Numbers are clean and precise.
Life is fuzzy and poetic.
We should develop the muscle to appreciate both. After all, we are born with a left brain for logic and a right brain for intuition. Why should we only use one?
Contrary to popular belief that numbers are cold and cruel. I think numbers give us a sense of agency. Instead of feeling powerless and at the mercy of a giant random number generator in the sky, a good model with a few numbers will help us see the world clearer. As an individual, we'll know what to do with our energy and our limited life.
Here are a couple of cool examples. Each takes a thorny question with substantial social and moral implications and comes up with an experiment to put a definite number on them. I find the designs fascinating and the numbers revealing some fascinating aspects of the human psyche. I hope you enjoy them too.
First. How much is Facebook worth to a user? Answer: $1000 per year. Quoting from the paper:
Facebook, the online social network, has more than 2 billion global users. Because those users do not pay for the service, its benefits are hard to measure. We report the results of a series of three non-hypothetical auction experiments where winners are paid to deactivate their Facebook accounts for up to one year. Though the populations sampled and the auction design differ across the experiments, we consistently find the average Facebook user would require more than $1000 to deactivate their account for one year. While the measurable impact Facebook and other free online services have on the economy may be small, our results show that the benefits these services provide for their users are large.
Second. Whose life worth more? An infant or a pregnant woman? A dog or a a criminal? Tough questions, huh? Well, there is an answer to that. Infant. And dog.
Even more interesting is that this is also a global preference, which means that it's the same across 233 countries and cultures. (Here is a direct link to the graph. )
Quoting from the paper on Nature:
With the rapid development of artificial intelligence have come concerns about how machines will make moral decisions, and the major challenge of quantifying societal expectations about the ethical principles that should guide machine behaviour. To address this challenge, we deployed the Moral Machine, an online experimental platform designed to explore the moral dilemmas faced by autonomous vehicles. This platform gathered 40 million decisions in ten languages from millions of people in 233 countries and territories. Here we describe the results of this experiment. First, we summarize global moral preferences. Second, we document individual variations in preferences, based on respondents’ demographics. Third, we report cross-cultural ethical variation, and uncover three major clusters of countries. Fourth, we show that these differences correlate with modern institutions and deep cultural traits. We discuss how these preferences can contribute to developing global, socially acceptable principles for machine ethics. All data used in this article are publicly available.