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Our Experimental Deficit

We don’t run enough experiments in the wild.

In fact, I think our drive for global equity, although laudable in its desire to increase the quality of life of everybody, is having the unfortunate side-effect of reducing the number of experiments being run in the wild.

A century or two ago every country was running their own little in-the-wild experiment, with their own mix of social, economic and cultural rules. Naturally in most countries the outcome sucked more than in the best countries, hence the drive to adopt the rules of the best country.

But if you’ve ever been in a lab you know that the worst enemy of success is the fear of failure. It’s shutting down an experiment too early because the first few datapoints suck. It’s giving up on your “hunch” that your crazy new approach is bound to work even though it hasn’t worked yet.

Unfortunately, a lot of the ideas that can have a positive impact on human lives cannot be experimented with in the lab. UBI is one of them. We can have debates as to whether or not UBI is a good idea, but these will systematically lead us to our own opinions on human nature. Some of us have a “hunch” that the experiment should eventually work, some of us think it never will.

This is typical in academic labs, and if some scientists have a really strong “hunch” that an approach should eventually work, they’ll pursue the research even though their colleagues think they are crazy. This is the dynamic that gave us Deep Learning.

But a “hunch” that UBI should eventually work cannot be tested on computers. It needs to be tested on humans interacting together at a large enough scale.

I don’t know how to solve this ethically, but I still feel the relentless march of global equity, for all the good things it’s bringing to the world, is increasing our experimental debt in a way that may not be visible but that is likely to have long term impacts. In the meantime, from the few experiments we have with UBI, it seems like it might be a pretty good idea