning capacity compared to a headless rodent (relative in the sense of what can be learnt by the body compared to the intact animal) - the ventral nerve cord (VNC) is quite complex, large relative to the brain (I don't know the neuron ratio between VNC/spinal cord and brain for either vertebrates or insects, could be interesting to find this out), and contains the central pattern generator that coordinates locomotion. I've dissected quite a few insect heads and seen a lot of the bodies get up and walk away while headless. Diptera (flies) can fly while headless as the halteres provide gyroscopic feedback that stabilizes their attitude - once one of my headless hoverflies surprised my colleague when it flew into her hair while she was dissecting moth brains on the other side of the laboratory (true story). So it might be worth checking for studies in insect locomotory conditioning looking at the role of the VNC to see what is possible.


Aside, it's fairly well known that if you do a bad job of cutting the head of a chicken and leave its brain stem intact then it can live quite a long life if it's fed carefully. Would headless chickens fed through straws in a matrix-like factory farm suffer? That fact this feels repulsive while also seeming ethically preferable to factory farming intact chickens means something is wrong with this line of reasoning, right?


Anyway, back to conditioning. Allen et al. 2009 states:


spinal neurons belonging to the nociceptive system are sensitive to both Pavlovian and instrumental relations, and they exhibit a number of phenomena that when studied in normal, intact organisms, including human beings, are frequently described in cognitive or attentional terms. These phenomena include a distractor effect, latent inhibition and overshadowing, and learned helplessness effects.
...
We have indicated ways we think spinal mechanisms are much more restricted in their capacities than brain mechanisms.


I didn't read the paper in sufficient detail to determine which conditioning phenomena were not present in spinal cords but were possible with intact brains, but I would suggest that those would be better indicators of complex learning that implies valenced experience (likewise, pick the conditioning phenomena that don't occur for sleeping people sleep). For instance, the discrimination can be made between elemental learning (where a stimulus is always reinforced, e.g. A+ B-) and non-elemental learning (where stimuli are not always reinforced, e.g. A+, B+, AB-); the latter is usually taken to imply higher cognitive demands and I would assume that non-elemental learning paradigms cannot be learnt without the intact brain. There are still more complicated associative conditioning tasks like transfer and rule learning that I think would also provide quite a strong indication of complex thought. Honeybees are indeed able to learn all of these in visual and olfactory conditioning tasks (Martin Giurfa has a great review on this, the 2nd section also discusses elemental vs. non-elemental learning and I took the examples from there. Also, see Randolf Menzel (more olfactory) and Mandyam Srinivasan (more visual) for other honeybee learning and memory reviews). Most learning paradigms from honeybees have probably also been tested on Drosophila, but I'm less familiar with that literature.


Likewise with multimodal conditioning that is outside of the usual input-output relationship an organism's experience suggests some cognitive flexibility. For instance, I think the conditioning studies with spinal cords worked on nociceptive reflex circuits that were already present but, I wouldn't expect their spinal cord to learn to associate a smell with a motor action (asides from the fact the neurons from the nose to the spinal cord were cut, imagine you kept all the olfactory neural connections and removed the rest of the rodent brain). However, intact organisms are able to learn to associate say, mechanosensory or visual cues (as a conditioned stimulus) with a food reward (the unconditioned stimulus that induces proboscis extension or salivation), despite the fact that the CS isn't closely linked to a gustatory reflex (whereas smell/taste interacts closely with gustatory circuits).


Ok, I went into a bit more detail on this than planned, but I will come back to operant conditioning and navigation!
Edited a bit for clarity and grammar.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-13T11:56:11.334Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA · GW

To extend the tool use point a bit, I recall that primates have been found to have extra neurons in sensorimotor brain regions that are most active when the animal is using a tool, and essentially provide extra capacity for the brain to extend sensory and motor mappings/homunculus to include external artifacts (apparently also quite useful when learning to control of things with BCI). I'm not sure if this type of latent neural capacity has been found in rodents and strongly suspect it wouldn't be present in insects (they tend to be quite frugal with their neurons!), although tool using birds like crows may have been studied as a comparison. Having neural circrity for tool use should be a sufficient (but perhaps not necessary) criteria for flexible tool use and its quite an objective (if difficult) test.

I read this in Beyond Boundaries by Miguel Nicolelis (good book although a bit long winded and fanciful) which should have some academic references.

