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Robin Hanson on the technological singularity

This week’s EconTalk is Robin Hanson talking about the technological singularity [1]–the possibility that a new era of technological improvement is around the corner that will make the current level of growth look primitive. At current rates of growth, world output doubles about every 15 years. Robin imagines the possibility that it could double every two weeks.

My conversation with Robin was mind-boggling, frustrating, humbling, mind-expanding, and ultimately very thought-provoking. It was also very long. Robin is full of fascinating ideas. He thinks the singularity is likely and one possible route is to port human consciousness into computers. Literally. Our brains and their processes would be replicated in machine-form allowing machines to replicate human thought processes and intelligence.

I disputed the likelihood of this and struggled to understand the implications. In Robin’s view, this will lead enormous wealth but a world where our labor will become nearly worthless. So the road to enjoying the expanded wealth is through owning real estate, intellectual property related to the porting/computing process or other scarce resources. I struggled with the idea that these machines/humans (it is hard to know what to call them) would simply be substitutes for biological humans rather than complements.

We left out two of the most interesting and important aspects of this process were it to ever happen. Lauren Landsburg who edits the EconLib site and does the wonderfully detailed highlights for each podcast wondered why Robin and I didn’t talk about innovation. Good question. We talked a lot about new computer/humans as workers but failed to mention the incredible potential for increased creativity and innovation. The other aspect we neglected was that Robin was really talking about the potential for immortality. If I can port my brain to a machine, don’t I (whatever that is) live forever. We spent a lot of time talking about the potential to make multiple copies and the implication for wages. But the first copy might be the really interesting one.

This may all sound crazy but Robin makes it actually sound plausible. And of course at the end of the podcast he expresses his willingness to bet on it.

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