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What Keeps me up At Night: the New Zealand Initative's Eric Crampton

New Zealand Initiative chief economist Eric Crampton shares what keeps him up at night in a new series in partnership with Tech Futures Lab.

What worries you the most about technology?

I’m not sure whether this, and the “what’s your scariest prediction for the future” question, mean ‘the thing that’s most likely to happen that worries me’, or ‘the thing that worries me most, even if it is not likely to happen’. Either way, the most worrying things for me are luddites and government.

It is much too easy for luddites to use the government to ban new things. Fortunately, the stuff that most excites me around radical life extension and biotech enhancements – that will happen regardless of whether the bioethicists here ban everything new until they have considered all of the ethical implications and what it means for equity. The technology will be developed in China, and Hong Kong, and Singapore, and New Zealand will be left utterly behind because we will instead spend years worrying about the ethics of whether somebody should be allowed to edit their genome to live longer. All the technological development then just happens elsewhere. That will have the effect of making it even harder for poorer people to have access because the only way of getting enhancements will be going abroad for it. But once it is developed anywhere it will become available everywhere. People travelling abroad for service will fuel demand for loosening up restrictions here so everyone can have access. Transhumanism for the win.

More broadly, I am worried about governments having easy access to all of our communications and data about us. I have absolutely no worries if Google knows everything about me through my phone. The only thing Google wants to do with that data is make money through advertising. And they only do that if advertisers are more able to present me with things I’d actually want to buy. But if all of that data is available to government, that is entirely different. We might not worry that the current government here is evil, but it is not hard to imagine some future government wanting to use that kind of data to punish social deviance, to prod, to nag – to push people into conforming with what some bureaucrat thinks is best for you. Imagine a version of Treasury’s wellbeing approach, where everything you did were watched to make sure that it improved national wellbeing – as somebody in Wellington estimated it. Touch your toes, Comrade Smith.

What excites you the most?

I’m a bit of a science fiction fan. The three most exciting potential directions in tech development, for me, are radical life extension and enhancement; reduced-cost space travel; and, blockchain-based alternatives for contracts, payments and governance. 

Biotechnological developments, I desperately hope, within the next fifty years will radically extend human lifespans. Gene-based therapies to reduce aging and bio-mechanical replacement parts could let us live much longer. And, eventually, whole-brain emulation will let us ‘upload’ ourselves when the meat fails completely. Unlike Robin Hanson, I would not view an upload-version of me as still being me. It would not be ‘me’ in the same sense that the duplicate coming out of the other side of a Star Trek teleporter is not ‘me’. But I would be far happier that an identical simulation of me continued to exist in electronic form after I die than that it not exist.

Reduced cost space travel will let mankind spread among the stars. Humanity’s dependence on earth embeds too much fragility. If Taupo erupts and brings a massive new ice age, or if a cataclysmic asteroid hits, there is really not much we can do either to prevent it or to mitigate the effects. The Great Filter might yet be ahead of us. Getting low-cost transport to near-Earth orbit makes developing space elevators cheaper. Getting space elevators will make assembling interstellar craft feasible. And getting those will allow the multigenerational journeys that will be needed to protect humanity against the risks of being tied to a single planet. Watching Elon Musk’s SpaceX stick the landings for Falcon Heavy, then launch Star Man – it was beautiful. It was better than watching the shuttle launches as a kid. Government space programmes don’t scale. SpaceX, and RocketLab, are being built to be commercially viable.

And the last one is fun. The blockchain research team at RMIT in Melbourne are working through the implications of distributed ledger technology for trustless consensus. They see it as a new institutional technology, rather than one that is just about developing new currencies or facilitating exchange. It provides a new way of coordinating interactions – in the way that firms or clubs coordinate interactions, but also in the way the law and contracts coordinate interactions. It could enable radical innovations in governance and coordination.

What’s your scariest prediction for the future?

Already covered in the bits that worry me most. Government getting regularised access to data currently being collected privately, then munging it in with administrative data for social enforcement – that is terrifying.

If you could go back in time, what’s one technology advancement you would rave about to your great grandparents?

You’ve asked what one technology advancement I’d rave about to my great-grandparents. Let’s bring it even closer and imagine talking to the 8-year-old version of me. The 8-year-old version of me got to watch whatever cartoon was on the one channel that showed cartoons on Saturday morning, or after school. Whenever the Prime Minister wanted to give a speech because it was Queen’s Birthday, that 8-year-old didn’t get to watch Sesame Street. He got to listen to whatever happened to be on the radio among the three tolerable stations – or buy a cassette. And he was restricted to maybe 8 books at a time by interlibrary loan from the Winnipeg Public Library out to the farm. The books showed up in a canvas bag at the Post Office a few weeks after the 8-year-old me requested them from a thick print catalogue.

