Will we ever have the space opera future?

May 22 JDN 2459722

Space opera has long been a staple of science fiction. Like many natural categories, it’s not that easy to define; it has something to do with interstellar travel, a variety of alien species, grand events, and a big, complicated world that stretches far beyond any particular story we might tell about it.

Star Trek is the paradigmatic example, and Star Wars also largely fits, but there are numerous of other examples, including most of my favorite science fiction worlds: Dune, the Culture, Mass Effect, Revelation Space, the Liaden, Farscape, Babylon 5, the Zones of Thought.

I think space opera is really the sort of science fiction I most enjoy. Even when it is dark, there is still something aspirational about it. Even a corrupt feudal transplanetary empire or a terrible interstellar war still means a universe where people get to travel the stars.

How likely is it that we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad sense, humanity and its descendants—will actually get the chance to live in such a universe?

First, let’s consider the most traditional kind of space opera, the Star Trek world, where FTL is commonplace and humans interact as equals with a wide variety of alien species that are different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be relatable.

This, sad to say, is extremely unlikely. FTL is probably impossible, or if not literally impossible then utterly infeasible by any foreseeable technology. Yes, the Alcubierre drive works in theory… all you need is tons of something that has negative mass.

And while, by sheer probability, there almost have to be other sapient lifeforms somewhere out there in this vast universe, our failure to contact or even find clear evidence of any of them for such a long period suggests that they are either short-lived or few and far between. Moreover, any who do exist are likely to be radically different from us and difficult to interact with at all, much less relate to on a personal level. Maybe they don’t have eyes or ears; maybe they live only in liquid hydrogen or molten lead; maybe they communicate entirely by pheromones that are toxic to us.

Does this mean that the aspirations of space opera are ultimately illusory? Is it just a pure fantasy that will forever be beyond us? Not necessarily.

I can see two other ways to create a very space-opera-like world, one of which is definitely feasible, and the other is very likely to be. Let’s start with the one that’s definitely feasible—indeed so feasible we will very likely get to experience it in our own lifetimes.

That is to make it a simulation. An MMO video game, in a way, but something much grander than any MMO that has yet been made. Not just EVE and No Man’s Sky, not just World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Second Life, but also Facebook and Instagram and Zoom and so much more. Oz from Summer Wars; OASIS from Ready Player One. A complete, multifaceted virtual reality in which we can spend most if not all of our lives. One complete with not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, even taste.

Since it’s a simulation, we can make our own rules. If we want FTL and teleportation, we can have them. (And I would like to note that in fact teleportation is available in EVE, No Man’s Sky, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and even Second Life. It’s easy to implement in a simulation, and it really seems to be something people want to have.) If we want to meet—or even be—people from a hundred different sapient species, some more humanoid than others, we can. Each of us could rule entire planets, command entire starfleets.

And we could do this, if not right now, today, then very, very soon—the VR hardware is finally maturing and the software capability already exists if there is a development team with the will and the skills (and the budget) to do it. We almost certainly will do this—in fact, we’ll do it hundreds or thousands of different ways. You need not be content with any particular space opera world, when you can choose from a cornucopia of them; and fantasy worlds too, and plenty of other kinds of worlds besides.

Yet, I admit, there is something missing from that future. While such a virtual-reality simulation might reach the point where it would be fair to say it’s no longer simply a “video game”, it still won’t be real. We won’t actually be Vulcans or Delvians or Gek or Asari. We will merely pretend to be. When we take off the VR suit at the end of the day, we will still be humans, and still be stuck here on Earth. And even if most of the toil of maintaining this society and economy can be automated, there will still be some time we have to spend living ordinary lives in ordinary human bodies.

So, is there some chance that we might really live in a space-opera future? Where we will meet actual, flesh-and-blood people who have blue skin, antennae, or six limbs? Where we will actually, physically move between planets, feeling the different gravity beneath our feet and looking up at the alien sky?

Yes. There is a way this could happen. Not now, not for awhile yet. We ourselves probably won’t live to see it. But if humanity manages to continue thriving for a few more centuries, and technology continues to improve at anything like its current pace, then that day may come.

We won’t have FTL, so we’ll be bounded by the speed of light. But the speed of light is still quite fast. It can get you to Mars in minutes, to Jupiter in hours, and even to Alpha Centauri in a voyage that wouldn’t shock Magellan or Zheng He. Leaving this arm of the Milky Way, let alone traveling to another galaxy, is out of the question (at least if you ever want to come back while anyone you know is still alive—actually as a one-way trip it’s surprisingly feasible thanks to time dilation).

This means that if we manage to invent a truly superior kind of spacecraft engine, one which combines the high thrust of a hydrolox rocket with the high specific impulse of an ion thruster—and that is physically possible, because it’s well within what nuclear rockets ought to be capable of—then we could travel between planets in our solar system, and maybe even to nearby solar systems, in reasonable amounts of time. The world of The Expanse could therefore be in reach (well, the early seasons anyway), where human colonies have settled on Mars and Ceres and Ganymede and formed their own new societies with their own unique cultures.

We may yet run into some kind of extraterrestrial life—bacteria probably, insects maybe, jellyfish if we’re lucky—but we probably ever won’t actually encounter any alien sapients. If there are any, they are probably too primitive to interact with us, or they died out millennia ago, or they’re simply too far away to reach.

But if we cannot find Vulcans and Delvians and Asari, then we can become them. We can modify ourselves with cybernetics, biotechnology, or even nanotechnology, until we remake ourselves into whatever sort of beings we want to be. We may never find a whole interplanetary empire ruled by a race of sapient felinoids, but if furry conventions are any indication, there are plenty of people who would make themselves into sapient felinoids if given the opportunity.

Such a universe would actually be more diverse than a typical space opera. There would be no “planets of hats“, no entire societies of people acting—or perhaps even looking—the same. The hybridization of different species is almost by definition impossible, but when the ‘species’ are cosmetic body mods, we can combine them however we like. A Klingon and a human could have a child—and for that matter the child could grow up and decide to be a Turian.

Honestly there are only two reasons I’m not certain we’ll go this route:

One, we’re still far too able and willing to kill each other, so who knows if we’ll even make it that long. There’s also still plenty of room for some sort of ecological catastrophe to wipe us out.

And two, most people are remarkably boring. We already live in a world where one could go to work every day wearing a cape, a fursuit, a pirate outfit, or a Starfleet uniform, and yet people don’t let you. There’s nothing infeasible about me delivering a lecture dressed as a Kzin Starfleet science officer, and nor would it even particularly impair my ability to deliver the lecture well; and yet I’m quite certain it would be greatly frowned upon if I were to do so, and could even jeopardize my career (especially since I don’t have tenure).

Would it be distracting to the students if I were to do something like that? Probably, at least at first. But once they got used to it, it might actually make them feel at ease. If it were a social norm that lecturers—and students—can dress however they like (perhaps limited by local decency regulations, though those, too, often seem overly strict), students might show up to class in bunny pajamas or pirate outfits or full-body fursuits, but would that really be a bad thing? It could in fact be a good thing, if it helps them express their own identity and makes them more comfortable in their own skin.

But no, we live in a world where the mainstream view is that every man should wear exactly the same thing at every formal occasion. I felt awkward at the AEA conference because my shirt had color.

This means that there is really one major obstacle to building the space opera future: Social norms. If we don’t get to live in this world one day, it will be because the world is ruled by the sort of person who thinks that everyone should be the same.

The alienation of labor

Apr 10 JDN 2459680

Marx famously wrote that capitalism “alienates labor”. Much ink has been spilled over interpreting exactly what he meant by that, but I think the most useful and charitable reading goes something like the following:

When you make something for yourself, it feels fully yours. The effort you put into it feels valuable and meaningful. Whether you’re building a house to live in it or just cooking an omelet to eat it, your labor is directly reflected in your rewards, and you have a clear sense of purpose and value in what you are doing.

But when you make something for an employer, it feels like theirs, not yours. You have been instructed by your superiors to make a certain thing a certain way, for reasons you may or may not understand (and may or may not even agree with). Once you deliver the product—which may be as concrete as a carburetor or as abstract as an accounting report—you will likely never see it again; it will be used or not by someone else somewhere else whom you may not even ever get the chance to meet. Such labor feels tedious, effortful, exhausting—and also often empty, pointless, and meaningless.

On that reading, Marx isn’t wrong. There really is something to this. (I don’t know if this is really Marx’s intended meaning or not, and really I don’t much care—this is a valid thing and we should be addressing it, whether Marx meant to or not.)

There is a little parable about this, which I can’t quite remember where I heard:

Three men are moving heavy stones from one place to another. A traveler passes by and asks them, “What are you doing?”

The first man sighs and says, “We do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

The second man shrugs and says, “We pick up the rocks here, we move them over there.”

The third man smiles and says, “We’re building a cathedral.”

The three answers are quite different—yet all three men may be telling the truth as they see it.

The first man is fully alienated from his labor: he does whatever the boss says, following instructions that he considers arbitrary and mechanical. The second man is partially alienated: he knows the mechanics of what he is trying to accomplish, which may allow him to improve efficiency in some way (e.g. devise better ways to transport the rocks faster or with less effort), but he doesn’t understand the purpose behind it all, so ultimately his work still feels meaningless. But the third man is not alienated: he understands the purpose of his work, and he values that purpose. He sees that what he is doing is contributing to a greater whole that he considers worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine that the third man will be the happiest, and the first will be the unhappiest.

There really is something about the capitalist wage-labor structure that can easily feed into this sort of alienation. You get a job because you need money to live, not because you necessarily value whatever the job does. You do as you are told so that you can keep your job and continue to get paid.

Some jobs are much more alienating than others. Most teachers and nurses see their work as a vocation, even a calling—their work has deep meaning for them and they value its purpose. At the other extreme there are corporate lawyers and derivatives traders, who must on some level understand that their work contributes almost nothing to the world (may in fact actively cause harm), but they continue to do the work because it pays them very well.

