Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Economics of the Singularity from IEEE Spectrum

As I mentioned, the article that I found most fascinating in the IEEE Spectrum issue on the Singularity was the “Economics of the Singularity” by Robin Hanson, in part because I was unfamiliar with this take on the singularity issues.

He argues that we can “…view past history as a series of abrupt, seemingly unheralded transitions from one economic era to another, transitions marked by the sudden and drastic increase in the rate of economic growth.” In some sense there have already been multiple singularities on the earth. The rise of human society, the industrial revolution, the current technological revolution we are in the middle of are examples Hanson gives. Perhaps it is better to change our terminology and call these “the great transitions” or perhaps “the phase transitions” rather than the singularity. Nevertheless, we are still talking about changes as profound as the singularity.

Robin Hanson points out that when humans were basically at the hunter gather stage of social development, we were doubling in population about every 250,000 years. When the agricultural revolution happened roughly 10,000 years ago, human society started doubling every 900 years. With the advent of the industrial revolution, our overall human economy started growing even faster eventually approaching the current 15 year doubling rate. If there is another major “transition” as the result of the technological revolution reaching a suitably advanced stage, extrapolating from the past suggest that the world economic output would start doubling in somewhere from a week to a month.

Obviously doubling the world’s economic output every month seems absurd on multiple levels. After two years it would have increase by a factor of 16 million. We are currently consuming many of our renewable and non-renewable resources at rates that are not sustainable. We could not increase their consumptions by 2x or 4x, let alone 16 million times. Obviously the economic output would be completely dominated by activity that did not require substantial physical resources – such as the development of software, information, music, education, art, etc. If people are exceeding wealthy compared to today, they still could not buy all the oil or beachfront property they want. If the access to limited natural resources is controlled by market forces, then in such a wealthy economy the relative cost of any limited natural resources would climb to astronomical heights. And of course it is exceedingly hard to imagine how human society could possibly adjust to the rate of change implied by a one month doubling period.

But my point is not that predicting a major change in the economic growth rate is nonsensical. Rather it is that such a change has consequences so profound that it is hard to imagine the implications. And a truly profound transition does not require a new extreme growth rate of doubling each month. I suspect that a world economy that starts doubling in anything under 5 years very quickly leads us into a world that is profoundly different from what you could envision just by extrapolating current trends. Such a transition seems entirely plausible in the next few decades given the exponential growth rate in computer and biological technologies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You cannot have that type of exponential growth while we are still dependent on fossil fuels. The existing reserves wouldn’t allow it, and would be depleted with a year or two. In order to have significant growth, which almost always depends on increased energy availability, we must reach a new energy paradigm.

The renewable energy revolution will be like the agricultural revolution. Before agriculture, growth was limited by the availability of resources (food), but invention allowed exponential growth in population. Our current growth is limited by our ability to extract fossil fuels; there is a limited amount we can take, and doing so takes time. This restriction will be solved by the obtaining the massive amount of energy available to us from the sun. Renewables will allow us to grow energy consumption thousands of times. Disregarding other factors besides energy inputs, we should be able to double energy production at least once a year using renewables that have an Energy Returned on Energy Invested ratio of 30 spread out over 30 years. This EROEI ratio is demonstrated, and should allow for unit of energy invested to be returned within one year. The resources are available for a massive scale up; all we need now is the political will.