Monthly Archives: May 2013

Robot Econ Primer

A recent burst of econoblog posts on the subject of a future robot based economy mostly seem to treat the subject as if those few bloggers were the only people ever to consider the subject. But in fact, people have been considering the subject for centuries. I myself have written dozens of posts just here on this blog.

So let me offer a quick robot econ primer, i.e. important points widely known among folks who have long discussed the subject, but often not quickly rediscovered by dilettantes new to the subject:

  • AI takes software, not just hardware. It is tempting to project when artificial intelligence (AI) will arrive by projecting when a million dollars of computer hardware will have a computing power comparable to a human brain. But AI needs both hardware and software. It might be that when the software is available, AI will be possible with today’s computer hardware.
  • AI software progress has been slow. My small informal survey of AI experts finds that they typically estimate that in the last 20 years their specific subfield of AI has gone ~5-10% of the way toward human level abilities, with no noticeable acceleration. At that rate it will take centuries to get human level AI.
  • Emulations might bring AI software sooner. Human brains already have human level software. It should be possible to copy that software into computer hardware, and it seems likely that this will be possible within a century.
  • Emulations would be sudden and human-like. Since having an almost emulation probably isn’t of much use, emulations can make for a sudden transition to a robot economy. Being copies of humans, early emulations are more understandable and predictable than robots more generically, and many humans would empathize deeply with them.
  • Growth rates would be much faster. Our economic growth rates are limited by the rate at which we can grow labor. Whether based on emulations or other AI, a robot economy could grow its substitute for labor much faster, allowing it to grow much faster (as in an AK growth model). A robot economy isn’t just like our economy, but with robots substituted for humans. Things would soon change very fast.
  • There probably won’t be a grand war, or grand deal. The past transitions from foraging to farming and farming to industry were similarly unprecedented, sudden, and disruptive. But there wasn’t a grand war between foragers and farmers, or between farmers and industry, though in particular wars the sides were somewhat correlated. There also wasn’t anything like a grand deal to allow farming or industry by paying off folks doing things the old ways. The change to a robot economy seems too big, broad, and fast to make grand overall wars or deals likely, though there may be local wars or deals.

There’s lots more I could add, but this should be enough for now.

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Your Honesty Budget

Kira Newman runs The Honesty Experiment:

30 days. Complete honesty. Can they survive it? — Follow their journey and read about honesty in life, love, and business.

She interviewed me recently. One excerpt:

Honesty Experiment: How do we solve this conundrum?

Hanson: I think the first thing you’ll have to come to terms with is wondering why you think you want to be otherwise. We’re clearly built to be two-faced – we’re built to, on one level, sincerely want to and believe that we are following these standard norms – and at the other level, actually evading them whenever it’s in our interest to get away with it. And since we are built that way, you should expect to have a part of yourself that feels like it sincerely wants to follow the norms, and you should expect another part of you that consistently avoids having to do that.

And so, if you observe this part of yourself that wants to be good (according to the norms), that’s what you should expect to see. It’s not evidence that you’re different from everybody else. So a real hard question is: how different do you want to be, actually? How different are your desires to be different? . . . Overall, you should expect yourself to be roughly as hypocritical as everybody else.

I later recommend compromise:

It would be simply inhuman to actually try to be consistently honest, because we’re so built for hypocrisy on so many levels. But what you can hope for is perhaps a better compromise between the parts of you that want to be honest and the parts of you that don’t. Think more in terms of: you have a limited budget of honesty, and where you should spend it.

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Cooperate Or Specialize?

Futurists sometimes get excited about new ways to encourage cooperation in Prisoner’s Dilmena like games. For example, future folks might interact via quantum games, future AIs might show each other their source code, or future clans of em copies might super-cooperate with one another. Folks who know just enough economics to be dangerous sometimes say that this “changes everything”, i.e., that future economies will be completely different as a result. In fact, however, not only do we already have lots decent ways to encourage cooperation, such as talking and reputation, we also consistently forgo such ways to better encourage flexibility and specialization.

As I reviewed in my last post, we have strong reasons and abilities to cooperate within family clans, especially when such clans heavily intermarry and live and work closely together over many generations. And our farming era ancestors took big advantage of this. To function and thrive, however, our industry era economy had to suppress such clans, to allow more flexibility and specialization. Industry needs people to frequently change where they live, what kinds of jobs they do, and who they work with, and to play fair within industry-era reimagined firms, cities, and nations. Strong family clans instead encouraged stability and nepotism, and discouraged people from moving to cities and new jobs, and from cooperating fairly with and showing sufficient loyalty to other families within shared firms, cities, and nations.

Our industry era institutions consistently forgo the extra cooperation advantages of strong family clans, to gain more flexibility and specialization. This is now a huge net win. Our descendants are likely to similarly forgo advantages from new ways to cooperate, if those similarly reduce future flexibility and specialization. For example, future societies of brain emulations are likely to be wary of strongly self-cooperating clans of copies of the same original human. While such copy clans have even stronger reasons to cooperate with each other than family clans, copy clans might cause future organizations to suffer even more than do family-based firms, cities, and nations today from clan-based nepotism, and from low quality and inflexible matches of skills to jobs. Ems firms and cities are thus likely to be especially watchful for clan nepotism, and to avoid relying too heavily on any one clan.

Yes game theory captures important truths about human behavior, including about costs we pay from failing to fully cooperate. But prisoner’s dilemma style failures to cooperate in simple games comprises only a tiny fraction of all the important things that can and do go wrong in a modern economy. And we already have many decent ways to encourage cooperation. I thus conclude that future economies are unlikely to be heavily redesigned to take advantage of new possible ways to encourage prisoner’s dilemma style cooperation.

