fredag 15 januari 2016

The Bullerby scenario

My book Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity is about to be officially released by Oxford University Press next week. The book treats a broad variety of topics, but here I want to highlight a key passage on p 212, where I discuss something I decided to call the Bullerby scenario. The context is the so-called Great Filter formalism - a kind of cosmological perspective for trying to understand the long-term prospects of the survival of humanity - introduced in a seminal 1998 paper by Robin Hanson. A key quantity in this formalism is the probability q that a typical civilization on the level of present-day humanity goes on to a level where its presence becomes visible throughout the observable universe. After briefly mentioning some highly speculative possibilities for how we might have a glorious future without such a visible impact (we might, e.g., emigrate into black holes or hidden dimensions), I arrive at the Bullerby scenario:
    Another, less dramatic and in a sense diametrically opposite, scenario in which humanity might prosper despite a small value of q is what we may call the Bullerby Scenario (after Astrid Lindgren's children's stories about the idyllic life in rural Sweden in the late 1940s). Here, humanity settles down into a peaceful and quiet steady state based on green energy, sustainable agriculture, and so on, and refrains from colonization of space and other radical technologies that might lead in that direction. I mention this possibility because it seems to be an implicit and unreflected assumption underlying much of current sustainability discourse, not because I consider it particularly plausible. In fact, given the Darwinian-style arguments discussed above, plus the paradigm of neverending growth that has come to reign both in the economy and in knowledge production (the scientific community), it seems very hard to imagine how such a steady state might come about, except possibly through the strict rule of a totalitarian global government (which I tend to consider incompatible with human flourishing).
I am expecting and hoping for this passage to generate controversy. My friend Björn Bengtsson has already commented upon it at some length, in his blog post The Bullerby Beef - highly recommended!

8 kommentarer:

  1. Looking forward to reading the book Olle!

    I have one small note, shot from the hip, re the Bullerby scenario.

    "it seems very hard to imagine how such a steady state might come about"

    Are you here implicitly thinking of only non-super AI paths to such a steady state? Speaking only of what is possible it may be that an AI singleton is created with the final goal of realizing flourishing humans in a nonexpanding steady state Bullerby scenario. It wipes our collective memory of everything non-Bullerby, modifies humans (if needed) to fit Bullerby life and with perfect discretion make it so that every attempt (or even thought) of leaving the Bullerby scenario is gently and flourishing-compatibly diverted. Eternal sunshine of the spotless Bullerby life and mind?

    1. Thank you Martin, that is a beautiful sketch! I think it is worth taking seriously. But it does nevertheless have some totalitarian flavor, and it is eerily reminiscent of Nozick's happiness machine.

    2. Yes, it could be an inside the brain/computer generated experience like the Nozick scenario but also as a spatial Bullerby retreat where biological humans roam about. The shared features would be that it is singleton controlled and non-expanding.

      The point I want to make for now is that if we're thinking through Bullerby type scenarios as possible answers to the Great Filter Puzzle then we need to examine both non-super AI paths to Bullerby steady states (which it looked like you focused on in the quoted text and which I think is what present day steady state society proponents are thinking about) and AI singleton paths to Bullerby steady states. The latter may (once set up) avoid some of the former's problems with staying in the steady state perpetually.

      But the AI singleton Bullerby scenario could of course still fail as Great Filter Puzzle solution (and be undesirable) for other reasons.

    3. This could be seen as a very concrete example of what I described in my blog post as: "the scientific and technological developments that could be used in service of the community, e.g., different ways of influencing people's morals - directly as well as indirectly."

      Even though I am no big fan of "free will" I agree with Olle that it does sound a little bit like the Matrix...

  2. Thank you for the spotlight, Olle, and for the opportunity to share and discuss my thoughts here on your blog. One could not ask for a finer forum.

    First of all, I would like any readers of my blog post to know that I am acutely aware of the problems and dangers of moving towards a more authoritarian society. (It may not be obvious from the text.)

    Nevertheless, my main motivations for advocating drastical restrictions to individual and corporate liberties, are (a) the unacceptable consequences for the environment and for human well-being *; (b) the moral repugnance of laissez-faire and the injustices it engenders; and (c) the sheer needlessness of the uninhibited, pampered and childish behavior currently being encouraged in the West. We are letting ourselves be exploited by commersial brain-washing in what has become a self-enhancing loop.

    To my mind, so called paternal libertarianism and ”nudging” - currently in vogue - is clearly insufficient. Laughable, even. It reminds me of Naomi Klein’s recent comment on the Paris climate agreement:

    "It’s like going: ‘I acknowledge that I will die of a heart attack if I don’t radically lower my blood pressure. I acknowledge that in order to do that I need to cut out alcohol, fatty foods and exercise everyday. I therefore will exercise once a week, eat four hamburgers instead of five and only binge drink twice a week and you have to call me a hero because I’ve never done this before and you have no idea how lazy I used to be.’"

    1. The third paragraph above should read:

      ...the unacceptable consequences for the environment and for human well-being ***that will otherwise ensue***

  3. The road to Plato’s Republic is (often, but not always) paved with good intentions. Still, whether such a society (or something similar) could ever turn out to be palatable is a different matter. The answer depends on who you ask, and when. (See, e.g. Rebecca Goldstein’s book: Plato at the Googleplex.)

    I often ask myself if I could live a good life in such a society; as a ruler, as a soldier, or as a craftsman. And, of course, if everyone else could - simultaneously - live good lives as well. And my tentative answer is: I think so. At least, I hope so.

    There is, of course, the inevitable problem of (1) knowing who knows best. There is also the practical problem that (2) power corrupts. And (3) what to do with those who cannot or will not play along?

    When it comes to (1) I would say that we *do* have a pretty good answer. It’s not perfect, but let’s not make perfect the enemy of good. So who’s ”we”, and what is the answer? Bluntly: science and scientist. Yes, there are lots of complications, but comparing the current state of affairs to one in which science plays a more prominent role in politics, the path forward is clear enough. And yes, it is self-centered, exclusive and elitist. Well, let’s just get over ourselves and get on with it, shall we? (I highly recommend the writings of Danish philosopher Klemens Kappel et al, e.g., ”The proper role of science in liberal democracy” **; ”Freedom of Expression, Diversity, and Truth” ***)

    As to (2) there are surely better alternatives than appointing a single autocrat to be commander-in-chief, and then sit idly by for decades as he or she grows increasingly heady on the power rush. (Well, this *is* how critics depict the only possible alternative to Western democracies, as implemented today.) Plato himself had some ideas. The founding fathers made an impressive attempt to build on the Roman lessons and strike a reasonable compromise, but in the end they opened up for a dog-eat-dog society governed by capitalist plutocrats assisted by manipulative sophists. During the last two centuries, too little constitutional progress has been made, in Europe as well as in the U.S. There are plenty of reasons for this, not least the rise of hyper-consumerism. But to declare the end of history is complacent - if not cynical or downright stupid.

    (*) This means the well-being of *every* human being.


    (***) Forthcoming in Blackwell Companion to Applied Philosophy, (Eds. Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, David Coady and Kimberley Brownlee)

  4. I, for one, would be just as happy with but a tiny fraction of the possibilities and luxuries I have access to today. Not because I am ascetic, but beacuse, as it is, I am literally drowning in excess - along with many Westerners.