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I don’t know enough about the science to tell whether this is a significant step forward in neural-interface systems, or just the specific potential of neural-interface systems to aid paralyzed individuals, but this report from the NYT is encouraging in any case:

Two people who are virtually paralyzed from the neck down have learned to manipulate a robotic arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach out and grab objects. One of them, a woman, was able to retrieve a bottle containing coffee and drink it from a straw — the first time she had served herself since her stroke 15 years earlier, scientists reported on Wednesday….

Scientists have predicted for years that this brain-computer connection would one day allow people with injuries to the brain and spinal cord to live more independent lives. Previously, researchers had shown that humans could learn to move a computer cursor with their thoughts, and that monkeys could manipulate a robotic arm.

The technology is not yet ready for use outside the lab, experts said, but the new study is an important step forward, providing dramatic evidence that brain-controlled prosthetics are within reach.

I think there is a non-trivial probability that future computer interface using only our minds will be popular (I don’t think whether it will be possible is much of a question anymore). I’m not sure this will replace current inputs entirely, as the telephone did to morse code, or just compliment them, as the mouse did to the keyboard. In either case I think it adoption of such technology will go hand-in-hand with the continuing integration of brans and computers. Psychologically, I think controlling computers with your mind will make computer memories feel much more like actual memories, and will blur the line between the two further.  After all, having no manual inputs means the entire process will occur internally with the appearance of moving parts in the real world: simply think what you want to know, and have what you want to know appear floating in front of your face (augmented reality). I predict this will feel very different from even just waving your hands in the air Minority Report style.

ADDED: Mark Thoma has what looks like a very interesting video on all of this from the Milken Institute. Fast forward to around the 50 minute mark for some amazing footage.

ADDED II: From MathDR in the comments, apparently Doc Oc will be real some day:

I spoke with the DARPA program manager regarding this project (this was a while ago) and I remember his statement about the impact of this research: Basically when doing experiments on monkeys with no impairment of limbs (they constrained the monkey arm with a sling to inhibit movement and force it to use the robotic arm), the question was what would happen then the sling was removed.

The monkey responded by utilizing both of its arms normally AND the robotic arm as a THIRD arm. This implies (extending to humans) that we would be able to *extend* our anatomy to multiple appendages and maybe even other toolsets (surgical tools on the end of appendages, etc.)


When I said that by 2035 we could have 3 times as many cars as human beings, obviously that was a prediction about the predominance of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). I think we should begin to retire self-driving/driverless car, as it will eventually sound as hokey as horseless carriage.

In part this is because it attempts to define a thing in terms of a paradigm that will no longer be familiar. Yet, it will also sound hokey because it suggests that AVs are basically like today’s cars but with no driver. That suggestion is likely to appear comical in retrospect.

My guess is that the majority of AVs will not only, not carry passengers but not interact with humans unless they explicitly need something that only a human can provide, such as specialized repair or maintenance.

The majority of AVs will live in their own world, interacting only with other AVs and a vast array of infrastructure as they form the backbone of a human-less global supply chain. They will pick up goods from the point of production and ship and sort them all the way to the final consumer without ever meeting human in between.

They will likely be the most powerful force for globalization we have ever seen.

In response to an old post of mine, Eli Dourado has some skeptical thoughts on what you could call “brain mounted computers”. This is really a collection of technologies, but the gist of it is computers increasingly integrated with our minds. The screens float before you using augmented reality, and you control them using your thoughts, and probably before that with hand gestures in the air or some sort of projected input surface, like skinput:

Eli is skeptical though, but I think his skepticism is motivated by a common error people make when projecting what the future will look like: they think about what kind of future they would like, instead of what kind of future is probable. You can see this in the case Eli makes, which appeals quite a bit to his preferences:

…when I think about a world of increasing wealth, I don’t think of one where everyone is part computer. I basically think about vacations. What do I like to do when I’m on vacation? I like to eat good food, see and try new things, lay in the sun, be creative, have good conversations with friends, have plenty of sex, read books, and generally unwind….

…What do I not like to do when I am on vacation? Near the top of my list, at least if I am doing it right, is “be notified that I have email.” This is why I am skeptical of widespread adoption of permanent brain-computer interfaces with augmented reality capabilities. As we get wealthier, we will accept fewer interruptions in our lives. It’s also part of why I think Google’s Project Glass will be a failure….

Unfortunately for the world though, most people aren’t like Eli. I feel fairly confident in claiming that Eli is quite far from the median person in terms of preferences, and so imagining whether a future populated with Eli Dourados would adopt various technologies won’t make for accurate forecasts.

I can agree that one somewhat plausible future is one filled with a lot of leisure time, but how are we likely to spend our marginal leisure time? Eli imagines we’ll do what he likes to do on vacation, like relaxing, having conversations, and eating good foods, which he claims are “all things our distant ancestors enjoyed as well”. I think most people are more likely to spend their new marginal leisure doing similar things that they spend their marginal leisure time on now, which are connected things, like Facebook, and what you might call mindless things, like watching TV. My categories of things people do with leisure time on the margin suggest that people will desire using augmented reality and brain mounted computers in their newfound leisure time. Eli’s categories suggest they won’t. So who is correct?

Well we can get something of a look at this by seeing how people are choosing to spend their marginal leisure time now by at the extra leisure time resulting from the recession. Of course this sample of marginal leisure time will be biased away from fun things, since the people with extra time now are likely suffering an income shock, so you might imagine they would spend much of their time doing things that are more substitutes for work, like household production. But when it comes to the things Eli thinks people will want to do with more leisure -like lying around in the sun, having conversations with friends, and eating good food- none of these are necessarily more expensive than other cheap leisure options. Sure, good food with friends can be expensive, but as Tyler tells us in his new book, it needn’t be.

So what are people doing with their extra time? Watching TV and sleeping mostly. The Wall Street Journal reports:

What did people do with that extra time? Mainly they slept and watched TV. Time spent in front of the television rose by 12 minutes, to two hours, 49 minutes a day in the two years through 2009. Sleep was the next big gainer, increasing by six minutes to eight hours, 40 minutes a day.

The data also show what Americans aren’t doing with their extra time: There was virtually no change between 2007 and 2009 in the time devoted to volunteering, religious activities, exercise or education. In sum, time people might have used productively is instead being squandered, says University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh.

You could argue that sleep is sort of in Eli’s category, since it is certainly a primitive activity. But the extent to which sleep is going to fill up our future leisure time is pretty limited. TV on the other hand, can take up a whole day if you want it to. A more sophisticated analysis of American Time Use Survey results verifies where marginal leisure time during a recession goes:

…roughly two-thirds of the increase of leisure time associated with the decline in market work at the business cycle frequency are concentrated in television watching and sleeping. To the extent the individuals consider recessions to be a period of increased leisure, the bulk of the leisure increase shows up as an increase of time in these two categories. Given the large movements in the time allocated to these two categories, our results suggest that economists need to think hard about how individuals value the marginal time spent watching television or sleeping when computing the welfare costs of business cycles. We do not find that socializing (spending time with one’s spouse, extended family, and friends) increases significantly during recessions.

Perhaps the wealthier future word will filled with high-brow individuals like Eli who prefer primitive entertainment. I think that would be a more rewarding world in many ways, but I also think a wide swath of mindless, easy, entertainment and connectedness is here to stay, and Americans will continue choosing it for their leisure. Except in the future it will be more directly connected to our brains.

These are two things I’ve written about lately but wanted to draw an explicit parallel between. First is Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Race Against the Machines, which argued that technology is progressing so quickly that it “confounds expectations and intuitions”. The part I want to address in particular is where they try and predict the jobs in which humans have the most sustainable comparative advantages. In addition to problem solving and creativity, they cite manual work:

If, as these examples indicate, both pattern recognition and complex communication are now so amenable to automation, are any human skills immune? Do people have any sustainable comparative advantage as we head ever deeper into the second half of the chessboard? In the physical domain, it seems that we do for the time being. Humanoid robots are still quite primitive, with poor fine motor skills and a habit of falling down stairs. So it doesn’t appear that gardners and restaurant busboys are in danger of being replaced by machines any time soon.

The second thing I’ve written about that I want to connect to this is DARPA’s new grand challenge. This contest is very specifically seeking to address this disadvantage that robots have compared to humans. Here are the tasks a robot will have to complete to win the challenge:

1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4. Open a door and enter a building.
5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6. Use a power tool to break through a concrete panel.
7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
8. Replace a component such as a cooling pump.

Sorry gardners and busboys. A robot that can do all of these can weed a garden and clear a table. Oh, and that part about robots falling down stairs? Here is a new video from DARPA showcasing a robot  that “is expected to be used as government-funded equipment (GFE) for performers in Tracks B and C of the DARPA Robotics Challenge.”

It is appropriate that the book about how machines are outperforming our expectations is having its expectations outperformed by machines.

I think a big part of why people struggle to imagine a world where cars drive themselves is they believe too few people will want it, at least in this country. There needs to be a minimum number of customers to support both the technology and the political will to pass laws allowing something that many will instinctively feel is dangerous. So how do we get from here to there? Garrett Jones proposes one way that I think is persuasive:

A thin edge of the wedge for Google Cars: an alternative to driver’s licenses for some of the elderly. Voter demand meets tech solution.

If there is one group is this country with the money, the demand,  and the political influence to get us driverless cars it is the elderly. Another constituency will be the disabled, as illustrated in the following video of a blind man riding in a Google driverless car:

Many see driverless cars as a solution to a problem we don’t have, but in fact for many this would be an extremely liberating technological advance.

People have complained that Amazon factory warehouse jobs are marked by poor conditions and low pay, but this may be less of a problem in the not to distant future. Amazon has acquired robots maker Kiva systems for $775 million and they are planning on replacing warehouse workers with autonomous robots. The New York Times reports:

…Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves.

