Tag Archives: Future

Humanity Can’t Steer Its Future Much

I can’t recall ever applying to an essay contest before. But I did for this FQXi contest:

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. …

In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.

Possible topics or sub-questions include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the best state that humanity can realistically achieve?
  • What is your plan for getting us there? Who implements this plan?
  • What technology (construed broadly to include practices and techniques) does your plan rely on? What are the risks of those technologies? How can those risks be mitigated?

My submission mainly takes issue with the idea that we can do much steering:

Humanity can best steer its future by working hard to clearly see the future it will have if we do nothing. Because most likely we will do little to steer our future. Yes, this answer frustrates our hunger for inspiring visions. Even so, it seems right. Let me explain.

Imagine you are holding on to a log, floating down the rapids of a wide fast murky river at night. You hear rough water ahead. How should you steer yourself?

You should not try to figure out what river you’d most rather be on, or what landscape you wished the river flowed through. Instead, you should focus on details of the actual river in front of you. You should also not just swim for the best looking spot in the river ahead; in a wide fast river you probably can’t get most places.

What you should do is, keeping in mind your limited stamina and abilities, look to see the places ahead where you could plausibly swim. See them as clearly as possible, and try to infer what might be just under the water where you cannot see. Don’t immediately swim before you look, but also don’t wait too long before starting a plan.

Steering humanity’s future is like swimming this river. It is way too fun and easy to assume that we can create any future world we can imagine. Yes the future is made by the sum total of all our actions, but we actually have very limited abilities to coordinate those actions, abilities that get worse on larger space and time scales. We don’t have a world government, and won’t anytime soon. The organizations we do have, they rarely plan more than a decade ahead.

Given our limited abilities to influence the future, our first priority must be to see as clearly as possible the likely outcomes if we do absolutely nothing. After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it. And the future world will likely be similar.

Yes, science fiction is full of stories of a few foresighted heroes swinging the tide of their civilization. And yes, inspiring speakers often rouse audiences to cheer by framing their causes as ways to help the future. But honestly, people are mostly moved to action by the world around them, not the distant future.
Seeing the future in enough detail does seem the hard part; deciding what to do given any specific vision seems easier. For example, if you see in the river ahead a sharp rock a bit off to the left, you should swim to the right. Seeing the rock is hard; deciding which way to swim is easy.

True, it may feel more inspiring to think about how you’d want to restructure the whole river landscape. But focusing on the rocks straight ahead is the best way to avoid smashing against them.

To read the rest, go here. You can also comment on my and others’ essays there.

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The Future Of Intellectuals

Back in 1991, … [a reporter] described Andrew Ross, a doyen of American studies, strolling through the Modern Language Association conference … as admiring graduate students gawked and murmured, “That’s him!” That was academic stardom then. Today, we are more likely to bestow the aura and perks of stardom on speakers at “ideas” conferences like TED. …

Plenty of observers have argued that some of the new channels for distributing information simplify and flatten the world of ideas, that they valorize in particular a quick-hit, name-branded, business-friendly kind of self-helpish insight—or they force truly important ideas into that kind of template. (more)

Across time and space, societies have differed greatly in what they celebrated their intellectuals for. Five variations stand out:

  • Influence – They compete to privately teach and advise the most influential folks in society. The ones who teach or advised kings, CEOs, etc. are the best. In many nations today, the top intellectuals do little else but teach the next generation of elites.
  • Attention – They compete to make op-eds, books, talks, etc. that get attention from the intellectual-leaning public. The ones most discussed by the snooty public are the best. Think TED stars today, or french public intellectuals of a generation ago.
  • Scholarship – They compete to master stable classics in great detail. When disputes arise on those classics, the ones who other scholars say win those disputes are the best. Think scholars who oversaw the ancient Chinese civil service exams.
  • Fashion – They compete to be first to be visibly associated with new intellectual fads, and to avoid association with out-of-fashion topics, methods, and conclusions. The ones who fashionable people say have the best fashion sense are the best. Think architecture and design today.
  • Innovation – They compete to add new results, methods, and conclusions to an accumulation of such things that lasts and is stable over the long run. Think hard sciences and engineering today.

Over the last half century, in the most prestigious fields and in the world’s dominant nations, intellectuals have been celebrated most for their innovation. But other standards have applied through most of history, in most fields in most nations today, and in many fields today in our dominant nations. Thus innovation standards are hardly inevitable, and may not last into the indefinite future. Instead, the world may change to celebrating the other four features more.

A thousand years ago society changed very slowly, and there was little innovation to celebrate. So intellectuals were naturally celebrated for other things that they had in greater quantities. The celebration of innovation got a big push from World War II, as innovations from intellectuals were seen as crucial to winning that war. Funding went way up for innovation-oriented intellectuals. Today, however, tech and business startups, and innovative big firms like Apple, have grabbed a lot of innovation prestige from academics. Many parts of academia may plausibly respond to this by celebrating other things besides innovation where those competitors aren’t as good.

