Monday, September 17, 2012

Spreading happiness to the stars seems little harder than just spreading

Imagine there are two advanced interstellar civilizations near one another who begin outward colonization around the same time, in an otherwise uninhabited accessible universe. One civilization likes to create convert star systems into lots of people leading rich, happy lives full of interest and reward. Call them the Eudaimonians. The other is solely interested in expanding its sphere of colonization as quickly as possible, and produces much less or negative welfare. Call them the Locusts. How much of a competitive advantage do the Locusts have over the Eudaimonians? How much of the cosmic commons, as Robin Hanson calls it, would wind up transformed into worthwhile lives, rather than burned to slightly accelerate colonization efforts? If the Locusts will inevitably capture almost all resources, then little could be done to avert astronomical waste, but an even waste-free split of the accessible universe could be half as good as a Eudaimonic monopoly.

I would argue that in our universe the Eudaimonians will be almost exactly as competitive as the Locusts in rapidly colonizing the stars. The reason is that the Eudaimonians can also adopt a strategy of near-maximum colonization speed until they reach the most distant accessible galaxies, and only then divert resources to producing welfare. More below the fold.

Can catch-up growth take us to the stars?

Will our civilization ever be able to colonize the stars and avert astronomical waste? Will we create computer programs more intelligent and energy-efficient than ourselves, enabling much larger and smarter sapient populations? We don't know exactly how hard it will be to engineer interstellar probes, or build AI, and we probably won't be sure until we actually do so.

However, we can shed some light on the question of whether humanity will ever be able to colonize the stars by asking how existing methods and technologies could increase our capacities, if they were deployed widely and to their limits. Here's a thought experiment: if we imagine that we were magically frozen in roughly our current technological regime for a time, long enough for Malthusian population growth and competition, how much would our economic and scientific production grow? By Malthusian, I mean that population would keep increasing until food costs started to price people out of reproduction, with higher-income folk reproducing more, and institutions that lead to high incomes spreading through migration, imitation or conquest.

Below the fold, I consider several dimensions where existing systems could simply be scaled up to increase global output and R&D: bringing poor countries up to the standards of rich countries, increasing population, and increasing average human capital within countries to near the level of the best-endowed households. Collectively, I estimate they could increase global R&D efforts by more than one hundred fold.