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Where are we going?

from Peter Radford

Paul Krugman has been rightly skeptical about cryptocurrencies lately.  The extraordinary volatility in the price of Bitcoin, for example, has brought a bout of crypto mania to the fore in both the media and the marketplace.  And, as seems usual, various regulators around the world are arriving at the party about a decade after the launch of what their advocates call an alternative to the evils of fiat currencies.

I suppose it would be churlish of me to remind us all that the launch of each and every form of crypto assets is itself an act of fiat.  Instead of a government waving its wand, a small group of self-selected techie libertarians waves its collective wand, that is if a group of libertarians can be called a collective.  The former is, apparently evil, the latter a wonderful expression of freedom and democracy.


But Krugman’s larger criticism is more interesting: the great promise of crypto assets, as advertised by their fervent supporters, has never been delivered in practice.  To use Bitcoin as a proxy for them all: not only is its creation an environmental disaster, but it’s ability to be used en masse in everyday transactions is hampered by its ponderous technology, and its vaunted secrecy makes it a haven for all sorts of suspicious activity — after all its original intent was to veil it from the evil eyes of regulators.  Bitcoin remains a speculative sideshow and not a serious threat as an international currency.  As a piece of technology crypto assets are a bit of a flop.  More hype than reality.

Krugman then widens his perspective to other technologies.  So many of them, he reminds us, fall well short of their promise.  We would be well advised, therefore, to recall Solow’s words about the promise of computing being everywhere but in the data.  To reinforce this point Krugman references a recent paper by Brynjolfsson, Benzell, and Rock “Understanding and Addressing the Modern Productivity Paradox” in which the authors speculate as to why the promise of articial intelligence remains, hitherto, unfulfilled.  This is how they begin their paper:

“We are in the midst of a technological revolution driven by advances in artificial intelligence (AI). Machines can now accomplish many tasks that only human minds could do as recently as 10 years ago (Perrault et al., 2019), from recognizing images (Russkovsky et al., 2015) and understanding speech (Schmelzer, 2020), to generating plausible text (Brown et al., 2020) and diagnosing diseases as well as or better than human doctors (Esteva et al., 2017). These are not insignificant tasks.

More broadly, the emergence of scalable machine intelligence with a variety of applications is proving to be of first-order importance for solving many economic problems. These technologies have been amplified by an exponential growth of other digital capabilities, including worldwide digital infrastructure that now brings the mobile internet to more than 4 billion people (International Telecommunication Union, 2019). As a result, an ordinary smartphone now delivers information and services that dwarf those available to even a well-connected billionaire of the 1990s.

Yet, in spite of the emergence of these new technologies—with their enormous industrial potential—the rate of productivity growth in recent years has been disappointingly slow. … “

They then argue that this disappointing productivity growth can be explored in one of four ways:

“One possibility is that, despite the excitement of technologists and investors, today’s advances simply fall short and will never fulfill their expected economic promise. A second explanation is that the technologies are delivering, but we are failing to measure the growing output of the new economy properly, particularly the explosion of free digital goods, and that is leading to systematic and increasing shortfalls in our tallies of economic activity. A third possibility is that the technologies are privately beneficial, but the social benefits are largely dissipated in zero-sum rent-seeking. The final explanation is the one we find most compelling: new technologies take time to diffuse, to be implemented, and to reach their full economic potential. For a transformative new technology like AI, it is not enough to simply “pave the cow paths” by making existing systems better. Instead, productivity growth from new technologies depends on the invention and implementation of myriad complementary investments and adjustments. The result can be a productivity J-curve, where productivity initially falls, but then recovers as the gains from these intangible investments are harvested.”

Of course any reference to “revolutions” is taboo nowadays — the Industrial Revolution has long since been downgraded to a long slow crawl rather than the earth shattering event that Rostow claimed it was.  Incrementalism is the preferred narrative, so even massive upheavals have to be seen through a slow and steady lens.  So Brynjolfsson et al need to modify their claims.  In this sense AI is simply an extension of the general shift towards digital as opposed to industrial activity.  We are in an era where exploitation of information is our primary source of adding value, and we are leaving the era where the exploitation of carbon based energy allowed us to manipulate the physical world as our primary form of value creation.

I have long argued that, from a longer term perspective, our modern industrial and post-industrial ages are better thought of in terms of as transformations in the way in which we view and exploit energy and information.  The expression of those transformations comes in concrete ways such as the arrival of machinery, mass production, the contest between capital and labor, and in the total reimagining of our way of life.  If we look back to the origins of these transformations we see a steady shift from organic power — human and animal muscle with a little bit of water and wind added — as the source of energy to get work done, to a dependency on the vast store of carbon energy to power work.  The objective has always to get work done, but the source of energy dominated how much, and what kind, of work could get done.  The great transformation from organic muscle power to carbon based power permitted the use of those machines and allowed the introduction of mass production.  We could do a lot more work.

And the effects of the transformation in energy source was cumulative.  We can let the academics indulge in the chicken and egg debates about what drove the changes, whether revolutionary or incremental matters little after a couple of hundred years.  The fact remains that human dominance over nature was catapulted forward once carbon based energy could be channeled into the great industrial processes that characterize the late 1800s and 1900s.  Productivity growth followed along as the earth’s store of energy was exploited and harnessed.   The great “economic problem” was solved, at last temporarily, by that transformation.