Or, as the company says on its Web site, using “hundreds of autonomous mobile robots,” Kiva Systems “enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements.”

In other words, these robots will most likely replace human workers in Amazon’s warehouses.

Despite the ugly conditions that can reportedly occur at Amazon warehouses, I don’t think the workers will be better off when these jobs are replaced by robots. The article also reports on the general trend of Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs:

Robots have been in factories for decades. But increasingly we will see them out in the open. Already little ones — toys, really — sweep floors. But they are getting better at doing what we do. Soon, if Google’s efforts to create driverless cars are successful, cab drivers, cross-country truckers and even ambulance drivers could be out of a job, replaced by a computer in the driver’s seat.

In the video below you can see Kiva robots perform The Nutcracker.

A number of people responded to my posts on Stimulus, Climate and Apple. I will try to respond to a sample. Feel free to comment again if you think your point wasn’t covered.

On Stimulus

Stimulus: Giving money to everyone would be great. Unfortunately, it is a non starter. People are afraid someone else will get more than them. People are afraid it devalues their effort and money. People with money look upon it as an opportunity to prosper at the expense of others and blame them for their situation. When people are threatened in their own situation, they are not amenable to remedying that of others.

My thought is that this why framing it as a tax cut helps. Then you can say, no people just get to keep their money.

On Apple

AAPL is worth its future earnings, plus its cash hoard. Suppose AAPL were to become unprofitable. At that point shareholders could pressure for its dissolution, and, its cash hoard would be distributed– it has no debt, so its assets must be paid to equity holders. Now suppose AAPL remains profitable. Then there is no reason to liquidate, and the company continues to exist, the hoard continues to grow, and shareholders get paid from new shareholders, who in turn have a claim on the hoard. In each case, you have a claim on the cash hoard. Where I think you go wrong is your assumption is that an unprofitable AAPL would maintain a no-dividend policy while losing money, burning through the cash even until debt and liquidation. The current no-dividend policy is maintained by a very profitable company such that investors maintain confidence in management of their cash assets. Were investors to lose that confidence they could always use their votes to change the policy.

I think this is the exact right way to go about the problem. So, the question we would want to ask is how much success will the shareholders have at forcing dissolution. The history of US companies seem to suggest, not much.

Indeed, I am not aware of a major company that went into voluntary liquidation.

More likely it seems to me, is that AAPL would be bought-out and dissolved. However, management can fight this in part by moving their cash hoard into difficult to liquidate assets.

So if we ask, when AAPL is dissolved what is the modal estimate that shareholders will receive, I am guessing the answer is zero. Now, of course the expected value is not zero, but discounting back from the point of dissolution and considering an appropriate amount of uncertainty is likely to give us quite a small number. This should be a source of concern for investors.

Moreover, the larger point is that APPL’s management and staff is opposed to dissolution. At a minimum I think folks should recognize that.

On Climate

Moving to cooler places would likely not work due to difficulties in migration. The world does not currently have an equal population distribution of people over land largely due to constraints by nation-states on immigration. Typically those restrictions have been by the favored restricting the unfavored. There is little reason to expect this would change in the climate change case. Even if it did, as shown in the EU, language knowledge can be a huge barrier to moving even among highly-developed societies without any legal restrictions. While this might not be an issue in large polities such as the United States it’s far from clear to me that many people in the developing nations would have anywhere they could feasible move to in the “too cold” parts of the world.

I think this is good as well. One thing we might be interested in asking, however, is what policy would we advocate if we knew that leaders would adopt our policy. This is by no means the end of the question, but it could help anchor our goals.

Simply based on what we are discussing here it seems like agreement to reduce migration restrictions would be preferable to an agreement to reduce carbon emissions. For one, the immediate effect of the former is to expand global GDP while the immediate effect of the other is to reduce global GDP.

Clearly there are more considerations, but I think the “maybe opening immigration is preferable” argument is a serious one.

I think you are misunderstanding the problem with climate change, because you are focusing on the word “climate” rather than the word “change.” The problem isn’t that hot places will get hotter; it’s that all places will get different. The costs of adapting to change are roughly quadratic in the rate at which the change happens. As climate change accelerates, the costs of adapting to that change will become very high. Under some scenarios, they will become so high that they exceed all our available resources, and our species will become extinct. Under more plausible scenarios, the species won’t become extinct, but the world will just suck, because we’ve spent thousands of years (and more intensively the last couple of hundred years) adapting to a world that was a certain way, and all the benefit of that adaptation will be lost when the world ends up being a different way.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter and helps explain why my position is so weird.

When I read literature on climate change authors make suggestions like: under a worst case scenario our entire civilization could be destroyed within 50 to 100 years.

As some who thinks about capital structure my response is, oh well that’s not so bad. Our entire civilization will have to be rebuilt in 70 years anyway.

The expected useful life on most long lived structures is around 75 years or so to begin with. Expected macro-economic depreciation, however, is significantly faster than that for several reasons.

Maintenance Costs: Over the lifetime of a structure routine maintenance costs will typically exceed building costs by as much as a factor of 3. Thus most of the cost of the structure is not in building it, but keeping it functional. And, even with regular maintenance most structures will no longer be operational or will need major renovations after 75 years.

Population Growth: As the population expands the capital stock is spread over a larger number of people. This means more structures will have to be built anyway to support new people. Indeed, the world population has more than tripled over the last 75 years, meaning that most structures were built for a population size that did not even exist 75 years ago.

Tastes and Technology: As time moves along fashions change and technology changes. People wind up wanting different structures. Often larger and more elaborate than the ones they had before. This implies two things. One, that our built environment is expanding faster than population and so an even greater portion of it is new. Two, that many structures are abandoned, demolished or renovated even before their useful life is up.

Putting all those factors together an effective macro-economic depreciation rate of 10% is not unreasonable. That suggests a half-life of roughly 7 years. Which means that in 70 years we will have gone through 10 half-lives which implies a 99.9% deterioration.

Or to put it another way, within 70 years 99.9% of the value of all of our structures will have come from new construction, repairs, renovations or remodeling that have occurred between now and then.

This is why I suggest that it is not a matter of whether or not we will rebuild our civilization but where.

Add to that the fact that one of our major goals as humanity is to foster growth in the tropics. Which is in large part to say that the current set of structures in the tropics are woefully deficient. Rather than attempt a big build there, why not attempt a big build somewhere else and move the folks to the new place.

Lastly, and most importantly, we have no idea what the end state of global climate change is going to look like. We can only guess and some of those guesses are pretty frightening. There’s a real chance that the CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere will eventually cause runaway global warming, an extinction level event for we poor, misguided homo sapiens.

Is this really true though?

During the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum temperatures were roughly 15C –20C hotter than they are today. Yet, as best we can tell the conditions prevalent at the time were not consistent with a human extinction level event.

Now perhaps things will be different this time. Perhaps it will get even hotter. Perhaps some other dramatic effect will cause the climate to be much harsher. Still, we would want to have some reason for supposing that this is true.

There are many unfortunate things in the world. And, of course, this will all end very badly. There is nothing we can do about that. All that we have is to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

The question before us is: is dramatically curtailing our use of fossil fuels the best we can do?

Some of my favorite commenters were puzzled by my post of the End of History.

Quick notes for those who haven’t followed me all the way on

this multi-year journey

1) The End of History is the notion popularized by Francis Fukuyama that Democratic-Republicanism is the ultimate form of government and that it will be universal in the near future. This represents the End of History in that our basic struggle over political structure of society will be settled.

People push back on this notion on multiple fronts but the front I push hardest on is that Democratic-Republicanism is not likely to be the optimal form of government in the future. Rather than the End of History we are in an odd phase defined by the explosive growth and extensive biological and cultural diversity among humans.  These things are likely to come to an end and produce a society that is stable and has no use for democracy.

2) The second issue which is what the title of this post speaks to, is about how long we expect the human project to go on.

Putting probabilities on our extinction is a hard. However, there are several lines of reasoning that suggest it might not be too far off. The simplest goes like this. If we extrapolate what seems to be clearly possible in terms of economic growth, peace and prosperity generally in the world, then we get a global economy growing at at least 2% per capita for several hundred years.

At that point space travel becomes relatively cheap and I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here but there is strong reason to believe that at least some group of humans will want to devote themselves to space travel and exploration.

Those humans will search out new worlds and come to cover a large portion of our visible universe.

Here is the problem. From the beginning of humanity until this scenario plays out is not very long. This suggests that once sentient life gets started its pretty easy to go out along this path.

So the question is: can we really be the first? Why isn’t our portion of the universe already filled with explorers?

One possible answer is that the process of getting to exploration involves developing technologies that ultimately lead to the destruction of the potential explorers. Its not hard to see what these techs might be: Unfriendly AI, uncontrolled nanotech, highly developed chemical or biological weapons in the hands of terrorists, etc.

Thus, it might be the case that increasing technological sophistication is ultimately self-extincting because the probability of an extinction level mistake becomes very high when your technological sophistication becomes very high.

This is the Great Filter that prevents our universe from being filled with explorers and is why we don’t see any explorers right now. Since no one else has made it past this hurdle its unlikely that we will either. We would have to “beat the odds” as it were.

Another possibility is that the universe is filled with explorers but they are purposefully hiding from us, hoping that we never actually make it off of earth. If we do make it off of earth there is reason to believe they would destroy us. I won’t go deep into that here, but I think the case for destroying potentially rival civilizations is pretty strong.

3) Malthusian stagnation. So the idea, which I feel pretty confident in, is that eventually stagnation will set back in. This is not because we will exhaust all of earth’s resources or something like that. While that could happen I don’t think of it as a serious possibility.

