Thursday, June 23, 2016

Will machine intelligence threaten life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

This post has nothing to do with the influence of political party machines on current election campaigns.

As some readers will already know, Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence, discusses the challenge presented by the potential for machine brains to surpass human brains in general intelligence. Bostrom does not claim that is imminent, but he suggests it is somewhat likely to happen sometime this century. After AI has surpassed human intelligence, the author fears that an initial superintelligence might soon afterwards obtain a decisive strategic advantage and pose a threat to human life. There have been several good reviews of Superintelligence, including one by Ronald Bailey in Reason.

How could a machine programmed by humans come to threaten human life? Some examples mentioned by Bostrom imply that it would be quite easy for that to occur by accident. For example, a machine that was given the simple objective of maximizing the production of paperclips could seek to acquire an unlimited amount of physical resources and to eliminate potential threats, including humans who are likely to try to prevent it from achieving its goal.

People like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who could not be viewed as technophobes, argue that the threats posed by superintelligence should be taken seriously. That didn’t stop me asking myself why anyone in their right mind would program a machine to maximize the number of paperclips. Any sensible businessman would ensure that the machine was programmed with a profit-making objective, rather than a production objective. I have to acknowledge, however, that would still leave the problem of ensuring that the superintelligence doesn’t use unethical means to eliminate competitors. 

There is also the problem that some of the people developing AI might be crazy, or antipathetic towards humans. For example, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that a group of extreme Greenies might seek to develop a superintelligence that would pursue the selfless goal of restoring the natural environment to its condition prior to the Anthropocene.

Most of Superintelligence is devoted to a discussion of the difficulty of designing superintelligence so that it would not be a threat to humans. While reading the book I felt that at times I was reading about the problems of designing a god – an enormously powerful entity that would govern our lives. For example, if the AI is given the seemingly innocuous goal of making us all happy it might arrange for us to have electrodes implanted in the pleasure centres of our brains, or perhaps even upload our minds to computers and then administer the digital equivalent of a drug to make us ecstatically happy all the time.

At other times I felt the problems being discussed were more like those which might be involved in establishing the characteristics of a good society. Bostrom seems to favour AI being given a goal such as maximizing our coherent extrapolated volition (CEV). As I understand it the CEV concept implies that if we knew more and thought faster our individual views about the nature of a good society would converge, so that a consensus could be discovered. The author explains that the CEV approach does not require that all ways of life, moral codes, or personal values be blended together into a stew. The CEV dynamic “is only supposed to act when our wishes cohere”.

The CEV concept has some appeal to me because it seems consistent with my own efforts to describe the characteristics of a good society in the most popular post on this blog. However, it does not require superintelligence to identify those characteristics. It would not be difficult to establish through existing survey methods that the vast majority of humans want to live in peace, to have opportunities to live for a happy lives and to have some degree of security to protect against misfortunes. The problem is in ensuring that a superintelligence would interpret such objectives in a manner consistent with individual human flourishing.

The main reservation I have about Superintelligence is that it does not contain much discussion about defence against malevolent AI. As I see it, it is probably worthwhile to undertake collaborative efforts to avoid the accidental development of machine intelligence in ways that might not be benign. But such efforts are not likely to prevent the AI being used unethically by people with nefarious objectives. Our defences against cyber-attack will need to be strengthened to protect against malevolent AI.

We need a Superintelligence dedicated to defending our individual rights. But we should be careful what we wish for! Once upon a time, a few centuries ago, some enlightened people set about establishing forms of government dedicated to protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ended up with warfare/welfare states.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

What is the "bourgeois deal" and why should you care?

The ‘bourgeois deal’ is a term used frequently by Deirdre McCloskey in Bourgeois Equality, the third book of her trilogy which aims to show that it is ethical and rhetorical change that has enabled most humans today to be much better off than their forebears. The bourgeois deal refers to societal acceptance of innovations that compete with and displace old ways of doing things in exchange for widespread improvements in living standards.

Big deal? This has been a huge deal. Deidre argues persuasively that trade-tested betterment associated with the bourgeois deal was responsible for the massive improvement in living standards enjoyed by vast numbers of people that began over 200 years ago and has now spread to most parts of the world (as shown in the accompanying chart prepared by Max Rosser using Angus Maddison’s data).

