Superintelligence 17: Multipolar scenarios

This is part of a weekly reading group on Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence. For more information about the group, and an index of posts so far see the announcement post. For the schedule of future topics, see MIRI’s reading guide.

Welcome. This week we discuss the seventeenth section in the reading guide: Multipolar scenarios. This corresponds to the first part of Chapter 11.

Apologies for putting this up late. I am traveling, and collecting together the right combination of electricity, wifi, time, space, and permission from an air hostess to take out my computer was more complicated than the usual process.

This post summarizes the section, and offers a few relevant notes, and ideas for further investigation. Some of my own thoughts and questions for discussion are in the comments.

There is no need to proceed in order through this post, or to look at everything. Feel free to jump straight to the discussion. Where applicable and I remember, page numbers indicate the rough part of the chapter that is most related (not necessarily that the chapter is being cited for the specific claim).

Reading: “Of horses and men” from Chapter 11


  1. ‘Multipolar scenario’: a situation where no single agent takes over the world

  2. A multipolar scenario may arise naturally, or intentionally for reasons of safety. (p159)

  3. Knowing what would happen in a multipolar scenario involves analyzing an extra kind of information beyond that needed for analyzing singleton scenarios: that about how agents interact (p159)

  4. In a world characterized by cheap human substitutes, rapidly introduced, in the presence of low regulation, and strong protection of property rights, here are some things that will likely happen: (p160)

    1. Human labor will earn wages at around the price of the substitutes—perhaps below subsistence level for a human. Note that machines have been complements to human labor for some time, raising wages. One should still expect them to become substitutes at some point and reverse this trend. (p160-61)

    2. Capital (including AI) will earn all of the income, which will be a lot. Humans who own capital will become very wealthy. Humans who do not own income may be helped with a small fraction of others’ wealth, through charity or redistribution. p161-3)

    3. If the humans, brain emulations or other AIs receive resources from a common pool when they are born or created, the population will likely increase until it is constrained by resources. This is because of selection for entities that tend to reproduce more. (p163-6) This will happen anyway eventually, but AI would make it faster, because reproduction is so much faster for programs than for humans. This outcome can be avoided by offspring receiving resources from their parents’ purses.

Another view

Tyler Cowen expresses a different view (video, some transcript):

The other point I would make is I think smart machines will always be complements and not substitutes, but it will change who they’re complementing. So I was very struck by this woman who was a doctor sitting here a moment ago, and I fully believe that her role will not be replaced by machines. But her role didn’t sound to me like a doctor. It sounded to me like therapist, friend, persuader, motivational coach, placebo effect, all of which are great things. So the more you have these wealthy patients out there, the patients are in essense the people who work with the smart machines and augment their power, those people will be extremely wealthy. Those people will employ in many ways what you might call personal servants. And because those people are so wealthy, those personal servants will also earn a fair amount.

So the gains from trade are always there, there’s still a law of comparative advantage. I think people who are very good at working with the machines will earn much much more. And the others of us will need to find different kinds of jobs. But again if total output goes up, there’s always an optimistic scenario.

Though perhaps his view isn’t as different as it sounds.


1. The small space devoted to multipolar outcomes in Superintelligence probably doesn’t reflect a broader consensus that a singleton is more likely or more important. Robin Hanson is perhaps the loudest proponent of the ‘multipolar outcomes are more likely’ position. e.g. in The Foom Debate and more briefly here. This week is going to be fairly Robin Hanson themed in fact.