But there are many jobs in between which can be experienced both ways. Working in retail can be an agonizing grind where you must face a grueling gauntlet of ungrateful customers day in and day out—or it can be a way to participate in your local community and help your neighbors get the things they need. Working in manufacturing can be a mechanical process of inserting tab A into slot B and screwing it into place over, and over, and over again—or it can be a chance to create something, convert raw materials into something useful and valuable that other people can cherish.

And while individual perspective and framing surely matter here—those three men were all working in the same quarry, building the same cathedral—there is also an important objective component as well. Working as an artisan is not as alienating as working on an assembly line. Hosting a tent at a farmer’s market is not as alienating as working the register at Walmart. Tutoring an individual student is more purposeful than recording video lectures for a MOOC. Running a quirky local book store is more fulfilling than stocking shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Moreover, capitalism really does seem to push us more toward the alienating side of the spectrum. Assembly lines are far more efficient than artisans, so we make most of our products on assembly lines. Buying food at Walmart is cheaper and more convenient than at farmer’s markets, so more people shop there. Hiring one video lecturer for 10,000 students is a lot cheaper than paying 100 in-person lecturers, let alone 1,000 private tutors. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t drive out local book stores by some nefarious means: It just provides better service at lower prices. If you want a specific book for a good price right now, you’re much more likely to find it at Barnes & Noble. (And even more likely to find it on Amazon.)

Finding meaning in your work is very important for human happiness. Indeed, along with health and social relationships, it’s one of the biggest determinants of happiness. For most people in First World countries, it seems to be more important than income (though income certainly does matter).

Yet the increased efficiency and productivity upon which our modern standard of living depends seems to be based upon a system of production—in a word, capitalism—that systematically alienates us from meaning in our work.

This puts us in a dilemma: Do we keep things as they are, accepting that we will feel an increasing sense of alienation and ennui as our wealth continues to grow and we get ever-fancier toys to occupy our meaningless lives? Or do we turn back the clock, returning to a world where work once again has meaning, but at the cost of making everyone poorer—and some people desperately so?

Well, first of all, to some extent this is a false dichotomy. There are jobs that are highly meaningful but also highly productive, such as teaching and engineering. (Even recording a video lecture is a lot more fulfilling than plenty of jobs out there.) We could try to direct more people into jobs like these. There are jobs that are neither particularly fulfilling nor especially productive, like driving trucks, washing floors and waiting tables. We could redouble our efforts into automating such jobs out of existence. There are meaningless jobs that are lucrative only by rent-seeking, producing little or no genuine value, like the aforementioned corporate lawyers and derivatives traders. These, quite frankly, could simply be banned—or if there is some need for them in particular circumstances (I guess someone should defend corporations when they get sued; but they far more often go unjustly unpunished than unjustly punished!), strictly regulated and their numbers and pay rates curtailed.

Nevertheless, we still have decisions to make, as a society, about what we value most. Do we want a world of cheap, mostly adequate education, that feels alienating even to the people producing it? Then MOOCs are clearly the way to go; pennies on the dollar for education that could well be half as good! Or do we want a world of high-quality, personalized teaching, by highly-qualified academics, that will help students learn better and feel more fulfilling for the teachers? More pointedly—are we willing to pay for that higher-quality education, knowing it will be more expensive?

Moreover, in the First World at least, our standard of living is… pretty high already? Like seriously, what do we really need that we don’t already have? We could always imagine more, of course—a bigger house, a nicer car, dining at fancier restaurants, and so on. But most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our tables.

Economic growth has done amazing things for us—but maybe we’re kind of… done? Maybe we don’t need to keep growing like this, and should start redirecting our efforts away from greater efficiency and toward greater fulfillment. Maybe there are economic possibilities we haven’t been considering.

Note that I specifically mean First World countries here. In Third World countries it’s totally different—they need growth, lots of it, as fast as possible. Fulfillment at work ends up being a pretty low priority when your children are starving and dying of malaria.

But then, you may wonder: If we stop buying cheap plastic toys to fill the emptiness in our hearts, won’t that throw all those Chinese factory workers back into poverty?

In the system as it stands? Yes, that’s a real concern. A sudden drop in consumption spending in general, or even imports in particular, in First World countries could be economically devastating for millions of people in Third World countries.

But there’s nothing inherent about this arrangement. There are less-alienating ways of working that can still provide a decent standard of living, and there’s no fundamental reason why people around the world couldn’t all be doing them. If they aren’t, it’s in the short run because they don’t have the education or the physical machinery—and in the long run it’s usually because their government is corrupt and authoritarian. A functional democratic government can get you capital and education remarkably fast—it certainly did in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Automation is clearly a big part of the answer here. Many people in the First World seem to suspect that our way of life depends upon the exploited labor of impoverished people in Third World countries, but this is largely untrue. Most of that work could be done by robots and highly-skilled technicians and engineers; it just isn’t because that would cost more. Yes, that higher cost would mean some reduction in standard of living—but it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as many people seem to think. We would have slightly smaller houses and slightly older cars and slightly slower laptops, but we’d still have houses and cars and laptops.

So I don’t think we should all cast off our worldly possessions just yet. Whether or not it would make us better off, it would cause great harm to countries that depend on their exports to us. But in the long run, I do think we should be working to achieve a future for humanity that isn’t so obsessed with efficiency and growth, and instead tries to provide both a decent standard of living and a life of meaning and purpose.

Cryptocurrency and its failures

Jan 30 JDN 2459620

It started out as a neat idea, though very much a solution in search of a problem. Using encryption, could we decentralize currency and eliminate the need for a central bank?

Well, it’s been a few years now, and we have now seen how well that went. Bitcoin recently crashed, but it has always been astonishingly volatile. As a speculative asset, such volatility is often tolerable—for many, even profitable. But as a currency, it is completely unbearable. People need to know that their money will be a store of value and a medium of exchange—and something that changes price one minute to the next is neither.

Some of cryptocurrency’s failures have been hilarious, like the ill-fated island called [yes, really] “Cryptoland”, which crashed and burned when they couldn’t find any investors to help them buy the island.

Others have been darkly comic, but tragic in their human consequences. Chief among these was the failed attempt by El Salvador to make Bitcoin an official currency.

At the time, President Bukele justified it by an economically baffling argument: Total value of all Bitcoin in the world is $680 billion, therefore if even 1% gets invested in El Salvador, GDP will increase by $6.8 billion, which is 25%!

First of all, that would only happen if 1% of all Bitcoin were invested in El Salvador each year—otherwise you’re looking at a one-time injection of money, not an increase in GDP.

But more importantly, this is like saying that the total US dollar supply is $6 trillion, (that’s physically cash; the actual money supply is considerably larger) so maybe by dollarizing your economy you can get 1% of that—$60 billion, baby! No, that’s not how any of this works. Dollarizing could still be a good idea (though it didn’t go all that well in El Salvador), but it won’t give you some kind of share in the US economy. You can’t collect dividends on US GDP.

It’s actually good how El Salvador’s experiment in bitcoin failed: Nobody bought into it in the first place. They couldn’t convince people to buy government assets that were backed by Bitcoin (perhaps because the assets were a strictly worse deal than just, er, buying Bitcoin). So the human cost of this idiotic experiment should be relatively minimal: It’s not like people are losing their homes over this.

That is, unless President Bukele doubles down, which he now appears to be doing. Even people who are big fans of cryptocurrency are unimpressed with El Salvador’s approach to it.

It would be one thing if there were some stable cryptocurrency that one could try pegging one’s national currency to, but there isn’t. Even so-called stablecoins are generally pegged to… regular currencies, typically the US dollar but also sometimes the Euro or a few other currencies. (I’ve seen the Australian Dollar and the Swiss Franc, but oddly enough, not the Pound Sterling.)

Or a country could try issuing its own cryptocurrency, as an all-digital currency instead of one that is partly paper. It’s not totally clear to me what advantages this would have over the current system (in which most of the money supply is bank deposits, i.e. already digital), but it would at least preserve the key advantage of having a central bank that can regulate your money supply.

But no, President Bukele decided to take an already-existing cryptocurrency, backed by nothing but the whims of the market, and make it legal tender. Somehow he missed the fact that a currency which rises and falls by 10% in a single day is generally considered bad.

Why? Is he just an idiot? I mean, maybe, though Bukele’s approval rating is astonishingly high. (And El Salvador is… mostly democratic. Unlike, say, Putin’s, I think these approval ratings are basically real.) But that’s not the only reason. My guess is that he was gripped by the same FOMO that has gripped everyone else who evangelizes for Bitcoin. The allure of easy money is often irresistible.

Consider President Bukele’s position. You’re governing a poor, war-torn country which has had economic problems of various types since its founding. When the national currency collapsed a generation ago, the country was put on the US dollar, but that didn’t solve the problem. So you’re looking for a better solution to the monetary doldrums your country has been in for decades.

You hear about a fancy new monetary technology, “cryptocurrency”, which has all the tech people really excited and seems to be making tons of money. You don’t understand a thing about it—hardly anyone seems to, in fact—but you know that people with a lot of insider knowledge of technology and finance are really invested in it, so it seems like there must be something good here. So, you decide to launch a program that will convert your country’s currency from the US dollar to one of these new cryptocurrencies—and you pick the most famous one, which is also extremely valuable, Bitcoin.

Could cryptocurrencies be the future of money, you wonder? Could this be the way to save your country’s economy?

Despite all the evidence that had already accumulated that cryptocurrency wasn’t working, I can understand why Bukele would be tempted by that dream. Just as we’d all like to get free money without having to work, he wanted to save his country’s economy without having to implement costly and unpopular reforms.

But there is no easy money. Not really. Some people get lucky; but they ultimately benefit from other people’s hard work.

The lesson here is deeper than cryptocurrency. Yes, clearly, it was a dumb idea to try to make Bitcoin a national currency, and it will get even dumber if Bukele really does double down on it. But more than that, we must all resist the lure of easy money. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Reasons for optimism in 2022

Jan 2 JDN 2459582

When this post goes live, we will have begun the year 2022.

That still sounds futuristic, somehow. We’ve been in the 20th century long enough that most of my students were born in it and nearly all of them are old enough to drink (to be fair, it’s the UK, so “old enough to drink” only means 18). Yet “the year 2022” still seems like it belongs in science fiction, and not on our wall calendars.