Thus the standards of intellectuals may change in the future if academics are seen as less responsible for important innovation, or if there is much less total innovation within the career of each intellectual. Or maybe if intellectuals who are better at doing other things besides innovation to win their political battles within intellectual or wider circles.

If intellectuals were the main source of innovation in society, such a change would be very bad news for economic and social growth. But in fact, intellectuals only contribute a small fraction of innovation, so growth could continue on nearly as fast, even if intellectuals care less about innovation.

(Based on today’s lunch with Tyler Cowen & John Nye.)

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Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned. Continue reading "Review of LockStep" »

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Me On Fox Friday

Friday I’ll appear on The Independents, which airs on Fox Business TV at 9pm EST, discussing “The Rise Of The Machines.”

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Computing Cost Floor Soon?

Anders Sandberg has posted a nice paper, Monte Carlo model of brain emulation development, wherein he develops a simple statistical model of when brain emulations [= “WBE”] would be feasible, if they will ever be feasible:

The cumulative probability gives 50% chance for WBE (if it ever arrives) before 2059, with
the 25% percentile in 2047 and the 75% percentile in 2074. WBE before 2030 looks very unlikely and only 10% likely before 2040.

My main complaint is that Sandberg assumes a functional form for the cost of computing vs. time that requires this cost to soon fall to an absolute floor, below which it will never fall, relative to the funding ever available for a brain emulation project. His resulting distribution has costs approaching this floor by about 2040:

SandbergTimingModel

As a result, Sandberg finds a big chance (how big he doesn’t say) that brain emulations will never be possible – for eons to follow it will always be cheaper to compute new mind states via floppy proteins in huge messy bio systems born in wombs, than to compute them via artificial devices made in factories.

That seems crazy implausible to me. I can see physical limits to physical parameters, and I can see the rate at which computing costs fall slowing down. But having the costs of artificial computing soon stop falling forever is much harder to see, especially with such costs remaining far higher than the costs of natural bio devices that seem pretty far from optimized. And having the amount of money available to fund a project never grow seems to say that economic growth will halt as well.

Even so, I applaud Sandberg for his efforts so far, and hope that his or others’ successor models will be more economically plausible. It is an important question, worthy of this and more attention.

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Hidden Asset Taxes Must Be Huge

Paul Krugman:

Piketty’s big idea is that we are in the early stages of returning to a society dominated by great dynastic fortunes, by inherited wealth. … Imagine a wealthy family that has managed, somehow or other, to guarantee that a large fraction of its income is used to accumulate more wealth. Can this family thereby acquire a dominant position in society?

The answer depends on the relationship between r, the rate of return on assets, and g, the overall rate of economic growth. If r is less than g, dynasties are doomed to erode: even if all income from a very large fortune is devoted to accumulation, the family’s wealth will grow more slowly than the economy, and it will slowly slide into obscurity. But if r is greater than g, dynastic wealth can indeed grow to gigantic size. …

Piketty tells us something remarkable: historically, r has almost always exceeded g – but there was an exceptional period in the 20th century, a period of rapid labor force growth and technological progress, when r was less than g. And he asserts that the kind of society we consider normal, in which high incomes reflect personal achievement rather than inherited wealth, is in fact an aberration driven by this exceptional period. … A couple of questions:

1. How much of the decline in r relative to g in the 20th century reflected fast growth, and how much reflected policies that either taxed or in effect confiscated inherited wealth? In other words, how much was destiny, how much wars and political upheaval? Piketty stresses both factors, but never gives us a relative quantitative assessment. (more from Piketty here, here)

This rate of return on assets r that Krugman and Piketty discuss is something like the ratio of rental to purchase price of land. I don’t have access to Piketty’s book, but I’ve been pondering this question for a few months, and I’ve concluded that the usual estimates of asset returns r must fail to include many taxes that in practice reduce the actual rate of return r that growing dynasties can achieve. And I think that once we include all hidden taxes, the actual rate of return r that dynasties could achieve in practice must have usually be no more than the economic growth rate g. Let me explain.

Some taxes are explicit, like property taxes. Other taxes are implicit in the property destruction and transfer that result from wars, political upheavals, and legal corruption, and in the costs of reasonable efforts to prevent such losses. Finally, there are implicit taxes resulting from local legal limits on who one may use to manage a dynastic fund. For example, if a dynasty must give its eldest living male wide discretion over spending and investment choices, and if such males often turn out to be spent-thrift fools, this will greatly limit this dynasty’s ability to grow over the long run. An ideal might be to delegate dynasty management to a reputed professional trust that is legally obligated to follow explicit instructions to grow the fund as fast as possible over the long run. But, as I’ve discussed before, most societies have put substantial legal obstacles before solutions like this.

