Thiel says that, although it is rarely talked about, perhaps the most dangerous scenario is that the Singularity takes too long to happen. He notes that several decades ago, people expected American real wages to skyrocket and the amount of time working to decrease. Americans were supposed to be rich and bored. (Indeed, Thiel doesn’t mention it, but the very first issue of The Public Interest, back in 1965, included essays that worried about this precise concern, under the heading “The Great Automation Question.”) But it didn’t happen — real wages have stayed the same since 1973 and Americans work many more hours per year than they used to.
He says that if we want to keep society stable, we have to keep growing, or else we can’t support all of the projected growth that we’ve currently leveraged. Global stability, he says, depends on a “Good Singularity.”
Thiel predicts there will be no more bubbles in the next twenty years; either it will boom continuously or stay bust, but people are too aware now, and the cycle pattern has been broken. The next questioner asks about regulation and government involvement — should all this innovation happen in the private sector, or should the government fund it? Thiel says that the government isn’t anywhere near focused enough on science and technology right now, and he doesn’t think it has any role to play in innovation.
Another questioner asks about Francis Fukuyama’s book, Our Posthuman Future, in which he argues that once we create superhumans, there will be a superhuman/human divide. (Fukuyama has also called transhumanism one of the greatest threats to the welfare of humanity.) Thiel says it’s implausible — technology filters down, just like cell phones. He says that it’s a non-argument and that Fukuyama is hysterical, to rapturous applause from the audience.
The really interesting possibility is something called the Jevons paradox: as energy (or whatever — Jevons wrote in the 1860s about coal use) becomes efficient, people use so much more of it that the total amount used increases; hence why it’s called a paradox.
It’s not really a paradox in any sense except that the average person’s intuition doesn’t exend to price theory. The determining factor in whether the total energy use will rise is whether the demand for energy use is inelastic (steep demand curve) or elastic (shallow demand curve). Another way of looking at elastic demand is that the “before” price is just barely too high to afford something valuable; when it drops just a little bit, a lot more of the valuable thing will be bought.
Now the reason I think that Brad’s robocars will involve a huge Jevons effect is that a robocar is not just a little less expensive than a current-day car — it’s enormously less expensive. It’s less expensive in energy, by some amount; but it’s also less expensive in lives, and its hugely less expensive in time. Brad estimates the time savings to be worth on the order of a trillion dollars a year.
But the value of getting from point A to point B will be just as great. Now I know from my own experience that my travelling is hugely elastic to cost, particularly time cost. So I expect a major Jevons effect from self-driving cars.
Some people talk about the Jevons paradox, especially in energy, as if it were a bad thing: we went to all that work to increase energy efficiency and you fools went and increased total energy use, you horrible greedy people you. But it’s in reality just the opposite. The reason that the new usage happens is that it’s valuable. When the Jevons effect operates, it means that not only has money (time, resources, lives) been saved on the old uses, but that new uses are made possible that have a value to society greater than the savings!
Thus if robocars would save us a trillion dollars of wasted time with the current amount of driving, they are likely to enable more than a trillion dollars of totally new transportation. And that’s a stimulus that would actually work.