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Beware Extended Family

In the last few weeks I’ve come across many sources emphasizing the same big theme that I hadn’t sufficiently appreciated: our industrial world was enabled and has become rich in large part because we’ve reduced the power and importance of extended families. This post ends with a long list of quotes, but I’ll summarize here.

In most farmer-era cultures extended families, or clans, were the main unit of social organization, for production, marriage, politics, war, law, and insurance. People trusted their clans, but not outsiders, and felt little obligation to treat outsiders fairly. Our industrial economy, in contrast, relies on our trusting and playing fair in new kinds of organizations: firms, cities, and nations, and on our changing our activities and locations to support them.

The first places where clans were weak, like northern Europe, had bigger stronger firms, cities, and nations, and are richer today. Today people with stronger family cultures are happier and healthier, all else equal, but are less willing to move or intermarry, and are nepotistical in firms and politics. Family firms do well worldwide, but by having a single family dominate, and by being smaller, younger, and less innovative.

Thus it seems that strong families tend to be good for people individually, but bad for the world as a whole. Family clans tend to bring personal benefits, but social harms, such as less sorting, specialization, agglomeration, innovation, trust, fairness, and rule of law.

All those promised quotes: Continue reading "Beware Extended Family" »

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US Record All Calls?

Many claim that the US Government saves recordings of all the phone calls, emails, etc. that it can get:

Wednesday night, [CNN’s] Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between [terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife]. He quite clearly insisted that they could. … On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello. … He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that “all digital communications in the past” are recorded and stored. …

Former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency full and unfettered access to data about the telephone calls and the content of email communications for all of their customers. … His amazing revelations were mostly ignored and, when Congress retroactively immunized the nation’s telecom giants for their participation in the illegal Bush spying programs, Klein’s claims (by design) were prevented from being adjudicated in court.

That every single telephone call is recorded and stored would also explain this extraordinary revelation by the Washington Post in 2010:

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.

Bruce Schneier is skeptical, however:

I don’t believe that the NSA could save every domestic phone call, not at this time. Possibly after the Utah data center is finished, but not now.

This seems to me a great place for a prediction market. It seems quite likely that the truth will be revealed within a half century, and if this claim is true hundreds of people must know who might be tempted to make a little extra money via anonymous bets.

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Delay Cosmology

We live in an age of unusually rapid fundamental discovery. This age cannot last long; it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. We may never run out of small things to discover, but there can be only so many big things.

Such discovery brings status. Many are proud to live in the schools, disciplines, cities, or nations from which discovery is seen to originate. We are also proud to live in this age of discovery. While this discovery divides us to some extent, making us jealous of top discoverers, it unites us more I think, in pride as part of this age of discovery.

This ability to unite via our discoveries is a scarce resource that we now greedily consume, at the cost of future generations to whom they will no longer be available. Some of these discoveries will give practical help, and aid our ability to grow our economy, and thereby help future generations. For those sorts of discoveries the future may on net benefit because we discover them now, rather than later.

But many other sorts of discoveries are pretty unlikely to give practical help. By choosing to discover these today, we on average hurt future eras, depriving them of the joy and pride of discovery, and its ability to unite them around their shared status. This seems inefficient, because many kinds of discovery should get cheaper over time, because there are probably diminishing returns to the joy of more discoveries in the same generation, and because the future may have stronger needs for ways to unite them.

This all suggests that we consider delaying some sorts of discovery. The best candidates are those that produce great pride, are pretty unlikely to lead to any practical help, and for which the costs of discovery seem to be falling. The best candidate to satisfy these criteria is, as far as I can tell, cosmology.

While once upon a time advances in cosmology aided advances in basic physics, which lead to practical help, over time such connections have gotten much weaker. Today, the kinds of basic physics that cosmology is likely to help is very far from the sort that has much hope to give practical aid anytime soon. Such basic physics is thus also a sort of discovery we should consider delaying.

I’m not saying we create strong international law to prohibit such discovery. Much could go wrong with that to turn net gains into net losses. But we might at least locally offer more social disapproval and less status to such discoveries, in recognition of their greedy grab from future generations. Why praise the discoverers of today, who help little else and take glory and unity away from the future?

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Tax Old Firms More?

It is widely believed that free markets tend to undersupply innovation, and that new firms tend to be more innovative. Here is yet another compatible academic analysis:

A subsidy to incumbent R&D equivalent to 5% of GDP reduces welfare by about 1.5% because it deters entry of new high-[quality] firms. On the contrary, substantial improvements (of the order of 5% improvement in welfare) are possible if the continued operation of incumbents is taxed while at the same time R&D by incumbents and new entrants is subsidized. This is because of a strong selection effect: R&D resources (skilled labor) are inefficiently used by low-[quality] incumbent firms. Subsidies to incumbents encourage the survival and expansion of these firms at the expense of potential high-[quality] entrants. (more)

Many have suggested that we subsidize firm research, though it still seems puzzling that we don’t do more of this. Yes it can be hard to measure research spending, but that probably isn’t the whole issue. However, one rarely hears serious proposals to tax old firms more relative to young firms. (Exception here.) And the age of a firm seems even easier to measure.

Why not tax old firms more, or young firms less? This doesn’t seem to be a left vs. right issue, or to favor any other side of a familiar political divide. Is this another example of our pretending to oppose dominance by big powers, but really accept it?

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