What is the function of a fire alarm?

One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.

In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm.

A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.

The fire alarm doesn’t tell us with certainty that a fire is there. In fact, I can’t recall one time in my life when, exiting a building on a fire alarm, there was an actual fire. Really, a fire alarm is weaker evidence of fire than smoke coming from under a door.

But the fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.

From There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial General Intelligence by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

The fire alarm is there to coordinate an emergency. In a top-down organization, there's only one person that can sound the alarm. It's the single point of failure.


coordination

jots