I argue that the net effect of all these hidden taxes on dynastic funds must have been to usually reduce asset returns to below growth rates. My argument is simple: If asset returns had typically been above growth rates, then if any dynastic funds had chosen to grow at the maximum possible rate, then even if those funds had started small they would have come to dominate investments worldwide. And they would have done so on a timescale short compared to the time period over which historical records suggest that asset returns have exceeded growth rates. By competing with each other, such dominating dynastic funds would then have increased the supply of investment so much as to drive down asset returns to or below the sustainable level, which is the economic growth rate.

I conclude that consistently across space and time, the net effects of all forms of taxes on dynastic investment funds, including taxes implicit in limiting who one may trust not to pilfer those funds, has been to reduce real assets returns to below growth rates. Perhaps well below.

Of course, if the main hidden tax in history has been pilfering by dynasty managers, that can result in a world where such pilferers spend a large fraction of world income, without much social value to show for it. One might easily dislike such a scenario, and want to prevent it. But instead of adding more explicit taxes to prevent the growth of dynastic funds, it seems to me better to cut the pilfering tax. Because this should encourage much more investment overall, which seems a good thing. This includes investment in helping and protecting the future, including protection from disasters, including existential risks. Which also seem like good things.

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Leadership Fantasies

Predictions about leadership in 2030:

The management consulting firm Hay Group worked with the German futurists at Z-Punkt to identify six mega trends such as globalization, technology convergence and the individualization of careers that will shape the kind of leaders companies will need in the future. I spoke with Georg Vielmetter, Hay Group’s regional director of leadership and talent, about the newly released study “Leadership 2030” that he co-authored. …

I think that positional power and hierarchical power will become smaller. Power will shift to stakeholders, reducing the authority of the people who are supposed to lead the organization. … The time of the alpha male — of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever — this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself. …

Such a leader doesn’t doesn’t put himself at the very center. He knows he needs to listen to other people. He knows he needs to be intellectually curious and emotionally open. He knows that he needs empathy to do the job, not just in order to be a good person. … We will see a significant decline in physical loyalty between people and organizations. It will be very difficult for leaders to formally bind people to their organizations, so they should not try. This is a battle that leaders can only lose. … What is clear is that leaders in the future need to have a full understanding, and also an emotional understanding, of diversity. That’s for sure. (more)

I call bull. Here’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, in Power:

Most books by well-known executives and most lectures and courses about leadership should be stamped CAUTION: THIS MATERIAL CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL SURVIVAL. That’s because leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top. Meanwhile, the teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptions about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying or abusive way— in short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved. There is no doubt that the world would be a much better, more humane place if people were always authentic, modest, truthful, and consistently concerned for the welfare of others instead of pursuing their own aims. But that world doesn’t exist.

More from Pfeffer last November:

Today’s work world is increasingly populated by millennials with values presumably different from more-senior employees—more egalitarian, less competitive, more meritocratic, less accepting of hierarchy, and more tolerant of all forms of diversity. And if that’s true, surely companies are changing, which means we need new theories about power and influence to reflect these new cultural realities. Strategically expressing anger, building a power base, or eliminating rivals are considered outmoded ways of getting ahead. Certainly, the reasoning goes, in a world where reputations get created and transmitted quickly and anonymously through ubiquitous social networks, people who resort to such bad behavior will suffer swift retribution.

The typical Silicon Valley recruitment pitch, or something to this effect, reinforces this view: “We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.”

Unfortunately there’s not much evidence of change but plenty of testimony to the contrary: the power struggles that beset the founding of Twitter (TWTR), the turnover among CEOs at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and the experiences of former Stanford MBA students working in the supposedly egalitarian world of high tech who have lost their jobs or been thrown out of companies they founded notwithstanding their intelligence and good job performance. Meanwhile, relationships with bosses still go a long way to predict people’s career success; organizational gossip lives on; and career derailment still awaits those who fail to master political dynamics. (more)

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Dust In The Wind

All we are is dust in the wind. (Song lyrics)

Alex:

Contra Tyler, the lesson of history is that few things are as effective at launching a revolution as is moral argument. Without the firebrand Thomas “We have it in our power to begin the world over again“ Paine, the American Revolution would probably never have happened. (more)

Imagine standing at the shore of a river. You scoop a handful of water, and throw it downstream. By how much do you expect that act to change the flow of the river into the ocean miles downstream? I expect the effect to be far less than a handful of water arriving a few seconds earlier. More like a few atoms arriving a few seconds earlier. The speed of a river is a balance between gravity and friction, and that balance is likely to be quickly restored after disturbances like throwing a handful of water.

