November 3, 2019
Paul Graham argues that technology can take things we like and concentrate them to make them more addictive. As technology improves, this process will accelerate.
Here are two quotes from his post: “No one doubts this process is accelerating” and “the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40”. I want to push back on this.
This only looks at one force: the technological force. And that’s clearly increasing. But it ignores the opposing force: that making something addictive is (probably) getting harder. The stuff that was easy to make addictive, like opium into heroin, people figured out long ago. We’ve done the low-hanging fruits and now we need higher ladders.
More generally, exponential growth (or a positive feedback loop) on one side of an arms race doesn’t necessarily mean that side will win. You have to consider the other side too.
A few more examples:
All tools can help you make better tools. If that were the only force, tool quality and capability would have improved exponentially, but this ignores the other force: that making better tools gets harder once you’ve made the obvious initial improvements.
It’s said that technology will replace jobs exponentially faster. Technology is one force, but there’s another: replacing jobs is getting harder. We’ve replaced the easy ones. These forces balance out so that job replacement has been roughly linear for the last 20 years. (Source)
One fear about AGI is that once an AI can improve itself, that will start an exponential explosion of improvements and the AI will be unimaginably smarter very quickly. But this ignores the other force: that making AI improvements will probably become exponentially more difficult.
Our ability to do science hasn’t significantly improved, but it’s getting harder to discover new things. The predictable outcome is that it takes many more scientists to make the same number of discoveries than it used to. (Source)
Exponential technology doesn’t imply that we’ll pick exponentially more apples, if those apples are harder to get.