Author Archives: Robin Hanson

The Future of Language

More from Henrich’s The Secret Of Our Success:

Linguists and linguistic anthropologists .. have often assumed that all languages are more or less equal, along all the dimensions that we might care about – equally learnable, efficient, and expressive. .. Recently .. cracks in these intellectual barricades have begun to multiply. .. Like [other kinds of cultural] toolkits, the size and interconnectedness of populations favors culturally evolving and sustaining larger vocabularies, more phonemes, shorter words, and certain kinds of more complex grammatical tools, like subordinating conjunctions. (p. 233, 259)

The most ancient languages we know of are visibly impoverished compared to modern languages today. It just takes longer to say similar complex things in those languages. Assuming that the size and interconnectedness of populations speaking the main languages continues to increase into the future (as they do in my em scenario), we can make some obvious predictions about future languages.

Future languages should make more distinctions such as between colors, and have larger vocabularies, more phonemes, and shorter words. They should also have more grammatical tools such as adjectives, tenses, prepositions, pronouns, and subordinating conjunctions. Technology to assist us in more clearly hearing the words that others speak should also push to increase the number of phonemes, and thus shorten future words.

For obvious reasons, science fiction almost always fails to show these features of future language.

If you search for “future of language” you’ll find many articles noting that the world is losing many unpopular languages, and speculating on which of today’s languages will be the most popular later. And this creative attempt to guess specific changes. But oddly I can’t find any articles that discuss the basic trends I mention above.

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Tax Coastal Cities?

(Nobel-winner) Thomas Schelling just gave a talk here at GMU Econ on “Two Major Infrastructure Worldwide Projects to Prepare for Global Warming.” He said most work on global warming focuses on how to prevent it, and that there’s been a bit of a taboo on looking at how to mitigate harm if it happens.

He defied that taboo, and talked about two harms from global warming: 1) crop drought due to snowpacks melting earlier in the annual cycle, and 2) sea levels rising if the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets suddenly slip into the sea. For both problems Schelling wants central governments to start planning possible large engineering projects.

On overly-early farm-water, he wants new canals and reservoirs dug to hold water until farmers want it and then deliver that water to them. For rising sea levels he wants dikes etc. to keep coastal cities dry. Such city protection systems could be at the scale of the harbor of a single city, or at the scale of blocking the Strait of Gibraltar to protect the entire Mediterranean Sea.

On protecting coastal cities, John Nye pointed out that if governments are willing to do anything now they should consider taxing coastal cities to collect revenue to pay for future mitigation. This has the further big benefit of discouraging risky coastal development. And if governments aren’t willing to do this obvious easy thing now, what hope is there of them doing much useful later?

Most of the coastal city structures that would be hurt via rising sea levels probably haven’t been built yet. So trying to get governments to start planning to protect coastal cities runs the risk of encouraging too much coastal development, which then becomes insufficiently protected or protected at excess expense.

The fact that central governments are not coordinating much to reduce global warming suggests that they will also fail to coordinate at large scales to mitigate harm from warming. So a simpler safer solution might be to have central governments try to commit to not protect coastal cities in advance. Don’t even start central government initiatives to coordinate and plan for coastal protection, and stop current central government coastal protection programs, such as subsidized hurricane insurance.

If coastal cities want to tax themselves to pay for their own local mitigation, fine, but to the extent we expect that more central governments won’t be able to resist helping later, have them tax low-lying coastal development in advance to pay for that. Let everyone know its time to start focusing new development away from low coasts.

The problem of building reservoirs for farmers seems more easily dealt with via private property in water. If private parties can pay to dig reservoirs to sell water to private farmers at market prices, it isn’t clear why much central government coordination is required.

Added: Seems Glenn Reynolds proposed to tax coastal development a month ago. HT Robert Koslover in the first comment below.

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NYC Age of Em talks

I’ll be speaking twice this January in New York City on my upcoming book The Age of Em:

  • January 6, 7pm, at Brooklyn Futurist Meetup, Geraldo’s Cafe in Brooklyn Law’s Feil Hall (1st Floor), 205 State Street, Brooklyn, $5.50 fee. (Video here)
  • January 7, 7pm, at NYC Junto, General Society Library, 20 West 44 Street, New York, free. (Slides here)
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Engagement As Respect

It saddens me to see funerals where attendees only say generic nice things about the deceased. Such as that he or she was a good neighbor, parent, or professional. I’d rather hear more specific descriptions and evaluations, some of them mildly negative, or at least not obviously positive. The usual platitudes suggest that people didn’t actually notice the deceased very much as a distinct person. “You say Fred from accounting’s funeral is Saturday; which one was Fred again?”

