9. Towards abundant intelligence

This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 9 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist invitation

tam graphic 9

9. Towards abundant intelligence

The sustainable superabundance that potentially lies ahead involves more than just a better environment – clean energy, nutritious food, and ample material goods (the subjects of earlier chapters). It involves more than just the radical enhancement of our bodily health (the subject of the previous chapter). Crucially, it also involves the radical enhancement of our brains, mind, and spirit. In other words, with the right choices and the right actions, we can look forward to a blossoming of all-round intelligence.

This intelligence will reside in three locations. First, our individual brains can be improved, and will work much better than before. Second, artificial intelligence, resident in all kinds of computing hardware, can jump upwards in capability. Third, the aggregate intelligence of whole societies of people can be upgraded, allowing groups to draw on collective insight to solve problems that would previously have defeated them.

None of this will take place automatically. Nor will increases in intelligence necessarily lead to beneficial scenarios, rather than to deadly scenarios. As with all the other spheres of abundance discussed in this Invitation, the actual outcome will depend critically on choices taken by humanity over the next few years.

A key complication is that merely becoming more intelligent is no guarantee that someone will become wiser. Far from it. Some of the world’s nastiest politicians are evidently highly intelligent; likewise some of the world’s most ruthless criminals. A given quantity of intelligence can be applied in service of any number of different goals – including destructive goals as well as constructive goals. Intelligence can be deployed to confuse and mislead – to cajole and bamboozle. Greater intelligence gives people greater ability to accomplish whatever objectives they have already decided to pursue – and greater ability to find clever justifications to promote those objectives.

Although we humans like to think of ourselves as rational beings, a better description in many cases is that we are rationalising beings. We are expert in finding reasons that support our preexisting choices. As modern online searches place more ever information at our disposal, the easier it becomes for us to discover special cases that appear to back up our own favourite worldviews. As we connect into ever wider online communities, the more we can come across people who seem to share our viewpoints, reassuring us that we are on the right lines. As for evidence that appears to contradict our views, and critics who disagree with us, the online world can provide us with ingenious reasons to disregard that evidence and critics.

True all-round intelligence will rise above such narrow intensity and blinkered reasoning. But reaching this level of intelligence will require a lot more than merely turbo-charging our existing modes of reasoning.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence

Intelligence can be defined as the ability to figure out how to accomplish goals. In simple environments with simple goals – for example, to win in a game of chess, or to find the quickest route between two locations on a map – the intelligence required is “narrow”. For more complex environments and more complex goals, intelligence needs more general capabilities.

Human intelligence involves being able to understand and predict the motion of both animate and inanimate objects. It involves the development of a “theory of mind” – an understanding of the factors that can motivate creatures with minds to change their own beliefs and behaviours. It involves the skill of breaking down a complex task into a series of subtasks. It involves being able to select and accumulate resources that could be of use at later stages. It involves the ability to collect more information, for example by designing and carrying out experiments, in order to make better decisions. It involves being able to learn from setbacks and surprises, rather than merely repeating the same actions over and over.

From the 1940s onward, various aspects of human intelligence have been duplicated in electronic computers – starting from code-breaking and the calculation of missile trajectories. Over the decades, so-called “expert systems” emerged, that could assist humans to carry out all kinds of different decisions.

In more recent times, a disruptive new wave of computer programs called “machine learning” has achieved surprising success, often dramatically surpassing the performance of expert systems. Machine learning software can in effect infer by itself the relationships between various sorts of input and output data. For example, to tell the difference between pictures of cats and pictures of dogs, an expert system would include large numbers of specific rules, entered individually by human programmers, along with information about exceptions to each rule. A machine learning system, in contrast, would be shown lots of pictures of cats and dogs, and would, via a process known as “training”, figure out a set of factors to distinguish the two cases.

Since the operation of successful machine learning involves numerous layers of simple binary decisions that have some elements in common with the on-off firing of neurons in the brain, the names “deep learning” and “neural networks” are commonly used.

Transhumanists anticipate that, just as expert systems have recently been overtaken in capability by the new wave of deep learning, so will deep learning be in turn overtaken in capability by yet new waves of artificial intelligence.

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There’s more to democracy than voting

Suppose that the UK held another referendum on the subject of Brexit. Suppose that the numerical result was essentially the same as before: around 52% voting for the UK to leave the EU, and around 48% voting for the UK to remain.

In that case, would that referendum prove to have been a massive waste of time and money?

