Monday, June 28, 2010

Approach to Singularity

This post is an attempt to think through the economic and political implications of the approaching singularity.  As such, it's necessarily highly speculative - caveat lector.  Let's start with the graph above (from this post, with an additional annotation).  It shows (in black) linear and quadratic extrapolations of the male employment/population ratio, along with the yellow dot showing a conjecture that at a true singularity (machines smarter than humans in all important respects), nobody would be employed, along with Kurzweil's estimate of the singularity date (which is based roughly on extrapolating Moore's Law and assuming that soon after computers exceed the processing capacity of the human brain, we will know how to simulate human intelligence, and then improve on it).

My suspicion is that the truth is somewhere in between and the purple curve shows one possible guess (and it's no more than that).  The general idea is that the organizing principles of intelligent thought will prove harder to crack than just producing the raw computing power, but on the other hand, several orders of magnitude of more Moore's law will be more dramatically transformative than the trend in the employment/population ratio to date would indicate.   Additionally, of course, we will have the ongoing effects of China, India, etc, bringing a larger and larger fraction of their populations into the modern era, and this will have a depressing effect on US employment for several more decades (either we let our corporations continue to outsource to those countries, or we'll find our corporations put out of business by lower cost competitors, or we'll impose major trade barriers and invite corresponding retaliation, and any which way, it will tend to put pressure on US employment).

Now it seems clear that this trend is not going to run uninterrupted to zero in a democratic society.  Other things being equal, machine intelligence has overwhelming economic advantages - the possibility of being readily specialized to task, the willingness to work night and day without demanding resource-intensive houses and cars in compensation, ability to be replicated exactly, etc, etc.  However, people have an overwhelming political advantage - they can vote, and machines can't.

I expect in the short term (next decade or two), what we will see is an intensification of the trends of recent decades:

  • Life will get better for most people in the upper class and upper half of the middle class.  If you have a lot of assets, or a creative and intellectually challenging job, the technology will enable you and make your life better and provide you with cool toys and entertainment options.  There will be increasing demand for your skills, and employment will not be a problem.
  • In the lower half of the income/class spectrum, life will get steadily grimmer.  There will be fewer jobs suited to your skills and abilities, and competition for the ones that there are will be intense.  More and more people will fall out of the system and have to find alternative ways to survive (welfare, crime, institutionalization, disability, relying on family/friends, etc, etc).
  • Competition for educational opportunities will become increasingly high-stakes, as education becomes more and more critical to have a chance at fitting into the system in a reasonably high-status way.
  • Overall, psychological stress in the society will gradually increase.
  • The basic assumptions of our culture - that status is associated with having income/assets, that hard work is good, that people living off some form of welfare are second-class citizens, that innovation is good, will not be widely challenged initially.
As long as things are getting better for society's elite (who control all the important social and economic institutions), they will certainly desire to preserve the existing order and the existing cultural rules.

However, as times goes on, and as computer intelligence continues to get better and better and displace more and more people from the workforce, it seems that there will be fertile ground for political movements to address the situation.  I see several issues that will build over time:
  • The more-or-less unemployed underclass will get larger, is unlikely to be very content, and is potentially available to be recruited into political movements for change.
  • Members of the elite will increasingly recognize the nature of the process, and realize that even though they are doing great, their children's future is at risk.
The question then becomes - what should such future political/cultural movements propose to do?

I assume that, with the exception of a few fairly bizarre computer scientists, most people do not wish to be functionally replaced with machines.  I also assume that modifying people themselves to make them smarter will prove much less tractable than just making better machines (it involves brain surgery, long clinical trials to establish safety/efficacy, etc, all of which will make the product lifecycle turnover much slower than new computer chips or software versions, and at the end of the day, the pure machine is always going to be willing to work for cheaper, since no-one is going to build into it the desire for a big house in the suburbs and a fast car).

So people are, ultimately, going to want to preserve a human-dominated society, but clearly that is going to mean that, one way or another, at some point, we will have to agree to stop developing ever smarter computers.

7 comments:

Wise Bass said...

Additionally, of course, we will have the ongoing effects of China, India, etc, bringing a larger and larger fraction of their populations into the modern era, and this will have a depressing effect on US employment for several more decades (either we let our corporations continue to outsource to those countries, or we'll find our corporations put out of business by lower cost competitors, or we'll impose major trade barriers and invite corresponding retaliation, and any which way, it will tend to put pressure on US employment).

That's a major over-simplification. For one thing, what the poorer countries mostly offer is cheap labor, but cheap labor isn't the end-all, be-all in terms of costs (and the developing countries have problems of their own in terms of infrastructure and corruption).

Life will get better for most people in the upper class and upper half of the middle class. If you have a lot of assets, or a creative and intellectually challenging job, the technology will enable you and make your life better and provide you with cool toys and entertainment options. There will be increasing demand for your skills, and employment will not be a problem.

Probably true.

In the lower half of the income/class spectrum, life will get steadily grimmer. There will be fewer jobs suited to your skills and abilities, and competition for the ones that there are will be intense. More and more people will fall out of the system and have to find alternative ways to survive (welfare, crime, institutionalization, disability, relying on family/friends, etc, etc).

Maybe, but keep in mind that there was a period in the late 1990s where real income actually did grow for all income levels in our economy, and fastest for those at the bottom.

Competition for educational opportunities will become increasingly high-stakes, as education becomes more and more critical to have a chance at fitting into the system in a reasonably high-status way.

Only if the amount of higher education provided remains stagnant while the number of potential students explodes. That seems unlikely to me.

