Request for help with economic analysis related to AI forecasting

by ESRogs1 min read6th Feb 201613 comments

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[Cross-posted from FB]

I've got an economic question that I'm not sure how to answer.

I've been thinking about trends in AI development, and trying to get a better idea of what we should expect progress to look like going forward.

One important question is: how much do existing AI systems help with research and the development of new, more capable AI systems?

The obvious answer is, "not much." But I think of AI systems as being on a continuum from calculators on up. Surely AI researchers sometimes have to do arithmetic and other tasks that they already outsource to computers. I expect that going forward, the share of tasks that AI researchers outsource to computers will (gradually) increase. And I'd like to be able to draw a trend line. (If there's some point in the future when we can expect most of the work of AI R&D to be automated, that would be very interesting to know about!)

So I'd like to be able to measure the share of AI R&D done by computers vs humans. I'm not sure of the best way to measure this. You could try to come up with a list of tasks that AI researchers perform and just count, but you might run into trouble as the list of tasks to changes over time (e.g. suppose at some point designing an AI system requires solving a bunch of integrals, and that with some later AI architecture this is no longer necessary).

What seems more promising is to abstract over the specific tasks that computers vs human researchers perform and use some aggregate measure, such as the total amount of energy consumed by the computers or the human brains, or the share of an R&D budget spent on computing infrastructure and operation vs human labor. Intuitively, if most of the resources are going towards computation, one might conclude that computers are doing most of the work.

Unfortunately I don't think that intuition is correct. Suppose AI researchers use computers to perform task X at cost C_x1, and some technological improvement enables X to be performed more cheaply at cost C_x2. Then, all else equal, the share of resources going towards computers will decrease, even though their share of tasks has stayed the same.

On the other hand, suppose there's some task Y that the researchers themselves perform at cost H_y, and some technological improvement enables task Y to be performed more cheaply at cost C_y. After the team outsources Y to computers the share of resources going towards computers has gone up. So it seems like it could go either way -- in some cases technological improvements will lead to the share of resources spent on computers going down and in some cases it will lead to the share of resources spent on computers going up.

So here's the econ part -- is there some standard economic analysis I can use here? If both machines and human labor are used in some process, and the machines are becoming both more cost effective and more capable, is there anything I can say about how the expected share of resources going to pay for the machines changes over time?

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