Paul Krugman on AI

Some interesting thoughts I did not expect to see in a Paul Krugman column:

Consider for a moment a sort of fantasy technology scenario, in which we could produce intelligent robots able to do everything a person can do. Clearly, such a technology would remove all limits on per capita GDP, as long as you don’t count robots among the capitas. All you need to do is keep raising the ratio of robots to humans, and you get whatever GDP you want.

Now, that’s not happening — and in fact, as I understand it, not that much progress has been made in producing machines that think the way we do. But it turns out that there are other ways of producing very smart machines. In particular, Big Data — the use of huge databases of things like spoken conversations — apparently makes it possible for machines to perform tasks that even a few years ago were really only possible for people. Speech recognition is still imperfect, but vastly better than it was and improving rapidly, not because we’ve managed to emulate human understanding but because we’ve found data-intensive ways of interpreting speech in a very non-human way.

And this means that in a sense we are moving toward something like my intelligent-robots world; many, many tasks are becoming machine-friendly. This in turn means that Gordon is probably wrong about diminishing returns to technology.

Ah, you ask, but what about the people? Very good question. Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.

And then eventually Skynet decides to kill us all, but that’s another story.

Note that the “all the wealth goes to robot owners” problem worries me a lot. Assuming we avoid Skynet.

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  • James A. Lindsay

    Not to sound like one of them communist-socialists-etc-etcists, but you have become worried with the fact that capitalism only possesses a semblance of fairness when each person is believed to actually possess a certain intrinsic capital, the value of his/her time as measured in terms of how much “utility” that time can produce for other members of the economy. Capitalism is a system designed inherently to reward owners, and essentially no one else, and so in this kind of scenario, it reaches a pinnacle of unfairness.

    A completely different economic model will be needed to make a higher-tech world functional for people to live in. There are suggestions (e.g. resource-based economies), but they will be fought tooth-and-nail by those who possess advantage by maintaining capitalism. We may be looking back to our past at that point and trying to re-invent what the Native Americans had already figured out, and it will require something like erasing property rights to do it.

    Sam Harris wrote something nice about this on his blog at one point when he was arguing about economics. “How Rich is Too Rich” or something of that kind. It’s a good question about whether Krugman is following Harris here or not.