Astonishing Questions Exist!

An astonishing claim is one that, if true, has some sort of surprising hard-to-accept implication. You stare at that implication, and wow, who would have believed that? For example, it would be astonishing to me to win the Nobel Prize. An astonishing question is one where most every possible answer is an astonishing claim. And an astonishing fact about our world is that we know of many astonishing questions.

For example, consider the question: does the universe go back forever in time, or was there a first time? Either way, something seems amazing. Really, you just keep going back in time and things just keep getting simpler with lower entropy, forever? Or, really, there is this moment in time and space-time just ends there?

Analogous astonishing questions exist on if the universe goes on forever in the wide future, or as a future path goes a black hole. And when we’ve looked inside things, we’ve always found more detail so far. Is there really a level of detail where we never ever find anything inside that? Or will there come a time in the future where innovation and discovery runs out, so that we stop learning and inventing new things? Will growth rates keep accelerating, or slow down forever? Will our descendants die out or last forever? Will they be as different from us as we are from our distant ancestors, or will they stay like us forever?

Will we eventually contact real advanced aliens? Will we develop immortality? Is stable world peace possible, or effective world governance? Will we learn to effectively share info so that we don’t knowingly disagree, or will we continue forever to irrationally disagree? Will it eventually be possible to make time machines, or will that be forever impossible? Will it become possible to write software that is as smart as humans across the board? Will we become able to upload/emulate human brains on computers? Do humans have free will? Do human brains have some special capacity for consciousness, or is all matter capable of consciousness?

Now in a literal sense the following question is also astonishing: who will win the lottery? That is, for each possible lottery winner, if we focus on them it seem astonishing to think: they won the lottery! Yet of course we know that someone must win. But the above questions seem much more astonishing to me in some way, as they each seem to require a more dramatic revision of my view of something more substantial. Somehow, in ways we find it hard to accept now, we will be astonished!

The existence of astonishing questions makes it dangerous to rely on the following form of argument: It would be astonishing if X were not true, therefore probably X. Seems like a safe solid argument, but it isn’t.

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Me in London, Cambridge

Over the next week I’ll give these talks on Age of Em:

I’ll also talk in Paris May 18, but that is by invitation only.

Added 15May: Ebook versions are now available for pre-order.

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FT Reviews Age of Em

The first MSM review is in for Age of Em. It is by Sarah O’Connor (really!), in the Financial Times. She “gets” me:

Plenty of futurists and science fiction writers have toyed with the idea that the brains of particular humans could one day be scanned and “uploaded” into artificial hardware but Prof Hanson’s take is different. His aim is to use standard theories from the physical, human and social sciences to make forecasts about how this technological breakthrough would really change our world. ..

Some of the most profound questions .. are the questions on which Prof Hanson is most tentative and brief because he has set out deliberately to focus on the predictable and to avoid being “creative or contrarian”. This is reasonable enough and the book succeeds on its own terms. Still, it does leave a hole. Perhaps it will fall to the science fiction writers to fill it.

Yes, mine are first steps, and I hope others will further develop this scenario. O’Connor does have a few words of mild criticism:

The book is crammed full of such fascinating visions of an imagined future. Still, some readers will share criticisms the author says he has encountered. For any of this to seem plausible, one has to believe that we will invent the ability and be willing to scan and copy human brains. Not everyone will accept this.

One also has to believe that current economic and social theories will hold in this strange new world; that the “unknown unknowns” are not so great as to make any predictions impossible. Certainly, some of the forecasts seem old-fashioned, like the notion that male ems will prefer females with “signs of nurturing inclinations and fertility, such as youthful good looks” while females will prefer males with “signs of wealth and status”.

Yes, we can’t be at all certain of this scenario. But if it is worth having a hundred books on future scenarios, it is worth having books that analyze scenarios with only a 1% chance of happening.

Yes, you have to think that social scientists, like physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, actually know some generalities not hopelessly tied to the details of our particular time and culture. Such as our standard results on robust “old-fashioned” sex differences in long-term mate preferences:

Several standard sex differences replicated across cultures, including womens greater valuation of social status and mens greater valuation of physical attractiveness. (more; see also, also, also)

Even if such differences were weaker in nations with greater gender parity, they’d still remain. (But in fact such differences actually seem stronger there.) Yes, such differences may be in part caused by culture. But whatever their cause, they seem pervasive and robust enough to make them likely to continue on in an em world.

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Lognormal Jobs

I often meet people who think that because computer tech is improving exponentially, its social impact must also be exponential. So as soon as we see any substantial social impact, watch out, because a tsunami is about to hit. But it is quite plausible to have exponential tech gains translate into only linear social impact. All we need is a lognormal distribution, as in this diagram:

LogNormalJobs

Imagine that each kind of jobs that humans do requires a particular level of computing power in order for computers to replace humans on that job. And imagine that these job power levels are distributed lognormally.

