Human reality in the 21st century is becoming more artificial with every passing year. That is one of the main reasons that I started Artificial Times. As I examine our expanding artificial reality and its attendant risks, I’m always aware of the daunting magnitude of the challenges we face. Sometimes that can lead me feeling somewhat helpless and occasionally even hopeless.
The significance of the risks leads me to focus on them, to the exclusion of more optimistic themes. But I also realize that I need a wellspring of hope and a profound purpose for continuing to live and evolve. I think that is part of being human; I am not alone in needing genuine hope, despite the many grim prospects that seem possible for the future of humanity.
The possibilities for lethal abuses of emerging technologies are real. Compounding the risk is the constantly accelerating rate at which the changes are taking place and the unknowable ways that new dangers will arise. We must take stock of the situation very soon if we are to avert global catastrophes more severe than any previously experienced. But the response that is urgently required is neither fear nor apathy, but active and realistic optimism. As we survey the threats, it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed. But the facts are not settled.
There is one huge variable in the present moment of human history whose outcome nobody can predict with any certainty. That variable is how we human beings will use our creative intelligence together to respond to the risks we face. If we simply ignore them or deny their significance, we will most likely be continue to be swept along by the same horrific impulses that have generated war and misery throughout the ages. On the other hand, if we find the collective will and means to envision ways through the dangers, we can also join together to imagine truly wonderful, yet realistic, possible futures for humanity.
Beyond all religion
Many people derive hope from religion. It can provide a framework of belief that supplies meaning and an inherently benevolent existential context. Religion helps people to confront the constant uncertainties of everyday life. The future is always unknown; none of us knows for sure what tomorrow holds.
The modern era has made it harder to be intellectually honest while embracing faith. We know so much now about life and the universe and our own bodies that was completely beyond investigation only a century ago.
We don’t know when and how we will die, nor can we predict most of the other major life events that will transpire between now and then. The illusion of security and certainty, called “faith” by some, relieves the discomfort of not knowing, provided that one is not too deeply troubled by the unanswered questions that inevitably accompany that illusion. Maintaining it requires that one ignore or hide from the many difficult questions that always threaten to disrupt our all-important sense of security.
Such pseudo-certainty is maintained by actively embracing the unfounded reassurance that one need not know anything more than what is passed down through the generations of ancient traditions enshrined in one’s religion.
These ancient teachings provide explicit instructions on how to live and what to value, based on the supposition that they have privileged access to knowledge of humanity’s ultimate purpose. The stories of societies all over the world suggest that human beings greatly value some such framework of existential meaning. Grand narratives of many kinds have been handed down through countless generations. People fight and kill and suffer in service to their particular religious traditions, everywhere that humans make their homes.
The modern era has made it harder to be intellectually honest while embracing faith. We know so much now about life and the universe and our own bodies that was completely beyond investigation only a century ago. Our telescopes have registered starlight that originated when the universe was very young, over 14 billion years ago. We now know that humans are one of countless species that all share a common ancestor. We know that matter itself is ultimately comprised of elements that are essentially immaterial. Some people continue to believe the stories that were invented thousands of years ago by men who had no knowledge of the workings of the human brain and its foundational role in all human experience. It provides comfort, because the weight of uncertainty is hard to bear.
All of which suggest to me that, if I am not content with simply accepting the prescribed purpose passed down by tradition, I must either live without purpose, or define my own purpose as best as I can.
What is this Hope?
If we can no longer uncritically adopt the explanatory frameworks that our traditions offer us, we have to define and create our own foundations for existential meaning. True, comprehensive human thriving must be one of the crucial elements for any human vision of the future. Certainly we are only one of the species on this planet and we should not suppose that true wellbeing can be achieved for humanity if we fail to understand and respect the complex ecological webs that we inhabit. At the same time, we have an obligation to future humans to actively strive to create a future for humanity that is as expansive and optimistic as possible. This is a vision full of hope. And (for me, at least) it is a vision sufficiently inspiring that it is more than sufficient to replace religious faith.
We humans have the astonishing ability to entirely transform the course of events, for all of life on this planet, but especially for our own species.
Genuine hope is not to be found in the stories passed down from humanity’s past, but I believe it can be discovered in the achievable visions we can imagine for humanity’s possible future. We humans have the astonishing ability to entirely transform the course of events, for all of life on this planet, but especially for our own species.