Instead the fundamental problem is that the “Grid of Reality” is discrete and bounded and therefore finite. That is, there are minimum sized particles that interact at minimum distances. Add, to that the fact that at any moment our descendents are bound in a finite region of space by our light cone.

This implies that we are dealing with a finite number of possible configurations of reality. Once, we have mastered the ability to manipulate those configurations there is literally nowhere else to grow.

That is, the possibilities for growth are literally not limitless because there are not an unlimited number of possible configurations for our portion of the universe to be in.

No matter how large that number is – and it is of course very large – a growing economy will hit the max at some point in the future. Thus growth simply cannot be forever.

Thus, even if you could overcome basic entropy problems you still run into the fact that exponential growth means that at some time T we will have mastered all of the configurations within our light cone and we would have to cross the light cone to continue at an exponential pace.  This is impossible.

Knowing this, it becomes the case that each of our decedents at some point will only be able to exercise command over some subset of possible configurations at the expense of some other descendent having command over that subset. This sets up the fundamental Malthusian tension.

Now, it is likely the case that we will hit practical constraints before we hit this “ultimate constraint”, however, knowing that there is an ultimate constraint tells us that no amount of technological progress, innovation or ingenious breakthrough can produce indefinite growth.

Scott Sumner notes the rapid fall of dictators around the globe and asks

And of course the larger-than-life dictators (Saddam, Gaddafi)  are gradually being replaced by bland technocrats.  It looks like history will end at some point during the 21st century.  So what comes next?  Didn’t Fukuyama say something about using technology to change human nature?  Will that be the next phase of humanity’s reckless journey into the unknown?  I await your answers in the comment section.

Just to restate old points, I think there is a reasonable chance that we are close to the end of humanity, by which I mean this strand of earth borne sentient life. That includes any possible artificial intelligence decedents we might have or radical changes to the biology of “humans.”

That is, to be clear, I believe there is a fair chance this entire project is coming to a close.

On the other hand, if it doesn’t come to a close I have serious doubts that the future will be Democratic-Republicanism. It just doesn’t make sense in a Malthusian state and – should we continue – it is a Malthusian state to which we are surely headed.

Let’s be realistic, probably nothing. But I could be proven wrong by a new film he stars in that has the potential, at least, to raise some interesting ethical questions. Here is the summary from Wikipedia:

In a retro-future when the aging gene has been switched off, people stop aging at 25 years old. However, stamped on their arm is a clock of how long they will live. To avoid overpopulation, time has become the currency and the way people pay for luxuries and necessities. The rich can live forever, while the rest try to negotiate for their immortality.

And here is the trailer:

A frequent argument made in favor of organ markets is that donating a kidney does not lower life expectancy. But is the morality of kidney markets contingent on this fact, and how certain are we of this? I’ve written about this issue before.

The question is, do you object to markets in life years? If so, then it would seem that the argument that kidney donations do not decrease the life expectancy of the donor isn’t just an argument in favor allowing it, but a necessary condition for it.

This raises the importance of this question significantly. Has there ever been a randomized study done on kidney donation?  Clearly there is a selection bias here in that unhealthy people are unlikely to donate. If it turns out that kidney donations do decrease life expectancy, will supporters of these markets (like myself) change their minds? Or does the morality really hinge on whether there is a net increase in lifespan?

Another question about markets in life years is that it is just an explicit version of trade that is already occurring. Miners, commercial fisherman, and others in dangerous occupations already trade expected life expectancy for money.  Does the narrowing of the variance around that expectation increase the immorality of the transaction? Or is there some certainty threshold you cross where it becomes immoral? Surely it isn’t 100% certainty, right?

Anyway, these are the amateur philosophical thoughts of an economist tossing these ideas around. I’m sure more philosophically sophisticated people than I can explain clearly and persuasively the right, wrong, and unsettled of this issue.

Peter Thiel has an interview at CNET that I agree with to a shockingly high degree. That’s not say I expected something bad from Thiel but simply that I tend to disagree a lot when someone takes on as wide a set of issues as he did, from IPOs to the Arab Spring.

My most fundamental quibble is with this

I don’t think most of the economy should be planned. But I think to the extent you’re going to have large government, it would be good if the government should be planned rather than unplanned. If you’re going to invest in alternate energy, you should have a plan of what kind of alternate energy you should be investing in, and you shouldn’t be randomly buying lottery tickets. Planning is preferable to buying random lottery tickets or politically motivated lottery tickets, which is the concern with the clean-tech stuff

and later

All the Keynesian kind of thinking suggests that macroeconomics is important independent of the micro stuff. So it doesn’t matter what the regulations are–it matters what’s necessary to get the animal spirits back. It matters to print the right amount of money for the monetary policy. Get the fiscal stimulus right.

Economic policy should be heavily weighted towards short-run concerns. Are we getting monetary policy right? Do we have the correct amount of stimulus. These are the things that policy should concern itself with because they are up close and dominated by factors that we have some control over.

The long run economic path is dominated by factors that we cannot see and have almost no control over. A focus on the short run should even dominate our regulatory concerns because we can see pinches in prices and shadow prices right now, that need to be alleviated.

Our work on the future should be much more philosophical.

Let me give two concrete examples.

One, I happen to think urbanism is not long for this world. I think that telecommunications and automated transportation will solve the agglomeration at a distance problem before technology solves the basic problems of congestion.

This implies that the efficient organization of society will be highly dispersed and sprawl oriented, especially here in the Western Hemisphere were we have absolutely tons of land.

That’s all well and fine as a forecast but I could be completely wrong. And, betting America on the notion that I am right is not wise. On the other hand we can see that per square foot housing and office space prices are way too high in the cities that we have. That’s a regulatory problem that can be addressed immediately with immediate gains. If it so happens that core cities become ghost towns over the next 40 years then that’s what happens.

However, in the next five years there are huge gains to loosening regulations on urban construction.

Two, over the long long term I think that emulations will be the dominant part of the economic landscape. No one should be betting the farm on this but people should be thinking philosophically about what it means to be an emulations. Are emulations “human?” What is it to be conscious? Is it always okay to create life, even when you have an expectation that that life might be miserable?

Not that we can do anything about it at this point but we can set the table intellectually.

That’s a core difference between policy which should focus on outcomes and philosophy which should try to unpack a problem so as to be better prepared to produce good outcomes in the future.

I think of these terms differently that most people seem to. Tyler and Bryan seem to be referring to things that think will be demonstrably better or worse in the future. This seems to me like a forecast.

I, on the other hand, see optimism and pessimism as a disposition. When I say I am a pessimist I mean that I am more concerned than the average person about all of the ways things can and will go wrong and I think that most people are naively oblivious to the harm they are causing others.

In any case if we are talking forecasts I will say this

1) I think the medium term future for the global economy is extraordinarily bright. That in the next 25 years or so the majority of human beings born on earth can expect to live what I might call a life of opportunity. One in which day-to-day survival is trivial.

2) I think that convergence will proceed at a more rapid pace in the future than it has in the past. That poor countries will grow richer faster.

3) I think that immigration restrictions in the Western Hemisphere will fall dramatically, particularly in the US and Canada, opening up wide-open spaces for people to live and work.

4) I think Europe will decline markedly as an area of economic and cultural importance but the quality of life for people there will remain fairly high and that it will earn rents from being “the world’s museum”

5) I think that violence in the world will continue to fall for the next 30 years or so.

6) I think medicine will hit its next “big bang” in roughly 40 years or so when the ability to remove disruptive long-lived molecules from cells will be practical. This in effect will create rejuvenation. As a side note I think rejuvenation is the only serious effort to combat most of the diseases that plague the western world today. (Hopefully I will still be blogging that all of the life extension in medicine can be traced to: antibiotics, vaccination, sterilization, anesthesia and rejuvenation)

7) I think there is a reasonable chance that we will see the implosion of many old national governments over the next 60 years or so and that there is a reasonable chance that this will be a relatively peaceful process.

8) Consequently I think the number of nations will rise over the next 75 years and that the nation state will end in a great blur. Sort of like how South Florida is composed of many different cities but no one really cares that much.

9) I think that within 100 years the singularity will be reached and subsequently the fundamental nature of life on earth will radically alter within a matter of years or possibly months.

10) I think between here and the singularity there are challenges but that most revolve around a small group of people either intentionally or more likely, by mistake, killing a large portion of humanity.

The things that we commonly worry about: global warming, the decline of education, antibiotic resistance, the wearing out of the Flynn effect, entitlement debts. fresh water shortages, etc will be speed bumps at worst and likely neutralized almost completely by technology.

Lastly as a aside to Byran I predict that in 50 years it will be conventional wisdom among the quirky intellectual set – perhaps what he means by Masonic – that:

  1. We probably exist in a simulation
  2. Free will is an illusion and I mean a genuine illusion, like a mirage.
  3. Its reductionism . . . all the way down.
  4. Emulations are just as meaningful as flesh and blood humans, since humans are just simulations anyway.
  5. The creation of new life is a morally ambiguous exercise

My confidence on these predictions is low but I am still willing to bet, if Bryan is interested in arranging something.

Some readers may be interested in how I can predict (2) and (5). I think some people will gloss over the issue and others will cheekily say that obviously living your day to day life as if determinism were true is just not what was predestined to happen.

As is often the case this deserves a better treatment than I am about to give it. Still, with several folks bringing up Ron Paul’s odd paleolibertarian positions I thought a few notes on this might be useful

1) As far as I can tell no one but the religious right gives this issue the significance that it deserves. It is a big deal any way we slice it. The ability to create new human beings/ new persons is the most powerful that we have. How we use it is of vital moral and practical importance.

2) The distinction between a human and a person is perhaps the most important question of the coming century. While today one could reasonably argue that almost all persons on earth are biological humans, such a suggestion will soon be ridiculous. How we treat persons vs. how we treat humans will matter a lot for how society is structured.

