Erik Brynjolfsson Diagnoses the Problem in the Economy But Has No Solution

In this talk Erik Brynjolfsson clearly makes the case that productivity and employment are decoupling from each other. His presentation is a fantastic description of what is happening today and a fitting answer to the stagnationists.

That said, his solution at the end of this video amounts to little more than a clever turn of phrase: namely he suggests that we need to race with machines. In my detailed review of Erik’s book Race Against the Machine I criticized this idea:

The first suggestion the authors make can be summarized as “race with machines.” A human-machine combo has the potential to be much more powerful than either a human or machine alone. So therefore it’s not simply a question of machines replacing humans. It’s a question of how can humans and machines best work together.

I don’t disagree with this point on the surface. But I fail to see how it suggests a way out of our current predicament. The human-machine combo is a major cause of the superstar economics described earlier in the book. Strengthen the human-machine combo and the superstar effect will only get worse. In addition, if computers are encroaching further and further into the world of human skills, won’t the percentage of human in the human-machine partnership just keep shrinking? And at an exponential pace?

Moreover, as I’ve written about before on this site, the human-machine partnership can sometimes be less than the sum of its parts. Consider the example of airline pilots:

“In a draft report cited by the Associated Press in July, the agency stated that pilots sometimes “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.” Automation encumbers pilots with too much help, and at some point the babysitter becomes the baby, hindering the software rather than helping it. This is the problem of “de-skilling,” and it is an argument for either using humans alone, or machines alone, but not putting them together.”

At some point it may be possible to literally race with machines in the sense of actually merging man and machine together. But this has not been the current trend. What we have been seeing instead is people offloading cognitive tasks to independent machine algorithms. How many of us remember phone numbers anymore? Indeed memory has been one of the first cognitive tasks to get offloaded.

In order to race with machines I am convinced we need to actually enhance human intelligence directly. This is probably not impossible, but will require a much better understanding of the brain, and as a solution it will probably not arrive in time to stave off the massive decoupling that is affecting our economy.

Here is Eliezer Yudkowsky on the relative difficulty of agumenting humans versus developing standalone artificial intelligence:

“I originally gave the example of humans augmented with brain-computer interfaces, using their improved intelligence to build better brain-computer interfaces. A difficulty with this scenario is that there’s two parts to the system, the brain and the computer. If you want to improve the complete system, you can build interfaces with higher neural bandwidth to more powerful computers that do more cognitive work. But sooner or later you run into a bottleneck, which is the brain part of the brain-computer system. The core of your system has a serial speed of around a hundred operations per second. And worse, you can’t reprogram it. Evolution did not build human brains to be hacked. Even if on the hardware level we could read and modify each individual neuron, and add neurons, and speed up neurons, we’d still be in trouble because the brain’s software is a huge mess of undocumented spaghetti code. The human brain is not end-user-modifiable.

“So trying to use brain-computer interfaces to create smarter-than-human intelligence may be like trying to build a heavier-than-air flying machine by strapping jet engines onto a bird. I’m not saying it could never, ever be done. But we might need a smarter-than-human AI just to handle the job of upgrading humans, especially if we want the upgrading process to be safe, sane, healthy, and pleasant. Upgrading humans may take a much more advanced technology, and a much more advanced understanding of cognitive science, than starting over and building a mind from scratch.”

What a Safer Intelligence Explosion Might Look Like

An intelligence explosion is an extremely dangerous possibility for reasons that have been well articulated. There is no way to guarantee that a runaway self-improving AI will have humanity’s best interests in mind.

But what if, rather than originating from some computer, an intelligence explosion arises from the augmentation of existing human beings? This seems a potentially safer route, since some continuity would be maintained. These new super beings would have once been human. Thus they might have a higher chance of sharing our values.

Of course, if only one superhuman, or singleton, gets to decide the fate of the rest of us, that is also frightening. In such a situation, we are stuck betting on the benevolence of one lone individual. Thus it would seem preferable to simultaneously upgrade as many people as possible. A democratized or distributed intelligence explosion would produce multiple actors who could check each other’s power and increase the chance that a more universally beneficial world is created.

Putting these two concepts together, we get the idea of a continuous, distributed intelligence explosion. What would such an explosion look like?

Imagine we all have nanobots in our brains. These nanobots are cheaper even than cellphones are today. People in the poorest developing countries can afford to have them. These nanobots improve people’s cognitive abilities, but not to the point that a full on intelligence explosion is triggered. When the critical intelligence upgrade finally arrives, it is downloaded by everyone on the planet simultaneously.

Is this scenario implausible? Perhaps. But it might be a helpful ideal to steer towards. As an outcome it seems far safer than one where self-improving AI is unilaterally created on some corporate or government super computer.

Three Types of Intelligence Augmentation: A Thought Experiment

Imagine watching a math competition. Three seemingly smart individuals compete on stage to answer a series of hard questions. The final result is a three-way tie.

Later you learn that these three individuals, who resemble each other externally, are actually very different on the inside.

The first individual is a math professor who’s spent his entire life studying the subject.

The second individual has only studied math up to the high school level. However, a revolutionary new smart drug has increased his brain functioning to the point that he can learn and master new math concepts as soon as he is exposed to them.

The third individual has no knowledge of math whatsoever. But a smart earpiece connected to the internet feeds him the right answers at lightning speed.

These three individuals are analogous to the three different types of intelligence augmentation. The first type, education, optimizes the existing brain for a particular task. The second, enhancement, upgrades the brain’s ability to master new tasks. And the third method, extension, offloads the task to an external module.

Interestingly, from an outsider perspective, the functional result of all three methods can appear to be the same. But the conscious experience of the individual in question is qualitatively different.

