RE: the economics of transition to nanotech

From: Robin Hanson (
Date: Tue Jan 11 2000 - 14:21:59 MST

Damien Broderick wrote:
>I guess what I was hoping for most, in raising this in the first place, was
>some urls to papers (like those of ESR on open source software) that
>explicitly and professionally analyzed the topic. I don't know of any,
>aside from some elaborate plans for paths to AI (rather than nano) in
>various of Eli's sub-sites, and comments by Robin Hanson on the economics
>of unlimited uploading, and like that. Maybe it hasn't been done yet. I'd
>have expected the Foresight folks to have a batch of documents on this
>topic, though (but I haven't fallen over any of them yet).

Robert Bradbury wrote:
> > I'd guess that the ramifications of this [nanotech/infoecon] shift
> > have been examined ad nauseum in academic papers.
>Nope, academia unfortunately tends to narrow ones perspective. I can
>only think of three relatively polymathic people (Robin Hanson, Robert
>Freitas and Eric, with perhaps Ralph & Josh close behind) who understand
>the technology sufficiently and have enough background in other areas
>to begin to wrestle with the trends and tradeoffs in detail. People
>like Moravec, Kurzweil and Minsky have made contributions, but they
>don't really understand the trends in biotech & health sufficiently
>because of their specializations. Michio Kaku is one of the best
>"futurists" around, in terms of his technical competence and general
>grasp of trends, but even he doesn't "grok" nanotech and much of biotech.
>Other than that, Damien and the authors of the Cyberhumanity book are on
>the cutting edge.

This brings up a favorite gripe of mine: that almost no one studies the
economics of future technology. While not everyone takes the prospects of
nanotech, AI, uploads, space colonization, etc. seriously, there are quite a
few people who do. Virtually all of them, however, are "hard" science and
engineer "techie" types.

So while the social implications of future tech are clearly of wide
interest, the few folks who sit down and try to do serious analysis of
future tech almost all do hard sci/eng analysis, such as entropy
limits to computation applied to civilizations farming black holes, or
design sketches of assemblers, starships, or AI systems. And what social
analysis there is based almost entirely on the random intuitive social
theories such techies, or the SF authors that market to them, hold.

Now many techies are under the illusion that this is the best that can be
done, that there is no such thing as social science. But they are dead
wrong. With the equivalent of a Ph.D. in economic growth theory, and a
basic understanding of the relevant future technologies, one would be very
well positioned to seriously analyze the social implications of nanotech,
AI, space colonization, etc. Just as in other areas of economics, such
analyses are capable of offering much more detail and insight than most
random intuitive social theories can offer. You wouldn't need to invent
much new economics; just apply standard economics to these novel topics.

And what about all those people who already understand growth theory
at the Ph.D. level? Virtually none of them take these future technologies
seriously. It's not that they necessarily disagree with the notion that
such technologies will eventually appear. Its just that they break into
giggle fits at the very idea that one would seriously try to study them.
It was hard enough to get them to try to study the impact of computers
(you know, those new-fangled things that showed up a half century ago).

Robin Hanson
Asst. Prof. Economics, George Mason University
MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030
703-993-2326 FAX: 703-993-2323

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