David speaks with Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and co-author of The Elephant in the Brain.
They talked about:
🕵️♂️ The hidden self-deception in our beliefs
🤔 How to improve your thinking
🙈 Hidden desires in social and economic policy
🤵♂️ Experts, elites, and the institution reform
🏢 Stratification in hiring and IQ bias
🧠 Agency in decision-making
🤖 AI bias and engineering constraints
📏 How close are we to artificial general intelligence (AGI)
🎙 Listen in your favourite podcast player
📹 Watch on Youtube
👤 Connect with Robin:
Twitter: @robinhanson | https://twitter.com/robinhanson
Books: The Elephant in the Brain | https://amzn.to/3m5z7yR
The Age of Em | https://amzn.to/3ZVIA9X
📄 Show notes:
0:00 | Intro
03:02 | The hidden self-deception in our beliefs
06:18 | How to improve your thinking
09:09 | Hidden desires in social and economic policy
12:39 | Balancing good things and enjoyment
19:11 | Experts, elites, and the institution reform
32:01 | Stratification in hiring and IQ bias
35:53 | Agency in decision-making
38:31 | AI bias and engineering constraints
42:23 | How close are we to artificial general intelligence (AGI)
🗣 Mentioned in the show:
lephant in the Brain | https://amzn.to/3m5z7yR
The Age of Em | https://amzn.to/3ZVIA9X
Sadiq Khan | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadiq_Khan
Testing Tax Career Agents | https://www.overcomingbias.com/p/testing-tax-career-agentshtml
Garrett Jones | https://www.theknowledge.io/garettjones/
Fermi's famous question | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_problem
Great Filter | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Filter
Francis Fukuyama | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Fukuyama
The End of History and the Last Man | https://amzn.to/3Kxr86X
Emil Durkheim | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Durkheim
Al Agnes Callard | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_Callard
Grabby Aliens | https://grabbyaliens.com/
Google Glass | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Glass
👨🏾💻 About David Elikwu:
David Elikwu FRSA is a serial entrepreneur, strategist, and writer. David is the founder of The Knowledge, a platform helping people think deeper and work smarter.
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[00:00:00] Robin Hanson: We can roughly see the world as divided and into experts, elites and masses, and, elites are often want to give you the impression that they are relying heavily on expertise to make their decisions.
[00:00:11] Robin Hanson: I think that in our current world, I would say, basically masses recognize elites who oversee experts who choose details is roughly how the world's organized, and because of that, we're not actually very interested in institutional reforms proposed by experts. They're the wrong people. What we want is reform proposals that are made by elites and those we will consider, especially, the more elite they are and the more prestigious they are, the more they seem to agree, then the more we might go for that.
[00:00:46] David Elikwu: This week I'm sharing part of my conversation with Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, and the author of many books, including The Elephant in the Brain.
[00:00:58] David Elikwu: In this episode, you're going to hear us talking about self deception, metacognition, the role of hidden desires in social and economic policy. We talk about the role of agency in decision making, and finally, how AI could change the future.
[00:01:13] David Elikwu: You can get the full show notes, the transcript, and read my newsletter at theknowledge.io. And you can find Robin online on Twitter, @robinhanson, and you can also pick up all of his books on Amazon and at all good bookstores.
[00:01:26] David Elikwu: If you love this episode, please do share it with a friend, and don't forget to leave a review, particularly if you're listening on Apple Podcasts because it helps us tremendously to reach other listeners just like you.
[00:01:40] David Elikwu: You mentioned you were thinking about something this morning. Was that specifically about Grabby Aliens or what was that?
[00:01:45] Robin Hanson: It was just about institution design, which is one of my focuses in puzzling yet again over why the world doesn't seem very interested, And that's one of the things that pushed me to think about the sacred and about experts versus elites. And so I've just, in the last few years, just repeatedly tried to come at that question, different directions to try to go, why can't I get people interested in these things?
[00:02:07] David Elikwu: Sure. Does this interface with some of what you talked about in The Elephant in the Brain.
[00:02:11] Robin Hanson: I think so that is, that was one of my rationales for Elephant in the Brain. So I basically started out as a engineer, went into physics and did philosophy of science in school and then did computer research for nine years and eventually went into social science and realized that there was all these big ways social institutions could change and that people are just not very interested in that.
[00:02:33] Robin Hanson: And so, the Elephant in the Brain is one of my attempts to make sense of that, to say that with respect to many of these familiar institutions, one explanation that people aren't interested in reforms is the reforms are targeting the wrong thing. People are have other reasons that they're not admitting to for why they go to the doctor, go to school, et cetera.
[00:02:53] Robin Hanson: And then if your reforms are targeting other things besides what they really care about, then that's one explanation for why many of our reform proposals seem uninteresting.
[00:03:02] David Elikwu: Yeah. And you talked in the book about this idea of just self deception and in many ways that can manifest in our lives from when we say alcohol is illegal. But if you see people with a something a bottle in a brown paper bag outside, and no one arrests them even though you probably know it's alcohol, that's an example of the way that we can kind of deceive ourselves. And very often we might say, this is one thing that we want, or this is an ideal that we believe in, and then we actually behave in a way that's inconsistent with that.
