What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There: Failure Modes on the Way to Global Cooperation

By Joao Fabiano and Diego Caleiro (UC Berkeley, Biological Anthropology)

From single-celled to pluricellular to multicellular organisms or from hunter-gatherers to the EU, the history NASA Flickrof evolutionary forces that resulted in human society is a history where cooperation has emerged at increasingly large scales. The major life transitions and, once human, the major cultural transitions have rearranged the fitness landscape of evolving entities in ways that increased the size of the largest existing coalitions. Notwithstanding, it seems that freewheeling evolution will not lead to satisfactory levels of global human cooperation in time to prevent severe risks. Nor it will lead to the preservation of human values in the long run; humans, human values, and human cooperation are in no way the end-point of evolutionary processes. Continue reading

Innovation’s low-hanging fruits: on the demand or supply sides?

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

This is an addendum to a previous post, which argued that we may be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it. I noted that we underestimated the innovative aspect of the CD because many other technologies partially overlapped with it, such as television, radio, cinema, ipod, walkman, landline phone, mobile phone, laptop, VCR and Tivo’s. Without these overlapping technologies, we could see the CD’s true potential and estimate it higher as an innovation. Many different technologies could substitute for each other.

But this argument brings out a salient point: if so many innovations overlap or potentially overlap, then there must be many more innovations that purposes for innovations. Tyler Cowen made the interesting point that the internet isn’t as innovative as the flushing toilet (or indeed the television). He certainly has a point here: imagine society without toilets or youtube, which would be most tolerable (or most survivable)? Continue reading

We may need to end all war. Quickly.

Public opinion and governments wrestle with a difficult problem: whether or not to intervene in Syria. The standard arguments are well known – just war theory, humanitarian protection of civilian populations, the westphalian right of states to non-intervention, the risk of quagmires, deterrence against chemical weapons use… But the news that an American group has successfully 3D printed a working handgun may put a new perspective on things.

Why? It’s not as if there’s a lack of guns in the world – either in the US or in Syria – so a barely working weapon, built from still-uncommon technology, is hardly going to upset any balance of power. But that may just be the beginning. As 3D printing technology gets better, as private micro-manufacturing improves (possibly all the way to Drexlerian nanotechnology), the range of weapons that can be privately produced increases. This type of manufacturing could be small scale, using little but raw material, and be very fast paced. We may reach a situation where any medium-sized organisation (a small country, a corporation, a town) could build an entire weapons arsenal in the blink of an eye: 20,000 combat drones, say, and 10,000 cruise missiles, all within a single day. All that you’d need are the plans, cheap raw materials, and a small factory floor. Continue reading

The times they are a changing…

In 1920, Jackson Scholz set the men’s 100m world record at 10.6 seconds. The 100m race is one where progress is very hard; we’re getting towards the limit of human possibility. It’s very tricky to squeeze out another second or fraction of a second. Still, in 2009, Usain Bolt set the men’s 100m world record at 9.58 seconds.

Apart from the Bolt, who else today can run faster than Jackson Scholz? Well, the fastest 16 year old ran the 100m in 10.27 second. The visually impaired world record is 10.46 seconds. The woman’s world record is 10.49 seconds.

The point of this extended metaphor is that we are focused on the differences we see today: between teenagers and adults, between men and women, between the able-bodied and those not. But the difference that swamps all of these is the difference between the present and the past. In 1920, prohibition had just been instituted in the USA. Some women were voting for the first time, though most couldn’t (neither could most men, in fact). The British empire was at its height, communism had just triumphed in Russia (the only country in the world to legalise abortion), homosexuality was a crime in most places, GDP was about a 30th of what it is now, life expectancy was 54 in the USA and tuberculosis was incurable.

How dissimilar will the world look like in 2099, then? More dissimilar that any difference we can see by looking around the world today. People will think differently, act differently, and have completely different lives and opinions, to anything that currently exists.

The Queen’s an anachronism: another problem with predicting the future

The Queen serve many roles, it seems. She provides stability to the British government, fosters links with the ex-colonies, promotes tourism, serves a safe focus for nationalist sentiment, gives the nation a centralised way of taking care of various palaces, provides nationalised opportunities for neighbours to come together, warms that deep part of the human heart that admires leaders but disdains those that make hard choices, is a focal point for unity, tradition and precedent, a link to history… The list is long, and to some extent genuine: she does provide these services to the nation.

But say we’d sat down, without any knowledge of the monarchy, and looked at that long list of desires, included in a list of a million other things we’d want. Nobody would have said: “You know, thinking about it, for issues 137, 2220 and 3558b… Well, the most efficient way we could deal with these is to institute an unelected hereditary figurehead, passing down by primogeniture. Come to think about it, that would also help with issue 344c…” The monarchy is certainly not the best way of accomplishing all the tasks we want it to accomplish, is likely very far from the best way. But it is the way we currently do so, changing it would require a lot of effort, and it has adapted itself to work in practice, within our current society.

Which brings us to the problem of prediction. Continue reading

Water, food or energy: we won’t lack them

The world is full of problems. Pollution is a problem. The destruction of the coral reefs, the eradication of the rain forests, the mass extinction of animal species are problems, and tragedies. Loss of biodiversity is a problem. Global warming is a problem. Poverty and the unequal distribution of resources are major problems.

But lack of basic resources isn’t a problem. We’ll have enough food, water and energy for the whole human race for the forseable future, at reasonable costs. Take a worse-case scenario for all three areas, and let’s look at the figures.

Continue reading


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