Tuesday, April 29, 2014

FQXi essay contest 2014: How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

This year’s essay contest of the Foundational Questions Institute “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?” broaches a question that is fundamental indeed, fundamental not for quantum gravity but for the future of mankind. I suspect the topic selection has been influenced by the contest being “presented in partnership with” (which I translate into “sponsored by”) not only the John Templeton foundation and Scientific American, but also a philanthropic organization called the “Gruber Foundation” (which I had never heard of before) and Jaan Tallinn.

Tallinn is no unknown, he is one of the developers of Skype and when I type his name into Google the auto completion is “net worth”. I met him at the 2011 FQXi conference where he gave a little speech about his worries that artificial intelligence will turn into a threat to humans. I wrote back then a blogpost explaining that I don’t share this particular worry. However, I recall Tallinn’s speech vividly, not because it was so well delivered (in fact, he seemed to be reading off his phone), but because he was so very sincere about it. Most people’s standard reaction in the face of threats to the future of mankind is cynicism or sarcasm, essentially a vocal shoulder shrug, whereas Tallinn seems to have spent quite some time thinking about this. And well, somebody really should be thinking about this...

And so I appreciate the topic of this year’s essay contest has a social dimension, not only because it gets tiresome to always circle the same question of where the next breakthrough in theoretical physics will be and the always same answers (let me guess, it’s what you work on), but also because it gives me an outlet for my interests besides quantum gravity. I have always been fascinated by the complex dynamics of systems that are driven by the individual actions of many humans because this reaches out to the larger question of where life on planet Earth is going and why and what all of this is good for.

If somebody asks you how humanity should steer the future, a modest reply isn’t really an option, so I have submitted my five step plan to save the world. Well, at least you can’t blame me for not having a vision. The executive summary is that we will only be able to steer at all if we have a way to collectively react to large scale behavior and long-term trends of global systems, and this can only happen if we are able to make informed decisions intuitively, quickly and without much thinking.

A steering wheel like this might not be sufficient to avoid running into obstacles, but it is definitely necessary, so that is what we have to start with.

The trends that we need to react to are those of global and multi-leveled systems, including economic, social, ecological and politic systems, as well as various infrastructure networks. Presently, we basically fail to act when problems appear. While the problems arise from the interaction of many people and their environment, it is still the individual that has to make decisions. But the individual presently cannot tell how their own action works towards their goals on long distance or time scales. To enable them to make good decisions, the information about the whole system has to be routed back to the individual. But that feedback loop doesn’t presently exist.

In principle it would be possible today, but the process is presently far too difficult. The vast majority of people do not have the time and energy to collect the necessary information and make decisions based on it. It doesn’t help to write essays about what we ‘should’ do. People will only act if it’s really simple to do and of immediate relevance for them. Thus my suggestion is to create individual ‘priority maps’ that chart personal values and provide people with intuitive feedback for how well a decision matches with their priorities.

A simple example. Suppose you train some software to tell what kind of images you find aesthetically pleasing and what you dislike. You now have various parameters, say colors, shapes, symmetries, composition and so on. You then fill out a questionnaire about preferences for political values. Now rather than long explanations which candidate says what, you get an image that represents how good the match is by converting the match in political values to parameters in an image. You pick the image you like best and are done. The point is that you are being spared having to look into the information yourself, you only get to see the summary that encodes whether voting for that person would work towards what you regard important.

Oh, I hear you say, but that vastly oversimplifies matters. Indeed, that is exactly the point. Oversimplification is the only way we’ll manage to overcome our present inability to act.

If mankind is to be successful in the long run, we have to evolve to anticipate and react to interrelated global trends in systems of billions of people. Natural selection might do this, but it would take too much time. The priority maps are a technological shortcut to emulate an advanced species that is ‘fit’ in the Darwinian sense, fit to adapt to its changing environment. I envision this to become a brain extension one day.

I had a runner up to this essay contribution, which was an argument that research in quantum gravity will be relevant for quantum computing, interstellar travel and technological progress in general. But it would have been a quite impractical speculation (not to mention a self-advertisement of my work on superdeterminism, superluminal information exchange and antigravity). In my mind of course it’s all related – the laws of physics are what eventually drive the evolution of consciousness and also of our species. But I decided to stick with a proposal that I think is indeed realizable today and that would go a long way to enable humanity to steer the future.

I encourage you to check out the essays which cover a large variety of ideas. Some of the contributions seem to be very bent towards the aim of making a philosophical case for some understanding of natural law rather than the other, or to find parallels to unsolved problems in physics, but this seems quite a stretch to me. However, I am sure you will find something of interest there. At the very least it will give you some new things to worry about...