3) The only place in the current world where we get to really think this through in a practical way is with the process of human development. Most people readily concede that human haploids – sperm and eggs – are not persons (though I think it is silly to deny that they are humans). Most people readily concede that the overwhelming majority of adult diploid human beings are persons.

Somewhere along the line then personification must take place. How that happens is crucial to our understanding what we mean by person.

4) Do we really think that there are human rights? Rights that extend to all humans regardless of personhood and no non-human persons. How can this be anything but species prejudice?

5) Don’t all of our Kantian moral judgments depend on personhood, not humanness.

6) Is there any reason at all why utilitarian moral judgments should be confined to humans. Here its not even clear if personhood is the right characteristic or if it is merely the ability to experience suffering or joy.

7) We don’t actually behave as if babies have any rights at all. Perhaps, the right to life but even that is questionable. A list of baby’s rights that are violated without a second thought:

a) Liberty

b) Contract

c) Property

d) Freedom of Expression

e) Pursuit of Happiness / Self-determination

f) Blood and body

g) To be governed by mutual consent

And, given that babies are not allowed to refuse medical treatment its hard to say under what reasoning they are granted a right to life? A duty to life is imposed upon them, but even if the baby expressed a desire to allow natural processes to precipitate his or her death, that desire would be refused without a second thought.

If a baby can’t even allow nature to takes course on the baby’s own terms then in what sense does the baby have a “right.” None of its preferences or beliefs have to be respected by law.

It can be force fed. It can be forced medicine. It can have its blood taken against its will. It can be forcibly examined, prodded and even have instruments inserted into it. Its body can be cut open and operated on if the parents or state deem it in the baby’s best interest.

This individual has nothing that could be called a civil right in our society.

Gizmodo reports on Rob Spence (shown above), who had his prosthetic eye replaced with a video camera. He echoes a prediction I have long been making:

People say no one would ever cut off their arm and replace it. If the technology gets there, which it looks like it will, people will think about it. They might be what you’d call an early adopter -a really early adopter- but people are going to have the option of having superior limbs, superior eyes at some point. So I think a lot of people will do it.

Someday, the ethical and legal controversies over whether bionically enhanced individuals can compete in existing sports leagues may actually make paying attention to sports interesting. We’re going to see interesting John Henry type contests in the future, except instead of competing against a steam hammer, he will be competing against a man with a steam hammer bionic arm.

In response to me he says

Shifting the gears to include all sentient life makes me think that, yes, this really may not be the end of history. After all, the Fukuyama argument hinges crucially on the role of thymos in human affairs, but this is a contingent aspect of homo sapiens’ dispositions. It’s entirely reasonable to imagine the “return” of history some day in the form of something like the insectoid aliens from Enders Game or a robot rebellion.

Matt’s brain my be too small to comprehend my grand social and political theories but it will, nonetheless, provide a diversionary sacrifice to our insect overloads. In the mean time the more prudent among us will be defining the new history – Will Smith style.

From the early days of the internet I always saw the goal as a type of virtual reality that allowed the agglomeration effect of cities to be felt on a global scale. For a heavy reader and lifetime hater of synchronous communication, like myself, even the old newsgroups and bulletin boards gave that feel. Obviously, however, they were the geek niche’s of geek niches.

The World Wide Web opened things up in a revolutionary way. However, its still didn’t quite seem to do it. The relationships that are so central to what human being are and what we as a species can do were missing.

Enter social media. Facebook bridged a lot of that gap, creating a space that map tightly enough to real world social networks that true friendships could be forged.

There are people I know on Facebook whom I have never spoken to in real life, much less been in the same physical room. There are some whom I knew primarily through social media and then finally meeting them in real life was seamless. They were exactly who I imagined them to be.

And of course, there are old friends with whom Facebook keeps the relationship alive and fresh.

One place where Facebook just doesn’t seem to work at all is working relationships. Those are still dominated by physical meetings, emails and interestingly enough, Gchat.

In part this is because, like most people I am reluctant to friend folks with whom I have a purely working relationship. Strangers I don’t mind at all. But, people who address me as Professor Smith, that’s a bit of a different matter.

The circles and the twitter like nature of Google+ helps with that significantly. The whole world can follow you public persona. Your colleagues your work persona and your friends can see the part of you that makes the word “friend” special.

Perhaps just as importantly its completely integrated into your work environment. For many people “going to work” starts with opening Microsoft Outlook. Your day is defined around your meetings and your email. Much of the rest of what you do probably is accomplished with a web browser, Excel, Powerpoint, Word and some specialty program related to your exact job.

From all of that Facebook is a distraction. You go to Facebook and away from work. With Google+ its built in. The black bar ties it all together. I can’t quite explain why that seems to make a difference but it seems to make all the difference in the world. Something about switching mental modes perhaps.

But, just as it made sense to Gchat a colleague about something from your email but not as much sense to Facebook message them, it seems much more natural to invite a few coworkers to an impromptu hangout – Google+’s group video chat – to discuss an idea than to Skype them.

This brings the concept of the virtual office much closer to reality.

From Reuters

Rubin said the Android week-by-week growth rate is currently at 4.4 percent but he did not disclose, in his Tuesday announcement on Twitter, how many of the devices being activated are smart phones and how many are tablet computers, a relatively new competitive battleground in wireless devices.

File this under: nothing happens, until it all happens at once. When the Palm introduced the Treo and the first Windows Tablet’s came out around 2000 I thought we had entered a new phase in mobile tech.

There was nothing but crickets for about a decade and then overnight smartphones and tablets are everywhere.

Tyler Cowen has famously talked about the innovation slowdown. Paul Krugman for years derided the internet as a diversion.

Some of what’s going on is misinterpretation of what progress looked like.

To put it in really abstract terms the mechanical revolution turned about the be a really big deal. The fossil fuel revolution took it even further.

However, part of what happened is that the made a big difference in the world you could see. The built environment just looked a lot different.

People, however, don’t really exist in the built environment. People exist in their minds. Nozick aside, it is the consistent generation of felt experiences that matter. Whether they have some strong analog in the outside world, whatever that might mean, is kind of beside the point.

The outside world only matters because it seems to present limits to the ability of our minds to function. Cold minds, can think of nothing but getting warm. Hungry minds can think of nothing but getting food. Dead minds cannot think at all.

This forces us to deal with the external world. However, imagine that we conquer hunger, cold and other extreme conditions. In more common terms lets say our basic needs are taken care of.

Then the mind is free to explore as it wishes and we should expect an economy of the mind.

This is in some sense the economy of Tech and Ed. Modern information and communication technology is about interacting as directly as possible with minds.

We have sights and sounds delivered directly to us. We are able to communicate with friends and family around the world. We can build relationships and share ideas. Relationships in particular are what minds really want to do.

All that physical stuff was just a crude means to that end. It would not be surprising if that part of the economy languished almost forever more.

Indeed, on a slightly different note, I am wondering if there is not a significant “backslide” in our near future. As virtual communications become more powerful and ubiquitious it makes sense that the value of physical face-to-face communication will fall.

By no means has this happened yet. Indeed, it appears that in many areas the value of physical face-to-face communication has risen. Yet, this just doesn’t seem consistent with the long term fundamentals.

Are we in a face-to-face bubble?

This is what fuels my growing interest in radical exurbanism. The idea that developments in telecommunication will allow people to live far away but still have business relationships.

We might then imagine living arrangements evolving solely around being near family and friends. A sort of extensive network of small towns, each containing people highly sorted to wanting to live within the norms of that small town and with the people of that town.

If there is cheap transportation, this makes this even more possible. Imagine driverless electric autos transporting physical goods between these areas at very low prices.

Yet, even if we’ve gotten a long way past hunger and cold, we are not far past death. This still leaves open the door for a world in which Med grows in importance.

Now its actually possible that the force of Med will drive the geographic economy in the opposite direction, as downtowns are defined as the centers of medical activity. I don’t know.

The Future of Humanity Institute recently reported the results of a survey conducted at their 2011 Winter Intelligence conference. The survey asked participants, who came from fields like philosophy, computer science and engineering, and AI and robotics, several questions about the future of machine intelligence, and one of the results is somewhat worrying. Participants were asked the following question:

How positive or negative are the ultimate consequences of the creation of a  human‐level (and beyond human-level) machine intelligence likely be?

They were asked to assign probabilities to: extremely good, good, neutral, bad, and extremely bad. Here is a box-and-whisker plot of the results.

The most likely outcome is extremely bad. Eyeing it up it looks like a good outcome of any degree (extremely good + good) is less likely than a bad outcome of any degree (extremely bad + bad).  Given that these experts think that the result is most likely very bad, why do we hear such little discussion about how to stop intelligent machines from being invented? In response to a question about what kind of organization was most likely to develop machine intelligence, the most probable was the military. This means we have something of a lever with which to try and slow them down. Should DARPA be shut down?

Participants were also asked when human-level machine intelligence would likely be developed. The cumulative distribution below shows their responses:

The median estimate of when there is a 50% chance is 2050. That suggests we have around 40 years to enjoy before the extremely bad outcome of human-level robot intelligence arrives. The report presents a list of milestones which participants said will let us know that human-level intelligence is within 5-years. I suppose this will be a useful guide for when we should start panicking. A sample of these include:

  • Winning an Oxford union‐style debate
  • Worlds best chess playing AI was written by an AI
  • Emulation/development of mouse level machine intelligence
  • Full dog emulation…
  • Whole brain emulation, semantic web
  • Turing test or whole brain emulation of a primate
  • Toddler AGI
  • An AI that is a human level AI researcher
  • Gradual identification of objects: from an undifferentiated set of unknown size- parking spaces, dining chairs, students in a class‐ recognition of particular objects amongst them with no re‐conceptualization
  • Large scale (1024) bit quantum computing (assuming cost effective for researchers), exaflop per dollar  conventional computers, toddler level intelligence
  • Already passed, otherwise such discussion among ourselves would not have been funded, lat alone be tangible, observable and accordable on this scale: as soon as such a thought is considered a ‘reasonable’ thought to have

There you have it. These are things to look out for, which may foretell a robot disaster is on the horizon. Of course if that last respondent is right, it’s probably too late already.

