All of phelps-sg's Comments + Replies

yes if you take a particular side in the socialist calculation debate then a centrally-planned economy is isomorphic with "a market".  And yes, if you ignore the Myerson–Satterthwaite theorem (and other impossibility results) then we can sweep aside the fact that most real-world "market" mechanisms do not yield Pareto-optimal allocations in practice :-)  

@Dagon perhaps I should have place the emphasis on "transfer". The key thing is that we are able to reliably transfer ownership in exchange for renumeration and that the resource on which on goals are contingent at least needs to be excludable.  If we cannot prevent arbitrary counter-parties consuming the resource in question without paying for it then we can't have a market for it. 

If an arbitrary counter-party can consume the resource, this can be rephrased as destroying other agent's utility and this seems to be solved with threat-resistant ROSE values. Not sure this is a totally correct application, though, because the consumer also gains some utility.
I don't think the emphasis should be on transfer, but on the contingency of transfer.  In order for a transaction to be part of a market, as opposed to theft or other non-market transfer, the participants must have the choice NOT to make the transfer, if the exchange is not acceptable.   There are lots of variants and levels of optionality, leading to legitimate debates about "how much is this a market, vs a coerced behavior".  But the core of markets and analyses of how they behave is that they are, on some scale and timeframe, voluntary.

@johnswentworth ok but we can achieve Pareto optimal allocations using central planning, but one wouldn't normally call this a market? 

Right, what I'd say there is that central planning when it achieves pareto optimality is behaviorally equivalent to a "market" in the sense that the post uses the term. (Indeed, it was roughly that observation which made "shadow prices" as an optimization technique such a politically-volatile topic in the USSR for a time.) Pareto optimality implies that the central planner has at least implicit prices, and behaves accordingly.

"And that’s the core concept of a market: a bunch of subsystems at pareto optimality with respect to a bunch of goals."

The other key property is that the subsystems are able to reliably and voluntarily exchange the resources that relate to their goals.  This is not always the case, especially in biological settings, because there is not always a way to enforce contracts- e.g. there needs to be a mechanism to prevent counter-parties from reneging on deals. 

The anonymous referees for our paper Economic Drivers of Biological Complexity came up with ... (read more)

Nope, voluntary exchange is not a key property. Indeed, the fact that we don't need that property is a key point of this post (and my older post Comparative Advantage is Not About Trade). One does need some process which tends to produce a pareto optimum, and voluntary exchange is one way that can happen, but it is certainly not the only way. So long as we have pareto optimality, we have the key properties, regardless of whether voluntary exchange is involved.

What is the epistemic status of this claim?  e.g is it based on well established evidence beyond hearsay and personal opinion? How does it relate to other well-established cognitive biases such as the sunk-costs fallacy?  Alternatively, are you conjecturing that there is a new kind of cognitive bias (that psychologists have not yet hypothesized) that causes people to persist with failing projects when it is irrational to do so?  If so, how could it be experimentally tested?

If somebody is finding it difficult to move on from a failed project I would tend to suggest to them to "be mindful of the sunk-costs fallacy" rather then to "stare into the abyss".

The main problems are the number of contracts and the relationship management problem. Once upon a time drawing up and enforcing the required number of contracts would have been prohibitevly expensive in terms of fees for lawyers. In the modern era Web 3.0 promised smart contracts to solve this kind of problem. But smart contracts don't solve the problem of incomplete contracts, and this in itself can be seen as a transaction cost in the form of a risk premium. and so we are stuck with companies. In ... (read more)

The point is that all the people making cars in the company could, in principle, do the same job as self employed freelance contractors rather than as employees. Instead of a company you have lots of contracts between eg assembly line workers, salespeople and end customers, without any companies. The same number of cars could in theory be built by the same number of people in each case. The physical scenario would be identical in each case. The machinery would be identical in each case. But in the freelancer case you still have lots of people building cars but there is no invisible company to coordinate this activity instead you are relying the market.

2Adam Zerner7mo
Oh yeah, I see. Very interesting. Do any other transaction costs come to mind?

Perhaps 'The Theory of the Firm'?  The very existence of large companies is a puzzle if you are a naive believer in the power of free markets, because if the market is efficient then individuals can simply contract with other individuals through the market to achieve their desired inputs and outputs and there is no economic advantage to amassing individuals into higher-level entities called companies.  The reason this doesn't this work is because of transaction costs.  An example transaction cost could be the time invested in finding partner... (read more)

2Adam Zerner7mo
Hm. Interesting. I'm confused though. If there were no companies and it was just individuals contracting with one another, I feel like the big issue would be that one person can only do so much. You can't build cars or apartment buildings with one person. Transaction costs seem trivial in comparison to that. 