  1. "How Should Humanity Steer the Future?"

    The Seven Dreadful Sins: stupidity, insanity, fetish, religiosity, malice, irresponsibility, and mandated charity. Allow the congenitally inconsequential and the smartless to die of their own empirical incompetence. Support concealed carry. Think of it as evolution in action.

    Faith-based engineering is a perpetual test of faith. If god loves the poor, crippled, and stupid, then god can bloody well pay for them or take them back. My wallet is broken, as is the world.

  2. The future is fundamentally not steerable. That is (one reason) why we must navigate by the moral quality of our actions, not the moral quality of our goals. I will have more to say about this, however, because science and technology also are changing the actions, the means.

    Michael Gogins

  3. The title of this post begs the question: which part of humanity should steer the future?

    President Obama?
    The UN general assembly?
    The scientists (and which scientists? Lubos Motl?)
    Vladimir Putin?
    Me (worst of all)?

  4. "The title of this post begs the question"

    No; it asks the question. "Beg the question" means something different: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

  5. You talk of "feeling rather than thinking"? You must be a very dissapointed girl. There seems to be a guilt lurking somewhere in your essay.. Nevertheless I have to remind you that in the ancient days of Odyssey, Ulysses was only able to escape Polyphemus trap by his own cunningness rather than sentimentalism.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbbtmskCRUY

  6. Dear Bee,

    Nice ideas in your essay; to make them work may take a lot of work and innovation.

    Take for instance, Netflix's movie recommendation engine. The system is supposed to learn your preferences and recommend movies to you. They did a lot of work, had a competition, paid a million dollar prize. How well does it actually work? I for one am not terribly impressed.

    I infer from that, that matching a person's preferences with movie characteristics, some kind of figuring out the best distance measure to use in a high-dimensional space with discrete coordinates (actors, movie directors, script writers, movie genre, plot characteristics, cinematographers, music types, etc.), is a hard problem.


  7. After two dozen attempted comments to your essay I ran out of views in which to view and comment your essay's subject.

    How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
    One without incentive or use...
    for money?

    yours truly,

  8. The question reveals a pitiful degree of hubris an delusion.

    My advice: keep a low profile, and definitely keep a bag packed.

  9. Hi Bee,

    I have read your essay as well as many others too, but to me, those essays are worthless (but that doesn't affect my scoring process). Why? Well, you'll find it out after reading my essay ;-)

    Anyway, Philip Gibbs' essay might win this time, don't you think?

  10. Kimmo,

    I yet have to check out your essay. Philipp Gibbs' is a good essay, but I'll be disappointed if he wins. I can see that his topic is popular with the crowd at the FQXi page for obvious reasons, but it doesn't actually address the problem. Open peer review does not work simply because most papers will never get any review. The ones that will be read at all are the ones by well known authors and that introduces its own bias. Besides this, he entirely leaves out the question of what to do even if this would result in a better rating of scientific results. How do you steer the future with that?

    Needless to say, all of these points are addressed in my essay, but then I'm one of those old-fashioned academics who think that peer review sometimes does work just fine. The problems with the academic system are not in peer review itself. The main problem is that researchers are more or less forced to promote their own research field because it's hard if not impossible to change field. This introduces a huge bias and inertia.



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  12. Kimmo,
    Both essays have their place and reading them as a finished product directly is much more impressive and informative itself. The reflections on it in this post of Sabines would be a fine entry itself.
    Hawking asked for such social input not that long ago so the concepts do seem to converge and be responsibly related.
    While I praise anyone who would try to bring down to earth science for all of us either individually or together a risk and sacrifice without reward most often, on the frontiers some of them simply have no peers.

  13. How can they ever save the world, if they can’t save its best part, me?! In case of doubt, you (everybody) can substitute yourself for "me", with the same result.

    To do anything to/with humanity, one should first find one, which is an extremely difficult task and rather unsolvable problem today. Ultimately stupid and abusive crowds of biped animals cannot qualify. Nobody to steer and nothing to save anymore. This Humanity 1.0 is already behind us and its world is dead, end of game. Beyond is only sci-fi and other religion about possible Humanity n.0. And me, of course, but one is not enough here.

    As to the proposed salvation plan, again and again in this post-human techno-folie epoch one substitutes so readily the means for the ends, the instrument for the purpose… It’s only about more efficient manipulation (polite substitute: steering) of just that remaining stupid crowd, assumed in this case to be ever more stupid in its unavoidable "simplicity" (that’s why I wouldn’t agree with the author’s self-estimate as "maybe na├»ve", at the end of the article, it’s rather the opposite, "too realistic").