[00:03:29] Robin Hanson: And people are only modestly interested in that fact which is a big puzzle. So, hundreds of thousands of us social scientists out there trying to understand the world. And if you realize that we had this really huge blind spot because we were just looking away from something that was really central, you might think everybody would go, oh wow. That's why we haven't been able to understand that's what's been in the way.
[00:03:52] Robin Hanson: We were just looking away from this big important thing. And I think we persuade most readers of Elephant in the Brain that in fact we have shown that there are many of these hidden motives and they are important for big areas of our lives. And yet people go, eh, okay, thank you very much. And they want to go down to other things and they don't want to think about it that much more, and they don't wanna pursue it more. They don't wanna like, apply that same concept to more areas of life to understand more things. They're embarrassed and a little, find a little tawdry and would rather go somewhere else.
[00:04:19] David Elikwu: Sure. Maybe taking a step back, you've kind of talked around it a bit, but what was the thesis going into this book? I'm interested to know if you already had the conclusions in mind before you started writing it, or was there a process of some discovery as you were going through that?
[00:04:32] Robin Hanson: So the time order is that I was a social scientist learning about standard social science and coming across puzzles of things that just didn't make as much sense. So for example, I did a two year health policy postdoc, and I came into that with a strong background in economic theory and I assumed that theorists were right about the usual obvious motivation for medicine, which is, duh, you get sick and they could help you get well and they have some expertise and it's expensive, and pretty much all economic theorists just assume that and think it's pretty obvious. And then you go study the details of health policy and you find there's just all these weird things that don't make sense from that point of view.
[00:05:09] Robin Hanson: That was the first place I said, well what if our motive behind medicine was something other than what we say, I postulated our motive there is to show that we care about each other. And that's really what's going on. And I found that you could explain a lot of things with that. And then that let me think about that same hypothesis for other things and so, then over the years I had this open mind to say, well, for other puzzles we come across, like in education, maybe what's going on there is just different than what we say.
[00:05:37] Robin Hanson: And so over years, I collected many such examples, of ways you could understand other things.
[00:05:42] Robin Hanson: And then my co-author approached me and said, let's write a book. And he was a very good co-author. And so that's what made the book happen. The book is a sort of a summary of a lifetime of accumulation of realizing that you can understand a lot of puzzles if only you will assume that people are wrong about why they're doing things. Just that one thing, you don't need any sort of complicated game theory or subtler behavioral analysis or maybe subtler technology. People are stretching for all sorts of different ways to explain these things. But a very simple way is you're just doing it for a different reason than you say.
[00:06:18] David Elikwu: Right. But I've heard you mention in the past that, okay, you say this book is not a, not strictly a psychology book and definitely not a self-help book. And there's this idea that in some way, evolution has designed or directed us to hide some of these things. And there might be various reasons in which it might be either a self-protection mechanism or a way in which to, well actually, I dunno. Maybe you can , you can frame some suggestion.
[00:06:43] David Elikwu: But I'm interested in what you think about, knowing this now, first of all, does it change how we actually think about the way that we think and should it, is there anything that we should change having this knowledge?
[00:06:55] Robin Hanson: Well, first of all, I have to admit, as you indicated, we're built not to know this stuff. And so if you know your designer is right about your interests, then it's not in your interest to know this stuff, so you're better off looking the other way and forgetting which you're actually pretty capable of doing.
[00:07:12] Robin Hanson: But there are plausibly some people in our world for whom this is their topic, this is their area of expertise and they should learn this stuff even if evolution thought otherwise. So that might be say managers or salespeople who really especially need to understand the motivations of other people. It might be nerds who are just especially unskilled otherwise, and it might be social scientists and policy makers who say their job is to figure out how to rearrange the world so that we're all better off. And they can't do that if they misunderstand the world in a deep big way. So that's the claim is that, at least those people should be paying attention to this, but maybe they aren't. Maybe they don't want to.
[00:07:53] Robin Hanson: So basically, it could also be true that for most researchers, our motives are also not what we say. We put on this pretense of trying to help the world rearranged, find better policies that will promote great many things. And in fact, we're not doing that. We we're basically trying to be impressive, trying to let people affiliate with other people who have high status impressiveness, and we don't actually care what's true about the world and therefore we often want to pander to preconceptions and delusions if that's what makes us look impressive and gets people to affiliate with us and allows people to achieve their ends through us.
[00:08:31] David Elikwu: Yeah, I definitely agree and I was just thinking as you were saying that, about so on one level there is how we think about ourselves and the way that we act within the world, and the extent to which we might be deluding ourselves unintentionally or intentionally. But then I also think about the dynamics between people maybe in two different scenarios.
[00:08:48] David Elikwu: One, just socially in general, where very frequently it actually might be beneficial to lie or to intentionally musk what we truly think or musk the hidden reasons behind why we do something. And you see so many acts of this in daily life, a lot of deference where you do something, you know, I invite a friend to dinner because you invited me to dinner and not because I actually want you to come to my house or something like that.
[00:09:09] David Elikwu: And there are a lot of social dynamics in which we do things where it is intentionally deceptive, but then also sometimes maybe unintentionally. And then on the other side, I think, in terms of, as you have mentioned in the past, how we interact with institutions and with power, and this idea that if we have this duplicity in our own minds about how we think about things, but then we're also maybe electing people to act on our behalf who have their own internal duplicity then you kind of have a principle agent problem, which is inherent before they have even done anything about their own incentives.
