Monday, February 22, 2010

A 'right' to exit? - Exit, Part 1

Mike Gibson recently posed the following question on the A Thousand Nations Blog:

"Is a right of exit compatible with our obligations either to community or to a territorial system of governance?"

To begin with, there are at least two terms in this question that often mean different things to different people. The two that stick out most to be me are "right" and "obligation".

A right could be something an individual either has or doesn't have (dichotomous rights),  or some say you have certain rights in proportion to other rights or to other individuals who have that right. Different rights could each have different degrees of precedence, or they could have equal degrees of precedence. A right could be something granted by particular persons, institutions, or deities unto specific (or non-specific) persons, institutions, or deities. In this way, to say a person has or doesn't have a "right", is like saying that a person is or isn't "on fire". Until we agree on specific and generally agreed-upon definitions, we're likely to talk past one another.

Thus, let me propose the following definition. Having a "right" to exit means that there does not exist a significant force that would be both willing and able to prevent you from exiting something. In the US then, we can say that only those behind bars have lost their right of exit. Internationally, we could say that almost everyone living in Cuba, or North Korea, for example, does not have a right of exit from those particular political boundaries.

Some other examples:

- Do you have the 'right' to not comply with a contract?
A: Generally yes. Except in contracts over real-estate, a court will not usually force you to carry out the specific performance of a contract. You will certainly have to pay damages though.

- Do you have a 'right' to not pay your taxes?
A: No, its quite likely that a significant force will show up at your doorstep to collect the money eventually.

- Do you have the 'right' to exit a relationship?
A: Unless the significant other is considered a significant force, and is prepared to use that force, then yes.

- Do you have the 'right' to exit a hospital without receiving treatment for serious illness?
A: Sure, as long as you are considered mentally capable of making the decision.

The other often contentious term mike mentioned was "obligation". Most of us feel obligations towards people, ideas, objects, etc, yet we often have a difficult time describing these terms in any rigorous generally agreed upon way. However, instead of creating another definition and running with it for a bit, I'm going to move to rigorously defined and generally agreed upon ways of interpreting the de-facto question of "exit", by thinking of exit in terms of cost.

Let me rephrase Mike's question as follows:

"Should individuals, groups, or businesses, seek jurisdictions with an eye towards minimizing the future cost of exiting from those jurisdictions?"

I look to address this question in an upcoming post in this series.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seasteading for the Singularity

The previous post was about what all of us should be doing. Now I turn to one of the best examples of a highly leveraged technology that is consistent with an understanding of complex systems and public choice economics - Seasteading.

Its good to keep in mind one of the basic truths of exponential growth, that small changes early on can have dramatic effects later. Thus, if the Singularity would naturally arrive, unaided by you or I, in a hundred and fifty years, then our efforts to hasten its arrival via one of the vectors I described in the previous post could cause it to come weeks, months, years, or even decades sooner than it otherwise would have, as long as we act in meaningful ways soon.

It is no exaggeration to say that the technology of seasteading has the potential to significantly alter the economic and cultural fabric of the entire planet - in, from what economic theory tells us, would be positive ways. A widespread decentralized network of seasteads intertwined with the economic and political landscape of our globalized world would provide a test-bed for new forms of governance, and new combinations of existing legal, political, and economic organization. Such a decentralized and modular network would experience its own selection pressures, pressures which would force seasteads to adapt to the needs and wants of individuals across the globe. Those seasteads that are unable to adapt would see their customers set sail for greener pastures, and their existing assets and infrastructure would be requisitioned for other purposes (think bankruptcy or M&A in functional markets). This iterative process would hold true as long as customers aboard these seasteads had a low cost of exit (unlike today's political boundaries of significance) due to modular design and the ability to interact with the world at a distance. As more and more seasteads entered the picture, ever increasing numbers of individuals would find that, on the margin, they are better off fronting the cost (and sometimes, risks) of exit from their non-modular land based lives in order to partake in the ocean of possibilities that seasteads open up for them, particularly people living in undesirable economic, social, or political environments. During this process, traditional political, legal, and economic systems, with their higher cost of exit and lack of modularity, would eventually be forced into the new global political, economic, and cultural landscape that seasteads, via this process, have created. Finally, those traditional systems would have to respond to the new rules of the game by offering many of the same advantages that their citizens would now have access to elsewhere. Those jurisdictions that refuse to adapt would see a substantial exodus of their citizenry into other jurisdictions that offer those individuals the legal, political, and social environment they demand, either on land or at sea.

Governments, and their accompanying social, cultural, legal, and econo-political frameworks, can be thought of as the hardware substrate upon which the code of progress is written. When we are finally able to start changing this hardware in a serious way via seasteading, we will likely start seeing unprecedented progress on the software side, and even begin to run programs in a way that was unfeasible and impractical in the past.

Thus, seasteading is one of those highly leveraged beneficial technologies described in the previous post that when scaled is likely to get us to the singularity sooner, perhaps much sooner, than we would otherwise arrive at it by acting as a meta-technology that raises the tides of technological progress across the board. And, unlike solar power or the integrated circuit, seasteading tech also happens to be in its infancy (actually, its still in the womb), meaning that it doesn't take heavy financial resources or other significant forms of power to make a meaningful highly leveraged impact on the seasteading that could significantly change its course and release date.

