Existential Risk and Economic Growth

post by leopold · 2019-09-03T13:23:35.536Z · score: 94 (36 votes) · EA · GW · 13 comments

As a summer research fellow at FHI, I’ve been working on using economic theory to better understand the relationship between economic growth and existential risk. I’ve finished a preliminary draft; see below. I would be very interesting in hearing your thoughts and feedback!

Draft: leopoldaschenbrenner.com/xriskandgrowth

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted U-shape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity's survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.


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comment by Max_Daniel · 2019-09-03T13:40:34.799Z · score: 30 (11 votes) · EA · GW

I thought this was one of the most exciting pieces of research I've seen in the last few years. It also makes me really eager to see GPI hopefully making more work in a similar vein happen.

[Disclaimer: I co-organized the summer research fellowship, as part of which Leopold worked on this research, though I didn't supervise him.]

comment by trammell · 2019-09-03T14:16:19.470Z · score: 23 (9 votes) · EA · GW

As the one who supervised him, I too think it's a super exciting and useful piece of research! :)

I also like that its setup suggests a number of relatively straightforward extensions for other people to work on. Three examples:

  • Comparing (1) the value of an increase to B (e.g. a philanthropist investing / subsidizing investment in safety research) and (2) the value of improved international coordination (moving to the "global impatient optimum" from a "decentralized allocation" of x-risk mitigation spending at, say, the country level) to (3) a shock to growth and (4) a shock to the "rate of pure time preference" on which society chooses to invest in safety technology. (The paper currently just compares (3) and (4).)
  • Seeing what happens when you replace the N^(epsilon - beta) term in the hazard function with population raised to a new exponent, say N^(mu), to allow for some risky activities and/or safety measures whose contribution to existential risk depends not on the total spent on them but on the amount per capita spent on them, or something in between.
  • Seeing what happens when you use a more general population growth function.
comment by leopold · 2019-09-03T22:15:12.353Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thank you for your kind words!

comment by zdgroff · 2019-09-04T20:13:00.936Z · score: 14 (8 votes) · EA · GW

I think this is an extremely impressive piece of work in economics proper not to mention a substantial contribution to longtermism research. Nice going.

comment by leopold · 2019-09-04T23:40:10.334Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Zach!

comment by SoerenMind · 2019-09-04T16:06:29.057Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This sounds really cool. Will have to read properly later. How would you recommend a time pressured reader to go through this? Are you planning a summary?

comment by leopold · 2019-09-04T17:54:03.390Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks. I generally try to explain the intuition of what is going on in the body of the text—I would recommend focusing on that rather than on the exact mathematical formulations. I am not planning to write a summary at the moment, sorry.

comment by Larks · 2019-09-17T01:26:21.198Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks very much for writing this, I found it really interesting. I like the way you follow the formalism with many examples.

I have a very simple question, probably due to my misunderstanding - looking at your simulations, you have the fraction of workers and scientists working on consumption going asymptotically to zero, but the terminal growth rate of consumption is positive. Is this a result of consumption economies of scale growing fast enough to offset the decline in worker fraction?

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-09-07T06:40:34.211Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'm getting site not secure errors on all 4 browsers for the draft. Could you please make it more accessible?

comment by leopold · 2019-09-07T11:24:43.985Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Sorry to hear that! I’m not sure why it’s doing that—it’s just hosted on Github. Try this direct link: https://leopoldaschenbrenner.github.io/xriskandgrowth/ExistentialRiskAndGrowth050.pdf

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-09-10T05:57:09.079Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks - it worked!

comment by Donald Hobson · 2019-09-18T21:13:25.765Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I think that existential risk is still something that most governments aren't taking seriously. If major world governments had a model that contained a substantial probability of doom, there would be a Lot more funding. Look at the sort of funding anything and everything that might possibly help that happened in the cold war. I see this not taking it seriously as being caused by a mix of human psychology, and historical coincidence. I would not expect it to apply to all civilizations.

comment by ishi · 2019-09-05T17:18:41.533Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · EA · GW

That's an interesting and the little i skimmed was somewhat straight forward if you can get through the dialect or notation, which is standard in econ papers ---which i'd call neoclassical. ( I got up to about page 20 -- discussions of effects of scientists/workers switching to safety production rather than consumption production).

This raises to me a few issues. you have probably seen https://arxiv.org/abs/1410.5787 Given debates about risks of other envirojmental risks like GMOs and nuclear energy, its even unclear what is 'safety' or 'precautionary' versus consumption production. Its also unclear how much 'science can come to the rescue' (discussed many places like AAAS).

There are also the behavioral issues---even if your model (like the Kuznets curve) is basically correct and one can calculate 'effectively altruistic' policies, whether they will be supported by the public/government and entice scientists and other workers to switch to 'green jobs' (whether technical or, say organic farming ) is a sociopolitical issue.

(Its possible other sorts of models, or variants of yours using some behavioral data, might be able to assess both effects of policies as you do, and include factors describing the plausibility they will be adopted. (I googled you at Columbia and see you also studied public opinion spread via Twitter, etc. and that gives ideas about dynamics of behavioral variables. Presumably these are already implicit in your various parameters beta, epsilon, etc. I guess these are also implicit in the discount factors discussed by Nordhaus and others--but they may have their own dynamics, rather than being constants. )

Alot of current climate activists promote 'degrowth' and lifestyle change (diet, transport, etc.) (eg extinction rebellion) , partly because because they think that maybe more important than growth, and don't trust growth will be applied to 'safety' rather than activities that contribute to AGW risks. Also many of them don't trust economic models, and many if not most people do understand them much (I can can only get a rough understanding partly because going through the math details is both often beyond my competency, and I have other things to do (i'm trying to sketch more simple models that attempt to catch the main ideas which might be comprehensible to and useful for a wider audience. ) As noted, a variant of your model could probably include some of these sociopolitical issues.)

Anyway, thought provoking paper.