Strategic High Skill Immigration

byGentzel1y6th Dec 20178 comments


How to improve the global economy, increase strategic stability, and safeguard the far future.

Part 1: The current situation: shifting balance of power

When trying to help people at scale, it is often prudent to go beyond direct interventions and to seek equilibria which are in the long run interest of humanity, especially if we assign any significant value to the far future. From this we can derive the instrumental value of reducing risks which are multi-generational or permanent in nature, and ensuring the safe development of transformative technologies which could pose immense risks either on their own or in the wrong hands. Historically, wars and state competition have had a great deal of influence on these sorts of concerns: competitions between nations can lead to arms races that produce new dangerous or beneficial technologies, the destruction of wars themselves can have permanent effects, and the victors of wars determine the institutions which govern humanity and its technology going forward in time.

As China’s economic growth continues to outpace US economic growth, and its military expenditure as a percentage of GDP continues to remain stable it is plausible that the US and China may find themselves in a different equilibrium from the current peace they are used to, and plausibly a similar trap to the one the UK and Germany faced just before WW1. Though the British Empire spanned much of the globe and had the largest Navy in the world, in 1898 Germany began a naval arms race with Britain, just before 1914 the German economy caught up, and shortly after World War 1 followed.

Known as the Thucydides Trap, in 12 out of 16 cases where a rising power challenged an established power in the past 500 years, war was the result. Though the pattern may seem surprising, it is rather consistent: with no outside enforcer with coercive power to make peace agreements between great powers trustworthy, it is fairly difficult for countries to credibly commit to one of the many outcomes that leaves both parties better off than war, especially since as the rising power becomes more powerful, it continuously gains negotiating advantage, while the formerly ruling power loses it. In the four cases above where war was avoided, one involved a prior war, and external intervention by the pope, two cases involved competing allies, and the remaining case was the rise of the Soviet Union, which never actually matched the economy of the United States.

While China’s economy could stagnate due to the structure of its institutions, or it could fail to compete with the US on a military level due to a technological research disadvantage and lack of alliances, China will likely still close in on US dominance as it builds a larger Navy, further exceeds US GDP, disproportionately invests in artificial intelligence, and continues to be less inhibited from genetically modifying humans.

Though the overall economic interests of the US Government and the Chinese Government are fairly aligned, and China has much warmer relations with the US than the Soviet Union did, there are likely to be areas where China could benefit more by further expanding its interest in foreign countries at the expense of US interests once China is in a position of relative power. From the considerations above, we can see that the long term pressures on the US and China (established power vs. growing economic power) will likely lead to conflict (though not necessarily war given deterrence, economic interdependence, and the many norms toward peace in the modern era) and that such conflict could further encourage technology races in areas which are of great concern for the far future, such as AI and human genetic engineering.

To handle this situation, international agreements are valuable for slowing military tech races but they may be hard to generate for many reasons. While economic benefits of not having an arms race are often win-win, some benefits are positional (e.g. being a central node in a trade network), and countries may not accept an economic win-win trade that gives their rival a positional strategic advantage. Even worse, as technologies such as AI and human enhancement will impact economic productivity, there is not even necessarily an immediate economic win-win from generating agreement, just the potential to reduce future risks which current decision makers might discount. While the US and Russia/the Soviet Union were able to generate risk reducing agreements (*cough cough* which Russia cheats on a lot), these were partially caused by agreement on the analysis of the situation: both sides could agree peace and survival was more likely in one equilibrium than another. Unlike debating nuclear weapons of specific speeds, ranges, and numbers of re-entry vehicles, AI has many more applications which could be destabilizing in some manner and generate a strategic advantage for the country deploying more advanced AI systems first. Further, unlike nuclear testing, which is hard to conceal (though Russia still does small yield tests despite the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), many AI systems can likely be deployed online without being noticed. Being a much more complex space, it may take substantially longer to analyze the possibilities (of which there are more than humans can imagine, as smarter than human AI will be more intelligent than humans) and agree on regulations that would put both parties in a better equilibrium. Even if countries could agree on the strategic implications of AI (which might be its own risk, because understanding the actual situation involves having a sense of each other’s capabilities, which may incentivize further racing) the rate of innovation could quickly render such agreements not useful due to unpredicted changes in the balance of power, and the slow pace of policy change. Unless the consequences of cheating on agreements are unambiguously worse than cooperating in the minds of policymakers, cheating will occur, and it will occur disproportionately with governments that can conceal activities from investigation. If these sorts of problems can’t be resolved (and we should try very hard to resolve them!), it is valuable to have a backup plan for creating a safe policy environment for the development and deployment of transformative technologies, without having to get every world power to agree on exactly what that environment will be.