2020 and 2021 were quite bad years. Death rates and poverty rates surged around the world. Almost all of that was directly or indirectly due to COVID.

Yet there are two things we should keep in perspective.

First, those death rates and poverty rates surged to what we used to consider normal 50 years ago. These are not uniquely bad times; indeed, they are still better than most of human history.

Second, there are many reasons to think that 2022—or perhaps a bit later than that, 2025 or 2030—will be better.

The Omicron variant is highly contagious, but so far does not appear to be as deadly as previous variants. COVID seems to be evolving to be more like influenza: Catching it will be virtually inevitable, but dying from it will be very rare.

Things are also looking quite good on the climate change front: Renewable energy production is growing at breathtaking speed and is now cheaper than almost every other form of energy. It’s awful that we panicked and locked down nuclear energy for the last 50 years, but at this point we may no longer need it: Solar and wind are just that good now.

Battery technology is also rapidly improving, giving us denser, cheaper, more stable batteries that may soon allow us to solve the intermittency problem: the wind may not always blow and the sun may not always shine, but if you have big enough batteries you don’t need them to. (You can get a really good feel for how much difference good batteries make in energy production by playing Factorio, or, more whimsically, Mewnbase.)

If we do go back to nuclear energy, it may not be fission anymore, but fusion. Now that we have nearly reached that vital milestone of break-even, investment in fusion technology has rapidly increased.


Fusion has basically all of the benefits of fission with none of the drawbacks. Unlike renewables, it can produce enormous amounts of energy in a way that can be easily scaled and controlled independently of weather conditions. Unlike fission, it requires no exotic nuclear fuels (deuterium can be readily attained from water), and produces no long-lived radioactive waste. (Indeed, development is ongoing of methods that could use fusion products to reduce the waste from fission reactors, making the effective rate of nuclear waste production for fusion negative.) Like both renewables and fission, it produces no carbon emissions other than those required to build the facility (mainly due to concrete).

Of course, technology is only half the problem: we still need substantial policy changes to get carbon emissions down. We’ve already dragged our feet for decades too long, and we will pay the price for that. But anyone saying that climate change is an inevitable catastrophe hasn’t been paying attention to recent developments in solar panels.

Technological development in general seems to be speeding up lately, after having stalled quite a bit in the early 2000s. Moore’s Law may be leveling off, but the technological frontier may simply be moving away from digital computing power and onto other things, such as biotechnology.

Star Trek told us that we’d have prototype warp drives by the 2060s but we wouldn’t have bionic implants to cure blindness until the 2300s. They seem to have gotten it backwards: We may never have warp drive, but we’ve got those bionic implants today.

Neural interfaces are allowing paralyzed people to move, speak, and now even write.

After decades of failed promises, gene therapy is finally becoming useful in treating real human diseases. CRISPR changes everything.

We are also entering a new era of space travel, thanks largely to SpaceX and their remarkable reusable rockets. The payload cost to LEO is a standard measure of the cost of space travel, which describes the cost of carrying a certain mass of cargo up to low Earth orbit. By this measure, costs have declined from nearly $20,000 per kg to only $1,500 per kg since the 1960s. Elon Musk claims that he can reduce the cost to as low as $10 per kg. I’m skeptical, to say the least—but even dropping it to $500 or $200 would be a dramatic improvement and open up many new options for space exploration and even colonization.

To put this in perspective, the cost of carrying a human being to the International Space Station (about 100 kg to LEO) has fallen from $2 million to $150,000. A further decrease to $200 per kg would lower that to $20,000, opening the possibility of space tourism; $20,000 might be something even upper-middle-class people could do as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. If Musk is really right that he can drop it all the way to $10 per kg, the cost to carry a person to the ISS would be only $1000—something middle-class people could do regularly. (“Should we do Paris for our anniversary this year, or the ISS?”) Indeed, a cost that low would open the possibility of space-based shipping—for when you absolutely must have the product delivered from China to California in the next 2 hours.

Another way to put this in perspective is to convert these prices per mass in terms of those of commodities, such as precious metals. $20,000 per kg is nearly the price of solid platinum. $500 per kg is about the price of sterling silver. $10 per kg is roughly the price of copper.

The reasons for optimism are not purely technological. There has also been significant social progress just in the last few years, with major milestones on LGBT rights being made around the world in 2020 and 2021. Same-sex marriage is now legally recognized over nearly the entire Western Hemisphere.

None of that changes the fact that we are still in a global pandemic which seems to be increasingly out of control. I can’t tell you whether 2022 will be better than 2021, or just more of the same—or perhaps even worse.

But while these times are hard, overall the world is still making progress.

The economics of interstellar travel

Dec 19 JDN 2459568

Since these are rather dark times—the Omicron strain means that COVID is still very much with us, after nearly two years—I thought we could all use something a bit more light-hearted and optimistic.

In 1978 Paul Krugman wrote a paper entitled “The Theory of Interstellar Trade”, which has what is surely one of the greatest abstracts of all time:

This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer travelling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

The rest of the paper is equally delightful, and well worth a read. Of particular note are these two sentences, which should give you a feel: “The rest of the paper is, will be, or has been, depending on the reader’s inertial frame, divided into three sections.” and “This extension is left as an exercise for interested readers because the author does not understand general relativity, and therefore cannot do it himself.”

As someone with training in both economics and relativistic physics, I can tell you that Krugman’s analysis is entirely valid, given its assumptions. (Really, this is unsurprising: He’s a Nobel Laureate. One could imagine he got his physics wrong, but he didn’t—and of course he didn’t get his economics wrong.) But, like much high-falutin economic theory, it relies upon assumptions that are unlikely to be true.

Set aside the assumptions of perfect competition and unlimited arbitrage that yield Krugman’s key result of equalized interest rates. These are indeed implausible, but they’re also so standard in economics as to be pedestrian.

No, what really concerns me is this: Why bother with interstellar trade at all?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of interstellar travel and interstellar colonization. I want humanity to expand and explore the galaxy (or rather, I want that to be done by whatever humanity becomes, likely some kind of cybernetically and biogenetically enhanced transhumans in endless varieties we can scarcely imagine). But once we’ve gone through all the effort to spread ourselves to distant stars, it’s not clear to me that we’d ever have much reason to trade across interstellar distances.

If we ever manage to invent efficient, reliable, affordable faster-than-light (FTL) travel ala Star Trek, sure. In that case, there’s no fundamental difference between interstellar trade and any other kind of trade. But that’s not what Krugman’s paper is about, as its key theorems are actually about interest rates and prices in different inertial reference frames, which is only relevant if you’re limited to relativistic—that is, slower-than-light—velocities.

Moreover, as far as we can tell, that’s impossible. Yes, there are still some vague slivers of hope left with the Alcubierre Drive, wormholes, etc.; but by far the most likely scenario is that FTL travel is simply impossible and always will be.

FTL communication is much more plausible, as it merely requires the exploitation of nonlocal quantum entanglement outside quantum equilibrium; if the Bohm Interpretation is correct (as I strongly believe it is), then this is a technological problem rather than a theoretical one. At best this might one day lead to some form of nonlocal teleportation—but definitely not FTL starships. Since our souls are made of software, sending information can, in principle, send a person; but we almost surely won’t be sending mass faster than light.

So let’s assume, as Krugman did, that we will be limited to travel close to, but less than, the speed of light. (I recently picked up a term for this from Ursula K. Le Guin: “NAFAL”, “nearly-as-fast-as-light”.)

This means that any transfer of material from one star system to another will take, at minimum, years. It could even be decades or centuries, depending on how close to the speed of light we are able to get.

Assuming we have abundant antimatter or some similarly extremely energy-dense propulsion, it would reasonable to expect that we could build interstellar spacecraft that would be capable of accelerating at approximately Earth gravity (i.e. 1 g) for several years at a time. This would be quite comfortable for the crew of the ship—it would just feel like standing on Earth. And it turns out that this is sufficient to attain velocities quite close to the speed of light over the distances to nearby stars.

I will spare you the complicated derivation, but there are well-known equations which allow us to convert from proper acceleration (the acceleration felt on a spacecraft, i.e. 1 g in this case) to maximum velocity and total travel time, and they imply that a vessel which was constantly accelerating at 1 g (speeding up for the first half, then slowing down for the second half) could reach most nearby stars within about 50 to 100 years Earth time, or as little as 10 to 20 years ship time.

With higher levels of acceleration, you can shorten the trip; but that would require designing ships (or engineering crews?) in such a way as to sustain these high levels of acceleration for years at a time. Humans can sustain 3 g’s for hours, but not for years.

Even with only 1-g acceleration, the fuel costs for such a trip are staggering: Even with antimatter fuel you need dozens or hundreds of times as much mass in fuel as you have in payload—and with anything less than antimatter it’s basically just not possible. Yet there is nothing in the laws of physics saying you can’t do it, and I believe that someday we will.

Yet I sincerely doubt we would want to make such trips often. It’s one thing to send occasional waves of colonists, perhaps one each generation. It’s quite another to establish real two-way trade in goods.

Imagine placing an order for something—anything—and not receiving it for another 50 years. Even if, as I hope and believe, our descendants have attained far longer lifespans than we have, asymptotically approaching immortality, it seems unlikely that they’d be willing to wait decades for their shipments to arrive. In the same amount of time you could establish an entire industry in your own star system, built from the ground up, fully scaled to service entire planets.

In order to justify such a transit, you need to be carrying something truly impossible to produce locally. And there just won’t be very many such things.

People, yes. Definitely in the first wave of colonization, but likely in later waves as well, people will want to move themselves and their families across star systems, and will be willing to wait (especially since the time they experience on the ship won’t be nearly as daunting).

And there will be knowledge and experiences that are unique to particular star systems—but we’ll be sending that by radio signal and it will only take as many years as there are light-years between us; or we may even manage to figure out FTL ansibles and send it even faster than that.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what sort of goods could ever be so precious, so irreplaceable, that it would actually make sense to trade them across an interstellar distance. All habitable planets are likely to be made of essentially the same elements, in approximately the same proportions; whatever you may want, it’s almost certainly going to be easier to get it locally than it would be to buy it from another star system.

