Culture Magazine

Tyler Cowen on Wealth, Coal, Space, AI, & Stuff

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

WIBLIN: If I had to pick out 50 words from the book that summarized it, I would choose this quote from page 32, which is, "We can already see that three key questions should be elevated in their political and philosophical importance. Namely: number one, what can we do to boost the rate of economic growth? Number two, what can we do to make civilization more stable? And number three, how should we deal with environmental problems?"

Does that seem like a key quote to you, as well?

COWEN: I'd rather have a pocket calculator. I do think population will stabilize and start to decline, though probably not by very much. If you take Earth with, say, an average of 10 billion people lasting for centuries, but not lasting for 50,000 years, and do the calculations, you'd get at my modal prediction.

WIBLIN: But there's many more of them than there is of us.

WIBLIN: Do you think that quality of life will also go up, with high probability?

COWEN: Not forever, but for the foreseeable future. We're in the period right now. We're doing more to improve living standards than the world ever has before. That will have big ups and downs, but I don't see why it has to stop.

WIBLIN: What about people who say, "I don't care about welfare that much, I care about other things." Do you think this argument for long termism goes through for them as well?

COWEN: I think it does. I have some early books, some of them on the arts, that argue wealth is good for aesthetic values. It depends what other values people care about, but wealth supports many different opportunities.

The whole point of wealth is to enable a kind of diversity and choice within a framework where, if there's some other thing that people value, we can have more of that too.

WIBLIN: Do you think, like me, that there's a chance that a future technology could make human life just a hundred or a thousand times better than it is for people today?

COWEN: I don't know that we have a meaningful metric for saying that, but I suppose I don't think that's possible. I think we can make it twice as good and quite a bit longer, but I don't think it will be inconceivable to what we can imagine now. [...]

WIBLIN: In the book, and, I guess, here so far, you've been focusing overwhelmingly on the importance of increasing economic growth, kind of getting to a better future faster. When we're talking about growth here, we might imagine time on the X axis and welfare being generated in the universe on the Y axis, and you want to increase that faster.

Why focus on increasing the rate rather than making sure that that doesn't go to zero?

COWEN: Well, keep in mind the core recipe is the rate of sustainable economic growth. If it's going to go to zero, you're knocked out of the box. So you're maximizing across both of those dimensions, and I think, empirically, there are a large class of cases where more growth and more stability come together.

National defense is the easiest way to see that. If your society stays poor, someone will take you over. And those who take you over are probably nasty and will harm you. It's not the only way in which growth and sustainability come together. But at most margins, they do. So there's a wide enough class of cases where we can do both things at the same time.

WIBLIN: Let's say that humans do continue for thousands, perhaps millions of years, but for some reason, we decide to never leave Earth. So we don't use the resources that are available elsewhere.

COWEN: Which would be my prediction, by the way.

COWEN: I think space is overrated.

WIBLIN: Okay. It seems that, in your view, that should be a horrific tragedy, that almost all the value that humanity could have created had been lost in that case.

COWEN: Space is hard, right?

WIBLIN: I'm not so sure, but go on.

COWEN: It's far, there are severe physical strains your subject to while you're being transported, communication back and forth takes a very long time under plausible scenarios limited by the speed of light. And what's really out there? Maybe there are exoplanets, but when you have to construct atmosphere, there's a risk diversification argument for doing it.

But simply being under the ocean or high up in the sky or distant corners of the earth, we're not about to run out of space or anything close to it. So I don't really see what's the economic reason to have something completely external, say, to the solar system.

WIBLIN: It seems you're okay with the idea that we can turn more matter and more energy into more value. So what is it? Five times by 10 to the 22 stars out there in the accessible universe at the moment? Literally, as the galaxies recede, it's declining by about a billionth per year.

But if you're in favor of growth and creating more value, it seems like almost all the value . . . No matter what you value, it has to be out there in all of that matter that we can reorganize. Given your desire for growth on Earth, I don't understand how it could be the case that you wouldn't be upset that we might just stop at the boundaries of Earth's atmosphere.