Robin Hanson asks

The question is: are the lives of the workaholics around you are within an order of magnitude of being worth as much as typical human lives?

Why ask this? Because this is a key issue for judging if the coming em (whole brain emulation) revolution is glorious or horrifying.


And among all the humans available for scanning, the first generation of ems would select for humans who are both very productive, and willing to work very hard. So ems would be world-class-capable workaholics who stop working not much longer than needed to recuperate and rest.

For those not up on the lingo, Ems are robots made by copying human brains. There are reasons to think copying human brains may be a lot easier than programming smart robots from scratch.

The thorny issue is that then the minds of these Ems will have all of the properties of human minds, including the capacity for joy and suffering. If we think most of these ems will lead good lives then that’s a wonderful thing. If we think most of them will lead bad lives then it’s a horrible thing.

What economic analysis suggests is that most of them will live lives that are relatively heavy on work and short on play. Is that a good life?

Well as Robin suggests if we get ems that are workaholics it probably will be. In my mind this puts some premium on making sure we Em the right people and that we understand what makes them tick.

If I am reading Robin correctly he’s suggesting that either that it will be natural to pick people who like to work, or that through competitive pressure Ems made from those people will come to dominate the population of Ems.

This makes sense but there is an alternative concern. What about folks who are willing to work hard and be productive under stress but don’t really enjoy it. They would rather live lives of philosophical contemplation but if the choice is work or starve (or be deleted) they will work hard and work well.

Its not immediately clear that choice by the original scanners or competitive selection pressures will drive these people out of the population. It could also be the case that selection chooses people who are driven by discontentment to strive for economic status that it will be impossible for everyone to share.

I want to tie together two separate posts on Marginal Revolution that together make a point I’ve been meaning to make. Recently, Alex wrote about how Genetic Engineering may help humans compete against AI in future labor markets. He also points to other human advancing technologies as well:

…In the not so long run it’s not about computers substituting for labor or even complementing labor, it’s about designing labor to complement computers (and vice-versa). Think about how quickly the phone has migrated from the desk, to the hand, to the ear, to the ear canal. The technology to enhance humanity with access to the internet is literally burying itself into our heads, call it I-fi. There is more to come.

The problem is we are framing the question as being about how would we would compete with AI, and we see ourselves as quite helpless. But how would a librarian circa 1950 compete today against Google at the task of helping a student find relevant information quickly? Well they wouldn’t stand a chance, as they’d slowly shuffle through card catalogs based on the Dewey Decimal System. But, how does a librarian today, equipped with the all of their modern tools, databases, compete against Google? In many instances, Google serves the student best. But today’s librarians equipped with all their modern training and tools are still extremely useful resources for students doing research, despite the existence of Google and dozens of other similar tools. The point is we shouldn’t think about our current selves competing against AI, but our future selves and ancestors with all of the computer based knowledge and skills they will have.

This brings me to the second point from MR, this time from Tyler, about playing chess with and against computers:

If the computer is set at 2200 strength, “me plus the computer” (I override it every now and then) almost always beats “the computer alone.”  Often we beat “the computer alone” very badly.  If the computer is set at full strength, my counsel is worth much less, although it is not valueless.

The future will not be just you against AI in the labor markets, but you and AI against AI alone. One way to be more successful in the future will be to learn to work well with atomistic decision machines that are efficiently and logically maximizing some objective criteria in a raw emotionless matter. Both Tyler and Alex have a good head start, having spent so much time with Robin Hanson.

An excerpt from a book on the Jeopardy playing computer appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week. In it, the leader of the Watson team at IBM talks about what their creation means for humanity, and the kinds of questions he hopes to inspire:

Over the next four years, Mr. Ferrucci set about creating a world in which people and their machines often appeared to switch roles. He didn’t know, he later said, whether humans would ever be able to “create a sentient being.” But when he looked at fellow humans through the eyes of a computer scientist, he saw patterns of behaviors that often appeared to be pre-programmed: the zombie-like commutes, the near-identical routines, from tooth-brushing to feeding the animals, the retreat to the same chair, the hand reaching for the TV remote. “It’s more interesting,” he said, “when humans delve inside themselves and say, ‘Why am I doing this? And why is it relevant and important to be human?’ “

His machine, if successful, would nudge people toward that line of inquiry. Even with an avatar for a face and a robotic voice, the “Jeopardy” machine would invite comparisons to the other two contestants on the stage. This was inevitable. And whether it won or lost on a winter evening in 2011, the computer might lead millions of spectators to rethink the nature, and probe the potential, of their own humanity.

He seems to be arguing that the moment when humans seriously question what separates us from machines will have as much to do with our having become more machine-like in the rote of our habits, as it does with machines becoming more human-like in their behavior.

I don’t think it is likely or that the Ferrucci is claiming it, but one could write a science fiction tale where our recognition of genuine A.I. comes purely as a result of a lower and lower bar for what we consider human intelligence, and actually occurs during a static state of machine intelligence.

Much less pessimistically, Ferrucci is hoping that competition with, and mimicry by, machines will move us to better ourselves and be less machine-like. Mr. Ferrucci apparently did not see Wall-E, where technology and A.I. allows humans to become more machine-like and lazy. For sure, spell-check has made us spend less time working on being good at spelling, and calculators have allowed us to become less skilled with basic numeracy.  But will machines that can do all simple minded tasks allow us to specialize entirely out of simple-minded tasks?

This mostly makes me envision a future where 60% of the U.S. are public sector funded artists, bloggers, and service reviewers, since subjectivity will be the last place machines can compete with us. People will spend all day reviewing Netflix movies and contributing to other crowd-sourced clouds of subjectivity, where there will be at least some value to our actions which machines can’t replicate. Reviewing and ranking will be all the more important given that so many people will be artists “for a living”, and the amount of content will be massive. The art of science, from knowing what is a meaningful to hypothesis to envisioning a novel way to test it,  also tells me we’ll have many more freelance scientists.  That doesn’t sound so bad a world.

Free traders like to point out that technology likely destroys far more American jobs than globalization, and yet globalization skeptics do not complain when this happens. Furthermore, we like to add, why should individuals whose jobs are offshored be entitled to a better safety net than individuals whose jobs are made redundant by technology? Aside from being absolutely true, free traders like myself engage in these arguments because they bolster the case for free trade by pointing out the logical inconsistency between people’s intuitively positive feelings about technological progress and their intuitively negative feelings about free trade.

But what happens in the future if artificial intelligence means that human-like robots start replacing jobs? When the machine that replaces you has a voice and a name, like Watson, it will feel different than when the machine is a big metal contraption that attaches widget A to widget B. I suspect that the more human-like the technology that replaces human work, the more people will begin to finally heed the arguments of free traders and reconcile their feelings towards technology driven versus globalization driven job destruction. Unfortunately, this won’t be in the direction we want. Instead, people will begin to see technological progress as a “they” who is “taking our jobs”.

Because it is true I don’t think free traders should stop drawing attention to the connection between technology and free trade, but I do worry that one day it will come back to bite us as it makes the popular adoption of techno-phobic* beliefs that much easier.

*We will need a new word that reflects a bias towards favoring humans, sort of like nationalism or nativism except favoring humans instead of favoring one’s nation or it’s natives.

Below is footage of IBM’s supercomputer Watson taking on human challengers in Jeopardy. It is amazing, and I predict this will mark a huge turning point for humanity; it will be when the believability of artificial intelligence becomes mainstream.

I have to confess that I have always been bored by discussion about AI and singularity from Robin Hanson and others. I couldn’t get interested in debates about whether AI would be like this or that, or whether it would… um… see, it’s never even interesting enough for me to read far enough past “AI will be…” to even tell what it is they’re discussing about it.

This doesn’t say anything about the topic or Robin’s presentation of it, but simply reflects my own shortcomings in caring about something which seems, to put a Hansonian point on it, so far away. I’ve always heard that AI will likely happen and that it’s just a matter of time. I had no reason to doubt this, but still, it didn’t feel true. This, I know, is not an mindset to be proud of, but I think I’m probably close to the median on this. As in most things, I’d venture I’m far closer to the median than Robin anyway.

But now, with the spectacle of Watson, and after seeing this short clip of him, it changes things. AI and singularity suddenly feel near enough to care about. It feels believable, and so it feels suddenly much more important. Today for the first time ever I could really picture, in a near rather than far sense, all of my skills being replaced by a computer and myself arriving at near zero marginal productivity. I imagine it’s similar to what it would be like to grow up in a pre-flight age, and to be told that human flight is a scientific possibility. Sure you may factually accept the science behind the claims, but until you see it at least almost happen, it’s not nearly real.

I probably should have cared about this sooner, and there is a lesson here about thinking about and caring about things your gut tells you are far away but the facts tell are closer than they feel. I guess that’s why it’s important to force yourself to read Robin Hanson even if your gut tells you the topic feels boring and implausibly far. Maybe this means I need to start caring about cryogenics.

This is certainly going to change how people think about AI, and I’m beginning to wonder if Ken Jennings versus Watson will be the most watched television event of all time.

