Category Archives: The Past

Book Review: Homo Deus

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Homo Deus is Yuval Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, which was excellent.

I. Book Summary 

The Past 

For most of time, humans struggled to overcome three evils: famines, plagues, and wars.

In part because humans really had no good answers to these problems, God became the center piece of coping with this evils. It was God’s will, rather than human agency, that was the causal foundation for what happened on Earth.

The Turning Point 

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution changed all this – rationality and science allowed humans to begin taming famines, plagues, and war – which also eroded God’s standing.

The Present 

Together, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – as well as the decline of religion – led to a very turbulent 20th century, where numerous countries and societies experimented with new social structures.

Ultimately, capitalistic welfare states won out on the economic front, and Humanism (seeking meaning by looking inward rather than by following God’s will) is winning out on the social / spiritual front.

Because we’ve made so much progress defeating famine, plagues, and war – we’re now turning our attention to achieve immortality, happiness, and, ultimately, god like abilities.

The Future

Humanistic capitalism will be threatened by the rise of robots / computers that will undermine the foundations of both humanism and capitalism.

Because machines will be become more advanced than us, it won’t make sense for human intuition and reasoning to be the foundation for morality; and because machines will takeover the human economy, human centered capitalism / welfare states will no longer be the optimal way to structure an economy.

The two most likely futures are: techno-humanism (humans become part machine) or data-ism (humans become functionally obsolete and are replaced by intelligent machines that will likely not be conscious).

Harari indicates that techno-humanism would likely collapse on itself pretty quickly and that data-ism is our more likely future.

II. Harari is a Great Writer and Historian

It’s hard not to envy Harari as a writer: he’s logical, funny, insightful, and has an uncanny ability to elucidate complex subjects through pithy one-liners, stories, and thought experiments.

We’d all be a lot smarter if more non-fiction writers wrote with his intelligence.

Harari also does an incredible job of identifying and explaining the drivers of human material and cultural development.

III. Harari Adds Little to Futurism

Most of the main ideas in Harari’s analysis of the future can be found in deeper and more expansive works (writers along the lines of Ray Kurzwel, Robin Hanson, etc.)

While Harari’s writing and analytical abilities make him a first class historian, these skills do less work in enabling him to make insightful predictions about the future.

What I would have thought would be obvious topics of deep exploration – such as technical analysis of the computing power needed for a singularity type event, as well as the underpinnings of consciousness – receive very little treatment.

Harari just argues that data-ism will likely occur and that we can’t really predict what that will be like.

I would have loved to read a much deeper analysis of on how and when data-ism might occur, as well as some hard thinking about what economics and values might govern this new world.

Sapiens is required reading.

Homo Deus is worth reading, but, unfortunately, it’s not groundbreaking.

Book Review: The Wealth of Humans

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I just finished Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century.

Summary: Economic Disruptions Require New Social Contracts, which can be a Bloody Process 

Ryan’s primary argument is as follows:

1. Periods of rapid technological innovation usually lead to increased prosperity, but the transition can be very disruptive to the existing social and economic order.

2. During these periods of disruption, workers, the economic elite, and those in governmental power have to create the social contract will be for the new order. This is a very difficult process that involves a lot of trial and error.

3. The last time this happened was after the industrial revolution, where numerous wars and revolutions eventually led to a few dominant orders: capitalism and the welfare state (in the West, South and Central America, and parts of the East), socialist dictatorship (in China), and resource based dictatorships (primarily in the Middle East). Of these different variations, capitalism + the welfare state have proven most successful.

4. The digital revolution, which is being driven by continuing gains in computing power, will requite a new social order, especially if this revolution leads to massive surpluses of labor.

5. Creating a new social contact for this age could be just as bloody – or bloodier – than the last go around (WWI, WWII, Mao, the Cold War, etc.).

Reflection #1: Time Between Disruptions is Decreasing, Power of Weapons is Increasing 

I generally agree with Ryan’s argument. One additional issue to consider is that the time between economic singularities is decreasing. It took us a very, very longtime to get from hunter gathers to farmers, and a very longtime to get from farming to the industrial revolution.

It’s barely taken us a 150 year to get from the industrial revolution to the computing revolution.

And it’s likely that the computing revolution will seed another revolution (perhaps general artificial intelligence) in another 50-100 years – and who knows what next economic singularity will spring from superior artificial intelligence…

Additionally, technological advancement increases the power and scope of our weapons. We will likely continue to build new weapons that can wipe out humanity, such as synthetic viruses.

In short, the time between the rolls of the dice will decrease, while our odds of losing any given die roll may increase.

