Category Archives: Uncategorized

Enforce Common Norms On Elites

In my experience, elites tend to differ in how they adhere to social norms: their behavior is more context-dependent. Ordinary people use relatively simple strategies of being generally nice, tough, silly, serious, etc., strategies that depend on relatively few context variables. That is, they are mostly nice or tough overall. In contrast, elite behavior is far more sensitive to context. Elites are often very nice to some people, and quite mean to others, in ways that can surprise and seem strange to ordinary people.

The obvious explanation is that context-dependence is gives higher payoffs when one has the intelligence, experience, and social training to execute this strategy well. When you can tell which norms will tend to be enforced how when and by whom, then you can adhere strongly to the norms most likely to be enforced, and neglect the others. And skirt right up to the edge of enforcement boundaries. For weakly enforced norms, your power as an elite gives you more ways to threaten retaliation against those who might try to enforce them on you. And for norms that your elite associates are not particularly eager to enforce, you are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt, and also second and third chances even when you are clearly caught.

One especially important human norm says that we should each do things to promote a general good when doing so is cheap/easy, relative to the gains to others. Applied to our systems, this norm says that we should all do cheap/easy things to make the systems that we share more effective and beneficial to all. This is a weakly enforced norm that elite associates are not particularly eager to enforce.

And so elites do typically neglect this system-improving norm more. Ordinary people look at a broken system, talk a bit out how it might be improved, and even make a few weak moves in such directions. But ordinary people know that elites are in a far better position to make such moves, and they tend to presume that elites are doing what they can. So if nothing is happening, probably nothing can be done. Which often isn’t remotely close to true, given that elites usually see the system-improving norm as one they can safely neglect.

Oh elites tend to be fine with getting out in front of a popular movement for change, if that will help them personally. They’ll even take credit and pretend to have started such a movement, pushing aside the non-elites who actually did. And they are also fine with taking the initiative to propose system changes that are likely to personally benefit themselves and their allies. But otherwise elites give only lip service to the norm that says to make mild efforts to seek good system changes.

This is one of the reasons that I favor making blackmail legal. That is, while one might have laws like libel against making false claims, and laws against privacy invasions such as posting nude picts or stealing your passwords, if you are going to allow people to tell true negative info that they gain through legitimate means, then you should also let them threaten to not tell this info in trade for compensation.

Legalized blackmail of this sort would have only modest effects on ordinary people, who don’t have much money, and who others aren’t that interested in hearing about. But it would have much stronger effects on elites; elites would be found out much more readily when they broke common social norms. They’d be punished for such violations either by the info going public, or by their having to pay blackmail to keep them quiet. Either way, they’d learn to adhere much more strongly to common norms.

Yes, this would cause harm in some areas where popular norms are dysfunctional. Such as norms to never give in to terrorists, or to never consider costs when deciding whether to save lives. Elites would have to push harder to get the public to accept norm changes in such areas, or they’d have to follow dysfunctional norms. But elites would also be pushed to adhere better to the key norm of working to improve systems when that is cheap and easy. Which could be a big win.

Yes trying to improve systems can hurt when proposed improvements are evaluated via naive public impressions on what behavior works well. But efforts to improve via making new small scale trials that are scaled up only when smaller versions work well, that’s much harder to screw up. We need a lot more of that.

Norms aren’t norms if most people don’t support them, via at least not disputing the claim that society is better off when they are enforced. If so, most people must say they expect society to be better off when we find more cost-effective ways to enforced current norms. Such as legalizing blackmail. This doesn’t necessarily result in our choosing to enforce norms more strictly, though this may often be the result. Yes, better norm enforcement can be bad when norms are bad. But in that case it seems better to persuade people to change norms, rather than throwing monkey-wrenches into the gears of norm enforcement.

So let’s hold our elites more accountable to our norms, listen to them when they suggest that we change norms, and especially enforce the norm of working to improve systems. Legalized blackmail could help with getting elites to adhere more closely to common norms.

