poly: Dreams of Autonomy

From: Robin Hanson <rhanson@gmu.edu>
Date: Fri Aug 27 1999 - 08:31:40 PDT

It occurs to me that a common theme in many dreams of the future we have
been enticed by is an unusual degree of autonomy.

SPACE: This imagines largely self-sufficient space economies, which need to
import only a very small amount of mass from Earth to function. This stands
in sharp contrast to even the most isolated existing Earth economies, which
still share an atmosphere and biosphere with the rest of us, and typically
also import and export much more mass.

NANOTECH: This imagines manufacturing plants that are far more autonomous
than existing plants. Instead of being embedded in a world wide economic
web of mines, transport lines, and other plants, one imagines small plants
that need only take in a few standardized molecules, and can output finished
products of use to ordinary people.

A.I.: This imagine software that is far more autonomous than existing
human-created software. At present we encode task-specific knowledge in
small modules, and embed those modules within our existing knowledge economy
embedded in hardware and in human workers trained for specific tasks. When
that embedding changes even a small amount, such software typically needs to
be changed to remain useful. Instead one imagines perhaps moderately sized
separate modules with broad common sense knowledge and mental abilities,
approaching or exceeding the generality and flexibility of human brains.

PRIVATE LAW: This imagines that instead of being embedded in large
political systems which greatly influence the laws between each of us, each
pair of us can choose our own laws, at least on most issues which do not
substantially effect others.

In this sense of positing extreme autonomy, these dreams bear a striking
resemblance to many other dreams of the future, from such as anarchists and
greens seeking small communities which are self-sufficient either
politically or economically. And come to think of it, most utopias have
been described as isolated islands or valleys where folks can do things right.

It's hard to escape wondering if these dreams of autonomy are not mostly the
result of humans not yet coming fully to terms with our new interdependence.
Biology created largely autonomous creatures, and only discovered a
world-wide division of labor recently in us. So our cells are largely
autonomous manufacturing plants, and our minds are general and broadly
capable, and we picture our ideal political unit and future home to be the
self-sufficient small tribe of our evolutionary heritage.

Autonomy is not physically impossible, and hence space colonies, nanotech,
AI, and private law are all possible at some abstract level. Yet there are
good reasons to suspect that future software, manufacturing plants, and
colonies will typically be much dependent on the rest of the world than our
dreams of autonomy imagine. The riches that come from a worldwide division
of labor have rightly seduced us away from many of our dreams of autonomy.
We may fanaticize about dropping out of the rat race and living a life of
ease on some tropical island. But very few of us ever do.

So space may stay un-colonized until we can cheaply send lots of mass up
there. Manufacturing plants may slowly get smaller and better, without a
sudden "assembler" revolution. Software may slowly get smarter and be much
smarter than people long before any single module is created that can pass a
Turing test, and such a module may be of only limited interest. Finally,
the multidimensional tug of politics may long limit private law to narrow
ranges of life.

Interdependence isn't romantic, and hardly seems the basis for selling
science fiction books. But it may be the future we need to come to terms
with. Unless ...

There is one way in which dependence has decreased, and that is with
increases in modularity. We are less dependent on family members for food
and health, because we can buy such things in open markets. Complex systems
often work better when modules are creates whose internals can depend less
on each other in certain ways. So perhaps some of these dreams can be
resurrected as new forms of modularity.

Robin Hanson rhanson@gmu.edu http://hanson.gmu.edu
Asst. Prof. Economics, George Mason University
MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030
703-993-2326 FAX: 703-993-2323
Received on Fri Aug 27 08:32:42 1999

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