Monday, April 28, 2014

The singularity will not be "post-scarcity"

[Warning:  speculation ahead.]  One common theme that I see singularity enthusiasts write about on the Internet is the notion that the singularity, and perhaps the time leading up to it, will be "post-scarcity".  Technology will result in abundant wealth for all and there will no longer be struggle over material resources.  All the war, hatred, inequality, inefficiency and destruction involved in competitive struggle for resources will eventually disappear and we will all be able to live peaceful happy lives.

It's a nice fantasy, and when someone first starts thinking about the singularity and the implications for the material wealth we will be able to create, post-scarcity utopia almost seems possible ... perhaps inevitable.  Inequality depends on scarcity.  If a single person could instantly create a kingdom's worth of wealth, then inequality becomes meaningless, right?

As I will explain below, however, a more likely scenario for the singularity is perfect scarcity and extreme inequality.  Resources in the singularity will be even more scarce than they are today.  The post-scarcity fantasy stands upon a deep misunderstanding of human nature.  And this misunderstanding is perhaps the most dangerous challenge facing us as we transition to a world of super intelligence.  If we cannot clearly see ourselves for what we are and see the challenges our own nature confronts us with, then we cannot effectively seize opportunity to improve on our condition and move towards a world of greater equality and happiness.

Let me be clear.  The singularity is an opportunity to transform society for the better.  We can conquer war, poverty and even inequality.  But, if we succeed in achieving these lofty goals, it will not be because we live in a post-scarcity world, but because we have invented new ways to manage pervasive scarcity.  Understanding the difference is crucial to success.  (And we must succeed, for if we fail there will be no second chances.)

So, why do I say that the singularity will not be "post-scarcity"?  My argument depends on two assumptions, one about the laws of physics and one about human nature.    The first assumption is that we will not discover a way to conjure matter into existence from nothing.  In physics, this is known as the law of conservation of mass, and so far as I understand, the impossibility of creating matter from nothing is universally accepted among physicists.  Nevertheless, I'm willing to admit that this is a significant assumption.  After all, aren't we hoping that a super intelligence will expand our understanding of the nature of reality?  On the other hand, if there are any limitations at all on what a super intelligence is capable of doing, this seems like one of the most likely.  Basing our predictions about the singularity on the abrogation of well established laws of physics seems like a bad idea, even if we are willing to entertain the notion that our current understanding of physical laws may be mistaken.

The direct implication of the law of conservation of mass is that the singularity will not be post-scarcity, at least not in a literal sense.  There is a finite amount of mass and energy available to make and do things with.  At this point a post-scarcity believer probably thinks I have missed the point and will reply that while there may not be infinite material with which to build, there is enough to satisfy human needs many times over.  And this appears to be the crucial mistake of the post-scarcity crowd:  the notion that there is an absolute measure of human need and desire for material wealth that does not vary according to available resources.

There are many ways to see how this is deeply wrong.  One obvious way is simply to consider that a mere couple hundred years ago, the richest humans on the earth did not have access to running water, electric lights, refrigeration, flushable toilets, central heating, cars, televisions, computers, internet, cell phones, antibiotics, etc.  The notion that someone could have all those things and still be considered to be living in poverty would have been preposterous back then, as such wealth was scarcely imaginable.  Possession of even a few of those things would have placed you among the wealthiest humans on earth, and yet in the U.S. today you can possess all those things and still be considered to be living below the poverty line.

Similarly, there appears to be no upper limit on how much wealth people wish to possess, and the extravagant uses people dream up for their money.  As the wealth of the ultra rich continues to mushroom, rather than merely sail around in hundred million dollar yachts, some are now having spaceships built for their amusement.  There is no upper cap on the resources the wealthy wish to possess even while the gap between between rich and poor explodes.  The wealthy continue to dream up ever more elaborate ways to consume extraordinary resources (i.e. space yacht) even while millions upon millions of people must subsist on less than $1 per day.

The dramatic increase in material wealth that technology has already delivered has not changed any of this, why will further dramatic increases?  Instead, what we see is that human perception of wealth and living standards grow as fast as technology increases available resources.  If perceptions of wealth and living standards grow as fast as technology increases available resources, then we will never reach the point of post scarcity, or abundance, where quantities of goods are so extreme that people are no longer concerned with allocation of goods.  Instead we are likely to see exactly what we have seen throughout human history:  as technology delivers ever more access to material wealth, our perception of wealth disparities, poverty and the injustices of inequality remain roughly unchanged.  Consider modern outrage at wealth disparities as an example.  It does not matter that the "99%" have access to greater material wealth than the 1% did one or two hundred years ago. Perceptions about the amount of wealth required to live a good life have radically inflated over that period, and thus participants in the 99% movement feel that the resources to live a good life are out of reach even as the wealth of the 1% skyrockets.  Rather than bring us to a world of post-scarcity economics, technological change has left the system of haves and have nots essentially unchanged.

Indeed, there is a reason to expect competition for scarce resources to become more intense rather than less intense:  the ability to incorporate unlimited matter into our persons.  With the singularity will come the ability to redesign complex systems, such as the human body, and eventually to design entirely new kinds of bodies for our minds.  For instance, some people may wish to have an extra pair of arms, or to expand their mental powers with a larger brain.  While that is far beyond our engineering capacity today, those modifications are nevertheless merely engineering problems, which, with sufficient knowledge and technology, will eventually be possible.  Once we can design systems on the order of complexity of animal bodies and cells, we will not be limited to mere modifications of the human body.  We will be able to create entirely new kinds of bodies and brains, not made of biological cells, and not limited to the sizes and shapes of biologically evolved bodies.

It will be possible, for instance, to have a "brain" the size of a planet, that dispenses with networks of neurons, which are slow and energy inefficient, and replaces them with new computational elements millions of times faster and more efficient.  The limiting factor for what we can do and think will no longer be the physical constraints of our human bodies and brains, but will be quantity of matter and energy we have at our disposal to use for building and computation.  Whereas a human body can use only a limited amount of air and water, a planet sized "body" can use an infinite amount--as it sucks up matter it can simply grow larger to make use of it.  There will be no resources, such as air or ocean water, which are so plentiful that excess amounts are unclaimed.  The singularity will usher in a new age where for the first time people have both the ability and motive to use every particle of matter they have access to, to build and power their bodies.

If we blithely enter the singularity with the naive belief that it will be a post-scarcity world, it will generate the most radical inequality imaginable.  Compared to our current world of partial scarcity where certain resources (e.g. oxygen and ocean water) are so plentiful that we make no efforts to control access to them, the singularity will be a world of perfect scarcity, where every particle of matter is earmarked for some entity's use.

If we want a singularity where resources are shared fairly, we will have to make it--it will not happen without our efforts.  And for the first time in human history we will have the tools we need to build a fair and just society.  In the coming weeks I hope to explain on this blog how this may be possible.