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Aliens Need Not Wait To Be Active

In April 2017, Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Cirkovic released this paper:

If a civilization wants to maximize computation it appears rational to aestivate until the far future in order to exploit the low temperature environment: This can produce a 1030 multiplier of achievable computation. We hence suggest the “aestivation hypothesis”: The reason we are not observing manifestations of alien civilizations is that they are currently (mostly) inactive, patiently waiting for future cosmic eras. This paper analyses the assumptions going into the hypothesis and how physical law and observational evidence constrain the motivations of aliens compatible with the hypothesis. (more)

That is, they say that if you have a resource (like a raised weight, charged battery, or tank of gas), you can get at lot (~1030 times!) more computing steps out of that if you don’t use it  today, but instead wait until the cosmological background temperature is very low. So, they say, there may be lots of aliens out there, all quiet and waiting to be active later.

Their paper was published in JBIS in a few months later, their theory now has its own wikipedia page, and they have attracted at least 15 news articles (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15). Problem is, they get the physics of computation wrong. Or so says physics-of-computation pioneer Charles Bennett, quantum-info physicist Jess Riedel, and myself, in our new paper:

In their article, ‘That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox’, Sandberg et al. try to explain the Fermi paradox (we see no aliens) by claiming that Landauer’s principle implies that a civilization can in principle perform far more (∼1030 times more) irreversible logical operations (e.g., error-correcting bit erasures) if it conserves its resources until the distant future when the cos- mic background temperature is very low. So perhaps aliens are out there, but quietly waiting.

Sandberg et al. implicitly assume, however, that computer-generated entropy can only be disposed of by transferring it to the cosmological background. In fact, while this assumption may apply in the distant future, our universe today contains vast reservoirs and other physical systems in non-maximal entropy states, and computer-generated entropy can be transferred to them at the adiabatic conversion rate of one bit of negentropy to erase one bit of error. This can be done at any time, and is not improved by waiting for a low cosmic background temperature. Thus aliens need not wait to be active. As Sandberg et al. do not provide a concrete model of the effect they assert, we construct one and show where their informal argument goes wrong. (more)

That is, the key resource is negentropy, and if you have some of that you can use it at anytime to correct computing-generated bit errors at the constant ideal rate of one bit of negentropy per one bit of error corrected. There is no advantage in waiting until the distant future to do this.

Now you might try to collect negentropy by running an engine on the temperature difference between some local physical system that you control and the distant cosmological background. And yes, that process may go better if you wait until the background gets colder. (And that process can be very slow.) But the negentropy that you already have around you now, you can use that at anytime without any penalty for early withdrawal.

There’s also (as I discuss in Age of Em) an advantage in running your computers more slowly; the negentropy cost per gate operation is roughly inverse to the time you allow for that operation. So aliens might want to run slow. But even for this purpose they should want to start that activity as soon as possible. Defensive consideration also suggest that they’d need to maintain substantial activity to watch for and be ready to respond to attacks.

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Checkmate On Blackmail

Often in chess, at least among novices, one player doesn’t know that they’ve been checkmated. When the other player declares “checkmate”, this first player is surprised; that claim contradicts their intuitive impression of the board. So they have to check each of their possible moves, one by one, to see that none allow an escape.

The same thing sometimes happens in analysis of social policy. Many people intuitively want to support policy X, and they usually want to believe that this is due to the good practical consequences of X. But if the policy is simple enough, one may be able iterate through all the possible consequential arguments for X and find that they all fail. Or perhaps more realistically, iterate through hundreds of the most promising actual consequential arguments that have been publicly offered so far, and both find them all wanting, and find that almost all of them are repetitions, suggesting that few new arguments are to be found.

That is, it is sometimes possible with substantial effort to say that policy X has been checkmated, at least in terms of known consequentialist supporting arguments. Yes, many social policy chess boards are big, and so it can take a lot of time and expertise to check all the moves. But sometimes a person has done that checking on policy X, and then frequently encounters others who have not so checked. Many of these others will defend X, basically randomly sampling from the many failed arguments that have been offered so far.

In chess, when someone says “checkmate”, you tend to believe them, even if you have enough doubt that you still check. But in public debates on social policy, few people accept a claim of “checkmate”, as few such debates ever go into enough depth to go through all the possibilities. Typically many people are willing to argue for X, even if they haven’t studied in great detail the many arguments for and against X, and even when they know they are arguing with someone who has studied such detail. Because X just feels right. When such a supporter makes a particular argument, and is then shown how that doesn’t work, they usually just switch to another argument, and then repeat that process until the debate clock runs out. Which feels pretty frustrating to the person who has taken the time to see that X is in fact checkmated.

