🆙 2022 gave us many reasons to be encouraged about our future
Also: 5 Quick Questions for … futurist and ‘Rule of the Robots’ author Martin Ford on the impact of artificial intelligence
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In This Issue
The Essay: 2022 gave us many reasons to be encouraged about our future
5QQ: 5 Quick Questions for … Rule of the Robots author Martin Ford on the impact of artificial intelligence
Quote of the Issue
“Science has not yet mastered prophecy. We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next 10.” - Neil Armstrong
🆙 2022 gave us many reasons to be encouraged about our future
If you wanted to fiendishly devise a news headline to infuriate me, it might look a lot like this one from The Economist: “How the West fell out of love with economic growth.” Unfortunately, the piece offers plenty of evidence to support that depressing assertion. The novel bit of proof is a long-term analysis of political party manifestos across the OECD, a club of rich nations. The Economist finds those platforms “are about half as focused on growth as they were in the 1980s. Modern politicians are less likely to extol the benefits of free markets than their predecessors, for instance. They are more likely to express anti-growth sentiments, such as positive mentions of government control over the economy.”
That finding is reflected in the first of the three charts above. But there’s more data to support the case — in areas such as regulation, trade, immigration, housing regulation — some of which is indicated in the other two charts. Again, from the piece:
The American government introduced 12,000 new regulations in 2021, a rise on recent years. From 2010 to 2020 rich countries’ tariff restrictions on imports doubled. Britain voted for and implemented Brexit. Other countries have turned against immigration. In 2007 almost 6m people, on net, migrated to advanced economies. In 2019 the number was down to just 4m. Governments have also become less friendly to new construction, whether of housing or infrastructure. A paper by Knut Are Aastveit, Bruno Albuquerque and André Anundsen, three economists, finds American housing “supply elasticities”— the extent to which construction responds to higher demand—have fallen since the housing boom of the 2000s. This is likely to reflect tougher land-use policies and more powerful nimbys. Housing construction across the rich world is about two-thirds its level in that decade.
What is causing this shift away from a focus on growth? The Economist cites two possible reasons. First, the West is getting older, which means electorates are increasingly dominated by people who may worry more about healthcare spending than slightly bigger 401ks. Also, these oldsters vote in big numbers. Second, high levels of debt mean many policymakers are more focused on avoiding financial crises rather than creating a long-term, pro-growth ecology: “Even small declines in cash flows could make servicing the debt harder. This means politicians quickly intervene when anything goes wrong.”
Interregnum: I think there’s some American exceptionalism here. While I concede the points about regulation, immigration, trade, and NIMBYism all apply to the US, it should be noted that an attempt to boost growth is what drove tax policy under President Trump, as well as reform of the National Environmental Policy Act. Similarly, the Biden administration has said increasing the US economy’s productive capacity is an important part of the rationale for its economic agenda, specifically the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Let me add a third anti-growth factor to the magazine’s thesis: Too many economists keep telling policymakers that there’s not much they can do to boost growth. Or at least that might be the message policymakers are taking away from what economists are saying. The good times really are over for good, to riff on a Merle Haggard song. We’ve already squeezed what we can from the unrepeatable Great Inventions of the past, picked all the low-hanging fruit. Maybe
140 280 4000 characters is all Silicon Valley can promise and deliver.
But how can anyone be pessimistic about growth when you look at the various year-end lists of the biggest scientific discoveries and technological advancements of 2022? Here are a few of the selections from a list compiled by The Week:
The James Webb Telescope
A universal flu vaccine
Changing an asteroid's trajectory
New vaccines to fight malaria
Cancer treatments advance
Injecting human cells into rats' brains to study psychiatric disorders
I don’t know about rich country politicians, but that list makes me pretty upbeat about the future, especially if we focus on public policy that further encourages such discovery, invention, and innovation and removes barriers to its further progress and commercialization. When you think about the potential economic value of that list, the numbers get pretty big pretty fast. Earlier this week I mentioned an analysis that found nuclear fusion could be a $40 trillion industry, not to mention how clean, abundant, affordable power could alter the scarcity mentality about energy that’s plagued us for decades.
One reason cancer treatments made The Week’s list is an effort to “use artificial intelligence tools to come up with a new drug combination to fight diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an incurable childhood brain cancer.” This is a great example of how AI can function as a super research assistant to either help find fruit higher up the tree of discovery or find entirely new trees. What would a cancer cure be worth? A 2006 study, by University of Chicago economists Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel, pegged that number at a whopping $50 trillion.
Compared to those numbers, the $3.5 billion in annual direct medical costs (not counting lost labor and productivity) saved from a universal flu vaccine might not seem like much. But the 20,000 lives saved strikes me as pretty significant. I could go on and on here. By one estimate, the global direct and indirect economic costs of mental disorders were estimated at $2.5 trillion a year, suggesting the immense value of a better understanding of the brain that leads to better treatments.
The value of avoiding planetary destruction is also quite sizable. Not only do you preserve today’s $100 trillion global economy — and the humans who generate it — but also everything that could come after. Our World in Data’s Max Roser has calculated that if you assume a) the Sun exists for another 5 billion years or so and b) technological progress and economic growth allow us to protect ourselves from various existential threats (along with moving off planet), we can anticipate a future in which 625 quadrillion children will be born. So even if you economically value an individual human life at just $1 — and governments value a human life at around $10 million — planetary defense (such as this year’s successful DART asteroid deflection mission) and space technology (such as this year’s successful Artemis 1 Moon mission) seem like pretty solid long-term investments.