Technologies of all kinds bring with them possibilities both for good and for ill. Likewise, today’s artificial creations made possible by information technology could open nearly unimaginable possibilities for future human wellbeing, especially in combination with advances fields such as medicine, biology, and neuroscience. True physical immortality is within the realm of conceivable future scientific achievement. Unlimited cognitive capabilities could become a normal part of the human condition, with the advent of brain-machine interfaces and neural implants, both of which are brought closer to everyday reality by rapid developments in nanotechnology.
Despite all of the positive prospects, there are at least as many reasons to be very worried. The speed of the evolution of artificial reality is continually increasing and there are few or no precedents that offer real guidance. Humanity has never before been in the position of creating a way to replace itself by means of artificially intelligent technologies. We really don’t have any kind of template for how this will work out.
There is plenty of cause for despair, if we want to focus on that. Humans don’t have a good track record, so far, at finding truly peaceful and harmonious ways to coexist. There is every reason to expect that the powerful emerging technologies will be turned to destructive ends, for military or for criminal purposes, or both. The more that people entrust governments to protect them from the growing threats, the more power those same governments will have to control the population. This would not necessarily be bad in itself, if we had any way of ensuring that governments would necessarily be good and their use of force and control was always wise, just, and right.
There are many reasons to be very worried. The speed of the evolution of artificial reality is continually increasing and there is no real guidance. Humanity has never been in the position of creating a way to replace itself by means of artificially intelligent technologies. We really don’t have any kind of template for how this will work out.
Unfortunately, humans are seldom entirely good. The more that technology concentrates power in the hands of a few people, the more likely it is that someone will find a way to abuse it. Our best path of defense is to ensure the integrity and trustworthiness of our own governments. The only conceivable alternative to that approach would be to attempt to find some way of living beyond their control, which is becoming very nearly impossible and will soon be entirely unattainable, due to the very information technologies that pose the greatest threats and promise the greatest benefits. The relative balance of powers available to governments and their citizens is constantly shifting in favor of governments. We cannot fight our own governments, so we must work to bring genuine integrity into the public sphere. The good news is that there is a lot of momentum pushing modern societies in that direction.
Our realistic hope must be active, not passive. We cannot only hope, we must also act. And we must choose and create the hopeful future that we want to realize. The answer to the question of whether the future will reflect a hopeful or a despairing vision is very much up to us.
Three Ironies of Modernity
A great irony of our time is that we desperately need real hope to unite us, inspire us, and defeat the nihilism engendered by despair, but we are constantly confronted with evidence of threats to the long term wellbeing of our species. There are so many reasons to be alarmed that most sane people are a little bit nervous at the best of times. We really need some rood reason for hope.
Another great irony of our time is that our best reasons for hope are also the reasons to fear. We stand at the threshold of an amazing new dawn of intelligence and knowledge, glimpsing real possibilities that were wild fantasy and speculative science fiction a few short decades ago. This has shades of being a glass half-full or a glass half-empty, but it is much more than that. We can change the outcome. But to do so will require that we unite in the service of hope for a future that is truly good, both for humankind and for the rest of the planet. To meet the challenge, we must find ways to be ignited and united by hope. If we focus too intently on the jeopardy, we may thereby lose our only chance to avert an existential catastrophe.
A third and final irony of our time is that we must cultivate real and reasonable hope, based on the best evidence available to our best reasoning, so we cannot ignore the many serious risks we face. Indeed, only by meeting those threats with open eyes and open minds can we hope to take the best actions to avert them. To be optimally hopeful, we must be fully committed to sound reason. We must learn to work together in the service of a truly hopeful vision, which can only be realized by assessing and preparing to meet the enormous challenges that confront us.
Embracing a vision for the long-term future of our species that is both hopeful and realistic offers the most powerful purpose that we humans can imagine.
If our commitment to sound reason is also infused with a commitment to understand and embody the principle of the good for humanity and the planet, then it truly is a commitment to good reason.
If you are interested in having a purpose for existence, I submit that embracing a vision for the long-term future of our species that is both hopeful and realistic offers the most powerful purpose that we humans can imagine, within the bounds of good reason. This vision of hope is still embryonic. Before it can become a real force for proactively planning the future, it must be embraced by visionaries everywhere. Fortunately, many such people are already inspired by the possibility of a future in which both humanity flourishes and becomes more fully engaged in reasoning towards the good.
That is good reason for hope.