Robin Hanson asks

The second point seems easier to settle, as it is just an application of standard econ theory.  Any other economists care to weigh in?

referring to this point

I say prices usually fall when a very elastic supply curve rapidly gets cheaper. Russ would probably agree for something like computer memory, but is reluctant to agree for wages – he doesn’t think cheap plentiful immigrants lower wages. I say that if trillions of immigrants willing to work for a dollar an hour were waiting just offshore, letting in as many as wanted in would lower wages to that level. So I say cheap [human intelligent] robots getting cheaper fast should rapidly lower wages for tasks they do. Russ objects “You can’t just say your wage will be driven down, because if there are complementary types of labor they’ll increase the wage rate of some people. … There’s all these complicated secondary effects.” I say all things considered, the likely effect is falling wages.

There are a few of ways of looking at this. Robin uses supply and demand. Another way to looking at it is noting that immigration doesn’t change the total number of people in the world, it just changes the distribution.

In a world were all institutional systems were equally productive immigrants moving to America would simply mean that new factories are built in America instead of factories being built overseas. Unless their are strong market constraints then either the job will move to the immigrant or the immigrant will move to the job but ultimately the same capital will be combined with the same labor.

Because some institutional systems are more productive, total world productivity can go up by moving both the immigrants and the capital to the better institutional environment. That’s the essence of why the world gets richer when people move to America.

However, in principle the same level of growth could result by porting the institutions to other countries. This is more or less the story of China and India.

When Russ notes that immigration makes everybody wealthier he implicitly noting the effect of improving the average institutional arrangement under which people live. Without that difference, immigration wouldn’t matter at all.


The second way to look at it is to note that in general equilibrium all profits accrue to the irreproducible factors of production. If human intelligent robots mean that labor is reproducible then natural resources become the only irreproducible factor.

Without government intervention, the real price of land in the robot future will skyrocket as the earth becomes populated by trillions upon trillions of human intelligent robot workers and the return to labor will fall to the marginal cost of producing a new robot.


Robin suggests that the real return on capital would skyrocket. I am not sure this is the case. The reason is that the robots support savings in the same way that humans do. So the demand for capital is racing outward as labor expands but so is the supply.

What is clear is that  the real price of natural resources will skyrocket. In theory this could happen because prices of most goods are falling at a tremendous rate while the price of land and materials holds. I don’t think this could happen for monetary reasons. Piecing together optimal monetary policy in the singularity is a side project of mine and though it sounds silly possibly very important. [1]

So your house, for example, might still be worth 250K dollars but within a few years the cost of deconstructing your existing house and building a new house from the parts might be 500 dollars and could be done by several thousand robots in an afternoon. As you can see in a world of such cheap service the actual cost of materials becomes a huge consideration. Building an entirely new house and on new land is radically different proposition than reconstructing an existing house.

This is why everyone who owns something besides their own labor power would likely become very rich, very fast in the robot future.

To see how capital responds note that the total market cap of the US stock exchange would be exploding but this could occur as new companies are IPOed every few seconds. Thus the return to owning any particular company wouldn’t rise very fast even as the total capitalization of the economy was growing enormously fast.


One thing that is fascinating is that in some ways the robot future would seem more natural. It is a constant source of confusion to people that human time is vastly more valuable than natural resources.

People resist vehemently the fact that it is wasteful to build a careful quality-constructed thing once rather than to pop out thousands of cheap copies and then throw them away once they break. Our intuition places a really high value of materials and a comparably low value on human time. This is why recycling seems obviously efficient to most people but is profitable for no one but the homeless and then only after government subsidies.

The robot future would bring the world more into line with intuition. The price of human time would fall, the real price of materials would skyrocket and recycling in one form or another would be hugely profitable and indeed probably the basis for much if not most of the economy.

I imagine the robot economy as full of retoolers. Robots that are expert at finding new ways to use old stuff.


1: Whether the singularity is a time of skyrocketing nominal interest rates, rapidly falling prices, a decline or rise in nominal wages, etc will be vastly important in how it plays out for most people. If it happens as a relatively sudden collapse in nominal wages that could be disastrous for the social and political order as people see robots coming to replace them.

If on the other hand it happens as a time of rising nominal wages but ever accelerating real asset prices then it will look and feel to most people like a promised land where investing in certain things will lead to permanently increasing wealth.

If you had a computer chip implanted in your brain that allowed you to perform complex mathematical computations just by looking at numbers and equations, like an onboard calculator, would you consider that genuine cognitive activity? How about if the computer chip was instead in your pocket? Answering “yes” to the former question is much more intuitive than a “yes” to the latter, but why should that be?

This are questions that occur in the fields of “embodied cognition” and “the extended mind”, and the topic of a recent article in the New York Times. The author of the article, Andy Clark, argues that we should view the theoretical brain-mounted computer chip as “bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull”. Importantly, he argues that iPhones and blackberries function in a similar way that a brain mounted chip would, and so they should be thought of likewise.

I’ve made similar arguments before, and I think that in the not-so-distant future we won’t need thinkers like Andy Clark to prompt us to consider these questions, as technology will place them front and center. Even if you find it absolutely clear that none of todays technologies should be considered cognition, or part of your brain, mind, or self, it will be much less clear as future technologies become more seamlessly integrated with our thought process.

For instance, consider the inevitable scenario I’ve laid out before: micro-computers, visual retinal displays, augmented reality, and neural input devices combined so that you’ve essentially got a brain-mounted computer on virtual floating screens in front of you that you control with your thoughts.   Whether or not using these future devices should be considered cognition and part of our minds will be much trickier than it is with today’s iPhones, especially considering that from everyone else’s perspective “organic thought”, as you might call it, will often be indistinguishable from “computer thought”. “Did he just remember my birthday when I asked if he knew it, or did he look it up?”

Dean Baker is fond of blaming journalists’ pro free trade bias (which they supposedly have) on the fact that they are a protected professional class because of the limits on skilled immigration, and that without those protections their jobs would be subject to more foreign competition like manufacturers are. With all due respect to Felix Salmon, Andrew Sullivan, and all of our other imported foreign pundit labor, I always doubted the extent of this argument. After all, local knowledge, understanding the cultural, and language barriers represent significant barriers to entry for journalists and pundits. At the very least competition from developing countries will be limited;  it’s not like the New York Times could move it’s operations to China and start operating from there. In short, while I believe there would be some impact, I don’t think removing all legal protectionism for journalists and pundits wouldn’t amount to all that much more competition.

That’s what I thought until I read some reactions in China to American elections courtesy of the New Yorker. Allowing perhaps to the distance and detachment from the issues, the insightfulness in the analysis easily surpasses many bloggers and pundits. For instance, there is this “common” reaction to the anti-China election ads we’ve been seeing:

“A country that couldn’t be any weaker is always emphasizing its rising clout, while a truly powerful country is always dwelling on its weakness and vulnerability—how ironic.”

That’s exactly correct, and a better take on it than the average blog post or op-ed on the topic.

And there is this perfectly calm and reasonable analysis of the Tea Party which I think is much more judicious and far-sighted than the average American pundit analysis, so much of which is exaggerated:

The Tea Party is a product of a certain period of time,” as a recent piece from China National Radio put it. “As the economy gets back on track, with more income and more stable jobs—when the country is richer, and people will be more at ease—the Tea Party will probably not have as many supporters. This is a bit like those radical anti-war organizations that popped up in America in the past. After some time, their voices faded out. When that day comes, we will realize that the Tea Party movement had pushed forward some rather insignificant figures in the world of American politics.”

I think that’s exactly right, and history will prove China National Radio correct… did I just write that? In any case, and perhaps due to the detachment, it’s also far better analysis than the average blogger or op-ed.

This raises a question: will my blogging be outsourced? Well, since my blogging wage is $0, I cannot be underbid. Also, for the time being I presume my particular brand of moderate libertarianism is probably illegal in China.

I could however, be replaced by a blogger from India or another country with more freedom of speech. Putting me at a disadvantage compared to anti-trade liberals and conservatives is that if I am replaced by foreign competition I will be unable to complain, ask for protectionism, or appeal to any sort of nativist favoritism without also simultaneously exposing myself as a hypocrite and thus destroying my blogging career anyway.

Kevin Drum is skeptical of my brain mounted computer prognostication. His general point is that the “perfect memory” that computer brains would provide would only get you so far, and that there is non-trivial factual knowledge that critical and would not be storable in the sense that mere facts would be. This I can agree with. A perfect computerized memory may mean you know longer have to memorize proofs, but you still have to understand them. Still, the existence of perfect memory changes what we must work at in learning proofs and would drastically change the emphasis of education. It essentially makes every test an open book test.

He also argues that access to information is not useful without knowledge of how to use it, specifically he disagrees with my claim that “All fields will be trained more like librarians are today”.

…the fact is that librarians don’t know how to do accounting. Nor do they know how to perform brain surgery, calculate an IS-LM curve, or write a blog post.1 There are lots of kids whose computer retrieval skills are vastly superior to mine, but it does them no good if they’re trying to figure out anything more complicated than the showtime for Jackass 3D. That’s because aside from trivia, fact retrieval isn’t very useful unless you know what facts to look for in the first place, how to evaluate those facts, whether they’re reliable, how to put them into context, what’s missing, and what it all means. My retrieval skills are better than virtually any teenager’s not because of my technical prowess, but because I have some idea of what to search for in the first place, how to follow those results to other results, and how to figure out if the stuff I find is meaningful in any but the most frivolous way.

I would argue that  having “some idea of what to search for in the first place, how to follow those results to other results, and how to figure out if the stuff I find is meaningful in any but the most frivolous way” is exactly what a librarian is trained to do. This does not mean one will only need to learn the material as deeply as a librarian would, but that retrieval skills will become much more important and factual knowledge will become less important. However, I take Kevin’s broad point that deeper knowledge and understanding of materials will not become less important, and are in fact an important component of retrieval skills.

