A.I. Yai Yai!

Economist Robin Hanson suspects that the world economy may soon be doubling every week or two. He arrived at that suspicion based on historical extrapolations, but he also has a theory as to how it might happen: the development, in the near future, of intelligent machines.

According to Hanson, efforts to computationally model the human brain, neuron by neuron, could reach fruition within the next 25 to 50 years. He plays pretty fast and loose with the details, though, so let’s take a closer look at the bleeding edge of the field.

The mother of all brain simulation projects is Blue Brain, a joint project of IBM and Ecole Polytecnique Fédérale de Lausanne (a Swiss town also known for its lower tech, but tastier, fondue). Announced with much fanfare in 2005, Blue Brain has as its anything-but-modest mission to create a complete and exhaustively accurate simulation of the human brain within a decade or so. They figure they can knock out the neo-cortex in the next few years.

Somebody buy these guys a calculator.

The current Blue Brain hardware has 8,000 processors and they have apparently set it up so that one chip models one or two neurons. That has allowed them, as of this month, to model a 10,000 neuron grouping called a “column.” That’s hugely impressive. But, umm, 10,000 down, 99,999,990,000 to go.

The human brain is estimated to have about 100 billion neurons, so they’re going to need another 10 million or so Blue Brain computers to finish the job given the current specs. They’re having a tough time convincing the Swiss government to spring for another one or two of them.

Mind you, computer processing power per dollar has been increasing exponentially over time since the earliest electromechanical computers. So maybe, in a generation, we’ll be revisiting this question. But that’s an awfully big maybe.

It seems doubtful that we’ll be able to create Marvin the paranoid android any time this century. And it’ll be some time after that before the technology is commercialized and we all have “plastic pals” who are “fun to be with!”

So keep contributing to that 401K. It’s gonna be a while before it starts doubling every week or two.

Florida Lacks Hobgoblins

In his recent contribution to Cato Unbound, creativity guru Richard Florida argues that continued economic growth will depend on “regional, national, and global efforts to harness the creativity of each and every human being.” Fair enough. What, then, is his education policy prescription for attaining that goal? He doesn’t say –- at least, not in the aforementioned posting.

Looking for an answer, I turned to Florida’s other writings, browsing them for references to “education” and “schools.”

This search quickly revealed that Florida places great emphasis on improving our education system. “What we really need in order to prepare our children for the creative economy,” he exhorts, “is a comprehensive education, something that takes them from aesthetics to algebra without pretending that the two are mutually exclusive” (Flight of the Creative Class, 2005, p. 255). He adds, “As society diversifies and specializes, more and more different kinds of education and teaching styles must be made available.”

So increased educational diversity appears to be the order of the day. Or does it?

Writing in Washington Monthly in 2003, Florida conspiratorially confides that “no one wants to admit this openly, but we’re already headed toward effective federal government takeover of troubled public schools…. Only a national strategy can repair the now broken connection between good local schools and regional prosperity.”

Increased educational diversity through more pervasive central planning? Alas, the cognitive dissonance is only beginning.

Florida’s next education policy prescription is higher spending. To make his point, he trots out the embarrassing jade that “it will be a strange day when our schools get all the billions they need and the army has to hold a bake sale to fund its bombers.” To drive the point home, he characterizes current U.S. public school spending as “paltry sums of money” (Flight, p. 255).

As Florida surely must know, total U.S. public school spending now stands at roughly one half of one trillion dollars a year. Annual per-pupil spending is roughly $10,000. That is a quarter of a million dollars for every classroom of 25 students.

The only nation on Earth currently spending more per pupil at the K-12 level is Switzerland. The Netherlands, which routinely trounces the U.S. on international tests of academic achievement, spends $4,000 less per pupil annually.

Having laid waste to his credibility with the trivially falsifiable claim of underfunding, Florida immediately downplays his own argument. A mere three pages after throwing money and slogans at the problem, he explains that “throwing more money and slogans at the problem will only get us so far” (Flight, p. 258).

