Why we will implore AI to be Our Robot Overlords
“You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan
People have been talking a lot lately about AI. Much of the discussion consists of theorizing about the future. Will AI become superintelligent and enslave us all like Terminator? Or will it be a benevolent god, who will provide for all our wants? Or maybe AI will just fizzle out into nothing more than glorified spreadsheets?
These are fascinating and challenging questions, as even current primitive AI is proving opaque to human understanding. But they are irrelevant. Our current fears of AI will disappear, like Victorian modesty about bare ankles, when faced with the future problem that only AI will be able to solve. I believe in the near future we will collectively ask future Artificial Intelligence to rule us. We will give it the keys to Earth and say: We are doing a very bad job of governing ourselves and making decisions, you do it for us.
The history of man is the history of society
“The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained.” — Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
Asking AI to rule humanity seems absurd. But it’s not. The past shows the way to the future. In this case our past shows the way to this prediction. To talk about artificial intelligence and its potential rise to prominence, we must first look at how humanity ascended to top dog position. Our road to the present shows the potential paths of our future.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” ― Helen Keller
Homo sapiens domination of the Earth can be attributed to many factors: bipedal posture, opposable thumbs, language, unique conditions, luck. One essential element was cooperation. In the modern view of the world there is much emphasis placed on the individual and the remarkable potential of each person. This emphasis is warranted now, when we have the extraordinary capabilities of 21st century civilization at our fingertips. In primitive times, when there were no tools, no shelter, not even Wi-Fi, a lone human could not do much. Our survival depended on group cooperation. In the neolithic being exiled from the group meant death. Our current fear of social rejection is a remnant of those times.
Organizing in tribes were critical to human survival, but they were not enough to dominate. Many animals form tribes. Including most primates. The Dunbar number shows the maximum number of stable social relationships a person can maintain. It is around 150 for humans. It is lower for primates, but not much so. This number is a biological limitation on trust. We can only know 150 people so we can only directly trust 150 people. This was a big limit through most of early homo sapiens history. Together 150 people can accomplish a limited amount. They were enough to form tribes that survived and even thrived, but not enough to develop civilization and technology.
Imaginary concepts were the key to real progress
The big leap in human civilization came when we invented concepts that allowed us to trust more than these 150 people. These are the concepts that construct culture and civilization. Historian Yuval Harari names them best. He calls them inter-subjective reality: things that we all agree exist even though they are imaginary. Examples: gods, money, companies, state, laws, etiquette, manners, etc.
“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.” ― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
The most important of these were the notions of money and state. States gave early humans an affiliation: being a member of a state meant you could trust (to a degree) all other members of the same state. Money gave humans the means to trade using a commodity they all trusted. Until then distrust had been a barrier to trade: people had to evaluate the value of each others’ goods and then reach an agreement for equivalent value between different things, e.g. is my goat good enough to exchange for your two bear skins?
Money in the form of cash was great for instant transactions. However, much of the growth of human society depended on contracts: promises of actions between different humans. A common example is a contract between you and your telecom provider: you promise to pay a specific amount and the telecom provider promises to provide you with a certain service. A more important example is the social contract. It represents the promises made by the State and its citizens in relation to each other. Its specifics have changed over time. In essence it encompasses a list of services that an individual cannot achieve alone and all citizens of a State agree to contribute and obey the State rules so that it can achieve them (such as protection from invaders).
For the social contract, and other contracts, to exist they need trust. Trust in money and faith in the intersubjective entity involved in the contract (the State, the telecom company, the god Zeus, etc.). Money as a reality is also supported by central authorities, most of all the national State. Thus all these contracts that make society work depend on our trust in central authorities.
Central authority grows and then recedes
“As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State “What does it matter to me?” the State may be given up for lost.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract)
Maybe you trust central authorities, maybe you do not. Statistics show you probably trust them less than your grandfather. History shows why by looking at the evolution of the State inter-subjective reality.
As this invention, the nation state, grew and thrived, it became adopted by more and more groups of humans. The central authorities grew in strength and influence, from small tribes, to city states, to provinces, to nations, to empires. All the empires eventually failed and exposed the limitations of an over-sized central authority that ruled through military force. Yet there were other central authorities which were successful in influencing large sections of the globe: the big religions. Medieval Europe might have been a squabbling pot of fighting nations, yet they all trusted in the Church. These religious central authorities had more staying power, yet they eventually lost power as well.
After the ages of empires, it seemed that nations were the “right size” for an effective central authority. Some were large, some were smaller, some more united, some divided along ethnic lines. Yet as religion started losing influence, nations stayed strong. This strong nationalism led rise to the big wars: World War I and World War II. Nationalism authority had baked in its essence a key aspect of tribalism: the ‘us versus them’ thinking. The internal power of each nation hinged on distrust of its citizens for every other nation. This inevitably led to conflict: World War I and World War II.
