In 2000, Eugene Stormer and Paul Crutzen introduced the title “Anthropocene” to denote the modern epoch in which “major and still growing impacts of human activities” are having a strong influence on earth and its atmosphere.
What characterizes our era most are not geologic and atmospheric changes so much as technological developments that, on the one hand, provide useful, satisfying, entertaining, protective, or helpful additions to our lives and, on the other hand, threaten our well-being and the well-being of other living things on our planet. Most of our technology has an upside and a downside: Cars allow us to cover large distances in a short period of time, but they kill people and pollute the atmosphere. The internet allows instant communication at a low cost, to and from anywhere in the world, but it spreads misinformation, is a source of terrorist recruitment, and allows corporate and government intrusion into our private lives. The positive and negatives of atomic energy are obvious. Artificial intelligence is now giving us unprecedented access to information, rapid, expert decision-making in medicine, space exploration, and many other benefits, but its dangers are only beginning to surface in terms of misinformation, loss of creativity, and difficulty controlling the technology.
What most defines the present age and is its biggest danger is that the technology we’re developing has revolutionized what we can do and how we do it, but our social and cultural practices are still mired in pre-technological patterns of behavior. We remain competitive with each other, so that sharing of technological advances is discouraged because it gives our competitors an edge. A current example is the debate about tariffs on imported solar panels. One of the main ways of lessening our dependence upon fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gases is to switch to solar, wind, or hydroelectric power, yet the need for the American solar panel industry to grow and the desire to reduce the Chinese share of the solar panel market is seen as more important than doing everything possible to rapidly implement a proven method of fighting climate change.
Despite having the most devastating arsenal of weapons in the history of the world, humans remain intensely tribal, resolutely maintaining national borders and ideological or religious differences, and heightening racial and ethnic divisions. In each of these areas, we are often willing to used armed force against each other to protect our own tribe or to attack someone else’s. Our hand-held weapons now fire multiple high-powered rounds, and a single mass shooter can kill dozens of victims, which are sometimes children. Our reaction is to pass laws that allow us to be “safer” by walking around with a gun on our hip like a 19th century cowboy. Our drones and satellites can direct missile attacks, our “smart” bombs can target single buildings, but errant bullets, missiles or bombs still kill countless civilians whose deaths are casually dismissed as “collateral damage” the price of defending “freedom,” or “our way of life” or “our religious heritage” or “our sacred borders.”
Despite widespread acknowledgment of the climate crisis and its assured danger to the survival of both humans and many other of our planet’s species, Americans still purchase larger and larger SUVs and pickup trucks, in an apparent effort to bolster their sense of power or their prestige. As soon as gasoline prices rise, many people clamor for drilling more oil, rather than seriously considering downsizing, or electrifying their cars and trucks. In the land where the car is king and, second only to one’s house as a person’s most visible symbol of status, old habits die slowly or not at all, even when they are leading us down the highway to global warming and disaster.
The most recent technological breakthroughs and potential dangers lie in the exponential progress in artificial intelligence (AI). ChatGPT, the language AI, and text-to-image generating AIs, have thrust the breakthroughs in artificial intelligence into the public consciousness. People are experimenting with using AIs in all sorts of new applications, even as newer and better versions of the devices are coming online. Companies such as Microsoft and Google are making money hand-over-fist marketing new
applications using the AI platforms they own. The breadth of new applications is far exceeding the ability of humans to monitor or control them, and already we are seeing AI being used to cheat on school papers and exams, to fake expertise in their owners, to make decisions based on reams of language data but no moral reasoning, and to copy the worst of human group behavior (trolling, racism, vulgarity, etc.) in its output.
All of the above examples can be interpreted as representing the same thing: technology that cannot be controlled by humans, whose behavior is determined by historic social and cultural mores. Social organization has been resistant to change. Tribal, city, national or religious groups led by strong leaders who protect members of their group and defend them from other groups, or extend their power by conquering other groups, have been the norm for most of recorded civilization. Athens and the early Roman Republic were exceptions that practiced some form of democracy or representative government, but even these models, which usually limitied participation to the elites, didn’t survive, and representative democracies only resurfaced in the 18th century in America and Europe. In modern times, numerous non-democratic strongmen have pursued war and violence as a method of extending his, his group’s or his nation’s influence (Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, Mussolini, General Franco, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Charles Taylor, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin Dada, Pol Pot, to name only a few).
Human technology is developing faster than humans are maturing in their social practices. The price we will pay becomes greater and greater as technology advances, but we continue to meet its challenges using cultural rules and social methods that were developed in the pre-technological era. New challenges are on the horizon.
In response to growing prospects for colonization of the moon, primarily for commercial use, the Moon Treaty was passed in the UN in 1979, which would prohibit commercial use of the moon or anything in its orbit (e.g., space stations) for the benefit of one nation. Neither China, the U. S., nor Russia, each of which has plans for Moon colonization, has ratified the agreement, and the stage is set to use first the moon, and later Mars as the scene for intense national rivalries, at least in terms of commercial activities, in violation of the 1966 UN Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by China, the U.S. and Russia and prohibits such national use. The Age of Empire, which included some of the most vicious and destructive international rivalries, is about to re-emerge in outer space.
Humans can be brilliant in science and technology, but socially, we seem not to learn. The forces that encourage us to continue to meet challenges with suspicion, belligerence, violence and national, religious, or cultural fervor, rather than to seek new ways of interacting with each other, are obvious. The arguments in favor of these old ways that lead to war, racism, and an inability to control our latest technologies are ones that rely on emotional appeals, irrational prejudices, and faulty premises. We must seek new ways to get along with each other and work together or our technological advances will be the instruments of our demise as a species.
Can an AI be intelligent, and if so, should we fear it? Read Casey Dorman’s novel, Ezekiel’s Brain on Amazon. Available in paperback and Kindle editions
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