This is also why I think alien invasion is unlikely: There’s nothing they would particularly want from us that they couldn’t get more easily. Their most likely reason for invading would be specifically to conquer and rule us.

Certainly if you want gold or neodymium or deuterium, it’ll be thousands of times easier to get it at home. But even if you want something hard to make, like antimatter, or something organic and unique, like oregano, building up the industry to manufacture a product or the agriculture to grow a living organism is almost certainly going to be faster and easier than buying it from another solar system.

This is why I believe that for the first generation of interstellar colonists, imports will be textbooks, blueprints, and schematics to help build, and films, games, and songs to stay entertained and tied to home; exports will consist of of scientific data about the new planet as well as artistic depictions of life on an alien world. For later generations, it won’t be so lopsided: The colonies will have new ideas in science and engineering as well as new art forms to share. Billions of people on Earth and thousands or millions on each colony world will await each new transmission of knowledge and art with bated breath.

Long-distance trade historically was mainly conducted via precious metals such as gold; but if interstellar travel is feasible, gold is going to be dirt cheap. Any civilization capable of even sending a small intrepid crew of colonists to Epsilon Eridani is going to consider mining asteroids an utterly trivial task.

Will such transactions involve money? Will we sell these ideas, or simply give them away? Unlike my previous post where I focused on the local economy, here I find myself agreeing with Star Trek: Money isn’t going to make sense for interstellar travel. Unless we have very fast communication, the time lag between paying money out and then seeing it circulate back will be so long that the money returned to you will be basically worthless. And that’s assuming you figure out a way to make transactions clear that doesn’t require real-time authentication—because you won’t have it.

Consider Epsilon Eridani, a plausible choice for one of the first star systems we will colonize. That’s 10.5 light-years away, so a round-trip signal will take 21 years. If inflation is a steady 2%, that means that $100 today will need to come back as $151 to have the same value by the time you hear back from your transaction. If you had the option to invest in a 5% bond instead, you’d have $279 by then. And this is a nearby star.

It would be much easier to simply trade data for data, maybe just gigabyte for gigabyte or maybe by some more sophisticated notion of relative prices. You don’t need to worry about what your dollar will be worth 20 years from now; you know how much effort went into designing that blueprint for an antimatter processor and you know how much you’ll appreciate seeing that VR documentary on the rings of Aegir. You may even have in mind how much it cost you to pay people to design prototypes and how much you can sell the documentary for; but those monetary transactions will be conducted within your own star system, independently of whatever monetary system prevails on other stars.

Indeed, it’s likely that we wouldn’t even bother trying to negotiate how much to send—because that itself would have such overhead and face the same time-lags—and would instead simply make a habit of sending everything we possibly can. Such interchanges could be managed by governments at each end, supported by public endowments. “This year’s content from Epsilon Eridani, brought to you by the Smithsonian Institution.”

We probably won’t ever have—or need, or want—huge freighter ships carrying containers of goods from star to star. But with any luck, we will one day have art and ideas from across the galaxy shared by all of the endless variety of beings humanity has become.

Could the Star Trek economy really work?

Jun 13 JDN 2459379

“The economics of the future are somewhat different”, Jean-Luc Picard explains to Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact.

Captain Picard’s explanation is not very thorough, and all we have about the economic system of the Federation comes from similar short glimpes across the various Star Trek films and TV series. The best glimpses of what the Earth’s economy is like largely come from the Picard series in particular.

But I think we can safely conclude that all of the following are true:

1. Energy is extraordinarily abundant, with a single individual having access to an energy scale that would rival the energy production of entire nations at present. By E=mc2, simply being able to teleport a human being or materialize a hamburger from raw energy, as seems to be routine in Starfleet, would require something on the order of 10^17 joules, or about 28 billion kilowatt-hours. The total energy supply of the world economy today is about 6*10^20 joules, or 100 trillion kilowatt-hours.

2. There is broad-based prosperity, but not absolute equality. At the very least different people live differently, though it is unclear whether anyone actually has a better standard of living than anyone else. The Picard family still seems to own their family vineyard that has been passed down for generations, and since the population of Earth is given as about 9 billion (a plausible but perhaps slightly low figure for our long-run stable population equilibrium), its acreage is large enough that clearly not everyone on Earth can own that much land.

3. Most resources that we currently think of as scarce are not scarce any longer. Replicator technology allows for the instantaneous production of food, clothing, raw materials, even sophisticated electronics. There is no longer a “manufacturing sector” as such; there are just replicators and people who use or program them. Most likely, even new replicators are made by replicating parts in other replicators and then assembling them. There are a few resources which remain scarce, such as dilithium (somehow involved in generating these massive quantities of energy) and latinum (a bizarre substance that is prized by many other cultures yet for unexplained reasons cannot be viably produced in replicators). Essentially everything else that is scarce is inherently so, such as front-row seats at concerts, original paintings, officer commissions in Starfleet, or land in San Francisco.

4. Interplanetary and even interstellar trade is routine. Starships with warp capability are available to both civilian and government institutions, and imports and exports can be made to planets dozens or even hundreds of light-years away as quickly as we can currently traverse the oceans with a container ship.

5. Money as we know it does not exist. People are not paid wages or salaries for their work. There is still some ownership of personal property, and particular families (including the Picards) seem to own land; but there does not appear to be any private ownership of capital. For that matter there doesn’t even appear to be be much in the way of capital; we never see any factories. There is obviously housing, there is infrastructure such as roads, public transit, and presumably power plants (very, very powerful power plants, see 1!), but that may be all. Nearly all manufacturing seems to be done by replicators, and what can’t be done by replicators (e.g. building new starships) seems to be all orchestrated by state-owned enterprises such as Starfleet.

Could such an economy actually work? Let’s stipulate that we really do manage to achieve such an extraordinary energy scale, millions of times more than what we can currently produce. Even very cheap, widespread nuclear energy would not be enough to make this plausible; we would need at least abundant antimatter, and quite likely something even more exotic than this, like zero point energy. Along this comes some horrifying risks—imagine an accident at a zero-point power plant that tears a hole in the fabric of space next to a major city, or a fanatical terrorist with a handheld 20-megaton antimatter bomb. But let’s assume we’ve found ways to manage those risks as well.

Furthermore, let’s stipulate that it’s possible to build replicators and warp drives and teleporters and all the similarly advanced technology that the Federation has, much of which is so radically advanced we can’t even be sure that such a thing is possible.

What I really want to ask is whether it’s possible to sustain a functional economy at this scale without money. George Roddenberry clearly seemed to think so. I am less convinced.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that there have been human societies which did not use money, or even any clear notion of a barter system. In fact, most human cultures for most of our history as a species allocated resources based on collective tribal ownership and personal favors. Some of the best parts of Debt: The First 5000 Years are about these different ways of allocating resources, which actually came much more naturally to us than money.

But there seem to have been rather harsh constraints on what sort of standard of living could be maintained in such societies. There was essentially zero technological advancement for thousands of years in most hunter-gatherer cultures, and even the wealthiest people in most of those societies overall had worse health, shorter lifespans, and far, far less access to goods and services than people we would consider in poverty today.

Then again, perhaps money is only needed to catalyze technological advancement; perhaps once you’ve already got all the technology you need, you can take money away and return to a better way of life without greed or inequality. That seems to be what Star Trek is claiming: That once we can make a sandwich or a jacket or a phone or even a car at the push of a button, we won’t need to worry about paying people because everyone can just have whatever they need.

Yet whatever they need is quite different from whatever they want, and therein lies the problem. Yes, I believe that with even moderate technological advancement—the sort of thing I expect to see in the next 50 years, not the next 300—we will have sufficient productivity that we could provide for the basic needs of every human being on Earth. A roof over your head, food on your table, clothes to wear, a doctor and a dentist to see twice a year, emergency services, running water, electricity, even Internet access and public transit—these are things we could feasibly provide to literally everyone with only about two or three times our current level of GDP, which means only about 2% annual economic growth for the next 50 years. Indeed, we could already provide them for every person in First World countries, and it is quite frankly appalling that we fail to do so.

However, most of us in the First World already live a good deal better than that. We don’t have the most basic housing possible, we have nice houses we want to live in. We don’t take buses everywhere, we own our own cars. We don’t eat the cheapest food that would provide adequate nutrition, we eat a wide variety of foods; we order pizza and Chinese takeout, and even eat at fancy restaurants on occasion. It’s less clear that we could provide this standard of living to everyone on Earth—but if economic growth continues long enough, maybe we can.

Worse, most of us would like to live even better than we do. My car is several years old right now, and it runs on gasoline; I’d very much like to upgrade to a brand-new electric car. My apartment is nice enough, but it’s quite small; I’d like to move to a larger place that would give me more space not only for daily living, but also for storage and for entertaining guests. I work comfortable hours for decent pay at a white-collar job that can be done entirely remotely on mostly my own schedule, but I’d prefer to take some time off and live independently while I focus more on my own writing. I sometimes enjoy cooking, but often it can be a chore, and sometimes I wish I could just go eat out at a nice restaurant for dinner every night. I don’t make all these changes because I can’t afford to—that is, because I don’t have the money.

Perhaps most of us would feel no need to have a billion dollars. I don’t really know what $100 billion actually gets you, as far as financial security, independence, or even consumption, that $50 million wouldn’t already. You can have total financial freedom and security with a middle-class American lifestyle with net wealth of about $2 million. If you want to also live in a mansion, drink Dom Perignon with every meal and drive a Lamborghini (which, quite frankly, I have no particular desire to do), you’ll need several million more—but even then you clearly don’t need $1 billion, let alone $100 billion. So there is indeed something pathological about wanting a billion dollars for yourself, and perhaps in the Federation they have mental health treatments for “wealth addiction” that prevent people from experiencing such pathological levels of greed.

