Wednesday, May 3, 2023

#123 / "Moving" History


Pictured is Tyler Cowen. Clicking that link to his name will take you to a Wikipedia article that informs us that Cowen was born in 1962 (one year after I graduated from high school). Wikipedia also informs us that Cowen is "an American economist, columnist and blogger." Cowen's blog is titled, "Marginal Revolution," and I am signed up on his distribution list. 
On March 26, 2023, Cowen's blog posting bore the following title: "Existential risk, AI, and the inevitable turn in human history." Anyone who follows my own blog postings will not be surprised to hear that I don't really believe that there is anything "inevitable" in human history. There are no "laws of politics" that compare to the "laws of physics." What happens in the "political world" that we most immediately inhabit depends on what we do, and we can choose to do things that no one has done before. Referencing "inevitability" is a kind of cop-out, the way I see it. It's a way to let ourselves off the hook.

The following statement is from Cowen's March 23rd blog posting, which I mentioned above:
In several of my books and many of my talks, I take great care to spell out just how special recent times have been, for most Americans at least. For my entire life, and a bit more, there have been two essential features of the basic landscape:

1. American hegemony over much of the world, and relative physical safety for Americans.

2. An absence of truly radical technological change.

Unless you are very old, old enough to have taken in some of WWII, or were drafted into Korea or Vietnam, probably those features describe your entire life as well.

In other words, virtually all of us have been living in a bubble "outside of history."

Now, circa 2023, at least one of those assumptions is going to unravel, namely #2. AI represents a truly major, transformational technological advance. Biomedicine might too, but for this post I'll stick to the AI topic, as I wish to consider existential risk.

#1 might unravel soon as well, depending how Ukraine and Taiwan fare. It is fair to say we don't know, nonetheless #1 also is under increasing strain.

Hardly anyone you know, including yourself, is prepared to live in actual "moving" history. It will panic many of us, disorient the rest of us, and cause great upheavals in our fortunes, both good and bad. In my view the good will considerably outweigh the bad (at least from losing #2, not #1), but I do understand that the absolute quantity of the bad disruptions will be high.

I am reminded of the advent of the printing press, after Gutenberg. Of course the press brought an immense amount of good, enabling the scientific and industrial revolutions, among many other benefits. But it also created writings by Lenin, Hitler, and Mao's Red Book. It is a moot point whether you can "blame" those on the printing press, nonetheless the press brought (in combination with some other innovations) a remarkable amount of true, moving history. How about the Wars of Religion and the bloody 17th century to boot? Still, if you were redoing world history you would take the printing press in a heartbeat. Who needs poverty, squalor, and recurrences of Ghenghis Khan-like figures?

But since we are not used to living in moving history, and indeed most of us are psychologically unable to truly imagine living in moving history, all these new AI developments pose a great conundrum. We don't know how to respond psychologically, or for that matter substantively. And just about all of the responses I am seeing I interpret as "copes," whether from the optimists, the pessimists, or the extreme pessimists (e.g., Eliezer). No matter how positive or negative the overall calculus of cost and benefit, AI is very likely to overturn most of our apple carts, most of all for the so-called chattering classes.

The reality is that no one at the beginning of the printing press had any real idea of the changes it would bring. No one at the beginning of the fossil fuel era had much of an idea of the changes it would bring. No one is good at predicting the longer-term or even medium-term outcomes of these radical technological changes (we can do the short term, albeit imperfectly). No one. Not you, not Eliezer, not Sam Altman, and not your next door neighbor (emphasis added).
I absolutely agree with Cowen that no one is good at predicting the future. That is because, as I say above, WE make the future by doing the things we do, and whatever we have done in the past is not binding on us in the future. Tomorrow (and even today) we can choose to do things that we have never done before, and because we can do that, no one can really "predict" the future. "Predictions" are always based on an extrapolation from past and current practice - and presumes that those past and present practices will continue. The fact of human freedom, however (and human freedom is a "fact"), means that our actions, right now, can change the trajectory of all past practice, sending us off in a new direction - for good or ill. 

Of course, Cowen is also right that the use of AI (something "new") has the potential to change what we have assumed is the inevitable course of human history; however, the way Cowen formulates his analysis, we are simply "observing" history, not "making" it, and AI will affect us because it has the potential to upset our former, taken-for-granted human situation. 

Let's not forget, though, that we can decide what we want to do about AI and other new technologies. Acting individually, we can each do something unexpected and new. When we act together ("politically," as I put it) the same thing is true. 

Cowen thinks that history has not really been "moving" during what I would have to confess has been my entire life, born as I was during World War II. I doubt that's a fair account, but what I really object to is the idea that "history" is something we "observe." If Cowen's point is that history has been moving at a relatively slow pace, so that people aren't that aware of changes as they occur, I'd agree; and maybe we will all soon conclude that history is starting to accelerate - as in the phrase, "we're really moving now!"

But let's not forget the actual truth of our human situation. Whatever we ultimately do will be the thing that "moves" history. Describing history as though it were a film we watch ("Moving" History as a "moving picture") misunderstands human freedom. Our freedom is not only to "understand" history and the world. Our freedom is to change it.

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1 comment:

  1. I was delighted to get this reference to a very helpful article from David Brin. Thank you!!


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