[00:09:43] Robin Hanson: Well, often we like, we have people who work as agents for us, like politicians, and then they act on our behalf, and then we often complain about what happens as a result. And sometimes the complaint is because these people we have hired to represent us have misled us and misrepresented us and served their own ends.
[00:10:04] Robin Hanson: But often it's because that's what we wanted. We wanted them to take the fall and them to be the ones who serve our actual interests, but giving us cover to pretend otherwise. And that's one of the things an indirect servant or agent can do for you is they can let you pretend otherwise.
[00:10:22] David Elikwu: Sure. Can you think of an example in, I guess maybe social policy or economic policy where there is something that people say that they want when really they want something different?
[00:10:32] Robin Hanson: Well, for example, we have many sacred things in politics that we give lip service to, that we say are terribly important, such as nature. And then what we might do is elect politicians who say nothing is more important than nature, and they will do everything possible to protect and promote nature. And that's what we want them to say on our behalf, that's the image we would like to project about ourselves. But in fact, we don't actually want them to do everything possible for nature that will come at our expense substantially. And so they give this lip service, but then they don't. They in fact prioritize prosperity and transportation and defense and retirement and all these other things we want.
[00:11:14] Robin Hanson: And then we look at what happens in nature? We say, but what we said, you were supposed to protect nature and look, they're, you're not doing that. These people must be in the pay of some other nefarious party who is taking them away from what we said to do and they what they promised to do us, right? Look, it's their fault.
[00:11:31] Robin Hanson: If anyone will point this out, but usually no one will point it out. And so usually we get away with these sort of pretenses, right?
[00:11:38] Robin Hanson: I mean, another example might be, say prostitution or drugs, right? Where we all want to be against them in principle, right? We don't wanna be the sort of person who would approve of such things, But then we don't wanna be that strict about actually preventing them. And so we have many rules on the books that are nominally or hardly enforced, but still it's important to us that those rules be there so that we can say we're against things. But we will let our enforcement arms be distracted by other things and we're pretty okay with that.
[00:12:08] David Elikwu: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I was just thinking of taxation as an example where everyone wants something to be done about tax, but if you are the one paying it, you will always hate it. And everyone is very quick to say actually, ah, someone else should be paying, there should be some other form of solution here that doesn't involve the burden being on my shoulders.
[00:12:26] Robin Hanson: Right. So if you ask about different categories of spending, mostly people want those categories of spending to rise. But if you look at the overall budget and connect to the taxes, they don't necessarily want the overall budget to change, and they certainly don't want their taxes to change.
[00:12:39] David Elikwu: Yeah. And I was also thinking about the one that you mentioned or the environment is also one that has been on my mind recently with, so I live in London and Sadiq Khan, who is the Mayor for London, has over the last few years implemented a lot of changes, which are around like, congestion charges and essentially forms of taxation on driving at peak times or driving through the city in different ways. And everyone hates it, but simultaneously everyone also wants a greener world where we can avoid climate change and we can avoid all the nefarious knock on effects of the earth heating up. And we complain that, oh, this is the warmest winter on record and all of these things, but simultaneously if it means extra traffic or it means we can't drive when we want to drive, or it means we have to buy a new electric vehicle or a hybrid vehicle, everyone's upset. And so no one actually, we want the good things so long as they don't interfere with our enjoyment.
[00:13:30] Robin Hanson: I mean, in a sense, we economists have long recommended congestion pricing for traffic, not to protect the environment, but just to protect drivers from wasting their time and traffic. And so, we could also see this as an example of slipping through the efficient thing like congestion pricing under the excuse of protecting the environment. That's at least an excuse more people are willing to give lip service to you see.
[00:13:54] Robin Hanson: But I might say, well, they're no. The real benefit here is you're saving all these people, all this wasted time sitting in traffic.
[00:14:00] David Elikwu: Yeah. What do you see as the, we've just gone through this period in the last few years. We had a global pandemic and we saw lots of different countries reacting in very different ways and I'm interested to know what you see as some of the competing internal and external forces there where, you have at various points, lots of different countries seeming to act in their interests, not acting in their interests. There's people that want to take the vaccine, there's people that don't, and it seemed like organized chaos for the most part. But in the end we are able to produce a vaccine. But also what I'm interested in is just seeing how, for example, China being a very interesting example of how at different points in time they have reacted to Covid. Where at the beginning, you see people being locked inside their homes and all kinds of stuff. But then suddenly, not too long ago they just said, okay, actually don't worry everyone come back outside, even though right up until then, they had some very strict measures.
[00:14:51] Robin Hanson: So, the variation around the world is interesting and useful to think about policy, but I actually think the lack of variation is the more interesting thing.
[00:15:02] Robin Hanson: So people don't realize how the world has changed over the last half century in a big crucial way.
[00:15:10] Robin Hanson: In the past, the world was full of different nations and empires even that competed. And within each nation or empire people and elites had their main identity as within that empire or that nation. And so each nation or empire was saying in part, well, what should we do so that our nation or empire will stay competitive or perhaps even get an advantage over the rest? And they were okay with being substantially different if that would give them a potential advantage.
[00:15:41] Robin Hanson: And so nations and empires competed in the past and policy was often about what should we do here, different from what other people are doing? And how does that reflect our different identity or our strategy for doing better? And in the last half century, what we've instead had is a merging of communities in the world, especially emerging of the elites in the world, such that they are now more of a world elite community. And each member in that community more cares about their identity and reputation within that community than they do necessarily about their nation or people locally. And this has caused an enormous convergence of policy around the world in a great many areas, including in the pandemic.
