Monthly Archives: September 2013

Debate Is Now Book

Back in 2008 Eliezer Yudkowsky blogged here with me, and over several months we debated his concept of “AI foom.” In 2011 we debated the subject in person. Yudkowsky’s research institute has now put those blog posts and a transcript of that debate together in a free book: The Hanson-Yudkowsky AI-Foom Debate.

Added 6Sept: Bryan Caplan weighs in.

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Expect Bigger Orgs

Me last year:

Over the last year I’ve reviewed several ~1900 era future dystopias, such as Metropolis, We, and Pictures of the Socialistic Future. I wanted to see fears of the industrial revolution, from an era when that revolution was still young. … The strongest concerns were about the new scales of social organization, arguably the central distinguishing feature of the industrial era. … People imagined entire cities and nations being organized as were factories and firms, with commands sent down from above, and little room for local discretion. … Today, it seems that such fears were overblown. … But it is also too soon to claim that these fears will not be realized. The scale of cities, firms, and nations continues to climb. (more)

Industry has made humans rich. And we have spent this wealth improving our lives in many ways. Which is why most long run industry-era trends are positive. But we aren’t very willing to give up the golden goose that lays our golden eggs: the industry processes itself. Which is why some trends are negative. For example, dense living is fairly central to industry, so density has increased, even though it seems to hurt our health, and many would prefer more space. Even more central to the industry process is big organizations. So firm sizes continue to get larger, even though most folks say they don’t like big firms.

Yes booster futurists often claim big firms are passé and the future is all startups and lean nimble firms. Don’t believe them. The rate of new firms has been declining with wealth and time, and firms continue to get bigger. (Data quotes below.)

I instead predict that future work life will look more like the work life at bigger firms today. So there will be less overall coordination and coherence, even as more effort is put into coordination via more meetings by more managers in more layers of management. Firms will have offices in more locations, with less in-person and direct communication. Workers will have more specific operational roles, and each do a narrower range of tasks. Firms will have stronger corporate cultures that depend less on distinctive individual personalities, and more on well-defined structures, like policy manuals and job descriptions.

Governments won’t save us from this: increasing regulation tends to favor larger firms, and government organizations are getting larger. Also, government functions are drifting up to be handled by larger scales of government. That is, functions once done by cities were next done by states, and finally by nations. I have seen the future, and it has many middle managers in long meetings discussing policy manuals. Count on it. Happy labor day.

Those promised data quotes:


First, the entrepreneurship rate falls with per capita income across countries. Second, average firm size increases with per capita income. … Third, the standard deviation of fim size increases with per capita income across countries. Fourth, the skewness of the firm size distribution also increases with per capita income across countries. … Average firm size increased with per capita income over U.S. history (1900-70). Figure 2.2 shows that this time-series relationship persists. … Firm size dispersion is substantially higher in industrialized countries compared to emerging markets. (more)

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Wealth, Not Robots, Makes Us Lazy

Tyler Cowen adapts his forthcoming book, Average Is Over, into a NYT essay:

Self-driving vehicles threaten to send truck drivers to the unemployment office. … There are even computers that can grade essay exams with reasonable accuracy. … Who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?

Who will do well? THE CONSCIENTIOUS … PEOPLE WHO LISTEN TO COMPUTERS Your smartphone will record data on your life and, when asked, will tell you what to do. … PEOPLE WITH A MARKETING TOUCH … MOTIVATORS … Managers who are motivators of first-rate talent will see their earnings continue to rise.

Who will be most likely to suffer from this technological revolution? PEOPLE WITH DELICATE FEELINGS Computing and software will make it easier to measure performance and productivity. It will be harder to gloss over our failings and maintain self-deception. … PEOPLE UNLUCKY IN HEALTH CARE … PEOPLE WHO DON’T NEED MONEY … people who are bright, culturally literate, Internet-savvy and far from committed to the idea of hard work directed toward earning a good middle-class living. … have the incomes of the lower middle class and the cultural habits of the wealthy or upper middle class. … POLITICAL RADICALS: … We’re … aging rapidly, and that tends to make society more peaceful, less violent and less extreme in all directions. (more)

Tyler has the pundit style of trying to make everything seem as if it turns on today’s fashionable worries. Since one of today’s fashionable worry is automation, Tyler talks as if that caused all these trends. But in fact, while most of these trends are real, they have much more to do with increasing wealth than increasing automation.

Because we are richer, we are healthier and live longer. Older folks are less inclined to political radicalism, and those unluckily in health look all the worse compared to the healthy. Rich folks are also more inclined to be lazy and arrogant, as the threat of starvation fades into non-existence. So among the rich there are bigger gains to retaining strong inclinations to work hard even when rich, and an ability to similarly motivate others. There are also bigger gains among the rich to listening to others, especially about the quality of your work, and resisting the lazy inclination toward arrogance.

I disagree that it is getting easier to measure performance and productivity overall, or that smart phones will give useful life advice anytime soon. Yes smartphones and other machines may measure your heart rate and keystrokes more easily, but as we work in larger and more coordinated organizations, it gets harder not easier to measure individual performance. For example, when video games were made by small teams, individual contributions were much easier to discern than now when hundreds work together.

Someday robots will make a huge difference. It is important to foresee and prepare for that eventuality. But it will only get harder to take that distant prospect seriously when pundits keep crying wolf and blaming automation for trends caused by other things.

Added 3 Sept: I’d say most long-term trends can be understood reasonably well as due to increasing wealth and lifespans. These include less monogamy, religion, work ethic, and violence. See my forager vs. farmer story.

Instapundit and Marginal Revolution linked here.

Added 27 Sep: Maytt Yglesias agrees that tech isn’t the explanation:

In Stagnation, Cowen reviewed the previous generation and concluded that despite substantial progress and catch-up in poor countries that the median household in rich countries had suffered stagnant living standards thanks to a slowdown in technological progress. In Average, Cowen looks ahead at the next generation and concludes that despite substantial progress and catch-up in poor countries, the median household in rich countries will suffer stagnant living standards thanks to a speedup in technological progress.

Curious. Which is to say that while each book offers a brilliant exposition of income stagnation and how it intersects with the technological progress of its era, read in conjunction it’s clear that in neither period was the stagnation actually caused by the pace of technological change.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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