Thursday, February 25, 2016

The silliness of Bill Gates' carbon equation

Michael Crichton predicted the precise link between the demagogy of the Drake equation and the global warming ideology

From many viewpoints, I have been an admirer of Bill Gates. He was a classic geek – but he also managed to become a defining character of the mainstream opinions. When I learned that he created the BASIC for Commodore 64 that I – and millions of others – had quite some fun with some 30 years ago, my excitement for Gates has increased further.

There were also moments when the dynamics went in the opposite direction.

At any rate, two days ago, an unhinged far-left journalist named Ezra Klein managed to interview Bill Gates for
Bill Gates: the energy breakthrough that will “save our planet” is less than 15 years away
Both an optimized transcript and the raw audio are available.

You may listen to it or read it. Here's just a trivial summary. Klein tries to persuade Gates to agree that the global warming is not only a problem but a political problem and it must be solved by (re-)introducting totalitarianism and by sending all inconvenient and unsatisfied people and critics to Gulags (Klein uses slightly different words for the same thing). Fortunately, Gates at least doesn't explicitly agree.

Instead, Gates believes that the solutions are technological advances and some important ones that will influence the energy industry will emerge in a decade or two. A big part of the interview is dedicated to the belief of Gates that the rate of technological progress hasn't slowed down – so Gates disagrees with a thesis believed by venture capitalist Peter Thiel among others – but it's steady and in some sense faster. He quotes examples involving the efficiency of agriculture, medical research, and other things.

I am not sure whom I agree with – mostly because I think that the question isn't quite well-defined. The situations "now" and "50 years ago" or "150 years ago" are inequivalent and there isn't any canonical quantity \(x\) measuring the degree of technological progress. Every redefinition \(x\to f(x)\), at least by a monotonic function \(f(x)\), creates a new convention to compare two rates of technological progress. And the results may vary and depend on \(f(x)\) which may be (and "usually" is) a nonlinear function.

So Thiel may be assuming that in some convention for \(x\), the "constant" rate would really be an exponential growth of \(x\), i.e. \(x=c \exp(at)\), while \(x=b t^2\) may count as an "accelerating progress" for Gates but a "disappointing slowdown" for Thiel (because it's sub-exponential). I don't know. And the real-world situation is faster because one doesn't even know what the definition of \(x\) is. When the progress stops or reverses, the question will become more well-defined.

Most of these comments are about personal expectations and "spinning" of some facts, not a discussion about operationally meaningful quantities. I was reminded about that question (of the "subjectivity of the accelerated progress") yesterday when my de facto nephew confirmed to me that he's also playing the AdVenture Capitalist game on Android and loves it. After a week, I became a trevigintillionaire.

(Up to now, I thought that I knew the names of these large numbers rather well but the players of a click-all-the-time game clearly know the name of much higher numbers! So I completed my knowledge of the names of numbers at least up to \(10^{150}\) LOL. Note that in continental Europe, the higher powers of one thousand are known as million, milliard, billion, billiard, and so on, in the alternating way, so that the Greek prefix followed by -llion determines the number that you should use as the exponent for a power of one million, while the same number with -ard at the end is 1,000 times higher.)

James was just a quadrillionaire but seemed proud. So I told him that he should restart. Last time he restarted, he had 1,000 angels (angel investors like Thiel). Each angel adds 2% to all the revenue you earn. Because he has 13,000 angels now, a restart will guarantee that all the progress may be 13 times faster than last time he restarted the game in order to exploit the angels.

So he was satisfied that his wealth kept on going up (1.02 quadrillion, 1.03 quadrillion etc. – I am sure that all owners of stocks would be satisfied with this kind of a growth in the recent years as well) but I told him that his growth is ludicrously modest and stagnating. When I play the game now, I can multiply my wealth by a factor of 1,000 in 20 minutes or so. ;-) This is my "new normal constant growth". In fact, I think that the growth of the wealth in the game is faster than exponential if you play it well, perhaps like \(C\exp(At^2)\).

But let me stop with these technicalities – try to play the game. The point is that there's no objective way to compare the progress in science or technology at two moments as long as it's always positive. The advances in the past – like the combustion engine or the theory of relativity – were more "foundational ones" and the recent ones look like "business as usual" so they're less shocking. But in terms of percentage points, the progress now may still be faster than it was in the glorious past. And Thiel's nostalgia about the glorious past (which I occasionally tend to share) may be just due to some bad mood, not some objectively demonstrable slowdown.

