Reading this essay by Peter Thiel, I was struck by an amusing (though almost certainly coincidental) parallel. Thiel mentions three areas in which people interested in freedom may manage to get out from under the thumb of excessive government: cyberspace, seasteading, and outer space. The parallel is to three fronts on which people are pursuing nanotechnology: in simulation, in solution, and in high vacuum. The difficulties, availability of enabling technology, and relative timescales for success match somewhat, as do the ultimate impacts if and when success is achieved.

It’s important, however, to look at Thiel’s main point, summed up here:

The future of technology is not pre-determined, and we must resist the temptation of technological utopianism — the notion that technology has a momentum or will of its own, that it will guarantee a more free future, and therefore that we can ignore the terrible arc of the political in our world.

A better metaphor is that we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire. Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

Why is this a race and why is it deadly? The bottom line is that government, even liberal democratic government with the best of motives, has internal perverse incentive structures that inhibit a lot of growth. This is well-understood in cases like the FDA where there’s a huge incentive to block dangerous drugs but little to advance beneficial ones. The overall effect can be seen in this graph, showing the effect of government spending levels on the OECD nations on GDP growth:

GDP growth vs government spending

The reason this is a deadly race is that it makes (and has made) a huge difference in when we get to actuarial escape velocity. The “lost decade” in nanotech research is arguably due to the same kind of error bias in the funding agencies as in the FDA (with looking silly in the press standing for approving thalidomide).

The question is what to do. Educate people about the problems and move our country to the left on the above graph? Entropy and long-term trends are against us. Helping the technology side of the race seems much more amenable to valuable individual effort, as Thiel pointed out. Here at least the trends of various improvement curves in technology are on our side.

Nanotech will be valuable for such efforts as seasteading and absolutely necessary for space colonization. However, there is one other technology that may help out quite a bit and is much more amenable to improvement without large research grants. That is AI.

There’s been a lot of noise made about the dangers of AI, from the ridiculous (Terminator) to the reasonable. But the key point about the suffocating western liberal democracies is not that they are evil, but simply incompetent. Any advance that helps us do things smarter, from running investment banks to medical research, is going to help the progress side of the race. There is the obvious way of having a smarter-than-human machine make decisions directly. But another way AI will help is simply by offering a body of knowledge that tells us how to build decision-making machines, programs, data-manipulating structures, that work properly and that learn from their (and others’) experience. Much of the actual decision-making that goes on in the world is made by such structures, e.g. corporations and governments, that are designed poorly and fail at their nominal tasks all too often.

Oh, and it turns out that being smarter correlates with being libertarian. Because, all ideology aside, freedom works.

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  1. Anonymous April 17, 2009 at 3:22 am - Reply

    There’s a strong correlation between the wealth of the parents and the intelligence of the offspring. There’s a strong correlation between the wealth of the individual and the confidence that the market doesn’t need any attention or oversight. This is unsurprising, but I’d be careful with pushing this line of reasoning too far. Being a straight, white, college educated male also correlates with being libertarian, but only one of those things correlates with being intelligent.

  2. Anonymous April 17, 2009 at 3:36 am - Reply

    I don’t think you should be referencing halfsigma on this blog (which I’ve always viewed as being reasonably academic) when HalfSigma sports paragraphs such as this one:

    But who fathered Bill Clinton? Probably not William Jefferson Blythe, Jr, the guy his mother was married to when he was born, because that guy was stationed in Italy nine months before the birth! (According to unsourced internet rumors.) Whoever really fathered Bill Clinton, he passed on superior upper-middle-class genes. Bill Clinton went to Ivy League schools, married another Ivy League graduate, and raised a respectable daughter (unlike Sarah Palin whose children are all losers and sluts).

    Ah, yes. The good old unsourced internet rumor and calling someone’s children losers and sluts. Fine entertainment, but hardly a high standard of excellence.

  3. J. Storrs Hall April 17, 2009 at 6:07 am - Reply

    Good point about halfsigma. Consider that link deprecated!

    However, for readers of this blog, please note that referencing one post on a blog does not in any way constitute an endorsement of other things found on such blog.

    I should go a bit further here and make it clear that the point of this post is not to advance any political agenda — I agree with the Thiel essay I’m quoting that that wouldn’t be likely to have any great effect. The bottom line is in fact almost the opposite: many of the good effects to be desired from libertarian reform can also be had, and are in fact more likely to occur, by the alternate route of introducing AIs to make us, on average, smarter and richer. Another way would be biological ways to make people smarter.

    None of these options is exclusive. We should be trying all of them simultaneously. I happen to know the most about AI.

    You can see a video of me making the points about AI making a better world in a debate at AGI-09.

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