The unintended consequences of the great shift created enormous ambivalence and, often, great consternation almost from the outset.  The machinery question of the 1800s, the shift to wage labor as a way of life, the rise of industrial conurbations, our contemporary rural/urban division, the rise of industrial capitalism and the modern corporate mode of production, and the degradation of our environment are all examples of this ambivalence.   We have, in relatively short order, overthrown millennia of tradition.  Of course it can feel disorienting and the echoes of an earlier way of life still stand as examples we use as measures of where we are today.  We have piled layer upon layer of both hard and soft technologies as we have hurtled away from the Malthusian trap, and we have scarcely had time to reflect well on what we have wrought.  Our imaginations are captivated by the possibilities of the future, after all we have only recently escaped the dreadful disease and famine ridden world that only a few generations ago bedeviled our ancestors.  Yet we often find ourselves falling into nostalgic reverie as our alienation from our traditional roots becomes ever more obvious.  Our dominance over nature, the ageless mission of humanity, seems to have driven us away from our roots in that very same natural world. Perhaps we regret the way in which we are so dominant.  After all we are simply animals too. So new ask questions.   Where are we going?  What is the purpose of all this?

Our problem seems to be that we can imagine the past as much as the future.  Our ability to select what we want in either direction misleads us into false comparisons.  It is equally false for us to argue that we, as individuals, are alienated from some romanticized pastoral self-sufficient past, as it is to suggest that the arrival of AI will project us into a utopian abundance.  In the first case we never, as individuals, experienced the past to be alienated from it.  In the second case our self-awareness tells us that timeless issues of power and politics will interrupt or distort any such abundance.  The economic problem may be solved, but the human struggle continues.

As for Brynjolfsson’s preferred solution to the apparent productivity paradox: I agree.  It takes decades of cultural and political adjustment to absorb new general purpose technologies — allowing that AI is, indeed such.  It takes institutional adjustment.  It takes the reconstruction of social and personal networks.  It takes effort to build the complementary store of useful knowledge.  It takes the development of subsidiary or related technologies.  It takes time.  Above all it takes time.

Which is why both the breathless advocates like Brynjolfsson and his more sober critics like Krugman can be correct simultaneously.  It depends on the timeframe.  It depends on the granularity of perspective.

That said, the ongoing information transformation, our arrival in the digital age, is befuddling.  We are the first few generations experiencing it.  The younger you are the more normal its seems. New technologies emerge.  Older technologies are set aside.  Familiarity is overtaken by novelty.  Our histories and our futures collide in the present.  Naturally some of us question what’s going on.  Naturally others exult in the possibilities.  Naturally even others regret the overturning of a cherished past.  Change is all around us.  The questions we ask, however, are perennial.

Where are we going?  What is the purpose of all this?

  1. Ikonoclast
    May 27, 2021 at 5:08 am

    We are going to extinction. There is no purpose.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    May 27, 2021 at 7:21 am

    Seems we’ve learned very little since the tulip mania! Or perhaps greed has eroded too many people’s common sense. Ignorance and insanity are not effective ways for our societies to survive let alone thrive.

  3. pfeffertag
    May 29, 2021 at 3:09 am

    “Where are we going? What is the purpose of all this?”

    Yes. Perennial questions. In the past they would have been answered in some spiritual way, such as getting to heaven or doing God’s will, or in a tribal-nationalist way such as the glory of the fatherland.

    Those answers were always awry and now most of us know it. Generally they no longer apply—or at least we know they shouldn’t apply.

    At the same time, we know that the “purpose” of all life forms is to reproduce. Whether animal, plant or microbe, life forms “know” this and everything they do is directed toward this end. That includes most human behaviour. We have been extremely successful: the number of humans is at an all-time high.

    But unlike all other forms of life we know explicitly, intellectually, that reproduction is the purpose. We don’t much like it but with the passing of those spiritual and nationalist purposes, we are left knowing this is the sole purpose.

    We must accept it and draw the consequences. For a couple of generations, the industrialised world has been against reproduction but ultimately that can’t be viable.

    My view is that motherhood is good and that our long-term future (if we have one) is to number in the trillions. Or trillions of trillions. Such numbers are tiny in our universe. Our future (if we have one) is to recognise we are the universe’s experiment in intelligent life and that, unlike other life forms, our future (and theirs) is being handed over to us. Has been handed over, I think.

    So there is the answer to where we are going. (If we are going anywhere.) We must solve the medical problems of artificial gravity and cosmic rays and go to live in space. The prospect is of boundless resources and boundless wealth with an explicit purpose: to go forth and multiply, to colonise the universe.

    The start—lifting millions into Earth orbit—will be expensive and politically difficult and we might not succeed. In that case, we will have no purpose; we will descend into squalor and eventually go extinct. If we succeed we will never die.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      May 29, 2021 at 10:31 am

      Carl Sagan, repeating what anthropologists and cosmologists have repeated for decades pointed out that the rule of life and the universe is extinction. Living species, including humans attempt to defeat the rule through reproduction. Thus far, every species of which we have knowledge has failed. Eventually, humans must fail as well. As things look right now that seems likely to happen sooner rather than later. After all, we are systematically destroying the ecological basis of our survival as I write.

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