Coherent Futures

There is very little careful thinking about the far future.  Yes, many people talk about the far future as if they cared, but typical interest rates suggest few care much, and most far future discussion seems to be symbolic talk about current issues.  Furthermore, when people do actually directly discuss the far future, they tend to engage in an extreme far-think, vs. a more practical near-think:

[NEAR] All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits.
[FAR] Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits.

While our future vision should fade into an increasingly vast and uncertain fog of possibilities, far future fans instead fragment into factions, each confident in a very different view of the important future issues.  Factions use such different assumptions that they rarely build on each others’ work, or even engage others in debate.  Only they really “get it” you see, and few others ever seriously consider their arguments.  Extreme far-thinking apparently produces extreme disagreement.

Such fragmentation may be acceptable when searching a large space for rare combinations, but it is severely dysfunctional for advising common actions.  We instead need to find ways for the few people who actually care about the far future to work together via a division of labor.  But how can we do that?  Just tell each faction to reconsider that they might be mistaken?

I’ve said that with a million to spend, I’d build fire-the-CEO decision markets, revolutionizing corporate accountability via a powerful demo that can inspire related projects.  But if my purpose was not to demo or develop the tech, or to generally improve society, but just to get the info that I personally and directly cared the most about, I’d instead make real-money combinatorial markets on the far future (say one to ten decades out).

I’ve developed a combinatorial betting tech that lets a few or many users edit an always-coherent joint probability distribution over all value combinations of some set of base variables.  Far futures base variables might include the years of important tech milestones, population, wealth, or mortality values at particular future dates, etc.  Each user edit would be backed by a bet, a bet invested in assets paying competitive interest/returns.  This combo bet tech worked well in published lab tests, several firms have used it, and I’m now working with Consensus Point to deliver a robust commercial implementation.  More on the tech here, here, and here.

Such markets could fend off fragmented far-thinking futurism in several ways

Incentives Since bets change how much money your descendants (or maybe you) will have in the far future, betting puts you in a more practical frame of mind.  You would edit estimates with an eye more for realism, versus an inspiring story.  Yes incentives on far future bets can be much weaker than incentives on near term bets, but the relevant comparison is across mechanisms on the same topic, not across topics; it is just hard for any mechanism to give strong accuracy incentives on far future topics.

Engagement When your faction pushes up the probabilities of its favored scenarios, and then others push those probabilities back down again, you can’t as easily tell yourself they are just unthinkingly dismissing your views.  Since you know they face stronger incentives, their actions carry a stronger signal for you to consider.

Specialization Participants would tend to focus their edits on particular topics, such as demographics, environment, war, nanotech, genetic engineering, surveillance, or AI.  Equally important, they could specialize in particular relations between topic areas.  Someone might, for example, specialize in how nanotech and AI relate, e.g., how the arrival of one makes the other more or less likely soon after.  Then when nanotech estimates change, AI estimates would automatically change.  In this way we could work together to build a coherent joint distribution.

Far future factions may say “Sure this could work in principle, but in practice so few get it that your market prices would be useless noise.  Yes, our special future insight would allow us to increase our long term investment returns by a few orders of magnitude, but that is peanuts compared to all that is at stake.”

But coherent futures markets can also help factions 1) gain converts, and 2) get help from non-converts.  If, as you suspect, other factions know in their hearts their evidence is weaker, market odds will tilt toward you, convincing some on the margin to join your efforts.  Furthermore, your faction can always focus on what these markets say conditional on their favored assumptions, and that factional view should be substantially improved by others’ efforts to improve the joint distribution on topics away from your faction’s focus.

For example, my guess is that the most important far future issues to think through now center on whole brain emulations.  Since few futurists think much about ems now, I’d expect few to focus on em variables at first.  But I’d expect speculators who did consider ems to mostly agree that ems will more likely than not appear within a century, at least if even more dramatic events do not happen first, and that ems have quite dramatic and rapid implications for other future topics.  This should draw more interest into ems.

More important, the few people who focus on ems simply do not have the time to consider much about how ems interact with other changes. People focusing on other topics, such as war, environment, or AI, should help refine the market’s estimates of how ems would affect those topics, and how they would affect ems.  They would do this both by updating unconditional estimates on those topics, and by updating the relations between those topics and more em-related topics.

Few people really care much about the distant future, and sadly those few are mostly fragmented into far-thinking factions.  Combinatorial betting markets could offer them incentives toward a more practical frame of mind, stronger signals to induce engagement, and a framework to let them collaborate via a consensus joint probability distribution over all important future topics.

It really is possible.  We have the tech, but not yet the will.  I expect this will have to wait for a patron with a stronger loyalty to the far future than to any particular far-thinking fragmented faction.  I’ve been looking for six years now, and will continue for another sixty years, if necessary.

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