    And what for, all those "new tools" (even if they could be efficient)? To get where and obtain what? Ever more acccessible physical pleasures? Or more of bullshit science solving nothing, leading nowhere? There’s already too much of it all almost everywhere, together with the feedback simple "images" (TV, internet), and the result is the ever more obvious end of the game, not the salvation…

    No, one can never (successfully) substitute a mechanism (social including) for the humanity essence it is supposed to help. If the latter is absent, any "social feedback" will be meaningless… And conversely, any meaningful "salvation plan" should necessarily address directly the (new) human essence.

    Saviour, save yourself.:)

  14. Andrei,
    that is a most impressive view and presentation.
    But complexity worthy of study itself does not answer foundational questions as a general theory of everything especially as a social or individual observations on how we think, epistemology or any modalities of knowing, of chance or necessity, science.
    What about Nash Equilibrium and with a wide enough study and motivation there can be strategies that tend to win? How should we apply it in loops and reflections to steer society?
    Do we gain anything by descent into reductionist materialism or ascent to reason by endless conflicts of syntheses?
    We modestly imagine the future
    Yet ateleology and antiteleology are forms of teleology. In speculative fiction and some scientific models we van go back to an earlier time and change things, bring back someone to the future. But who is to say ten thousand years from now such travelers would find any of us monkeys worth saving?
    we can only try here and now. I remain optimistic.
    When the healers snakes entwine or the Ourobus worm loops to consume itself we all seem to know what the metaphor means for hope and that there can be a certain end by lack of belief in the Ivory towers of ourselves that risks the Neverending Story.

  15. Sabine,

    Cold fact is that within year or two whole Earth might be annihilated (due to manmade chain reaction), so thinking about how to steer the future in general is complete waste of time. It sounds so unbelievable that one can't even grasp the fact completely.

    Don't buy that? :-) You should, seriously.

  16. Edgar,

    I develop and apply the rigorously derived concept of dynamic complexity, which is very different from the canonical loose exercises on the subject, does solve problems (otherwise unsolvable) and gives well-specified and rigorously substantiated answers to questions you mention and also to those about the future of humanity to be decided by the critical choice of today.

    The problem I cannot solve is of another, subjective origin. Everything in modern science is decided by narrow circles of unconditionally dominating priests who cannot even consider ANY result different from their “accepted” (by themselves) approaches, including the statement that there is NO universal and well-specified concept of complexity, let alone the one that gives well-specified solutions to important problems (because THEY could not produce it)…

    This reveals a deeper underlying problem, where knowledge, the basis of everything in this civilisation, is of least (real) public importance, and the situation never stops to degrade in the same direction. This cannot give other result than devastating destruction (even before Kimmo’s “chain reaction”:)), but nobody really cares (and scientists even less than others - because their incomes are currently more stable)…

    Real modern impasses illustrated by (fictional) “Nash Equilibrium” can be surpassed only by transition to the superior level of the game, and this can be performed only by ascending (genuine) reason. It does not contain any “conflicts of syntheses” (where did you see so many consistent syntheses?), conflicts is a sign of imitations (contrary to reason, these ones are never missing).

    So not only my synthesis, but increasingly real life itself shows that today one should not imagine future “modestly”, by “trying” one or another technical trick, by their “eternal” trial-and-error: the situation and the choices made are critical and produce great, self-amplifying consequences, whether one wants it explicitly or not. Therefore one must clearly, completely understand it all (which is not a modest task) and then realise the objectively right choice.

    It applies also to your imaginary travelers from future: yes, they MUST save a progressive monkey and would ignore (or even suppress) the usual degrading species. It’s just another version of the same criticality. In reality we all are critical travelers TO the future. And it means that NOW (not before) you can be “optimistic” only if you know and can realise the (provably) good critical choice, which is not so evident because it will necessarily involve a great “shift of consciousness” (eventually of many active people, if we think about realisable choices).

    By pure coincidence, I met the following quotation today:

    “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

    The REAL reason for hope, I would add. I have my real reason to give, but the commanding generations are too stupid.:)

  17. I was going to say that Humanity Should Steer the Future by starting a new religion, one that reflects all our finest values and rejects bigotry, hate and willful ignorance. But then I reminded myself that we already have such a religion. It's called: Christianity -- a religion I do NOT believe in, but nevertheless admire.

    As both a Jew and an Atheist, I nevertheless find in the teachings of Jesus Christ a model for humanity to follow if we really want to get along with one another and thereby survive. If only most Christians felt the same way, then maybe our politicians would be able to find some decent common ground.

