Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Will Decreasing Scarcity Allow us to Approach an Optimal (Meta-)Society?

When chatting with a friend about various government systems during a long car drive the other day (returning from New York where we were hit by 2 feet of snow, to relatively dry and sunny DC), it occurred to me that one could perhaps prove something about the OPTIMAL government system, if one were willing to make some (not necessarily realistic) assumptions about resource abundance.

This led to an interesting train of thought -- that maybe, as technology reduces scarcity, society will gradually approach optimality in certain senses...

The crux of my train of thought was:

  • Marcus Hutter proved that the AIXI algorithm is an optimal approach to intelligence, given the (unrealistic) assumption of massive computational resources.
  • Similarly, I think one could prove something about the optimal approach to society and government, given the (unrealistic) assumptions of massive natural resources and a massive number of people.

I won't take time to try to prove this formally just now, but in this blog post I'll sketch out the basic idea.... I'll describe what I call the meta-society, explain the sense in which I think it's optimal, and finally why I think it might get more and more closely approximated as the future unfolds...

A Provably Optimal Intelligence

As a preliminary, first I'll review some of Hutter's relevant ideas on AI.

In Marcus Hutter's excellent (though quite technical) book Universal AI, he presents a theory of "how to build an optimally intelligent AI, given unrealistically massive computational resources."

Hutter's algorithm isn't terribly novel -- I discussed something similar in my 1993 book The Structure of Intelligence (as a side point to the main ideas of that book), and doubtless Ray Solomonoff had something similar in mind when he came up with Solomonoff induction back in the 1960s. The basic idea is: Given any computable goal, and infinite computing power, you can work toward the goal very intelligently by (my wording, not a quote) ....

at each time step, searching the space of all programs to find those programs P that (based on your historical knowledge of the world and the goal) would (if you used P to control your behaviors) give you the highest probability of achieving the goal. Then, take the shortest of all such optimal programs P and actually use it to determine your next action.

But what Hutter did uniquely is to prove that a formal version of this algorithm (which he calls AIXI) is in a mathematical sense maximally intelligent.

If you have only massive (rather than infinite) computational resources, then a variant (AIXItl) exists, the basic idea of which is: instead of searching the space of all programs, only look at those programs with length less than L and runtime less than T.

It's a nice approach if you have the resources to pay for it. It's sort of a meta-AI-design rather than an AI design. It just says: If you have enough resources, you can brute-force search the space of all possible ways of conducting yourself, and choose the simplest of the best ones and then use it to conduct yourself. Then you can repeat the search after each action that you take.

One might argue that all this bears no resemblance to anything that any actual real-world mind would do. We don't have infinite nor massive resources, so we have to actually follow some specific intelligent plans and algorithms, we can't just follow a meta-plan of searching the space of all possible plans at each time-step and then probabilistically assessing the quality of each possibility.

On the other hand, one could look at Hutter's Universal AI as a kind of ideal which real-world minds may approach more and more closely, as they get more and more resources to apply to their intelligence.

That is: If your resources are scarce, you need to rely on specialized techniques. But the more resources you have, the more you can rely on search through all the possibilities, reducing the chance that your biases cause you to miss the best solution.

(I'm not sure this is the best way to think about AIXI ... it's certainly not the only way ... but it's a suggestive way...)

Of course there are limitations to Hutter's work and the underlying way of conceptualizing intelligence. The model of minds as systems for achieving specific goals has its limitations, which I've explained how to circumvent in prior publications. But for now we're using AIXI only as a broad source of inspiration anyway, so there's no need to enter into such details....

19-Year-Old Ben Goertzel's Design for an Better Society

Now, to veer off in a somewhat different direction....

Back when I was 19 and a math grad student at NYU, I wrote (in longhand, this was before computers were so commonly used for word processing) a brief manifesto presenting a design for a better society. Among other names (many of which I can't remember) I called this design the Meta-society. I think the title of the manifesto was "The Play of Power and the Power of Play."