One way to reduce the odds of losing is to disperse ourselves and / or our decendents amongst the cosmos in order to decrease the fragility of single planet living.

Reflection #2: A Minor Guess of How to Ease Into the Next Social Order

The more I puzzle over the accelerating impacts of the digital revolution, the more I come back to wage subsidies as the best tool we have for stumbling our way into the next social order.

While universal basic incomes might at some time be warranted, this will be incredibly expensive (given current productivity) and we don’t yet know how to structure a modern society where many people simply don’t work.

Wage subsidies, on the other hand: (1) maintain the connection between work and income (2) lead to less economic distortion, especially compared to minimum wage raises (3) can be raised over time to maintain a sense of economic progress, and (4) help avoid an economy where purchasing power (and presumably social power) consolidates with the top 10%.

Reflection #3: What is Inflationary? What is Deflationary?

Over the past few decades, goods have faced deflationary pressures (most things you buy for day-to-day uses are cheaper now).

Education and healthcare, on the other hand, have been subject to inflationary pressures (they cost more than they used to).

From a pure material progress standpoint, a deflationary future means that wage subsidies might not be necessary to keep improving welfare.

However, if healthcare, housing, and education continue to eat up budgets, people will need higher wages to keep up, especially those that don’t receive government subsidies in these areas.

Lastly, it’s possible that even if purchasing power increases, if income inequality is still increasing, social unrest could still be a major issue.

All this is to say: it’s worth looking at both income and expense.

Reflection #4: Consider Yourself, Consider the Monkey, Consider the Dog 

To the extent humans survive the new social order that comes after an artificial intelligence singularity, it’s worth considering what this existence might be like.

Dogs, for example, have done quite well during the era of human dominance. Specifically, they were bred to be happier.

Dogs have also been provided a universal basic income in the form of shelter, food, and treats.

I often struggle with the gap between what I believe to be the best version of myself and the actual reality of the current version of myself. I sometimes get depressed by the lack of progress I’m making.

The fact is that it’s incredibly difficult to become an even better person once you’ve eaten up the low-hanging fruit of adopting classical liberal beliefs and not murdering your fellow humans.

So it’s worth noting that humans (perhaps?) have created the best version of dogs.

Perhaps our descendants will do the same for us, especially if we are able to bring value to whatever is they are seeking in life. Interestingly enough, more intelligent primates have not faired as well as dogs and cats. So don’t assume being #2 on the intelligence pecking order means you’ll be ok.

This may all sound crazy, but it seems extremely unlikely that humans are the endpoint of evolution. So it’s worth considering – what comes next?

2015 Year in Review: Is the World Getting More Fragile?

Through what lens do you understand the world’s hardest problems?

Arnold Kling’s Three Axis Model posits that conservatives understand the world on an anarchy-civilization axis, liberals understand the world on a oppressor-victim axis, and libertarians understand the world on a coercion-freedom axis.

I find this model useful, and for much of my life I understood the world on the oppressor-victim axis; over the past few years, the coercion-freedom axis has also become a frame of common use.

2015, however, was the year when I more fully adopted a new axis: the fragile-antifragile axis.

In short, while I find Three Axis Model useful in understanding how others think, I find it out of synch with my own values (none of this an attack on Kling, he was only describing the dominant camps).

Moreover, I read two books this year (War! What is it Good For? [non-fiction] and Nexus [fiction]) that reenforced the notion that the traditional three axis viewpoints did not reflect how I approached the world’s hardest problems.

The Fragile-Antifragile Axis

Quite simply: things that make the world more fragile are bad, and things that make the world less fragile are good.

Nassim Taleb wrote a book about it. There’s a lot in that book I disagree with, but I think the thesis is roughly right.

The Issues at Hand 

The following things are making (or have the potential to make) the world much more fragile: climate change, AI, weapons of mass destruction, Donald Trump becoming president.

The following things don’t really affect the fragility of the world: domestic gun policy, reproductive rights, tinkering with tax policy.

Now, all of these issues are important, and I care about all of them. But when viewed through the fragile-antifragile axis, some or much more important than others.

Moreover, some of these issues (weapons of mass destruction) cause me to be open to supporting policies that I would not support if I only viewed the world through the liberal or libertarian axises.

How to Make the World Less Fragile? 

I previously spent a few months worth of free time creating a pitch deck for an existential risk venture fund, whereby success would be measured in reduction of existential (fragile) risk rather than profits. I pitched it to a few high net worth individuals but got nowhere. Perhaps I got rejected because this is a bad idea.

But this year has seen the rise of two anti-fragile funds: Open AI and the Gates energy fund.