Well, just to be sure, I do think that the industrial growth rate in the late 19th century (expressed e.g. as the nearly well-defined GDP growth rate – often above 10% for many years) was much faster than anything we have observed in any decade afterwards.

So if I return to the interview, Gates is an optimist when it comes to the technological progress, although not a mindlessly uncritical one. He is surely obsessed by the idea that the "most important" technological breakthrough has to bring the carbon emissions to zero. It's a religious dogma he isn't even questioning. Some of his nasty friends had to persuade Gates not to dare to even doubt this thesis and he clearly doesn't doubt it.

The picture at the top shows Gates' handwritten equation involving the coefficients determining the net carbon dioxide emissions. The equation is\[

P\times S \times E \times C = {\rm CO}_2

\] and he adds comments that the population \(P\) is going up, services per capita \(S\) should go up, energy per service \(E\) goes down a bit, and the carbon emissions per unit energy \(C\) is the "key" of technologically optimistic jihadists against the carbon emissions such as Gates – who still believe that the right hand side "needs to be zero".

I am not sure whether Bill Gates actually wants to eliminate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Be sure that most plants – and animals who depend on them or on plants-eating animals etc. which is ultimately everyone – will die once the CO2 concentration gets below 150 ppm or so.

Gates believes that the carbon emissions "need to be" zero. He must live in a completely different Universe than I do. I live in the Universe where the elevated carbon dioxide (by 40% since the beginning of the industrial revolution) has added some 15%-20% to the crop yields. In fact, I am confident that at the current low oil prices, it would be beneficial for nations to buy and just burn oil – the price of extra agricultural products we would get from the extra carbon dioxide in the 21st century would exceed the investment into oil. It would be even more obvious with coal which is much cheaper.

(This is not such a difficult counting. Over 50 years, the world gets about 5% of its GDP from agriculture, and about 1/5 of it e.g. 1% of the GDP was added by the burning of the fossil fuels that increased the CO2 levels. On the other hand, the oil production is below 30 billion barrels a year which costs $1 trillion today, also about 1% of the world's GDP. So to produce extra crops, it marginally pays to buy and burn oil! And if the mankind were feeling hungry, buying and burning coal would be a no-brainer.)

Needless to say, the anti-carbon jihadists would curse you as a heretic if you only mentioned this fact or proposed to burn fossil fuels because it is beneficial.

But I see something even more "current". The oil price has dropped 70% since a 2014 peak and people are sort of hysterical about it. The stocks are moving in a positive correlation with the oil price. I think that it's ultimately a stupid correlation – a slight negative correlation would be rational because cheap energy is good for almost all companies – but people are worried. Even if you agree with me that cheap energy is great for almost everyone, we could agree that nations that depend on the oil exports could be in big trouble. It could make them behave aggressively and many other things.

I think that responsible people should think about ways of avoiding this trap. I think that OPEC, Russia, and even shale producers should realize that most of them will suffer badly if the oil price stays around $30 or if it goes lower. There simply isn't enough oil to satisfy the demand for expenses lower than $30. Yesterday, a Saudi official claimed that a $20 oil is just OK with them and those who feel uncomfortable should f*ck off of the business.

Well, I find such ideas voiced in the Saudi Arabia to be suicidally insane. 90% of the Saudi exports are oil. What does a 70%-80% drop in the oil price do to the revenues? Saudis may produce cheaper oil than others – but they're more dependent on it than other nations, certainly Americans. Bankrupt American shale producers may get some food tickets but Saudi Arabia won't be capable of distributing those when it goes out of business! ;-) So it's in the interest of almost all oil producers in the world to find some peace and coordinate production cuts in the OPEC-style way. Even if the Saudis and Iranians dislike each other, they should agree about a production freeze or cut – and then go after the neck of their partner.

We could even say that the anti-carbon jihadists who have promoted "alternative sources of energy" and similar overpriced garbage – and this category could include even people as peaceful and innocent as Bill Gates – are partially responsible for the ongoing havoc in the stocks and financial markets and the genuine risks that some of the unjustified market hysteria may boil down to (including the increased risk of a big war [started] in the Middle East).

