Robin Hanson

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 2016

Hanson, deeply skeptical of conventional intellectual discourse, argues that academics have abdicated their societal responsibilities by ignoring more speculative work. “Relative to the future, our study of the past has hit diminishing returns,” he writes in his first book, The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth (Oxford University Press), published this year. It challenges readers’ expectations for scholarly work, arguing that an insistence on considering only those ideas with strong supporting evidence needlessly discards useful thinking.

“One of the signature problems about academia is that it seems to clump,” he says. “There’s this vast space of potentially interesting topics, and you see academic clump on the same few topics.” Research done in a certain subfield legitimizes the subfield and paves the way for similar research, he reasons. “The space between the clumps gets neglected.”

“A key fact about being a weird person is puzzling at how the world seems so different from you,” he explains. “I am a weird person, and I puzzle. That means I have to be very reluctant to use my own intuitions about things as a guide.”

He suggests that most ems will be copies of the same 1,000 or so “best” human brains; everyone else will end up like the cowering castaway he showed his students. …

Em society will be organized in clans, with rival factions competing and jealously guarding their intellectual property — their minds. While death isn’t feared, “mind theft” will be.

“In academia, even today, science is organized in silos,” he says. “In order to get ahead in the math silo, you have to specialize like hell in a mathematical discipline. This goes in political science, sociology, economics, even in biology.”

By contrast, Randers, like Hanson, endorses a systems perspective. “It’s not broad and deep, because no one can be deep all across the whole spectrum. Seen from the vantage point of the specialist, any type of systems analysis or forecast of the world appears to be shallow.”

And it’s hard to get funding for projects deemed shallow. “Boards have to send these applications for peer review. They send, of course, to the historian, the biologist, the mathematician. Each of them comes back and says, ‘This is an interesting study, but in my niche, it ought to do such and such.’”

Why can you do scholarship on 100 years ago and not 100 years from now?” asks Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Future of Life Institute. “Within each discipline it should be as legitimate to study the future as it is to study the past.”

Intradisciplinary reform may not be in the offing, but an influx of money from Silicon Valley is mitigating the challenges to futurist research in the academy. The Future of Humanity Institute, at Oxford, was started with a large donation from James Martin, a technology writer and Oxford alumnus. “Once you have your own island in Bermuda, what do you do? You try to save the world,” says Sandberg, a research fellow at the institute. Elon Musk has given $10 million to Tegmark’s Future of Life Institute, which funds research on AI.

Most of science works “by taking ridiculously small steps where they check everything a hundred times over and slowly progress,” says Sandberg, who labels most scientists “very myopic.” They simply don’t ask, “Where are we heading, in the large?”

“It took a century to verify some of Einstein’s theories,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. While “it’s great when scientific theories can be evaluated against empirical evidence,” he says, “the reality is that there are a lot of theories that it’s hard to have clear empirical evidence for one way or the other.” String theory, for example.

Brynjolfsson thinks we need more economists like Hanson, and he encourages his students not to do what everyone else is doing, but to pursue riskier work. “You need a spectrum of people,” he says, invoking the views on entrepreneurship of Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist. “We could use more people who go against the grain, outside of the mainstream, who don’t follow the crowd.”


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