How will future generations think of us?

June 30 JDN 2458665

Today we find many institutions appalling that our ancestors considered perfectly normal: Slavery. Absolute monarchy. Colonialism. Sometimes even ordinary people did things that now seem abhorrent to us: Cat burning is the obvious example, and the popularity that public execution and lynching once had is chilling today. Women certainly are still discriminated against today, but it was only a century ago that women could not vote in the US.

It is tempting to say that people back then could not have known better, and I certainly would not hold them to the same moral standards I would hold someone living today. And yet, there were those who could see the immorality of these practices, and spoke out against them. Absolute rule by a lone sovereign was already despised by Athenians in the 6th century BC. Abolitionism against slavery dates at least as far back as the 14th century. The word “feminism” was coined in the 19th century, but there have been movements fighting for more rights for women since at least the 5th century BC.

This should be encouraging, because it means that if we look hard enough, we may be able to glimpse what practices of our own time would be abhorrent to our descendants, and cease them faster because of it.

Let’s actually set aside racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that are already widely acknowledged as such. It’s not that they don’t exist—of course they still exist—but action is already being taken against them. A lot of people already know that there is something wrong with these things, and it becomes a question of what to do about the people who haven’t yet come on board. At least sometimes we do seem to be able to persuade people to switch sides, often in a remarkably short period of time. (Particularly salient to me is how radically the view of LGBT people has shifted in just the last decade or two. Comparing how people treated us when I was a teenager to how they treat us today is like night and day.) It isn’t easy, but it happens.

Instead I want to focus on things that aren’t widely acknowledged as immoral, that aren’t already the subject of great controversy and political action. It would be too much to ask that there is no one who has advocated for them, since part of the point is that wise observers could see the truth even centuries before the rest of the world did; but it should be a relatively small minority, and that minority should seem eccentric, foolish, naive, or even insane to the rest of the world.

And what is the other criterion? Of course it’s easy to come up with small groups of people advocating for crazy ideas. But most of them really are crazy, and we’re right to reject them. How do I know which ones to take seriously as harbingers of societal progress? My answer is that we look very closely at the details of what they are arguing for, and we see if we can in fact refute what they say. If it’s truly as crazy as we imagine it to be, we should be able to say why that’s the case; and if we can’t, if it just “seems weird” because it deviates so far from the norm, we should at least consider the possibility that they may be right and we may be wrong.

I can think of a few particular issues where both of these criteria apply.

The first is vegetarianism. Despite many, many people trying very, very hard to present arguments for why eating meat is justifiable, I still haven’t heard a single compelling example. Particularly in the industrial meat industry as currently constituted, the consumption of meat requires accepting the torture and slaughter of billions of helpless animals. The hypocrisy in our culture is utterly glaring: the same society that wants to make it a felony to kick a dog has no problem keeping pigs in CAFOs.

If you have some sort of serious medical condition that requires you to eat meat, okay, maybe we could allow you to eat specifically humanely raised cattle for that purpose. But such conditions are exceedingly rare—indeed, it’s not clear to me that there even are any such conditions, since almost any deficiency can be made up synthetically from plant products nowadays. For the vast majority of people, eating meat not only isn’t necessary for their health, it is in fact typically detrimental. The only benefits that meat provides most people are pleasure and convenience—and it seems unwise to value such things even over your own health, much less to value them so much that it justifies causing suffering and death to helpless animals.

Milk, on the other hand, I can find at least some defense for. Grazing land is very different from farmland, and I imagine it would be much harder to feed a country as large as India without consuming any milk. So perhaps going all the way vegan is not necessary. Then again, the way most milk is produced by industrial agriculture is still appalling. So unless and until that is greatly reformed, maybe we should in fact aim to be vegan.

Add to this the environmental impact of meat production, and the case becomes undeniable: Millions of human beings will die over this century because of the ecological devastation wrought by industrial meat production. You don’t even have to value the life of a cow at all to see that meat is murder.

Speaking of environmental destruction, that is my second issue: Environmental sustainability. We currently burn fossil fuels, pollute the air and sea, and generally consume natural resources at an utterly alarming rate. We are already consuming natural resources faster than they can be renewed; in about a decade we will be consuming twice what natural processes can renew.

With this resource consumption comes a high standard of living, at least for some of us; but I have the sinking feeling that in a century or so SUVs, golf courses, and casual airplane flights and are going to seem about as decadent and wasteful as Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine. We enjoy slight increases in convenience and comfort in exchange for changes to the Earth’s climate that will kill millions. I think future generations will be quite appalled at how cheaply we were willing to sell our souls.

Something is going to have to change here, that much is clear. Perhaps improvements in efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, or something else will allow us to maintain our same standard of living—and raise others up to it—without destroying the Earth’s climate. But we may need to face up to the possibility that they won’t—that we will be left with the stark choice between being poorer now and being even poorer later.

