How to Save the World:
The Biggest Risks Humanity Faces
and How to Militate Against Them
by Building a New Democratically-Oriented
Global Techno-Social Fabric
(Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days brainstorming with my friends at the Economic Space Agency, an unusual and fascinating California startup organization. Among our technical conversations we also touched here and there on some of the major social issues facing humanity as it moves forward into the era of radically advanced technologies. This article summarizes some of the ideas we tossed around.)
I generally tend to be an optimist, including about advanced technology and about the future potential for human and transhumanist growth. I think we’re going to create superhuman thinking machines and that some of us will merge with them and explore incredible new forms of mind, society and embodiment and experience. I think we will create radical material abundance that will end the era of working for a living, and end disease and death.
I also think, though, there may be some serious downs as well as ups on the way to this radiant future. And there’s also a nontrivial risk that one of the downs takes us so far down as to prevent the amazing positive futures I envision from actually coming to pass.
“Saving the world” as I mean it involves both the positive and negative aspects — making the world better by improving things dramatically, but also, preventing terrible things from happening and destroying the beautiful things we already have.
On the positive side, there is a great diversity of human values around the world, but there is also some commonality. Nearly all of us have an innate sense of joy, and want to feel joyful. Nearly all of us have some sense of compassion, and want others around us to feel joyful as well. Nearly all of us want to be able to choose key aspects of our lives, and/or to have our families and communities able to choose key elements of their own paths. And many of us would like to grow beyond our current limitations, becoming more successful and more helpful and exploring new horizons. And fortunately, it appears likely that a variety of advanced technologies, currently already emerging, are going to be able to promote these positive values to an unprecedented degree. Computer networking, AI, biotech, nanotech, blockchain…
And on the negative side, the list of risks we face is also well known. There’s the risk of natural disaster — comets hitting the Earth and so forth. There’s the risk of human-encouraged natural catastrophe — global warming causing an unforeseen chemical reaction in the oceans leading to massive release of poison gas, or some such. There’s the risk Nick Bostrom worries about in his book “Superintelligence” — that superhuman AIs will decide the molecules comprising humans can be more aesthetically or effectively used for some utterly nonhuman purpose. There’s the risk of World War III between nation-states.
And then there’s the risk I think is actually the most worrisome — the risk that disaffected people, shut out of the centers of the world economy via radical economic inequality and/or political restrictions, leverage advanced technology to cause massive destruction. Which then creates a negative and chaotic global political situation, in which all sorts of destructive technologies get born (including maybe the ones Bostrom worries about).
One thing I’m going to explain here is why I think this risk is a serious one — and then, what sort of things I think can be done to mitigate the risk. And the solutions I’m going to suggest are things that we really should do anyway, for a whole host of reasons.
My logic here will involve a few decent-sized leaps, but I don’t think they’re insanely huge ones. You'll have to judge for yourself ;-)
When Robots Take The Jobs, Who Will Give Basic Income to the Residents of the Congo?
Let’s suppose that AI and robotics and associated technologies keep on advancing impressively, so that the need for human labor in the economy keeps on decreasing. Then what happens to the people whose efforts are no longer needed in the labor force? In the developed world, we already see a strong movement toward universal basic income, which is pretty much the only rational and compassionate solution to the situation. But what about the developing world? Who will give universal basic income to the citizens of, say, the Congo or Central African Republic, when the developed-world economy has advanced sufficiently that outsourcing to the citizens of these nations doesn’t make any economic sense?
One possibility is that developed-world philanthropists or governments rise to the occasion and distribute universal basic income throughout the world. But I don’t have much faith this will happen.
One issue is that even the wealthiest philanthropists don’t have the funds to make a huge difference. Suppose Bill Gates gave half his wealth to supply Africa with universal basic income. 30 billion dollars would give 30 dollars to each African for one year. This is just not enough. No small set of good-hearted individuals is wealthy enough to make a real dent here. The whole class of super-wealthy individuals is rich enough to make a dent, but few of them care as much as the celebrated handful of billionaire philanthropists like Gates, Zuckerberg and Buffett.