Actually, Nicolelis's BCI work also has some relevance to self-recognition. You can put electrodes into a monkey's motor cortex, measure the neural activation associated with, say, arm movement and then decode those signals to control the motion of a robot arm (that the monkey is is not aware of) pretty well. However, if you show the monkey the arm and it is rewarded for moving the robotic arm, it often stops moving its own arm while continuing to use the disembodied arm (with pretty much the same motor cortex activity). I'd never thought of this in the context of awareness before, but suggests it is somewhat analogous to a mirror test and overcomes some of the limitations you mentioned. A fair bit of a work has been done around insect neural interfaces (probably more invasive and extreme than anything an ethics board would let you do to a mammal to be honest) and you might find that similar tests have been performed but not labeled as a self-recognition tests.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-12T21:50:46.031Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Another comment about uncertainty monitoring: Central place foragers tend to spend extra time memorizing the visual landmarks around their nest at times, there is a recent paper on ants describing how this correlates to uncertainty in some detail. As an insect moves further from its nest the accuracy of its knowledge of the nest decreases (errors accumulate in its path integration), and there is evidence that the magnitude accumulated error influences which search strategy an ant will use if it gets lost.

I also have a feeling that insects will start to ignore a sensorimotor cue that provides starts to provide unreliable information. For instance, airflow and visual motion are usually correlated to movement direction and used to control parameters like flight speed. If wind is artificially manipulated such that it is no longer correlated to visual motion or flight speed (it should be random, not negatively correlated), then I think the insect would stop using it as a cue to control flight speed. I can't find a reference for this quickly, but I can look further if it's of interest. I recall something similar also occurs in the case where two cues are initially paired with a reward during associative conditioning but only one turns out to be consistently rewarded (the distractor is called a confound) - after a while a bee can learn to ignore the confound and increase its accuracy. Again I don't have a reference at hand for this but could look later.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-12T20:54:48.089Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

No worries Jason, happy to keep posting the examples that come to mind (finally my knowledge of obscure insect behaviours is useful in EA!). This is a recent review of bumblebee cuckoos that could be useful. I also found another study indicating bumblebee cuckoos actively change their odor profiles to maintain control over the hives workers.

I agree, bumblebees look amazingly cute when rolling balls around! The string pulling experiment done by the same lab also has a nice video.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-12T12:45:56.538Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

A few thoughts about the categories in this article:

-Deception: There are some species of cuckoo bees that will sneak into the hive of another (in this case a solitary) bee, eat the owners eggs and then lay there own. As is the case with cuckoo birds, the owner then happily raises them as her own.

More extreme cases of nest parasitism occur in bumblebees when a cuckoo bumblebee invades a newly established hive of a true bumblebee, kills its queen, and then uses the original queen's workers to raise her own offspring (the cuckoo bumblebee can only lay fertilised eggs, not workers). The later is more complex than a passive act of deception, although it's also not clear to what extent the original workers are completely deceived or just being dominated by the invader.

-Self-control: I'm not sure that comparing self-control between feeding and reproductive contexts is really appropriate. Maybe a better choice would be fungus gardening or aphid herding by ants: In the former case the ants don't eat the leaves they collect in order to grow fungus on them (although I am not sure the ants could actually digest the raw leaves), in the later case they don't eat the aphids so they can milk them (this needs a video).

The self-control of bees is kind of imposed by most workers being sterile and the queen dominating them. This is also not universally true, and the weird relatedness between bee colony members and the occasional presence of workers with developed ovaries mean that it is advantageous for workers to lay male eggs if they have the opportunity (unfertilized honeybee eggs produce male clones of their mother; so a bee is most related to her sons, potentially more related to her sisters ((if they have the same father)) and their sons than her mother, and least related to her brothers - I'm not sure this is true for all social bee species). In bumblebees this can result in a worker revolts where the workers in an established colony kill their queen and all start laying male eggs.

-Paying a cost to receive a reward: Aphid herding ants defend their aphids from predators/competitors and it seems that they make a cost-benefit type decision about if they will defend them.

-Tool use: I think that prolonged nest construction kind of fits in here. External resources need to be collected over time (different bees use combinations of mud, resin, cotton, flower petals, small rocks, and other items to build their nests) in specific sequences, the cost is lost time foraging for food, and the benefit of the nest might not be realized until it is finished (or gained progressively during construction, it's not useful straight away like the hermit-crab's shell).