We need a better social process for together identifying such checkmated policies X. Perhaps a way that a person can claim such a checkmate status, be tested sufficiently thoroughly on that claim, and then win a reward if they are right, and lose a stake if they are wrong. I’d be willing to help to create such a process. Of course we could still keep policies X on our books; we’d just have to admit we don’t have good consequential arguments for them.

As an example, let me offer blackmail. I’ve posted seven times on this blog on the topic, and in one of my posts I review twenty related papers that I’d read. I’ve argued many times with people on the topic, and I consistently hear them repeat the same arguments, which all fail. So I’ll defend the claim that not only don’t we have good strong consequential arguments against blackmail, but that this fact can be clearly demonstrated to smart reasonable people willing to walk through all the previously offered arguments.

To review and clarify, blackmail is a threat that you might gossip about someone on a particular topic, if they don’t do something else you want. The usual context is that you are allowed to gossip or not on this topic, and if you just mention that you know something, they are allowed to offer to compensate you to keep quiet, and you are allowed to accept that offer. You just can’t be the person who makes the first offer. In almost all other cases where you are allowed to do or not do something, at your discretion, you are allowed to make and accept offers that compensate you for one of these choices. And if a deal is legal, it rarely matters who proposes the deal. Blackmail is a puzzling exception to these general rules.

Most ancient societies simply banned salacious gossip against elites, but modern societies have deviated and allowed gossip. People today already have substantial incentives to learn embarrassing secrets about associates, in order to gain social rewards from gossiping about those to others. Most people suffer substantial harm from such gossip; it makes them wary about who they let get close to them, and induces them to conform more to social pressures regarding acceptable behaviors.

For most people, the main effect of allowing blackmail is to mildly increase the incentives to learn embarrassing secrets, and to not behave in ways that result in such secrets. This small effect makes it pretty hard to argue that for gossip incentives the social gains out weigh the losses, but for the slightly stronger blackmail incentives, the losses out weight the gains. However, for elites these incentive increases are far stronger, making elite dislike plausibly the main consequentialist force pushing to keep blackmail illegal.

In a few recent twitter surveys, I found that respondents declared themselves against blackmail at a 3-1 rate, evenly split between consequential and other reasons for this position. However, they said blackmail should be legal in many particular cases I asked about, depending on what exactly you sought in exchange for your keeping someone’s secret. For example, they 12-1 supported getting your own secret kept, 3-2 getting someone to treat you fairly, and 1-1 getting help with child care in a medical crisis.

These survey results are pretty hard to square with consequential justifications, as the consequential harm from blackmail should mainly depend on the secrets being kept, not on the kind of compensation gained by the blackmailer. Which suggests that non-elite opposition to blackmail is mainly because blackmailers look like they have bad motives, not because of social consequences to others. This seems supported by the observation that women who trash each other’s reputations via gossip tend to consciously believe that they are acting helpfully, out of concern for their target.

As examples of weak arguments, Tyler Cowen just offered four. First, he says even if blackmail has good consequences, given current world opinion it would look bad to legalize it. (We should typically not do the right thing if that looks bad?) Second, he says negotiating big important deals can be stressful. (Should most big deals be banned?) Third, it is bad to have social mechanisms (like gossip?) that help enforce common social norms on sex, gender and drugs, as those are mistaken. Fourth, making blackmail illegal somehow makes it easier for your immediate family to blackmail you, and that’s somehow better (both somehows are unexplained).

I’d say the fact that Tyler is pushed to such weak tortured arguments supports my checkmate claim: we don’t have good strong consequential arguments for making gossiper-initiated blackmail offers illegal, relative to making gossip illegal or allowing all offers.

Added 18Feb: Some say a law against negative gossip is unworkable. But note, not only did the Romans manage it, we now have slander/libel laws that do the same thing except we add an extra complexity that the gossip must be false, which makes those laws harder to enforce. We can and do make laws against posting nude pictures of a person who disapproves, or stealing info such as via hidden bugs or hacking into someone’s computer.

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How Lumpy AI Services?

