I agree that this seems like a promising research direction! I think this would be done best while also thinking about concrete traits of AI systems, as discussed in this footnote. One potential beneficial outcome would be to understand which kind of systems earn rents and which don't; I wouldn't be surprised if the distinction between rent earning agents vs others mapped pretty cleanly onto a Bostromian utility maximiser vs CAIS distinction, but maybe it won't.
In any case, the alternative perspective offered by the agency rents framing compared to typical AI alignment discussion could help generate interesting new insights.
The claim that this couldn't work because such models are limited seems just arbitrary and wrong to me.
The economists I spoke to seemed to think that in agency unawareness models conclusions follow pretty immediately from the assumptions and so don't teach you much. It's not that they can't model real agency problems, just that you don't learn much from the model. Perhaps if we'd spoken to more economists there would have been more disagreement on this point.
Thanks for catching this! You’re correct that that sentence is inaccurate. Our views changed while iterating the piece and that sentence should have been changed to: “PAL confirms that due to diverging interests and imperfect monitoring, AI agents could get some rents.”
This sentence too: “Overall, PAL tells us that agents will inevitably extract some agency rents…” would be better as “Overall, PAL is consistent with AI agents extracting some agency rents…”
I’ll make these edits, with a footnote pointing to your comment.
The main aim of that section was to point out that Paul’s scenario isn’t in conflict with PAL. Without further research, I wouldn’t want to make strong claims about what PAL implies for AI agency rents because the models are so brittle and AIs will likely be very different to humans; it’s an open question.
For there to be no agency rents at all, I think you’d need something close to perfect competition between agents. In practice the necessary conditions are basically never satisfied because they are very strong, so it seems very plausible to me that AI agents extract rents.
Re monopoly rents vs agency rents: Monopoly rents refer to the opposite extreme with very little competition, and in the economics literature is used when talking about firms, while agency rents are present whenever competition and monitoring are imperfect. Also, agency rents refer specifically to the costs inherent to delegating to an agent (e.g. an agent making investment decisions optimising for commission over firm profit) vs the rents from monopoly power (e.g. being the only firm able to use a technology due to a patent). But as you say, it's true that lack of competition is a cause of both of these.