In this case an exponential growth in computing power will translate into a linear rate at which computers displace humans on jobs. Of course jobs may clump along this log-computing-power axis, giving rise to bursts and lulls in the rate at which computers displace jobs. But over the long run we could see a relatively steady rate of job displacement even with exponential tech gains. Which I’d say is roughly what we do see.

Added 3am: Many things are distributed lognormally.

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The Labor-From-Factories Explosion

As I’ve discussed before, including in my book, the history of humanity so far can be roughly summarized as a sequence of three exponential growth modes: foragers with culture started a few million years ago, farming started about ten thousand years ago, and industry starting a few hundred years ago. Doubling times got progressively shorter: a quarter million years, then a millennia, and now fifteen years. Each time the transition lasted less than a previously doubling time, and roughly similar numbers of humans have lived during each era.

Before humans, animal brains brains grew exponentially, but even more slowly, doubling about every thirty million years, starting about a half billion years ago. And before that, genomes seem to have doubled exponentially about every half billion years, starting about ten billion years ago.

What if the number of doublings in the current mode, and in the mode that follows it, are comparable to the number of doublings in the last few modes? What if the sharpness of the next transition is comparable to the sharpness if the last few transitions, and what if the factor by which the doubling time changes next time is comparable to the last few factors. Given these assumptions, the next transition will happen sometime in roughly the next century. Within a period of five years, the economy will be doubling every month or faster. And that new mode will only last a year or so before something else changes.

To summarize, usually in history we see relatively steady exponential growth. But five times so far, steady growth has been disturbed by a rapid transition to a much faster rate of growth. It isn’t crazy to think that this might happen again.

Plausibly, new faster exponential modes appear when a feedback loop that was previously limited and blocked becomes is unlocked and strong. And so one way to think about what might cause the next faster mode after ours is to look for plausible feedback loops. However, if there thousands of possible factors that matter for growth and progress, then there are literally millions of possible feedback loops.

For example, denser cities should innovate more, and more innovation can find better ways to make buildings taller, and thus increase city density. More better tutorial videos make it easier to learn varied skills, and some of those skills help to make more better tutorial videos. We can go all day making up stories like these.

But as we have only ever seen maybe five of these transitions in all of history, powerful feedback loops whose unlocking causes a huge growth rate jump must be extremely rare. The vast majority of feedback loops do not create such a huge jump when unlocked. So just because you can imagine a currently locked feedback loop does not make unlocking it likely to cause the next great change.

Many people lately have fixated on one particular possible feedback loop: an “intelligence explosion.”  The more intelligence a creature is, the more it is able to change creatures like itself to become more intelligent. But if you mean something more specific than “mental goodness” by “intelligence”, then this remains only one of thousands of possibilities. So you need strong additional arguments to see this feedback loop as more likely than all the others. And the mere fact that you can imagine this feedback being positive is not remotely enough.

It turns out that we already know of an upcoming transition of a magnitude similar to the previous transitions, scheduled to arrive roughly when prior trends led us to expect a new transition. This explosion is due to labor-from-factories.

Today we can grow physical capital very fast in factories, usually doubling capital on a scale ranging from a few weeks to a few months, but we grow human workers much more slowly. Since capital isn’t useful without more workers, we are forced to grow today mainly via innovation. But if in the future we find a way to make substitutes for almost all human workers in factories, the economy can grow much faster. This is called an AK model, and standard growth theory says it is plausible that this could let the economy double every month or so.

So if it is plausible that artificial intelligence as capable as humans will appear in the next century or so, then we already know what will cause the next great jump to a faster growth mode. Unless of course some other rare powerful feedback loop is unlocked before then. But if an intelligence explosion isn’t  possible until you have machines at least as smart as humans, then that scenario won’t happen until after labor-from-factories. And even then it is far from obvious that feedback can cause one of the few rare big growth rate jumps.

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Me at BGSU, CMU, MIT

While last week I talked at U Rochester, the next three weeks I talk at:

All these talks are, of course, on my upcoming book The Age of Em.

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Is Forgotten Party Death?

Consider 3 possible space-time experience trajectories:

ForgottenPartyToSpurIn A, a person takes a drug at the start of a party which causes them to not remember that party the next day or anytime later. In C, an em splits off a short term “spur” copy which does a short term task and then ends.

Scenario B can be seen as like A, except that right after taking the drug the person quickly moves to a distant party location. Call this B1.  Alternatively, B can be seen as like C, except that the em original is archived and inactive while the spur works. Call this B2.

In my talks on Age of Em, I’ve heard many object to scenario C, but few object to A. In scenario A, few think they’d be stressed near the end of the party, thinking they are about to “die.” Yet many see scenario C as a “death,” and claim the em spur would refuse to do their assigned task, and instead fight fiercely to keep going.