Long ago people like Marx and Engels predicted that the familiar capitalist economy would naturally lead to the immiseration of workers, huge wealth inequality, and a strong concentration of firms. Each industry would be dominated by a main monopolist, and these monsters would merge into a few big firms that basically run, and ruin, everything. (This is somewhat analogous to common expectations that military conflicts naturally result in one empire ruling the world.)

Many intellectuals and ordinary people found such views quite plausible then, and still do; these are the concerns most often voiced to justify redistribution and regulation. Wealth inequality is said to be bad for social and political health, and big firms are said to be bad for the economy, workers, and consumers, especially if they are not loyal to our nation, or if they coordinate behind the scenes.

Note that many people seem much less concerned about an economy full of small firms populated by people of nearly equal wealth. Actions seem more visible in such a world, and better constrained by competition. With a few big privately-coordinating firms, in contrast, who knows that they could get up to, and they seem to have so many possible ways to screw us. Many people either want these big firms broken up, or heavily constrained by presumed-friendly regulators.

In the area of AI risk, many express great concern that the world may be taken over by a few big powerful AGI (artificial general intelligence) agents with opaque beliefs and values, who might arise suddenly via a fast local “foom” self-improvement process centered on one initially small system. I’ve argued in the past that such sudden local foom seems unlikely because innovation is rarely that lumpy.

In a new book-length technical report, Reframing Superintelligence: Comprehensive AI Services as General Intelligence, Eric Drexler makes a somewhat similar anti-lumpiness argument. But he talks about task lumpiness, not innovation lumpiness. Powerful AI is safer if it is broken into many specific services, often supplied by separate firms. The task that each service achieves has a narrow enough scope that there’s little risk of it taking over the world and killing everyone in order to achieve that task. In particular, the service of being competent at a task is separate from the service of learning how to become competent at that task. In Drexler’s words: Continue reading "How Lumpy AI Services?" »

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Conditional Harberger Tax Games

Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann … transformed Paris with dazzling avenues, parks and other lasting renovations between 1853 and 1870. … Haussmann… resolved early on to pay generous compensation to [Paris] property owners, and he did. … [He] hoped to repay the larger loans he obtained from the private sector by capturing some of the increased value of properties lining along the roads he built. … [He] did confiscate properties on both sides of his new thoroughfares, and he had their edifices rebuilt. … Council of State … forced him to return these beautifully renovated properties to their original owners, who thus captured all of their increased value. (more)

In my last post I described abstractly how a system of conditional Harberger taxes (CHT) could help deal with zoning and other key city land use decisions. In this post, let me say a bit more about the behaviors I think we’d actually see in such a system. (I’m only considering here such taxes for land and property tied to land.)

First, I while many property owners would personally manage their official declared property values, many others would have them set by an agent or an app. Agents and apps may often come packaged with insurance against various things that can go wrong, such as losing one’s property.

Second, yes, under CHT, sometimes people would (be paid well to) lose their property. This would almost always be because someone else credibly demonstrated that they expect to gain more value from it. Even if owners strategically or mistakenly declare values too low, the feature I suggested of being able to buy back a property by paying a 1% premium would ensure that pricing errors don’t cause property misallocations. The highest value uses of land can change, and one of the big positive features of this system is that it makes the usage changes that should then result easier to achieve. In my mind that’s a feature, not a bug. Yes, owners could buy insurance against the risk of losing a property, though that needn’t result in getting their property back.

In the ancient world, it was common for people to keep the same marriage, home, neighbors, job, family, and religion for their entire life. In the modern world, in contrast, we expect many big changes during our lifetimes. While we can mostly count on family and religion remaining constant, we must accept bigger chances of change to marriages, neighbors, and jobs. Even our software environments change in ways we can’t control when new versions are issued. Renters today accept big risks of home changes, and even home “owners” face big risks due to job and financial risks. All of which seems normal and reasonable. Yes, a few people seem quite obsessed with wanting absolute guarantees on preservation of old property usage, but I can’t sympathize much with such fetishes for inefficient stasis. Continue reading "Conditional Harberger Tax Games" »

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Fine Grain Futarchy Zoning Via Harberger Taxes

Futarchy” is my proposed system of governance which approves a policy change when conditional prediction markets give a higher expected outcome, conditional on that change. In a city setting, one might be tempted to use a futarchy where the promoted outcome is the total property value of all land in and near that city. After all, if people don’t like being in this city, and are free to move elsewhere, city land won’t be worth much; the more attractive a city is as a place to be, the more its property will be worth.

