Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A good singularity outcome

[Warning:  speculation ahead.]  In previous posts I've discussed how, contrary to much excited prediction and hope, the singularity will not be "post scarcity" but will more likely be characterized by nearly perfect scarcity.  Instead of an over abundance of resources ending all human need and want, every particle of matter will be earmarked for a specific use, and nothing will be left over for the needy.

However, that is not the end of the story.  If we recognize that the singularity will be characterized by perfect scarcity, we can implement systems to make sure that resources are distributed fairly, so everyone gets a decent share. Though every particle of matter may be earmarked, and there is no unaccounted for surplus available to the needy, a fair system would ensure that no-one is left out of the distribution in the first place, so that there aren't any needy.

To imagine what a fair system would be like, it is important to keep in mind the predictable ways that life after the singularity will be different from today.  One difference is that there will not be inherent differences in people's ability, intelligence or motivation.  A person's intelligence and ability will be directly related to how much matter they have to think with.  As a person accumulates more matter their intelligence can grow.  Similarly, we will have a lot more power over personality differences like procrastination.  If you are a procrastinator and you do not like it, you may be able to simply reprogram yourself to behave differently.  Overcoming personality flaws will be very different post-singularity than it is pre-singularity.  These factors seems to suggest that it will be harder to justify differences in resource distribution based on differences in ability.  If someone has greater ability it will likely be because they have more resources, and not the other way around.

On the other hand, there will probably be opportunities for people to assist one another in return for pay, and one obvious kind of pay will be matter.  Assuming people are permitted to exchange matter for work, even if everyone starts off with equal amounts of matter, inequality will rapidly develop.  Over time small levels of inequality will likely grow larger and larger.  This would be true even if rates of accumulation were determined randomly.  But as some people accumulate greater mass they will become more intelligent and thus have an advantage in accumulating even more mass.  Thus there is positive feedback that may serve to rapidly accelerate wealth stratification.

After some time, there will likely be extreme inequalities as the winners and losers of this process are determined.  How does that feel to us?  To me, at least in one way, it feels unfair.  As I discussed above, in the singularity there will not be inherent differences in ability.  Each person will not be stuck with a brain that is essentially unchangeable, as they are now.  But a combination of minor differences in luck and positive feedback loops, will mean that even people who are doing essentially the same sort of things will over time dramatically diverge in their wealth.  So in that sense, the probable development of extreme inequalities in the singularity feels unfair to me.

But, in another way, these extreme inequalities will reflect people's choices even more than they do now.  Some people may choose to prioritize future utility, while others may choose to prioritize immediate utility.  Those who are investing in the future will tend to have more wealth in the future.  In some ways, this makes the inequalities feel a little bit more fair, because they are after all the direct result of choices people are making and their predictable outcomes.

Taken together, these two factors suggest that things won't be much different than they are now.  Differences in wealth will be determined by differences in luck and diligence.  While differences in personality and intelligence will be less static, and possibly less influential, they will influence the initial trajectory of wealth accumulation.

One notable difference is that in the singularity the range of possible personalities may be much greater.  Humans have strong drives and instincts that shape the range and distribution of personalities and behaviors.  For instance, everyone prioritizes some immediate unnecessary (for survival) consumption over long term investment.  In the singularity however, people will have the flexibility to simply change their personality, drives and instincts.  There could be, and probably would be, some people who do almost no immediate consumption and invest all their resources in long term investment.

That particular personality type would, over time, accumulate a disproportionate amount of wealth.  Another difference is that there isn't the hard deadline of death leading to a wealth reset every generation.  A person who is obsessed with accumulating wealth can continue doing so indefinitely.  The more wealth she had, the more efficient she will be in acquiring more wealth.  Over time this will lead to dramatic concentrations of wealth among the people who devote 100% of their resources purely to acquiring more wealth.  Meanwhile, anyone who occasionally enjoyed some of their wealth along the way, to say pursue a non-profit maximizing scientific curiosity, or create non-profit maximizing art, would gradually become impoverished, and eventually starved of matter.

As some of the long term investors gradually turned towards consumption, the process would presumably continue until only the most profit obsessed person in the universe remained.  At that point, having nearly all matter under control, she would presumably start consuming wealth, by using her matter for whatever her ultimate goals are (profit having been just a strategy for maximizing her ability to achieve her goals).  That seems like a pretty plausible singularity outcome to me.  But it also seems rather negative.  Why?  I guess when it comes down to it, I value diversity and numerosity.  I like the idea of lots of people exploring the world, creating art, etc.  That is my vision of utopia.  Also, I like the idea of my continued existence, and in a world with only one winner, chances are it won't be me.

Of course, this would all unfold over thousand, millions, perhaps billions of years.  I have no particular guesses about timeline.  And perhaps the single entity that won at the end of all that time, would look more like a cauldron of millions of different sub entities each pursuing their goals in only loose coordination.  So who knows.

But I think what it comes down to is that I, and probably many other human beings on this planet, would, given the choice, like to be part of all that.  We would like to get to see how it all turns out.  We would like to discover if our deepest questions about the nature and creation of the universe can be answered.  We would like to personally experience the art and wonder that super intelligence allows us to bring into existence.  And even if we ourselves do not make it to the singularity, we would like our loved ones to have that opportunity.

So the question for me, and others like me, is, how can we maximize the chances that the singularity will be an artistic explosion of wonder and marvel that includes everyone alive who wants to participate?  To me, that is the defining feature of a good singularity outcome.