  18. DocG, this is an example showing that the first thought can be better than the second one.:)

    In fact, “something” like “new religion” is needed, but indeed a new one, so new that it should be suitable even for atheists like you (as well as for current believers and sympathisers of all classical religions, now irreducibly separated).

    One should start by realising that it is possible, that it’s the only nondestructive way to proceed and that the conditions making it possible and even inevitable are already here.

    Returning to Christianity, it had started in a somewhat similar epoch of the end of the previous kind of development and civilisations and the emerging new times and needs (as well as other big monotheistic religions). However, two thousand years have passed and now a similar (but much greater) bifurcation of development makes the now dominating beliefs (atheism including) insufficient. Not that they are or were “wrong”, simply they are not sufficient any more and should serve as an old foundation for an entirely new building, corresponding to the next, superior stage of development. I would add that those simplistic attempts of “unification of science and religion” cannot provide the necessary new way.

  19. Kimmo: I replied to your comment over at the thread on the FQXi site.

  20. Hello Bee. I thought your concept was interesting. As I commented there:

    I think it would be a good idea to offer the organizing and reward services you describe in the essay. It comes across as ethically acceptable due to the voluntary nature of these "apps" (should they be called brain apps or etc?) However we can wonder, if the presumed easier access of elites to these apps would give them even more advantage. I wonder if, instead of just reflecting back each individual's preferences, the app could be engineered or even required in regulations, to present at least some portion of global priorities etc? Something to think about at least.

    I'm hoping you'll supply a response there. Also, you wrote there that you'd read my essay, and presumably comment. As for my own essay, I address the issue of whether the human mind tends to end up properly prepared for steering a worthwhile future. The lament is similar to Sabine's, altho I take a different tack on how to get there. Admittedly my analysis is speculative, but the practical proposal (mostly, more critical thinking and willpower training) could be helpful regardless of one's philosophical positions on free will etc. It has been show 1. that people who believe in free will can more easily exercise "self control" and 2. exercise of will power can strengthen it like a muscle in the long term (altho there is some short-term "burnout" involved in it, just as also with muscle use.) We can make use of such insights and training regardless of whether we solve or agree on the ultimate status of "will", "consciousness" etc.

    My essay can be found at Neil Bates' FQXi Essay. Comments and ratings are welcome. BTW it seems that the public can no longer comment.

  21. /* ..How Should Humanity Steer the Future? ..*/

    Isn't it obvious? Research the cold fusion, scalar waves and negentropic phenomena, f**k the useless if not dangerous mainstream physics research...

  22. If cold fusion works, why aren't you rich?

  23. If cold war works why are we poor?

  24. Neil,
    Excellent essay I will have to study further to see how the philosophic conclusions and possibilities fit in. It is said the acid test of philosophy is the free will and determinism issue. In a sense we attempt to make it a test of science too that may underlying what we feel are subjective and social problems as projections into our collective and individual futures, the topic, sensible planning if there is one or the better of possible ones as we seem to have more control and influence over our own evolution.
    I especially liked the panoramic view that reached from the big questions to simple examples of flashlights and mirrors. Descartes did experiment with optics, mirrors and light.
    Although his coordinates regarded negative values as not important, his doubts of existing argued for it by the possitive analogy to that question in our dreams.

    The letters on a transparent sheet you mentioned I had never heard of but the effect, implying illusions or facts of nature I did intuit from simpler observations, structural phenomena in thinking about chirality, abstractly the same right and left effect.
    But neither chirality nor Descartes ideas on vortices as I once thought was the creative structure that explained everything. Up and down does seem relative to us as we gaze into a flat mirror. But if the universe is all mathematics it is not a general description for I can think of one model that preserves up and down, omnidirectional gravity determined in the sense that we can see only a little distance forward like an abstract cave wall, right or left illusions aside.
    Opponents in such a chess game reverse this in a box or space region that makes such quantized gravity not distinctly top or bottom but a loop.
    This is so foundational and technical I seem to lose myself as well as casual readers.
    You, Sabine cautious where science clearly distinguishes speculation, and others here have what it takes to make such inquiry - we should add perhaps it not just about or essential emotions in the mix but how we should steer the great power of our intellegence.
    Two parabolas, one larger and perpendicular made with flat mirrors can melt lead, but if we made lens to perfection for practical uses we would melt the pot. Nature is a little relaxed and we a little lazy for now to find a better chart to get our priorities straight before we realize we may urgently need them. Our only failure will be that we settle for less and believe in that state of things we can endure.
    Best all around ...

  25. I confess, I am old fashioned..


  26. Phillip: The title asks *how* humanity should steer the future, not *which part* of it should do the steering. The issue how the 7.5 bn people that make up humanity could ever reach such an agreement remains ignored, and begs the question.


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