If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, the mind of Richard Florida is a vast hobgoblin-free zone.

Whatever the merits of his claim that the presence of creative bohemians causes economic growth, Florida does not seem to have a coherent education policy for promoting creativity or, for that matter, anything else.

Since When Does the Right Have Any Health Care Prescriptions?

Ezra Klein responds to my post on the Citizens’ Health Care Working Group, where I lament that its tax-and-spend approach to health care shows that it was hijacked by the left—despite having a business-community chairman and Bush’s HHS Secretary on the panel. Klein provides an alternative interpretation: “the right’s prescriptions on health care didn’t even convince the panel’s Republican ringers.”

I’m new to the blogosphere, so I’m not clear what the rules are regarding subtlety. My point was that the right doesn’t have any prescriptions or even premises when it comes to health care—at least, not of their own. To compensate, they adopt the left’s premises (“we need to expand health coverage”) and prescriptions (“we need a Medicare Rx benefit”). For examples, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Even when the right comes across a good idea (e.g., health savings accounts), they often gravitate toward it not because they understand why it’s a good idea, but because they think it serves leftist premises (“HSAs will … reduce the number of uninsured!”). The exception that proves the rule would have to be the GOP’s Rep. John Shadegg and Sen. Jim DeMint, who have a smashing health care proposal and who know why it’s a good proposal.

In general, Republicans and conservatives do not understand health policy, and do not have a health policy agenda that distinguishes them from the Left. Then, lo and behold, we get the GOP’s top health care guy sitting on a panel that (tentatively) recommends universal coverage financed by tax increases.

Go figure.

Many Variables, One College Problem

Over at the American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias raises a question from my blog entry yesterday in which I pointed out that college tuition is rising astronomically in large part because government provides the money to pay it. Yglesias points to my observation that over the last 10 years, aid per-student has actually grown faster than costs. He suggests that aid is therefore likely doing its job, making college more affordable by bringing aid closer to the cost of tuition.

Yglesias reaches a reasonable conclusion, but he takes one observation I made and leaps far beyond what can be surmised from it.

There are many factors that affect tuition prices, ranging from the cost of energy to rising and falling state aid to public colleges. These variables could certainly affect whether aid grows faster than college costs or vice versa in any given period. In the long term, though, it is clear that, as per-student aid has risen, tuition too has gone up, both at rates far exceeding normal inflation.

Suppose, though, Yglesias is right and aid does eventually match costs. At the rate we’re going, would anyone want to pay the tuition bills taxpayers will be forced to fund if and when that happens? I sure wouldn’t.

‘Twas a Famous Victory

Apropos of DeLay’s departure and the K Street Project (“Please, Hammer, don’t hurt me!”), I’m reminded of a dinner for another think tank I attended a couple of years ago.  DeLay was the featured speaker, and when he approached the podium, he got a roaring standing O. Except from my table, which was made up of Cato folks.  DeLay gestured toward us and growled into the mike, “Those must be the libertarians!”

Not too long thereafter, the Hammer declared an “ongoing victory” in the war on spending, noting that “After 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared it down pretty good.”  Sigh. Good riddance.

K Street Project — Corrupt to the Core

In his departing speech yesterday, former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay was unapologetic about even the most controversial aspects of his tenure. He made a particular point of defending his controversial relationship with the lobbying community. ”The K Street Project and the K Street strategy, I’m very proud of.”

Here’s what the K Street project was all about: getting lobbyists to hire Republicans the Congressional leadership happened to like. Do so, and you’ll get favorable treatment from the GOP leadership. Hire Democrats, and you are asking for trouble.

Decoding this is simple: ”We don’t care about the merits of the argument around here. We care about power. Don’t hire our guys, and we will be inclined to reject your ideas and suggestions even if they happen to serve the public interest. But if you hire our guys, we will be inclined to embrace your ideas and suggestions even if they fail to serve the public interest.”

It’s really as naked as that. These people ought to be ashamed of themselves.