Yes, we have problems measuring property values. Property is only traded infrequently, sale prices show a marginal not a total value, much land is never offered for sale, sales prices are often obscured by non-cash contributions, and regulations and taxes change sales and use. (E.g., rent control.) In addition, we expect at least some trading noise in the prices of any financial market. As a result, simple futarchy isn’t much help for decisions whose expected consequences for outcomes are smaller than its price noise level. And yes, there are other things one might care about beside property values. But given how badly city governance often actually goes, we could do a lot worse than to just consistently choose policies that maximize a reasonable estimate of city property value. The more precise such property estimates can be, the more effective such a futarchy could be.

Zoning (and other policy that limits land use) is an area of city policy that seems especially well suited to a futarchy based on total property value. After all, the main reason people say that we need zoning is because using some land in some ways decreases how much people are willing to pay to use other land. For example, people might not want to live next to a bar, liquor store, or sex toy store, are so are willing to pay less to buy (or rent) next to such a place. So choosing zoning rules to maximize total property value seems especially promising.

I’ve also written before favorably on Harberger taxes (which I once called “stability rents”). In this system, owners of land (and property tied to that land) must set and may continuously adjust a declared property “value”; they are taxed per unit time as a percentage of momentary value, and must always agree to sell their property at their currently declared value. This system has great advantages in inducing property to be held by those who can gain the most value from it, including via greatly lowering the transaction costs of putting together big property packages. With this system, there’s no more need for eminent domain.

I’ve just noticed a big synergy between futarchy for zoning and Harberger taxes. The reason is that such taxes allow the creation of prices which support a much finer grain accounting of the net value of specific zoning changes. Let me explain.

First, Harberger taxes create a continuous declared value on each property all the time, not just a few infrequent sales prices. This creates a lot more useful data. Second, these declared values better approximate the value that people place on property; the higher an actual value, the higher an owner will declare his or her taxable value to be, to avoid the risk of someone taking it away. Thus the sum total of all declared property values can be a decent estimate of total city property value. Third, it is possible to generalize the Harberger tax system to create zoning-conditional property ownership and prices.

That is, relative to current zoning rules, one can define a particular alternative zoning scenario, wherein the zoning (or other property use limit) policies have changed. Such as changing the zoning of a particular area from residential to commercial on a particular date. Given such a defined scenario, one can create conditional ownership; I own this property if (and when) this zoning change is made, but not otherwise. The usual ownership then becomes conditional on no zoning changes soon.

With conditional ownership, conditional owners can make conditional offers to sell. That is, you can buy my property under this condition if you pay this declared amount of conditional cash. For example, I might offer to make a conditional sale of my property for $100,000, and you might agree to that sale, but this sale only happens if a particular zoning change is approved.

The whole Harberger tax system can be generalized to support such conditional trading and prices. In the simple system, each property has a declared value set by its owner, and anyone can pay that amount at any time to become the new owner. In the generalized system, each property has a declared value for each (combination of) approved alternative zoning scenario. By default, alternative declared values are equal to the ordinary no-zoning-change declared value, but property owners can set them differently if they want, to be either higher or lower. Anyone can make a scenario-conditional purchase of a property from its current (conditional) owner at its scenario-conditional declared value. To buy a property for sure, buy it conditional on all scenarios.

(For concreteness, assume that only one zoning change proposal is allowed per day per city region, that a decision is made on that proposal in that day, and that the proposal for each day is chosen via open public auction a month before. The auction fee can subsidize markets in bets on if this proposal will be approved and markets in tax-revenue asset conditional differences (explained below). A week before the decision day of a proposal, each right in a property is split into two conditional rights, one conditional on this change and one on not-this-change. At that point, owner declared values conditional on this change (or not) become active sale prices. Taxes are paid in conditional cash. Physical control of a property only transfers to conditional owners if and when a zoning scenario is actually approved.)