The 42-year-old version of me can watch just about every cartoon ever made on Itsaturday.com – anytime I want, and streaming on my phone anywhere I want. And for less than I paid for a single cassette, I get a monthly subscription to the vast majority of all of the music ever produced – and the app helps point out things I’m likely to enjoy that I haven’t heard before. And Project Gutenberg has centuries’ worth of literature – for free.

If we went back to my great-grandparents’ time, I’d highlight the economic growth that has allowed the medical research that made child mortality plummet and abolished diseases like polio and that has made light, transport, home automation and communication all commonplace and cheap for even the poorest people in the developed world, and for a huge proportion of the developing world. Plus reliable birth control! Just watch any of Hans Rosling’s excellent videos. If we went back 30 years, it’s the huge gains in access to the world’s cultural output.

What do you think New Zealand will look like as a country in 2038?

I expect it to look pretty similar to the New Zealand of today. I expect that some marginal farmland will have been taken out of production and that there will be rather less irrigation for dairy than there is now – both because better management regimes will be in place and because demand for animal-derived protein will have dropped with lab-grown synthetics. I expect that New Zealand’s niche there will be for authentic, more artisanal animal protein. The commodity-grade space will have been taken over by synthetics. 

I expect the country will be bigger, but that Auckland will no longer have a housing crisis because we will have figured out better ways of financing infrastructure for growth. I expect that much faster air-travel through the coming next generation of supersonic passenger travel will provide substantial benefits to the tech community’s connectivity with the Pacific West Coast.

And I hope that part of both better infrastructure for growth and a bigger country is the stronger competition that comes through thicker markets. New Zealand needs to be big enough, and to have the planning rules that can allow for, the likes of Aldi, Ikea, and Home Depot. Did you know we almost had an Ikea in Auckland but it got killed because the planners thought it would be too popular and the city couldn’t handle the traffic?

What’s your social media usage like?

I am a regular Twitter user; I blog; I am not on Facebook and have never had a Facebook account. Twitter is getting a lot worse though. Tyler Cowen’s recent article over at Bloomberg was right – discourse will continue to shift over to private channels and away from social channels where social channels have become pretty toxic for actual discussion of anything potentially controversial or that could be framed that way. 

Do you try limit how much personal information is available about you online?

I don’t really worry about it. 

What will be dead in the next five years? (Products, companies, trends, etc)

A lot of venture capitalists are subsidising a ton of my current music consumption by throwing money into Spotify without getting any reasonable return; Uber may be in a similar position. That which cannot go on forever must end at some point. I’d be happy paying $30/month or more for my Spotify subscription rather than $10, but I’m not sure that many others are.

What does your ideal robot look like?

I wouldn’t want to impose my norms on what a robot should look like. I just want the robot to be happy.

Will the robots become sentient and kill us all?

Only if we give them twitter accounts and let them draw conclusions about humanity as a whole from the experience. We shouldn’t give the robots twitter accounts.

How likely is it that we’re living in a simulation?

The maths says very likely, my gut says pretty unlikely. Even if the costs dropped, why would anyone run that complex a model with detailed simulations of billions of people? And the alternative is even more implausible: that a few of us are actually being simulated, and the rest of us are being generated on-the-fly as needed for the scenario. Saying that we live in a simulation requires kinda thinking that you’re at or near the centre of the simulation. I don’t think all that highly of myself. 

How far should we take human enhancement? (Bionic limbs, computer chips in brains, designer babies)

As far as people are willing to go voluntarily. I’d balk strongly at people designing defects into babies that would leave the children worse off than they otherwise would have been, but I also think that to be exceptionally unlikely. There’s a line up to which I’d be comfortable, and if others are happy going past that line – why should I have any right to stop them? I look forward to the 2040 Uber-Olympics, where all enhancements are allowed barring those that actively hinder other contestants. 

How would you feel about interacting with a chatbot fuelled by a deceased loved one’s texts and social media posts?

We all, or at least should, run models in our heads of how different people would respond to different things. I’m not sure that a more formal simulation chatbot would add all that much. Would give it a go though.

What about being a part of a social credit systemBlack Mirror style?

That dystopia is closer to where we are currently than it seems. One bad tweet can so ruin your social credit score as to render you unemployable. But the full-on version is farther. China has it or is darned close, but absolutely nothing in the New Zealand government’s approach to any large-scale IT project, in the entire time I’ve lived here, makes me think that that version of it could ever happen here. A government that can’t manage a payroll software upgrade in education probably isn’t going to be setting up Black Mirror. The scarier version is where government compels access to what the private sector is already putting together. 

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