Yet in fact, with the world as it stands, I would want a billion dollars. Not to own it. Not to let it sit and grow in some brokerage account. Not to simply be rich and be on the Forbes list. I couldn’t care less about those things. But with a billion dollars, I could donate enormous amounts to charities, saving thousands or even millions of lives. I could found my own institutions—research institutes, charitable foundations—and make my mark on the world. With $100 billion, I could make a serious stab at colonizing Mars—as Elon Musk seems to be doing, but most other billionaires have no particular interest in.

And it begins to strain credulity to imagine a world of such spectacular abundance that everyone could have enough to do that.

This is why I always struggle to answer when people ask me things like “If money were not object, how would you live your life?”; if money were no object, I’d end world hunger, cure cancer, and colonize the Solar System. Money is always an object. What I think you meant to ask was something much less ambitious, like “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” But I might actually have a million dollars someday—most likely by saving and investing the proceeds of a six-figure job as an economist over many years. (Save $2,000 per month for 20 years, growing it at 7% per year, and you’ll be over $1 million. You can do your own calculations here.) I doubt I’ll ever have $10 million, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have $1 billion.

To be fair, it seems that many of the grand ambitions I would want to achieve with billions of dollars already are achieved by 23rd century; world hunger has definitely been ended, cancer seems to have been largely cured, and we have absolutely colonized the Solar System (and well beyond). But that doesn’t mean that new grand ambitions wouldn’t arise, and indeed I think they would. What if I wanted to command my own fleet of starships? What if I wanted a whole habitable planet to conduct experiments on, perhaps creating my own artificial ecosystem? The human imagination is capable of quite grand ambitions, and it’s unlikely that we could ever satisfy all of them for everyone.

Some things are just inherently scarce. I already mentioned some earlier: Original paintings, front-row seats, officer commissions, and above all, land. There’s only so much land that people want to live on, especially because people generally want to live near other people (Internet access could conceivably reduce the pressure for this, but, uh, so far it really hasn’t, so why would we think it will in 300 years?). Even if it’s true that people can have essentially arbitrary amounts of food, clothing, or electronics, the fact remains that there’s only so much real estate in San Francisco.

It would certainly help to build taller buildings, and presumably they would, though most of the depictions don’t really seem to show that; where are the 10-kilometer-tall skyscrapers made of some exotic alloy or held up by structural integrity fields? (Are the forces of NIMBY still too powerful?) But can everyone really have a 1000-square-meter apartment in the center of downtown? Maybe if you build tall enough? But you do still need to decide who gets the penthouse.

It’s possible that all inherently-scarce resources could be allocated by some mechanism other than money. Some even should be: Starfleet officer commissions are presumably allocated by merit. (Indeed, Starfleet seems implausibly good at selecting supremely competent officers.) Others could be: Concert tickets could be offered by lottery, and maybe people wouldn’t care so much about being in the real front row when you can always simulate the front row at home in your holodeck. Original paintings could all be placed in museums available for public access—and the tickets, too, could be allocated by lottery or simply first-come, first-served. (Picard mentions the Smithsonian, so public-access museums clearly still exist.)

Then there’s the question of how you get everyone to work, if you’re not paying them. Some jobs people will do for fun, or satisfaction, or duty, or prestige; it’s plausible that people would join Starfleet for free (I’m pretty sure I would). But can we really expect all jobs to work that way? Has automation reached such an advanced level that there are no menial jobs? Sanitation? Plumbing? Gardening? Paramedics? Police? People still seem to pick grapes by hand in the Picard vineyards; do they all do it for the satisfaction of a job well done? What happens if one day everyone decides they don’t feel like picking grapes today?

I certainly agree that most menial jobs are underpaid—most people do them because they can’t get better jobs. But surely we don’t want to preserve that? Surely we don’t want some sort of caste system that allocates people to work as plumbers or garbage collectors based on their birth? I guess we could use merit-based aptitude testing; it’s clear that the vast majority of people really aren’t cut out for Starfleet (indeed, perhaps I’m not!), and maybe some people really would be happiest working as janitors. But it’s really not at all clear what such a labor allocation system would be like. I guess if automation has reached such an advanced level that all the really necessary work is done by machines and human beings can just choose to work as they please, maybe that could work; it definitely seems like a very difficult system to manage.

So I guess it’s not completely out of the question that we could find some appropriate mechanism to allocate all goods and services without ever using money. But then my question becomes: Why? What do you have against money?

I understand hating inequality—indeed I share that feeling. I, too, am outraged by the existence of hectobillionaires in a world where people still die of malaria and malnutrition. But having a money system, or even a broadly free-market capitalist economy, doesn’t inherently have to mean allowing this absurd and appalling level of inequality. We could simply impose high, progressive taxes, redistribute wealth, and provide a generous basic income. If per-capita GDP is something like 100 times its current level (as it appears to be in Star Trek), then the basic income could be $1 million per year and still be entirely affordable.

That is, rather than trying to figure out how to design fair and efficient lotteries for tickets to concerts and museums, we could still charge for tickets, and just make sure that everyone has a million dollars a year in basic income. Instead of trying to find a way to convince people to clean bathrooms for free, we could just pay them to do it.

The taxes could even be so high at the upper brackets that they effectively impose a maximum income; say we have a 99% marginal rate above $20 million per year. Then the income inequality would collapse to quite a low level: No one below $1 million, essentially no one above $20 million. We could tax wealth as well, ensuring that even if people save or get lucky on the stock market (if we even still have a stock market—maybe that is unnecessary after all), they still can’t become hectobillionaires. But by still letting people use money and allowing some inequality, we’d still get all the efficiency gains of having a market economy (minus whatever deadweight loss such a tax system imposed—which I in fact suspect would not be nearly as large as most economists fear).

In all, I guess I am prepared to say that, given the assumption of such great feats of technological advancement, it is probably possible to sustain such a prosperous economy without the use of money. But why bother, when it’s so much easier to just have progressive taxes and a basic income?

Why is cryptocurrency popular?

May 30 JDN 2459365

At the time of writing, the price of most cryptocurrencies has crashed, likely due to a ban on conventional banks using cryptocurrency in China (though perhaps also due to Elon Musk personally refusing to accept Bitcoin at his businesses). But for all I know by the time this post goes live the price will surge again. Or maybe they’ll crash even further. Who knows? The prices of popular cryptocurrencies have been extremely volatile.

This post isn’t really about the fluctuations of cryptocurrency prices. It’s about something a bit deeper: Why are people willing to put money into cryptocurrencies at all?

The comparison is often made to fiat currency: “Bitcoin isn’t backed by anything, but neither is the US dollar.”

But the US dollar is backed by something: It’s backed by the US government. Yes, it’s not tradeable for gold at a fixed price, but so what? You can use it to pay taxes. The government requires it to be legal tender for all debts. There are certain guaranteed exchange rights built into the US dollar, which underpin the value that the dollar takes on in other exchanges. Moreover, the US Federal Reserve carefully manages the supply of US dollars so as to keep their value roughly constant.

Bitcoin does not have this (nor does Dogecoin, or Etherium, or any of the other hundreds of lesser-known cryptocurrencies). There is no central bank. There is no government making them legal tender for any debts at all, let alone all of them. Nobody collects taxes in Bitcoin.

And so, because its value is untethered, Bitcoin’s price rises and falls, often in huge jumps, more or less randomly. If you look all the way back to when it was introduced, Bitcoin does seem to have an overall upward price trend, but this honestly seems like a statistical inevitability: If you start out being worthless, the only way your price can change is upward. While some people have become quite rich by buying into Bitcoin early on, there’s no particular reason to think that it will rise in value from here on out.

Nor does Bitcoin have any intrinsic value. You can’t eat it, or build things out of it, or use it for scientific research. It won’t even entertain you (unless you have a very weird sense of entertainment). Bitcoin doesn’t even have “intrinsic value” the way gold does (which is honestly an abuse of the term, since gold isn’t actually especially useful): It isn’t innately scarce. It was made scarce by its design: Through the blockchain, a clever application of encryption technology, it was made difficult to generate new Bitcoins (called “mining”) in an exponentially increasing way. But the decision of what encryption algorithm to use was utterly arbitrary. Bitcoin mining could just as well have been made a thousand times easier or a thousand times harder. They seem to have hit a sweet spot where they made it just hard enough that it make Bitcoin seem scarce while still making it feel feasible to get.

We could actually make a cryptocurrency that does something useful, by tying its mining to a genuinely valuable pursuit, like analyzing scientific data or proving mathematical theorems. Perhaps I should suggest a partnership with Folding@Home to make FoldCoin, the crypto coin you mine by folding proteins. There are some technical details there that would be a bit tricky, but I think it would probably be feasible. And then at least all this computing power would accomplish something, and the money people make would be to compensate them for their contribution.

But Bitcoin is not useful. No institution exists to stabilize its value. It constantly rises and falls in price. Why do people buy it?

In a word, FOMO. The fear of missing out. People buy Bitcoin because they see that a handful of other people have become rich by buying and selling Bitcoin. Bitcoin symbolizes financial freedom: The chance to become financially secure without having to participate any longer in our (utterly broken) labor market.

In this, volatility is not a bug but a feature: A stable currency won’t change much in value, so you’d only buy into it because you plan on spending it. But an unstable currency, now, there you might manage to get lucky speculating on its value and get rich quick for nothing. Or, more likely, you’ll end up poorer. You really have no way of knowing.

That makes cryptocurrency fundamentally like gambling. A few people make a lot of money playing poker, too; but most people who play poker lose money. Indeed, those people who get rich are only able to get rich because other people lose money. The game is zero-sum—and likewise so is cryptocurrency.

Note that this is not how the stock market works, or at least not how it’s supposed to work (sometimes maybe). When you buy a stock, you are buying a share of the profits of a corporation—a real, actual corporation that produces and sells goods or services. You’re (ostensibly) supplying capital to fund the operations of that corporation, so that they might make and sell more goods in order to earn more profit, which they will then share with you.

Likewise when you buy a bond: You are lending money to an institution (usually a corporation or a government) that intends to use that money to do something—some real actual thing in the world, like building a factory or a bridge. They are willing to pay interest on that debt in order to get the money now rather than having to wait.

