Dreams of Autarky

Robin Hanson (rhanson@gmu.edu)
Thu, 09 Sep 1999 17:50:48 -0400

It occurs to me that a common theme in many dreams of the future is an unusual degree of autarky, or independence. Consider these examples.

GENIE NANOTECH: This imagines tiny manufacturing plants which are far more independent than plants in our familiar human economy. Instead of being deeply embedded in a world wide economic web of plants, mines, dumps, and transport lines, one imagines small "genie" plants that need only take in a few standardized molecules, and can quickly produce most of the finished products that ordinary people want, including other genie plants. Some people even imagine that these machines would "forage", obtaining their inputs from whatever matter they find around them.

SPACE COLONIES SOON: Because of the tremendous expense of putting mass into orbit, dreams of space colonization anytime soon must imagine space economies largely self-sufficient in mass. While bits could be exchanged in great numbers, a space colony could only import a very small fraction of its inputs from Earth. This stands in sharp contrast to even the most isolated existing Earth economies, which share an atmosphere and biosphere with the rest of us, and import and export much more mass. Spacecraft to create colonies around other stars require extreme autarky, with an extreme premium on low mass, and no exchange whatsoever beyond perhaps some momentum and a few bits received from from a distant laser.

TURING-TEST A.I.: This imagines software that is far more independent than existing human-created software. In today's economy, knowledge is embodied in human-created software and hardware, and in human workers trained for specific tasks. Knowledge embodied in small software and hardware modules tends to be cheap to use and copy, but is expensive to adapt to changes, since it depends a lot on existing context. Human-embodied knowledge is, in contrast, expensive to use but greatly valued for its adaptability, which comes from the broad "common sense" knowledge we each contain. Turing-test artificial-intelligence instead imagines a future with many moderately-sized human-created modules, each of which has broad common sense knowledge and mental abilities, combining the adaptability of humans with the low cost of machines.

LOCAL SINGULARITY: This imagines one small group suddenly grows big enough to take over everything. Our familiar world economy grows as a unit, with innovations and advances in each part of the world depending on advances made in all other parts of the world. The problem of designing smaller chips, for example, keeps getting harder, but a richer world can afford to spend more and more solving this problem. A local singularity, in contrast, would have a small group continue to make dramatic advances by substantially improving their own ability to make more advances. The abilities of such a group might quickly grow so large that they can essentially take over everything. Local singularity scenarios vary, depending on whether sudden advances in autarkic nanotech, A.I., space colonization, or something else are imagined to be key.

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, economically, or socially. And come to think of it, most utopias have been described as isolated islands or valleys where folks can do things right. These future dreams also seem similar to some others:

POLYMATH ACADEMIA: Many intellectuals lament the great specialization in current academic life. In education, they wish students would spend more time engaging a wide range of subjects, and lament the scarcity of those who can see the big picture. In research, they wish people weren't so penalized for working between disciplines, or for failing to cite every last paper someone might think is related somehow. Just leave me alone, and I'll do great stuff eventually, you'll see.

PRIVATE LAW: This imagines that individual pairs of people be able to choose the laws which would govern disputes between them, at least on most issues which do not substantially effect others. Instead, we are now embedded in large political systems which greatly limit the legal choices individuals can make influence the laws between each of us.

I find it hard to escape wondering if these dreams of autarky are not mostly the
result of humans not yet coming fully to terms with our new interdependence. Biology created largely autonomous creatures, and only recently discovered a world-wide division of labor in us. So our cells are largely autonomous manufacturing plants, 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. (Such tribes had much to fear from strong dependence on neighboring tribes.)

Autarky is not physically impossible, and hence genie nanotech, Turing-test AI, and space colonies 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 autarky. 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 manufacturing plants may slowly get smaller and better, without a sudden "assembler" revolution. Local space may stay un-colonized until we can cheaply send lots of mass up there. Software may slowly get smarter and be much
smarter than people long before anyone bothers to make a single module that can pass a Turing test. And distant stars may not get colonized for a long long time.

Interdependence doesn't seem romantic, and so naturally isn't the basis for many science fiction books. But it may be the future we need to come to terms with.

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