The question then becomes - what should such future political/cultural movements propose to do?

There will probably be a lot of pressure to lower the number of hours worked in the work-week again, just like what happened in the early 20th century with the 40-hour work-week.

Burk Braun said...

Hi, Stuart-

Thanks for a fascinating post. I think it is a bit facile to make predictions based on "the processing power of the human brain". We have little idea what its processing power is. If all the synaptic connections are thrown in on top of all the neurons, it is way astronomical. And it is analog in many respects, so comparison is not direct anyway. And as AI has painfully learned, raw power is not even the issue, but programming is- programming that we really can't understand yet, let alone replicate.

More interesting is the moral/political analysis that is implicit here. If people are being increasingly displaced from the low end of the economy, it is also likely that another trend may accelerate, which is that payments to the poor in the form of free education, welfare, healthcare, tax credits, etc. will increase. That would promote social peace and fairness, which has a market in our polity as well.

And the issue of the eventual replacement of everyone with machines has a philosophical core to it- what do we feel is the point of life? If it is to toil away endlessly in competition with our fellow humans, then that is what we will continue to do, even if machines can do everything better and cheaper than we can. The entire point of authoring machines is help us do what we want and not do what we don't want. If we also author them to create new and intelligent life forms, then they may compete with us as well, if we are dumb enough to instantiate in them the same kinds of base emotions we are built with. Processing power / intelligence alone is not the threat to humanity- the threat comes from competitiveness, grasping, clannishness- all the banes of Buddhist teaching.

Would this creep into machines if they entered the cycle of Darwinian evolution? That is a serious question, but not one of machine intelligence per se.

Greg said...

I agree with your short-run projection, Stuart. The USA appears to be in a "success to the successful" system trap which will only intensify in the near future. It will be as if the US is two countries occupying the same territory: a shrinking very rich one, and a growing third-world one. I'm not so sure as you that the elite as a whole will realize where its long-run interests lie, though. Have you read Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly?

What should happen? It's possible that the USA will adopt some form of basic income, as advocated by Milton Friedman. This is the "simple" solution, though, and as such needs extra scepticism. Given that we are already in a "success to the successful" trap, I find it hard to see the "con" side of the pros and cons. That always worries me.

Burk cuts to the heart of things with his third paragraph. What is the point of life? Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century utopian economists looked forward to a time when "a permanent high plateau" of production was reached, people freed from toil, and poverty overcome. Then, they thought, people would be free to realize themselves more fully, through the arts, religion, sport, and learning. Naive about human nature, perhaps, but a nice vision nonetheless.

Looking way, way off into the future, we are going to want to retain autonomy, but I think that once we get used to the idea, we'll be OK about machines taking over most of the work. Just so long as we retain governance, or, at the very least, permanent guarantees of freedom of action and belief (with the usual provisos), and of support (similar to that we get now from our machines).

James said...

Thanks for another great blog post, Stuart.

I have a distant memory of once reading a novel by Robert A. Heinlein that featured a society in which only one person worked - he was the guy who built the machines, that built the machines, ..., that built everything else.

He was not particularly rich or famous in this imaginary world, as I remember.

I am now inclined to believe he would have been an obscenely rich despot. There is psychological research that suggests that because of the "hedonic treadmill" peoples appetites for wealth (and more importantly status) are never satisfied.

So I agree with Stuart's prediction that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, and that society will get uglier as a result. (Obligatory link to Krugman's writing on this topic here). I've visited a number of countries where the gulf between rich and poor was very wide - watch this excellent documentary if you think you might want to live in such a society.

About the competition for educational opportunities - I am not so sure. I work in IT in Toronto and I recently had to recruit a network engineer. It took me six months to find someone who I considered to be quite good. When talking to a headhunter about it he noted that while demand for IT skills has continued to rise in recent years, enrolment in engineering programs has continued to fall. People often don't behave as rationally as a rational person might predict.

Most of the people I interviewed for this IT position were immigrants. Canada (like many other western countries) basically has a policy of giving citizenship to foreigners who have skills that are needed in Canada. This contributes to the international brain drain that can only make the disparities between countries as bad as (if not worse than) the disparities inside countries. How, in a world where brains and education matter more and more, is a developing country supposed to develop when all of its best and brightest are increasingly getting pinched by the rich countries?

Living in Toronto I cannot help but wonder if the G20 protests this past weekend were just a taste of what is to come. Hopefully, the following cynical prediction will not come true.

In the year 2060 only one man has a job - he builds the machines, which build the machines, which build the machines ... which shoot the protesters.

Steve From Virginia said...

The Singularity works in reverse as people become dumber than the pipe wrench I have in the bag in the back of my car.

When do you see anyone who isn't connected to the TV-land matrix, suspended in advertising animation?

I observe that the computer I am typing this on - A Mac Pro - is probably going to be the most power computer that is ever made for general use and that computer 'ability' will decline as the computer industry's supply chains sag then break.

Moore's 'law' isn't, it's a hypothesis that is totally dependent upon cheap energy and money just like everything else.

will said...

I would be interested to hear what you think about the impacts of energy decline on the singularity. oil supplies are declining, and in some areas at a rather scary rate. Economic growth is closely tied to cheap energy (there is a UN report on this somewhere, afraid I don't have the reference). So as the era of cheap energy declines, economic growth should decline. how will this affect the march towards singularity, any thoughts?

Greg said...

Apropos technological advance and employment:

robot rest-home caregivers.

Over the last 300 years, "low skill" employment has moved from agriculture, to manufacturing, to services. Now where?