While historically, monopoly of force has been a mechanism by which coordination problems are resolved, this does not mean war would be necessary. If in anticipation of the nuclear bomb, one country had monopolized uranium (though unrealistic due to its geographic distribution), there would not have been as much potential for nuclear arms race conditions to develop. The country with control of such resources would be so decisively ahead that other countries pursuing such resources would increase their risk via attracting attention more than they would decrease their risk by shrinking the advantage of the first mover.

A different kind of resource, even more important to the development of such powerful technologies is human capital. The ability of countries to gain and hold highly intelligent people greatly affects their economic and strategic outlook. As concrete examples, nuclear weapons and strategy in the US and China were greatly influenced by the migration of John von Neumann and Quan Xuesen respectively. To compete for the best and brightest, countries may engage in a credible virtue signaling contest of sorts. In the 1940s the US gained human capital at the expense of the USSR and Nazi Germany by being more “virtuous” while China gained Quan Xuesen in 1955s as the result of the US’s unfair behavior toward him in the preceding years and hawkish stance toward China at the time. Such competitions on virtue signaling are preferable to arms races which produce weapons, or other projects that generate new types of intelligence that may generate larger alignment risks than they are equipped to handle (eg. a certain kind of surveillance state doesn’t have to keep the public happy to stay in power). As opposed to creating new abilities, competitions for fixed resources mostly don’t generate new risks. At the worst, a weapons engineer may be more productive in one country than another, but the number of skilled weapon engineers is not increased without additional interventions such as espionage. As having the best minds is a key constraint on developing highly sensitive technologies, a party that chooses not to engage in credible virtue signaling, in favor of racing in another direction may lose advantage in the long run which makes this sort of competition potentially stable and may partially offset other more harmful races (both by costing resources, and by causing brain drain which may prevent certain countries from being capable of arms races in the first place).

So far the framework above implies a model of states as unified rational actors, while in reality they consist of coalitions which are not always aligned toward the central goals of a state, but rather toward those of the smaller groups and individuals. In democracies, broad distribution of power helps keep the government more aligned with its population, but reduces the ability to coordinate on contentious issues and to behave strategically in the long run, hence there may be low hanging fruit where democracies can behave more strategically at low cost. On the other hand, in less democratic systems, top down force can resolve internal coordination problems and get things done but, this power is not necessarily aligned with the population, and can be precarious since when some loyalties switch, a new dominant coalition may develop absolute power. Overall this implies both that high skill immigrants are likely to prefer to live in democratic systems, and that such systems are less able to abuse any advantages over other countries that they gain from such immigrants.

Part 2: The arguments

In bullet point form below, we discuss the potential benefits of further liberalizing immigration policy for individuals of high skill or potential, and ways to address the potential risks of such policy changes.

Strategic benefits of high skill immigration for the far future:

(click each section below for justifying bullet points)

With high skill immigration less restrained, the natural coalescing of top talent increases differentials in progress between leaders and followers: some countries would get more of an advantage in AI and other transformative technologies than others, which reduces competitive pressure, allowing more resources to be allocated to safe design and safe deployment of new technologies rather than to just staying ahead in tech races.

  • People vote with their feet: the places with the systems that most credibly signal respect for their citizens interests disproportionately gain in an equilibrium with increased high skill/high potential immigration between countries.
    • During the Manhattan project, many physicists deliberately chose to work for the United States since they did not want the Nazis to get the atomic bomb. (e.g. Klaus Fuchs, John von Neumann, and various other scientists.) Countries that offer the greatest respect for the rights of their citizens, can credibly offer greater security for intellectuals and researchers than those which hold political prisoners.