There are two aspects to the rhetorical-ethical revaluation discussed in Bourgeois Equality:
  • A change in prevailing attitudes gave greater respect to people engaged in commercial activities.
  • The development of rhetorically open societies – involving freedom of conscience and greater freedom of speech – propelled the French and Scottish Enlightenments, science, experimentation and invention, journalism, the spread of technical knowledge, and the economic and political dignity of ordinary people.

In emphasizing the importance of trade-tested betterment to economic growth, Deirdre McCloskey’s views are consistent with the mainstream view of economists, who, for the last half century at least, have acknowledged the important role of technological progress (and technological catch-up) in the economic growth process. Anyone who persists in espousing alternative explanations such as imperialism, or capital accumulation by itself, might benefit from reading Deirdre’s demolition of such theories.

The author seeks to differentiate her views from those of neo-institutionalists, such as Douglass North, who have sought to explain economic growth as stemming from institutional change i.e. changes in economic incentives associated with changes in the rules of the game in society (social norms as well as constitutions, laws and regulations). She succeeds in dismissing some factors, including property rights, previously emphasized by the neo-institutionalists. Property rights were reasonably secure in England for centuries prior to the industrial revolution. 

Nevertheless, institutional change was necessary to enable intellectual innovation to be protected from the violent responses that had previously been meted out to heretics and innovators who were perceived to constitute a threat to long-established patterns of production, distribution and exchange.

Some components of relevant rhetorical and ethical changes do not fit under the heading institutional change. For example, changes in perceptions of personal identity that enabled some individuals to take on entrepreneurial roles seem to have been closely related to rhetorical change, but probably had little to do with changes in rules or incentives. Similarly, changes in the rules can have an independent economic impact that does not fit easily under the heading of rhetorical and ethical change. For example, political leaders sometimes get ahead of public opinion e.g. in promoting free trade or privatisation of government owned enterprises.

Perhaps we should be lumping rhetorical, ethical and institutional change together. The author cites an example which seems to involve all three elements. The reduced willingness of courts in England to support the restrictiveness of the craft guilds, from the early 17th century onwards, has been described by Eric Jones as attributable to “the national shift in elite opinion, which the courts partly shared”. In many instances, however, relevant rhetoric has been directed specifically toward changing the rules of the game. Adam Smith’s influential discussion of the appropriate role of government in Wealth of Nations comes to mind.

Hopefully, some of you - those who are still reading - will be wondering why the bourgeois deal is relevant to you. (I wonder whether any of those who stopped reading before this point will read the 650 pages of text in Bourgeois Equality. It seems to be a big ask to get anyone to read even 600 words these days.)

We should all care about the bourgeois deal because we are confronted with choices among a menu of different deals. Deirdre points out that, after 1848, the Bourgeois deal was challenged by the utopian Bolshevik deal and the Bismarckian (or Beveridge) deal.

The Bolshevik deal promised that all the problems associated with nasty concentrations of power in property owned by the bourgeoisie would be resolved by government ownership of the means of production and that the nature of man would change with the arrival of socialism. That deal was taken off the menu in 1989 (everywhere except North Korea) after it became too obvious that it was an extraordinarily bad deal for everyone except Communist party officials.

The Bismarckian deal stemmed from Bismarck’s scheme to steal the thunder from his socialist enemies by introducing a welfare state. Deirdre describes it thus:
The deal is that the welfare state will substitute for your own and your family’s voluntary provision for old age or unemployment or medical care, and you will come to view the present state as your noble and benevolent lord” (p 604).

The Bismarckian deal lives on, coexisting uneasily with the Bourgeois deal because the high taxes required to support it act as a disincentive to trade-tested betterment. That is my judgement; I imagine Deirdre would agree, but I can’t see where at the moment. Like all good libertarians (the bleeding heart variety) she supports the provision of a welfare safety net directed specifically toward assisting those in need.

