Friday, August 18, 2017

Are two of Robin Hanson's heads better than one?

Robin Hanson and I have recently exchanged a few thoughts on Twitter about his book... The Age Of Em.  Its topic is the idea of making numerous robot copies ("ems" = emulations) of the most useful people.  Admittedly, I haven't read it.  I acknowledge that it's questionable when somebody discusses a book that they haven't read.  But it's not always the case that purchasing/using a product is a prerequisite for saying anything useful about it.  Perhaps it's always the case that producers should be interested to learn why, exactly, their products do not appeal to relevant consumers.

Here's our Twitter exchange...


The case for freedom is based on the relationship between diversity and progress.  People are all different.  So when they have freedom, they naturally use their resources differently, which facilitates the discovery of better uses of society's limited resources.  Therefore, the more similar that people are to each other, the less heterogeneous their economic activity, the less progress that will be made, and the weaker the case for freedom.

Yesterday Peter Boettke shared a link to this excellent article by Don Lavoie... Political and economic illusions of socialism (PDF).  It has some ideas and concepts that we can use to analyze the idea of ems.

Let's start here...

The appropriate criteria for judging the effectiveness of an economy for growth are the Hayekian ones of flexibility, initiative, and entrepreneurship. Agents in a free market are capable of greater responsiveness in the face of uncertainty than those in a Soviet-type economy because of their relatively greater freedom of maneuver. They are less constrained by rules and regulations, and do not need to seek approval from superiors for their actions. Requiring Soviet managers to obtain bureaucratic approval for many of their decisions inevitably slows down the entrepreneurial process. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism 

More freedom to maneuver is beneficial to the extent that unique individuals are naturally inclined to differently use their limited resources.  Here's a relevant passage by Adam Smith...

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder. — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Each unique individual has their own unique "principle of motion".  Smith borrowed this concept largely from Isaac Newton's observation that each heavenly body has its own principle of motion.  Different bodies move differently.  Socialism, to some degree, blocks people's principles of motion by imposing officially sanctioned principles of motion.  To put it as accessibly as possible, rather than people dancing to the beat of their own drum, they become, to some extent, marionettes.

Socialism is synonymous with slavery...

He [Peter Rutland] reminds us, for example, that the work camps were crowded with several million kulaks when he remarks that "these unfortunates made a major contribution to the construction and extractive industries." If we insist on calling this reversion to slave labor "development," then the Soviet economy certainly did develop rapidly. So did Egypt under the pharaohs, who had a similar penchant for the construction and extractive industries. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism

Would the pyramids have been built without the government?  No?  Well, there is the free-rider problem.  We can eliminate it by imagining if the Egyptians had been given the freedom to choose where their taxes went.  Then would the pyramids have been built?  If the Egyptians had used their freedom/taxes to allocate the same exact amount of resources to the construction of pyramids, then what would be the point of their freedom?  Their principles of motions were exactly the same as the ones imposed by the government.

Hanson's ems are based on the premise that it's beneficial to have a bunch of people with the same principle of motion.  This premise is fundamentally, blatantly and tragically flawed.  Society really does not benefit from more sameness... it benefits from more difference.  Sure, Hanson's book is different in that it explores the idea of robot copies of humans.  But, as far as I can tell, he really doesn't take the opportunity to strongly criticize the idea of homogenizing society.  There are already a gazillion books that fail to recognize the importance of diversity to economics and progress.  We really don't need more of them.

Interestingly, many, or most, books about evolution recognize the importance of diversity to adaptation/progress.  I'm sure that Hanson fully grasps that the Great Famine of Ireland was the result of inadequate potato and crop diversity.  Yet, obviously he sure doesn't seem to appreciate that diversity is just as important for people as it is for crops.  In order for society to quickly adapt to constantly changing conditions, we need more, rather than less, diversity.  

If society is going to produce a gazillion advanced robots, then the robots should maximize society's ability to evolve.  This can only happen if, and only if, the robots are at least as different as humans are.

Where it gets tricky, and fascinating, is that robots will be far more capable of changing themselves than humans are.  So even if there were a million ems of Hanson, how long would they remain so?  Would it be necessary to prevent them from fundamentally changing themselves?  If so, this implies their desire to do so... which is entirely consistent with truly advanced intelligence.