My friend and sometimes illustrator Thad Pasierb also pointed out in an email that my list of the criteria by which intelligence will be measured was missing some things. Here is what I wrote:

Once perfect memory is universal, logic, reason, and analytical thinking will be the sole dimension by which intelligence is measured.

He suggests the addition of creativity, and I agree. To put things in economic terms, the price of memory has gone to zero. Those with large endowments of memory will see their relative human capital decrease, and those with large endowments of other skills, like analytical thinking or creativity, will see theirs increase. How much of an increase in human capital you get depends on the extent to which memory is a complimentary to your skills.

Forecasting what technologies we will adopt in the future and how will interact with them is a highly speculative game, and the past is littered with hilariously misguided projections. A famous example is an article in The Ladies Home Journal from 1900 that predicts what life would be like in 2000. While some guesses are impressively accurate, some are very wrong. For instance, here’s prediction #22:

Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Despite the difficultly inherent in such projections, I am prepared to argue that not only are brain mounted computers a likely future technology, but their widespread adoption is a dominant strategy equilibrium. For those unfamiliar with game theory, a dominant strategy equilibrium is the outcome that results when everyone plays the strategy that “dominates” all of the other strategies available to them, where “dominating” means it has the highest payout no matter what strategy the other players use.  Given the existence of a strictly dominant strategy equilibrium, it is inevitable.

There’s probably an accepted term for the collective bundle of technology I’m talking about that’s fancier sounding than “brain mounted computers”, but it gets the point across. I’m actually referring to several technologies that all exist in some form or another today, including virtual retinal displays, augmented reality,  neural input devices, and of course very tiny computers to run the whole thing.

Let me describe it extreme layman’s terms (the only terms I know): you’ll have a powerful computer in your future iPhone-like-device that is connected to a special contact lens that so that screens floats in front on your face, and you steer the whole thing with your brain. The most important facts about this technology is that a) nobody will be able to tell whether you’re looking at your computer or not, and b) it will always be available to you.

Why is using this device a dominant strategy? Choosing to use it is simply expanding your memory and factual knowledge to include everything on the internet. As far as anyone who knows you can tell you will never misspell a word,  not know a fact, forget the words to a song, or know any piece of data. Quick: what was the per-capita GDP of Guatamala in 1976? Anyone with a brain mounted computer will be able to tell you.

Because nobody will be able to tell whether you’re using it, genius will be indistinguishable from brain mounted computer use. If nobody uses it you will have the advantages over your coworkers that perfect memory would give you today. If everybody but you uses it you will have all the disadvantages that someone with really terrible memory has today. When everyone else uses brain mounted computers, those without them will look forgetful and unknowledgeable. It will be a dominant strategy in the same way that optional genius would be today; only extreme individuals will choose to reject it.

In time society will adjust to these technologies, and the speed and anticipation of your thoughts will increase, such that the notion of real memory will no longer be distinct from virtual memory.

Education will have to change drastically, and the fact based portion of schooling will become trivial. You’ll only need to learn how to look stuff up in a given field. All of accounting will take a week to learn. All fields will be trained more like librarians are today.

Once perfect memory is universal, logic, reason, and analytical thinking will be the sole dimension by which intelligence is measured.

Since we know memory needs to be exercised, our real capacity for memory will wither and future generations will evolve with less and less capacity for it. If some disaster were to wipe out electricity and return us to a low tech world we would be helpless, unable to remember the most basic facts without the aid of our brain computers. The few remaining natural brains (which is what we’ll derisively call them) -who chose to live as luddites in secluded villages in far away forests and jungles- will become kings… if we can remember where to find them.

If the existence of this technology is inevitable, and surely that much is uncontroversial, then how can its widespread adoption possibly be avoided?

Pivoting off a recent blogospheric debate about what current behaviors future generations will judge immoral, I’d like to ask what brand new moral controversies the future will face. Technology will create many of these problems, especially it’s ability to enhance ourselves.

I’d argue that many interesting moral and legal questions will arise once bionic limbs unequivocally outperform human limbs. Will separate leagues be needed for bionically-altered humans? Some might object to banning of victims of tragedies and injuries, especially if bionically altered sports leagues are lower profile and lower paid than unaltered leagues. Will there need to be a separate Olympics for the bionically altered, or will the Paralympics just evolve into the the more high profile, more high performance event?

The only way the exclusion of altered athletes won’t be controversial is if their leagues are as high-profile and high paying as unaltered leagues. But if this happens then people will choose to have their limbs surgically removed and replaced with bionics, which opens up a whole other can of worms.  Despite a small amount of demand for it, it is currently considered illegal and generally regarded immoral for doctors to remove healthy limbs (so technically this debate won’t be an altogether new one, but for the most part I’d call this debate currently non-existent). But will the availability of superior bionic replacements and a huge profit motive change this?

This will be especially be a problem in poorer countries where sports represent a way out of poverty and are held in high regard. Like they do with their current Olympiads, China will probably recruit bionically altered athletes at a very young age. Given the large level of sacrifice that todays Chinese families are willing to make for a chance to become an Olympian, I suspect many might be willing to have their limbs removed as well.

On the plus side, once bionically altered athletes are able to jump 30 feet in the air, baseball might actually become entertaining to watch.

Tyler Cowen points to Roger Scruton’s new book, “The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope”

I’ve been toying with a book idea that in my mind I call “Beyond All Hope: Passion, Rationality and the Fate of Humanity”

So, naturally, I was intrigued. The publisher’s clip states

Ranging widely over human history and culture, from ancient Greece to the current global economic downturn, Scruton makes a counterintuitive yet persuasive case that optimists and idealists — with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed — have wrought havoc for centuries.

Scruton’s argument is nuanced, however, and his preference for pessimism is not a dark view of human nature; rather his is a ‘hopeful pessimism’ which urges that instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

You had me at “wrought havoc for centuries”

Though, I am still intrigued because I don’t know if our senses of the world align in the final sentence of the description where it says

we focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts.

Off the cuff that sounds like the most naively optimistic statement of them all. Institutions, traditions and direct action, I say. Man’s instincts are determined by forces well beyond our control.

Institutions. We want to indentify which institutions seem to be working and fight to protect them. We want to indentify which institutions are not working and expose them to thoughtful evolution. Think of small improvements that are not likely to be catastrophic. Try them and see how it goes. Some – I am not naming any names – might think a 4% inflation target falls into this camp.

Traditions. Here evolution comes best through cosmopolitanism. We expose a bunch of different traditions to one another and we let the most effective parts of each emerge as a meta-tradition. I would argue that this is the essence of the United States.

Direct Action. If while on a walk together, your friend falls a breaks her leg you are likely to be well aware of her suffering and what can be done to alleviate it. There are times when you will get it wrong, but operating one-on-one, human-to-human you cut down on the chance for both false hope and misguided overreach.

To wit, if you really care about the suffering of Bangladeshis then you need to move to Bangladesh. Talk to the people on the street. What do they need right now, today? Are they thirsty? Bring them water. Are they hungry? Help them look for food? You can help a lot of people this way and you don’t have to worry that you mistakenly broke the entire global water and food distribution system.

Lastly, at least in my use of the term, there is nothing contradictory about being a Pessimist and a Millman Progressive – one who thinks humanity’s best days are yet to come.

Pessimism is simply the idea that most things go wrong, that most ideas are bad ideas, and all stories in the long-run have tragic endings. Yet, I can believe this and still have confidence in the march of progress.

Every summer in the wooded park near my house millions of baby spiders emerge from egg sacks.


Within days most of them will be dead. Within two years every last one of them will be dead.

Their story only has one ending.

For most of them it will come swiftly, coldly and brutally. I see the reality of this every summer and it makes me a spider pessimist. There is little anyone could do to change their fate.

Nevertheless, year-after-year in early spring the most beautifully intricate spider creations can be found littered throughout the park.


These creations don’t come about inspite of the mass death and brutally short lives these spiders face. These creations come about because of the mass death and short lives. This is evolution and it’s tragedy and beauty are one.

A few days ago Bryan Caplan wondered why economists question whether bringing someone into existence makes them better off, and I had some objections. Bryan has offered up a useful response, in which I think he has inadvertently answered his own question.

He responds to two of my challenges, in which I broadly claimed that if he were right, it would be a moral imperative which would trump all others to bring as many people into existence as possible, which seemed to violate common sense morality. He agrees that this is a bullet to bite for strict utilitarians, but adherents to other moral positions can rationalize not having to behave with an observation that begins “People who actually exist count a lot more than people who could exist but don’t.” This, however, answers the question he asked in the first place, which was:

If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I’ve noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic.  $100?  Definitely an improvement.  Being alive?  Meh.

It’s hard to see the logic.  Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?

Understanding that the cash gift makes someone better off requires nothing more than strict utilitarianism, the mode of analysis economists are trained in. The gift of life however requires something more than strict utilitarianism, and requires some other moral position to justify it. Furthermore, it’s hard to think of a reasonable moral position according to which giving someone $100 does not make them better, whereas it is not so hard to imagine reasonable moral positions according to which the gift of life does not make someone better off. One is clear-cut and requires the usual tools of economic analysis, the other is not and requires appealing to other moral positions.

Elsewhere, and speaking of bullet biting utilitarians, Robin Hanson outlines an economic analysis of which creatures should exist and which shouldn’t. But I think Robin has some big unspoken assumptions in his analysis. The general problem is we don’t know the preferences of the non-existent. Here is how Robin broadly describes how the analysis of which creatures should exist should be done:

Economically, creature X should exist if it wants to exist and it can pay for itself. That is, in a supply and demand world, if our only choice is whether X should exist, then an X that wants to exist should actually exist if its lifespan cost of resources used (including paying for any net externalities) is no more than the value it gives by working for others.