The oil producers should agree and stabilize the price at $50 per barrel or something like that. They could even agree to pay $10 for barrel as an extra tax (the total price for the consumer could be $60 for years to come) – which will be used purely to fight the non-carbon competition – assuming that it will be the only piece of terror directed against the fossil fuel industry. I think that the violent volatility of the oil price brings nothing useful to the world and a stable price could be easily maintained by dynamically coordinated regulation of the world production.

The equation bothers me for other reasons, e.g. because of its similarity to the Drake equation which also involves the product of factors such as "something per something". One only rewrites the carbon emissions or the number of detections of extraterrestrial civilizations as \[

A=\frac AB \frac BC \frac CD \dots \frac YZ Z

\] and the identity may be proven by a simple cancellation of all the factors from \(B\) to \(Z\). ;-) It is a trivial tautology and one doesn't really learn anything new as long as he has been rational before he saw the equation. In the case of the Drake equation, one doesn't learn the value of \(A\) any more accurately by rewriting it as a product. Even if some factors in the product are known more accurately than the product, there are many of them and the uncertainties grow if the factors are numerous – and one unknown factor is enough to make the product unknown, anyway.

In fact, 13 years before Gates wrote his equation this explicitly, this similarity between the Gates (anti-carbon) equation and the Drake equation was the main point of the 2003 Caltech speech of the late TRF reader Michael Crichton, Aliens Cause Global Warming. He argued that this kind of "sloppy and ideological science" making you think in a certain way started when the Drake equation was presented and tolerated as "science" and this kind of bastardization of science has led to the global warming pseudoscience, too.

For Crichton, this was just a vague analogy – in both cases, one deals with assertions that sound sciencey but are arguably vacuous and they only convey some ideology, not operationally well-defined nontrivial facts. But Gates has actually used an equation that is structurally isomorphic to the Drake equation.

It's even more bizarre than that. It looks like Gates is deliberately trying to piss on Crichton's grave. In the interview, Gates defends the technological progress as solving the problem by saying:
An example is that in the early 1900s, New York City was buried in horse manure, and people said, "Okay, should we let the horses only go out on odd and even days?" And they had barns and whips and saddles and people were trained, and there was a huge infrastructure. But that problem was solved by the automobile.
What he didn't tell us was that he plagiarized this meme from the very same speech by Crichton, "Aliens Cause Global Warming", where Crichton said:
...To predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd.

Look: If I was selling stock in a company that I told you would be profitable in 2100, would you buy it? Or would you think the idea was so crazy that it must be a scam?

Let’s think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horse****?

Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses? But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport...
You see, Crichton made the same basic point – that technology is capable of solving problems that could be predicted to be huge problems in the future if one applied a simple extrapolation. Up to some point, Crichton and Gates are saying the same thing. However, at some critical point, Gates reverses this point for the message to teach us the exact opposite of the message that Crichton had drawn out of this historical realization.

Crichton realized that it's foolish to be planning the very distant future or be worrying about some problems that result from a simple extrapolation. But Gates refuses to realize that even though this is obviously the main lesson one should learn from the New York 1900 horse manure story! Gates fails to appreciate the stupidity of similar fearmongering extrapolations and instead, he is spending time with talking about the saving of the world.

But the world doesn't need to be saved. The reason why New Yorkers didn't drown in the horse manure wasn't that the wealthiest capitalists of the world in 1900 were trying to save the world from horse manure. The reason is that the extrapolation was simply shown to be silly – as people switched to cars, gadgets to guarantee transportation that were more convenient for reasons that went well beyond the issue of the horse manure.

The right lesson obviously is that it is stupid to be worried about these horror scenarios that should emerge 100 years from now based on some oversimplified argument because the oversimplified argument has too many defects that make it untrustworthy and a waste of time.

So Bill Gates is an achiever, a smart man, and to some extent even the ultimate political moderate. However, all this common sense has some very sharp limits. When it comes to some totally irrational dogmas that he has been infected with, his sharp mind deteriorates into the brain of a mediocre cultist. It's too bad. But one simply shouldn't expect that the most brilliant polymath in the world – who can think about a wide variety of problems sensibly if not ingeniously – and the most wealthiest man will coincide.

No comments:

Post a Comment