Having declared values for all properties under all scenarios gives us even more data with which to estimate total city property value, and in particular helps with estimating the difference in total city property value due to a zoning change. To a first approximation, we can just add up all the zoning-change-conditional declared values, and compare that sum to the sum from the no-change declared values. If the former sum is consistently and clearly higher than the latter sum over the proposal’s decision day, that seems a good argument for adopting this zoning proposal. (It seems safer to choose the higher value option with a chance increasing in value difference, and this all works even when other factors influence a decision.) At least if the news that this zoning proposal seems likely be approved gets spread wide and fast enough for owners to express their conditional declared values. (The bet markets on which properties will be effected helps to notify owners.)

Actually, to calculate the net property value difference that a zoning change makes, we need only sum over the properties that actually have a conditional declared value different from its no-change declared value. For small local zoning changes, this might only be a small number of properties within a short distance of the main changes. As a result, this system seems capable of giving useful advice on very small and local zoning changes, in dramatic contrast to a futarchy based on prices estimating total city property values. For example, it might even be able to say if a particular liquor store should be allowed at a particular location, or if the number of required parking spots at a particular shopping mall can be reduced. As promised, this new system offers much finer grain accounting of the net value of specific zoning changes.

Note that in this system as described, losers are not compensated by winners for zoning rule changes, even though we can roughly identify winners and losers. I’ve thought a bit about ways to add a extra process by which winners compensate losers, but haven’t been able to make that work. So the best I can think of is to have the system look at the distribution of wins and losses, and reject proposed changes where there are too many big losers relative to winners. That would force a search for variations which spread out the pain more evenly.

We are close to a workable proposal, but not quite there yet. This is because we face the problem of owners temporarily inflating their declared values conditional on a zoning change that they seek to promote. This might tip the balance to get a change approved, and then after approval such owners could cut their declared values back down to something reasonable, and only pay a small extra tax for that small decision period. Harberger taxes impose a stronger penalty for declaring overly-low values than overly-high values.

A solution to this problem is to use, instead of declared values, prices for the purely financial assets that represent claims on all future tax revenue from the Harberger tax on a particular property. That is, each property will pay a tax over time, we could divert that revenue into a particular account, and an asset holder could own the right to spend a fraction of the funds in that account. Such tax-revenue assets could be bought and sold in financial markets, and could also be made conditional on particular zoning scenarios. As such assets are easy to create and duplicate, the usual speculation pressures should make it hard to manipulate these prices much in any direction.

A plan to temporarily inflate the declared value of a property shouldn’t do much to the market price for a claim to part of all future tax revenue from that property. So instead of summing over conditional differences in declared-values to see if a zoning change is good, it is probably better to sum over conditional differences in tax revenue assets. Subsidized continuous market makers can give exact if noisy prices for all such differences, and for most property-scenario pairs this difference will be exactly zero.

So that’s the plan for using futarchy and Harberger taxes to pick zoning (and other land use limit policy) changes. Instead of just one declared value per property, we allow owners to specify declared values conditional on each approved zoning change (or not) scenario, and allow conditional purchases as well. By default, conditional values equal no-change values. We should tend more to adopt zoning proposals when, during its decision day, when the sum of its (tax-revenue-asset) conditional differences clearly and consistently exceeds zero.

Thanks to Alex Tabarrok & Keller Scholl for their feedback.

Added 11pm: One complaint people have about a Harberger tax is that owners would feel stressed to know that their property could be taken at any time. Here’s a simple fix. When someone takes your property at your declared value, you can pay 1% of that value to get it back, if you do so quickly. But then you’d better raise your declared value or someone else could do the same thing the next day or week. You pay 1% for a fair warning that your value is too low. Under this system, people only lose their property when someone else actually values it more highly, even after considering the transaction costs of switching property.

Added 2Feb: I edited this post a bit. Note that with severe enough property limits, negative declared property values can make sense. For example, if a property must be maintained so as to serve as a public park, the only people willing to become owners are those who get paid when they take the property, and then get paid per unit time for remanning owners. In this way, city services can be defined and provided via this same decision mechanism.

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Distant Future Tradeoffs

Over the last day on Twitter, I ran three similar polls. One asked:

Software design today faces many tradeoffs, e.g., getting more X costs less Y, or vice versa. By comparison, will distant future tradeoffs be mostly same ones, about as many but very different ones, far fewer (so usually all good features X,Y are feasible together), or far more?