The problem is that we don’t know the preferences of the non-existent, and so we don’t know Robin’s first requirement: whether creature X wants to exist.  Not only that, but according to Robin’s efficiency criteria you have to know whether they prefer an existence conditional on that existence includes paying their costs, and not just existing as a freeloader. You could argue that we could poll the existing and see if they would have preferred to never exist, but we don’t know whether the preferences of the non-existent have any relationship at all to the existing.  In addition, for many creatures we have no way to do even this post-existence polling. How do you understand a dogs preferences for existing versus never existing? And remember, showing a preference for continuing to exist over ceasing to existing is not the same as preferring to existing over never existing.

The problem with both of their analysis is the preferences for existing versus never existing are facts simply knowable through economic analysis, and must be brought from somewhere else. That is why, contra Bryan, I don’t think the value of the gift of life is not clear-cut to economists as the value of a $100 gift, and contra Robin, I don’t think knowing which creatures should exist is amenable to cost-benefit analysis.

I should add that, probabilistically, by simultaneously disagreeing with Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan, I recognize I am likely wrong. So if I were to bet on these propositions, I would bet against them.

No, believe it or not this paper wasn’t written by Bryan Caplan or Robin Hanson. From the abstract:

In this paper, we analyze the extent to which market forces create an incentive for cloning human beings. We show that a market for cloning arises if a large enough fraction of the clone’s income can be appropriated by its model. Only people with the highest ability are cloned, while people at the bottom of the distribution of income specialize in surrogacy. In the short run, cloning reduces inequality. In the long run, it creates a perfectly egalitarian society where all workers have a top ability if fertility is uncorrelated with ability and if the distribution of ability among sexually produced children is the same as among their parents. In such a society, cloning has disappeared….

Unlike the normal, unpredictable, process of genetic heredity, cloners will be able to guarantee that their clones will be high-ability by cloning high-ability individuals. This paper looks at whether people will create clones for profit. Assuming that slavery will be continue to be illegal, the question is how could someone appropriate wealth from a clone they created?  The authors offer three ways:

Negative bequest – this is when you borrow money in someone else’s name, e.g. adopt the baby clone and rack up debt in it’s name. Apparently, this is legal in Japan.

Informational retention – here you withhold information from the clone about where they came from, and who their “model” was unless they pay for it. A problem with this is that the clone has to wait until he’s older to pay for this (since child clones don’t have money, obviously) in which case you may have ruined a lot of potential, as they could have been investing in particular talents throughout childhood. For instance, the clone who learns on his 18th birthday that his model was Mozart, but he’s neglected to learn piano.

Gene ownership – if genetic codes are patentable in the future, then you could sell a clone his genome which contains information that could help them stay healthy or improve their labor market earnings.

Education – top tier schools could form a consortium to clone high-talented individuals to increase the demand for their products, and since top tier schools are not easily replicable this will drive up prices and increase rents.

The first one seems worst to me, since clones have no choice but to pay rents. Given the desirability of having these high-ability clones as citizens, I assume that some countries would pass laws to serve as sanctuaries from this type of debt.

I am curious as to what Bryan Caplan, who has previously argued for his right to clone, would say about whether these things methods of clone wealth appropriation should be legal?

From a new NBER working paper:

…Real, constant quality land values have increased by nearly 800% since the first quarter of 2003, with half that rise occurring over the past two years. State-owned enterprises controlled by the central government have played an important role in this increase, as our analysis shows they paid 27% more than other bidders for an otherwise equivalent land parcel.

Has the entire globe been overbuilt? I can foresee a future where a global housing bubble (maybe not this one) leaves governments realizing that the only way to sop up excess housing demand that is killing economic growth is to encourage procreation and immigration. Beggar-thy-neighbor immigration policies will be the new trade wars, and blogs and social scientists will debate about how best to incentivize having children. Statist governments (and, again, bloggers and social scientists) will try to figure out whether outlawing abortion will increase or decrease the population, which in a world of rich countries with more than open borders will have to go hand-in-hand with emigration restrictions.

Brad Delong is Puzzled by Richard Campbell


Would you still be conscious if your neurons were replaced by (functionally identical) silicon chips?
. . .
We can similarly wonder whether Block’s "Chinese Nation" (a functional analogue where individual humans communicating via walkie-talkies play the role of neurons) is really conscious. There’s not any physical fact we’re ignorant of here. So if there’s a substantial fact we remain ignorant of, it must concern a matter over and above the physical facts. That is, it must be a matter of non-physical fact.


I don’t know whether Richard Chappell believes that Block’s Chinese Nation is really conscious–I am not sure whether I believe that Block’s Chinese Nation is really conscious–but it’s not because I am uncertain about any matter of non-physical fact. It is because I am uncertain of the meaning and definition of "really conscious."

“Really conscious” doesn’t bother me much. Lets ask this question: When the “Chinese Nation1” finally completes the signals necessary to represent the processing of the color red, is there any being which experiences the color red.

Said another way, is it “like anything” to be a Chinese Nation. It is like something to be person. We are pretty clear on that. I am guessing that its like something to be dog. I don’t know if its like anything to be a worm. I am pretty sure its not like anything to be a rock.

Campbell is asking “is it like anything to be a collection of people with Walkie-Talkies”

That being said, however, I think Campbell is wrong on the physicalist question. We don’t yet have all the answers.  There are more experiments we can do.

The most straight forward experiment would be for me to have the part of my brain responsible for processing the color red replaced by chips. I might then be able to tell whether my qualia had disappeared.

Now, immediate problems pop out – I don’t deny. For one thing unless we’ve gotten something wrong I ought not be able to tell anyone that my qualia has disappeared. From the point of view of the outside world all of the processing in my brain is happening the same way and so I should respond in the same way.

However, if it really has disappeared but I can’t express that then I can’t know that. But, if I can’t know that then what does it mean to say its gone. All very interesting questions that lead to only one conclusion – we need to start cutting into some brains because I am dying to see what if, anything actually happens.

More seriously though, even the attempt to answer some of these practical question can yield useful insights. Suppose for example there is a particular mechanisms within the neurons that is hard to model and seems to act really weird.

We say, ok close is good enough NSF grants and we do the implants without that mechanism. Suddenly our patient tells us that his sense of red is gone. He knows that the picture is red, he can even tell you how red. He just isn’t experiencing red. Well, know we know a lot more about qualia than we did before and we know a lot more about the physical processes that lead to consciousness.

It may be that when someone conducts a Chinese Nation thought experiment that involves replicating this particular complex mechanism that the outcome of a “conscious nation” won’t seem counterintuitive at all. “Well of course if you could get 100 billion humans to all do that, the result will be conscious” we will all say.

Now maybe that won’t happen and we’ll completely reduce the process of cognition down to its most basic parts and be left with no more intuition about consciousness. Maybe. But, I don’t know how we can be sure that will happen from where we are standing right now.

(1) The string of references is long but this has nothing to do with the nation of China. Start here

One the problems with Sea Steading is finding people who are willing to put up with the high price and daunting environment all in the pursuit of a little freedom. However, one group you might want to target is those pursuing experimental drugs not yet legal in the West.

According to Megan McArdle the biggest part of a drugs cost in the clinical trial. I would have assumed that the R&D costs were concentrated further back into the research end. Yet, if she is right then there is the potential for some extremely beneficial gains from trade.

If drug companies can find a potential compound cheaply and Sea Steaders are willing to self-experiment then billions of dollars could be made and possibly hundreds of thousands of lives saved.

The obvious benefit for Sea Steaders is early access to drugs and access to drugs that would have been unprofitable to put through a clinical trial. The advantage for drug companies is that even causal observation of the results and side effects from the Sea Steaders experience could help to focus their mass market clinical trials on the most effective drugs. Its essentially human research on the cheap.

As I had hoped, the Secretary of Alien Strategies reports for duty:

Many species here on Earth have endured for millions of years while retaining “aggressive” tendencies, and even very “mildly” bellicose aliens, ones who would only exterminate us if they could make a plausible case that we might pose a future menace, should still be of great concern to us.  I sure don’t want to be exterminated “just in case.”  Wouldn’t it make more sense then to shut up until either we don’t look so menacing, or until we are strong enough to defend ourselves?

In retrospect there’s two reasons to be concerned about Robin in this position. Are we sure he’s not here on behalf on some future invading alien species to make us rational enough to accept their inevitable domination when they invade rather than fight them to the death as our irrational “humanity” may compel us to do? And even if he is human, if aliens do arrive can we say for sure he would not advise them that it would be more efficient to wipe us out?

And realizes that we should fear contact with other life in the Universe.

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.

I don’t know about the Nomad concept but I do know that it is in the rational self-interest of any intelligent life that meets humans to destroy us.  If for no other reason than simply because there exists a non-trivial probability that we will attempt to destroy them, whether through fear, misunderstanding or our own rational self-interest.

Thus, the best shot we have is to shut down any attempts to contact extraterrestrials and shut them down now! No contact is the best contact.

Update: Adam got there first and as usual, funnier. But my point stands.

Yes, Kent, I would. Or at least Steven Hawking would. In a new documentary for the Discovery channel, he makes the worrying argument that

…extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact…

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Things to worry about: What kinds of defenses can we use against non-carbon based life forms? What moral codes might aliens abide by? What are the rules of engagement for alien war? Are we obliged to abide by the Geneva conventions for alien prisoners of war?

I believe the appropriate response to this is for Obama to create a cabinet level position focused entirely on these issues; perhaps the Secretary of Alien Strategies. The question then is who do we put in charge of worrying about very unlikely, seemingly absurd, and yet potentially disastrous alien scenarios? What marginally sane person would be willing to dedicate their time and energy to constantly thinking about issues which will only matter with a vanishingly small probability?

If we could only understand fundamentally how to make forecasts this good

HT: Sullivan

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