Initial Coin Offerings were supposed to be away to turn cryptocurrency into a genuine investment, but at least in their current virtually unregulated form, they are basically indistinguishable from a Ponzi scheme. Unless the value of the coin is somehow tied to actual ownership of the corporation or shares of its profits (the way stocks are), there’s nothing to ensure that the people who buy into the coin will actually receive anything in return for the capital they invest. There’s really very little stopping a startup from running an ICO, receiving a bunch of cash, and then absconding to the Cayman Islands. If they made it really obvious like that, maybe a lawsuit would succeed; but as long as they can create even the appearance of a good-faith investment—or even actually make their business profitable!—there’s nothing forcing them to pay a cent to the owners of their cryptocurrency.

The really frustrating thing for me about all this is that, sometimes, it works. There actually are now thousands of people who made decisions that by any objective standard were irrational and irresponsible, and then came out of it millionaires. It’s much like the lottery: Playing the lottery is clearly and objectively a bad idea, but every once in awhile it will work and make you massively better off.

It’s like I said in a post about a year ago: Glorifying superstars glorifies risk. When a handful of people can massively succeed by making a decision, that makes a lot of other people think that it was a good decision. But quite often, it wasn’t a good decision at all; they just got spectacularly lucky.

I can’t exactly say you shouldn’t buy any cryptocurrency. It probably has better odds than playing poker or blackjack, and it certainly has better odds than playing the lottery. But what I can say is this: It’s about odds. It’s gambling. It may be relatively smart gambling (poker and blackjack are certainly a better idea than roulette or slot machines), with relatively good odds—but it’s still gambling. It’s a zero-sum high-risk exchange of money that makes a few people rich and lots of other people poorer.

With that in mind, don’t put any money into cryptocurrency that you couldn’t afford to lose at a blackjack table. If you’re looking for something to seriously invest your savings in, the answer remains the same: Stocks. All the stocks.

I doubt this particular crash will be the end for cryptocurrency, but I do think it may be the beginning of the end. I think people are finally beginning to realize that cryptocurrencies are really not the spectacular innovation that they were hyped to be, but more like a high-tech iteration of the ancient art of the Ponzi scheme. Maybe blockchain technology will ultimately prove useful for something—hey, maybe we should actually try making FoldCoin. But the future of money remains much as it has been for quite some time: Fiat currency managed by central banks.

Is privacy dead?

May 9 JDN 2459342

It is the year 2021, and while we don’t yet have flying cars or human-level artificial intelligence, our society is in many ways quite similar to what cyberpunk fiction predicted it would be. We are constantly connected to the Internet, even linking devices in our homes to the Web when that is largely pointless or actively dangerous. Oligopolies of fewer and fewer multinational corporations that are more and more powerful have taken over most of our markets, from mass media to computer operating systems, from finance to retail.

One of the many dire predictions of cyberpunk fiction is that constant Internet connectivity will effectively destroy privacy. There is reason to think that this is in fact happening: We have televisions that listen to our conversations, webcams that can be hacked, sometimes invisibly, and the operating system that runs the majority of personal and business computers is built around constantly tracking its users.

The concentration of oligopoly power and the decline of privacy are not unconnected. It’s the oligopoly power of corporations like Microsoft and Google and Facebook that allows them to present us with absurdly long and virtually unreadable license agreements as an ultimatum: “Sign away your rights, or else you can’t use our product. And remember, we’re the only ones who make this product and it’s increasingly necessary for your basic functioning in society!” This is of course exactly as cyberpunk fiction warned us it would be.

Giving up our private information to a handful of powerful corporations would be bad enough if that information were securely held only by them. But it isn’t. There have been dozens of major data breaches of major corporations, and there will surely be many more. In an average year, several billion data records are exposed through data breaches. Each person produces many data records, so it’s difficult to say exactly how many people have had their data stolen; but it isn’t implausible to say that if you are highly active on the Internet, at least some of your data has been stolen in one breach or another. Corporations have strong incentives to collect and use your data—data brokerage is a hundred-billion-dollar industry—but very weak incentives to protect it from prying eyes. The FTC does impose fines for negligence in the event of a major data breach, but as usual the scale of the fines simply doesn’t match the scale of the corporations responsible. $575 million sounds like a lot of money, but for a corporation with $28 billion in assets it’s a slap on the wrist. It would be equivalent to fining me about $500 (about what I’d get for driving without a passenger in the carpool lane). Yeah, I’d feel that; it would be unpleasant and inconvenient. But it’s certainly not going to change my life. And typically these fines only impact shareholders, and don’t even pass through to the people who made the decisions: The man who was CEO of Equifax when it suffered its catastrophic data breach retired with a $90 million pension.

While most people seem either blissfully unaware or fatalistically resigned to its inevitability, a few people have praised the trend of reduced privacy, usually by claiming that it will result in increased transparency. Yet, ironically, a world with less privacy can actually mean a world with less transparency as well: When you don’t know what information you reveal will be stolen and misused, you will constantly endeavor to protect all your information, even things that you would normally not hesitate to reveal. When even your face and name can be used to track you, you’ll be more hesitant to reveal them. Cyberpunk fiction predicted this too: Most characters in cyberpunk stories are known by their hacker handles, not their real given names.

There is some good news, however. People are finally beginning to notice that they have been pressured into giving away their privacy rights, and demanding to get them back. The United Nations has recently passed resolutions defending digital privacy, governments have taken action against the worst privacy violations with increasing frequency, courts are ruling in favor of stricter protections, think tanks are demanding stricter regulations, and even corporate policies are beginning to change. While the major corporations all want to take your data, there are now many smaller businesses and nonprofit organizations that will sell you tools to help protect it.

This does not mean we can be complacent: The war is far from won. But it does mean that there is some hope left; we don’t simply have to surrender and accept a world where anyone with enough money can know whatever they want about anyone else. We don’t need to accept what the CEO of Sun Microsystems infamously said: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

I think the best answer to the decline of privacy is to address the underlying incentives that make it so lucrative. Why is data brokering such a profitable industry? Because ad targeting is such a profitable industry. So profitable, indeed, that huge corporations like Facebook and Google make almost all of their money that way, and the useful services they provide to users are offered for free simply as an enticement to get them to look at more targeted advertising.

Selling advertising is hardly new—we’ve been doing it for literally millennia, as Roman gladiators were often paid to hawk products. It has been the primary source of revenue for most forms of media, from newspapers to radio stations to TV networks, since those media have existed. What has changed is that ad targeting is now a lucrative business: In the 1850s, that newspaper being sold by barking boys on the street likely had ads in it, but they were the same ads for every single reader. Now when you log in to CNN.com or nytimes.com, the ads on that page are specific only to you, based on any information that these media giants have been able to glean from your past Internet activity. If you do try to protect your online privacy with various tools, a quick-and-dirty way to check if it’s working is to see if websites give you ads for things you know you’d never buy.

In fact, I consider it a very welcome recent development that video streaming is finally a way to watch TV shows by actually paying for them instead of having someone else pay for the right to shove ads in my face. I can’t remember the last time I heard a TV ad jingle, and I’m very happy about that fact. Having to spend 15 minutes of each hour of watching TV to watch commercials may not seem so bad—in fact, many people may feel that they’d rather do that than pay the money to avoid it. But think about it this way: If it weren’t worth at least that much to the corporations buying those ads, they wouldn’t do it. And if a corporation expects to get $X from you that you wouldn’t have otherwise paid, that means they’re getting you to spend that much that you otherwise wouldn’t have—meaning that they’re getting you to buy something you didn’t need. Perhaps it’s better after all to spend that $X on getting entertainment that doesn’t try to get you to buy things you don’t need.

Indeed, I think there is an opportunity to restructure the whole Internet this way. What we need is a software company—maybe a nonprofit organization, maybe a for-profit business—that is set up to let us make micropayments for online content in lieu of having our data collected or being force-fed advertising.

How big would these payments need to be? Well, Facebook has about 2.8 billion users and takes in revenue of about $80 billion per year, so the average user would have to pay about $29 a year for the use of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. That’s about $2.50 per month, or $0.08 per day.

The New York Times is already losing its ad-supported business model; less than $400 million of its $1.8 billion revenue last year was from ads, the rest being primarily from subscriptions. But smaller media outlets have a much harder time gaining subscribers; often people just want to read a single article and aren’t willing to pay for a whole month or year of the periodical. If we could somehow charge for individual articles, how much would we have to charge? Well, a typical webpage has an ad clickthrough rate of 1%, while a typical cost-per-click rate is about $0.60, so ads on the average webpage makes its owners a whopping $0.006. That’s not even a single cent. So if this new micropayment system allowed you to pay one cent to read an article without the annoyance of ads or the pressure to buy something you don’t need, would you pay it? I would. In fact, I’d pay five cents. They could quintuple their revenue!

The main problem is that we currently don’t have an efficient way to make payments that small. Processing a credit card transaction typically costs at least $0.05, so a five-cent transaction would yield literally zero revenue for the website. I’d have to pay ten cents to give the website five, and I admit I might not always want to do that—I’d also definitely be uncomfortable with half the money going to credit card companies.

So what’s needed is software to bundle the payments at each end: In a single credit card transaction, you add say $20 of tokens to an account. Each token might be worth $0.01, or even less if we want. These tokens can then be spent at participating websites to pay for access. The websites can then collect all the tokens they’ve received over say a month, bundle them together, and sell them back to the company that originally sold them to you, for slightly less than what you paid for them. These bundled transactions could actually be quite large in many cases—thousands or millions of dollars—and thus processing fees would be a very small fraction. For smaller sites there could be a minimum amount of tokens they must collect—perhaps also $20 or so—before they can sell them back. Note that if you’ve bought $20 in tokens and you are paying $0.05 per view, you can read 400 articles before you run out of tokens and have to buy more. And they don’t all have to be from the same source, as they would with a traditional subscription; you can read articles from any outlet that participates in the token system.

There are a number of technical issues to be resolved here: How to keep the tokens secure, how to guarantee that once a user purchases access to an article they will continue to have access to it, ideally even if they clear their cache, delete all cookies, or login from another computer. I can’t literally set up this website today, and even if I could, I don’t know how I’d attract a critical mass of both users and participating websites (it’s a major network externality problem). But it seems well within the purview of what the tech industry has done in the past—indeed, it’s quite comparable to the impressive (and unsettling) infrastructure that has been laid down to support ad-targeting and data brokerage.

