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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Shankar, Re: Scarcity Trap

TLDR: Short term gain causes long-term loss, examples: politics, asteroids. Change your mind, save the world!

In mathematics we think of the scarcity trap as an optimization problem where you are focusing on short-term gains. Due to the complexity of some mathematical problems, this often leads to a long term loss. It's like being on a golf course blindfolded and you're trying to find the lake. Every time you go down hill you think, 'hey I'm getting closer to that lake', but what you don't realize, because you can't see, is that you're actually headed strait for a sand dune at the bottom of the little valley. This happens most often in problems with “lots of valleys”. In the business we call this “manly local optima”, optima being the lowest point in the valley. To find the lake in the case above, you often have to “go uphill”, before going down hill again.

I often think of our society having the same penchant for short-term optimization, especially in our election process. We are dominated by the two main parties, but it was not always so. One explanation for why we were reduced to two parties is that every election year, people are focused on winning that election that year. Thoughts of what happens in 20 or 30 years are far outside the scope of how the average person votes. Thus, after decades of making the short-term optimization choice, we are reduced to just having two major parties that have the highest probability of winning. One of typical ways of peer-pressuring people into voting for a candidate from those two parties is that friends and family members often say: “X candidate cannot win”, as an explanation for why you shouldn't vote for them. However, what they neglect to say is that if you never vote for someone else, someone else will always have a reduced chance to win during the election after this one.

My thesis research for my Master's program was based on analyzing an issue who's devastating effect appears only when society solves the problem through short-term thinking. Asteroids impacting planets are naturally occurring phenomenon. Many of the beautiful craters on the moon and mars are formed by impact strikes. Asteroid strikes are a statistical problem meaning that is is only a matter of time before an asteroid hits a major city. My researched looked at the side-effects of dealing with an asteroid impact with little warning time. Short warning time only happens if society does not place value in asteroid detection programs, or refuses to invest in asteroid deflection missions. Technologies like gravity tractors and mounting thrusts to the asteroid can only work if scientists are given steady funding and public support for decades. If society refuses to make these investments, then the only method left to deflect an asteroid is the nuclear option.

Unlike the figurative use we've heard of in the last few days, the nuclear option means using a nuclear device to blow the asteroid into little bits. This prevents large chunks from piercing through the atmosphere.* The problem with this approach is that you're taking one big rock and breaking it up into a bunch of smaller rocks. All those rocks are still heading for Earth. While they may put on a spectacular light show for people on the ground, satellites, which we have come to depend on, will be having a very bad day. Satellites are very delicate, very expense, very important things. They are considered critical infrastructure by the US government. They make your GPS maps work, they keep your cell towers working, and they allow the US military to coordinate all around the globe. All those little rocks that we created with our short-term optimization to save ourselves, will now have the opportunity to hit our satellites and destroy all the services we've come to rely on. Not only that, all those destroyed satellites will stay in space, flying around and around the Earth, destroying any healthy satellites that survive.

This type of problem, loosing satellites and all the services they provide, can only happen with a society that constantly makes short-term decisions. A society that can successfully make long term decisions won't have this problem because they will have spent the time and the effort to develop better deflection technology and know-how.

It is possible that this is a clear example of Fermi's paradox which deals with the problem of, if intelligent life exists in the universe, why haven't we heard from it yet. One of the explanations proposed to explain this is that intelligent life has a tendency to destroy itself. I would have to agree with this position. We have understood celestial mechanics since Martin Luther nailed his manifesto to the church door. We have nightly evidence of the impacts that have scarred the face of the moon. And yet, as an “intelligent species”, we are more concerned with taking the shortest path to the lake than we are with realizing that we might be headed into a sand dune.

Does this mean our society is doomed? Definitely not! Humans are an adaptive species. We are experts at solving problems large and small. And just like a recovering addict must first admit that there is a problem, once we admit that our decision making process is biased towards short-term gain, we can become more cognizant of long-term loss caused by our decisions. This will help us overcome problems with asteroids and problems with politics. Who knew long-term decision making could be so useful?

Thank you for your time.

* Typically at this point, we are forced to make the obligatory Bruce Willis reference and people in the audience start giggling. “The Giggle Factor”, as we like to refer to it, is odd because this is a real issue that very much has the capability of leveling an entire metro area. The Tunguska asteroid strike in 1908 leveled an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.

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