Four answers were possible: mostly same tradeoffs, as many but mostly new, far fewer tradeoffs, and far more tradeoffs. The other two polls replaced “Software” with “Physical Device” and “Social Institution.”

I now see these four answers as picking out four future scenarios. A world with fewer tradeoffs is Utopian, where you can more get everything you want without having to give up other things. In contrast, a world with many more tradeoffs is more Complex. A world where most of the tradeoffs are like those today is Familiar. And a world where the current tradeoffs are replaced by new ones is Radical.  Using these terms, here are the resulting percentages:

The polls got from 105 to 131 responses each, with an average entry percentage of 25%, so I’m willing to believe differences of 10% or more. The most obvious results here are that only a minority foresee a familiar future in any area, and answers vary greatly; there is little consensus on which scenarios are more likely.

Beyond that, the strongest pattern I see is that respondents foresee more complexity, relative to a utopian lack of tradeoffs, at higher levels of organization. Physical devices are the most utopian, social institutions are the most complex, and software sits in the middle. The other possible result I see is that respondents foresee a less familiar social future. 

I also asked:

Which shapes the world more in the long run: the search for arrangements allowing better compromises regarding many complex tradeoffs, or fights between conflicting groups/values/perspectives?

In response, 43% said search for tradeoffs while 30% said value conflicts, and 27% said hard to tell. So these people see tradeoffs as mattering a lot.  

These respondents seriously disagree with science fiction, which usually describes relatively familiar social worlds in visibly changed physical contexts (and can’t be bothered to have an opinion on software). They instead say that the social world will change the most, becoming the most complex and/or radical. Oh brave new world, that has such institutions in it!

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How Does Brain Code Differ?

The Question

We humans have been writing “code” for many decades now, and as “software eats the world” we will write a lot more. In addition, we can also think of the structures within each human brain as “code”, code that will also shape the future.

Today the code in our heads (and bodies) is stuck there, but eventually we will find ways to move this code to artificial hardware. At which point we can create the world of brain emulations that is the subject of my first book, Age of Em. From that point on, these two categories of code, and their descendant variations, will have near equal access to artificial hardware, and so will compete on relatively equal terms to take on many code roles. System designers will have to choose which kind of code to use to control each particular system.

When designers choose between different types of code, they must ask themselves: which kinds of code are more cost-effective in which kinds of applications? In a competitive future world, the answer to this question may be the main factor that decides the fraction of resources devoted to running human-like minds. So to help us envision such a competitive future, we should also ask: where will different kinds of code work better? (Yes, non-competitive futures may be possible, but harder to arrange than many imagine.)

To think about which kinds of code win where, we need a basic theory that explains their key fundamental differences. You might have thought that much has been written on this, but alas I can’t find much. I do sometimes come across people who think it obvious that human brain code can’t possibly compete well anywhere, though they rarely explain their reasoning much. As this claim isn’t obvious to me, I’ve been trying to think about this key question of which kinds of code wins where. In the following, I’ll outline what I’ve come up with. But I still hope someone will point me to useful analyses that I’ve missed.

In the following, I will first summarize a few simple differences between human brain code and other code, then offer a deeper account of these differences, then suggest an empirical test of this account, and finally consider what these differences suggest for which kinds of code will be more cost-effective where. Continue reading "How Does Brain Code Differ?" »

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Youth As Abundance

Many technologies and business practice details have changed greatly over the last few centuries. And looking at the specifics of who did what when, much of this change looks like selection and learning. That is, people tried lots of things, some of these worked, and then others copied the winning practices. The whole pattern looks much like a hard to predict random walk.

Many cultural attitudes and values have also changed greatly over those same few centuries. However, the rate, consistency, and predictability of much of this change makes it hard to tell a similar story of selection and learning. This change instead looks more like how many of our individual human behaviors change over our lifespans – the execution of a previously developed strategy. We need not as individuals learn to explore more when young, and exploit more when old, if our genetic and cultural heritage can just tell us to make these changes.

The idea is that some key context, like wealth, has been changing steadily over the last few centuries, and our attitudes have changed steadily in response to that changing context. Just as individuals naturally change their behaviors as they age, cultures may naturally change their attitudes as they get rich. In addition to wealth, other plausibly triggering context factors include increasing health, peace, complexity, work structure, social group size, and alienation from nature.