[00:16:27] Robin Hanson: So if you remember at the very beginning of the pandemic, there were the usual public health experts around the world who had their usual recommendations, which included masks weren't that valuable, travel restrictions weren't that valuable. And then as soon as it became clear, this was a serious thing. Elites around the world started talking to each other about what we were gonna do about this. And within a few weeks they came to a different conclusion, they all decided. No, masks and travel restrictions were a good idea. And that's what we were all going to do and then basically, most of the world did it pretty similar. And the public health experts just turned on a dime and said, oh yeah, you're right, because they were not gonna try to contradict the collective elites of the world. And this same dynamic applies in a great many other regulatory areas, nuclear power, medical experiments, organ donations, airline regulation. A whole range of areas of regulation and policy. In fact, most of the world does it pretty similar.
[00:17:26] Robin Hanson: And that's the new distinctive feature of our world compared to the past, is that we now have this world where say, the nuclear regulatory regulators in any one nation, what they more care about is being respected by the regulators elsewhere in the world when they go to their international regulation conferences than they do about what people in that particular nation think. And that happened in Covid as well.
[00:17:47] Robin Hanson: So there was some variation around the world, but that's the less surprising thing than the strong convergence around the world. In fact, the world did it pretty much the same, even though we don't actually have good evidence that, that was the right thing to do.
[00:18:00] Robin Hanson: Once vaccine showed up, everybody agreed on that. Of course, there wasn't much disagreement about vaccines really, the elites in the world and so most of the world happily adopted vaccines. You know, there are some places that at times try to make a thing about their being different, and then often the rest of the world is trying to pressure them so.
[00:18:17] Robin Hanson: For example, the only country in the world that allows organ donations, an organ sales at the moment is Iran. And then medical ethics people all around the world have these conferences where they say, Iran, they're doing organ sales, that's terrible. How are we gonna get them to stop? And Sweden, during the early pandemic, they had such different sort of policy to lockdowns and the big conversation of the rest of the Europe and the world is how are we gonna get Sweden to stop and do it the right way? How dare they do it different?
[00:18:41] Robin Hanson: And that's more the main dynamic in the world today is a large consensus than a few people deviating. And then the attempt to pressure those deviants to do the right thing and do it like everybody else.
[00:18:51] Robin Hanson: So that says we're in this new world of an integrated world community of elites who mainly have some convergence and reputation within that community such that, whatever they decide is what most everybody's gonna do.
[00:19:03] Robin Hanson: It's not cause of a world government, there is no central ruler, but still we're all gonna be doing it the same way. And that has important implications for how the future's gonna play out.
[00:19:11] David Elikwu: Yeah, that's a really good point. I'm interested to know what you think about how The Elephant in the Brain works on an institutional level, cause even just what you were saying, I was also thinking about nuclear where for large groups of people, perhaps it might seem like common sense that this is something we should be investing in and should have been investing in for a very long time. And there were lots of countries where just like you say, they laid the groundwork to do this thing and undid it maybe because other countries undid it. And so now in large parts of Europe, we suddenly have this massive energy crisis where we ended up being entirely reliant on Russia and a certain global powers for energy because, well, I don't know why? There's no clear reason why you already had energy plants and then you took them down. It doesn't make much sense to me.
[00:19:58] Robin Hanson: I think we can roughly see the world as divided and into experts, elites and masses, and, elites are often want to give you the impression that they are relying heavily on expertise to make their decisions. And that's a rationale for why we should accept our elites and decisions they make. But actually, elites are more often trying to gain sort of prestige among the elites and gain sort of the allegiance of the masses by seeming to be elite. And that requires that they often pander to preconceptions or wider senses of what the right thing is, and they don't necessarily listen to the experts as so much.
[00:20:36] Robin Hanson: With respect to nuclear power, there's long been this strong moral crusade that nuclear power was dirty and evil. And elites were wanting to be respected among other elites by accepting that and pushing for that, and often sort of being overconfident about how far, how fast they could push. But that's what wins you praise in that world of elites and in the world of masses who saw that as yes, the right thing. So given enough ordinary people who are scared of nuclear and seeing it as dirty and evil, then elites go along with that too, and claim that that's backed by expert advice, even if it's not. And then they do what it takes to become respected in that world. So for a long time, you were more respected as elite when you suppressed nuclear power and got rid of it. And you were of course taking a chance with respect to how the world would change in the future. But that was a collective chance, they were all taking individually, they were each getting praise for the changes they were making.
[00:22:22] David Elikwu: Sure that makes sense. How do we snap out of all of this then? It seems quite common sense on the surface that, okay, we're doing this because other people are doing it, or we're making some fundamental mistake of some kind. I guess there's two levels of it. One is a, on an individual level, following a lot of what you've discussed in your book about the elephant in the brain and how we deceive ourselves, but how do we shed a light on this on a broader scale?
[00:22:44] Robin Hanson: So I've spent a lot of my life thinking about how we can do institutions better, and I've got what I think are a lot of promising solutions for institutional reform. The biggest challenge is to make anybody care. So, I think that in our current world, I would say, basically masses recognize elites who oversee experts who choose details is roughly how the world's organized, and because of that, we're not actually very interested in institutional reforms proposed by experts. They're the wrong people. What we want is reform proposals that are made by elites and those we will consider, especially, the more elite they are and the more prestigious they are, the more they seem to agree, then the more we might go for that.
