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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Interesting Abstract

Here is an abstract I found interesting:

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted Ushape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.

This has been my intuition for a long time. My metaphor is this. Humanity/civilization is on a runway in a scramjet accelerating towards a brick wall. If we go full pedal to the metal we might, just might, be fast enough to lift off the runway in time to clear the brick wall. If we don't, we won't reach a high enough speed to to clear the wall but unfortunately our forward momentum is too great to stop and we're sure to hit the wall and that will be the end.


Peter said...

Cheery post. Oh well, I'm glad you're back, so I'm even prepared to take you thoroughly depressing me.

I'm assuming you are making more of a reflective, philosophical point than a political call to action, although you do seem to imply there is a possible way out of it. This kind of thinking is more common on the leftist side of the spectrum, which likes to indulge in dire apocalyptic warnings followed by an "urgent" need for easy popular solutions like general disarmament, world government or abolishing hydrocarbons, etc. And surely you could have foreseen that, given my lifelong battle against scientism, I would be tickled by the suggestion the solution lies in "more research". Jobs for the boys, no?

But leaving all that aside, my question is does it make any sense to speak of humanity as some kind of collective unity in other than a biological sense? Who exactly is the "we" of which you speak? The world has enjoyed many glorious advances and suffered many disastrous catastrophes, but I don't think the responsibility for any of them can be put on a humanity-wide "we". Is what you're saying all that different from the millenialists of yore who warned God would destroy the world unless "we" stopped sinning?

Bret said...

When I was 15 I was a communist, I became more-or-less libertarian by 30 after having visited Czechoslovakia in my 20s and seeing the soul-destroying misery that communism had caused there, and then I became more of a conservative by the time I was 45 after not seeing how a libertarian society could address wielding power (among other questions). Now I'm 60 and have also concluded that being conservative doesn't work because it can't adapt quickly enough to take account of the astounding technologically based changes that the cultures of the world are going through.

In other words, it seems to me that nothing works and humans will at best muddle forward with the violence and struggles that have always plagued us; at worst either we or outside forces will cause our extinction.

When I say "Nothing works" that includes populist measures, collectivist measures, scientism, pacifist measures ("general disarmament"), radical environmentalist measures ("abolishing hydrocarbons" and other policies to address "dire apocalyptic warning"), etc. so I certainly don't advocate for any of that or anything else. If it's technological innovation that we need (as suggested by the abstract), then leaving people alone to innovate with perhaps some government research is what I guess is the best approach (and part of muddling forward).

I do see "we" as a collective. We are a social animal, we do have an overwhelming drive to wield and exercise power over others (at least some of us, both as individuals and as part of smaller collectives), and we do share a genetic basis that leads to predictable phenotypes both in physical characteristics and the basis of behaviors.

But when I say "we" should do something (such as "go full pedal to the metal") I don't mean that I think the collective should somehow unify and focus on a specific set of innovations. Quite the opposite in fact. As I wrote above, I think most people should just be left to do their own thing and that will create the most diverse set of potential innovative solutions to whatever problems we'll face in the future in addition to creating wealth that may pacify us sufficiently in the future that we don't destroy ourselves.

Lastly, I'm glad you're glad I'm "back." I never really left. More that I just haven't had much to say. The politics and other events worldwide have really confused me. For example, while I don't hate Trump, I find him to be a very odd phenomenon and likely a sign or symptom of underlying things I just don't understand, at least not yet. Since I'm mostly befuddled, I'm not sure what to write. But I've decided to try and start writing more anyway even if the results of the writing are kinda ridiculous because I realize most of what I've written in the last 20 years falls in that very same category of kinda ridiculous.

Peter said...

I've always found the shibboleth that man is a social animal troubling. It seems true that we crave personal and community relationships and that few of us want to live in solitude, but it's also easy to point to many examples of how we try to flee far from the madding crowd as soon as we can. Plus we are pretty much the only species that kills for jealousy and revenge (yeah, yeah, I know, the bonobo) and has invented such lovely things as civil war, genocide, torture, etc. I don't think the caribou are prone to musing how good fences make good neighbours. So if I agree we are a social animal, would you consider we may be the least social animal of all? My vote for most underrated Bible story goes to the Tower of Babel.

As to Trump, I share your befuddlement. He's the last person I would want as a neighbour and there is clearly something wrong with the man, but it's astounding how what that is defies categorization and consensus. Plus his talent for making the Dems and media look more childish and unlikeable than he is pretty impressive. I don't know in what shape the Republic and the free world will be when he leaves, but my personal beef against him is how he has destroyed civil debate. As far as I can see, the glory days of good blog debates have been replaced by two fevered herds wanting to stick it to each other and chortling if they can make the other squirm.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "Plus we are pretty much the only species that kills for jealousy and revenge..."

Perhaps, but many other species have related behaviors and motives:

* "Brutal Chimpanzee War Was Likely Driven By Power, Ambition, And Jealousy"

* "Male chimps that fall foul of the community hierarchy have been found disembowelled and castrated for their insubordination. But it goes both ways. In 2011, four low-ranking males attacked and killed the alpha male of a group living in Tanzania."

* "When a [wolf] pack alpha is deposed by the pack, which means forcefully removed form the pack, or becomes the victim of a fatal injury or illness, the pack may have only the remaining alpha for a time until another suitable mate is selected. Deposition may result in the death of the ousted member as a frenzy of violence, sort of like mob mentality, may lead the pack to chasing the deposed Wolf to exhaustion and then killing him or her."

* "'Aggressive herding' is a scientific name for what essentially appears to the unscientific eye to be dolphin gang rape. When mating with females, male dolphins form alliances of two or three. They then choose a female and relentlessly mate with her for up to weeks at a time. If she tries to escape, she is chased. The males will frequently beat her with their flippers to maintain dominance."

* "When male lions take over a new territory, they almost always kill the prides' cubs..."

Animals are nasty, humans are animals, but given the above I DO NOT agree that humans are "the least social animal of all." It looks to me like we're kinda typical actually.

Peter wrote: "... my personal beef against [Trump] is how he has destroyed civil debate. As far as I can see, the glory days of good blog debates have been replaced by two fevered herds wanting to stick it to each other and chortling if they can make the other squirm."

That's NOT been my observation. I think "debate" kinda left many years ago. I've found that people have been uninterested in finding out what others think if those thoughts are in disagreement with their own. Some of that disinterest has been put forth civilly, some less so.

I think now it's much less civil, but I think Trump is more a symptom than a cause.