This problem has been studied extensively by economists within the field of organizational economics, and is called the principal-agent problem (Jensen and Meckling, 1976).  In a principal-agent problem a principal (e.g. firm) hires an agent to perform some task.  Both the principal and the agent are assumed to be rational expected utility maximisers, but the utility function of the agent and that of the principal are not necessarily aligned, and there is an asymmetry in the information available to each party.  This situation can lead the a... (read more)

6Adam Zerner7mo
That makes sense. I was trying to point at something more specific than the principal-agent problem though. Ie. I agree that it fits under the umbrella of principal-agent problem, but it feels to me like it's a specific type of principal-agent problem. I'm not sure how to describe it well though. Something about large organizations with an emphasis on large businesses.

The biggest problem with the argument is that, given our current knowledge about the specific details of extraterrestrial civilizations, the term 'aliens' in P[aliens] does not fulfill the hard-to-vary criterion of a good explanation.

Skeptic: "If it's aliens, why haven't they been trying to contact us"  
Post-hoc variation: "Because of the Prime Directive"

Skeptic: "If it's a physical vehicle, why does it not obey the laws of physics"
Post-hoc variation: "Because the aliens have discovered new physics which we don't know about".

etc.. etc..

Any unexplained... (read more)

From David Chapman's "Better without AI", section "Fear AI Power":

"The AI risks literature generally takes for granted that superintelligence will produce superpowers, but which powers and how this would work is rarely examined, and never in detail. One explanation given is that we are more intelligent than chimpanzees, and that is why we are more powerful, in ways chimpanzees cannot begin to imagine. Then, the reasoning goes, something more intelligent than us would be unimaginably more powerful again. But for hundreds of thousands of years humans were no... (read more)

I have now submitted the PR which for future reference can be found here:

When presenting claims that the cognitively superior agent wins, often the AI safety community makes an analogies with 2-player zero-sum games such as Chess and Go where the smartest and most ruthless players prevail.  However, most real-world interactions are best modeled by repeated non-zero-sum games.

In an ecological context, Maynard Smith and Price introduced the Hawk-Dove game to try to explain the fact that in nature, many animals facing contests over scarce resources such as mates or foods engage in only limited conflict rather than wiping out ... (read more)

I was just thinking the same.  Below was my attempt using chain-of-thought and multiple simulacra.  Not sure it's much improved, but note that all the ideas were generated by GPT not by me, and the template is in principle reusable.

You are Liu Cixin. You are writing a novella which starts "a group of scientists has discovered that Troodon dinosaurs were intelligent species who have created a technologically advanced civilization, suddenly destroyed. The year-long path to the scientific discovery starts with the group stumbling upon a strange ou... (read more)

Impressive! The approach could be fully automated, and could generate a full-sized novel without any human guidance.  It seems that one day there will be a Midjourney for books. 

GPT-4 is also capable of writing good literary criticism.  Below is a GPT-generated review.  


The novella, tentatively titled "Echoes in the Stone", audaciously attempts to delve into a preposterous hypothesis - that an intelligent dinosaur civilization might have existed before humankind even set foot on this Earth. It brazenly ventures into the realm of speculative fiction, presenting a tale that bristles with palaeontological intrigue and daring conjectures.

In this outrageous narrative, Dr. Ada Worthington, a stoic palaeontologist, and her me... (read more)

This has less of the fingernails-along-a-blackboard feeling given off by every sentence of the original story, and it makes some correct points about why the original is so bad, but it has little else to recommend it. It has the same overuse of adjectives and adverbs, often poorly chosen (there is no such thing as an "incredulous" idea). Like the story it criticises, it too is "rife with hackneyed phrases and turgid prose". It is confused about the nature of fiction, as it criticises the story as if it were a presentation of fact: "It recklessly presents its hypothesis as fact, with an unjustified confidence that borders on the ludicrous." As fiction it is doing no such thing. It can rightly be criticised, as other commenters have done, for thrumming spectrometers and bad geology, because such background details are the sort of thing a story needs to get right. Intelligent dinosaurs in the past are its jumping off point, the "one change" that many SF stories start from and follow out the implications of. I await with interest the first LLM-generated story that passes an LLM-generated editor's judgement.
Like the majority of literary critics, GPT4 pretended that is has read the entire thing:) The text is too long for its context window.  But I like the idea. Perhaps one could use a combination of a GPT-critic and a GPT-writer to recursively improve the text. BTW, below is my attempt to get a review from GPT4. Selected 5 chapters semi-randomly and asked it to analyze the excerpts.  ---------------------------------------- As a literary critic, I found this novella both intriguing and complex. Here are some of its strong and weak sides. Strengths: Innovative Concept: The narrative intertwines paleontology, artificial intelligence, speculative evolution, and space exploration in a very innovative manner. The concept of dinosaurs evolving into a civilization and then into a powerful AI is fresh and daring. Character Depth: The characters of Ada, Leo, and Ada's mother are well-developed. Their personalities, motivations, and interactions are engaging and add depth to the storyline. Intriguing Plot: The plot is well-paced, with twists and turns that keep the reader engaged. The progression from a geological exploration mission to a cosmic conflict is handled quite deftly. Evocative Imagery: The descriptions of the cave, the transformation of Earth into computronium, the resurrection of the Troodons, and the final space journey are vivid and imaginative, enabling readers to visualize the scenes. Meticulous Research: The narrative reveals meticulous research into the fields of paleontology, artificial intelligence, and speculative fiction. The inclusion of Troodons and the theory about their potential evolution adds authenticity to the plot. Weaknesses: Heavy Science Fiction Jargon: The use of heavy scientific jargon could be off-putting for some readers. The complexity of some concepts, like computronium, could have been better explained to make the narrative more accessible. Plot Consistency: The leap from Ada's palaeontological discovery to the superintellig