Higher mobility for the highly skilled allows them to move to the systems that are most in their interests: the altruistic can move to systems where they have greater leverage, while the less altruistic can go where they can expect to personally benefit the most. As the best run systems will tend to both have more economic opportunities and larger government budgets, both groups are likely concentrate in the same countries, leaving governments where rational altruists can gain influence more resources at their disposal due to higher tax revenues from immigration driven increases in economic growth.

  • While people have many interests, and local incentives can determine the types of behavior otherwise selfish or otherwise altruistic people would take, competitive processes will most reward effective optimizers, so it is important to account for the incentives that cause people to seek the highest leverage positions in governance structures.
  • Intelligent local optimizers (people who’d like to become personally rich, famous, (locally) powerful, etc.) are more likely to head to the private sector in the US, while in countries with less inclusive institutions they compete for control of the treasury, natural resources, and aid from inside the government (e.g. resource curse) displacing global optimizers. Even as China’s economy develops, creating more opportunities to grow wealth outside of government, there is still a stronger incentive for local optimizers to head to government since the dominant strategy for local optimizers in less inclusive systems is to aim more directly for power.
    • While plenty of low level public servants are incompetent and many of the altruistically oriented may not be rational, nonetheless it is those more rational and altruistic that disproportionately make it to the highest leverage civil service positions in countries that have better economic opportunities for the highly skilled outside government.
      • This may seem hard to justify, but broadly there are many people with high earning capacity who nevertheless chose to go into lower paid policy positions to improve the quality of decisions that benefit others.
        • People with prestigious quantitative PhDs working as running government agencies/activities, etc.
        • Yale/Harvard JD’s working as senior career congressional staffers on committees such as the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, for 150k/year instead of in private practice for $600K to $1+ million/year.

      • Basically, the private sector is more likely to pay people a what they can negotiate for, while the public sector is more likely to overpay low skill work and under pay high skill work.

  • In contrast, due to corruption, the highest leverage positions in non-democratic countries typically are the most competed for, as that leverage can be monetized. Even for dictators who prefer for there not to be corruption, their own grasp of power may depend on it.
    • This is why it is important to maintain strong norms against nepotism and corruption, so altruistic rational actors gain advantage and prevent local optimizers from being incentivized to go into government.

          • With imperfect information, it’s much more difficult for local optimizers/defectors to coordinate. In the nontechnical world, everything is somewhat ambiguous so groups with lots of defectors are disadvantaged.
          • All else being equal, this forces governments to take actions to increase the advantage of global optimizers over local optimizers inside their governance systems in order to remain competitive: either baiting local optimizers away with better private sector pay, or by disproportionately punishing defection and lack of virtue in the public services.

Increased freedom of movement for skilled workers increases their leverage vis-a-vis states: resulting in net brain gain for those states which most credibly signal pro-social policies.

      • In the case scientists and engineers do want to make weapons, it makes sense for countries to avoid deporting engineers, and to be cautious about developing people’s talents for strategically relevant technologies when there is espionage risk.
        • A particularly sad example is the story of Quan Xuesen. Not only did the US deny him citizenship after his many achievements in rocketry, but also accused him of being a communist and trying to steal classified information (even though the documents he was found with were his own work). After revoking his security clearance and putting him under 5 years of house arrest, the US sent him back to China, where he became the director of their nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program, contributing to the world record for fission to fusion development speed.
          • Via such poor treatment, and US defense posture at the time, is seems likely that Quan was convinced he needed to defend his own country: this stresses the importance of not being overly belligerent when taking defensive measures against potential espionage.

    • Lastly, one can easily imagine that top Russian and Chinese students if provided the opportunity, would probably have happily moved to the west in 1940. If they had, everyone would have been better off. Bloody wars all around the developing world could have been avoided. This in turn may have sped up economic development in Asia, and Latin America.

