It was just about 5 years ago to the day that I wrote the first draft of “The Four Horsemen of the Datapocalypse.” The news now is dominated by the recent impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, a topic I doubt I could have encountered in my wildest nightmares back then. But I am reminded every day of that article’s theme: we are living through the unraveling of civilization.
These times are not only artificial, they are also hyperbolic. The word “unprecedented” occurs in daily news at an unprecedented rate – literally. The present resembles the past less and less, so we struggle to find ways to describe, even to comprehend, the world we inhabit. It is not the number of differences that I find most notable, but the kind. Every day, more species get added to the list of the endangered and most people today suspect that list includes homo sapiens. In such times, statements that used to seem extraordinary (and not so long ago), now are common.
The hyperbole that dominates our hyperbolic times can leave us all a little deafened. People try to describe what they see, but it’s increasingly difficult to find words for the extent, scope, and magnitude of the existential threats to modern civilization. Like you, I often feel numbed by the unceasing blast of bad news.
Even so, I believe that optimism can be salvaged.
How? First, let’s puncture the hollow, over-inflated promises made by religion. If God’s plan is to save us from destruction, why allow Auschwitz? If you think that was part of God’s plan, what kind of God do you think makes plans like that? Every army goes to battle “with God on their side.” Such gods must have many sides. And those who claim to know whose side God is on seem primarily intent on lining their pockets while blessing the wholesale demise of humanity.
No, we should not take any solace in the empty platitudes of contemporary superstition. But neither should we assume that science and technology can save us. Clearly, those are the very forces that created most of this mess in the first place.
Can we find any comfort by considering the nature of human beings? I’m reminded of the question sometimes posed by comics: have you met human beings?
Optimism is not easy. But it’s still an option. And this is the interesting bit. I find myself with a choice, five years after first glimpsing the Four Horsemen of the Datapocalypse. To be clear, that is not because the threat has lessened. It continues to grow at the same exponential rate. On the contrary, it is the choice itself that gives me hope.
I cannot paint a rosy picture of the coming decades. The converging trends of pervasive computing, big data analytics, AI, and cyber hostility have all become more powerful and obvious. The momentum of these four megatrends continues unchecked. For my money, we are right on schedule for the loss of human sovereignty. Machine minds are smarter than ever. The alien intelligence all around us, based in cold, binary logic, never sleeps. It is relentless in its quest for dominance. In fact, it has already won.
But soon there will be flowers in the springtime sunshine, birds singing in the newly green trees, and shy smiles in the eyes of young lovers. Life is mysterious. We really cannot comprehend the magic that binds quanta and galaxies into this ceaseless dance of becoming.
In the end, my optimism is based on this one fact: I choose life.
When I look ahead to the next five years, I have no doubt that the Four Horsemen of the Datapocalypse will continue to wage war on our planet. The damage will, I expect, surpass all of our fears. The situation is perilous.
But life will continue, even if humans don’t. Maybe whatever life does survive will share that universe with AI. Silicon lasts a long time.
In the end, maybe humanity’s greatest contribution to the evolution of the universe is that peculiar phenomenon we call intelligence. And that might be true even if it is embedded in forms we call artificial.