[00:23:28] Robin Hanson: So, we don't actually let the experts make that many big decisions about how we are organized, how we're mostly waiting until elites are in agreement in their elite way on key policy changes. And that's sort of the most thing we're vulnerable to here, is that structure. As long as we maintain that, then we're, we're going to be stuck in that way.
[00:23:51] Robin Hanson: I mean, let's take a more concrete example, hiring a doctor. Basically, you hardly know which doctor to hire. You don't know who's good, you don't know if the things are recommending are good. You'll find out later if you live or die or how long you're sick. But the way you actually hire doctors today is mostly based on their prestige. What prestigious medical organization they're part of, or what school they went to. And then you mostly don't pay them based on whether they do well for you. You just pay them per hour or per session and you trust that their prestige is enough to assure the quality. And we do that in law and many other areas that is what we really crave is this association with a prestigious doctor who we trust and they kind of at least respect us. And that trusting respectful relationship kind of requires that we're not being too skeptical about them and too careful about with how we pick them and how we pay them
[00:24:44] Robin Hanson: So, I mean, alternatives to this trusting prestige based relationship might be, if we say collected careful track records on each doctor about which patients they had and what happened to them and we could do statistical analysis to sort of evaluate the quality of each doctor that way. Or we could do direct financial incentives where basically we set it up such that if we do well, they do well. If we die, they lose a lot of money. If we get disabled, they lose money. So we basically combine health insurance with life insurance and disability insurance such that they would just have strong financial incentives.
[00:25:17] Robin Hanson: And this is something we could do with say lawyers as well. We could collect track records on lawyers, which cases they win or lose. We could give them more direct financial incentives, like contingency contracts. But in both the cases of doctors and lawyers, what we seem to want is this just trusting relationship where we look at their prestige, the school they went to, or the organization show with us. Wow, that's, everybody says that's great. And then we are lucky to be associated with them and we pay them a lot of money, but we pay it per hour or something. And then we just trust that they will do well by us. And that's what we seem to crave in many of these, relationships including with our pundits and politicians.
[00:25:54] Robin Hanson: We don't give them very strong financial incentives or other sorts of things. So, we will basically continue to get bad service from these prestigious elites if we continue to just pay them to be prestigious. Because the things it takes to be prestigious just aren't the same as doing the things that give us good service. They're just two different things. And so when we pay them to be prestigious, they work really hard to go to the best schools and work very hard to be at the top firms and to impress people with their carriage and their language and their wit, how well they dress and all the contacts they have and all the things that elites do to show you their elites. They are working very hard to do all those things. And that's where all their energies are going. And so their energies are not going so much to actually make you healthy or actually win your legal case or all the other things we're trying to get out of elites.
[00:26:42] Robin Hanson: So that in my mind is the fundamental problem. We're in this relationships where typically we trust an elite rather than an expert.
[00:26:51] Robin Hanson: Even say CEO's or firms. We often just wanna pick them as the tallest, handsome person who went to a top school, who was associated with the other firms, and the boards of directors as opposed to like paying them for doing the job well, which is more like, stock options, sort of payments for, Hey, did you make the firm do better?
[00:27:09] Robin Hanson: So I think there are ways that we could instead have a more distrustful relationship with these people than as we could more collect track records and more look at the track records, and we could have more direct financial contracts with them, but we don't do that so much.
[00:27:26] Robin Hanson: So let me tell you my current favorite idea for a experiment in that direction that we might make work. So it's called Tax Career Agents. So at the moment when you choose what school to go to or what career to go into, what first job to take, you go on the advice of family, maybe what you read in the newspapers, maybe a coach or somebody else in your world. But these people don't have very strong incentives to be expert and actually helpful to you. But you mostly go on either direct personal connections or the prestige of various people who might give you this advice. So I want to put someone in your life who has a direct incentive to make your life go well.
[00:28:06] Robin Hanson: The idea is that in many industries there are agents, like in music or athletics, acting people have agents. And these agents basically take 15% of their income on average to advise and promote. And in these industries, it's essential to have an agent and people, don't too much begrudge that 15% of their income being paid for these agents who do this advice and promotion. And those people can then believe that they have an expert who has their interest in mind cause they do well then this agent does well to tell them which jobs to take, which skills to collect, things like that. But in most of the rest of the economy we don't have agents, cause we are mostly thinking, I don't want to give up 15% of my income for somebody who's gonna advise me. That just sounds like too much.
[00:28:47] Robin Hanson: So the idea here is that in fact all of us already have an agent who on average, collects 22% of our income, and this agent is doing a bad job. And so the key proposal is just to transfer this agent role to somebody else who will do a better job with it. And you might think, well, who is this agent already? And that's the government taking 22% of your income on average for taxes.
[00:29:11] Robin Hanson: So in principal, since the government already takes a big chunk of your income, they already should be wanting to advise and promote you, right? They should be wanting to tell you what school to go to or what job to take or what training to get, but they don't.