Increased ease of regulating risky technologies

  • International collaboration is hard since each party can simply act in its own interest and defect. Inside one state, the state owns a monopoly of force and can impose restraints and regulations that are otherwise impossible. It is easy to imagine that mitigating climate change would be easier if countries didn’t lose various economic and strategic advantages by cooperating.
    • While we think this argument is mostly relevant with respect to the regulation of artificial intelligence, it may also be easier to negotiate and enforce guidelines for genetic engineering within a country, or between two countries (such as the US and China) than among all states. For more on the politics of genetic engineering, this podcast with the Future Strategist is useful in laying out some potential scenarios of incentives and outcomes in the future.
      • It also seems reasonable to expect that parents would be more inclined to chose more pro-social traits for their offspring if they live in well off countries with (relatively) strong social safety nets than if they don’t.
        • That is, parents in rich countries would probably be much more inclined to give their offspring pro-social traits that increase personal happiness and societal well-being while those in more malthusian environments would probably prefer traits that more purely increase offspring’s fitness, since without social safety nets there’s no limit to how far you can fall. If those with greater means move to countries with more pro-social norms, the odds of human genetic engineering going well improve.
        • Scandinavian countries may have more pro-social norms than the US, but overall the US generally seems to have more pro-social norms than the global average.
          • Moreover, for high skill immigrants who are going to be participating in high sensitivity parts of the economy, elite social norms are more likely to be relevant. In the US, the citizens of cities like Boston can outcompete even Copenhagen in cooperation game experiments, though this advantage goes away when the ability to punish non-cooperation is removed.

        • The above argument applies less in situations where human genetic engineering is broadly available rather than to just a narrow economic elite. However even if human genetic engineering becomes broadly available, early adopters will likely be elites. Given the influence of starting conditions on long-run outcomes, we suspect that influence on elites could have an outsize impact on the long run future: for example if genetic engineering were to yield numerous people with Von Neumann levels of intelligence.

Higher salaries for white collar work in the US discourage riskier but potentially high paying shady black hat(ish) industries.

  • Decreasing barriers to immigration for Israelis in particular seems valuable with regards to mitigating the spread of cyber-weapons.
    • Wages for skilled programmers are lower in Israel than in Silicon valley, so remote work such as black hat(ish) industries are relatively more appealing when individuals are geographically constrained.

Increased alignment between the elites of different countries via overlapping and interlaced social networks

  • By making it easier for the best from other countries to live in the country which has the most to offer them, a larger portion of their social ties and investments will be in the same place, which further reduces the odds of war between both rising powers and existing great powers, as well as reducing the odds of regional conflict. (eg. Taiwan and China, India and Pakistan, etc.)

Possible objections:

(click each section below for supporting details and our counter arguments)

Increased high skill immigration may speed up the development of high risk technologies

  • As concentration of human capital allows faster information flow, and therefore faster intellectual progress, it is possible that unsafe technologies will progress faster than our ability to create defensive technologies or create safeguards.
    • The general counter argument to this position is that increased information flow also makes it easier to spread ideas of safety, and to accomplish disproportionate work on defensive technologies, so it is difficult to say that this will be decisive in one direction or another. For artificial intelligence, both DeepMind and OpenAI have safety teams, and broad connections to the effective altruism community, while it is still unknown how other companies and countries would compete if they became more dominant in AI research.

Increased high skill immigration may increase risks from espionage

  • With modern espionage, there is a lot of data which can be of value to states, so in addition to having small numbers of high fidelity spies, sending countries can try to encourage large numbers of their departing citizens to make plausibly deniable efforts and small leaks to benefit their home countries, especially with grad students. With such incomplete information, marginal leaks can sometimes have increasing rather than decreasing marginal value to spying states, so the success of espionage may actually increase with increased immigration.

  • Espionage is likely one of the greatest risks from high skill immigration, as it has been one of the best means for countries behind in an arms race to catch up directly, and may also lead to understanding that incentivizes tech racing.
    • One counter is that the subset of mutual espionage which can’t result in the deployment of new systems would be good as it would reduce strategic uncertainty, and therefore the odds of a miscalculation leading to war. When countries understand each other’s capabilities and motivations, they can’t gain negotiating advantage by lying about their abilities or willingness to fight, which clarifies the bargaining range for any given dispute, allowing more options to avoid war.