At my funeral, I prefer attendees to signal that they actually noticed me as a distinct person, and that they engaged that distinctiveness to some degree. I want them to have enough confidence in my reputation and the wider perception of my value to point out features of me that are not obviously positive. I want to have been a specific vivid person to them, who they often liked but sometimes didn’t. I’d like them to share specific anecdotes that remind them of my specific distinct features, both good and bad.

I feel similarly about book reviews. It saddens me to think of someone putting in all the effort it takes to write a book, but then even when their book seems to get a lot of attention, reviews mostly just rephrase the book jacket summary, or give generic praise like “must read” and “interesting”. It makes one suspect that most book reviewers haven’t actually read the book. Or if they read it, the book skimmed past their attention without making much of an impact, like an easy-watching TV show.

My first book comes out in May, and instead of having people generically “like” it, I’d much rather that my book had an impact on their thoughts, so that they became different in some way after reading it. I want them to have engaged my ideas enough that they actually grappled with some of the difficult issues I raise. They weren’t just carried along by my entertaining show, but they actually thought about what I said at some point. And readers who engage difficult issues discussed by an author almost never end up agreeing with that author all the way down the line. So the fact a reviewer disagrees with me on some points is a credible sign that they actually read and engaged my book. Which shows they thought my book worth engaging.

Yes, in a sense what I’m asking for here is counter-signaling. Acquaintances distinguish themselves from strangers by acting generically nice to you, such as by dressing nice, being polite, etc., but friends distinguish themselves from acquaintances by feeling free to speak their minds to you and dressing comfortably around you. At my funeral, I want people to see I had friends, and for my book I desire more impact on readers than just “I read some books on X and Y lately; they were okay, though I forget what they said.”

And yes, when signals are ranked by quality, then asking explicitly for a high quality signal is risky, because that can force people to say explicitly “Yes, some people deserve that high of a signal, but not everyone, and not you, you aren’t good enough.” But that is the risk I now take by saying: love me or hate me, but notice and remember me. Respect me by engaging me.

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How Plastic Are Values?

I thought I understood cultural evolution. But in his new book, The Secret Of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich schooled me. I felt like I learned more from his book than from the last dozen books I’ve read. For example, on the cultural plasticity of pleasure and pain:

Chili peppers were the primary spice of New World cuisines prior to the arrival of Europeans and are now routinely consumed by about a quarter of all adults globally. Chili peppers have evolved chemical defenses, based on capsaicin, that make them aversive to mammals and rodents but desirable to birds. In mammals, capsicum directly activates a pain channel (TrpV1), which creates a burning sensation in response to various specific stimuli, including aside, high temperatures, and allyl isothiocyanate (which is found in mustard and wasabi). These chemical weapons aid chili pepper plants .. because birds provide a better dispersal system for the plants’ seeds. .. People come to enjoy the experience of eating chili peppers mostly by reinterpreting the pain signals caused by capsicum as pleasure or excitement. .. Children acquire this preference gradually, without being pressured or compelled. They want to learn to like chili peppers, to be like those they admire. .. Culture can overpower our innate mammalian aversions when necessary and without us knowing it. ..

Runners like me enjoy running, but normal people think running is painful and something to be avoided. Similarly weight lifters love that muscle soreness they get after a good workout. .. Experimental work shows that believing a pain-inducing treatment “helps” one’s muscles activates our opioid and/or our cannabinoid systems, which suppress the pain and increase out pain tolerance. ..

Those who saw the tough model [who reported lower pain ratings] showed (1) .. bodies stopped reacting to the threat, (2) lower and more stable heart rates, and (3) lower stress ratings. Cultural learning from the tough model changed their physiological reactions to electric shocks.

