Piketty’s Extrapolations vs The Singularity Scene

I’m reading Piketty’s book.  It’s of interest to a philosopher for obvious reasons; but it is also of interest to a science fiction writer because much of it is about predicting the future.  Piketty projects certain important trends forward, such as slowing per capita growth and slowing population growth.  His projections are  simple:  they’re just linear trends carried forward.

9780674430006-lgContrast Piketty’s work with the projections of extreme techno-optimists like Kurzweil or Diamandis.  Kurzweil projects exponential trends forward.  I’m skeptical about Kurzweil’s belief that exponential trends remain exponential.  I suspect many of his choice trends (e.g., size of memory, speed of computers…) will ultimately prove to be S curves.  But, setting that aside, what’s interesting is the disharmony between the world imagined by Piketty and the world imagined by the extreme techno-optimists.  Piketty sees on the horizon a world of inequality so severe that democracy and civil society will be difficult to maintain.  Kurzweil and Diamandis project some technological trends forward, and see a vastly better civilization looming just around the bend.

SUAlas, I’m inclined to think Piketty’s world is the more likely of the two visions.  The comparison of the extrapolations of Piketty and Kurzweil make something quiet clear.  Piketty is extrapolating economic outcomes based on past and current economic trends.  In contrast, from their technological projections, the extreme techno-optimists make leaps to predict social benefits.  They’re skipping the hardest part:  there is nothing in their trends to tell us how these technologies will be applied.  And yet most of their ink is spilled on the joyful news of the benefits we are all going to get from faster computers and faster gene sequencers and new nanomachines.  It seems to be a novel kind of fallacy:  if technology X can do good, then when technology X is faster and cheaper it will do much good.  That doesn’t follow.  All the benefits of these technologies, if any, could end up going to that tiny portion of people who have almost all of the wealth.

It would be nice if some of our science fiction writers could imagine a third way–a better, but more realistic, possible future.

4 Replies to “Piketty’s Extrapolations vs The Singularity Scene”

    1. cap.anti,

      Thanks for the fantastic reference! I’ve ordered the paper (academician’s privilege: I ask my librarian for it and lo it appears in my email) and will have something to say about it when I get it and read through.

      For my first opinion on Iain Bank’s Culture: it does seem strangely realistic. But it is a post-scarcity society with vastly powerful benevolent AIs. I feel we are farther from the Culture than Ancient Rome is from us. So, your point is well taken: many, like Banks, have imagined a better and believable future. But what about 10 years, 50 years, even 100 years out? That’s harder. What next steps from now can get us somewhere worthwhile? When people like Paolo Bacigalupi or William Gibson imagine these next steps, the outcome isn’t pretty, but it is unfortunately plausible. And, as noted here, Piketty’s vision of what’s next is very disheartening. But I find it much, much, much more plausible than the belief of Singularity optimists that we’ll have universal wealth and immortality via brain downloads before the end of the century.

  1. Thank you for this. I’m reading Piketty as well, and have been trying to work out the implications of exponential technology within his model.

    As robots and software (capital), are able to do more and more of the work of humans (labor), won’t the contribution of capital to total output relative to labor go up?

    It seems that unless we have some sort of bold political intervention (taxing the wealthy to fund a basic income or some such thing), exponential technology is much more likely to exacerbate inequality than to moderate it.

    1. Jim, thank you for the comment. I cannot help but feel you are right. The dawn of the robot age may prove hugely destabilizing. Imagine when robots replace drivers and restaurant workers and other workers in those last remaining sectors where people can earn wages without having a few masters degrees. Who will get the benefits of the increased productivity? It’s very hard to see how anyone but the very, very few (the owners of the robots and of the industries that use the robots) can benefit.

      It seems that we will need to think very hard, in the coming decades, if we are to find a path through this labyrinth.

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