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Prediction or Science Fiction?

A collection of the more far out articles on New Things

Published onJun 07, 2024
Prediction or Science Fiction?

This post provides a quick overview of claim articles in New Things Under the Sun that deal with the as-yet-unknown future of innovation and the speculative.

Can’t find what you’re looking for? The easiest thing is to just ask me: I’m happy to point you to the best article, if there is a relevant one.

When the robots take your job

  • A number of recent papers look at the impact of automation - the invention of machines that can substitute for human labor.

  • This post tries to provide some intuition for these models.

  • In the task-based framework used in these papers, wages can collapse under various scenarios:

    • The share of automated tasks, relative to manual tasks, becomes too high

    • The share of capital, relative to labor, becomes too low

  • These models have some other interesting implications

    • Not all tasks need to become automated for wages to collapse

    • If humans can learn to do any manual task, wages for performing a specific task do not depend on whether that specific task has been automated.

  • (go to article)

What if we could automate innovation?

  • We have a subdiscipline of economics devoted to writing down mathematical models of economic growth. What do those models say happens if the inventing can be automated?

  • Explains a simplified version of one popular model, where supplying a given amount of inventor-hours leads to innovation, and the amount of inventor-hours needed goes up over time.

    • If only people can innovate, then the rate of innovation is determined by the population growth rate.

    • If robots can do the inventing, the rate of innovation accelerates continually!

    • If robots can do some but not all of the tasks needed to innovate, the rate of innovation is determined by the population growth rate and the rate at which robots learn to do new tasks.

  • Discusses which assumptions in this simple model are important to get the key results and which ones can be relaxed without affecting the results

  • (go to article)

When technology goes bad

  • There are reasons to think future technologies may not have a benefit-cost ratio as high as in the past.

  • Models of economic growth where innovation sometimes results in death show that if the preference for more material goods is not too high, people may choose to stop growth when they are sufficiently wealthy.

  • In models where inventors can pursue safety-enhancing innovations, richer societies may increasingly focus on this kind of innovation, slowing conventional growth. There is some evidence rich countries are indeed making this decision.

  • Other models point out this doesn’t imply richer societies are safer, if technological progress also imposes danger.

  • Climate change illustrates many of these issues in a concrete way.

  • When there exists a safe substitute for a dangerous technology, a temporary government intervention to increase R&D on the safe substitute can lead to a permanent reduction in safety without reducing growth.

  • (go to article)

Contingency and Science

  • This is about how much a particular scientist or group matters in discovering new knowledge.

  • Evidence from the history of simultaneous inventions suggests that redundancy is low for most details and ideas.

    • This doesn’t seem to be the case for some important ideas

    • Another issue with this argument is scientists may avoid working in areas where their rivals are active.

  • Studies that investigate the impact of an eminent life scientist's death on the scientific community suggest:

    • scientists do avoid working on the same topics as eminent colleagues.

    • But the nature discoveries does change following death, suggesting the same ideas are not necessarily always discovered.

  • Studies on the disruption of communication and collaboration due to geopolitical conflict also appear to lead to sustained divergences in science.

  • (go to article)

Combinatorial innovation and technological progress in the very long run

  • Combinatorial innovation is the notion that technological progress can be understood through the combination of pre-existing ideas or technologies.

  • This process can lead to sub-exponential growth until an explosion of new ideas takes place.

  • Some argue this explosion is a potential explanation for the industrial revolution.

  • Growth does not generally seem to be exploding, and some papers have proposed rationales for this. These could be related to:

    • limitations in resources for R&D

    • difficulties finding successively better ideas

    • cognitive limits

  • (go to article)

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