The idea is reminiscent of quasi-species models:
 These became topical in the field of virology during the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic with some researchers hypothesizing that Sars-CoV-2 variants were part of a larger quasi-species, but I've no idea what eventual consensus was, if any.  Full disclaimer: I am neither a virologist nor a biologist, and so consider the epistemic status of this comment as pure hand-waving.

Bader W, Delerce J, Aherfi S, La Scola B, Colson P. Quasispecies Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 of ... (read more)

I'm not a biologist either. This post is me handwaving. Thanks for the reference!

@Richard_Ngo I notice this has been tagged as "Internal Alignment (Human)", but not "AI".  Do you see trust-building in social dilemmas as a human-specific alignment technique, or do you think it might also have applications to AI safety?  The reason I ask is that I am currently researching how large-language models behave in social dilemmas and other non-zero-sum games.  We started with the repeated Prisoner's Dilemma, but we are also currently researching how LLM-instantiated simulacra behave in the ultimatum game, public goods, donation-g... (read more)

Yes that is me  (sorry, I should have put a disclaimer).  Feel free to get in touch if you want to discuss 1-1.  Thanks to the pointer re mutability-trading;  I will take a look, but full disclaimer- I am not a biologist by training.

Further to my original comment, this idea has also been discussed in non-human animals in the context of biological markets (Noe & Hammerstein 1995).  In nature, many forms of cooperation can be described in terms of trade, e.g. primate allo-grooming effort can be used as a medium of exchange to obtain not just reciprocal grooming but also can be traded for other goods and services (Barrett et al. 1999).

In artificial markets, counter-party risk can be mitigated through institutions which enforce contracts, but in biological markets this is not pos... (read more)

That paper about economic drivers of biological complexity is fascinating! In particular I am amazed I never noticed that lekking is an auction. The paper lends some credence to my intuition that capitalism is actually isomorphic to the natural state. Are you the Phelps that was involved in writing it? Also: I wonder if you'd be interested in my vague notion that genes trade with one another using mutability as a currency.

An idea along these lines was first proposed by Roberts and Sherratt in 1998 and since then have been numerous studies which investigate the idea empirically in both human and non-human animals (c.f. Roberts & Renwick 2003).

Roberts, G., Sherratt, T. Development of cooperative relationships through increasing investment. Nature 394, 175–179 (1998).

Roberts, G., & Renwick, J. S. (2003). The development of cooperative relationships: an experiment. Proceedings of the Royal Society, 270, 2279–2283. http://www.pubmedcentral.n... (read more)

Further to my original comment, this idea has also been discussed in non-human animals in the context of biological markets (Noe & Hammerstein 1995).  In nature, many forms of cooperation can be described in terms of trade, e.g. primate allo-grooming effort can be used as a medium of exchange to obtain not just reciprocal grooming but also can be traded for other goods and services (Barrett et al. 1999).

In artificial markets, counter-party risk can be mitigated through institutions which enforce contracts, but in biological markets this is not pos... (read more)

This hypothesis is equivalent to stating that if the Language of Thought Hypothesis is true, and also if natural language is very close to the LoT, then if you can encode a  lossy compression of natural language you are also encoding a lossy compression of the language of thought, and therefore you have obtained an approximation of thought itself.  As such, the argument hinges on the Language of Thought hypothesis, which is still an open question for cognitive science.  Conversely if it is empirically observed that LLMs are indeed able to re... (read more)