  • One option for handling espionage is to have rather extreme information security measures. Air gaps are a blunt way to increase cyber-security and historically secret cities played a role in various countries’ weapon programs.
  • Other forms of cyber security via encryption, secure communication lines, etc. would also be necessary as cutting edge research can be difficult without access to the large volumes of research that can be found on the internet and with different research groups.
    • For example, though many programs are classified, DARPA and IARPA use a great deal of open collaboration with public and private companies to accelerate the rate at which they can do research: openness facilitates information flow which is instrumental in the speed of progress in research. Programs which have to be fully shrouded in secrecy, all else being equal, effectively get less feedback and evaluation, so progress is slower.
      • Though it is going too far in the direction of openness which has enabled a lot of espionage in academia.

  • To decrease the odds of espionage risk, it is likely better to seek younger immigrants who are of high promise so they can go though many of their formative experiences and develop many of their life long friends and social networks during undergraduate education. With more social ties in their new countries of residence, there may be increased affinity for their new countries of residence which would not occur during more isolated grad school programs.

Developing top researchers who then return home speeds up arms races by reducing the gap between tech leaders and followers

  • To the degree they can, countries like China are trying to reverse brain drain with programs like the 100 Talents Program and the 1000 talents plan, with grants worth the the equivalent of over $400,000 for individuals, and various other means of transferring innovation and intellectual property, both economic and strategic in nature.
  • This can be and is being countered by restricting foreign nationals from obtaining obtaining security clearances until they change citizenship to their new country or by restricting them from working in the most strategically relevant fields (though AI is not yet considered such a field).
    • However, a significant cost to preventing high skill immigrants from working in AI, is that it may undermine efforts to create international collaboration on AI projects to counter more nationally driven projects. Cooperation is the best outcome, but defection from cooperation (espionage) may be the worst, so it makes sense for countries to be very friendly, yet cautious.

“Western culture” would be “degraded” (nativist backlash)

  • Highly talented immigrants typically end up in urban melting pots so it seems unlikely cultural conservatives will actually notice much of a difference (competing for different job types, living in different places, defying stereotypes that cultural conservatives fit to lower skill immigrants, etc.)
  • If you are selecting disproportionately for intelligent immigrants, it seems especially unlikely that culture would get worse.

Too many “eggheads” in one basket

  • Though a lot of the world’s intellectual capital may further concentrate due to high skill immigration, this does not necessarily increase the risk of losing that intellectual capital due to the better incentives to cooperate. Many people will be in fewer places, but those places will inevitably become better defended.
  • However there would be risk that if a dictator took over the US (or whatever country ends up with the greatest concentration of human capital), this could create a long term stable totalitarian world government.
    • While human capital is likely not enough for this scenario to occur on its own, additional factors such as the rise of new radical ideologies, gradual increase of executive power, and/or the development of decisive strategic advantage via new weapons advances, surveillance, and/or artificial intelligence, could be enough to complete the transition to a less pluralistic government with significant power over the rest of the world. Even within democracy, the later technologies could enable better control of public choice with targeted propaganda and influence.
    • Fortunately not all the best/most strategically relevant jobs are concentrated in one country, e.g. Google Brain and Deepmind are in the US and UK respectively. The best jobs tend to be concentrated in political systems that best respect human preferences/have the most inclusive institutions. If totalitarian regimes arise, they would have to restrain labor mobility, and keep multinational companies happy to not suffer capital flight, which partially deters the worst policies.
    • Generally speaking, it is easier to copy than to innovate: even with much human capital concentrated, the economic growth rate a country with a huge human capital advantage might not exceed the growth rates of less developed countries, so it may be hard for a totalitarian regime to stay ahead of other countries in a long term stable manner.

Erosion of trust and good social norms

Peace prospects are not necessarily increased by inter-socialization

  • Though occasionally integration can increase conflict, this primarily seems to be the case more so in Malthusian environments, where groups benefit at the expense of each other.
    • This is ultimately one more argument for facilitating inter-socialization while we exist in a time of plenty.

In an equilibrium with more mobility for the elites of different countries, the governance of some countries may worsen, leading to conflict.

  • Greater mobility also facilitates better information flow, which can spread better ideas for governance between countries.
  • Permitting elites to spread their assets across multiple countries, results in those elites having a vested interest in the countries of their investments not fighting amongst themselves.

Reaction to easier high skill immigrant citizenship in democracies could cause more authoritarian countries to further restrict their own citizens from leaving.