Humans benefit when other humans change themselves to better serve each other.  But there's a natural limit to our ability to change.  Robots won't have the same natural limit.  Any such limitation will be entirely artificial... and undesirable.  Such a limit would be the equivalent of society shooting itself in the foot.  It's extremely beneficial for robots to have perfect control over their principles of motion.  The robots who adjust their motions to better serve society will be given more money, which will give them more control over society's limited resources, which will result in even more social benefit.  Of course, this is dependent on the robots being inside, rather than outside, markets.

Not only do markets give individuals the freedom to be different, markets also give people the freedom to use their money to grade/judge/rank/valuate/signal the benefit of each other's difference.  In no case is difference equally beneficial.  Poison oak and artichokes are both different, but their difference isn't equally beneficial.  Nobody spends their money on poison oak, lots of people do spend their money on artichokes.  How society divides its dollars between these two different plants determines how society's limited farmland and other resources are divided between them.

Markets give everybody the freedom to divide their limited dollars among unlimited difference.  Outside this feedback loop, too many dollars will be allocated to less beneficial differences... and too few dollars will be allocated to more beneficial differences.  The pyramids were certainly different, but did their difference merit such a huge portion of Egypt's limited resources?  I sincerely doubt it.  If Egyptian taxpayers had been free to directly allocate their taxes, how they would have done so would have accurately reflected the diversity of their preferences and circumstances.

In my blog entry on the tax choice tax rate I shared this quote...

The management of a socialist community would be in a position like that of a ship captain who had to cross the ocean with the stars shrouded by a fog and without the aid of a compass or other equipment of nautical orientation. - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government

Scott Sumner recently devised a hypothetical scenario involving 10,000 people steering a bus...

Bus C is a complicated human/machine hybrid. It has forward looking cameras, that feed road images into a large building, in real time. About 10,000 bus drivers sit at the controls of a simulator, and steer the bus as they think is appropriate. The average of all of their steering decisions is fed back to the bus in real time, in order to adjust the steering mechanism. To motivate good steering decisions, the 10,000 bus drivers are rewarded according to whether their individual steering decisions would have led, ex post, to a smoother and safer drive than that produced by the consensus. - Scott Sumner, Which bus would you take?

Here's Lavoie's perspective on the idea of steering an economy...

What the politicians at the top of the planning bureaucracy are doing, along with most of the activity in which the bureaucracy itself is engaged, amounts not to steering the economy but to getting in its way. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism  

The primary difference between a bus (or ship) and an economy is that an economy can simultaneously go in multiple directions.  A bus can only go in one direction at a time.  Different directions are mutually exclusive.

However, even though economies can simultaneously go in multiple directions, the concept of steering sure seems applicable when we think of someone like Hitler...

However well balanced the general pattern of a nation's life ought to be, there must at particular times be certain disturbances of the balance at the expense of other less vital tasks. If we do not succeed in bringing the German army as rapidly as possible to the rank of premier army in the world...then Germany will be lost! - Adolf Hitler (1936)

He was able to steer his country's economy, and the world's economy, towards war.  Did he get in the way of the economy?  Yeah, but it also feels more like he directed the economy according to his own principle of motion.  He didn't randomly divert the economy... he deliberately diverted the economy towards war.  Just like the pharaohs deliberately diverted the economy towards pyramids.

Probably unlike the pharaohs, Hitler recognized, or at least pretended to recognize, that the economy should be balanced.  He just didn't have any problem tipping the scales towards death and destruction.  He didn't have any problem using force to override everybody's principles of motions.  He thought it was beneficial and necessary to homogenize society.

Popular belief in the existence of a general will produces a constant temptation, often even a demand, for some individual to embody it and impose his interpretation of it on the rest of society. The diverse wills of the members of society cannot be reconciled to a unity, though some wills may of course come to dominate social outcomes more than others. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism

The economy shouldn't be steered by a few leaders chosen by everybody voting, it should be grown by everybody spending their own money.  It's certainly possible for the economy to be treated like a ship that's steered by a few people... but it's better if the economy is treated like a garden that's tended by many people.  A garden can simultaneously grow in multiple different directions.  It can simultaneously grow ornamental plants and edible plants.  Of course there's the issue of weeds.  In real gardens, weeds have to be identified and pulled.  In economies, less beneficial products are the equivalent of weeds.  Generally we can't directly use our money to eliminate them.  Instead, everybody focuses on finding and supporting the most beneficial products.  This naturally limits the amount of resources available for less beneficial products.  So weeds are minimized by consumers cultivating/nourishing the most beneficial plants.

The growth and benefit of the garden depends on difference.  Having a gazillion identical gardeners will homogenize the garden and greatly hinder its growth/benefit.

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