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Monkey's With Guns
August 15, 2014
by J.A. Young

Martin Reese presents some of his doubts about humanity at TED.

The world is a strange place, and the people in it are stranger still. When you boil humanity down to the simple relationships we maintain with the world around us, the problems our species face become alarmingly clear. We have the unprecedented power to devastate Earth (and destroy ourselves) with nuclear weapons, chemicals, environmental devastation and scientific blunders. And yet, despite this power, humans still run on the same cognitive software as they did thousands of years ago. Our power to change the world is fast outpacing our cognitive development. We still feud like primitive animals over distinctions like property, ideology and nationalism, while having total destruction at our fingertips.

“Yeah this oil is going to fuck up the ocean, but I want more money so lets do it. Sure a bunch of innocent people will be killed in Pakistan but we have to stop terrorism so fire the missile..” These are the thoughts that run through the most powerful minds on the planet, and they are quite obviously toxic remnants of a time gone by. To use an analogy from comedian Joe Rogan, people are like monkey’s who have suddenly discovered how to build assault rifles. Rogan jokes that if people came across a tribe of undiscovered chimps who had learned to use rifles, everyone would immediately lose their minds. The chimps would be killed, locked up or experimented on. Humanity would recoil in fear at the question: what harm could these chimps have done with this technology?  Well guess what, we are the chimps in the wilderness with AK-47s. Judging by our long-term perspectives and critical thinking about our place in the world, humans are like cosmic toddlers. Many people seem to think that this is a problem that will simply fade away as our technology becomes more advanced, but that is completely wrong.

I used to think that optimistic futurists like Google’s Ray Kurzweil were admirable, scientific sages that we should follow with a religious fervor towards a utopian dream-world. Their arguments are all based on sound science, using dots that follow curves and numbers that fit into models. “We are arriving at an end to scarcity,” many leading technologists say. “In just a few years time we will be able to provide everything we need, cure diseases and change the world forever.”  The more realistic of these prognosticators will usually throw in an afterthought with their predictions, but it should really be a main point. High-minded talks on the future of science and technology typically include the muttered phrase, “assuming we don’t blow ourselves up.” It is a common warning to be sure, but it is never said dishonestly. I find it astounding that such intelligent and inspirational people can gloss over a basic fact of human nature: we are still governed by our violent and antagonistic evolutionary history. Millions of years of evolution have made us a competitive species, it is encoded in our DNA to fear the other and focus on our own group’s well being. That isn’t just going to go away once we have the ability to 3-D print all of our own clothes and artificial limbs. In fact, it could become a serious problem when we start building intelligent robots and nanotechnology.

Thankfully, many of the most brilliant and optimistic minds of our time, such as Martin Reese, know what is at stake, they know that everything around us can go to hell in a hand basket at the drop of a hat, or better yet a stock. This is because we are all running humanity’s version of Windows 98 in our heads. As a result, we have no general social impetus towards improving the perspectives of individual people. Hell, in most parts of the civilized world you will be thrown in jail if authorities find you with a substance that can make you empathetic towards the suffering of others. Plants and chemicals that make people rethink their place in the world, their egotistical desires and petty emotions, are almost always illegal. How can we even have a discussion about the negative impact of our cognition when millions of people are scientifically illiterate and ignorant? These are huge problems that we have to consider with the rate at which our technology is growing.

Meanwhile, the politicians of the world who command murderous robots and torture people are doing so  in the name of freedom? Well they are are of course considered national heroes, the smiling faces that you see on TV saying “Everything will be OK, just give me a few more years in office.” They have seized their power, and like our primitive ancestors they are afraid of it going away. We live in a society where positive thinking trends are not only feared, they are actively suppressed by the government. We have created such an out of control capitalist system that relies on the military industrial complex that technology will always fall into the wrong hands. 

Regardless of the optimism of futurists, they are right about one thing, we are about to hit a watershed moment in scientific history. Within the next ten years, technology will move onto the nano-scale in a very big way. That means that instead of building circuits measured in centimeters and millimeters, we will manipulate individual molecules in order to build our computers, robots, designer drugs and medical tools. This is not a “what if?” question, it is only a matter of when it will occur. Vacuum tubes were replaced by microchips and microchips are being replaced by computing on an even smaller level. It is ridiculous to say, “We will achieve all of this great stuff as long as we don’t blow ourselves up or ruin the planet.” That is akin to saying, “Humans can keep using nuclear power as long as there are no more meltdowns.” There have already been meltdowns, we have already misused our technology to a vast degree. The fact that we have to inject this warning into our predictions at all means that we aren’t ready for this exponential scientific achievement. Technology doesn’t come into the world and then change everything for the better. By its very nature technology is a function of the people who use it---good and bad. How can we expect to see positive changes when our most of our new technology is being created to kill other people?

One of the first things people did when computers became mainstream was write viruses, bugs that infect your email and cover your screen in porno pop-ups. What happened as soon as we figured out how to fly planes without pilots in them? Generals and politicians strapped them with bombs and started murdering anyone they suspect may be an "insurgent". You can’t have a functioning society where people get more information, more power and more control and just assume that the world is becoming better. Isaac Asimov summed this entire problem up when he said, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” We cannot sustain this sort of “progress” and hope for a positive future without changing the way we all think and function. All of our hardest scientific labor will end up being in vain if we don’t build a more intelligent, empathetic and reasonable generation for the future. If you are a monkey running around in the woods with a machinegun, it doesn’t matter if you build a better machinegun. In the end you need to make the people who are using technology better from the inside first.

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