Also, Elon Musk has plans to make humanity less fragile by colonizing Mars.

And when you consider the Paris climate treaty, a taxonomy of antifragile tactics begins to emerge: innovation (Gates), knowledge equity (Open AI), exit (Mars), and coordination (Paris).

Is the World Getting Less Fragile?

This seems difficult to quantify. On one hand, given the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology, we can survive many things that would have wiped our ancestors out.

On the other hand, these very two conditions – the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology – also increase fragility. In a world where it becomes easy to build a virus that wipes out the world, it’s pretty dicey to have billions of people out there walking around.

It’s interesting to think about what was the least fragile time in human history (1890s?).

If I Had to Bet

My guess is that exit is the best strategy to reduce fragility.

And while I appreciate Musk’s strategy (humans on mars), my guess is that exit will be achieved via robots (less fragile bodies) all over space (less fragile geography).

Though of course I’m not sure.

Anyways, that’s my reflection on 2015.

Death is Optional: An Interview to Ponder

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Death is optional [Kahneman interviews Harari]

A lot of quotable pieces; excerpts below, but do read the whole thing. HT Kling.

Needless to say, I will buy the book.

K: 

Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, “The Discovery of Ignorance”. It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.

H:

I often tell my students at the University that my aim is that after three years, you basically know less than when you first got here. When you first got here, you thought you knew what the world is like and what is war and what is a state, and so forth. After three years, my hope is that you will understand that you actually know far, far less, and you come out with a much broader view of the present and of the future.

H:

And this opens the possibility of creating huge gaps between the rich and the poor, bigger than ever existed before in history. And many people say no, it will not happen, because we have the experience of the 20th century, that we had many medical advances, beginning with the rich or with the most advanced countries, and gradually they trickled down to everybody, and now everybody enjoys antibiotics or vaccinations or whatever, so this will happen again.

And as a historian, my main task is to say no, there were peculiar reasons why medicine in the 20th century was egalitarian, why the discoveries trickled down to everybody. These unique conditions may not repeat themselves in the 21st century, so you should broaden your thinking, and you should take into consideration the possibility that medicine in the 21st century will be elitist, and that you will see growing gaps because of that, biological gaps between rich and poor and between different countries. And you cannot just trust a process of trickling down to solve this problem.

H:

But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

H:

Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.

H:

And when you look at it more and more, for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us. To build a robot that could function effectively as a hunter-gatherer is extremely complex. You need to know so many different things. But to build a self-driving car, or to build a “Watson-bot” that can diagnose disease better than my doctor, this is relatively easy.

H:

My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.

H:

Once you have the revolution we are undergoing in the military in which the number of soldiers simply becomes irrelevant in comparison with factors like technology, you still need people, but you don’t need the millions of soldiers, each with a rifle. You need much smaller numbers of experts, who know how to produce and how to use the new technologies. Against such military powers, the masses, even if they somehow organize themselves, don’t stand much of a chance. We are not in Russia of 1917, or in 19th century Europe.

H:

If you were, say, an evolutionary psychologist back in 1800, and you saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, you could have very confidently said all these changes in technology are well and good, but they won’t change the basic structure of human society. Human society is built from these small building blocks, the family and intimate community, because this is kind of an evolutionary given. Humans must have this. They cannot live in any other way.

And you look at the last 200 years, and you see them collapse after millions of years of evolution. Suddenly, within 200 years, the family and the intimate community break, they collapse. Most of the roles filled by the family and by the intimate community for thousands and tens of thousands of years, are transferred very quickly to new networks provided by the state and the market. You don’t need children, you can have a pension fund. You don’t need somebody to take care of you. You don’t need neighbors and sisters or brothers to take care of you when you’re sick. The state takes care of you. The state provides you with police, with education, with health, with everything.

H:

We can also learn something from the Agricultural Revolution. Some experts think that agriculture was the biggest mistake in human history, in terms of what it did to the individual. It’s obvious that on the collective level, agriculture enhanced the power of humankind in an amazing way. Without agriculture, you could not have cities and kingdoms and empires and so forth, but if you look at it from the viewpoint of the individual, then for many individuals, life was probably much worse as peasants in ancient Egypt then as hunter gatherers 20,000, 30,000 years earlier. You had to work much harder. The body and mind of Homo Sapiens evolved for millions of years in adaptation to climbing trees and picking fruits and to running after gazelles and looking for mushrooms. And suddenly you start all day digging canals and carrying water buckets from the river and harvesting the corn, and grinding the corn, this is much more difficult for the body, and also much more boring to the mind.