My answer: not necessarily. Such a vote could actually lead to the healing of the nation, rather than to continued divisiveness and chaos.

politics chaos or healing

It all depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during that referendum.

If supporters of Leave came forward, during the campaign, with arguments that were less contestable and more compelling than before, this could lead to a healing of the nation. People who voted for the other option in the referendum might still feel disappointed. But they could accept that there were sound arguments in favour of the side that won. And, unlike the case of the first Brexit referendum, they could move forward, reconciled to the outcome. They could tell themselves they had lost a fair battle.

A similar conclusion could apply if, in a variant potential future scenario, it were Remain that won the second referendum, even if just by a narrow margin. Again, there’s no inherent reason why that conclusion would lead to ongoing bitterness. Again, it depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during the campaigns.

Not just a re-run

Various critics of the idea of a second referendum are doubtful that anything positive could arise from a new round of campaigning. It would just be a re-run of the previous campaign, they say, perhaps with a few people changing their minds. Nothing essentially new could arise. Forget healing. We would just get more chaos.

But I give a much more positive assessment to the idea of a second, better, referendum.

For one reason, people have learned a great deal in the intervening 30 months. Opinions which could be seen as plausible two years ago, have long since been shown up as deeply wrong. As an example, consider the now thoroughly discredited claim that it would be “the easiest deal ever” to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU (witness “EU trade deal ‘easiest in human history'” and “All the times David Davis said that Brexit was simple”.) On such matters, we’re all wiser now.

But more fundamentally, it’s now widely recognised that it’s in everyone’s interest to cool down the debate, rather than letting matters be inflamed further.

The falsification principle

As a step away from ideology to objectivity, participants in the debate should start by reflecting long and hard about which circumstances would cause them to change their minds. This is in line with the falsification principle of science: people aspiring to scientific methods should set out in advance which experimental findings would cause them to seriously rethink their currently favoured theories.

Therefore, people favouring Remain should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Leave instead. In this way, they would identify the potentially strongest arguments in favour of Leave. For example, to my mind, the strongest argument in favour of Leave would be if the structural weakness of the eurozone were shown to be likely to lead to huge financial chaos, of a sort that the UK could best hope to escape by being outside of the EU altogether.

Likewise, people favouring Leave should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Remain instead. For example, they might be prepared to alter their vote if they gained confidence in the flexibility and genuineness of EU reform proposals.

Debate participants unable to set out such a “falsifying circumstance” would have to acknowledge they are driven by ideology, rather being open to new findings.

Preparing to build bridges

In parallel, participants in both sides of the debate need to set out proposals for how the UK could unwind from any state of internal hostility after the campaign was concluded.

To this end, supporters of Remain need to acknowledge that many on the Leave side are profoundly ill at ease with what they see as the direction of social development. More than that, Remain supporters need to be ready to commit to a credible programme to address key causes of this alienation, including the bitter perception many people have of being “left behind”.

Similarly, supporters of Leave need to acknowledge that many on the Remain side are profoundly ill at ease with the potential unravelling of processes of multilateral decisions, in a post-Brexit race-to-the bottom world of increasing deregulation.

Towards superdemocracy

That’s the vision – the vision of a better politics being expressed in a better referendum.

It’s a vision that goes beyond democracy-as-counting-votes. It’s a vision of emerging superdemocracy (to use a term that has featured in the last two Transpolitica books – Transcending Politics and Sustainable Superabundance).

Is this vision credible? Or are we doomed to a politics dominated by feelings of vengeance and obliteration?

That is, is a second referendum likely to lead to even greater chaos, or to healing?

Personal leadership

To an extent, the answer will be influenced by the personal qualities of the people leading each side of the debate. Do these people have high personal integrity? Are they open to learning? Are they able to build bridges? Do they have high emotional intelligence? Or are they, instead, obsessive and self-serving?

The answer (chaos or healing) will also depend on how the media conducts itself. Is the media looking for high drama? Will it seek out and amplify the most inflammatory soundbites? Or will it show restraint and care?

To my mind, everyone who cares about the future of the UK has to get behind the processes of healing, rather than the processes of chaos.

That means a commitment to debating honestly – to considering the merits and demerits of different arguments fairly, rather than with a partisan spirit.

This also means a commitment to building bridges – to discovering shared common values, even with people who express views very differently to our own.

It won’t be easy. But the cost of failure would be enormous.

Image source: “Big Ben at Sunset” – Photo by M N on Unsplash

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