Em City By Combo Auction

Yesterday I outlined how combinatorial auctions could help our cities better coordinate their land use and utility capacity, without granting great discretion to a central power. But I ended with:

It would be very hard to get agreement to change to this system from today’s system of property rights and regulatory restrictions. I despair of it happening in our comfortable and change-averse cities. So we might have to wait until a big disruption creates lots of other change. (more)

Two years ago I pointed to a big-enough future disruption:

Rich stable nations … feel little inclination to consider big disruptive changes. … This frustrates rich-nation would-be-rebels like me who see our business, legal, political, etc. institutions as far from optimal. … If you long to say “come the revolution,” you might wait three to fifteen decades for the “em rev“, the whole brain emulation revolution. …

Rapid [em] growth will require huge rapid changes in economic organization, and supporting changes to business, legal, and political institutions. … Locations vying to be one of those [first em] centers may be open to big institutional change. … So if you have a favorite radical change you’d like the world to consider, you might give some thought to how your change could support a local em rev. (more)

The first em cities may be especially open to change regarding how cities are run. How might combinatorial auctions help them?

Here are my best guesses about (mid-em-era) em cities. City centers would mainly house computers, mostly running brains, and supporting infrastructure, e.g., power, cooling, structural support, part swapping paths, security, leakage containment, etc.

City centers would mostly house ems in virtual bodies doing office work, meeting often with other city workers. In most meetings, brains would stay put and just send signals; physical movement would be much rarer. Em minds would be sped-up relative to human minds as far as possible, until doubling an em’s mental speed much more than doubled its computing costs.

Outside of city centers there would be more ems in physical bodies, mostly small, helping with physical activities such as mining, harvesting, manufacturing, transportation, dumping, etc. Air cooling in the periphery would give way to water cooling closer in, and perhaps molten salt cooling very close.

All this would put a huge premium on inner city computer speed, density, and bandwidth. Cities would be very 3D, and city center computers would likely have very small physical structures generating lots of heat, making cooling crucial. Also important would be power sources, and physical paths for the replacement of devices and parts.

Today big computing centers are centrally planned, mostly with uniform parts and regular structures. But this level or coordination is may be infeasible for large cities, where diverse organizations make coordination expensive and change hodge-podge. In such a context, combinatorial auction might help improve coordination.

In am em city combinatorial auction, bids for locations could specify:

  1. spatial volume, shape, and orientation
  2. part swapping portal locations and sizes
  3. line of sight to outside, or to specific parties
  4. surface temperature and chemical corrosively limits
  5. amount and form of power and cooling, with price limits
  6. specific chemicals piped in, fluid garbage piped out
  7. communication distance from other particular residents
  8. time delay and expense to move hardware out and in
  9. support force tensors (including weight) get, support can give
  10. max stress-strain to support during earthquake
  11. limits on incoming, outgoing vibration distributions
  12. chances of incoming, limits on outgoing, leakage
  13. chance of explosive destruction, correlation with distant backups
  14. legal rules covering disputes with neighbors
  15. time commitments on each of these, and penalties for violations

As with cities today, winning allocations would say who gets what spaces with what supporting utilities, limits, etc. Competitive utility suppliers could also bid their prices to use particular spaces to supply particular utility amounts to particular locations. and futures markets about future winning bids might help estimate opportunity costs of commitment. Auction revenue could pay for utility fixed costs and repay city investors, and futarchy might choose the basic auction rules.

Yes, there’s a lot we don’t know about the future, and I could get some things wrong here. Even so, it seems worth thinking about what the future might be like, and when big institutional changes might be feasible.

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  • http://www.johnicholas.com Johnicholas

    I was thinking about coordination problems and growth of cities in a hardware store today.

    Shapes have complements – a 1/4 inch nut is valuable because there are 1/4 inch bolts, and so on. After a while, the whole system, imperial vs. metric, is a coordination problem, just like deciding where a city is going to arise.