(At that time in my life, I was heavily influenced by various strains of Marxism and anarchism, and deeply interested in social theory and social change. These were after all major themes of my childhood environment -- my dad being a sociology professor, and my mom the executive of a social work program. I loved the Marxist idea of the mind and society improving themselves together, in a carefully coupled way -- so that perhaps the state and the self could wither away at the same time, yielding a condition of wonderful individual and social purity. Of course I realized that existing Communist systems fell very far short of this ideal though, and eventually I got pessimistic about there ever being a great society composed of and operated by humans in their current form. Rather than improving society, I decided, it made more sense to focus my time on improving humanity ... leading me to a greater focus on transhumanism, AI and related ideas.)

The basic idea for my meta-society was a simple one, and probably not that original: Just divide society into a large number of fairly small groups, and let each small group do whatever the hell it wanted on some plot of land. If one of these "city-states" got too small due to emigration it could lose its land and have it ceded to some other new group.

If some group of people get together and want to form their own city-state, then they get put in a queue to get some free land for their city-state, when the land becomes available. To avoid issues with unfairness or corruption in the allocation of land to city-states, a computer algorithm could be used to mediate the process.

There would have to be some basic ground-rules, such as: no imprisoning people in your city-state, no invading or robbing other city-states, etc. To support a police force to enforce the ground-rules would require a central government and some low level of taxation, which however could sometimes be collected in the form of goods rather than money (the central gov't could then convert the goods into money). Environmental protection poses some difficulties in this sort of system, and has to be centrally policed also.

This meta-society system my 19 year old self conceived (and I don't claim any great originality for it, though I don't currently know anything precisely the same in the literature) has something in common with Libertarian philosophy, but it's not exactly the same, because at the top there's a government that enforces a sort of "equal rights for city-state formation" for all.

One concern I always had with the meta-society was: What do you do with orphans or others who get cast out of their city-states? One possibility is for the central government to operate some city-states composed of random people who have nowhere else to go (or nowhere else they want to go).

Another concern is what do you do about city-states that oppress and psychologically brainwash their inhabitants. But I didn't really see any solution to that. One person's education is another person's brainwashing, after all. From a modern American view it's tempting to say that all city-states should allow their citizens free access to media so they can find out about other perspectives, but ultimately I decided this would be too much of an imposition on the freedom of the city-states. Letting citizens leave their city-state if they wish ultimately provides a way for any world citizen to find out what's what, although there are various strange cases to consider, such as a city-state that allows its citizens no information about the outside world, and also removes the citizenship of any citizen who goes outside its borders!

I thought the meta-society was a cool idea, and worked out a lot of details -- but ultimately I had no idea how to get it implemented, and not much desire to spend my life proselytizing for an eccentric political philosophy or government system, so I set the idea aside and focused my time on math, physics, AI and such.

As a major SF fan, it did occur to me that such a meta-society of city-states might be more easily achievable in future once space colonies were commonplace. If it were cheap to put up a small space colony for a few hundred or thousand or ten thousand people, then this could lead to a flowering of city-states of exactly the sort I was envisioning...

When I became aware of Patri Friedman's Seasteading movement, I immediately sensed a very similar line of thinking. Their mission is "To further the establishment and growth of permanent, autonomous ocean communities, enabling innovation with new political and social systems." Patri wants to make a meta-society and meta-economy on the high seas. And why not?

Design for an Optimal Society?

The new thought I had while driving the other day is: Maybe you could put my old idealistic meta-society-design together with the AIXI idea somehow, and come up with a design for a "society optimal under assumption of massive resources."

Suppose one assumes there's

  • a lot of great land (or sea + seasteading tech, or space + space colonization tech, whatever), so that fighting over land is irrelevant
  • a lot of people
  • a lot of natural resources, so that one city-state polluting another one's natural resources isn't an issue

Then it seems one could argue that my meta-society is near-optimal, under these conditions.

The basic proof would be: Suppose there were some social order X better than the meta-society. Then people could realize that X is better, and could simply design their city-states in such a way as to produce X.

