The two economists who today were awarded the Nobel Prize have both written extensively on the role that technology plays in economic growth, and one of them has even investigated what enthusiasts in Silicon Valley call the Singularity.
We called it “the rapture of the geeks” in our special issue on the topic 10 years ago, because it envisages not merely an explosive increase in computational prowess that would greatly increase economic output but also the uploading of human minds into a kind of cosmic cloud. Thus embodied, our intellects would expand and our life spans would become godlike. That’s heady stuff for an engineering culture that still can’t get a smartphone battery to last all day.
Of the two winners of what is technically known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, William Nordhaus was honored for research in environmental economics and Paul Romer for his work on economic growth. But though the Singularity is the ultimate in economic growth, it was Nordhaus who tackled it (although “in this area his work intersects with Romer’s quite closely,” writes economist Tyler Cowen, in a blog post this morning).
Illustration: Niklas Elmehad/Nobel Media
In a 2015 paper, Nordhaus reasoned that the Singularity would be necessarily preceded by ever greater technological progress that would accelerate the replacement of human labor by automation. More work would be accomplished with less labor, so the level of productivity would rise. But in actual fact, he noted, productivity has been in the doldrums for a long time, and there seems to be no systematic rise in unemployment.
True, he wrote that paper three years ago, and three years is a long time to the Singulatarians (yes, it’s a word). They argue that as machines become smarter, they’ll make it easier for engineers to design still smarter machines. The process will feed on itself until machines do all the research, and then, all at once, we’ll reach takeoff velocity. You might turn out the lights in the laboratory on Friday evening, then turn them back on again on Monday only to find a big surprise waiting for you there.
But don’t hold your breath.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.