    APIs and computer languages are coordination problems like cities and measurement systems. Your list focuses on locations, but APIs and programming languages might be just as important or more important.

    The “Religious wars” of the net might make more sense if you translate them to fighting over which city will win out and dominate trade; it’s pretty much the same reason wars have been fought between actual cities.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Unless there is an interesting interaction between city land use choices and some software system’s choice of API, I don’t see much reason to include them both in the same system.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Software API may not quite be the right consideration,
        but communications bandwidths with various flavors
        of protocols and hardware layers could well be.

        You have:
        communication distance from other particular residents
        line of sight to outside, or to specific parties

        which are important metrics for some communications
        technologies, but not for all of them today. If bandwidths
        are high enough that format conversion is a substantial cost,
        then data pipes with different formats might be as hard to
        substitute as coal and propane are today – or, to use
        Johnicholas’s example, as metric and imperial hardware are.

  • Tony

    I do not understand the assertion that the most economically useful use of a emulated human brain is office work.

    • Preferred Anonymous

      I have to agree…

      I’m not a neophyte, but this just seems plain nuts.

      Unless the point is to please a ruling class…at which point it becomes very much little to do with combinatorial equality…

      Just make sure the emulated brains are all efficient (a problem Jeffrey offers a solution to), something a combinatorial voting scheme seems to do less well than a hierarchical control structure…I’m not sure you fully appreciate what emulating brains on massive scales means…

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Why do you folks think that most human work in rich nations today is office work? It isn’t a ruling class conspiracy, really.

      • Tony


  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Very generally, trying to anticipate the requirements of something
    halfway between a data center and a city “three to fifteen decades” out
    is really stretching anyone’s foresight. This post is a good try.
    I think one can make a good case from fundamental thermodynamics
    that the power and cooling requirements will be there in some form.
    Everything else is uncertain on that timescale.

    Perhaps Drexler/Merkle nanotechnology will make very local (~1 meter)
    recycling of atoms as pervasive then as electric power is now, and
    paths for physical artifacts and wastes will be a smaller consideration.
    Perhaps the computing machinery will be so radiation-sensitive that
    various radiation fluxes of city parcels will be a major consideration.

    Who would have expected, in 1900, that uranium, and particularly U-235,
    would be an important material in the 21st century? Some similar
    resource flow might become unexpectedly (to us, now) important in
    the next fifteen decades.

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  • IVV

    How does this compare to the more sandboxy MMORPGs?

  • Doug


    Here’s a “cute” example of a combo auction that I think would help you sell the concept. The goal of intellectually marketing something like this is to make it relatable and neutralize the “weirdness.”

    With that said there are many different names for grandparents in Western culture: pappy, poppy, pop-pop, grandpa, gramps, grandma, gammy, mimi, nana, gigi, etc.

    To prevent confusion each common set of grandparents should have different nicknames. Each kid should have a different nickname for their maternal and paternal grandparents. Each grandparent should have a consistent nickname for each of their grandkids, regardless of who their other grandparent is.

    This forms a complex network of preferences and mutual exclusion. A combo auction could solve this problem by having each grandparent bid on their preferred nicknames ahead of time. To simplify the model the whole generation is all born at the same time, so all pairs of grandparents are known ahead of time.

  • nazgulnarsil

    this reminds me of accelerando where humans aren’t so much exiled from the inner solar system as simply outbid for real estate.

  • http://www.tiac.net/~sw Steve WItham

    Computer chips have been two-dimensional for quite a few orders of magnitude change each in density and speed. I think you’re trying to think of your em world scenario as driving change against resistance, rather than trying to guess the equilibrium between constraints, that is, the ways various unreasonable-seeming constraints might intrude qualitatively into your scenario.

    Communications bottlenecks relative to computing speed might re-introduce the analog of significant distance, and produce communities that had to be more autonomous. I mean, more informationally self-sufficient. You would have to have copies of information to work with, and do work that would take a subjectively long time between, say, getting the contract and delivering the result. Or you would have to spend time guessing your market subjectively further out.