Another issue is that, in developed democracies like the US, average voters are typically very unhappy with foreign aid. Average Americans vastly overestimate the amount of foreign aid that the US government currently gives out, and they tend not to like it. When the US gov’t first starts giving out universal basic income, it’s not going to be enough to keep everyone happy. Average voters are not so likely to want to diminish their monthly payment in order to help faraway people with strange cultures and belief systems.
It could happen that, due to advancing technology, supplying basic needs becomes SO cheap that it becomes politically unproblematic to supply a universal basic income globally. This might be the case if, for instance, we had a sudden breakthrough in molecular nanotechnology leading to fairly general-purpose, low-cost molecular assemblers. This would be awesome. But to be frank, I’m not counting on it. I’m sure these technologies will come, but they may come only a few years or a decade or two AFTER the technology that obsoletes outsourcing and leaves developing-world citizens economically stranded.
The (Extreme and Nasty) Qualitative Nature of Global Inequality Today
For folks living in developed nations, it’s hard to get a sense of the extent to which people in the worse-off portions of the developing world feel (and are) left out of the modern world economy. (I’ve gotten a little bit of insight into this via frequent visits to Ethiopia, where I’ve been co-running an AI and robotics outsourcing shop since 2013. But I’m sure I still don’t have a full feel for these things, to the extent that I would if I’d grown up there.)
Let me try to give a vague flavor of the situation. If you live in sub-Saharan Africa, the odds are that even if you can afford a smartphone, you can’t afford a lot of data minutes. Unrestricted viewing of, say, educational videos is not an option.
You aren’t all that likely to be able to afford university tuition (if you do well on the exams at the end of high school, you have a good chance; but if you miss that one opportunity, your chance is probably nixed for life).
If you want to start a business, good luck saving a couple thousand US dollars in seed funding. As soon as you save a few hundred dollars, odds are fairly high that some relative in a remote village will have a genuine urgent need for funding to pay for critical medical care. Your choice may be to spend your savings to help your great-aunt, or else to be responsible for her death.
Do you want to use your hard-won savings to fly to some foreign tech hub to show your prototype to some investors? Good luck getting a visa. Sometimes it’s possible but it’s extremely chancy. (I have had many failures trying to bring my Ethiopian AI researcher colleagues to Hong Kong, Canada and the US on temporary visitor visas or work visas. These are people with advanced degrees in science and technology, and work history in AI software development. Occasionally it succeeds; often the immigration departments reject the applications with no reason given.)
If you've managed to buck the odds and scramble like hell to gain the needed skills, maybe you can work online for overseas customers, doing consulting and saving money for your future that way. Well, except the e-work websites may well not be set up to allow you to register any payment method available to you on their sites. If you do manage to register, you'll get paid 1/10 the amount of folks in the developed world for doing exactly the same work, because of the country of residence indicated on your profile on the site. And oh, then you may find that your country's government decides to shut down the Internet for a week or two here or there (as I write this, Ethiopia has just shut down its whole country's internet for a week to try to avoid high school students cheating on their final exams) -- they don't seem to care what this will make your international customers think of your reliability!
Some folks in the developing world fight through all these factors to achieve great or modest success. Many do not, despite having plenty of smarts and despite putting in MUCH more effort than the average, reasonably successful US, Western European or Chinese citizen.
The situation in, say, the former Soviet republics or the less well-off countries in Southeast Asia or South America is not as extreme as in sub-Saharan Africa. But for many people it is qualitatively the same. Why do you think there are so many Filipino women willing to leave their spouses and children to work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong for US$600/month, half of which they’ll send home to their families? Why do you think there are so many attractive, college-educated young Eastern European women, willing to sell themselves as mail-order brides to unattractive, dull middle-aged men in the US or Western Europe?
