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A Miniature Manifesto for the Future Algorithmocene

The Anthroposcream

Algorithmocene noun /ˈalɡərɪð mə si:n/ — presumably the next geological epoch following our short-lived Anthropocene

For the record, our species isn’t the first to single handedly remake the planet. Two and a half billion years before us, oxygen-spewing cyanobacteria also crashed the global ecosystem and caused mass extinction. Of course they weren’t spared the calamity of their making, dying en masse as they choked on their own waste products (the waves of dying can be seen today in banded iron rock formations around the world). As then happens when organisms overtax their ecosystem, the reign of bacteria on Earth ended and a new reign began: the age of complex life that eventually led to us.

The current reign of humans, what we call the Anthropocene, will obviously not last forever either (For what it’s worth, geological epochs tend to turn over faster with complex life anyway). Certainly there’s no shortage of forces that could end our namesake epoch sooner rather than later.

We’ve been extremely lucky so far with things like pandemics (no irony intended) and nuclear Armageddon. But luck is a finite resource. And at the rate we stumble from one existential global crisis to the next, we’re burning through it fast. On top of these fast-track-doomsday scenarios, we’re also staring down the barrel of a host of relatively slow-burning and nigh-unstoppable Gigatrends: unsustainable demographics, climate change, the 6th Great Extinction and unrestricted artificial intelligence. That all these are converging at the same time may or may not add up to an apocalypse, but outside of a killer asteroid it’s hard to see what other ingredient is missing.

None of this a state secret or even really controversial. Or rather, it’s not controversial until we’re asked to actually do something about it. Leaving the comfort zones of our daily routines and cultural norms is a big ask for us humans. We’re much better at spinning endlessly creative conspiracy theories and other reasons why there’s nothing to see, nothing to do here. So much so that any space aliens observing us will have long figured out that homo sapiens — Earth’s wise species — is just the apocryphal frog in the slowly boiling pot of water.

To be sure, we frogs have always had a special trick to hop out of life’s hot pots. And of course it’s the same trick that gets us into them in the first place: technology and innovation. When a Malthusian catastrophe loomed last century, we had the Green Revolution. When a new coronavirus appeared this century that might have killed many tens of millions, we had a vaccine in record time. Earth’s apocryphal frogs often act brain-dead, but can still do remarkably clever things. And improving technology is always easier than improving behavior. So we send out robots to look for space aliens and wonder if they too might be frogs.

All of which is to say that whether the end of this century will look more like Star Trek or more like Mad Max (or worse) still depends on us and our technologies. In my pre-pandemic professional life of technology and innovation, I believed that saving the future meant developing the “appropriate” technologies and innovations (e.g. renewable energy, sustainable business models, etc.) and the rest would more or less follow. Those outside the field may find that a strange view, but there are actually strong arguments for it. Social revolutions may make for better history reading, but again,technology revolutions are what feed people, not to mention cure diseases and get us to Mars.

In spite of all that, though, today I find my old views embarrassingly naive.

The frustrating truth is that even our most successful, well intentioned innovations always come with a long fat tail of be-careful-what-you-wish-for. The reason is simple enough. Any innovation worthy of the name changes human behavior. Interests, relationships, wealth and power structures change in incalculable ways. All this reordering creates new social and environmental entropy that has to go somewhere, either outsourced in the present or outsourced to future generations. The inexorable result is that the reach our technology always exceeds the grasp of our collective wisdom. And by the time society asks “how did we get here?” it’s too late to go back.

Of course ranting against technological progress is like ranting against Earth’s rotation. We may not always be happy with it (as when the day is too short) but we still need it. Humans evolved as obligate tool users and civilization makes us obligate technologists. Since we emerged from the last ice age as the only survivors of the genus homo, our story became inseparable from nonstop innovation. But we would do well to squarely face the fact that the journey that brought us to today was, mathematically speaking, never sustainable. Civilization is our great cross-generational Ponzi scheme,which always works out great until it suddenly doesn’t.

The information age has been the greatest accelerator of this basic dynamic. And things like our toxic cultural fragmentation through social media are just the beginning. In particular, we haven’t even begun to see what the ultimate information technology — artificial intelligence — is capable of. On the one hand it’s still a long way from its sci-fi hype of being alive/sentient/conscious, let alone taking over the world. On the other hand, even current AI paradigms only need a clearly defined goal to perform at superhuman levels. Their be-careful-what-you-wish-for challenge is precisely the “clearly defined” thing. Computers don’t do what we want them to do, only what we tell them to do. Nevertheless and given the unlimited potential upsides, our species is well on the path to outsourcing its crown cognitive jewels — e.g., reason, creativity, moral judgement and wisdom — to machine algorithms.

That may sound terrible when put like that but I believe it doesn’t have to be. Frankly, we humans need to get over our sapiens selves as the be-all-and-end-all of existence. After all, our limited human horizon is what brought us and the planet to this cliff edge in the first place. If our current predicament shows us anything, it’s that questioning and rethinking our own cognitive processes is long overdue. Isn’t it time we try to get past our default neural nature before events do that for us?

There is a famous hobbesian view of human nature that claims we are inherent trouble makers and only technological civilization has saved us from ourselves. The opposite rousseauian view is that we are inherently good (or least ok) and technological civilization is the problem, not the solution. As I’ve gained more distance from my past professional life, I’ve come to believe something different than either. Namely, that focusing on technology and civilization as either the problem or the solution looks too far downstream from what’s actually going on.​

What I see going on further upstream is our inborn addiction to storytelling. Stories are the superpower of human cognition. That’s because human language is unique in being computationally open-ended; recursive grammar gives our thoughts the potential of universal computation. That makes it a fantastically powerful entropy-export engine in our very chaotic world. Stories are interlocking data compressions that simplify things. They’re what get human neural networks up in the morning and keep them awake late at night. Especially addictive are stories that give us entire world views and belief systems. Stories that purport to tell us who we are, where we fit in and what we have to do are worth their weight in gold for a brain desperate to make sense of an otherwise incomprehensible world.

This addiction is no doubt as old as language, but technological civilization adds two special things the Paleolithic never could. First, it complicates life and hence creates an insatiable need for stories to simplify it all for us. And voila, it also provides the feed-stock for an endless variety of stories that do just that. That’s the feedback loop that makes modern life interesting but often fatally intractable. And since the Neolithic revolution 11,000 years ago we’ve accumulated a lot of fatal stories about ourselves and each other. Stories instilling social hierarchies and dogmas have been particularly toxic favorites. It may be our technologies that we fight wars, oppress each other and wreck the planet with. But it’s the stories created by technological civilization that drive us to do it.

How could opening our minds to machine thinking make a difference? In a nutshell, maybe because AI is designed to access levels of meaning we humans evolved to ignore. Our brains operate on a very limited budget of space, time and calories. Simple stories are our brain’s only defense against entropy’s relentless onslaught.

But an AI eats entropy for breakfast. It’s designed to pick out deep patterns of order in a jungle of chaos no human brain dares to tread. It sees meaning where we’re blind, and does so without prejudice or fear of the consequences. On the one hand, that shows how pitifully little we humans actually know about life. On the other hand, maybe that also shows us how much we can still learn.

It’s not that we should want or expect some future super-AI to simply give us truth and wisdom on stone tablets. Humankind hardly needs more dogma falling from the sky. But maybe we could use a few bits of inspiration. Perhaps we could learn to eat a little bit of entropy for breakfast ourselves. Maybe then one day we can even learn to get past our outdated post-Neolithic stories about who we are, where we fit in and what we have to do. That at least is a modest hope worth thinking about.

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