[00:29:24] Robin Hanson: So my proposal is to transfer that role to somebody else. So at the moment when the government spends more than they take in, they borrow money. And borrowing money is a way of taking future tax revenue and converting into the current tax revenue. Cause later off, you're gonna have to pay off the loans that you've got. But now you get the money up upfront.
[00:29:43] Robin Hanson: Well we're gonna do a substitute for that. Instead of borrowing money, we're gonna create a tax career agent, for say you, by auctioning off the right to get your future tax revenue. So every year you write a check to the government and so much money, that check could be diverted to somebody else, and somebody else every year could get that check. And we could have an auction where we say, who wants to buy that stream of payments? And whoever wins that auction pays a big amount of money up front, and that's the money that goes to the government. And they get that money now instead of your money in the future. But now whoever wins this auction is your tax career agent. They now have your interest, they paid maybe half a million dollars for the right to get all your future tax revenue, and now they're gonna get a percentage of your income in the future. And now they want to advise and promote you. And instead of being based on prestige, this is based on their interest or aligned with yours.
[00:30:36] Robin Hanson: You know, they want this. That is, not only do they want this, among all the people who could have won this auction, they were the one willing to pay the most. That is they had the strongest belief and confidence that they could help you, have a better life, at least in terms of money.
[00:30:49] Robin Hanson: And this is a proposal I have, and the key thing to notice about it is that nobody loses relative to the status quo, right? The government, they get their money up front instead of later like they do when they borrow. They're fine. You? You're just as well off as you were now. You know, now you have this agent who you could ignore if you want to. They have no powers over you other than to advise and promote you. And then this agent, they're okay with it cause they bid to be in this auction to be the agent. They chose to be the agent, so on average they've gotta expect to benefit so nobody loses.
[00:31:22] Robin Hanson: This is an example of what I hope to do elsewhere in our lives, which is to replace bad prestigious advice, with incentivized advisors whose, who got into that role by paying the most to be there and having a direct financial incentives to do well by you. And so we could do that for lawyers and for doctors and for even our politicians.
[00:31:45] David Elikwu: Wow, that's really interesting. That's a very interesting idea. I wonder what you think about, so I was just speaking with Garrett Jones, who I think was a colleague of yours and he talks a lot about the idea of IQ and IQ distribution. I'm interested in this idea that you have of tax career agents.
[00:32:01] David Elikwu: Do you think there's an extent to which it might create some form of stratification where you get a separation of companies that really would bid a lot more for maybe higher IQ or higher status people, and then maybe be less willing to make that bet on lower skilled or lower IQ people?
[00:32:17] Robin Hanson: People vary, as Gary will tell you, humans vary. They aren't all the same. The pretends that they do not differ very much is often an obstacle to having effective policy in many areas, including having someone advise you about your career. So yes, often schools pretend that all their students are the same and therefore will get the same kind of training and the same kind of opportunities in order to keep everybody on the appearance that we all think everybody's the same. But the tax career agents are incentivized to notice differences and to pay attention to them and act on them. But they're incentivized to notice the actual differences. Like so many people are concerned and believe that there are these false beliefs about who's better in the world and that people who are incorrectly believed to be better are often benefiting from these incorrect beliefs. And so there's class differences or presumptions about who's better even say by race. And the claim is because the people of these social systems, based on elites and conformity, et cetera, because they don't have very strong incentives, they can just go off the rails and say, if everybody believes the tall people are better then tall people get better jobs and better grades, et cetera. And that therefore we need to restrain those processes to prevent those beliefs from being enacted because they could just be so wrong and they could be quite wrong when the people making the choices are mainly because of their prestige not because they're making good judgments.
[00:33:41] Robin Hanson: For example, the people outta school deciding who to admit as students there, if they're basically there based on their prestige and the perception of other people that they're prestigious people, they may not do a very good job of deciding who to admit to the school. They may just go along with everybody's prejudices about who's better.
[00:33:55] Robin Hanson: But if you have parties who have a direct strong financial incentive to figure out who's better how, then I'm gonna more going to believe that if they actually come to decide that somebody's better, then they are actually better.
[00:34:06] Robin Hanson: So notice it in sports, say, or music. Sports and music agents do not believe all of their clients are equally skilled. Those worlds are very open about the idea that some athletes and some musicians are much better than others. And the whole point is to try to find the better ones and to help those better ones and give them much more resources and opportunities cause that's how you make good athletes and good musicians, is to search for the best ones, right?
[00:34:30] Robin Hanson: So agents are not treating people as equal in these other areas. And they tax career agents would not treat people as equals and they would be incentivized to ask what actually makes the difference. Not what do people think makes a difference or what two people say make the difference. And so if they're looking at your IQ and using that in order to sort you, that would be because they've looked carefully and decided that IQ actually does help.
[00:34:55] Robin Hanson: Just like again, athletes, agents or musician agents, they are trying really hard to figure out which of these people are actually the better ones. And they aren't gonna just look at something superficial like how tall you are? They're going to be trying to do as careful an assessment as they can. And so it's a long answer to say, yes, of course they will treat people different. That's what we want. But it's not all a zero something like some people winning something, some people lose, a big part of what tax payer agents would do different is figure out, well, for you what kind of a life would go best for you? Not send everybody down the same path, but to pay a lot of attention to your differences.