This seems a pretty typical example of influencing the physical world. The vast majority of such influences quickly disappear. So if you want your influence to last, you have to choose carefully. For example, since on Earth nature only rarely moves big stones, you might succeed in assembling a stone wall that lasts for thousands of years. At least if other people don’t want to knock it down.

Now consider trying to have a long term social influence. As with physical influence, we should expect that most efforts to influence the social world also diminish quickly away from the point of influence. After all, many aspects of the social world also result from balances between opposing forces. For example, if US independence was largely inevitable in the long run, then Thomas Paine could have at most influenced when exactly when the US became independent.

But what if there are tipping points? Imagine that a burst of floodwater came to the edge of overflowing a dam. An overflow might dig a channel leading in a new direction, changing the course of a river for a long time to come. So adding or subtracting just a little water near that overflow point might have a big long term effect. Can this metaphor give us more hope for long term social influence?

Well first, such tipping points must be rare – the vast majority of points can’t tip very far. Second, when many people can influence a social event, not only are most people only a drop in a tide of influence, most people are also only a drop in a tide of information. For example, imagine that people were pushing for or against US independence based on their best info on if that is good for the world. In this case Paine could only be in a position to tip the outcome if many other people also could tip the outcome, and if they were pushing in many different directions, with their net effects nearly balancing out.

In a case like this, Paine couldn’t be at all sure that a US revolution was a good idea. After all, an awful lot of people would have best info suggesting it was not a good idea. And in fact Bryan Caplan makes a good case that it wasn’t in fact a good idea.

Of course many people might have been pushing based on private interests, instead of a common good. But this still wouldn’t give Paine much reason for confidence in his tipping the world to a better place. Either many others would try to help the world, or Paine couldn’t have good reason to think he is the only exception.

So are there any good ways to have long term influence? One idea is to find a social situation like the stone wall, where you can add things that aren’t likely to get moved, and where your stones aren’t likely to be added anyway a bit later by someone else. Perhaps doing intellectual work on highly neglected topics is something like this.

See also: Long Legacies

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Me Talking Thrice

  1. This Thursday March 6 at 4pm I speak at Duke University in the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE) Seminar, in room 330 Gross (room TBD), on Shall We Vote On Values But Bet On Beliefs?
  2. This last Sunday I talked to the DC Philosophy Cafe on Em Econ (audio).
  3. Last week I did another interview with Adam Ford, on Futurism (video).
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Anxiety Du Jour Books

Imagine that you wanted to write a popular book on the anxiety de jour, and that this anxiety happened to be increased moral depravity. Well there’d be an easy time-tested recipe to follow.

First, give some plausibility arguments for why moral depravity is a big deal. Since everyone already thinks so, weak arguments would be fine. Second, give lots of concrete examples of people and orgs affected by moral depravity, examples readers can relate to. Especially examples about high status and new things – people love to read about those. Third, mention important recent worrying trends backed up by serious research, and vaguely suggest that these trends are caused by increased moral depravity. No need for concrete arguments, you just need to show you are a serious person tracking serious trends. Finally, recommend a bunch of policies to deal with moral depravity, policies many of your readers already support, and that you would have supported even if every one of those recent trends were opposite.

Most important: have your book come out just as talk about moral depravity was peaking, and be an author with a lot of status in reader eyes. Your readers would mainly just want a book they could point to as they argue the topic, so they’d mainly just want an easy read without subtle arguments that they could fail to understand.

This is the recipe that Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee follow in their new book The Second Machine Age. They are high status authors, and their book arrives just as computer anxiety is peaking. First, they suggest that computers will cause an economic revolution as big as the industrial revolution, which they say was caused by the steam engine. Second, they review lots of fashionable new computer products, demos and hoped-for revolutions. Third, they review serious recent trends backed up by serious research, including decreasing labor fraction of income, and increasing wage variance. They vaguely suggest that these trends are caused by computers, but offer relatively little evidence in support of this claim. Finally, they offer a bunch of standard policy recommendations that they would have made anyway, even if all these trends had been the opposite.

While reviewing trends, the book points to this graph (taken from this paper):

ElectricVsComputers

It compares recent US productivity growth to growth during the era of electrification, 1890-1940, and suggests that growth might increase soon, if it follows the same pattern. But if this is the growth effect size to expect from computers, it is vastly smaller than the industrial revolution, which sustainably increased growth rates by over a factor of fifty (and is not at all well summarized as caused by steam engines). Of course these book authors are careful not to make strong explicit claims – they are content to vaguely suggest.

So how is one supposed to evaluate a book like this, without original contributions, strong claims, or explicit central arguments to evaluate? The standard intended seems to just be popularity: it is a success if people buy it and mention it lots as they anxiously discuss how computers might change society. And then push for the same policies they would have pushed for anyway, regardless. And by that standard, this book will probably be a success.

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