2. Automation can both increase the value produced by a human worker (complementing human labor) and replace the human worker altogether (substituting human labor). Over the long term, it seems complementarity has been been the overall effect. However by the time a machine can do everything a human can do, it is hard to imagine a human earning more than a machine needs to run, i.e. less than they do now. Thus at some point substitution must take over. Some think recent unemployment is due in large part to automation. Some think this time is the beginning of the end, and the jobs will never return to humans. Others disagree, and are making bets. Eliezer Yudkowsky and John Danaher clarify some arguments. Danaher adds a nice diagram:

3. Various policies have been proposed to resolve poverty from widespread permanent technological unemployment. Here is a list, though it seems to miss a straightforward one: investing ahead of time in the capital that will become profitable instead of one’s own labor, or having policies that encourage such diversification. Not everyone has resources to invest in capital, but it might still help many people. Mentioned here and here:

And then there are more extreme measures. Everyone is born with an endowment of labor; why not also an endowment of capital? What if, when each citizen turns 18, the government bought him or her a diversified portfolio of equity? Of course, some people would want to sell it immediately, cash out, and party, but this could be prevented with some fairly light paternalism, like temporary “lock-up” provisions. This portfolio of capital ownership would act as an insurance policy for each human worker; if technological improvements reduced the value of that person’s labor, he or she would reap compensating benefits through increased dividends and capital gains. This would essentially be like the kind of socialist land reforms proposed in highly unequal Latin American countries, only redistributing stock instead of land.

4. Even if the income implications of total unemployment are sorted out, some are concerned about the psychological and social consequences. According to Voltaire, ‘work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need’. Sometimes people argue that even if our work is economically worthless, we should toil away for our own good, lest the vice and boredom overcome us.

I find this unlikely, given for instance the ubiquity of more fun and satisfying things to do than most jobs. And while obscolesence and the resulting loss of purpose may be psychologically harmful, I doubt a purposeless job solves that. Also, people already have a variety of satisfying purposes in life other than earning a living. Note also that people in situations like college and lives of luxury seem to do ok on average. I’d guess that unemployed people and some retirees do less well, but this seems more plausibly from losing a previously significant source of purpose and respect, rather than from lack of entertainment and constraint. And in a world where nobody gets respect from bringing home dollars, and other purposes are common, I doubt either of these costs will persist. But this is all speculation.

On a side note, the kinds of vices that are usually associated with not working tend to be vices of parasitic unproductivity, such as laziness, profligacy, and tendency toward weeklong video game stints. In a world where human labor is worthless, these heuristics for what is virtuous or not might be outdated.

Nils Nielson discusses this issue more, along with the problem of humans not earning anything.

5. What happens when selection for expansive tendencies go to space? This.

6. A kind of robot that may change some job markets:

A kind of robot which may change some job markets.

(picture by Steve Jurvetson)

In-depth investigations

If you are particularly interested in these topics, and want to do further research, these are a few plausible directions, some inspired by Luke Muehlhauser’s list, which contains many suggestions related to parts of Superintelligence. These projects could be attempted at various levels of depth.

  1. How likely is one superintelligence, versus many intelligences? What empirical data bears on this question? Bostrom briefly investigated characteristic time lags between large projects for instance, on p80-81.

  2. Are whole brain emulations likely to come first? This might be best approached by estimating timelines for different technologies (each an ambitious project) and comparing them, or there may be ways to factor out some considerations.

  3. What are the long term trends in automation replacing workers?

  4. What else can we know about the effects of automation on employment? (this seems to have a fair literature)

  5. What levels of population growth would be best in the long run, given machine intelligences? (this sounds like an ethics question, but one could also assume some kind of normal human values and investigate the empirical considerations that would make situations better or worse in their details.

  6. Are there good ways to avoid malthusian outcomes in the kind of scenario discussed in this section, if ‘as much as possible’ is not the answer to 6?

  7. What policies might help a society deal with permanent, almost complete unemployment caused by AI progress?

If you are interested in anything like this, you might want to mention it in the comments, and see whether other people have useful thoughts.

How to proceed

This has been a collection of notes on the chapter. The most important part of the reading group though is discussion, which is in the comments section. I pose some questions for you there, and I invite you to add your own. Please remember that this group contains a variety of levels of expertise: if a line of discussion seems too basic or too incomprehensible, look around for one that suits you better!

Next week, we will talk about ‘life in an algorithmic economy’. To prepare, read the section of that name in Chapter 11. The discussion will go live at 6pm Pacific time next Monday January 12. Sign up to be notified here.