Here at AGI Laboratory we explore the intersection of technology and society, where AI, VR, and Big Data (among other things) come crashing into our cultures, social traditions, economies and political institutions. Looking at the world today, it is increasingly clear that these changes can easily become destructive wherever society is divided or unstable. In other words, technology is a tool that can be used for good or ill, but it is almost impossible to use it for good if society isn’t safe, stable, and unified around the sense of existing as a single community (no matter how diverse the elements within that community). Today I am going to briefly outline a few ideas which could help us achieve those aims, and ensure that the 21st Century is remembered for prosperity and opportunity rather than strife.
In 1986 AI pioneer Marvin Minsky published “Society of Mind” (SoM); a book in which he described human intelligence as being composed of multiple agents cooperating and competing, as people do in a society. Much like Plato’s “Republic”, SoM was primarily and explicitly about one thing (mind), but it also alluded to something else (society; in Plato’s case the explicit and implicit topics were the other way around). The SoM idea appears to be assuming even greater importance now, as AI develops ever more rapidly and pervades society, humans increasingly “outsource” their mental and social processes via social media, and socio-political debates become ever more acrimonious. The importance and promise of the SoM idea lies in offering an alternative to our increasingly tech-augmented, accelerating descent into individualism, schism, and conflict.
The alternative is to understand that society and its agents thrive when they work and live together as part of a greater whole, providing complementary functions which are collectively necessary to the system’s survival. Aside from helping with current economic and social divisions, such an outlook will be necessary to make sense of a society which is composed not only of humans and their social media “extended selves”, but also increasingly intelligent and autonomous software agents which will be harder and harder to distinguish from “people”, despite (and perhaps because of) potentially having access to superhuman capabilities. The political philosophy of integrating technology and social responsibility is known as Social Futurism.
At the heart of Social Futurism is a simple concept which underlines the importance of social cohesion and stability: Networks. Thinking in terms of interconnected, cooperating “nodes” or agents should come naturally in this day and age, and it perfectly bridges our conception of computing and social media technologies on the one hand, and the needs of a cohesive, stable society on the other. Ideas in this vein are explored and promoted by David Orban’s Network Society, which strikes me as being well attuned to the needs and nature of our time. For Social Futurists, the primary value of “network thinking” is that it encourages people to think of themselves as autonomous individuals embedded in a wider network with certain rules, culture and expectations. In exactly the same way, autonomous groups, organizations and nations are also embedded in wider cooperative networks, which in turn have their own shared laws, cultures, and expectations.
Understanding your place within such networks provides a sense of autonomy balanced with connectedness. You have your own identity and freedoms, but you also see the need for certain communal and cooperative responsibilities. Understanding alone, however, is not enough. In addition to the societal cohesion offered by network thinking, we also need the stability that comes from active and reliable cooperation between network nodes. Active cooperation requires a shared protocol, a “common language” of action and expectations between partners, and the most effective cooperative protocols yet developed by humanity are economic mechanisms (i.e. money). Alternative mechanisms such as those promoted by Resource Based Economy and other Post-Scarcity advocates may meet our needs in time, but do not currently appear feasible (or at least sufficiently developed to meet both ethical and logistical requirements).
In the meantime we need an economic mechanism which suits decentralized, network-based, cooperative governance, and the obvious candidate is cryptocurrency (as opposed to centralized government-printed “fiat currencies”). The critical challenge still to be faced lies in finding ways for cryptocurrency to work as a viable economic mechanism – a stable currency, in other words – rather than a wildy variable asset primarily attractive to speculators, prone to boom/bust cycles and hyperdeflation. My next article will follow up with the answers to these problems.