Some background beliefs (July/August 2016)

I have a number of background beliefs about the world that, while not particularly rigorous, provide a sort of lens through which I understand the world. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to articulate those beliefs.

Some of these are general beliefs about the world, while others are beliefs about how things will unfold in the next few years (over timescales ranging from a year to a couple of decades). In the jargon of this post of mine, I am talking of the near but not very near future, as well as the medium-term future.

A slow-but-steady and low-variance near future

My overall view of approximately the next 10 or 15 years is: no major disruptions in either direction, but very slow and very steady improvement in the developed world, and faster catch-up growth in the developing world. I expect growth rates in the developing world to steadily decrease but still stay high enough for meaningful catch-up to be experienced along a number of dimensions where the developed world is more developed (and probably some where it isn’t!). Some of the recent sources of rapid growth are running out, but consolidation and utilization of existing advances still has some ways to go.

Probably the most exciting thing that will happen in the next few years is continued rollout of autonomous technology in contexts ranging from cars to trucks to factory to managing other machines. Some of it will rely on particularly impressive technological breakthroughs, but most of it will be a result of just more data and people getting around to implementing all aspects of something they already sort-of knew how to do. Raw effects of population growth and increased adoption of existing technologies will be negligible in developed countries, and reasonably solid but not revolutionary in developing countries.

End of Moore’s Law

Moore’s law and many of its variants are naturally ending. In a LessWrong post, I discussed the importance of both demand (at the right level) and supply in maintaining the pressure on technological progress. I think that we are running out on efficiency gains on raw hardware improvements, squeezed from both sides: a lot of hardware is good enough and cheap enough now, so people aren’t demanding the next release that much. And the technical challenges to maintain continued hardware improvements are getting harder. The story holds even for Internet speed. The Internet in developing countries is now fast enough to play streaming video, and most people have sufficiently reliable connections, so there’s not a lot of pressure to improve (increasing Internet access and reliability in far-off locations are continuing challenges).

Progress will continue in hardware, but the progress rate will move down to the progress rate we see in other kinds of gadgets, such as washing machines and refrigerators. New ideas and tweaks will continue to be applied, but people will have fewer and fewer compelling reasons to upgrade just because it’s been a couple of years since their last purchase.

While end users may be close to achieving full satisfaction with their computing devices, those who run servers at large scale will continue to push for improvements. I suspect many of these improvements will come from steady improvements in the software, as well as more automated management of existing server infrastructure, through smarter application of things ranging from autoscaling to wider use of spot markets to more tiered storage so that frequently accessed stuff is readily available and less accessed stuff is stored less accessibly. I expect that the server side will see larger year-on-year growth through these mechanisms.

End of Internet growth

I’m a big fan of the Internet, but I’m not bullish on it experiencing the kind of explosive growth it has averaged over the past two decades. I’d say there were three drivers of Internet growth.

  1. People adopting the technology through peer effects and increased familiarity, as it became better and more comprehensive.
  2. People becoming wealthier and therefore more able to afford the technology.
  3. Younger generations who grew up with the technology replacing older generations.

In developed countries, (1) and (2) are almost wholly exhausted. You just won’t find a 30-year old in the United States who would be a great fit for using the Internet but just hasn’t yet gotten around to trying it out! (3) probably still has some juice left, but it’s a very slow-moving process and in any given year it may be barely discernible. In fact, home broadband use has declined in the last couple of years in the US, as people realize they can get by just with a mobile Internet connection for all their needs.

In India and China, all three continue to be strong effects, though it’s possible that things will peak in China pretty soon and in India in a couple of decades. Mobile usage in Africa will also continue to grow and probably lead to huge growth in overall Internet use, perhaps like a lagged version of the growth seen in India.

Population growth not a big driver

The role of population growth in pushing up gross world production just through force of sheer numbers is going down. Population growth rates are declining as fertility in some of the most populous countries is below replacement. Previously, workforce populations were growing due to a lagged effect of fertility 15 years ago, but now it’s time to start living with a close-to-constant population size. This is pretty much true in most of the developed world, and a large part of the developing world.

Investment slowdowns

Investment will be slower in the next decade or so, as some of the drivers of growth in raw numbers (automatic technological progress, population growth, etc.) are slowing down.

Internet + real world connect better

Just as the restructuring of the economy around the automobile in the United States really started at about the time that autombile technology growth slowed down to a slow-but-steady pace (sometime in the 1950s and 1960s) we’ll see something similar with the Internet. Even as people’s raw time on the Internet will basically plateau, the efficiency with which that use is connected to the meatspace world will improve. People won’t be spending more time on social networking and work networking and email, but it will probably be more connected with and decisive in the real-world things they accomplish. On-demand services will continue to grow, albeit they probably won’t be the dominant consumption mode for stuff (for instance, people will use things like Uber and Lyft, but these will still form a small share of transit options).

This kind of qualitative progress will be hard to quantify, except from the vantage point of a specific service (e.g., if you are at Uber, you can measure the increase in ride volume). Generally speaking, it will be slow.

Autonomous vehicles

I expect that autonomous vehicles of some sort will become more important, but adoption will be slow as costs are initially high. Autonomous trucks, partly-autonomous cars, highway fleets, etc. might be some things that will try to gain traction. Explosive growth probably won’t occur in the next ten years, but perhaps by 2025 it’ll be clear that it’s poised to take off soon.

Epistemics around political and social issues will remain dismal, and the Internet will let good and bad ideas alike proliferate

The quality of average political discourse on the Internet will continue to fall, and this is probably a side-effect of the Internet mirroring real life more. Previously, gatekeepers controlled political discourse a lot more on the Internet. Ordinary people will feel bolder, and ideologically diverse movements will rise and ebb quickly.

Those who seek out high-quality discourse will be able to find it, and high-quality discourse will continue to grow in raw quantity and in the network of people who are aware of it and plugged into it. But the openness of the Internet will lead to frequent corruption and difficulty in maintaining it. On the plus side, this means memes from high-quality discourse might occasionally contribute a little bit to mass movements (by helping push them forward, or stopping them).

Cross-region cultural consumption will grow slowly and steadily, aided by greater content availability and broader social networks

Global cultural consumption, whether it’s cuisine or TV shows, will continue to grow. Not explosively, but slowly and steadily. Hopefully, this will lead to a world where people are more inclined to peace (it’s harder to support invading a country after watching a TV series or movie created there). The overall effect will be small, since the biggest creators of global culture are probably not on the invasion target list anyway (they are either highly advanced countries like South Korea, Japan, and the United States or big countries like India).

Healthcare and education will stay pretty much the same in developed countries, and most improvement in developing countries will be centered around infectious disease and sanitation

No surprises here, I guess!