In my view we are now confronted with a third deal, which could be described as the doomsday deal, or if you want to personalise it, the Paul Ehrlich deal (after the biologist Paul Ehrlich who, like many other sect leaders who prophesy imminent doom, seems to have managed to maintain the loyalty of many of his followers even though the doom he predicted did not happen). Deidre describes such prophesies as the “eighth pessimism of our times”, rather than a deal. I see the doomsday deal as offering us the hope of being saved from an imaginary environmental doom if only we are prepared to forgo further economic betterment. Those who accept the doomsday deal deny that the bourgeois deal can be compatible with sensible measures to avert environmental disasters.

We should care about the bourgeois deal because it is constantly under threat. As Deidre McCloskey puts it in the table of contents for her book:
“Rhetoric made us, but can readily unmake us”.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Is economics becoming a branch of psychology?

I began pondering this question while reading Misbehaving, Richard Thaler’s entertaining and somewhat triumphalist account of his career in helping to establish behavioral economics. The fact that Thaler was made president of the American Economic Association in 2015 might signal growing acceptance within the profession that economics should be built on the insights that psychology provides about human motivation and behaviour, rather than on conventional neoclassical assumptions about individual rationality. For those who accept Lionel Robbins famous definition of economics as “a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses” and consider the rise of behavioral economics in that context, it would not involve a huge leap to suggest that all economics is behavioral economics, and therefore a branch of psychology.

It is acknowledged that behavioral economists seem to behave in many respects more like economists than psychologists, but that could, perhaps, be interpreted as a clever use of psychology. In the absence of behavioural economics, it would have been easy for economists to continue to ignore psychologists who suggest that the it is not realistic to assume that individuals maximize utility. It has been much more difficult for economists to ignore one of their number who makes the same point, while suggesting that the assumption that humans behave like mythical Econs should be retained as a benchmark against which actual human behaviour should be assessed. Early in the book Thaler writes:
“Theories based on the assumption that everyone is an Econ should not be discarded. They remain useful as starting points for more realistic models” (p7).

When it suits his purpose I think Thaler also uses the conventional utility maximizing assumption as a normative benchmark (just as many economists have wrongly used the concept of perfect competition as a normative benchmark). Although he claims that it “has never been my point to say that there is something wrong with people”, a lot of his efforts have been directed toward suggesting that humans make systematic cognitive errors that can be ameliorated by the “nudges” provided by wise government agencies. I have previously argued (here and here) that while the libertarian paternalism Thaler advocates is preferable to coercive paternalism, people need to be vigilant to ensure that they not being nudged toward choices that are contrary to their interests. We need apps to advise us whether or not to accept the default options offered to us by “choice architects”.

I cannot resist feeling bemused that during the period while psychology was gradually being welcomed into economics, like a Trojan horse, neoclassical economists were widely held to be behaving like imperialists, invading the subject matter of other social sciences, following the leadership of Gary Becker. Paradoxically, using the neoclassical assumption of individual welfare maximization, economists have been able to provide some useful insights to the study crime, the family, education and many other topics. Even when disciplinary overreach was fairly obvious, as in the theory of rational drug addiction, it has been plausibly argued that people like Becker challenged researchers to develop alternative theories and to confront those theories with data. The challenge of economists’ imperialism lives on in popular discourse, such as Freakonomics, as well as universities.

Perhaps the Trojan horse of behavioural economics will thrive within the broad domain of economic imperialism. We might see a convergence of psychology and economics in the study of a wide range of issues.

However, as I see it, the fundamentals of economics will continue to remain largely unaffected by both behavioural economics and the conventional neoclassical assumptions about individual welfare maximization. The theory of choice is worthy of study, but it is not as central to economics as it has commonly been claimed to be. Lionel Robbins definition of economics as being about solving allocative problems has tended to distract from the more important role of economists in studying “the propensity in human nature” to “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” and how this promotes “general opulence” or human flourishing.  The quoted words were, of course, used by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.

In his article “What should economists do?”, published in 1964, James Buchanan argued that the theory of choice should be removed from “its position of eminence in the economist’s thought processes”. He suggested that economists should concentrate their attention on human behaviour in market relationships and other voluntaristic exchange processes, and upon the various institutional arrangements that can arise as a result of this form of activity.

