My ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky recently made a Facebook post saying that recent AI Go progress confirmed his predictions from our foom debate. He and I then discussed this there, and I thought I’d summarize my resulting point of view here.
Today an individual firm can often innovate well in one of its products via a small team that keeps its work secret and shares little with other competing teams. Such innovations can be lumpy in the sense that gain relative to effort varies over a wide range, and a single innovation can sometimes make a big difference to product value.
However big lumps are rare; typically most value gained is via many small lumps rather than a few big ones. Most innovation comes from detailed practice, rather than targeted research, and abstract theory contributes only a small fraction. Innovations vary in their generality, and this contributes to the variation in innovation lumpiness. For example, a better washing machine can better wash many kinds of clothes.
If instead of looking at individual firms we look at nations as a whole, the picture changes because a nation is an aggregation of activities across a great many firm teams. While one firm can do well with a secret innovation team that doesn’t share, a big nation would hurt itself a lot by closing its borders to stop sharing with other nations. Single innovations make a much smaller difference to nations as a whole then they do to individual products. So nations grow much more steadily than do firms.
All of these patterns apply not just to products in general, but also to the subcategory of software. While some of our most general innovations may be in software, most software innovation is still made of many small lumps. Software that is broadly capable, such as a tool-filled operating system, is created by much larger teams, and particular innovations make less of a difference to its overall performance. Most software is created via tools that are shared with many other teams of software developers.
From an economic point of view, a near-human-level “artificial general intelligence” (AGI) would be a software system with a near-human level competence across almost the entire range of mental tasks that matter to an economy. This is a wide range, much more like scope of abilities found in a nation than those found in a firm. In contrast, an AI Go program has a far more limited range of abilities, more like those found in typical software products. So even if the recent Go program was made by a small team and embodies lumpy performance gains, it is not obviously a significant outlier relative to the usual pattern in software.
It seems to me that the key claim made by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and others who predict a local foom scenario, is that our experience in both ordinary products in general and software in particular is misleading regarding the type of software that will eventually contribute most to the first human-level AGI. In products and software, we have observed a certain joint distribution over innovation scope, cost, value, team size, and team sharing. And if that were also the distribution behind the first human-level AGI software, then we should predict that it will be made via a great many people in a great many teams, probably across a great many firms, with lots of sharing across this wide scope. No one team or firm would be very far in advance of the others.
However, the key local foom claim is that there is some way for small teams that share little to produce innovations with far more generality and lumpiness than these previous distributions suggests, perhaps due to being based more on math and basic theory. This would increase the chances that a small team could create a program that grabs a big fraction of world income, and keeps that advantage for an important length of time.
Presumably the basis for this claim is that some people think they see a different distribution among some subset of AI software, perhaps including machine learning software. I don’t see it yet, but the obvious way for them to convince skeptics like me is to create and analyze a formal dataset of software projects and innovations. Show us a significantly-deviating subset of AI programs with more economic scope, generality, and lumpiness in gains. Statistics from such an analysis could let us numerically estimate the chances of a single small team encompassing a big fraction of AGI software power and value.
That is, we might estimate the chances of local foom. Which I’ve said isn’t zero; I’ve instead just suggested that foom has gained too much attention relative to its importance.