Henrich’s basic story is that from a very early age we look to see who around us who other people are looking at, and we they try to copy everything about those high prestige folks, including their values and preferences. In his words:

Humans are adaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, social norms, motivations, and worldview from others in their communities. To focus our cultural learning, we use cues of prestige, success, sex, dialect, and ethnicity, among others, and especially attend to particular domains, such as those involving food, sex, danger, and norm violations. .. Humans are status seekers and aware strongly influence by prestige. But what’s highly flexible is which behaviors or actions lead to high prestige. …The social norms we acquire often come with internalized motivations and ways of viewing the world (guiding our attention and memory), as well as with standards for judging and punishing others. People’s preferences and motivations are not fixed.

The examples above show cultural influence can greatly change the intensity of pain and pleasure, and even flip pain into pleasure, and vice versa. Though the book doesn’t mention it, we see similar effects regarding sex – some people come to see pain as pleasure, and others see pleasure as pain.

All of this suggests that human preferences are surprisingly plastic. Not completely plastic mind you, but still, we have a big capacity to change what we see as pleasure or pain, as desirable or undesirable. Yes we usually can’t just individually will ourselves to love what we hated a few hours ago. But the net effect of all our experience over a lifetime is huge.

It seems that this should make us worry less that future folks will be happy. Even if it seems that future folks will have to do or experience things that we today would find unpleasant, future culture could change people so that they find these new things pleasant instead. Yes, if change happens very fast it might take culture time to adapt, and there could be a lot of unhappy people during the transition. And yes there are probably limits beyond which culture can’t make us like things. But within a wide range of actions and experiences, future folks can learn to like whatever it is that their world requires.

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Variety Is Shallow

I haven’t read that much in the field of marketing, but what I have read so far has tended to confirm what I’ve read and taught in economics industrial organization: firms try hard to make products have distinctive feature packages in order to gain market power over customers whose ideal product is closer to that package. Even if some of those features are symbolic and created via how ads make people see products.

Reading the book How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, by Byron Sharp, leads me to doubt this usual story. Sharp presents a lot of data (some shown in these figures for the Audible version) in support of these points (from this summary):

1. Penetration is key .. all brands have similar levels of loyalty.
2. Light users are as or even more important as heavy ones
3. Leading brands are distinctive, not different
4. Create memory structure to build “mental availability”
5. The power of “physical availability”
6. People don’t want a love affair with most brands

Most price promotions, and ads that don’t reinforce easy-to-recall product cues, are wasted money. We can model the distribution of purchase choices pretty well via these assumptions:

A. People vary a lot in how often they buy from any given product category; most buys are from very infrequent buyers, who mostly buy from other brands.
B. People have a some “loyalty” in having a better than random (but far from certain) chance to buy the same brand choice as last time.
C. If they don’t pick the same brand as last time, buyers pick a brand at random in proportion to product popularity.

Product categories are surprisingly large. For example, to a first approximation all fast food competes nearly equally with all other fast food. It isn’t that pizza places compete mainly pizza places while burger places compete mainly with other burger places. There are some exceptions, such a rich people tending more to buy expensive brands, or people with kids tending to buy books for kids, but these are rare and weak. Mostly there is no “space” of product features; there is just a set of distinct but equally different options, some more popular than others.

Over the last century consumers have moved to choosing a LOT more product variety, which ends up being expensive because of all the fixed costs to support all those different products. We like to tell ourselves that we do this because the new products we pick are closer to the ideal points of our complex authentic identity. Marketers like to tell the same thing to us, and to the firms who buy marketing services. But in fact we just want the appearance of having specific feature packages we like that fit who we are; we mostly don’t actually have coherent identities, but instead just wander around in the space of available products.

This greatly strengthens the welfare case for reducing product variety, in order to reduce unit costs. It seems we are mostly trying to gain a zero-sum status via showing off our wealth and not-actually-there distinct identity.

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Cities As Harems

Many animal species are organized into harems, wherein a single male dominates a group of females and their children. When males become adult, they must leave home and wander singly or in small male groups hoping to tempt harem females into liaisons or to start new harems.

I’ve heard that polygamous sects are often run this way today, with older men kicking out young men when they come of age. But re-reading Montaillou on rural 1300 France makes me realize that humanity has long has related harem-like gender patterns.

Back in 1300 France, centrality gave status. The biggest cities were at the top, above towns and then villages. At the bottom were woodcutters and shepards, all male, who spent most of their time wandering far from villages or towns. Along with soldiers and sailors, these men lived dangerous low-status high-mobility lives in sparse areas. They sometimes tempted women into liaisons, or made it rich enough to start a family in a village. Such mating strategies may explain why such men moved so often even they were poor and moving is expensive.