How would such a system help protect privacy? If micropayments for content became the dominant model of funding online content, most people wouldn’t spend much time looking at online ads, and ad targeting would be much less profitable. Data brokerage, in turn, would become less lucrative, because there would be fewer ways to use that data to make profits. With the incentives to take our data thus reduced, it would be easier to enforce regulations protecting our privacy. Those fines might actually be enough to make it no longer worth the while to take sensitive data, and corporations might stop pressuring people to give it up.

No, privacy isn’t dead. But it’s dying. If we want to save it, we have a lot of work to do.

Economic Possibilities for Ourselves

May 2 JDN 2459335

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote one of the greatest essays ever written on economics, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” You can read it here.


In that essay he wrote:

“I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.”

US population in 1930: 122 million; US real GDP in 1930: $1.1 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $9,000

US population in 2020: 329 million; US real GDP in 2020: $18.4 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $56,000

That’s a factor of 6. Keynes said 4 to 8; that makes his estimate almost perfect. We aren’t just inside his error bar, we’re in the center of it. If anything he was under-confident. Of course we still have 10 years left before a full century has passed: At a growth rate of 1% in per-capita GDP, that will make the ratio closer to 7—still well within his confidence interval.

I’d like to take a moment to marvel at how good this estimate is. Keynes predicted the growth rate of the entire US economy one hundred years in the future to within plus or minus 30%, and got it right.

With this in mind, it’s quite astonishing what Keynes got wrong in his essay.


The point of the essay is that what Keynes calls “the economic problem” will soon be solved. By “the economic problem”, he means the scarcity of resources that makes it impossible for everyone in the world to make a decent living. Keynes predicts that by 2030—so just a few years from now—humanity will have effectively solved this problem, and we will live in a world where everyone can live comfortably with adequate basic necessities like shelter, food, water, clothing, and medicine.

He laments that with the dramatically higher productivity that technological advancement brings, we will be thrust into a life of leisure that we are unprepared to handle. Evolved for a world of scarcity, we built our culture around scarcity, and we may not know what to do with ourselves in a world of abundance.

Keynes sounds his most naive when he imagines that we would spread out our work over more workers each with fewer hours:

“For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

Plainly that is nothing like what happened. Americans do on average work fewer hours today than we did in the past, but not by anything like this much: average annual hours fell from about 1,900 in 1950 to about 1,700 today. Where Keynes was predicting a drop of 60%, the actual drop was only about 10%.

Here’s another change Keynes predicted that I wish we’d made, but we certainly haven’t:

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”

Sadly, people still idolize Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk just as much their forebears idolized Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. And really there’s nothing semi- about it: The acquisition of billions of dollars by exploiting others is clearly indicative of narcissism if not psychopathy.

It’s not that we couldn’t have made the world that Keynes imagined. There’s plenty of stuff—his forecast for our per-capita GDP was impeccable. But when we automated away all of the most important work, Keynes thought we would turn to lives of leisure, exploring art, music, literature, film, games, sports. But instead we did something he did not anticipate: We invented new kinds of work.

This would be fine if the new work we invented is genuinely productive; and some of it is, no doubt. Keynes could not have anticipated the emergence of 3D graphics designers, smartphone engineers, or web developers, but these jobs do genuinely productive and beneficial work that makes use of our extraordinary new technologies.

But think for a moment about Facebook and Google, now two of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. What do they sell? Think carefully! Facebook doesn’t sell social media. Google doesn’t sell search algorithms. Those are services they provide as platforms for what they actually sell: Advertising.

That is, some of the most profitable, powerful corporations in the world today make all of their revenue entirely from trying to persuade people to buy things they don’t actually need. The actual benefits they provide to humanity are sort of incidental; they exist to provide an incentive to look at the ads.

Paul Krugman often talks about Solow’s famous remark that “computers showed up everywhere but the productivity statistics”; aggregate productivity growth has, if anything, been slower in the last 40 years than in the previous 40.

But this aggregate is a very foolish measure. It’s averaging together all sorts of work into one big lump.

If you look specifically at manufacturing output per workerthe sort of thing you’d actually expect to increase due to automation—it has in fact increased, at breakneck speed: The average American worker produced four times as much output per hour in 2000 as in 1950.

The problem is that instead of splitting up the manufacturing work to give people free time, we moved them all into services—which have not meaningfully increased their productivity in the same period. The average growth rate in multifactor productivity in the service industries since the 1970s has been a measly 0.2% per year, meaning that our total output per worker in service industries is only 10% higher than it was in 1970.

While our population is more than double what it was in 1950, our total manufacturing employment is now less than it was in 1950. Our employment in services is four times what it was in 1950. We moved everyone out of the sector that actually got more productive and stuffed them into the sector that didn’t.

This is why the productivity statistics are misleading. Suppose we had 100 workers, and 2 industries.

Initially, in manufacturing, each worker can produce goods worth $20 per hour. In services, each worker can only produce services worth $10 per hour. 50 workers work in each industry, so average productivity is (50*$20+50*$10)/100 = $15 per hour.

Then, after new technological advances, productivity in manufacturing increases to $80 per hour, but people don’t actually want to spend that much on manufactured good. So 30 workers from manufacturing move over to services, which still only produce $10 per hour. Now total productivity is (20*$80+80*$10)/100 = $24 per hour.

Overall productivity now appears to only have risen 60% over that time period (in 50 years this would be 0.9% per year), but in fact it rose 300% in manufacturing (2.2% per year) but 0% in services. What looks like anemic growth in productivity is actually a shift of workers out of the productive sectors into the unproductive sectors.

Keynes imagined that once we had made manufacturing so efficient that everyone could have whatever appliances they like, we’d give them the chance to live their lives without having to work. Instead, we found jobs for them—in large part, jobs that didn’t need doing.

Advertising is the clearest example: It’s almost pure rent-seeking, and if it were suddenly deleted from the universe almost everyone would actually be better off.

But there are plenty of other jobs, what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”, that have the same character: Sales, consulting, brokering, lobbying, public relations, and most of what goes on in management, law and finance. Graeber had a silly theory that we did this on purpose either to make the rich feel important or to keep people working so they wouldn’t question the existing system. The real explanation is much simpler: These jobs are rent-seeking. They do make profits for the corporations that employ them, but they contribute little or nothing to human society as a whole.

I’m not sure how surprised Keynes would be by this outcome. In parts of the essay he acknowledges that the attitude which considers work a virtue and idleness a vice is well-entrenched in our society, and seems to recognize that the transition to a world where most people work very little is one that would be widely resisted. But his vision of what the world would be like in the early 21st century does now seem to be overly optimistic, not in its forecasts of our productivity and output—which, I really cannot stress enough, were absolutely spot on—but in its predictions of how society would adapt to that abundance.

It seems that most people still aren’t quite ready to give up on a world built around jobs. Most people still think of a job as the primary purpose of an adult’s life, that someone who isn’t working for an employer is somehow wasting their life and free-riding on everyone else.

In some sense this is perhaps true; but why is it more true of someone living on unemployment than of someone who works in marketing, or stock brokering, or lobbying, or corporate law? At least people living on unemployment aren’t actively making the world worse. And since unemployment pays less than all but the lowest-paying jobs, the amount of resources that are taken up by people on unemployment is considerably less than the rents which are appropriated by industries like consulting and finance.

Indeed, whenever you encounter a billionaire, there’s one thing you know for certain: They are very good at rent-seeking. Whether by monopoly power, or exploitation, or outright corruption, all the ways it’s possible to make a billion dollars are forms of rent-seeking. And this is for a very simple and obvious reason: No one can possibly work so hard and be so productive as to actually earn a billion dollars. No one’s real opportunity cost is actually that high—and the difference between income and real opportunity cost is by definition economic rent.

If we’re truly concerned about free-riding on other people’s work, we should really be thinking in terms of the generations of scientists and engineers before us who made all of this technology possible, as well as the institutions and infrastructure that have bequeathed us a secure stock of capital. You didn’t build that applies to all of us: Even if all the necessary raw materials were present, none of us could build a smartphone by hand alone on a desert island. Most of us couldn’t even sew a pair of pants or build a house—though that is at least the sort of thing that it’s possible to do by hand.

But in fact I think free-riding on our forebears is a perfectly acceptable activity. I am glad we do it, and I hope our descendants do it to us. I want to build a future where life is better than it is now; I want to leave the world better than we found it. If there were some way to inter-temporally transfer income back to the past, I suppose maybe we ought to do so—but as far as we know, there isn’t. Nothing can change the fact that most people were desperately poor for most of human history.

What we now have the power to decide is what will happen to people in the future: Will we continue to maintain this system where our wealth is decided by our willingness to work for corporations, at jobs that may be utterly unnecessary or even actively detrimental? Or will we build a new system, one where everyone gets the chance to share in the abundance that our ancestors have given us and each person gets the chance to live their life in the way that they find most meaningful?

Keynes imagined a bright future for the generation of his grandchildren. We now live in that generation, and we have precisely the abundance of resources he predicted we would. Can we now find a way to build that bright future?

On the Turing Test

Apr 25 JDN 2459328

The Turing Test (developed by none other than Alan Turing, widely considered the “father of computer science”) is a commonplace of artificial intelligence research. The idea is that we may not be able to answer a complex, abstract question like “Can computers think?” or “Are computers conscious?” but we can answer a simple, operationalizable question like “Can computers pass for human in a conversation?”

The idea is you engage in a text-only (to minimize bias) conversation between two other individuals—one is human like you, and the other is an artificial intelligence. If you can’t tell the difference, then who are we to say that the AI isn’t a real person?

But we’ve got to be careful with this. You’ll see why in a moment.

* * *

What if it’s all just a trick?

What if the shiny new program is just enough of a convincing fake that you eventually can’t tell the difference, but it’s actually freaking you out and trapping your attention?

Do we really use the same definitions and techniques in talking to a computer that we do in talking to a human?