A new type of empire discovers a new weapon, economics
“Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been born in revolution. Both embraced ideologies with global aspirations: what worked at home, their leaders assumed, would also do so for the rest of the world.” ― John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History
The world wars and the subsequent Cold War bred a new sort of empires: central authorities with influence rather than direct control over large areas of the globe, the Capitalist and the Communist inter-subjective realities. The fight between the two was a riveting tale of twists and turns. But in the end Capitalism emerged as victor. Its success owed a lot to the economic benefits it provided:
The rise of Capitalism brought with it the widespread adoption of liberalism and the prioritization of the individual over the State. Thus the trust in central authority became weaker than ever before in history. The incredible progress of the past decades of liberalism made human life incredibly good, better than ever before. And they established that these benefits came as a result of less trust in the State.
Higher standard of living, less State interference
“Instead of citizens, it [Neoliberalism] produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.” — Noam Chomsky (Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order)
From the rewards of liberalism came to be neoliberalism. Neoliberalism considers all of human society as a market. Everything that people do, everything that we feel and think, the output of our labour, even humans ourselves, are products in the market according to Neoliberalism. In a market the sole role of products is to be sold. Thus everything has a value that leads to a price. This is why employees are spoken of as resources. Why you are taught to develop your personal brand: to increase your price because that is why brands do. Why self improvement gurus brag about increasing your value by constructing a better you: it means making you a more valuable, and thus expensive, product. Neoliberalism was the child of economist Hayek and initially wilted in the shadow of Keynesian economics of the time. It was adopted by Reagan and Thatcher who made it the basis of West policies.
Neoliberalism deems that the State’s role is to protect and support the free market, but never interfere in its dealings. Thus it might seem to be the end of central authority. However, Neoliberalism promotes another central authority: the market itself. It is an even fuzzier concept than the State because it is decentralized. Yet it constitutes an arbiter in which we trust to enforce the contracts within its bounds.
Post-truth, the end of inter-subjective reality?
post-truth — an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ — Oxford English Dictionary, Word of the year 2016
Almost 30 years since Reagan’s presidency, the pendulum has started swinging the opposite way from neoliberalism. The two biggest events of the year: Brexit and Trump election are both in essence anti-neoliberalism events.
The cutthroat capitalism imposed by neoliberalism has not been democratic in its benefits. The very rich have profited greatly, as have many enterprising, and fortunate, brilliant people. Yet large swaths of the population have experience stagnation and even decreases in standards of living.
These people have become distrustful of the market. And of the State which they feel considers this fictive notion, the market, more important than its citizens. And of the experts who say that life is good ‘statistically speaking’ when Joe the ex-factory worker is living on social aid and does not even have medical insurance to cover the bill when he develops cirrhosis from his depression-induced drinking.
So they trust people who say they will fight the system which failed them. They trusted the UK Leave campaign. And they trusted Trump in no small part because he successfully cast his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as the embodiment of neoliberalism.
Either society falls apart, or we give the keys to the castle to the AI because we have deemed ourselves unworthy to rule. — This article
This brings us to live in the age of post-truth. An age where there is so much distrust, we are abolishing the very notion of objective truth. We are literally making it so that no human being on Earth can be trusted by any other human being. This distrust harbors the dissolution of the very inter-subjective realities that made human civilization great. If you do not trust the State how can you be part of a contract with the State as a citizen? If you do not trust any central authority, how can you even trust money when its value is endorsed by the very same authority?
Artificial Intelligence, the solution to post-truth
“Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” — Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness)
When no humans are trustworthy, there will be two possible outcomes. Either society falls apart into anarchy, or we find non-human entities to endow with trust and authority.
As it is unlikely aliens will show up in the next decade, we have to build these non-human entities ourselves. Steps in this direction are already being taken. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency are in effect contracts enforced not by an authority, but by hard code run by software. They take VISA and States and other central authorities out of the picture and replace them with unfeeling, incorruptible software code. For all its groundbreaking impact, this is only a small step. Not all of human society can be reduced to automatic, mindless code.
In the very near future either society falls apart, or we will give the keys to the castle to the AI because we have deemed ourselves unworthy to rule. Is it so unlikely we will trust artificial intelligence to govern us? We already trust AI to do a myriad of things, and it’s doing them well. In advertising it’s proven to be good enough to get Trump elected. It’s learning to diagnose medical problems better than doctors (such as brain tumors). It’s even beating us at our own games (after chess and Go, the latest is DOTA2). It can even learn the more shameful parts of being human (Microsoft’s Tay learned in one day). Does it seem so unlikely it would be a better ruler than the politicians whom people consider corrupt and incompetent and distrust more and more?
The era of post-truth must become the era of machine truth. It might be the end of humanity as Elon Musk and others are speculating. Yet if we do not learn to trust each other again, AI might be the only thing to save us from becoming a world devoid of trust.
“In order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.” (Yuval Noah Harari).
Have we not started believing in AI already?
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