Back in the high status centers, there remained a few high status men and women, many low status women, but fewer low status men. The lower status women were often servants to high status males, and often had affairs with them.

In the US today, the states with the most men relative to women are Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, and Montana — mostly harsher low density areas. In contrast, the states with the most women relative to men are District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, near some of our biggest high status cities. Most big US cities have more women than men. The exceptions are San Jose, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Austin, Seattle, San Diego, places with new booming, mostly tech, industries. Men are more willing to move to try new often-harsher industries and places.

We hear college-educated women complain today that there aren’t enough college-educated men to go around, either during college itself or afterward. Of course there are plenty of other men around, but these women mostly consider such men beneath them. Seems to me this isn’t that different from 1300 France; women are more eager to locate near high status people. They focus on high status men, and lament there aren’t enough to go around.

Sometimes people fear today that low status men unhappy from being unable to find women will cause havoc. But in the past men avoided such feelings successfully by just avoiding women. By rarely seeing women they less often felt the envy that might cause havoc. If there’s a bigger problem today it might be because low status men more often come into contact with attractive but unavailable women. From this perspective, maybe low status men avoiding women via male-oriented video games isn’t such a bad thing?

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Age of Em in Amsterdam

At 6pm on Tuesday, 24 November 2015, I’ll speak at Amsterdam University College on:

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth

Robots may one day rule the world, but what is a robot-ruled earth like? Many think the first truly smart robots will be brain emulations or ems. Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer and you have a robot brain, but recognisably human. Ems make us question common assumptions of moral progress because they reject many of the values we hold dear. Applying decades of expertise in physics, computer science and economics, Robin Hanson uses standard theories to paint a detailed picture of a world dominated by ems. (more)

The day before I’ll speak on the same subject at an invitation-only session of CIO Day. Added: I’ll also be on a panel on Enterprise Prediction Markets during the more open session on Tuesday.

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Hive Mind

Some people like murder mystery novels. I much prefer intellectual mysteries like that in Garett Jones’ new book Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own:

Over a decade ago I began my research into how IQ matters for nations. I soon found that the strong link between average IQ and national productivity couldn’t be explained with just the conventional finding that IQ predicts higher wages. IQ apparently mattered far more for nations than for individuals. In my early work, I estimated that IQ mattered about six times more for nations than for individuals: your nation’s IQ mattered so much more than your own. That puzzle, that paradox of IQ, is what set me on my intellectual journey. …

I’ll lay out five major channels for how IQ can pay off more for nations than for you as an individual: Continue reading "Hive Mind" »

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Science Fiction Is Fantasy

Why do people like fantasy novels? One obvious explanation is that “magic” relaxes the usual constraints on the stories one can tell. Story-tellers can either use this freedom to explore a wider range of possible worlds, and so feed reader hungers for variety and strangeness, or they can focus repeatedly on particular story settings that seem ideal places for telling engaging stories, settings that are just not feasible without magic.

It is widely acknowledged that science fiction is by far the closest literary genre to fantasy. One plausible explanation for this is that future technology serves the same function in science fiction that magic serves in fantasy: it can be an “anything goes” sauce to escape the usual story constraints. So future tech can either let story tellers explore a wider space of strangeness, or return repeatedly to settings that feel particularly attractive, and are infeasible without future tech.

Of course it might be that some readers actually care about the real future, and want to hear stories set in that real future. But the overwhelming levels of implausible unrealism I find in almost all science fiction (and fantasy) suggest that this is a negligible fraction of readers, a faction writers rarely specialize in targeting. Oh writers will try to add a gloss of realism to the extent that it doesn’t cost them much in terms of other key story criteria. But when there are conflicts, other criteria win.

My forthcoming book The Age of Em, tries to describe a realistic future setting in great detail. I expect some of those who use science fiction in order to consume strange variety will enjoy the strangeness of my scenario, at least if they can get over the fact that it doesn’t come packaged with plot and characters. But they are unlikely to want to return to that setting repeatedly, as it just can’t compete with places designed to be especially compelling for stories. My setting is designed to be realistic, and I’ll just have to see how many readers I can attract to that unusual feature.

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