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...