Even if wealth isn’t the only cause, it seems a big cause, and it likely causes and it caused by other key causes. It also seems quite plausible for humanity to have learned to change our behavior in good times relative to bad times. Note that good time behavior overlaps with, but isn’t quite the same as, how individual behavior changes as individuals get rich, but their society doesn’t. The correlation between individual behavior and wealth is probably influenced a lot by selection: some behaviors tend more to produce individual wealth. Selection has less to do with how a society’s behaviors change as it gets rich.

I’ve written before on a forager vs. farmer account of attitude changes over the last few centuries. Briefly, the social pressures that turned foragers into farmers depended a lot on fear, conformity, and religion, which are complemented by poverty. As we get rich those pressures feel less compelling to us, and we less create such pressures on others. I think this forager-farmer story is helpful, but in this post I want to outline another complementary story: neoteny. One of the main ways that humans are different from other animals is our neoteny; we retrain youthful features and behaviors longer into life. This helps us to be more flexible and also learn more.

Being young is in many ways like living in a rich society. Young people have more physical energy, face less risk of physical damage, and have fewer responsibilities. Which is a lot like being rich. In a rich society you tend live longer, making you effectively younger at any given calendar age. And when young, it makes more sense to be more playful, to learn and explore new possibilities rather than just exploit old skills and possibilities, and to invest more in social connections and in showing off, such as via art, music, stories, or sport. All these also make more sense in good times, when resources are plentiful.

If living in a rich society is a lot like being young, then in makes sense to act more youthful during good times. And so humanity might have acquired the heuristic of thinking and acting more youthful in good times. And that right there can help explain a lot of changes in attitudes and behaviors over the last few centuries. I don’t think it explains quite as many as the back-to-foragers story, but it is very a priori plausible. Not that the forager story is that implausible, but still, priors matter.

From 2006 to 2009, Bruce Charlton wrote a series of articles exploring the idea that people are acting more youthful today:

A child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge is probably adaptive in modern society because people need repeatedly to change jobs, learn new skills, move to new places and make new friends. (more)

Yes, the world changes more quickly in the industrial era than it did in the farming era, but that rate of change hasn’t increased much in the last century. So this one-time long-ago change in the social rate of change seems a poor explanation for the slow steady trend toward more youthful behavior we’ve seen over the last century. More neoteny as a response to increasing wealth makes more sense to me.

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When Wholes Become Parts

Here’s a nice simple general principle to describe many kinds of systems. When once self-sufficient wholes join together to become parts of a new whole, the parts get simpler and also more different from one another:

The emergence of a higher level entity with functional capabilities is ordinary accompanied by the loss of part types within the lower-level organisms that constitute it. Thus … cells in multicellular organisms will have fewer part types than fee-living protists. … The lower-level organisms are transformed into differentiated parts within the higher-level entity. Along with this, as size increases, parts emerge at an intermediate scale, between the lower level organisms and the higher-level entity. …

In the evolution of multicellularity, cells are transformed from organisms into different tailed parts. Then, as the size of the multicellular entity increased, cells combined to form larger parts, intermediate in scale between as cell and the multicellular organism as a whole. … Cells in metazoans and land plants have fewer part types on average than free-living protists. … found a power law relationship between size and number of cell types in multicellular organisms. Also, the degree of morphological, physiological, and/or behavioral differentiation – in insect societies increases with colony size.

From: Daniel McShea and Carl Anderson. (2005) “The Remodularization of the Organism”, in Werner Callebaut and Diego Rasskin-Gutman, eds., Modularity: Understanding the Development and Evolution of Natural Complex Systems, pp. 185-206, MIT Press, May.

That is, while each cell might in essence need legs, eyes, a mouth, and a stomach, when cells join together they can each live without such things, and they may specialist in order to become part of a leg, eye, etc. for the new organism.

This has an obvious implication for our future. As we humans join together into larger more complex social organizations, our descendants will likely also become simpler and more differentiated. Of course there are limits on how fast these things can change today. Also, the cells in each organism now have a great many parts, and remain similar to each other in a great many ways. Change would likely become much faster if ems become possible.

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