On changing the world
Imagine you were suddenly, irrevocably teleported back in time a few hundred years. You’re stuck in a time before cars and electricity. The slave trade is alive and well. Germs haven’t been invented yet. The average life expectancy is around 25 (I’m not even joking) and nobody is particularly well educated.
The question is, what do you do with your life? Do you live a quiet life like the barbarians around you and raise a family? Seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity. Even if you just run around telling people to wash their hands, you’ll save countless lives.
How far should you push it? Do you tell them about immunisations, radio and Hitler? Do you fight the slave trade? Convincing people that you aren’t crazy sounds really time consuming, and sort of lonely. But the number of lives you would touch would be huge. How many amazing people have gone missing from the last 200 years because they didn’t go to school, their parents died of Polio or they had the wrong skin colour?
Its an interesting question because you aren’t going to simply convince people to free their slaves. The “telling people they’re wrong” business doesn’t put food on the table. If you had to become a pariah to make the world better, would you still do it? Would you give up having a family if you had to, to focus on your work, whatever that was? If you had to, would you be willing to be hated and spat on, imprisoned or publicly mocked to make that happen? Would you do it even if you might fail anyway? Would you struggle to buy other people lifetimes? Is it even ethical to say no?
I ask because we have the same choice every day. The future is probably going to be really super awesome. Thanks to genetic engineering, some time in the next fifty years we’re probably going to figure out how to stop ageing. And when we get proper AI going, gee… where do I start? At a minimum its going to make human labour unnecessary for survival. In comparison, here in 2013 our lives are short and crappy. We are barbarians; predecessors to humanity’s true form. And we’re also the time travellers with hazy memories of the great future before us.
The question is, how much do you want to make that future happen now? Relatively speaking, there’s a tiny, insignificant number of people actually working on this stuff. You could help, though you might have to give up your cushy job and lifestyle to do it. You might have to burn those savings to go back to university and study biology, with the hope of working in an underfunded research lab. And for that, you’ll probably fail. Certainly everyone who’s tried to make strong AI so far has failed.
This is my problem. I think of myself as someone who could make a contribution. I want the future I imagine so badly, but every time I’ve actually worked on AI stuff its been hard, lonely and demotivating. The head of the AI group I worked for genuinely doesn’t think the sort of thing I want to make is possible. And he may well be right! Another option is running off to join a genetic engineering company, but what would I be doing for them? Making websites and stuff for bad pay. I mean, I don’t know any biology.
Playing video games on the sidelines while I wait for other people to make the future for me seems kind of … unethical? Ignoble? Is that happy me who I really want to be?
And finally, maybe this is all a false dichotomy anyway. Maybe there’s ways to work on crazy hard AI and enjoy my life at the same time. Surely somehow.
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