Uncharted Waters


A week or so ago I linked to an essay by Robin Hanson on the causes of economic growth. As I've noted before, Hanson has enunciated a provocative model for thinking about economic growth over the next 40 to 60 years: he argues, based on previous phases of growth in economic production, that we may be on the cusp of a phase transition comparable to that from hunting and gathering to farming, or from farming to industry. But every such phase shift requires a mechanism -- in particular, new modes of production and societal organization that overcome the limitations inherent in the prior phase. For the possible next stage, Hanson (in an essay entitled "The Economics of Brain Simulations") proposes brain simulation as the technology that is most likely to have the required impact on economic growth.

Now, I am not deeply versed in the science and technology of artificial intelligence so I don't pretend to know whether brain simulation will be developed at some point in the next 50 years. But to my mind, Hanson doesn't help his case with some reasoning that seems highly suspect, especially coming from someone who is a professor of economics. Consider:

The suggestion that the world economy will soon double every week or two, after a transition lasting only a few years, seems so far from ordinary experience as to be, well, "crazy." Of course similar predictions made before the previous transitions would have seemed similarly crazy. Nevertheless, it seems hard to take this scenario seriously without at least some account of how it could be possible.

Now we cannot expect to get a very detailed account about a new growth mode. After all, most economics has been designed to explain the actual social worlds that we have seen so far, and not all the possible social worlds that might exist. And we are still pretty ignorant about the fundamental drivers of the previous modes. But we do want at least a sketchy account. Of the many future technologies that technologists have forecast, which could plausibly have anywhere near this impact on the economy?

One helpful hint is that innovations in larger economic sectors can produce larger social impacts. In the United States we spend about 1.5% of income on farming, 1.5% on mining, 2% on gas and electricity, 2.5% on communications, 3% on transportation, and 3.5% on construction. These small fractions make it hard to see how innovations in these sectors could induce much faster growth. For such drama, we must look beyond the usual technology favorites, such space colonization, fusion energy, air cars, sea cities, or picture phones. We probably must even look beyond radical nanotechnology; nanotech might dramatically reduce the cost of capital for manufacturing, but we only spend about 5% of income there.

A more promising fraction is the 70% of income we now pay for human labor. Greatly lower[ing] this cost could have a huge impact. And robotics or artificial intelligence good enough to substitute wholesale for most human labor might just greatly lower such costs.

It strikes me as plain silly to say that Americans spend a cumulative ~20% of national income on farming, mining, gas, electricity, communications, transportation, construction, and manufacturing, but 70% on labor (it's not clear what the other 10% is, since Hanson's figures don't add up to 100%). What, I ask, is this "labor"? Isn't there labor involved in farming, mining, gas and electricity production and distribution, communications, transportation, construction, and manufacturing? Sure there is. Furthermore, "labor" is not an undifferentiated entity. The 70% of the economy that does not fall into Hanson's other categories consists of such a wide range of jobs as to be incommensurable: nurses, doctors, dentists, psychologists, pharmacists, chiropractors, veterinarians, gardeners, cooks, waiters, florists, teachers, salespeople, marketers, research scientists, chemists, computer programmers, mechanical engineers, architects, actors, singers, dancers, athletes, journalists, shop owners, entrepreneurs, accountants, lawyers, plumbers, car repairmen, customer service representatives, security guards, policemen, and hundreds of other kinds of workers all provide "labor", it seems. But to lump all their efforts into "labor" ignores the particular circumstances of the knowledge, skills, and abilities involved. I suppose the Singularitarians would argue that once brain simulation has been invented, we'll simply copy the brain patterns of people working in the relevant job and upload those copies to the relevant machine, then off we go. The result, we are led to expect, will be florist robots, chiropractor robots, gardener robots, waiter robots, actor robots (perhaps one and the same as waiter robots), car repair robots, sales robots, lawyer robots, psychologist robots, nurse robots, architect robots, programming robots, teacher robots, police robots, cook robots, plumber robots, customer service robots, journalist robots, entrepreneur robots, and all the rest.

We have an intuitive sense that some of these robots are likelier than others. Some of this "labor" involves specialized eye-hand coordination of the kind that would be hard to build into machines as far as we know right now. Some of this "labor" is tied to the human form, to human senses, to human feeling, to human empathy, to human presence, to human reactions in the context of other humans and their unpredictable actions, even to human irrationality (e.g., entrepreneurs are hopelessly optimistic and unrealistic). I suppose the AI folks would argue that once brain simulation has been invented, we'll simply build ever better simulations -- including human foibles as well as human strengths, human feelings as well as human reason, and all the rest.

Me, I tend to think that AI will not simulate us idiosyncratic humans, any more than printing presses simulate handwriting, tractors simulate oxen, airplanes simulate birds, cars simulate horses, boats simulate fish, or light bulbs simulate candles. If we ever develop strong artificial intelligence, it will by definition be artificial, alien, other -- not human.

That leaves open the question: what will the next economic phase shift look like? The shift from hunting and gathering to farming did not change what was produced (still mostly food) but did change how it was produced (and as a result introduced new professions and specializations even if on a small scale, new power relations in the form of hierarchical organization, new economic and social phenomena). Eventually those new things became in some sense characteristic of society even though the bulk of the economy was still dominated by farming. The shift from farming to industry resulted eventually in great automation of food production and a wholesale movement of people from farm and cottage workshop to factory, from country to city, from agriculture to manufacturing; more recently (over the last 80+ years) from factory to office, from city to suburb, from manufacturing to services.

It's not clear to me what the next phase shift will bring. The replacement of manufacturing by nanotechnological fabrication? Of myriad services by intelligent, human-focused (though not human-like) robots and machines? Will the service economy be replaced by the experience economy, just as the manufacturing economy was replaced by the service economy? Will the smart machines develop their own markets (why would they want to be involved in ours)? Will, as Hanson predicts, human labor prices drop precipitously as most "labor" is performed by machines? Or will we wily humans find new niches and create new kinds of jobs? I tend to be optimistic that humans will adapt and adjust quickly, as we tend to do when we have the freedom to try.

Naturally, not all societies have an equal freedom to try. And not all societies are at nearly the same level of development. (The evidence shows that freedom and development are not unrelated.) Today, the world still contains some few societies of hunter-gatherers, many societies that are primarily agricultural, a number of societies that are industrial (though it is doubtful whether they could have initiated the "exit" to industrialism), and a few societies that are post-industrial (mainly service-oriented). What happens when some of the post-industrial societies (most likely in the Anglosphere) initiate yet another exit, this time from 5% or 10% a year economic growth to 50% or 100% or 500% or 1000% a year growth? What will be the internal power relations in such a Singularity society, or the power relations between such a society and all other societies? What new professions will arise (and which familiar jobs will disappear)? Will an experience economy emerge in the midst of tremendous abundance? What new economic and social phenomena will the world witness?

I don't have the answers. But I do know we're heading into uncharted waters.

May you live in interesting times...

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal