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Robin Hanson, One [Futurist] to Rule Them All

On May 12, I reached out to Bryan Caplan, a George Mason University economist, for his opinion on a smart, innovative contrarian to learn from over the summer. “Robin Hanson!” he responded. The next day, I asked Mr. Hanson whether I could spend a week with him. He responded 11 minutes later: “You’d probably learn more if we talked/argued, and I promise to have lots of time for that if/when you are around.” A month later, I travelled to Fairfax, Virginia to spend four days with him. After  20+ hours of conversation, I chose to profile him. I am grateful to Mr. Hanson and his colleagues at GMU for sharing their time.

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The fringe economists at George Mason’s Center for Study of Public Choice laugh at the Establishment a lot. Nearly as much as they laugh, unironically, at the Sisyphean nature of their fight to unearth reason.

The Center’s location within Carow Hall couldn’t be more fitting. Standing on the northeast periphery of GMU’s Fairfax Campus, Carow Hall is circumscribed within half of the campus’ administrative buldings: the central heating and cooling plant, a warehouse, three facilities buildings, parking services, and a maintenance storage yard. In fact, the only students who have heard of Carow Hall seem to think it’s a branch of GMU Korea.

But if Carow Hall is “the intellectual center of the universe,” then Robin Hanson is undoubtedly one of its shining stars. In the words of his colleague Tyler Cowen, “Those of us who speak regularly with Robin know how brightly his star blazes.”

Hanson, who’s an associate professor of economics, stands at six feet tall and 200 pounds. His Jungian personality type is ENTP. He belongs to the three percent of people who display extroversion, intuition, thinking, and perception. Among that small group, he’s probably more like the inventor Nikola Tesla, or the physicist Richard Feynman, than the comedians George Carlin and David Spade. As often as he’s crowned “brilliant,” “original,” or even a “revolutionary,” he’s made peace with those who prefer to call him “eccentric,” “abstruse,” or most colloquially, an “oddball”– not to mention the more pejorative labels.

Regardless, he’s hesitant to embrace any sensational portrayals: “People don’t seem very interested in getting the details right… they’d rather exaggerate,” he writes, even if being described as a colorful character “does beat obscurity.” Perhaps Charles Ponce de Leon best describes his predicament: “The media’s propensity for focusing the spotlight not on achievements but on ‘personalities’… cheapen[s] the substantive achievements of people deserving fame.”

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If you really want to know what Hanson is about, look no further than his blog, “Overcoming Bias.” His eight most covered-areas are academia, disagreement, future, medicine, politics, prediction markets, signaling, and status.

In fact, it’s deceiving to list “future” as a distinct topic area. Why? Because he has “a passion, a sacred quest, to understand everything, and to save the world.” His personal statement might seem to feign priesthood, but its truth is more cosmic than cosmetic; the future is the foundation on which the superstructure rests.

Hanson, who’s accumulated more than 17.6 thousand tweets, posts on “Overcoming Bias” about 26 times per month– a sum total of 4012 posts and roughly 2 million words (correction: not all of these blogposts belong to him). His articles are cited 3.16 times more than the average, similarly-aged article in his field, and they receive five times the readership of an average academic paper. His i-10 index, which measures the impact of his research, outpaces the median for those who received their PhDs in 1997 by three times.

His Twitter followers include the founders of Andreesen Horowitz, Mosaic, Netscape, InstaCart, TRON, BitTorrent, Hired, Bitcoin, The Bitcoin Foundation, Paradigm, CoinBase, Crypto Chain University, AQR Capital, EthSuisse, Ethereum, ConsenSys, Stripe, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Gawker, Microsoft Surface, Twitch, Axios, Politico, Vox, OurWorldInData, and Scribd.

As to what begot such a project-oriented, forward-looking thinker, it’s easy to theorize. Maybe it was his mother, who published 36 books, or his father–a pastor, teacher, Korean War veteran, and IRS officer–who learned computer programming after some tax-troubled mafiosos ran him out of Chicago.

For Hanson, such speculation is akin to Hollywood fluff, and the only arbiter of merit is face value. Graduating with a B.S. in Physics from UC–Irvine in 1981 and both an M.S. in Physics and an M.A. in Conceptual Foundations of Science from UChicago in 1984, he could have lived a mostly-seamless life.

Back in the early 1990s, he volunteered his spare time to Project Xanadu while working on machine learning and AI for NASA. Project Xanadu, “the most radical computer dream of the hacker era” according to Wired’s Gary Wolf, developed hyper-text publishing and served as the inspiration for the World Wide Web. In the early 2000s, he then worked on a betting market for policy ideas with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Despite large promise and favorable coverage by the informed press, his project was deemed a “terrorism futures market” and nixed by Democratic senators.

But Hanson nevertheless wanted more for the world, and he’d never have sought a Ph.D. in Social Science at CalTech, 13-years later, let alone join GMU’s Center for Study of Public Choice, if such a sacred quest were only a farce.

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According to Ryota Ono, specialist in Futures Studies at Japan’s Aichi University, academic futurists tend to focus on three different timeframes: 20-30 years for individuals or organizations, 30-40 years for the future of our community, and 50-100 years for our nation and world. Some futurists even believe that accurate projections beyond a 50-year timeframe are impossible.

But Hanson, who engages in meta-level analysis of beliefs and their formation, charges that more futurists wrongly see the future as “hard to foresee” rather than “hard to influence.” Why spend time envisioning the future if we can’t influence it to look the way we want? Why don’t we think about the practical constraints which limit feasible scenarios? He considers these questions with respect not to the next decade but to the next century.

Bill Gates, frequently mentioned in Future Today though not a “futurist” himself, maintains that we overestimate 2-year change and underestimate 10-year change. Hanson instinctively agrees with Gates on the first part. But sitting on the end of his chair, intently focused as he bites his nails, he replies, “Ten is probably the wrong number– if you want to play that game.” He prefers “100 years, or something like that.”

Always tending to the larger picture, he also contextualizes Gates’ sentiment within the broader scope of the futurist community. According to Hanson, there is an overwhelming demand for these 2-year changes at the expense of preparation for, or influence of, far more important and neglected 100-year changes.

Even among futurists, those who should be least prone to presentism, Hanson routinely sees Facebook posts, blog posts, and even personal emails about relatively small innovations. “If you’re a long-term futurist, you should be looking at long-term trends!” he insists. “If you focus on every new press release, every new result, every new little thing that somebody thinks might be useful, you’re not really dealing with the future.”

This obsession with recent innovation shows a mindless and ubiquitous proclivity for low-hanging fruit. Doing his best impression, Hanson enthusiastically mimics, “That could change everything!” “Oh, that could change everything!” “Oh, now that could change everything!” He believes that these faux-futurists should take a seat if they can’t untether themselves from the 24/7-hype machine: “You’re a fan of innovation, which is fine, “but there’s a difference,” he says.

The oft-misguided behavior of futurists is characteristic of a larger problem– one which is endemic to most people who say they want change. Reverie among futurists is one thing, but Hanson believes a potentially more concerning issue is the amount of time needlessly spent moralizing and discussing values, rather than working toward solutions. Most discussions of grand topics “are so full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and so empty of info to improve decisions,” he writes in his blog post, “Beware Value Talk.”

Some people ask you to “set aside your pre-conceptions” before hearing a new argument, but “aren’t they asking you to set aside all your conceptions?” asks Hanson, a proponent of taking people’s wants at face-value and finding Pareto-optimal deals, a theory he terms “dealism.” Behind his economic view of progress through deal-making is the exactitude of a detail-oriented physicist– one who pursues scientific answers with the conviction that rational agents with common priors should never, in good faith, disagree.

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Hanson’s desire to influence the future, however, doesn’t come at the expense of trying to make accurate and impartial predictions– ones which he’s eager to bet on. His favorite phrase might be, “Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs?” His journey to rid society of hypocrisy, by reversing the presumption of innocence, brings to mind the once-options trader and now-iconoclastic statistician, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who notoriously asserts that the economists of Davos are mere “charlatans.”

Similarly, Hanson views almost every Joe as ordinary. They’re charlatans by and large, signaling their desire for a better world yet almost entirely unwilling to labor for it. In fact, he estimates that 90 percent of human behavior might be signaling. Deriving from one of his more influential academic papers, Hanson’s phrase-of-choice embodies a probabilistic and calculated philosophy which might ultimately run your favorite pundits out of business– something he genuinely wishes weren’t true.

Think about the droves of daily-paper experts who insist that Artificial intelligence will displace human workers. For instance, AI-expert Kai Fu Lee, who boasts more than 50 million followers on China’s Sina Weibo microblogging website, recently told CBS News that 40 percent of the world’s jobs will be replaced by robots in the next 15-25 years. Lee’s gloomy predictions seem indicative of a larger view, held by 82 percent of people in the U.S., that “by 2050, robots and computers will definitely or probably do much of the work currently done by humans,” according to Pew.

In Hanson’s mind, the world is changing rapidly– there’s no doubt about that: “Population has doubled every 70 years, per-capita consumption has doubled every 35 years, scientific progress has doubled every 15 years, and computer power has doubled every 2 years,” he points out. We’re alarmed to read news of DeepMind’s AlphaGo beating the world champion of Go. Then, we’re terrified reading news of AlphaGo Zero trouncing its predecessor 100-0.

But according to Hanson, that doesn’t mean the singularity is coming tomorrow. He’ll give 50-1 odds against full human level common sense AI within the next decade. “We think these new AI are somehow fundamentally different from old AI, when in reality, they’re just better at the same tasks,” says Hanson. In fact, he made this exact bet with Calum Chace, author of The Economic Singularity, to be decided by the chair of the London Futurist group on July 23, 2026.

The singularity is far from the only bet Hanson is willing to offer. He’s made public bets at 8-1 odds that the proportion of Computer Science and Engineering majors in the U.S. will fall short of 15 percent, even by 2025. He bet Joshua Fox at even odds on which kind of artificial general intelligence (AGI) will dominate humans first, arguing that the AGI will be closely based on or derived from emulations of human brains as outlined in his book, The Age of Em. No doubt, Hanson would offer many more bets if the infrastructure for doing so existed– or if people weren’t so hellbent on preventing him from willing it into existence himself.

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As Chuck Palahniuk writes in his novel, Survivor:

“People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.”

But the scary unknown is exactly where Hanson thrives. His personal blog, “Overcoming Bias,” boasts 403 articles on the future. His book, The Age of Em, explores the upcoming era of emulated people. His lectures to undergraduates situate them within the hypothetical year of 2120. After enrolling at CalTech, he became an Alcor cryonics member, trading $200 a year in exchange for a five-percent chance of living an extra thousand.

“If I could write science fiction, I would have done it already,” explains Hanson, a lifelong lover yet adamant critic of mainstream science fiction. Hanson’s wife once asked him why he loves “The Lord of the Rings” so much: “Because it’s so full of detail. [J. R. R. Tolkien] has invented this whole world,” he responded.

According to Hanson, “Many people say that science fiction is the best we can do about seeing the future, and we couldn’t do any better because there’s no scientific way.” Just think of Ray Bradbury, the author of dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, whose work in Sci-Fi led NASA to name Mars’ “Bradbury Landing” site after him. Echoing similar statements by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury went so far as to call Sci-Fi “the most important literature in the history of the world.”

But to Hanson, crowning Sci-Fi king is “like giving a military Medal of Honor to your favorite wrestling star.” He humorously adds, “I say The Age of Em is like science fiction, except there is no plot, there are no characters, and it all makes sense.”

Consider Black Mirror’s “Hang the DJ” episode. Frank and Amy participate in “The System,” a parallel universe in which each person’s “Coach” matches them with a series of dating partners, simulating their experiences and using the collected data to find their perfect real-life matches. With more than 36 thousand reviews, “Hang the DJ,” boasts an outstanding 8.8/10 rating on IMDB.

But like other episodes of Black Mirror, “Hang the DJ” envisions emulated brains, or “ems,” within a limited and therefore inaccurate context. According to Hanson, author of The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth (2016), “Each em is an emulation of a particular human brain, and it acts just like that human would in the same subjective situations, even though it actually runs on an artificial computer.” In fact, 7/22 Black Mirror episodes are about ems.

The problem? “If you could make these brain emulations, you could also have them do pretty much all of our jobs,” says Hanson. “It doesn’t matter if such a parallel universe is real,” he continues, “because it looks real, and it’s useful.” There would be enormous demand for the technology deployed in “The System” because it could do all the work, for instance, of “writing stories, answering phone calls, and engineering.”

In Hanson’s mind, Sci-Fi almost always sacrifices accuracy for mass emotional appeal. It focuses on myopic and subjective questions like, “What would happen if you went back in time?” “What would happen if you interacted with an AI?” and “How would you feel about the technology?”

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As with inaccurate Sci-Fi portrayals of Ems due to the incentive for producers to cater to their audiences’ emotions rather than intellect, Hanson sees a lack of incentives within academia to encourage truth-telling and innovation; instead, it’s mostly about signaling prestige.

There’s a worrying situation in academia where you can speak outside of your expertise, “as long as you’ve ‘earned’ the right,” according to Hanson. Research shows that after receiving tenure, for instance, academics tend to produce significantly less scholarly output and lower quality output. If tenure is the promised land for a bullish assistant professor, what incentives remain once they’ve gotten their milk and honey?

Not only that, but high-quality research signals a university’s prestige, drawing high-ability students from out-of-state and foreign countries. A college degree signals to employers that a job applicant is capable. Signaling matters.

