Bryan Caplan  

Virtual Cornucopia

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In the past Robin has braved the derision of his colleagues by speculating that in the next few decades, (a) we might upload our brains and achieve immortality, and (b) the economy might start doubling in size every few days.  So it's strange that lately he's been sounding awfully pessimistic:
Today median world income is now roughly five times subsistence level and rising.  But eventually incomes must fall, as we may learn to make people much faster (as in brain ems), or when econ growth rates fall below feasible population growth rates.
Again:
Wages have risen because economic growth rates have outpaced feasible rates of growing well-trained people.  But current growth rates simply cannot continue at familiar levels for ten thousand more years.  We'll eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms, and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light.
I'm baffled.  You don't have to be a sci-fi guy to think that in the next century we'll get working virtual reality.  And once we have that, why couldn't economic growth of 1% (or 10%) continue forever in simulations?  In the real world, we can't all be emperor of an infinite universe.  But I don't see why every one of us couldn't preside over our own simulated utopias?

As for all this talk of atoms: Economics is about value, not matter.  As long as people regard vivid virtual goods as acceptable substitutes for actual goods, how can the scarcity of atoms stop everyone from having everything he desires?  Robin might respond that computing power will be too scarce to simulate a big virtual world in great detail.  But who really cares if the simulation is accurate down to the microscopic level anyway?


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Peter Twieg writes:

I don't see Robin as being pessimistic here, per se, if all he's doing is pointing out that Malthusian pressures will be back with a cosmic-scale vengeance someday. Maybe we'll have really good virtual realities by then. Or maybe we'll have a very different set of goals and aspirations than we do now and that evaluating the likely quality of our descendants' lives using our current welfare metrics is a fundamentally-absurd endeavor.

George writes:

Your (and Robin's) discussion reminds me of Charles Stross's novel Accelerando.

Kurbla writes:

I'd pick real sandwich over virtual date with virtual Catherine Zeta any day. We'll gradually fail to generate more emotions by manipulating outer world, and it probably already partially happened: dose is increased, but effect is weaker - addiction. Future growth might be growth of chemical manipulation of brain, and after that, artificial growth of brain tissue - bigger brains, more emotions.

Robert Wiblin writes:

But the number of people you can support will eventually level off unless you keep expanding.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

The definitive book here is Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity Is Near". The graphs he presents, of exponential growth, of practically any technology you could mention, are very compelling. He also shows how computing "platforms" have evolved since the beginning of time, from atoms condensing out of the primeval universe, to planets, DNA, biological intelligence, writing, abacus, relay-switching, solid-state switching, SSI/LSI/VLSI and on. There is no reason to believe that silicon will present the final physical limits of computation.

He is very upbeat about the possibilities, and I would say, soberly, that every extravagant claim he makes will happen, although perhaps a bit more slowly than he predicts.

Economically, this will put us entirely into uncharted territory. What is the economic effect of (essentially) free intelligence? Of machines with 10^n times the aggregate intelligence of all humanity?

I would love the Econlog team to read this book, and extrapolate the consequences, or better still, tell me what career to steer my children toward!

Tyler Cowen writes:

Aren't you playing right into Robin's hands with this example? I think he would argue that virtual people will end up being the easiest to produce.

SydB writes:

"You don't have to be a sci-fi guy to think that in the next century we'll get working virtual reality."

The singularity is always just twenty years away, as is fusion and artificial intelligence. Statements about the future are largely suspect. Statements about the present are usually suspect. And let's face it: economists can't even agree on statements about the past.

Hence I put all this speculative "singularity" talk and the likes into a basket called "interesting but largely fictional." Fun to talk about, but until economists can figure out what's going on now and in the recent past, there is absolutely no reason to spend too much of my time following their prognostications about the future.

"upload our brains and achieve immortality"

Leaving aside the uploading our brains part, are you telling me that, if our sun or another near star goes supernova, we'll survive no matter what?

8 writes:

Does human imagination expand at a faster rate than the universe? Even assuming no energy or atomic limit, the limit will become what the other guy lets you have. Someone will become the Emperor of the virtual universe(s).


Yancey Ward writes:

I doubt Robin Hanson is a real person.

(Other) George writes:

Kurbla wrote:

I'd pick real sandwich over virtual date with virtual Catherine Zeta any day.

Then you're abnormal. A sandwich costs around $6, a movie featuring CZJ (clearly inferior to a virtual date with her*) costs $10.

Or you're just the latest in a long line of anti-Welsh bigots who should be drummed out of the blogosphere.

(* I'm assuming here that a virtual Michael Douglas doesn't accompany you on the date.)

Anonymoose writes:

www.bay12games.com/dwarves/

(Ascii virtual world with simulated everything, but very jam tomorrow)

Rolf Andreassen writes:

The mass of the Earth, and its energy input from the Sun, will support only so many simulations; the number is certainly very large, but it's a fundamental limit based on physics, not something that any amount of economic growth can get around. (We can get more efficient at simulating worlds, but physics, in the form of the three laws of thermodynamics in their entropic/information formulation, sets a limit to the possible efficiency.) Consequently, if the number of virtual worlds grows on an actual exponential, you hit the limit quite quickly.

You can help a bit by expanding outside the solar system, but you can't go faster than lightspeed; the available mass (and hence the maximum number of simulated objects/worlds/people) will therefore increase as the mere cubic power of time (on average), not an expontial.

Matt writes:

Computational capacity is limited by the laws of physics and finite for a finite quantity of matter/energy. At some point you will face a tradeoff between using computational capacity to power more virtual brains or using that capacity to simulate a more compelling virtual environment for existing brains to inhabit. It's not really any different than the Malthusian argument for physical matter: finite resources mean that at some point you face a tradeoff between the number of people you can support and the average quantity of resources available to individuals to satisfy their personal wants and needs. Moving into the virtual world doesn't give you a free lunch, computational capacity is limited by the physical resources available just as surely as those physical resources are themselves limited.

This doesn't even address what seems to me a near certain tendency for people to want to use increased computational capacity to enhance the speed of their thinking (a clear competitive advantage) and the breadth and depth of their sensory capacities and memories. Virtual realities will need ever more computing power to keep pace with increased mental capacities of enhanced intelligences.

Robin Hanson writes:

I respond here.

Dan writes:

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Mark Bahner writes:

I would love the Econlog team to read this book, and extrapolate the consequences, or better still, tell me what career to steer my children toward!

I suspect many or most of them already have (read the book), but in any case there's no need. I've already read the book and extrapolated the consequences:

Why every person in 2100 will be a millionaire, and why we should care

Implications of 21st century economic growth

As for your children, they should do whatever they want. As I wrote (to paraphrase) "The kids are gonna be alright." (Anyone born in the U.S. after about 2050 probably won't ever *have* to work. They'll be able to go straight from birth to retirement without ever needing to work.)

ajb writes:

But they may not "have" to work in the same sense that a kid on welfare with regular handouts from Mom and Dad can get by today. But you and they won't want that. The notion of what is acceptable middle class standard will change, as surely as it has evolved over the last two centuries.

Mark Bahner writes:
But they may not "have" to work in the same sense that a kid on welfare with regular handouts from Mom and Dad can get by today.

They will be able to "get by" in the same sense that a billionaire's children can "get by."

But you're right that they WILL work. How many of the Forbes 400 richest people in the world don't work at all? How many of their grown children don't work at all?

Samuel Clemens was absolutely right. People work hard, as long as they think it's fun.

Tim Tyler writes:

The universe is made of atoms - and other particles. Virtual reality - and all the things economists study - is made of that stuff. You can't have simulations or value without things being ultimately made out of matter.

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