What’s at issue here is not economic equality per se — almost nobody I know is upset that some people are richer than others. There are differentials in ability and willingness to work that naturally lead to differences in wealth and income, at the current state of technological development. And almost nobody wants to wipe out all the impact of history on wealth — nearly everyone wants to be able to pass along some of what they create or earn during their lives to their children, for example. What’s at issue here is the ability to participate in a reasonably full way in the world economy. In other words, those developing-world citizens I know who are discontented with their role in the world economy (i.e. nearly all of them) are not discontented with the fact that there is an economic game with a competitive aspect to it, nor are they disgruntled with sour grapes that they have lost the game. They are discontented that, by dint of the nations they happen to have been born in, they are essentially disqualified from playing the game. They have to fight a hard battle with low odds, often entailing great personal and family sacrifices, just to get on the playing field of the international tech economy.
I’m aware that life can be tough all around. Even the super-wealthy can find life a struggle each day, as newspaper tabloids amply document. I was raised middle class, nowhere near wealthy, and have worked quite hard all my adult life, with numerous ups and downs both personally and career-wise, some quite traumatic. I’m pretty contented now and I’m grateful for both the situation I was born into and various opportunities I’ve made and happened into. But I’ve seen close friends, also middle-class living in the developed world, commit suicide due to the difficulty of fighting through unfairly stacked competition and stultifying bureaucracy to realize their dreams. Human psyche and human culture involve suffering everywhere on the planet; and in some ways I feel like folks in the developing world have more satisfying lives than their materially wealthy counterparts, due to the rich and warm social fabric they so often weave. Complexities abound in nearly all human situations. But none of these complexities takes away the prevalence, unfairness or danger of the gross inequity in the current world situation.
Minimizing the Odds of Massive Inequality Leading to Global Catastrophe
OK, so radical inequality of opportunity is prevalent and it sucks. Now take the next step, and realize that: In spite of these factors, there are more and more highly educated young people in the developing world, with understanding of advanced technology. Even the poorest nations are now equipped with computers and networks, and with biological lab equipment, and with universities teaching advanced science and engineering.
It’s not hard to see what sorts of risks this situation leads to. If global inequality keeps increasing, and we have an increasing population of people who are largely shut out of the excitingly advancing global tech economy — but with significant access to modern education and technological tools — what do you think is likely to happen?
As technology advances, it takes fewer and fewer people, with less and less intelligence and know-how, to create more and more destruction. This is true with computer hacking, it’s true with drones and robots, it’s true with biotech, and it will soon be true with nanotech.
What we need to do, to prevent global wealth inequality and advanced technology from adding up to produce global catastrophe, is increase equitability of opportunity. We need to enable everyone in the world to have the opportunity to really play the modern global economic-social game. We need to all be in this together, on a basic level, or else, we’re likely to squander our chance to create radical abundance for all via destroying ourselves in a maelstrom of foolishness, selfishness and violence.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the ONLY reason radical global inequality of opportunity is bad, is its strong potential to lead to widespread destruction. According to my own morals, this sort of radical inequality of opportunity is intrinsically a rotten thing, regardless of the risk it poses to global safety. I favor joy, growth and choice for all sentient beings, inasmuch is possible, and radical global inequality obvious is crappy on all three counts (it badly hurts joy, growth and choice, calculated in total across the globe). I’m just highlighting, in this particular essay, one among the many nasty implications of this sort of inequality: its reasonably high likelihood of fostering a situation in which vast numbers of humans get killed and nasty futuristic technologies get developed in the chaotic aftermath.
Technology is not the whole solution here; this is a human psychology and culture problem as well as a technology problem. But I do believe that appropriate deployment of appropriate technologies can help create a context in which culture is more likely to evolve in a way that mitigates these problems.
What technologies do we need? We need technologies that encourage a democratic global social fabric. That make it easier for people all around the world to connect with each other, to create media of all sorts for sharing with each other, to transact economically and emotionally with each other. That make it less and less practical for governments and large corporations — with their tendency toward impersonality and inertia — to clog, prohibit or pervert exchanges between individuals and the formation of ad hoc or persistent social networks of various sizes and types.
Six Critical Technologies for Enabling a Positive Future
Fortunately these objectives can viably be achieved by a menu of technologies already in development to various extents.