Scenario B is designed to be intermediate between A and B, and so to force a choice between conflicting intuitions. Would you really see B2 as “death” but B1 as no big deal, even though they have the same space time structure of experiences? If not, I think you should admit either that A is “death”, or that C is not. Or explain what matters besides the space-time structure of experience.

I confidently predict that ems see all of these as no big deal, because a competitive em world selects for ems who are more productive, and a willingness to create short term spurs is quite productive in the em world.

Note that this issue engages similar space vs time morality intuitions as these three prior posts.

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Me in Rochester Mon, Tue

I’ll do three public talks at U Rochester next week:

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Who Wants School? 

We can explain human behavior on many levels. For example, we can explain a specific choice in terms of that person’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Or we can explain typical patterns of individual behavior in terms of their stable preferences, resources, abilities, and a rough social equilibrium in which people find themselves. Or one can try to explain why different social worlds find themselves in different local equilibria.

For example, while pressures to confirm are indeed often powerful, that power makes conformity especially inadequate as a total explanation. Yes in an equilibrium where everyone squawks like a chicken when they meet, you’d seem weird if you didn’t also squawk. But if we found a place where that was in fact the equilibrium, we might still puzzle over why that happened there.

Last week I tried to outline an explanation for why young people in rich nations today spend so much energy signaling their work potential via school. Yes in today’s equilibrium you look weird if you try to skip prestigious schools to show your work potential in other ways. So yes we can explain the typical pattern of personal school choices today in terms of the equilibrium that people find themselves in.

But centuries ago few went to school, and the few who went didn’t go long. So young people mostly showed their work potential in other ways, such as via family background and child labor. And then over the last few centuries enthusiasm for school grew greatly, until today 2/3 of US kids graduate from high school, and 2/3 of those at least start college. Mere conformity pressures seem quite inadequate to explain this vast change.

My tentative story less tries to explain individual behavior given a local equilibrium, and more tries to explain why cultures changed to support new different equilibria. I can believe that today school’s main function is to signal work potential, and that child labor has always been better at school at signaling work potential and at acclimating kids to work habits, if the local culture supports that pattern.

But as I said in my last post, cultures around the world and through history have been typically hostile to industrial work habits, such as frequent explicit novel orders and ranking. Adults resisted both such taking such jobs themselves and sending their kids to learn such jobs. And culture seems to have contributed a lot to this, such as via status concepts; people were often ashamed to take such jobs.

Because schools have long and widely had a more prestigious and noble image, people have been more eager to send their kids to school. So schools could habituate kids into industrial workplace styles, and parents could be less ashamed of accepting this. I’m not saying that this was a conscious plan (though sometimes it was), but that this was a lower-resistance path for cultural evolution. Societies that adopted more industry friendly schooling tended to get richer and then other societies were more willing to copy them.

Bryan Caplan seems to accept part of my story:

Let me propose a variant on Robin’s story.  Namely: While school is not and never was a good way to acclimate kids to the world of work, it does wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric or “prestige.”  “Teaching every child to reach his full potential” sounds far nobler than “Training every child for his probable future.”  As a result, making the political case for ample education funding is child’s play.  Education’s prestigious image in turn cements its focal status role, making academic achievement our society’s central signal of conformity.

Where Bryan disagrees is that he sees government as the main agent pushing school. He says it wasn’t individual workers who were unwilling to adopt industrial work habits, it was government regulators:

The main problem of development isn’t that people in poor places won’t individually submit to foreign direction, but that people in poor places won’t collectively submit to foreign direction.  “Letting foreigners run our economy” sounds bad, but individuals are happy to swallow their pride for higher wages.  Voters and politicians in LDCs, in contrast, loathe to put a price on pride – and therefore hamstring multinationals in a hundred different destructive ways.

And he says it wasn’t individuals who were eager to send their kids to school, it was government:

While I don’t dwell on history, my book does answer the question, “Why does schooling pass the market test?”  My answer is: “Market test?!  Government showers almost a trillion dollars a year on the status quo, and you call that ‘passing the market test’?!” … When individuals spend their own money, of course, they at least ponder whether what sounds wonderful is really worth the cost.  For collective spending, in contrast, Social Desirability Bias reigns supreme.

But these just don’t match the history I’ve read. For example, In the US there was a lots of other school funding before government took over:

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Public schools were always under local control, with no federal role, and little state role. The 1840 census indicated that of the 3.68 million children between the ages of five and fifteen, about 55% attended primary schools and academies. (more)

On typical worker reluctance to follow orders, see Greg Clark’s classic “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed? Lessons from the Cotton Mills”:

Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could “… it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won’t … They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings.” In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.