The Race Between Intelligence Augmentation and Artificial Intelligence (IA vs AI)

When we talk about technological employment, one of the recurring issues that comes up is education. After all there is still plenty of demand for labor in various highly skilled sectors of the economy. In many cases demand greatly exceeds the pool of people that qualify. So it would seem one way to alleviate the problem of technological employment would be to better educate people.

I often hear statements like “no unemployed 40 year old truck driver will be able to reinvent himself.” I think there is truth in this statement. However, I also think it might be overly pessimistic.

One of the things technology does is make people smarter. It is already doing so. The ability to search the web makes people smarter. The ability to watch a tutorial on youtube makes people smarter. We do not know how to directly upgrade people’s brains yet, but we are already achieving early forms of intelligence augmentation through the exponentially advancing information technology we call education. In the near future we may see wide-scale adoption of MOOCs. Eventually we may see intelligence enhancing biotechnology.

In other words, we can’t assume rapid technological progress in the domain of artificial intelligence and not also expect it in the field of intelligence augmentation. That said, timing is very important. A big question is which field will advance faster? And how big is the lag time between them? I would admit that right now it appears as if AI is leaping ahead of IA and there is reason to be concerned. But this is not necessarily written in stone.

Abundance of Links — Democratized Brain Enhancement, Labor Polarization, Decline of Conspicuous Consumption

1. Will Brain Stimulation Technology Become Widely Adopted as a Learning Aid?

Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, who has carried out brain stimulation studies at the Department of Experimental Psychology, very definitely has a vision for how TDCS could be used in the future: “I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano,” he says.

“This technology overcomes some standard objections to enhancement: It is not a set of cheat notes,” says Julian. “You require effort and hard work to learn. It is just that you get more out of your effort. And because it is cheap, low tech, easily affordable, it could be widely available.”

 2. What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?

There are two challenges. One is the sheer speed of adjustment. In a hyper-Schumpeterian economy, the main work consists of destroying someone else’s job…

The second challenge is the nature of the emerging skills mismatch. People who are self-directed and cognitively capable can keep adding to their advantages. People who lack those traits cannot simply be exhorted into obtaining them.

3. The Twilight of the Leisure Class

An end to conspicuous consumption means an end to a consumption arms race where demand can never be sated. There really is only so much you can eat, wear and drive, or click and stream, so if we take the “conspicuous” out of the equation we have a society going down a much different economic path…

The wealthiest of the one-tenth of the one percent are holding the same iPhone and using the same applications as my babysitter. As I write this I am sitting in the walkout basement of my son’s house, using a computer that is identical to that of one of my former billionaire bosses.

Cognitive Enhancement is Going to be Increasingly Common in the Future, So What Do We Want to Use It For?

It’s socially acceptable to use drugs to correct deficits.  But it’s not acceptable to use drugs for enhancement.

Let’s use Adderall as an example. Adderall is most often prescribed to treat people who suffer from ADHD. And yet increasingly large numbers of students and professionals are using the drug purely to improve their productivity. The first case is legal and the second case is ostensibly illegal.  More importantly the first case is broadly socially acceptable, while the second case is not necessarily one you would want to discuss in mixed company, for fear more uptight people might infer you are some sort of amphetamine addict.

Why does this bias against enhancement exist?  I’m sure it has something to do with societal fears about addiction.  But my best guess is it has more to do with the general belief that: “There is no such thing as a free lunch in nature.”  Meaning, if you take a drug you might get benefits, but there are sure to be downsides as well, and so if you take a drug you had better really need that drug. Otherwise the risk is not merited.

This reasoning, while traditionally close to the truth, becomes questionable as drugs get better at producing genuine results, often with little side effects.  Recently, Paul Roote Wolpe, senior bioethicist at Nasa, had this to say:

“Up until now, it’s been a bit of a moot question because the drugs that we had had side effects that made them undesirable.  So if you take amphetamines to try to increase your attention, you’re going to have jitters, sleep disturbances and other things like that.  Now you have something like Modafinil, a much more benign drug that can, in many people, enhance attention without any of those systemic side effects.  And now we really have to begin to ask ourselves some interesting questions.

They did some studies, for example, with pilots.  Gave some of them, not Modafinil, but a similar type drug and some they didn’t and then they threw emergencies at them in flight simulators.  And what they discovered is that the pilots that were on attention enhancing drugs responded faster and more accurately to those emergencies.” (link)

We are continually going to be confronted with the prospect of better and better drugs that work. Drugs that don’t have long lists of side effects and don’t cause addiction. Drugs that don’t just cure sick people, they enhance healthy ones.

But enhance people towards what end?  Wolpe says:

Because here’s the truth about enhancement: every society will enhance itself – you will enhance yourself – to fulfill what you think are the proper goals for your life in your community and society.  So if we live in a country where the goal is to produce as rapidly as possible, to get ahead as quickly as possible, to achieve as much as possible, the enhancements you will choose in your life will be those that allow you to do that.  In a society where there’s more of a communal sense, in a society where achievement isn’t the be all and end all, you know, perhaps you’ll choose more social enhancements.

There’s quite a lot to think about here, but I think the main point is that when it comes to cognitive enhancement the future is very undetermined. As we start messing with our brain chemistry what comes out the other side of the tunnel depends a great deal on the set of assumptions we enter the tunnel with in the first place.

Nationwide Adderall Shortage the Result of Off-Label Use?

Such is the suggestion of George Dvorsky in a recent blog post:

It seems obvious to me that a significant portion of the demand (and resultant shortage) of Adderall has to do with all those people who are taking it not because they suffer from any condition, but because they’re taking advantage of its nootropic qualities; it’s increasingly being used off-label as a cognitive enhancer.

George finishes with the idea that:

“…the concept of neuroenhancement needs to be normalized in society.”

On that point, I couldn’t agree more.