This next point is a more speculative, but it is reasonable scientific speculation - seasteading makes more sense the further away you estimate the singularity to be. If, all else equal, it took another 200 years for self-improving AGI to be developed, then seasteading could have an enormous impact, perhaps cutting that time in half, perhaps doing even more than that (some back of the envelope estimates would be in order for a future post). If, however, the singularity will arrive in only 10 years, then seasteading is simply an entertaining distraction, an adventure to pass the (short) time while we wait. The "turning point", the time after which seasteading starts to meaningfully speed the arrival of the singularity, seems to be around 20 years or so out:

Time till a prototype, of sorts, is in the water : 3-6 years.

Time till an actual seastead is built : 6-12 years.

Time till multiple seasteads are accessible and early adopters are taking note: 12-18 years.

Time till seasteading becomes a meaningful alternative for a meaningful fraction of the global population: ~20-30 years.

Time till seasteading has made a significant impact on global governance, economic, and social structures : ~30-40+ years.

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Singularity Vectors

Artificial general intelligence is very likely to be the most profound technological achievement ever made by the human mind. Indeed, it will likely be the last significant breakthrough ever achieved by what could reasonably be described as a "human mind" - for better or worse. And, it seems we're relatively close to crunch-time. The singularity may be only a decade away at best, and only a hundred and fifty years or so at worst (barring some sort of global catastrophe). What will happen when it arrives, especially if we get a hard takeoff, is impossible to say - and may depend, either directly or indirectly, on the hard work of folks at institutes such as the SIAI. Pessimistically, it may choose to turn us all into computronium, for its general-purpose use. Optimistically, an AGI may be able to fulfill our individual hithertoo unimagined (and unimaginable) dreams.

One things for sure, life would look very different from what it is today after a hard takeoff. Poverty, disease, and involuntary death will likely be distant memories. What it means to exist, to think, even our qualitative perception of reality would likely be unrecognizable to the pre-singularitarian mind.

So the question becomes, what should we do about this very real possibility. One answer is to buy some nice beachfront property in a fairly safe corner of the globe, stay away from trans-fats, and squeeze the sand through your toes till things around you start to look funny in a very serious way. Unfortunately there are two serious problems with this strategy: One, you probably don't have enough money to drink mojitos on the beach comfortably for decades on end. Two, more importantly, every day that goes by without a singularity is a moment where hundreds of thousands of people die. In other words, if you can cause the singularity to arrive just a day earlier, it would be one of the most heroic, fantastic, and incredibly virtuous acts that anyone, anywhere, has ever been able to achieve. Arguably, to affect such a change, for many of us, could likely end up being the most important thing we would ever do with our lives.

So, just what can we do? There seem to be three broad attack-vectors to the problem:

1) Work on AGI research, either by directly working there or by working elsewhere and sending a meaningful portion of your income to one of the institute's that are directly working on the problem. Most likely your comparative advantage will mean its a better idea to work elsewhere and fund whichever institute you believe is going to bring about a human-friendly singularity as soon as possible.

2) Work towards averting some particular global catastrophic risk which has a statistically significant chance of happening in the next couple of centuries, either directly or indirectly.

3) Work on a global support platform for the singularity.

To elaborate a bit on the third option - economic, political, and cultural progress on a global scale would accomplish two major goals with respect to the singularity: First, it would mean that fewer people are dying each day that passes without a singularity, due to basic improvements in the basic standard of living at the low-end, coupled with high-tech improvements in medicine, quality of life, and reductions in strife at the high-end, all of which lead to higher average healthy life expectancy.

Second, since we don't know exactly what it would take to create an AGI, it's a good idea to raise the tide of many technologies simultaneously. It could be that better computer hardware will get us there more quickly, it could be that a much bigger and more diverse pool of interdisciplinary-minded researchers and collaborators from around the globe could be useful in solving the deep and complex problems that AGI research might run into. It could be that what we end up needing is a massive distributed seti@home style project to process vast genetic-algorithms, or a huge online massively multiplayer realm to interact directly with a fledgling artificial intelligence and train it in the ways necessary to move us towards a successful full-scale AGI. Unfortunately, we don't know what specific technological innovations we will need to get there, but its a safe bet that the more inter-connected, decentralized, and prosperous our world becomes, the closer we'll be to a singularity.

The issue, then, is how to act in the most highly leveraged way you individually can in order to reach a safe singularity as quickly as possible from one of those three approach-vectors. The answer, of course, is to focus on your comparative advantage:

- If you are a great AI researcher, programmer, rationalist, or similar, then you can directly or indirectly work for one of those institutes or their research goals, as long as there's a reasonable chance you'd be doing a better job than whoever you'd be substituting for (assuming you are, in fact, substituting for someone).
If this is the case - send an email to anna.salamon(at)singinst(dot)org or the equivalent elsewhere and get your foot in the door.

- If you have particular insight into how to avert one of those statistically significant global catastrophic risks, then make that your life's work.

- If you know of a highly leveraged beneficial technology or a meme that could feasibly shift the cultural, economic, and political future of humanity on a significant and global scale, or could feed into such endeavors, pursue that. Remember, what you're looking for here is a significant change that would feed into many sectors, something that would add as many points as possible to our technological and economic growth curves. There is no easy way to know if xyz tech or abc meme will lead positively to overall growth curves, the best we can do is rely on the tools we have to understand cause and effect chains within complex systems - tools such as economics(start with Hayek), complexity theory, and a good understanding of history and evolutionary dynamics.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Hello World"

I've finally woken this blog from its >a year long slumber. I'll try to keep posts on it relevant to the topic, though occasional tangents will certainly be in order. Note the date, its actually 1/16/2010.

Let the fun begin!