The Shape of Things to Come

H. G. Wells published a book in 1933 with that title. It was made into a movie a few years later. In the story, humanity has some big ups and downs:

A long economic slump causes a major war that leaves Europe devastated and threatened by the plague. In decades of chaos with much of the world reverting to medieval conditions, pilots and technicians formerly serving in various nations’ air forces maintain a network of functioning air fields. Around this nucleus, technological civilization is rebuilt, with the pilots and other skilled technicians eventually seizing worldwide power and sweeping away the remnants of the old nation states.

A benevolent dictatorship is set up, paving the way for world peace by abolishing national divisions, enforcing the English language, promoting scientific learning and outlawing religion. The enlightened world-citizens are able to depose the dictators peacefully, and go on to breed a new race of super-talents, able to maintain a permanent utopia [Wikipedia].

Recent events indicate future ups and downs of a similar nature.

From The Guardian’s environment editor:

After a 10,000-year journey, human civilisation has reached a climate crossroads: what we do in the next few years will determine our fate for millennia.

That choice is laid bare in the landmark report published on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assembled by the world’s foremost climate experts and approved by all the world’s governments. The next update will be around 2030 – by that time the most critical choices will have been made.

The report is clear what is at stake – everything: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

“The choices and actions implemented in this decade [ie by 2030] will have impacts now and for thousands of years,” it says. The climate crisis is already taking away lives and livelihoods across the world, and the report says the future effects will be even worse than was thought: “For any given future warming level, many climate-related risks are higher than [previously] assessed.”

“Continued emissions will further affect all major climate system components, and many changes will be irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales,” it says. To follow the path of least suffering – limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C – greenhouse gas emissions must peak “at the latest before 2025”, the report says, followed by “deep global reductions”. Yet in 2022, global emissions rose again to set a new record.

The 1.5C goal appears virtually out of reach, the IPCC says: “In the near-term, global warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5C even under a very low emission scenario.” A huge ramping up of work to protect people will therefore be needed….

However, the faster emissions are cut, the better it will be for billions of people: “Adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change will escalate with every increment of global warming.” Every tonne of CO2 emissions prevented also reduces the risk of true catastrophe: “Abrupt and/or irreversible changes in the climate system, including changes triggered when tipping points are reached.”

The report presents the choice humanity faces in stark terms, made all the more chilling by the fact this is the compromise language agreed by all the world nations – many would go further if speaking alone. But it also presents the signposts to the path the world should and could take to secure that liveable future….

“Without a strengthening of policies, global warming of 3.2C is projected by 2100.” That is the “highway to hell”.

The article indicates how we might avoid hell on Earth, but doesn’t suggest we will.

From three contributors to the New York Times:

Imagine that as you are boarding an airplane, half the engineers who built it tell you there is a 10 percent chance the plane will crash, killing you and everyone else on it. Would you still board?

In 2022, over 700 top academics and researchers behind the leading artificial intelligence companies were asked in a survey about future A.I. risk. Half of those surveyed stated that there was a 10 percent or greater chance of human extinction (or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment) from future A.I. systems. Technology companies building today’s large language models are caught in a race to put all of humanity on that plane.

… A.I. systems with the power of GPT-4 and beyond should not be entangled with the lives of billions of people at a pace faster than cultures can safely absorb them. A race to dominate the market should not set the speed of deploying humanity’s most consequential technology. We should move at whatever speed enables us to get this right.

…  It is difficult for our human minds to grasp the new capabilities of GPT-4 and similar tools, and it is even harder to grasp the exponential speed at which these tools are developing more advanced and powerful capabilities. But most of the key skills boil down to one thing: the ability to manipulate and generate language, whether with wordssounds or images.

… Language is the operating system of human culture. From language emerges myth and law, gods and money, art and science, friendships and nations and computer code. A.I.’s new mastery of language means it can now hack and manipulate the operating system of civilization. By gaining mastery of language, A.I. is seizing the master key to civilization, from bank vaults to holy sepulchers.

What would it mean for humans to live in a world where a large percentage of stories, melodies, images, laws, policies and tools are shaped by nonhuman intelligence, which knows how to exploit with superhuman efficiency the weaknesses, biases and addictions of the human mind — while knowing how to form intimate relationships with human beings? In games like chess, no human can hope to beat a computer. What happens when the same thing occurs in art, politics or religion?

A.I. could rapidly eat the whole of human culture — everything we have produced over thousands of years — digest it and begin to gush out a flood of new cultural artifacts. Not just school essays but also political speeches, ideological manifestos, holy books for new cults.

… Simply by gaining mastery of language, A.I. would have all it needs to contain us in a Matrix-like world of illusions, without shooting anyone or implanting any chips in our brains. If any shooting is necessary, A.I. could make humans pull the trigger, just by telling us the right story.

The specter of being trapped in a world of illusions has haunted humankind much longer than the specter of A.I. Soon we will finally come face to face with Descartes’s demon, with Plato’s cave, with the Buddhist Maya. A curtain of illusions could descend over the whole of humanity, and we might never again be able to tear that curtain away — or even realize it is there.

What will be the shape of things to come? We are headed for interesting times.