Let me wrap with this bit from a 2020 chat I had with Toby Ord, a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, where he studies the long-term future of humanity, and author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity.
Pethokoukis: There’s so much negativity in popular media about the future, so we just don’t have an optimistic image of the future that makes them think we have the chance for something pretty spectacular. So what is that great image of the future that’s at risk, which should motivate us to overcome these risks?
Ord: As well as losing the future, we would lose everything from the past. We would be the first generation out of thousands, 10,000 generations, to break this chain. And if you think about what’s bad if a culture is destroyed, everything about that would be even worse. In this case, it would be the final ruin of every language, culture, and tradition. Every temple and cathedral all destroyed forever. And ultimately, the force in the universe that was pushing towards what is good or just, in terms of moral action — the fact that humans, unlike chimpanzees or birds, can actually see that something would be better for others or it would be just, and that’s a reason to do it and to push in that direction — that would be gone. As well as love and appreciation of beauty — all of these things would be forever stripped from the world. So I think we’ve got a lot to lose. I can understand why people in a moment of despair kind of throw up their hands and say these kinds of things, but I think if they really reflect on it, we have everything to lose.
And I think human ingenuity this year gave us a few more tools to prevent us from losing everything, if we value those tools and choose to use them.
💡 5 Quick Questions for … Rule of the Robots author Martin Ford on the impact of artificial intelligence
Martin Ford is the author of several books, including 2015’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future and 2021’s Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything. He thinks deeply about where robotics and artificial intelligence advances are heading and what effects they’ll have on the labor market and society. Here are 5 Quick Questions I asked him about AI:
1/ There's been loads of economic research in the past few years about the impact of robots/AI on jobs. What is your current view?
Since I started writing about the implications of AI more than a decade ago, my view has been that there will ultimately be a significant impact on the job market and a real possibility of technological unemployment, especially for less skilled workers. My view has not changed. Although recent years have seen a surprisingly low headline unemployment rate, other metrics like workforce participation continue to suggest that many workers are becoming disenfranchised from the job market. And the latest innovations such as more dexterous robots in Amazon warehouses, GPT-3 and its competitors, and AI systems that are getting proficient at writing computer code suggest that a significant job market disruption is not far off — and that white-collar workers, often with college degrees, will not be spared.
2/ Why is autonomous driving turning out to be harder than many predicted a few years ago?
The problem is all the "edge cases" — the ability to handle unpredictable, unanticipated situations. It turns out that driving in traffic on public roads requires something closer to human-level intelligence than was initially thought. I think it could easily be another five or even 10 or more years before we have true "robotaxis" that are functionally equivalent to what an Uber driver can do.
3/ We seem to have been in a time of "AI spring." Is winter coming?
There have been long AI winters in the past, and there have been many recent predictions that we may be headed for another one as progress in deep learning technology plateaus. However, the past year has seen a number of important breakthroughs, especially in generative AI systems like ChatGPT and DALL-E. I think we could definitely see periods of slower progress, but I doubt we will see a full-fledged AI winter because AI is no longer confined to universities and research labs; the technology has now been fully integrated into the business models of the major tech companies and is becoming increasingly critical in other industries throughout the service, agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
4/ In what ways might conceiving of AI as the "next electricity" constrain rather than aid clear thinking about AI?
The analogy to electricity captures the potential reach and systemic impact of AI — but there are also critical differences between the technologies. Electricity is universally viewed as a benevolent technology. AI clearly has both positive and negative sides, including significant risks for the economy and society. Electricity is a stable, fungible resource — while AI is continuously improving. It is a far more dynamic and unpredictable technology. So it's important to keep those differences in mind when thinking about AI as a new type of utility.
5/ Did the pandemic change your views on the labor market disrupting potential of AI?
In general, no, my views have remained consistent. Clearly the pandemic resulted in a labor shortage and some of the workers who left the workforce have still not returned. It remains to be seen if this will normalize. The transition to remote work resulted in short-term productivity gains, but I think there are real questions about the long-term consequences. During the pandemic, remote workers were able to rely on pre-existing relationships with co-workers built up in the office. Over the long term, it will be hard to replicate this without a full-time return to the office, and productivity and innovation may suffer. This, in turn, may increase the incentive for managers to automate. I think many managers may prefer to rely on automation over remote workers that they have less control over — even if the automated systems are imperfect. This together with continuing labor shortages in some areas could accelerate the adoption of AI and robots in the workplace.
Why everyone thinks a recession is coming in 2023 - Patti Domm, CNBC
Inside the $34 Billion Bet on Indonesia’s Future - Daniel Moss, Bloomberg Opinion
Amid drought, Arizona contemplates a fraught idea: Piping in water from Mexico - Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post
An arms race on industrial policy is the last thing Europe needs - Adam tooze, FT Opinion
What’s next for AI? - Melissa Heikkilä and Will Douglas Heaven, MIT Tech Review
Sneaking drugs into the brain could treat conditions like Alzheimer's - Michael Le Page, New Scientist