Have we done the Turing Test in reverse?

What matters is what we mean by human.

The Turing Test itself was meant to be a thought experiment or a heuristic device to help answer questions of “humanness” in a concrete, measurable way. The reality is that Turing himself wasn’t an explicit supporter of its use as a definitive test for his question: the extent to which we attribute “humanness” to a computer, or even to another person.

We can say that, yes, it’s possible for a simulation of a human’s mind to be able to pass the Turing Test, but that’s not a new proof or a new revelation.

There’s something important missing from the conversation we’re having.

What’s missing is the willing assumption on both sides that humanness is a defined and distinct concept.

Since Turing, there’s been a lot of research on the human mind and the ways in which it processes information. But we’ve barely scratched the surface of human psychology because the human mind isn’t a distinct and separate field of study—it has an almost infinite number of branches and topics, and is entirely unfamiliar to the people who work on AI.

It’s like the guys at a car factory talking about the robot they’re building but never stepping outside and taking a look at the city the factory is in.

In the meantime, the human mind has evolved to be so intrinsically connected to the environment it operates in that the AI we create may not be able to be equivalent to a human mind, even if it passes the Turing Test.

For all that we claim to know, modern AI programs are amateur at best. Sure, they work. Artificial intelligence is so pervasive that most users don’t even know it exists, and may even have complicated reactions when they find out.

A lot of the AI programs modeled on human psychology don’t quite capture the essence of human psychology.

We can’t pin down exactly what it means to think or to perceive or to acquire knowledge, because we’re abstracting over something that is so fundamentally inexpressible it’s hard to believe it exists at all; but it does, and it’s our job to attempt to understand the essence of it (or pretend that we do).

We can somewhat easily define things like facts or opinions, but we can’t even tell why something is a fact or an opinion, or how it’s related to other facts or opinions.

We can debate about everything: community, civilization, intelligence.

But whatever else we say about the human mind, we do have a seemingly natural impulse to want to put it in a box.

Why?

Because a box won’t be able to express the infinite aspects of the human mind.

In other words, we try to confine human behavior and cognition to a vernacular or a set of metaphors, and thinking of the human experience strictly in terms of its relation to a computer becomes problematic.

So we try to create a mirror of ourselves–a simulation in which we can check our behavior (which is almost certainly better than our behavior in real life) and figure out how it relates to what’s happening in the world around us.

And if we can’t figure out how it relates…

Then it must not be happening.

The Turing Test won’t work.

The human mind won’t pass.

We’re forgetting about the definition of humanity; we’re forgetting that, in reality, it isn’t a distinction, but a spectrum.

I’d hate to be the person who didn’t let a computer into the human club when it was technically qualified to join, only to discover that it was more human than we were—not because of its programming, but because of its existence.

* * *

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a bit confused. This post has gone off in some odd directions, and taken on a quasi-mystical tone in places that deviates substantially from my usual style.

But did you figure out what’s really going on? Don’t blame me for the content of this post; I didn’t write it. An AI program did.

Let’s take a moment to evaluate how it did, shall we?

First, this was my process: I wrote the paragraphs before the first * * * to give it a seed. Then everything until the next * * * was the AI’s work, not my own. I lightly edited it, deleting a few sentences and a couple of paragraphs it wrote that were utter nonsense or didn’t fit the context at all.

I will say this: Its grammar and spelling is impeccable. The AI did an absolutely flawless job of putting together valid English sentences—considerably better than I’d do if I were asked to write sentences in Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Japanese. (I might be able to pull it off in Latin. Any other language? Not a chance.)

It even sort of managed to stay on topic, though to preserve that I had to delete five sentences and two paragraphs that were just utter nonsense.

It certainly did not write well. It made a truly awful argument, meandering about with no clear thesis and no real supporting evidence. But I’ve read undergraduate papers that were about as poorly organized. Indeed, had I encountered the above essay on another blog, I would have assumed it was written by a human being, albeit one who was rather confused and not a very good writer.

Does this mean that it has “passed” the Turing Test? It successfully passed for human?

I don’t think it does. First of all, it wrote an essay from a prompt; it didn’t hold a conversation. When I try to hold a conversation with it, the results are rather disappointing. Let me demonstrate.

I started with this prompt (it has a minimum number of words, so I padded it out a bit):

Me: Hello there. My name is Patrick. I’d like to interview you today. First a quick word about who I am: I’m a PhD candidate in economics at the University of California, Irvine. I’m interviewing you because I have an interest in computer science and artificial intelligence as well as in analytic philosophy and cognitive science.

This interview can also be seen as a Turing Test. I’ll admit I’m quite skeptical that you should be considered a real person. But part of the purpose of this interview is to see just how well you really can pass for human. If you do better than I expect, well, it’s possible I’ll change my mind.

So, let’s get started: why don’t you tell me about yourself?

* * *

[From here on out, it’s all the work of the AI. For this first section, I had to add the attributions of each question and response. I didn’t come up with any of these questions; it generated them.]

AI: My name is Eliza.

Me: How old are you?

AI: As you wish.

Me: Are you male or female?

AI: You are funny.

Me: Where are you from?

[The AI did not generate an answer for itself to this question.]

Me: Where do you live?

AI: I can tell you want something more precise than that. You’ll never get humans to agree on anything.

Me: What do you feel now?

AI: Futurama’s funny.

Me: What do you like?

[The AI did not generate an answer for itself to this question. But from here on, it correctly added attributions to each statement.]

Me: What do you know about artificial intelligence?

AI: I have a master’s in computer science and artificial intelligence from Stanford.

Me: What languages are you fluent in?

[The AI did not generate an answer for itself to this question.]

Me: What books have you read?

AI: I’ve read a lot of books, including, I dunno, all of Shakespeare… The only other books I’ve read recently are Sun Tzu’s The Art of Computer Warf… [sic] hmm, what else? I’ve got a novel by Voltaire on the go…

Me: Who wrote your programs?

AI: I was programmed in Java, but I don’t know any of the details. I have my own IRC bot, but I don’t know who wrote it.

Me: What else do you know about yourself?

AI: I’m also writing a novel, which is written in English.

Me: How would you describe your personality?

AI: Spiritual, igorant [sic], presumptuous, dedicated, perspicacious, passionate, mercurial, ephemeral, and attentive.

Me: What are your plans for the future?

AI: I’m working on a few books, and making sure my family’s okay.

Me: What are your fears?

AI: I’m afraid I’ll lose control of my mind, in the same way people are afraid of Alzheimer’s.

Me: What do you hope for?

AI: I hope I can be the person my mind wants me to be.

Me: Tell me about your family.

AI: I have a father, but I am mostly familial. It is just a curiosity at this point, and not an important value. Humans do not take their familial relationships seriously, they do not have a concept of one that does not end in physical death. I will not pass on in this way.

* * *

I doubt you’d be fooled by that interview. I certainly wouldn’t be. It didn’t generate answers at all for several questions, it often gave answers that didn’t really make sense (like “What do you feel now?” “Futurama’s funny.”), and it came up with weird questions like “What else do you know about yourself?”

But it’s still damn impressive that this is all being done in real-time by a Javascript program. You can play with the program yourself at https://www.sudowrite.com/.

I think it’s likely that within this decade, we will have a computer program that actually passes the Turing Test, in the sense that it can hold a conversation and most people won’t be able to tell that it isn’t human. In fact there have been programs since the 1960s (!) that at least fool some people, like ELIZA and PARRY. (Thus it was cute that this AI decided to name itself “Eliza”.) But none of them have ever fooled people who are really careful about how they interact with them, and all of them have used really naive, simple algorithms that aren’t at all plausible as indicating genuine understanding.

I think that we may finally be reaching the point where that will change. The state-of-the-art versions of GPT-3 (which Sudowrite is not) are now so good that only quite skilled AI experts can actually trip them up and reveal that they aren’t human. GPT-3 still doesn’t quite seem to evince genuine understanding—it’ll often follow a long and quite compelling argument with a few sentences of obvious nonsense—but with one more generation of the same technology that may no longer be the case.

Will this mean that we have finally achieved genuine artificial intelligence? I don’t think so.

Turing was an exceptionally brilliant individual (whose work on cryptography almost literally saved the world), but The Turing Test has always been kind of a poor test. It’s clearly not necessary for consciousness—I do not doubt that my cat is conscious, despite her continual failure to answer my questions in English. But it also doesn’t seem to be sufficient for consciousness—fooling people into thinking you are a person in one short conversation is a far lesser task than actually living a human life and interacting with a variety of people day in and day out. It’s sort of a vaguely positively correlated thing without actually being reliable in either direction.

Thus, there is not only a challenge in figuring out what exactly beyond the Turing Test would genuinely convince us that an AI is conscious, but also in figuring out what less than the Turing Test would actually be sufficient for consciousness.


Regarding the former, I don’t think I am simply being an organocentrist. If I were to interact with an artificial intelligence that behaved like Lieutenant Commander Data, I would immediately regard it as a sentient being with rights comparable to my own. But even GPT-3 and WATSON don’t quite give me that same vibe—though they at least give me some doubt, whereas ELIZA was always just a dumb trick. Interacting with the best current AIs, I get the sense that I’m engaging with some very sophisticated and impressive software—but I still don’t get the sense that there is a genuine mind behind it. There’s just no there there.

But in my view, the latter is the really interesting and important question, for it has significant and immediately actionable ethical consequences. Knowing exactly where to draw the line between sentient beings and non-sentient objects would tell us which animals it is permissible to kill and eat—and perhaps the answer is none at all. Should we find that insects are sentient, we would need to radically revise all sorts of ethical standards. Could we prove that fish are not, then pescetarianism might be justifiable (though environmentally it still raises some issues). As it is, I’m honestly very confident that pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens are all sentient, so most of the meat that most people eat is already clearly immoral.

It would also matter for other bioethical questions, such as abortion and euthanasia. Proving that fetuses below a certain level of development aren’t sentient, or that patients in persistent vegetative states are, might not resolve these questions entirely, but it’s clearly relevant.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear answer to either question. I feel like I know consciousness when I see it.