[00:35:31] Robin Hanson: And if you can convince them that you don't like them and you'd rather they went away, then they're gonna probably sell this role to somebody else who you like better. That is if you say, I like this person and I'm willing to listen to this person's advice, but not your advice, then they're gonna find a way to make a deal to transfer this asset to someone. Who you would listen to more because that asset is worth more to that person.
[00:35:53] David Elikwu: Fair. Okay. That makes a lot of sense. And I guess, the benefit for the government is the receivables that they get. And just like you're saying, really, the stratification you might end up with between different types of people is equal to the very good analogy that you gave of musicians and their agents, where the best musicians in the world have the best agents in the world, which would be the analog of the biggest companies. And then maybe, a musician that's up and coming might just have a local agent, which would be the same as maybe a smaller company that might have been willing to pay an equitable payment.
[00:36:23] Robin Hanson: But it's still much better than not having any agent.
[00:36:25] Robin Hanson: So that's the status quo, almost most everyone has no agent whatsoever and they're going with family advice or their teacher or coach or something or the sales pitches being made to them by schools or jobs. They don't have an agent there who's more experienced than them to help them make these choices.
[00:36:40] Robin Hanson: But again, at the highest level here is the current situation we're in, is in many areas of our life, we go with prestige as our key way to decide who we listen to and who we associate with. And we don't ask the track records of those people, we don't give them very strong incentives. We just fundamentally rely on prestige. And that goes wrong in a lot of areas. And my proposal is to swap those prestige based mechanisms with more direct mechanisms. But the question is, can I convince people to do that?
[00:37:08] Robin Hanson: Because basically this is a hidden motive issue. I think people fundamentally really just crave this association with prestige, but they don't want to admit it that way. They'd rather say, oh, I think prestige is a good indicator of quality. And so they use this excuse in their mind that they believe that the most prestigious doctor is the best doctor, the most prestigious lawyer is the best lawyer, the most prestigious school is the best school for you. Once they believe that, then they don't believe they need another mechanism to induce effort and quality because they think they've got it, prestigious it.
[00:37:39] David Elikwu: Yeah. But also I think the additional part is not just how quickly you can convince them, but also if you can convince them before it ends up being replaced to some extent by AI. cause that's the other thing that's in my mind now where, I would love to know what you think about, we were just talking about some of the biases in the way that we select, right?
[00:37:57] David Elikwu: And some of the biases and the misattribution that we make when we are trying to pick, okay, what should people do, how should people live, et cetera, et cetera. And how it might be a better solution for some companies to do that if they have the right financial incentive. But then also, it's very easy to imagine a world where AI that's already available right now.
[00:38:14] David Elikwu: People are already playing with the idea of how you could have AI therapists and you could ask AI your questions and AI could tell you what you should do with your career and what you should do with your life. But there is a potential risk in the extent to which we could bake in a lot of the misconceptions that we have into AI.
[00:38:31] David Elikwu: And, I'd love to know what you think about that. Does AI reach a point where all of our negative biases and all of our mistakes get skimmed out because the AI is so good that it can actually just think without the negative aspects that we put into it or are we still constrained by some of the engineering factors?
[00:38:47] Robin Hanson: When you buy an AI or when you listen to an AI, the issues are pretty similar to when you listen to humans. If you decide that the Google AI is the one you're gonna listen to, just because Google is the most prestigious, then the Google people are mainly working to convince you they're prestigious and they're not working to make sure the advice their AI gives you is actually good advice because that's not what you're picking them on. So in that case, the advice may well be biased because, not just because they were basing it on prior data or humans, but because you didn't make them make it unbiased. That is the way that you choose your suppliers is a primary determinant of how biased they are. If you choose them on the basis of prestige, then they will be prestigious and I can't assure you of much else other than that they will be prestigious. If you choose them on the basis of accuracy and that they're rewarded for accuracy, such that if they are more accurate, then you're more likely to buy them, then that accuracy pressure is what would drive away the biases, because by being less biased, they would be more accurate. but there is the danger that people will choose the AI based on prestige if everybody else is buying this AI, and then they'll buy this AI and then they will listen to its advice because it's the prestigious source in the same way they do with doctor's, lawyers, and politicians, just believing them on the basis of their prestige.
[00:40:09] Robin Hanson: It's the same issue there with respect to the AI as with respect to the humans, what's the basis on which you're selecting them and that affects what's the basis of their advice they give to you.
[00:40:19] Robin Hanson: Now, I actually think you still have a long way to go on the AI. They're not about to take over everything.
[00:40:25] Robin Hanson: So let me tell you my personal story. Back in 1984, I left my graduate program in Chicago in, I've been studying physics and philosophy of science and went out to Silicon Valley to try to work in AI, because I had heard of all these news articles in the previous few years talking about how AI was about to take over everything and I had to get in there before it was too late, before all the jobs were gone and AI did everything, that was my last chance to sort of be part of making something happen. And of course, I was very wrong.
[00:40:57] Robin Hanson: But I've since learned that every decade or so for a long time, we've had these bursts of concern about AI, where people say, look at this new demo, look how much more impressive this new demo is than all the demos we've had before. They're able to do something fundamentally due they couldn't do before. And they've said, could this be it? Are we about to have the machines take over all the jobs? Again, this isn't a new thing every decade for a long time, even going back centuries, people have had these bursts of concerns where people were really impressed by new machines and new automation and computers, et cetera, and said, wow, are these things about to take over all the jobs soon? And every time we've been just really wrong.