According to his most recent book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (2017), signaling also comes in all shapes: “athleticism, ambition, health-consciousness, conformity (or authenticity), youth (or maturity), sexual openness (or modesty), and even political attitudes.” Wearing an AC/DC T-shirt signals one’s social membership; backpacking across Asia signals one’s curiosity, open-mindedness, and courage; driving a Prius signals one’s prosocial attitude. People spend lots on end-of-life medical care, even though the marginal value of that healthcare is shockingly low, perhaps because they’d like to signal our compassion to others.

Take a more concrete example. When Old Spice rebranded in 2010 by casting the youthful NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa as its figurehead, it earned 105 million YouTube campaign views, 1.2 billion media impressions, and an increase in body wash sales of 107 percent year-over-year. The product was exactly the same, except now it was fashionable. That’s signaling.

At the end of the day, “You can in fact understand the world well enough to figure out its main problems. You can in fact understand the world well enough to figure out how to make it better. And you can in fact present evidence and arguments that would persuade reasonable people that these ideas or polices would make the world better,” Hanson says. “But you can’t make anybody care about such ideas or policies. There’s a time and place where somebody gets listened to… And it’s not necessarily because they had a good argument.” With so many signals, it’s nearly impossible to cut through the noise.

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Folk wisdom holds that you should speak more slowly in order to speak more deliberately. But observing Hanson’s rapid yet deliberate thinking and cadence immediately shakes one’s most familiar intuitions, much as contemplating the substance of his ideas. He processes conversations like games of chess, mentally analyzing possible moves in a matter of second before settling on whichever one he deems optimal. In response to an EconTalk interview with Hanson, Caplan writes, “You don’t have time to absorb one of his ideas before he is on to the next. You probably need to listen two or three times.”

If Hanson’s slogan isn’t “work smart, not hard” then it’s “work smart and hard.” Look for lever points, or “points in a complex adaptive system at which a small effort can produce a desired, directed effect.” Hanson tries to find theories which hold the most explanatory power– proportional to how simple they are– much like “Occam’s Razor.”  According to one of Tyler Cowen’s blog posts, “He likes to focus on one very central mechanism in seeking an explanation or developing policy advice.”

He asks you questions which prompt you to think more deeply and abstractly about your premises and convictions, offering constructive feedback until you finally ask for his alternative explanation. His proposals to privatize crime detection and punishment through bounty hunters might make you laugh uncomfortably. After speaking to Hanson, you can’t help but wonder: “Why not?” As Bryan Caplan once said of his colleague:

“When the typical economist tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is ‘Eh, maybe.’ Then I forget about it. When Robin Hanson tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is ‘No way! Impossible!’ Then I think about it for years.”

Just ask José “Artir” Luis Ricón, a published machine learning engineer and author for the blog “Nintil,” who wrote a 21-thousand-word review of The Elephant in the Brain– almost 90 pages. Or, ask John Nerst, a sociotechnical systems engineer who runs the blog “Everything Studies,” who delayed his review of the same book because he had “10,000 words of quotes and random thoughts to organize”– totaling about 40 pages.

Sometimes his ideas might initially seem radical, if only for one’s lack of a comparable imagination. Still, his grand proposals aren’t for nothing; he holds steadfastly to these positions because they “weaken the sense that surely there are things that just obviously must be the case.” In Hanson’s mind, even so much as making people admit that an idea isn’t crazy, regardless of whether they come to support it, “can still change how they frame the rest of the tradeoffs they’re making.”

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For better or worse, whether by rhetorical flourish or basic human nature, Hanson’s persona seems to attract superlatives more often than not. Regardless, Scott Alexander believes that Hanson’s unique and original thinking might be destined for the heightened status of adjective, much like the way we use “Humean,” “Tolkienesque,” or even “Freudian” to give due credit to once-unthinkable ideas which are now of age.

Like Carow Hall, the fantastical “intellectual center of the universe” to some while the off-brand “GMU Korea” to others, the merit of Hanson’s career is in the eye of the beholder. To the critics who challenge his character defects, one might imagine Hanson responding–in Austenian fashion–that their defect is to willfully misunderstand him. Aumann’s agreement theorem says that two rational agents with common priors should always agree; perhaps such visceral differences in opinion show that our priors are, in fact, far from common. In Nietzsche’s words, it seems that “the text has disappeared under the interpretation.”

But if victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools, what should Faulkner say to an economist like Hanson? Hawthorne famously writes, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Robin Hanson might be America’s creepiest economist, according to Slate, or he might simply be too far ahead of his time, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But in the words of Scott Alexander, “Robin Hanson is more like himself than anybody else I know.” And unlike Hawthorne’s men of study whose heads are in their books, Robin Hanson walks both in his sleep and in his waking moments– tirelessly, purposefully, and humbly investing himself in the “flesh and blood of action.” In the words of his research assistant, Keller Scholl, “Robin always wants you to dream bigger than you previously thought possible.”