Since Vernon Smith has studied how such institutions can emerge in experimental settings, it is fitting that he should be given the last word here:

Individual choice … is not where the action is in understanding economic performance and human achievement. … The main work of socioeconomic systems is in specialization and the exchange systems that make possible the wealth they create, not the minutiae of choice and preference representation. The functioning of these systems is far beyond the field of vision of the individual, but it should not be beyond the vision of economic science” (Rationality in Economics, p 156). 

By coincidence, not long after I had finished writing this post I was enjoying my daily quota of Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre McCloskey, when came across this:

“Nowadays the behavioral economics of, say, Dan Ariely does a job of demolishing claims of individual rationality in moderns. Yet it too commits the Weberian mistake of focusing on individual psychology instead of group sociology and market economics. The experimental economics of Vernon Smith, Bart Wilson, Erik Kimbrough, and others, by contrast, works always with groups, showing that a wisdom of crowds often prevails over psychological shortsightedness and calculative confusion. And by the way, it makes a good case that property arises without the help of the state or the nudging of the clerisy” (p 282).

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Why has Australia prospered much more than Argentina?

In the first half of the 19th Century the Australian and Argentinian economies were similar in many respects. Both countries were being settled by European migrants and their economies were heavily dependent on pastoral activities. Around 1900, per capita GDP levels in Argentina were thought to be not far below those in Australia (see the chart below). Since then, while Australia has prospered to much the same extent as other relatively wealthy countries, Argentina has slipped behind.

Ian McLean’s attempt to explain why Australians have prospered to a much greater extent than Argentinians is to my mind the most interesting feature of his book, Why Australia Prospered (2013).
Part of Ian’s explanation did not come as a surprise to me, but nevertheless deserves to be repeated - often! There have been periods during the last century when inappropriate institutions and policies have threatened to retard the improvement of Australian living standards (e.g. the 1970s) but long-run stagnation was avoided because appropriate economic reforms were made and sustained. As Ian comments: “This contrasts with the historical record of Argentina” (p 252).

A deeper, and more novel, aspect of Ian’s explanation is his speculation that the past willingness of Australians to change institutional arrangements when future prosperity has been threatened is linked to the emergence among 19th century Australians of a democratic and egalitarian temperament, and its persistence since then. Ian notes that there were strong economic forces opposed to the emergence of such culture in Australia because the initial distribution of ownership of pastoral land - the principal basis of wealth in the economy - was highly unequal. In terms of the analysis of Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokolov, the economic power acquired by the wealthy elite could have been expected to have been employed to shape political and social institutions as occurred in Latin American countries, entrenching inequality and resulting in ongoing growth-stunting distributional conflict. According to Ian’s speculations, Australia avoided a long period of squattocracy (oligarchic government by wealthy land owners) only because the British were still in control at the critical point in the 1850s and were able to determine the nature and timing of self-government.

This story challenges some of my preconceptions. I like to think of the squatters as heroes of free enterprise rather than as oligarchic rent-seekers. But I guess few humans are able to resist the temptation to exercise political power in their own interests when the opportunity presents itself. The squatters would have had little difficulty in believing that they were serving the common good by seeking to entrench their dubious property rights and encourage ongoing importation of cheap labour for use on their properties.

The idea that the British government was acting in Australia as an enlightened force promoting democratic ideals might require some explanation.  Ian points out that British attitudes and policies towards the colonies had been shaped by the loss of American colonies and by political instability in Canada. He also notes the existence of domestic pressures for institutional change:
“The attitudes and aspirations of the flood of immigrants arriving after the discovery of gold reflected those of mid-Victorian Britain where reform of the corrupt and class-based political system and concern at social and economic inequalities were much in evidence” (p 252).

Ian McLean’s account of Australian economic history shows that it would be as difficult to sustain the view that Australia has prospered because the heroes of free enterprise have consistently won political battles against the proponents of egalitarianism, as it would be to sustain the view that Australia has prospered because government interventions have consistently been benign in this country. Early establishment of democratic institutions seems to have acted as an important safety valve reducing the potential for distributional conflict, even though it brought with it restrictions on economic freedom, such as trade protectionism, that were later to hinder economic growth. Over the long term, a democratic and egalitarian culture has so far helped Australians to restore and maintain sufficient economic freedom to ensure their ongoing prosperity.