Reading this essay by Peter Thiel, I was struck by an amusing (though almost certainly coincidental) parallel. Thiel mentions three areas in which people interested in freedom may manage to get out from under the thumb of excessive government: cyberspace, seasteading, and outer space. The parallel is to three fronts on which people are pursuing nanotechnology: in simulation, in solution, and in high vacuum. The difficulties, availability of enabling technology, and relative timescales for success match somewhat, as do the ultimate impacts if and when success is achieved.
It’s important, however, to look at Thiel’s main point, summed up here:
The future of technology is not pre-determined, and we must resist the temptation of technological utopianism — the notion that technology has a momentum or will of its own, that it will guarantee a more free future, and therefore that we can ignore the terrible arc of the political in our world.
A better metaphor is that we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire. Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.
Why is this a race and why is it deadly? The bottom line is that government, even liberal democratic government with the best of motives, has internal perverse incentive structures that inhibit a lot of growth. This is well-understood in cases like the FDA where there’s a huge incentive to block dangerous drugs but little to advance beneficial ones. The overall effect can be seen in this graph, showing the effect of government spending levels on the OECD nations on GDP growth:
The reason this is a deadly race is that it makes (and has made) a huge difference in when we get to actuarial escape velocity. The “lost decade” in nanotech research is arguably due to the same kind of error bias in the funding agencies as in the FDA (with looking silly in the press standing for approving thalidomide).
The question is what to do. Educate people about the problems and move our country to the left on the above graph? Entropy and long-term trends are against us. Helping the technology side of the race seems much more amenable to valuable individual effort, as Thiel pointed out. Here at least the trends of various improvement curves in technology are on our side.
Nanotech will be valuable for such efforts as seasteading and absolutely necessary for space colonization. However, there is one other technology that may help out quite a bit and is much more amenable to improvement without large research grants. That is AI.
There’s been a lot of noise made about the dangers of AI, from the ridiculous (Terminator) to the reasonable. But the key point about the suffocating western liberal democracies is not that they are evil, but simply incompetent. Any advance that helps us do things smarter, from running investment banks to medical research, is going to help the progress side of the race. There is the obvious way of having a smarter-than-human machine make decisions directly. But another way AI will help is simply by offering a body of knowledge that tells us how to build decision-making machines, programs, data-manipulating structures, that work properly and that learn from their (and others’) experience. Much of the actual decision-making that goes on in the world is made by such structures, e.g. corporations and governments, that are designed poorly and fail at their nominal tasks all too often.
Oh, and it turns out that being smarter correlates with being libertarian. Because, all ideology aside, freedom works.