Ask me anything — Hope for Humanity edition

All problems that humanity faces will ultimately be solved through better intelligence. After all, it is human intelligence that produces all that we have for our survival and prosperity. Nature-provided raw materials are strictly speaking worthless without the application of intelligence. Until very recently, all we had was human intelligence and human labor to get things done. More recently, human labor was augmented with machines. Machines are ultimately the product of human intelligence and human labor. Now we are getting to the point where human intelligence would be augmented by artificial or machine intelligence, and then in short order artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence (just as machine labor has surpassed human labor.)

Reason leads me to believe that all our material problems (disease, poverty, etc) admit technological solutions. I define technology simply as “know how”. We have developed technology over the ages. That is, we know how to get things done, from growing crops to manufacturing commercial jet planes.

I am also certain that all technological problems will be solved in about 20 to 30 years. How? Because humans will have figured out how to manipulate matter at the molecular level, and then at the atomic level. Machines that manipulate matter at the atomic level would be the ultimate constructors. They will make everything — from food to airplanes — given the raw materials. We are unlikely to ever run out of atoms. Energy is also virtually unlimited in the cosmos. We just lack the know how but not for long.

Now about biodiversity. True, biodiversity is decreasing in this “anthropocene” age. That’s been true all along, though. Around 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct. Why the present condition of diversity has to be maintained for eternity is not clear at all. In any case, it was mainly lack of intelligence that has caused the decline in biodiversity. Ignorance of how to get things done without inadvertently destroying biodiversity has been the problem. But humanity is getting smarter, and richer. Being richer means that one can afford to pay attention to matters other than just basic survival.

The only danger I see comes from the military industrial complex. That implies the biggest enemy of humanity is big government.

20 thoughts on “Ask me anything — Hope for Humanity edition

  1. Interesting take Atanu. The conclusion seems a bit abrupt though. Technology can solve many problems, but one it aggravates is that of inequality and government is the only ‘technology’ we have that is designed to take care of it. We need people like you to think through how to decentralize essential roles of government and create a market for its services. Specifically, providing a safety net, socio-economic stability, equal access to opportunity, reduce pockets of extreme poverty/unhappiness, preventing zero sum games and prisoner’s dilemmas through rules and enforcement, catering to long term societal good and not just short term and invest in societal trust which sprouts cooperation and trade.

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    1. Ameet,

      My conclusion that big government is the major problem facing humanity is not “abrupt” at all. Although I have not supported it here, it can be rigorously supported. What’s the role of proper role of the government in a free society is the first question we have to ask and answer. If you can address that question, we can begin to see why big government is the key problem.

      I believe that you are mistaken about government being designed to take care of problems. That’s not the proper role of the government of a free society. The government is not the proper agency for any of the problems you list: safety net, socio-economic stability, equal access to opportunity, reduction of poverty, reduction of unhappiness, preventing zero-sum games (?), preventing prisoner’s dilemmas, long-term societal good, etc.

      If you are serious about understanding the proper role of the government of a free society, you must begin by examining your assumptions.

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  2. Silly question, still, comparing Keynes and Hayek who do you think was a better economist?
    [Assuming you won’t say both were great et cetera.]

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    1. Keynes was evidently brilliant. But so was Einstein. And Einstein was no economist. In fact, Einstein thought that socialism was a good way to organize society. The point here being that being brilliant does not automatically make you good in any particular field.

      Hayek and Keynes were colleagues, friends and enjoyed mutual respect. Hayek thought Keynes would have been a great economist had he put his mind to it. But, as Hayek said, Keynes was “a man with a great many ideas who knew very little economics.” Note that Hayek said that Keynes was “one of the most intelligent and original thinkers” he had known.

      I have read quite a bit of Hayek. I have not read much Keynes but what is called “Keynesian economics” strikes me as pretty silly (silly as in the original meaning of the word as “empty”). But then I consider macroeconomics as silly. So in my mind there is no contest: Hayek was a professional economist and Keynes was an amateur economist.

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      1. I have watched this interview of Hayek with Leo Rosten,all three parts in full.
        If you can elaborate a bit on why you call him an ‘amateur’ economist considering the positions he held,for instance the editor in chief of the prestigious ‘The Economic Journal’.Also his book ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’ is regarded as classic(but then it comes under the category of Macroeconomics.)
        Even Milton Friedman called him a great economist though fundamentally differing from him.
        Here at Indian varsities,Keynes is extensively taught in economics while Hayek finds a little mention.

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  3. I’m reading a lot on india’s history and it’s freedom movement. I would love to know your opinion of Sardar Patel.

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    1. Aki,

      I am nearly totally ignorant of Indian history. About the “freedom” movement, I know only this: that it should be called the “independence” movement because India did not become free but only became independent of the British. Indians were not free under the British government. But when the British left, the British raj was taken over by Nehru and his minions. As I see it, what difference did it make to the average Indian? None at all. The average Indian was still under a controlling government that was hellbent on crushing his spirit.

      Sardar Patel could possibly have been better than Nehru. But that’s a very low bar. The average moron would have been better than Nehru.