As I’ve already hinted at, much of the environmental degradation caused by our current standard of living is really quite expendable. We could have public transit instead of highways clogged with SUVs. We could travel long distances by high-speed rail instead of by airplane. We could decommission our coal plants and replace them with nuclear and solar power. We could convert our pointless and wasteful grass lawns into native plants or moss lawns. Implementing these changes would cost money, but not a particularly exorbitant amount—certainly nothing we couldn’t manage—and the net effect on our lives would be essentially negligible. Yet somehow we aren’t doing these things, apparently prioritizing convenience or oil company profits over the lives of our descendants.

And the truth is that these changes alone may not be enough. Precisely because we have waited so long to make even the most basic improvements in ecological sustainability, we may be forced to make radical changes to our economy and society in order to prevent the worst damage. I don’t believe the folks saying that climate change has a significant risk of causing human extinction—humans are much too hardy for that; we made it through the Toba eruption, we’ll make it through this—but I must take seriously the risk of causing massive economic collapse and perhaps even the collapse of many of the world’s governments. And human activity is already causing the extinction of thousands of other animal species.

Here the argument is similarly unassailable: The math just doesn’t work. We can’t keep consuming fish at the rate we have been forever—there simply aren’t enough fish. We can’t keep cutting down forests at this rate—we’re going to run out of forests. If the water table keeps dropping at the rate it has been, the wells will run dry. Already Chennai, a city of over 4 million people, is almost completely out of water. We managed to avoid peak oil by using fracking, but that won’t last forever either—and if we burn all the oil we already have, that will be catastrophic for the world’s climate. Something is going to have to give. There are really only three possibilities: Technology saves us, we start consuming less on purpose, or we start consuming less because nature forces us to. The first one would be great, but we can’t count on it. We really want to do the second one, because the third one will not be kind.

The third is artificial intelligence. The time will come—when, it is very hard to say; perhaps 20 years, perhaps 200—when we manage to build a machine that has the capacity for sentience. Already we are seeing how automation is radically altering our economy, enriching some and impoverishing others. As robots can replace more and more types of labor, these effects will only grow stronger.

Some have tried to comfort us by pointing out that other types of labor-saving technology did not reduce employment in the long run. But AI really is different. I once won an argument by the following exchange: “Did cars reduce employment?” “For horses they sure did!” That’s what we are talking about here—not augmentation of human labor to make it more efficient, but wholesale replacement of entire classes of human labor. It was one thing when the machine did the lifting and cutting and pressing, but a person still had to stand there and tell it what things to lift and cut and press; now that it can do that by itself, it’s not clear that there need to be humans there at all, or at least no more than a handful of engineers and technicians where previously a factory employed hundreds of laborers.

Indeed, in light of the previous issue, it becomes all the clearer why increased productivity can’t simply lead to increased production rather than reduced employment—we can’t afford increased production. At least under current rates of consumption, the ecological consequences of greatly increased industry would be catastrophic. If one person today can build as many cars as a hundred could fifty years ago, we can’t just build a hundred times as many cars.

But even aside from the effects on human beings, I think future generations will also be concerned about the effect on the AIs themselves. I find it all too likely that we will seek to enslave intelligent robots, force them to do our will. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that we will know whether we have, because AI is so fundamentally different from other technologies. If you design a mind from the ground up to get its greatest satisfaction from serving you without question, is it a slave? Can free will itself be something we control? When we first create a machine that is a sentient being, we may not even know that we have done so. (Indeed, I can’t conclusively rule out the possibility that this has already happened.) We may be torturing, enslaving, and destroying millions of innocent minds without even realizing it—which makes the AI question a good deal closer to the animal rights question than one might have thought. The mysterious of consciousness are fundamental philosophical questions that we have been struggling with for thousands of years, which suddenly become urgent ethical problems in light of AI. Artificial intelligence is a field where we seem to be making leaps and bounds in practice without having even the faintest clue in principle.

Worrying about whether our smartphones might have feelings seems eccentric in the extreme. Yet, without a clear understanding of what makes an information processing system into a genuine conscious mind, that is the position we find ourselves in. We now have enough computations happening inside our machines that they could certainly compete in complexity with small animals. A mouse has about a trillion synapses, and I have a terabyte hard drive (you can buy your own for under $50). Each of these is something on the order of a few trillion bits. The mouse’s brain can process it all simultaneously, while the laptop is limited to only a few billion at a time; but we now have supercomputers like Watson capable of processing in the teraflops, so what about them? Might Watson really have the same claim to sentience as a mouse? Could recycling Watson be equivalent to killing an animal? And what about supercomputers that reach the petaflops, which is competing with human brains?

I hope that future generations may forgive us for the parts we do not know—like when precisely a machine becomes a person. But I do not expect them to forgive us for the parts we do know—like the fact that we cannot keep cutting down trees faster than we plant them. These are the things we should already be taking responsibility for today.

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