Challenging the “End of Growth” Argument

Our latest podcast, “Why America’s Economic Growth May Be (Shh!) Over,” is based on a much-discussed paper (abstract, PDF) by the Northwestern economist Robert J. Gordon. It is a fascinating paper that is well worth a read, and its provocative argument has certainly gleaned a lot of attention.

Roger Pielke Jr., whose field of expertise is science and technology policy, has read the paper and argues that Gordon is (what’s the best way to put this?) wrong:

Over the past month I have taken a close look at Gordon’s paper, the data he relies on and the papers that he cites.  My conclusions are that Gordon’s analysis is deeply flawed and tells us essentially nothing about the potential for future economic growth. It does help to reveal a big gap in the discipline of economics, and that is the utter lack of an explicit theory of growth and the mechanisms by which it actually takes place. What Gordon has provided, in his own words, is a “a provocative fantasy” one that tells us much about the discipline of economics but little about the state of the world.

I am not much for making predictions, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Gordon’s paper soon inspires a public forum or two on the topic and that Pielke is invited to rebut.

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  1. Mark Bahner says:

    “To accurately simulate the behavior of even a few thousand neurons for a few takes hours of run time on a supercomputer.”

    I don’t understand why people focus on simulations of a human brain. It’s nice from a scientific standpoint, but it’s not necessary from an engineering standpoint (using science to solve problems). We don’t have air vehicles with flapping wings, but we have airplanes and helicopters that work very well. We don’t need to understand exactly how the human brain works. When we get up to between 500 teraflops and 20 petaflops (the approximate number of calculations the human brain can perform) for several thousand dollars, we will very shortly thereafter be able to build robots comparable to humans, at least in terms of being able to tell them to do something, and them doing it. IBM just came up with a chip that learned how to play pong. It’s not very far from that to robot kids playing asteroids.

    “We’ve really no clue as to how intelligence operates, or how to make computers behave intelligently.”

    Whoa! Have you seen a commercial for the iPhone 4s or 5? How about the Jeopardy match when Watson kicked the butts of arguably the greatest human Jeopardy players of all time? Or watch a Segway. Or just do a Google search.

    Suppose your were riding in the car and asked your dog, “Is there a Dominos around here?” …and the dog gave you directions to a Dominos. You’d have a million-dollar dog.

    “Suppose for the sake of argument that we do manage to create artificial intelligence.” I don’t think we need to assume that “for the sake of argument.” We’re surrounded by artificial intelligence.

    “How does that significantly contribute to economic growth?”

    Let’s think of some examples:

    1) Asteroids have astounding amounts of metals. A study of *one* asteroid, Eros, indicated it had $20 *trillion* dollars of metals. It’s estimated it has 20 *billion* tons of aluminum, or over 500 years at current world production levels. Now, humans will probably never mine Eros, because it would be so dangerous. But robots could mine Eros and send a fortune of metals back to earth.

    2) Per Wikipedia, “The 5-petaFLOP distributed computing project Folding@home simulates protein folding using the idle processing time of PlayStation 3s and the CPU and GPU of personal computers from volunteers. The project aims to understand protein misfolding and accelerate drug design for disease research.” In 2 decades, it will be easy to have a computer 1 million times that powerful, and therefore increase the rate of progress in understanding protein folding by 1 million or more.

    3) Houses built entirely by robot labor. In my house, I can’t believe how many nails missed the joists. With robots, everything would be dead center.

    4) No materials landfilled. All either recycled, composted, or burned for energy (with minimal pollution, since things like mercury thermometers and chlorinated plastics would be removed).

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    • James says:

      “I don’t understand why people focus on simulations of a human brain.”

      We don’t*. You (or Kurzweil or whoever) are the ones equating raw computing connections to human brain equivalents, when they’re not at all the same thing. Take for instance the latest NVidia GPU in your computer gamer’s rig. It may be cranking through computations at 500 Gflops or so in order to do 3D graphics, but is it doing anything remotely brain-like, intelligent, or which provides significant economic growth?

      (* But in another context, we simulate brain cells, human and other, in order to try to understand how brains work.)

      “Whoa! Have you seen a commercial for the iPhone 4s or 5?”

      Actually, no, because I’ve never owned a televison set.

      “Suppose your were riding in the car and asked your dog, “Is there a Dominos around here?” …and the dog gave you directions to a Dominos. You’d have a million-dollar dog.”

      Why? Other than the novelty factor, of course. It’s unlikely that I’d want to go to a Dominos in the first place. If I did, where’s the added value beyond e.g. looking up the address myself?

      “Now, humans will probably never mine Eros, because it would be so dangerous. But robots could mine Eros and send a fortune of metals back to earth.”

      I disagree about the danger being much of a deterrent to human mining. Expense would be a bigger factor, as it is with assembly-line manufacturing jobs. What you’re overlooking, though, is that if robots can mine asteroids and send significant quantities of metals back to Earth, they’re no longer worth a fortune because supply outstrips demand. It’s like the diamond planet in the news today: I see people trying to claim the diamonds would be worth uncounted trillions, though it’s obvious that they’d be cheap as dirt. (Indeed, diamonds are as expensive as they are only because of the century-old monopolistic practices of DeBeers.) Or you might reflect on the progression of aluminum from precious metal to cheap beer cans.

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  2. Gary says:

    Definition: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is whatever humans can do that computers still find difficult. Once a computer can do a task that formerly a human could only do, that task does by definition no longer require intelligence.

    The logical and interesting conclusion with this form of reasoning is that people will eventually no longer considered intelligent as soon as human-level AI is achieved. This is otherwise known as the Singularity.

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    • Mark Bahner says:

      “Artificial Intelligence (AI) is whatever humans can do that computers still find difficult. Once a computer can do a task that formerly a human could only do, that task does by definition no longer require intelligence.”

      Indeed, that seems like a very common attitude. First chess. Then (even more amazingly) Jeopardy. In the 1950s, if you’d shown a person an Apple iPhone 5, there’d be no question it was pretty spectacular: a handheld computer actually answering thousands of different questions.

      Computers are already flying planes. Soon (within a decade or two) most new cars will be driven by computers. And computers will be taking orders at fast-food counters. And then building houses and mining asteroids. It will be decided that all those things really didn’t require any intelligence.

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  3. Bill Sheridan says:

    Is Gordon the new Malthus? Or Simmons? (Who predicted peak oil years ago).

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  4. homer says:

    Julie says
    “”Needs are finite; wants are limitless.””

    Include in wants personal free time and the picture completes.

    There comes a point when the next thing is not worth working for.

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  5. FPA von Dreger says:

    http://richardheinberg.com/bookshelf/the-end-of-growth-book

    I wonder where, when, and who will be the first major national leader(s) to have the intelligence, understanding, and courage to stand up and say – clearly and unequivocally – that the period of ‘economic growth’ is at its end. And that societies must now, urgently, look at ways and means of transitioning towards a steady state economy.

    FINALLY major ‘economists’ are now publishing books that state the obvious – which any reasonably intelligent person has been able to see for years !! Just HOW we do it will determine the degree of pain and dislocation that will ensue for us all — lots (!) or a reasonably manageable and bearable amount (!)

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    • FPA von Dreger says:

      Dmitry Orlov, “Reinventing Collapse” is a very readable book by a great personable writer who shares his personal experiences, as well as thoughts and ideas, on how we might start looking at major ‘economic downturns’ — and ways to make them easier to ‘navigate’ and get through.
      Have a look —> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3rloGDFinM

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