For instance, if US-style capitalist democracy is better than the meta-society, and people realize it, then people can just construct their city-states to operate in the manner of US-style capitalist democracy (this would require close cooperation of multiple city-states, but that's quite feasible within the meta-society framework).

So, one could argue, any other social order can only be SLIGHTLY better than the meta-society... because if there's something significantly better, then after a little while the meta-society can come to emulate it closely.

So, under assumptions of sufficiently generous resources, the meta-society is about as good as anything.

Now there are certainly plenty of loopholes to be closed in turning this heuristic argument into a formal proof. But I hope the basic idea is clear.

As with AIXI, one can certainly question the relevance of this sort of design, since resource scarcity is a major fact of modern life. But recall that I originally started thinking about meta-societies outside the "unrealistically much resources" context.

Finally, you'll note that for simplicity, I have phrased the above discussion in terms of "people." But of course, the same sort of thinking applies for any kind of intelligent agent. The main assumption in this case is that the agents involved either have roughly equal power and intelligence, or else that if there are super-powerful agents involved, they have the will to obey the central government.

Can We Approach the Meta-Society as Technology Advances?

More and more resources are becoming available for humanity, as technology advances. Seasteading and space colonization and so forth decrease the scarcity of available "land" for human habitation. Mind uploading would do so more dramatically. Molecular nanotech (let alone femotech and so forth) may dramatically reduce material scarcity, at least on the scale interesting to humans.

So, it seems the conditions for the meta-society may be more and more closely met, as the next decades and centuries unfold.

Of course, the meta-society will remain an idealization, never precisely achievable in practice. But it may be we can approach it closer and closer as technology improves.

Marxism had the notion of society gradually becoming more and more pure, progressively approaching Perfect Communism. What I'm suggesting here is similar in form but different in content: society gradually becoming more and more like the meta-society, as scarcity of various sorts becomes less and less of an issue.

As I write about this now, it also occurs to me that this is a particularly American vision. America, in a sense, is a sort of meta-society -- the central government is relatively weak (compared to other First World countries) and there are many different subcultures, some operating with various sorts of autonomy (though also a lot of interconnectedness). In this sense, it seems I'm implicitly suggesting that America is a better model for the future than other existing nations. How very American of me!

If superhuman AI comes about (as I think it will), then the above arguments make sense only if the superhuman AI chooses to respect the meta-society social structure. The possibility even exists that a benevolent superhuman AI could serve itself as the central government of a meta-society.

And so it goes....


Ted Goertzel said...

You talk about searching the "space of all possible ways of conducting yourself" which is impossible since we have not and cannot identify this space. A new way of conducting ourselves may always be invented.

The other question is how you define the goal so as to know which has done best in achieving it. There is no consensus on this. The Taliban has its goals, feminists have different ones. Should women be forced to abide by the rules of fundamentalist societies that prohibit them from working or showing their faces in public? Or are "human rights" a universal goal? There is an interesting book on Human Rights, the last Utopia (by Samuel Moyn) that explores this.

Your model has a lot in common with libertarianism and anarchism, as you observe, and it is true that with more resources we could afford more such experiments. A major goal here is expanding the space of known ways of conducting ourselves. I think we have to talk about known ways, not possible ways.

Taking the US as a case, what does this say about the Obama health plan? Should states have the right to opt out? Or do you say there has to be some sort of universal health care and let states create their own plan.

Anonymous said...

If only we could switch from incentifying self-centric behavior (with money) to making giving and sharing the societal driver. In that case all sorts of groups of people would be able to compete and cooperate with each other in a healthy manner.

Btw, it's femtotechnology, not femotech.

Ben Goertzel said...


Should women be forced to abide by the rules of fundamentalist societies that prohibit them from working or showing their faces in public?

According to my rough proposal, such societies would be allowed to exist, so long as people were allowed to leave them.

Of course this is a subtle issue, because some people could argue that it's immoral to raise children in such societies -- even though once such children have grown up, they'll probably mostly think it's the right thing to live in a "fundamentalist" way.