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  4. If Big Government irks you, you should be frothing at the mouth with what your erstwhile beloved Modi is doing to increase State overreach and to demolish civil liberties. An income tax assessing officer does not even need a warrant to raid your home, or route you straight from your home to jail. The assessing officer is not required to produce, even to the Supreme Court, the evidence on the basis of which a raid was conducted. You cannot even lawfully sue Aadhaar for screwing around with your biometrics, while state organizations leave around millions of PIIs on the open Web. You have no right to cash, because much money created by banks in the last 10 years has no connection to the real economy and must be destroyed soon anyway. If such degeneration of so-called democracy dances like so much synchronized swimming across the richest and poorest nations of Earth, it’s safe to predict some pretty big upheavals in social orders worldwide soon. Sheesh, not even 80 years and the worldwide experiment with so-called democracy seems over.

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    1. og,

      Yes, indeed Modi has proven himself to be a big-government statist, a transformation that is as dangerous as it is unexpected. His campaign rhetoric was entirely different. He promised “minimum government, maximum governance” and claimed to believe that “government has no business to be in business.” He turned out to be the exact opposite of what he pretended to be.

      But in the 2012-14 period, it was clear that UPA was not going to deliver and we (those who supported Modi for PM) hoped desperately for a change of regime. It wasn’t that there was any other option but to support Modi. Perhaps not quite from the frying pan into the fire, but definitely India is still in the frying pan.

      Can one hope for a change in policy? No, unless there is regime change. We are back to where we were in 2012-14. We hope that this regime is replaced in 2019. That can only come about if and only if the people wake up to the disaster that the present is. Will they wake up? I doubt it but what else can one do but teach people to demand freedom.

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  5. How shall judges be paid so that they stay honest and and have an incentive to delivery speedy but effective judgment? Is any country doing better than India vis-a-vis judge’s performance? If yes, what are they doing different?

    I would have asked the same question for police. However, theoretically speaking, police is at least under an elected government and has a theoretical accountability to public.

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    1. “How shall judges be paid so that they stay honest and and have an incentive to delivery speedy but effective judgment?” The question appears to lack context but then this is “ask me anything” and therefore I suppose it is fair game.

      As in all other instances of hiring agents to do some job, the incentive structure is easy to create. First, reward performance and second, punish non-performance. Assuming that there is a competitive process through which judges are selected, rewards can be high pay and prestige, and punishments would be loss of job for non-performance, and loss of freedom (jail) for dishonesty.

      India has a problem of a huge number of pending court cases. This is because of a combination of low supply (a lack of adequate judicial capacity) and high demand (too many laws that lead to too much litigation). A majority of the cases involve the government versus private entities (I don’t have the statistics on what precisely is the percentage.)

      One important component of the solution would be to reduce the number of laws. Too many laws create poverty.

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  6. Sir – Isn’t 20-30 years too optimistic? You are talking about manipulating at molecular levels but as of today we are not even in a position to guarantee saving cancer patients with all the world’s best available health.
    Also I feel you are underplaying the dangers of environmental degradation and loss of bio diversity. Knowledge and awareness is one thing but not sure how it can tackle the greed and self destructive rapaciousness of humans? http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/05/stephen-hawking-human-extinction-colonize-planet.html

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    1. Is 20 to 30 years too optimistic a time period over which to achieve what appears to be nearly impossible? I don’t think so. The rate of growth of technology (let us remember that technology properly understood is the knowledge of how to do things) is exponential. Why? Because the rate of growth of technology is a function of the stock of existing technology, which implies exponentiation function. Then there is the fact that there are more people involved in the advancement of technology than ever before. The planet has 7+ billion people, and tens of millions of them are doing the best they can to push the boundaries of human knowledge.

      Technology is advancing at such a furious pace that it is nearly impossible to predict precisely what will happen in 20 years. But the broad outlines can be predicted. Historically, technology has enabled people to manipulate matter at smaller scales. Fifty years ago no one had any idea of how small transistors would be today. Nvidia has recently achieved 21 billion transistors in an area of only 815 square mm.

      Nanometer scale machines are a certainty. It’s only a question of if, not when.

      Environmental degradation is nothing to worry about too much. These are largely reversible, and ways would be found to work around whatever is not reversible. Loss of biodiversity is a concern but “though much is taken, much abides.” The stock is huge.

      Finally, knowledge is the culprit and paradoxically the guard against “the greed and self-destructive rapaciousness of humans.” Ignorance lies at the root of all human-caused problems. More complete knowledge and understanding would fix those as well. As you can tell, I am a technology optimist. (I never tire of repeating that technology is know-how or knowledge.)

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  7. Arvind Subramanian,Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India said recently that india WILL catch up with china in 20-30 years. your thoughts?

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    1. Don’t know what Mr Subramanian is smoking but I would like to have some of that too. I always enjoy hallucinatory drugs because they afford an easy exit from confronting reality.

      Sure, India will catch up with today’s China in 20-30 years. But I doubt India will catch up with the China of 20-30 years hence. The arithmetic does not work out.

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  8. What are your thoughts are on governments (or quasi government bodies) deciding what subjects should be taught in schools. For physical and social sciences, yes, I could think of market deciding it. But specifically what about languages? Can a government decide? But again, if we leave it to the market, some languages may not survive. I find it abhorrent that in some Indian states one could complete schooling all the way until Grade 12 without learning the local language.

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