The following would be a good start:
- Mesh networks, so that Internet access is outside the control of large corporations and governments, and in more direct control of the people
- Decentralized production of low-cost hardware. When we can 3D print the smartphones that enable the mesh network, in relatively low-cost local factories, then we’ll be in a pretty exciting position.
- Machine translation, for both text and voice, that handles all the world’s languages. This is an area where my own research on artificial general intelligence may have a transformative role to play.
- A social-network infrastructure that is widely used, that leverages machine translation and mesh networks, and that is out of the control of governments and corporations.
- A decentralized, peer-to-peer economic exchange mechanism that is widely used and understood, operating on the mesh and requiring only prevalent low-cost hardware. Blockchain technologies provide an obvious basis here, including the new tech and ideas my friends at the Economic Space Agency are working on.
- Videos, games, augmented reality, virtual reality, biofeedback, neurofeedback and AI interaction systems that are oriented toward helping people understand themselves and each other better.
Regarding the last point, another way to say it is: We need meaningful media that will help people grow, and help them come together, and help them confront the world’s difficult problems with love rather than hate — and we need this media distributed in a democratic and decentralized way rather than via advertising or propaganda dominated media channels. If provided with the technology to create and disseminate meaningful media, the people of the world will, in my estimation, most probably do so. There will be lots of less-meaningful media alongside, to be sure. But if media is more strongly separated from the desire of governments to spread propaganda and the desire of corporations to maximize profit, then the more positive and growth-oriented sides of humanity will have more chance to self-organize into powerful new configurations.
These mechanisms would not automatically, magically make universal basic income spread globally. But they would make it far more likely. They would create massively richer, more positive interaction and interoperation between the developed and developing world economies. They would lead to the flourishing of creative new economic and social networks, including many oriented toward environmental, social and spiritual benefit. Rather than relying on governments or corporations, or majority vote in corporate media dominated democracies, to spread the bounty from technological progress widely — these tools would foster self-organization of decentralized mechanisms enabling individuals and small groups to reach out to other individuals and small groups and engage them in positive and mutually beneficial interactions.
Think About It ...
Do we need all of the above to avert catastrophe? Not necessarily.
Would the development of all this necessarily avert catastrophe? Not necessarily.
But the more of this we can get, the more of a global “level playing field” we’re going to have, and the more of a sense we’re going to have that we’re all in this together.
Development and deployment of this set of technologies would constitute a revolution, but not the violent kind. We don’t need to overthrow the world’s governments (though some are bound to get overthrown in the next couple decades anyway) and we don’t need to eliminate all the big corporations. What we need to do is to build new networks that join people together directly, in parallel to governments and corporations, and ultimately subverting their power and influence.
With the above set of technologies, we would have a medium within which all sorts of new social, economic and cultural network would form. These would not lead to complete economic or social equality, and would not eradicate all the problems of the world. But they would go a long way toward enabling everyone on the planet to participate fully in the ongoing techno-social revolution. A world dominated by such technologies would be one in which positive new tech would have a higher odds of getting developed - including biotech that heals rather than biotech that kills, and AI that loves us rather than AI that repurposes all our molecules.
It’s complicated. But it’s not more complicated than building Google, Baidu, the Internet, self-driving cars, New York or Beijing, or pulling off the Human Genome Project. Humanity can solve very complicated problems, when it focuses even a quite modest subset of its attention.
Think about where we, as a society, are focusing our technology development efforts. Google and Tesla are great companies, for example. But how ultimately important is more effective online ad placement, and better creation of luxury cars? Why is our economy and society organized so that so many of the best educated brilliant minds on the planet are focusing their attention on such things? Of course, Google’s work on ads is funding its work on life extension (Calico); and Tesla’s work on luxury cars is funding its work on better batteries, which has very broad application. In general — in spite of the developed world focusing the majority of its economy on the creation of things that exacerbate inequality and appeal to the more selfish, shallow human emotions — we are still getting amazing and important things done.
But it’s not clear that getting the important stuff done as a side-effect of building frivolous things to enrich or amuse the most wealthy is going to be good enough.
It may be that we really need some more direct focus on technologies with strong direct potential for global good.
Think about it.