It gets more extreme if you consider a case where a society raises children in a way that involves sexually molesting and torturing them, but teaches them that if they leave the society, they'll burn in hell forever. In this case, my meta-society proposal in its pure form would say that the central government shouldn't interfere ... but on a personal level that's not really what I'd advocate. I'd advocate the central government establishing some very weak, basic standards of non-cruelty and intervening in cases where children or others without full power of rational decision are being subjected to cruelty in a way that makes them unable to realize the viable possibility of leaving the city-state they're in.

In terms of my sketched optimality argument, this sort of non-cruelty provision wouldn't mess things up UNLESS the optimal way of achieving the overall goal actually involved this sort of cruelty.

More broadly, I suggest, we can say that

-- the meta-society is a near-optimal way of achieving any given societal goal (given the assumptions of abundant resources)... AND

-- "a meta-society with a given set of restrictions" is a near-optimal way of achieving any given societal goal that is compatible with those restrictions.

A major goal here is expanding the space of known ways of conducting ourselves. I think we have to talk about known ways, not possible ways.

Restricting attention to the scope of currently known ways of doing things, seems counter to the spirit of experimentation in which my proposal is offered.

It seems to me that if the option existed for a group of people to form their own city-state, then a lot more thought and creativity would go into figuring out new ways of organizing a city-state. It's understandable that not much effort has gone into new ways of organizing societies, since even if you figure one out, there's no practical way to implement it.

Ben Goertzel said...


Taking the US as a case, what does this say about the Obama health plan? Should states have the right to opt out? Or do you say there has to be some sort of universal health care and let states create their own plan.

Of course, the US health care issue is precisely the sort of issue that would not arise in a hypothetical future society marked by abundance rather than scarcity.

In a hypothetical future society of abundance, everyone would have enough of the right resources for a happy and healthy existence. Of course there would still be some competition for resources to grow and expand; and of course there will be some minds that are only happy if they have more than everybody else. But minds of the latter sort will have a clear option to modify themselves so as to become happy under the existing conditions.

So, the assumptions under which meta-society is optimal imply that, among other things, health-care to maintain basic life and health for everyone is CHEAP.

Another factor here is the high cost of moving people around in the present order. If this weren't the case, then different states could adopt different health care plans, and people could easily move to the state with the set of laws that pleased them. Of course there would still be complexities, because different (nuclear or extended) family members might have different preferences, some peoples' careers might be viable only in particular states, etc. But in general if the "frictional cost" of relocating were trivially small, then you could have a kind of "natural selection" on sets of state laws, and the country would move toward configurations where people lived in states where the laws suited them....

Anonymous said...

and of course there will be some minds that are only happy if they have more than everybody else. But minds of the latter sort will have a clear option to modify themselves so as to become happy under the existing conditions.
Yeah right, lets all drug ourselves and everyone will be happy :-)

A lot of Humans want power, if they have enough of something they want more, more, more, more!
I kind of doubt that they would "modify themselves" to get what they want. "Modifying yourself" partly means to admit that there's something wrong with you. And these kind of people aren't the types that question themselves...

And dividing a huge land into smaller sections for distinct societes to live on is imho the best setup for a war scenario. The societies will compete against each other. Some society thinks it's better than another. One society holds back what another needs, and that's where the trouble begins(that's what history told us)...

Even if you had lots of lands and enough resources for each society, they keep growing and so it's only a matter of time till the societies will clash.

So in the end I think that it is much better to have one unified society than multiple smaller ones which would be prone to fight each other.

Bob said...

Hey Ben, you wrote:
The model of minds as systems for achieving specific goals has its limitations, which I've explained how to circumvent in prior publications.
Could you explain what exactly you mean here, or point to a certain publication you were referring to? thx

Alex Kamburov said...

Hey, Ben. Thanks for the interpretation of AIXI for the normal humans and for sharing your thoughts on meta-society. I guess the Chinese are also reading your blog since that's what they do in certain "city-colonies" (from what I have read on the Net)

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