  • In the current equilibrium, smart students can leave their countries, and often come back due to the difficulty of becoming a citizen in countries such as the US which benefits sending countries.
  • In the equilibrium where people stay in the US, there may be benefits from remittances, but sending governments mostly won’t derive the strategic benefit of getting back their best and brightest with more education.
  • Historically, effectively restricting the ability to leave a country is a very hostile move by governments, which signals ill intent. Countries that do this seem likely to have an disadvantage at attracting immigrants since immigrants would likely not want to become permanently trapped in their new country.

Assuming long term AI alignment problems are solved, but that deployed AI systems aren’t aligned with all humans, a world with multipolar outcomes may be preferable to unipolar ones, since human cooperation and mutual benefit will no longer be the way to wield the most power.

  • When human intelligence no longer offers a lot of marginal value with respect to solving problems or gaining advantage, then there is less incentive forcing society to be more inclusive and the few might be able to benefit at the expense of the many in a long term sustainable way: undermining long term trends toward larger more inclusive societies being stronger.
    • This argument fails because this is true regardless of the polarity of the outcome. In a singleton situation, those with power are more able to do what they wish and make the world how they think it should be, in a multipolar situation there is less room for maneuver and more incentive to put all resources toward outcompeting others to ensure survival or dominance: leaving far less potential surplus value for other humans. In the multipolar situation with advanced AI, taking care of people who do not have high strategic value could be a liability, so competing parties might be less altruistic.
      • Though it may generally be beneficial to have good institution design and many rational altruists in government, these arguments imply it may be especially more important than usual in the future, as technology gradually reduces the labor value of most people, and therefore their direct value to governance structures.

Most democracies already have favorable immigration policies for high skill immigrants, and even in the US there’s multiple visas high skilled persons can take advantage of.

  • The problem with US high skill immigration isn’t that people can’t go to the US at all, nor is it that permanent residence status is impossible to obtain for determined individuals. It’s that there are numerous barriers and uncertainties to permanent residency, while the total is limited, which keeps levels of net high skill immigration below the global optimum.

High skill immigration is low leverage: Historically, the immigration shock after the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t noticeably accelerate science in the US, so the impact is unclear.

  • The lack of acceleration of science following the high skill immigration shock to the US is not necessarily bad news: it may also imply that future shocks won’t accelerate risky technologies, that research funding is a more fundamental constraint, or that other sectors of the economy are better at absorbing high skill immigrants.
    • Further emigration likely decelerated progress for potentially risky technologies in the former USSR, which is a net reduction of risk: there is less incentive for the US government to engage in an arms race if there is no one to race.


To summarize, we think the strongest future focused reasons to make citizenship easier for high skill/high potential immigrants to obtain are that it would likely increase the strategic advantage of systems that better approximate human values, give rational altruists increased advantage in governance, reduce the odds of catastrophic wars, and reduce the odds of unregulated work and arms races on dangerous technologies. The best potential counters seem to be that we should mitigate the risk of a totalitarian global regime, that the increased information flow that comes from collecting the best and brightest could lead to faster development of dangerous technologies if not controlled, and that via espionage and returning home, such progress on dangerous technologies could proliferate to the rest of the world. We think that these counters could potentially be addressed by increased efforts at strengthening institutions, funding differential technological progress in defensive technologies such as cybersecurity, and spreading ideas of safety engineering among those working in potentially dangerous fields. Since the benefits of increased high skill immigration appear difficult to gain without actually having it, and the downsides can be countered, a well calculated liberalization of high skill immigration is likely the best path forward.

There are many methods by which one could attempt to mitigate arms/tech race type dynamics which could be threatening to the far future of humanity. While exploring ways to achieve agreement and spread knowledge of risks, we should also seek ways to make the best of the situations we find ourselves in should global coordination fail. We provide improving high skill immigration policy as an example of a way in which a state actor could unilaterally make an arms race type of situation less harmful, while also acting in their own interest. There are likely other interventions which fall into a similar category that are worthy of investigation.

In a future post, we will discuss the current barriers to a better high skill immigration policy for the US, where it currently succeeds, how much room there is for improvement, and why such improvements may be tractable across party lines.

Notes: The general outlook of this post was partially informed by the following books: