Ascended Economy?

by Scott Alexander 3y30th May 2016No comments

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[Obviously speculative futurism is obviously speculative. Complex futurism may be impossible and I should feel bad for doing it anyway. This is “inspired by” Nick Land – I don’t want to credit him fully since I may be misinterpreting him, and I also don’t want to avoid crediting him at all, so call it “inspired”.]

I.

My review of Age of Em mentioned the idea of an “ascended economy”, one where economic activity drifted further and further from human control until finally there was no relation at all. Many people rightly questioned that idea, so let me try to expand on it further. What I said there, slightly edited for clarity:

Imagine a company that manufactures batteries for electric cars. The inventor of the batteries might be a scientist who really believes in the power of technology to improve the human race. The workers who help build the batteries might just be trying to earn money to support their families. The CEO might be running the business because he wants to buy a really big yacht. The shareholders might be holding the stock to help save for a comfortable retirement. And the whole thing is there to eventually, somewhere down the line, let a suburban mom buy a car to take her kid to soccer practice. Like most companies the battery-making company is primarily a profit-making operation, but the profit-making-ness draws on a lot of not-purely-economic actors and their not-purely-economic subgoals.

Now imagine the company fires the inventor and replaces him with a genetic algorithm that optimizes battery design. It fires all its employees and replaces them with robots. It fires the CEO and replaces him with a superintelligent business-running algorithm. All of these are good decisions, from a profitability perspective. We can absolutely imagine a profit-driven shareholder-value-maximizing company doing all these things. But it reduces the company’s non-masturbatory participation in an economy that points outside itself, limits it to just a tenuous connection with soccer moms and maybe some shareholders who want yachts of their own.

Now take it further. Imagine that instead of being owned by humans directly, it’s owned by an algorithm-controlled venture capital fund. And imagine there are no soccer moms anymore; the company makes batteries for the trucks that ship raw materials from place to place. Every non-economic goal has been stripped away from the company; it’s just an appendage of Global Development.

Now take it even further, and imagine this is what’s happened everywhere. Algorithm-run banks lend money to algorithm-run companies that produce goods for other algorithm-run companies and so on ad infinitum. Such a masturbatory economy would have all the signs of economic growth we have today. It could build itself new mines to create raw materials, construct new roads and railways to transport them, build huge factories to manufacture them into robots, then sell the robots to whatever companies need more robot workers. It might even eventually invent space travel to reach new worlds full of raw materials. Maybe it would develop powerful militaries to conquer alien worlds and steal their technological secrets that could increase efficiency. It would be vast, incredibly efficient, and utterly pointless. The real-life incarnation of those strategy games where you mine Resources to build new Weapons to conquer new Territories from which you mine more Resources and so on forever.

This is obviously weird and I probably went too far, but let me try to explain my reasoning.

The part about replacing workers with robots isn’t too weird; lots of industries have already done that. There’s a whole big debate over to what degree that will intensify, and whether unemployed humans will find jobs somewhere else, or whether there will only be jobs for creative people with a certain education level or IQ. This part is well-discussed and I don’t have much to add.

But lately there’s also been discussion of automating corporations themselves. I don’t know much about Ethereum (and I probably shouldn’t guess since I think the inventor reads this blog and could call me on it) but as I understand it they aim to replace corporate governance with algorithms. For example, the DAO is a leaderless investment fund that allocates money according to member votes. Right now this isn’t super interesting; algorithms can’t make too many difficult business decisions so it’s limited to corporations that just do a couple of primitive actions (and why would anyone want a democratic venture fund?). But once we get closer to true AI, they might be able to make the sort of business decisions that a CEO does today. The end goal is intelligent corporations controlled by nobody but themselves.

This very blog has an advertisement for a group trying to make investment decisions based on machine learning. If they succeed, how long is it before some programmer combines a successful machine investor with a DAO-style investment fund, and creates an entity that takes humans out of the loop completely? You send it your money, a couple years later it gives you back hopefully more money, with no humans involved at any point. Such robo-investors might eventually become more efficient than Wall Street – after all, hedge fund managers get super rich by skimming money off the top, and any entity that doesn’t do that would have an advantage above and beyond its investment acumen.

If capital investment gets automated, corporate governance gets automated, and labor gets automated, we might end up with the creepy prospect of ascended corporations – robot companies with robot workers owned by robot capitalists. Humans could become irrelevant to most economic activity. Run such an economy for a few hundred years and what do you get?

II.

But in the end isn’t all this about humans? Humans as the investors giving their money to the robo-venture-capitalists, then reaping the gains of their success? And humans as the end consumers whom everyone is eventually trying to please?

It’s possible to imagine accidentally forming stable economic loops that don’t involve humans. Imagine a mining-robot company that took one input (steel) and produced one output (mining-robots), which it would sell either for money or for steel below a certain price. And imagine a steel-mining company that took one input (mining-robots) and produced one output (steel) which it would sell for either money or for mining-robots below a certain price. The two companies could get into a stable loop and end up tiling the universe with steel and mining-robots without caring whether anybody else wanted either. Obviously the real economy is a zillion times more complex than that, and I’m nowhere near the level of understanding I would need to say if there’s any chance that an entire self-sustaining economy worth of things could produce a loop like that. But I guess you only need one.

I think we can get around this in a causal-historical perspective, where we start with only humans and no corporations. The first corporations that come into existence have to be those that want to sell goods to humans. The next level of corporations can be those that sell goods to corporations that sell to humans. And so on. So unless a stable loop forms by accident, all corporations should exist to serve humans. A sufficiently rich human could finance the creation of a stable loop if they wanted to, but why would they want to? Since corporations exist only to satisfy human demand on some level or another, and there’s no demand for stable loops, corporations wouldn’t finance the development of stable loops, except by accident.

(for an interesting accidental stable loop, check out this article on the time two bidding algorithms accidentally raised the price of a book on fly genetics to more than $20 million)

Likewise, I think humans should always be the stockholders of last resort. Since humans will have to invest in the first corporation, even if that corporation invests in other corporations which invest in other corporations in turn, eventually it all bottoms down in humans (is this right?)

The only way I can see humans being eliminated from the picture is, again, by accident. If there are a hundred layers between some raw material corporation and humans, then if each layer is slightly skew to what the layer below it wants, the hundredth layer could be really really skew. Theoretically all our companies today are grounded in serving the needs of humans, but people are still thinking of spending millions of dollars to build floating platforms exactly halfway between New York and London in order to exploit light-speed delays to arbitrage financial markets better, and I’m not sure which human’s needs that serves exactly. I don’t know if there are bounds to how much of an economy can be that kind of thing.

Finally, humans might deliberately create small nonhuman entities with base level “preferences”. For example, a wealthy philanthropist might create an ascended charitable organization which supports mathematical research. Now 99.9% of base-level preferences guiding the economy would be human preferences, and 0.1% might be a hard-coded preference for mathematics research. But since non-human agents at the base of the economy would only be as powerful as the proportion of the money supply they hold, most of the economy would probably still overwhelmingly be geared towards humans unless something went wrong.

Since the economy could grow much faster than human populations, the economy-to-supposed-consumer ratio might become so high that things start becoming ridiculous. If the economy became a light-speed shockwave of economium (a form of matter that maximizes shareholder return, by analogy to computronium and hedonium) spreading across the galaxy, how does all that productive power end up serving the same few billion humans we have now? It would probably be really wasteful, the cosmic equivalent of those people who specialize in getting water from specific glaciers on demand for the super-rich because the super-rich can’t think of anything better to do with their money. Except now the glaciers are on Pluto.

III.

Glacier water from Pluto sounds pretty good. And we can hope that things will get so post-scarcity that governments and private charities give each citizen a few shares in the Ascended Economy to share the gains with non-investors. This would at least temporarily be a really good outcome.

But in the long term it reduces the political problem of regulating corporations to the scientific problem of Friendly AI, which is really bad.

Even today, a lot of corporations do things that effectively maximize shareholder value but which we consider socially irresponsible. Environmental devastation, slave labor, regulatory capture, funding biased science, lawfare against critics – the list goes on and on. They have a simple goal – make money – whereas what we really want them to do is much more complicated and harder to measure – make money without engaging in unethical behavior or creating externalities. We try to use regulatory injunctions, and it sort of helps, but because those go against a corporation’s natural goals they try their best to find loopholes and usually succeed – or just take over the regulators trying to control them.

This is bad enough with bricks-and-mortar companies run by normal-intelligence humans. But it would probably be much worse with ascended corporations. They would have no ethical qualms we didn’t program into them – and again, programming ethics into them would be the Friendly AI problem, which is really hard. And they would be near-impossible to regulate; most existing frameworks for such companies are built on crypto-currency and exist on the cloud in a way that transcends national borders.

(A quick and very simple example of an un-regulate-able ascended corporation – I don’t think it would be too hard to set up an automated version of Uber. I mean, the core Uber app is already an automated version of Uber, it just has company offices and CEOs and executives and so on doing public relations and marketing and stuff. But if the government ever banned Uber the company, could somebody just code another ride-sharing app that dealt securely in Bitcoins? And then have it skim a little bit off the top, which it offered as a bounty to anybody who gave it the processing power it would need to run? And maybe sent a little profit to the programmer who wrote the thing? Sure, the government could arrest the programmer, but short of arresting every driver and passenger there would be no way to destroy the company itself.)

The more ascended corporations there are trying to maximize shareholder value, the more chance there is some will cause negative externalities. But there’s a limited amount we would be able to do about them. This is true today too, but at least today we maintain the illusion that if we just elected Bernie Sanders we could reverse the ravages of capitalism and get an economy that cares about the environment and the family and the common man. An Ascended Economy would destroy that illusion.

How bad would it get? Once ascended corporations reach human or superhuman level intelligences, we run into the same AI goal-alignment problems as anywhere else. Would an ascended corporation pave over the Amazon to make a buck? Of course it would; even human corporations today do that, and an ascended corporation that didn’t have all human ethics programmed in might not even get that it was wrong. What if we programmed the corporation to follow local regulations, and Brazil banned paving over the Amazon? This is an example of trying to control AIs through goals plus injunctions – a tactic Bostrom finds very dubious. It’s essentially challenging a superintelligence to a battle of wits – “here’s something you want, and here are some rules telling you that you can’t get it, can you find a loophole in the rules?” If the superintelligence is super enough, the answer will always be yes.

From there we go into the really gnarly parts of AI goal alignment theory. Would an ascended corporation destroy South America entirely to make a buck? Depending on how it understood its imperative to maximize shareholder value, it might. Yes, this would probably kill many of its shareholders, but its goal is to “maximize shareholder value”, not to keep its shareholders alive to enjoy that value. It might even be willing to destroy humanity itself if other parts of the Ascended Economy would pick up the slack as investors.

(And then there are the weirder problems, like ascended corporations hacking into the stock market and wireheading themselves. When this happens, I want credit for being the first person to predict it.)

Maybe the most hopeful scenario is that once ascended corporations achieved human-level intelligence they might do something game-theoretic and set up a rule-of-law among themselves in order to protect economic growth. I wouldn’t want to begin to speculate on that, but maybe it would involve not killing all humans? Or maybe it would just involve taking over the stock market, formally setting the share price of every company to infinity, and then never doing anything again? I don’t know, and I expect it would get pretty weird.

IV.

I don’t think the future will be like this. This is nowhere near weird enough to be the real future. I think superintelligence is probably too unstable. It will explode while still in the lab and create some kind of technological singularity before people have a chance to produce an entire economy around it.

But given Robin’s assumptions in Age of Em – hard AI, no near-term intelligence explosion, fast economic growth – but ditching his idea of human-like em minds as important components of the labor force – I think something like this would be where we would end up. It probably wouldn’t be so bad for the first couple of years. But eventually ascended corporations would start reaching the point where we might as well think of them as superintelligent AIs. Maybe this world would be friendlier towards AI goal alignment research than Yudkowsky and Bostrom’s scenarios, since at least here we could see it coming, there was no instant explosion, and a lot of different entities approach superintelligence around the same time. But given that the smartest things around are encrypted, uncontrollable, unregulated entities that don’t have humans’ best interests at heart, I’m not sure they would be in much shape to handle the transition.

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