Optimistic about humans in aggregate

Russ Roberts from his most recent podcast:

I’m a very optimistic person, and I have a lot of faith in the human enterprise writ large—not so much in any one human. I have very little faith in any one human, which is why I’m suspicious of experts and power that is centralized.

6 thoughts on “Optimistic about humans in aggregate

  1. Plucky Underdog

    That reads like one of Nassim Taleb’s aphorisms. He would probably phrase it a bit less … delicately.

  2. Definitely another great podcast from Russ.

    What did you think of this quote near the end of the interview:
    People worry that computers will get smart and take over the world.
    The real problem is that they’re too stupid and have already taken over.

    I had to bust out laughing on that one!


  3. I somewhat agree that computers are stupid and have taken over the world. But I disagree with the implication that all we need to do is make computers smarter.

    I share Russ Roberts’ skepticism of centralized power, and software can be just a fig leaf over a person’s centralized power. “I’m not dictator of the world. My computer is!”

    One safeguard is transparency. If an algorithm is going to decide, for example, which land to seize by eminent domain and how much to pay for it, the inner workings of the algorithm should be open as a check against corruption and error.

    Another safeguard is human overrides. For example, last year a young woman couldn’t get a drivers license at first because facial recognition software thought she was the same person as her twin. Fortunately someone could override the software. But one could imagine a dystopia like the movie Brazil where a typo costs someone his life.

  4. I tend to think the opposite.

    Tommy Lee Jones said it well in “Men in Black”:
    A person is smart, people are dumb, panicky, lazy animals and you know it.

    That actually argues against a command structure. Because who appoints the commander? Or even if an individual seizes power on their own, what structure is put in place to administer it. Better deal with independent individual people responsible for their own actions. At least then you can choose who you deal with.

  5. I guess it depends on how you do the aggregating. Russ Roberts might say that markets are a more robust way to coordinate human activity than elections are.

    You can have the foolishness of crowds or the wisdom of crowds. One difference between the two is independence. Without independence you can get mobs. But when people make up their minds independently, crowds can sometimes do surprisingly well.

  6. R Van Valkenburgh

    That’s a funny story about the driver’s license, and the need for a computer over-ride for the twin, and makes a good point…
    But what it neglects to consider is that the DMV (and other government entities) have always been plagued with a trained-in inability to use common-sense to over-ride obvious problems or mistakes.
    Maybe our artificial intelligence is too much like our collective intelligence.

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