COWEN: Oh, I'm upset about it, I'm just not very optimistic. If you put me in the legislature, I'll vote to increase funding for space exploration. But relative - especially in the Bay Area - relative to other people I speak to in this kind of fringe group of intellectuals who think about space, I'm more pessimistic than just about all of them.

But it's also that I'm more optimistic about the earth. The ocean of course is enormous - it could be platforms, it could be underwater. Deserts, places that can be terraformed, cities in the sky - you do want diversification, protection against a big nuclear war. Maybe for that you need other planets. There's the moon, there's Mars - they're actually big enough to have diversification.

COWEN: Intersectionality is grossly underrated by people on the right. Intersectionality I take to be the notion that if you're a member of more than one either minority group or group that's discriminated against, your multiple membership in discriminated groups creates problems for you in a potentially nonlinear fashion.

Social justice warriors on the left far overstate the problems of intersectionality. It's an idea that ought to be considered important. It should be embraced by the middle and not attacked or celebrated on the two extremes. So the idea is not where it should be. It's become overly politicized. We need to resurrect a more sensible version of it.

WIBLIN: You mentioned earlier the fact that particulate matter from coal and cars kills way more people than we imagine - or that most people think - and causes all kinds of other health issues.

My view is that the US should be racing to eliminate coal, even setting aside climate change, just because of the public health gains. Why doesn't that happen? Why aren't people shouting in the streets about this?

COWEN: Most people don't care. Most people don't know about it. It's not a politically divisive issue where there's one side motivated to do a great deal for it.

But also, where most of the deaths come are in poor economies, and it's hard to substitute away from coal. And a lot of it is indoor burning of fuels. There is a great amount of low-hanging fruit there, limiting that. But it's not easy for anyone to get their paws into manipulating those decisions. So I don't think it's an easy problem.

If it were an easy problem, we would have a much stronger movement to fix it now, the way you do with some of the public health issues like, "Let's stamp our malaria, polio." Polio's gone further than malaria, but I think malaria will come about, as well. I wouldn't say it's an easy target, but it's easy to identify. You more or less know what you have to do. We're mostly doing it.

AI & biological sbustrate:

WIBLIN: Okay. You think it's not possible for computers in some configuration to be self-aware the way that . . .

COWEN: It must be possible because you and I are computers, and we're self-aware. But it seems to me very far away, and the directions AI is moving in, where it's had a lot of success, are very powerful cash regis- ters, which is wonderful but not self-aware.

WIBLIN: Yeah. I agree that the current technology isn't going to produce self-awareness, but it seems to me there's some chance in the next couple of hundred years we'll have computers that are both as smart as humans - maybe more so - and that there's at least a good reason to think that they might have conscious experiences the way that humans do.

Ultimately, once we can make those intelligences quite small, it would be possible to send them to other solar systems and then they can take actions.

COWEN: But if you think materials really matter, and I do, it could be self-aware entities have to be biological in some sense, and that thus, they're going to be relatively fragile. We know how to build more human beings. It's even a pretty fun technology, doesn't cost that much.

Self-aware AI is always competing against that. The notion that you have human-like beings augmented, cyborgs, I think, will outcompete the no- tion of robots in the Isaac Asimov sense that they walk like a robot, but they are self-aware and have all the smarts of AI. I would be surprised by that.

WIBLIN: It seems like you were saying just a minute ago that humans are conscious because there're computers. So it seems like it should be, in principle, possible, but in as much as we can do computations on some other system, don't you think there's a good chance that they would feel something?

COWEN: I just suspect the materials really matter, and biological materi- als have some properties that silicon and metal don't. And we have plenty of biological computers - we'll do wonderful things enhancing them, like we've already done.

But again, once it's biological, it becomes higher cost to send it else- where. Maybe the model that you send genetic material and try to ter- raform and set up colonies by setting processes of evolution in motion and try to skew them toward producing vaguely humanoid-like beings - that to me sounds more likely, though maybe still unlikely than what you're suggesting.

I agree with Cowen on this. Materials matter, a lot. My guess is that the biological substrate is essential to human mentation in all registers, reason, affect, action, and whatever else.


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