[00:41:40] Robin Hanson: And so the key lesson, I think to draw is, we're just really bad at judging that distance between the latest impressive demo and what it would take to automate almost everything. And most likely, we're still a long way away from that because, even these most in recent impressive machines, they're still can't do most everything. Most of the jobs we have in the economy, these machines just can't do. I mean, they can do some impressive tasks that other previous machines couldn't do, but they are not up to the task of replacing most jobs. And I think it'll be many decades at least.
[00:42:11] Robin Hanson: So you've got a lot of time to have a career and to have a life and slowly see AI get better and slowly see jobs get automated. But I wouldn't worry about it all being gone very soon.
[00:42:23] David Elikwu: How do we get better at measuring that distance though? Because I think there's also an extent to which, you know, it's a bit of the boy who cried war syndrome where you hear it so many times, you start to ignore it, you start to tune it out. But there is also the effect of each iteration is actually functionally getting better. And sometimes it is, each information is multiples better than the last.
[00:42:43] David Elikwu: Just like you were saying, I remember probably also about 10 or so years ago when we had Google Glass and people were like, oh my gosh, VR is gonna take over everything. And that went nowhere at the time. I actually went, I went to the Sony offices in London and I was testing some VR stuff. I don't even know what happened to that, I've never owned one. And that was 10 years ago. But now, like it is so much better than what we saw then.
[00:43:05] David Elikwu: And actually it could be the case that, within that time we've had enough iteration that it becomes functionally useful and it does maybe start to change the old paradigm.
[00:43:14] David Elikwu: So do you think, I guess, well the two part question. One is like, how do we get better at managing that distance so that we don't just keep assuming that it's never going to happen, but then also, do you think there's an extent to which you kind of, you knock on the door until it breaks and then actually we do crossover into a period that ends up being drastically different from the time that we had before.
[00:43:33] Robin Hanson: So there's a chain of causation. At the end of the chain is actually economic activity. Like jobs change, products change, money changes, right? And so the thing you're most worried about is people losing their jobs, people losing wages, the economy slowing down or growing up, those are the fundamental things. So if you track that, you'll be tracking the thing you most care about. And that's been pretty steady for a long time.
[00:43:59] Robin Hanson: The next step behind that is we may call automation, the points at which a human doing a job is swapped for a machine doing a job. So that's the next step back in the causal chain. And then behind that is maybe innovation in how to automate a job that is demonstrations of particular, attempts to automate jobs of say, by startup companies that are trying to spread their products so that more people will adopt a particular practice to automate jobs.
[00:44:25] Robin Hanson: And then behind that would be more research conceptions of general techniques of how to do computer things differently. And then there's the sort of the most fundamental, like innovation changes. Now, a big problem is that people want to get news about this whole chain of causation. And so reporters and media are focused on the earliest part of that chain because that has the most dramatic stories, because that sort of fluctuates the most and that seems to be giving you the most news about things farther and down the chain. But the people doing that are not actually incentivized to be very accurate. They're mainly incentivized to be prestigious, just like all the other things. So, hey, if the New York Times has an article on chat GPT, well it must be a thing, right?
[00:45:09] Robin Hanson: And then there's an incentive for everybody to gush about what the same thing everybody else is gushing about. And they just don't have much of an incentive to be accurate, as you say, they gush about these things, they give these radical predictions, and then a few years later that's just gone but they're never held to account for that. We don't collect track records on media pundits, and we don't give them incentives for accuracy. And until we do that, they're gonna continue to exaggerate because that's the incentive we're giving to them.
[00:45:32] Robin Hanson: Now I did a study a couple years ago about this automation step in the process. I did a study with a co-author on say, 900 different kinds of jobs in the US which basically covers most all the jobs. And then the period from 1999 to 2019, a 20 year period. In that period we tracked how all those jobs changed in level of automation over time. And then we could ask, well, how much did it change over time? Which is roughly a third of a standard deviation in automation, which was modest, but important. And we asked a number of questions about, well, on average when jobs get more automated, do the wages go up or down? Do the number of workers doing that job go up or down? And we found no effects like that over this period. And then we asked, in this 20 year period, did the kind of things that predicts which jobs get automated change. Was there a revolution or change in the nature of automation over this 20 year period? And we found none, no change whatsoever in the nature of automation. So steady change, modest change, no net effect on number of workers or wages, no change in the nature of automation that tells you that at this more fundamental process, we just have relatively steady change. And that's what you should expect into the future.
[00:46:47] Robin Hanson: What you see, way behind in the chain of causation is you see fundamental research ideas on how to do things differently. But the key point is those things hardly affect yet actual automation, most actual automation is just not much affected by them. Most automation is very mundane sorts of things. If you look at actual firms, et cetera, they are very simple machines who do very simple things because that's in fact what is actually the most useful in most of the world.
[00:47:13] Robin Hanson: So you have to see the difference between if you're just working in an ordinary store or ordinary office building or ordinary factory, you just see the kinds of things they do and the kinds of automations that you use, you can see when they actually automate something, it's very, very simple and has little to do with the dramatic research progress that you will see reported in the media that everybody gets all excited about.
[00:47:34] David Elikwu: Thank you so much for tuning in. Please do stay tuned for more. Don't forget to rate, review and subscribe. It really helps the podcast and follow me on Twitter feel free to shoot me any thoughts. See you next time.