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James D. Miller on Singularity 1 on 1: Prepare for a Smarter World

James D. MillerJames D. Miller is a professor of economics and, most recently, the author of Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dangerous World. James is the second economist on Singularity 1 on 1 and he respects and agrees with much of Robin Hanson‘s conclusions. In my view, however, Miller’s book Singularity Rising ends up presenting a much richer, more diverse, more balanced, more interesting and, in some ways, more utopian future. [e.g. see his ideas about “honorable unemployment”]

During our conversation with James D. Miller we cover a variety of topics such as: how he started studying theoretical physics but ended up in economics; academia, the technological singularity and Miller’s definition thereof; his recent book Singularity Rising; “honorable unemployment”; the Fermi paradox and our civilization’s chance of surviving; neurofeedback and other cognitive enhancements used by James; capitalism, freedom and radical changes in the economic system.

(As always you can listen to or download the audio file above, or scroll down and watch the video interview in full.  If you want to help me produce more episodes please make a donation)


Who is James D. Miller?

James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College and was a speaker at the 2008 Singularity Summit. He has a JD from Stanford where he was on Law Review and a PhD from the University of Chicago where his dissertation advisor was a Nobel Prize winner. He is a columnist for BetterInvesting Magazine and regularly wrote for CNBC.com during the tech bubble. The Singularity Institute called Miller’s work “important” and relevant to its core mission.

Singularity Rising

Singularity-RisingIn Ray Kurzweil’s New York Times bestseller The Singularity is Near, the futurist and entrepreneur describes the singularity, a likely future utterly different than anything we can imagine. The singularity is triggered by the tremendous growth of human and computing intelligence that is an almost inevitable outcome of Moore’s Law. Since the book’s publication, the coming of singularity is now eagerly anticipated by many of the leading thinkers in Silicon Valley, from PayPal mastermind Peter Thiel to Google co-founder Larry Page. The formation of the Singularity University, and the huge popularity of the singularity website kurzweilai.com, speak to the importance of this intellectual movement.

But what about the average person? How will the singularity affect our daily lives—our jobs, our families, and our wealth?

Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dangerous World focuses on the implications of a future society faced with an abundance of human and artificial intelligence. James D. Miller, an economics professor and popular speaker on the singularity, reveals how natural selection has been increasing human intelligence over the past few thousand years and speculates on how intelligence enhancements will shape civilization over the next forty years.

Miller considers several possible scenarios in this coming singularity:

A merger of man and machine making society fantastically wealthy and nearly immortal.

Competition with billions of cheap AIs drive human wages to almost nothing while making investors rich.

Businesses rethink investment decisions to take into account an expected future period of intense creative destruction.

Inequality drops worldwide as technologies mitigate the cognitive cost of living in impoverished environments.

Drugs designed to fight Alzheimer’s disease and keep soldiers alert on battlefields have the fortunate side effect of increasing all of their users’ IQs, which, in turn, adds a percentage point to worldwide economic growth…

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  • Terrence Lee Reed

    A refreshing interview, especially after having Robin Hanson on your podcast. Though the possiblity of EMs is important, the idea of prolific EMs is overblown from my perspective. I am a great proponent of IBM’s Watson and its progeny, but the idea of emulating humans en mass seems unlikely at best. I can see creating copies of ourselves in the future for our own purposes, but the idea of us and our copies becoming de facto slave laborers is a bit too Fritz Langian to stomach.
    It was mentioned that the EMs could not be controlled and could simply move offshore if nations oppose them and that they have such a competitive advantage that effectively no nation could afford to lose them, but cognitive advancements are already with us and will give nations the ability to prosper without the need for EMs. EMs might make places like Singapore the richest nations in the world, but at that point no human that is outside “the one percent” would be able to live there, or want to. The rest of us would live quite happily in Canada.