Chris Dillow says my viewpoint is not new, and quotes some 70s Marxist scholars:

Robin would, I guess, reach for the holy water and crucifix on learning this, but his idea is an orthodox Marxian one. I don’t say this to embarrass him. Quite the opposite. I do so to point out that Marxists and libertarians have much in common. We both believe that freedom is a – the? – great good; Marxists, though, more than right-libertarians, are also troubled by non-state coercion. We are both sceptical about whether state power can be used benignly. … However, whereas Marxists have engaged intelligently with right-libertarianism, the opposite has, AFAIK, not been the case – as Robin and Bryan’s ignorance of the intellectual history of Robin’s theory of schooling demonstrates. This is perhaps regrettable.

To be clear, I’m only somewhat libertarian, I’m happy to credit Marxist scholars with useful insight, and I wasn’t claiming my view on schools to be starkly original. I’m well aware that many have long seen school as training kids in industrial work habits. What I haven’t seen elsewhere, though I could easily believe it has been said before, is the idea of schools being an easier to swallow form of work habituation due to the ancient human connection between prestige and learning.

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School Is To Submit

Most animals in the world can’t be usefully domesticated. This isn’t because we can’t eat their meat, or feed them the food they need. It is because all animals naturally resist being dominated. Only rare social species can let a human sit in the role of dominant pack animal whom they will obey, and only if humans do it just right.

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. Related complaints are often made about the poorest workers in rich societies; they just won’t consistently do what they are told. It seems pride is a big barrier to material wealth.

The farming mode required humans to swallow many changes that didn’t feel nice or natural to foragers. While foragers are fiercely egalitarian, farmers are dominated by kings and generals, and have unequal property and classes. Farmers work more hours at less mentally challenging tasks, and get less variety via travel. Huge new cultural pressures, such as religions with moralizing gods, were needed to turn foragers into farmers.

But at work farmers are mostly autonomous and treated as the equal of workers around them. They may resent having to work, but adults are mostly trusted to do their job as they choose, since job practices are standardized and don’t change much over time. In contrast, productive industrial era workers must accept more local domination and inequality than would most farmers. Industry workers have bosses more in their face giving them specific instructions, telling them what they did wrong, and ranking them explicitly relative to their previous performance and to other nearby workers. They face more ambiguity and uncertainty about what they are supposed to do and how.

How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? A simple answer I want to explore in this post is: prestigious schools.

While human foragers are especially averse to even a hint of domination, they are also especially eager to take “orders” via copying the practices of prestigious folks. Humans have a uniquely powerful capacity for cultural evolution exactly because we are especially eager and able to copy what prestigious people do. So if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former.

In his upcoming book, The Case Against Education, my colleague Bryan Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist. I agree with Bryan that, compared with the theory that older students mostly go to school to learn useful skills, signaling better explains the low usefulness of school subjects, low transfer to other tasks, low retention of what is taught, low interest in learning relative to credentials, big last-year-of-school gains, and student preferences for cancelled classes.

My main problem with Caplan’s story so far (he still has time to change his book) is the fact that centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs, and the school signaling system has slowly displaced that job signaling system. Pressures to conform to existing practices can’t explain this displacement of a previous practice by a new practice. So why did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?

Like early jobs, school can have people practice habits that will be useful in jobs, such as showing up on time, doing what you are told even when that is different from what you did before, figuring out ambiguous instructions, and accepting being frequently and publicly ranked relative to similar people. But while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people.

Forager children aren’t told what to do; they just wander around and do what they like. But they get bored and want to be respected like adults, so eventually they follow some adults around and ask to be shown how to do things. In this process they sometimes have to take orders, but only until they are no longer novices. They don’t have a single random boss they don’t respect, but can instead be trained by many adults, can select them to be the most prestigious adults around, and can stop training with each when they like.

Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from their following his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.

When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school, even though such things will happen far more often than their ancestors would have tolerated. And if their job ends up giving them prestige, their prior “submission” to prestigious teachers will seem more appropriate.

This point of view can help explain how schools could help workers to accept habits of modern workplaces, and thus how there could have been selection for societies that substituted schools for early jobs or other child activities. It can also help explain unequal gains from school; some kinds of schools should be less effective than others. For example, teachers might not be prestigious, teachers may fail to show up on time to teach, teacher evaluations might correlate poorly with student performance, students might not have much choice of classes, school tasks might diverge too far from work tasks, students may not get prestigious jobs, or the whole process might continue too long into adulthood, long after the key habituation has been achieved.

In sum, while students today may mostly use schools to signal smarts, drive, and conformity, we need something else to explain how school displaced early work in this signaling role. One plausible story is that schools habituate students in modern workplace habits while on the surface looking more like prestigious forager teachers than like the dominating bosses that all animals are primed to resist. But this hardly implies that everything today that calls itself a school is equally effective at producing this benefit.

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