Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Moore v Malthus

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-03-25

Our politicians fiddle with birth incentives, bringing the Malthusian firestorm ever closer.  They refuse to dampen population growth, ignoring the warnings of Malthus and the escape offered by Moore’s Law.

We are fed the false assumption that more work requires more workers, provided by a greater population.  It’s time for a tech-savvy economist to pick up the gauntlet.

Thomas Malthus warned about the dangers of a population exceeding carrying capacity in the search for increased economic growth, with famine (or war) providing the checks required.

Our politicians seem willing to risk these horrendous outcomes, made more obvious by the global risks of climate change and resource depletion to keep the insatiable demand of plutocrats for increased supply of labor (wages down) and consumers (prices up).  Perhaps plutocratic patronage of politicians has blinded them to the Tragedy of the Commons.

Instead, we should look at the benefits of non-human workers, whether anthropomorphic or not, and the benefits promised by Moore’s Law (that grunt from information technology doubles every couple of years).

If even a modest percentage of this 50% per annum growth in grunt (memory, processing speed, etc) is reflected by growth in "smarts", output can be decoupled from the percentage of "working age" humans, and an increase in the costs of caring for post-working-age humans becomes almost irrelevant.

Telemedicine can leverage human intelligence required for care, machinery can provide physical needs of even bedridden patients (e.g. turning them or altering bed contours to avoid bedsores), and even robot dogs can provide social stimulation and benefits equivalent to a real pet – without the hygiene issues (see notes).

Of course, this output from smarter use of IT and engineering, taking advantage of Moore’s Law (and associated observations) need not necessarily be limited to caring for an ageing population.

It seems obvious then that investment to take advantage of Moore’s Law can remove the need for an increasing population, indeed allows for increased well-being of a shrinking population.  Better training of software engineers (not just more IT workers who only know how to push buttons of latest commercial offerings), investment in robotics industries and innovation are required: not only for our immediate needs, but to provide an export industry rather than worsen our national debt.

I wonder if any of our politicians, state or federal, understand this.  They claim to be pro-education, pro-innovation, but without extolling Moore’s Law and acting on its corollaries, I’m inclined to think Rudd and company are merely making comforting sounds, as they are on the environment.

Let’s hope the 2020 gabfest includes challenges to the false conjecture that population growth is required, and uses Moore’s Law as part of the argument.

Notes/See Also:

  • "Animal-Assisted Therapy and Loneliness in Nursing Homes: Use of Robotic versus Living Dogs" Marian R. Banks, DNS, Lisa M. Willoughby, PhD, and William A. Banks, MD, (J Am Med Dir Assoc 2008; 9: 173–177)
  • " In the hands of machines? The future of aged care" DOI 10.1007/s11023-006-9030-6 (2006) by Melbournians Robert and Linda Sparrow argues that while robots can meet physical needs, social needs will be unmet, but this conjecture is invalidated, at least in part, by the Banks, Willoughby and Banks study
  • Metcalfe’s Law

    Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. First formulated by Robert Metcalfe in regard to Ethernet, Metcalfe’s law explains many of the network effects of communication technologies and networks such as the Internet, social networking, and the World Wide Web. It is related to the fact that the number of unique connections in a network of a number of nodes (n) can be expressed mathematically as n(n-1)/2, which follows n2 asymptotically.

  • Moore’s Law
  • Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns
  • Network Effect
  • UPDATE: "The return of Malthus" in The Economist (Free Exchange blog) (2008-03-26 AEDT)

    It is no surprise, then, that an infrastructure built on the notion of limitless supplies eventually began to come undone.

    riffing on "New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears" in the Wall Street Journal Online

    The result is that demand for resources has soared. If supplies don’t keep pace, prices are likely to climb further, economic growth in rich and poor nations alike could suffer, and some fear violent conflicts could ensue.

    Some of the resources now in great demand have no substitutes. In the 18th century, England responded to dwindling timber supplies by shifting to abundant coal. But there can be no such replacement for arable land and fresh water.


3 Responses to “Moore v Malthus”

  1. crowlie said

    Seems to be the most common mistake these days, that growth and resources are infinite. Surely the drought alone is enough to make the proponents of population growth think again?

  2. Dave Bath said


    “Surely the drought alone is enough to make the proponents of population growth think again”

    Probably not, unfortunately, one or more of the following is true:
    (1) They are stupid or ill-educated (all too common), so don’t understand the Tragedy of the Commons I mentioned.
    (2) They are deists, and want to create as many individual souls as possible that will suffer and die, filling up heaven as much as possible before the end. I suppose the Roman Catholics like Pell fall into this category.
    (3) They are deists, know they are going to hell anyway, so want short-term growth for short-term enjoyment – another sin or fifty won’t make much difference now purgatory has been rendered non-existant by the current or prior pope, like a camel who may as well get fatter ‘cos it ain’t gonna fit through the needle anyway
    (4) They are atheists of the sybaritic egotistical and selfish variety, probably a capitalist hypocrite of the type who knows about Malthus and Ricardo, but says “to hell with people”.

    One kid was enough for me: I’ve got others I babysat, who call me Uncle (unofficially), and I feel pretty close to them. I’ve got one young grandson, and I’m trying to convince my daughter that a second grandchild will decrease the prospects of a reasonable life for the one young grandson I’ve already got (he’s 1 and very healthy). But that’s a topic for another day.

  3. OLPC Fan said

    The developers of OLPC understand this. Getting one computer to every child gets education to every child and every village on the globe. As those children grow up educated, they learn to fish, instead of being handed fish.

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