    A significant portion of the interview focused on increased intelligence through cognitive enhancement and eugenics. You both assumed that increased intelligence is and will be a prerequisite for gainful employment and that those on the lower end of the IQ spectrum essentially have no hope of competing. In theory I agree, but in practice a high IQ does not necessarily increase one’s ability to compete, especially when a significant part of competition in the workplace is not IQ based, but EQ based.
    Frankly, sometimes a high IQ simply gets in the way, especially if you have a boss that is in the low IQ territory. Low IQ bosses are not simply going to go away, no matter how much we want them to be replaced with someone with a higher IQ. This applies to the public and private sectors alike.
    That being said, I do appreciate James’ call for removing the stigma associated with unemployment, this is certainly a necessity, not just an ideal, but you just cannot give money away. What would be best is if governments could subsidize artisans of all backgrounds, we should have “masters” of every art form as an extension of “intangible cultural heritage” as practiced in Japan’s recognition and funding of “Living National Treasures.” In this way there are many with “low IQ” that are providing value to society, but not in a way that is recognized in economic terms, and in a way that EMs cannot duplicate.

    You also touched on “capitalism,” but disagreed on its dentition, where I believe you have a strong point, it will almost certainly have to change. It is difficult to say how it will change, but in a world of abundance there will be many who will be able to decouple themselves from national economies and become a nation in and of themselves, providing for all their needs and wants outside of the state and the global economy.

  • Your guest was discussing someone who thought that most people would not be able to earn enough to pay for their health care. I see no reason why the cost of health care will not fall along with other things; medicine is one of the first areas being penetrated by AIs, and with communication, if a good medical AI is anywhere, it is everywhere. Our cartel/guild system of medicine has made doctors artificially expensive; AI will break this monopoly, and bring the cost of “doctors” within every single person on the planet. Ubiquitous manufacture (some combination of 3D printing, automation, and nanotechnology) will make medical devices very cheap to manufacture, and the same for custom pharmaceuticals. And as robots take all jobs, advanced surgery will certainly be among them. Making a million robot neurosurgeons will become as easy, or easier, than building a million cars s now; indeed, the cost may fall to near zero.

  • Sally Morem

    Surprisingly, I found Miller to be too much of a traditional economics professor, even though he said he was having trouble with his economics department due to his work on Singularity economics. He was either unaware of the growing productive power of 3-D printers or unable to incorporate the concept of readily replicable objects and CAD software into his economic analysis of accelerating tech. I see no reason whatsoever for the existence of any poor people, even poor at high American standards, once true replicators (amped up printers run by nanobots) proliferate from user to user around the world. A true society of abundance awaits us. One in which everyone prints what they need and recycles anything no longer needed. Unfortunately, economics professors are drenched in assumptions of scarcity forever, assumptions that are profoundly wrong.

    Since capitalism is by far the best way we’ve ever managed scarcities of resources, skill sets and products, it would stand to reason that it would ebb as abundance is produced in all those areas and more. It wouldn’t be legislated away by socialist-minded politicians, it would die a natural death as the tech permitted everyone to produce for themselves–radical economic decentralization.

  • We might get stuck in an emulation Malthusian trap in which people keep creating emulations so long as the benefit of running one exceeds the costs of running one. If the laws of thermodynamics hold then we will always have scarcity. In a world with, say, 10^30 people (including emulations) we could easily have both cheap replication and mass poverty.

  • Doctors and nurses have a lot of political power. Don’t be so sure that it will become in the self-interest of American politicians to do something that will cause them to become hated by doctors and nurses.

    But the scenario you describe does, I believe, have a fair chance of occurring.

  • EQ and conscientiousness are extremely important for workplace success. But these might also have a genetic component and be subject to improvement through eugenics and other types of cognitive enhancements.

  • Sally Morem

    Will we even have doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinic, drugs, any sort of health care system, once our nanobot cell repair machines heal our hurts, makes us young again and engage in maintenance activities multitudinous times every second?

  • Sally Morem

    Why bother with emulations when much more automated systems not involving AI will be able to handle the work load at drastically lower costs?

  • Sally Morem

    I’m also suggesting in my original post that what we know as economic systems will cease to exist once we achieve a certain technological level of development, one which I think will happen sometime in the 2020s. Truly revolutionary changes may well occur, including the end of work, the end of the work force, the end of corporations, the end of labor unions, the end of money, and the end of a majority of government functions. All of the foregoing serve people at differing levels of efficiency in a scarcity economy [today’s economic system]. I’m also suggesting that none of the foregoing will be necessary or will be used once we achieve a society of abundance.
    OBTW, some of this sort of thinking is just starting to go mainstream. I just saw a segment on CNBC about sectors of the economy that as of now are unaffected by the Intenet, which the commentator said will be hit next by the Internet.

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  • Jon Perry

    A couple things I wanted to ask James Miller while listening to this… (1) Why does he insist that the emulations are out of luck as far as society taking care of them? Won’t ems be cheaper to take care of since they don’t require health care, food, shelter, etc. It seems it might be trivially cheap to retire ems to a life of eternal virtual paradise. All it would cost would be the tiny bit of power and disk space to keep them running. Related, the em economy of Robin Hanson assumes that ems will get mentally ossified and stop being useful after a while… I always found that assumption bizarre, and I wonder if Miller agrees or finds it problematic as I do.
    (2) An em economy and an intelligence explosion are not mutually exclusive possibilities. In fact, an em economy probably just leads to an intelligence explosion in short order since numerous emulated copies of famous neuro and computer scientists running at high speeds will almost certainly find a way to design truly self-upgrading AI.

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  • Anonymous1

    I think you make extremely incorrect claims about people of low IQ in this book. I acknowledge you can claim you’re going by other literature. However high IQ people are the people who have been completely destroying the world. The only reason high IQ don’t get involved in crime as much is because they are better able to exploit the world than low IQ people, they have more options. This is good for themselves individually, it’s a bad thing for the world in general. If you look at other animals with as small as encephalization as insects they often cooperate extremely effectively.

    Low IQ people are often low IQ because of brain damage or other health damage from the time they were in the womb… all caused initially by high IQ people. High IQ people have no place in society, they are an unsustainable thing that will result in the end of us all. In the future your descendants or a hypothetical future you would have no pride, would have no pleasure or no ego, because your life would be spent miserably working for people who say they are better than you because they have high IQ.

    High IQ people are a pox on all life. They are extremely good at manipulation due to their intelligence. It’s all a self-perpetuating, self-legitimizing machine. You’re getting fooled by a simple positive feedback loop. High IQ has nothing to do with frequency of being right in any situation that doesn’t involve complicated mental manipulation which is almost anything that ever comes up in the natural world. What is the point in all this theoretical nonsense about how supposed good we’re doing when humans are doing worse than ever before? You’re doing NOTHING except destroying humanity and world, there is NO MEANING to all this abstract manipulation of concepts. There is NOTHING GRAND about it, it’s all nonsense.

    It would be better if every single high IQ person was made extinct tomorrow. All they do is exploit the people of low IQs. No animal other than man suffers the way man does and is constructing such an increasingly unsustainable environment like man is.

    I hate high IQ people, they will be the end of everything. Our own ancestors are going to have to put up with a world where they are miserable failures and all because of this stupid idea of “civilization” that no other animal needs.

    Now are you going to look over this and say oh this clause here doesn’t sound right or could be make more complicated or something like that and discriminate against me because of it? Ever know a farmer who was a bad person? They are often low IQ people who are extremely nice, peace-loving and often sharp in some ways, while high IQ people are ruining EVERYTHING. It’s high IQ people who are the scum of humanity, all while being extremely sophisticated in their manipulation of low IQ people.

  • Excellent! This is a bright economist. I learned a lot in a few minutes.
    BTW, I’m publishing a treatise on your subject: ‘Laws of Singularity’. I joined your Facebook site and I’ll let you know when this is our (in about two weeks).
    BTW 2, like you, I come from political science and philosophy.

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