“I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.”
The above passage, prescient and timeless, is from Bill Joy’s seminal 2000 Wired article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Joy’s main thesis is to argue that as technology progresses, we experience the democratization of evil, where individuals with limited training and resources could bring about large evil events that would threaten all life as we know it. The evolution of man to post-humanity, then, can be said to contain a shift in both the potential power of the individual over other individuals, and the ecosystem, and the effectiveness of that influence.
Transhumanist discourse does not tend to address the evolution of evil specifically, although the notion is implicit in discourse concerning the destructive potential of future technologies such as nanotech and genetic engineering, and the evolving autonomy of the individual. The growing ability to do extreme harm on the part of the individual will become more pressing in the next few decades, and we are beginning to get a glimpse of what this future of extreme individual mal-intent will look and feel like.
Renier Gillmer observes: “the recent initiatives of Anonymous and Lulzsec are a ‘sign of the times’ in terms of giving a taste of the power that the common man in the future can wield, which means that those creating the future will have to take into account bored kids messing with stuff on a post-singularity tech level”, technology which presents large destabilizing risks, and poses threat to our continued existence as a species.
But the evolution of evil only tells one side of the story. In addition to encompassing the power to perfect extreme evil, technology framing the future has the capacity to evolve and augment human goodness. And just as technology extends our ability to act in broad scale negative ways, so too does it enhance our potential for kindness and compassion.
We witness today only the beginning of the individual’s future ability to have global positive influence using technology. Through telepresence technology, for instance, an individual can effectively be anywhere the Internet reaches, providing the opportunity for remote humanitarian work. One example of this technology being used in such a way is in medicine, where it allows doctors to see patients and operate remotely. Another technology responsible for increased efficacy of humanitarian effort today is social networking technology. Advanced social networking platforms in combination with data mining, geolocation, and search technologies make for a circumstance where small groups of individuals can save lives remotely, such is the case with volunteer Internet organized disaster relief teams.
Like the evolution of evil then, we see technology evolving human kindness and compassion, in that as a result of technology there are fewer and fewer obstacles to large-scale positive action.
In addition, technology today may actually alter our inclinations towards one another in positive ways. For instance, there is evidence that social networking increases our disposition to act out of kindness to others, as recent research indicates that being highly virtually connected influences one’s propensity to do good in the world. A study of 24,000 consumers across the sixteen largest countries found that “those who are most connected, living on the cutting edge of social media tend to be more ‘prosocial’ than average, being more likely to do volunteer work, offer their seats in crowded places, lend possessions to others and give directions.” Could it be that technological interconnectedness has a positive effect on human social disposition?
Given the evolution of technology Transhumanists expect to take place, what does the future hold for goodness? Will technology have a profound influence over the inclination to act out of kindness and compassion, or reduce the inclination to do harm? Is it possible that the co-evolution of man and machine entails a shift in the balance of human tendency for good and evil? And how do these potential changes affect future technology risks more generally?
In the future it may be possible to evolve our sense of empathy and kindness through the use of neuro-nanotechnology. As discussed by Wrye Sententia at the Second Annual Geoethical Nanotechnology Workshop, we may eventually be able to send smart nanobots into the brain in such a way that they would augment the human capacity for love, kindness and compassion, making for humans better designed for group living in a civilized world.
And the evolution of technology more generally may ‘tip the scale’ in favor of our acting out of goodness rather than evil. Future technologies that promise to eliminate much of illness, suffering and scarcity will most certainly have a counteracting effect over the desire to act in ways that harm others. Thus insomuch as the harmful dispositions of today are brought about by deprivation, then, we can expect positive changes as a result of radical future tech.
By and large we are moving towards a time where there are many more extreme possibilities for the individual. The Transhuman age moves ‘beyond good and evil’ in the sense that the ability to do good and evil is pushed beyond original limits and into brand new extremes.
To what extent this effects the likelihood of human survival and happiness, however, is unclear. Existential risks orthogonal to human good and evil such as accidental runaway nanotechnology, lethal bioengineered organisms, and AI takeover loom on the horizon. And the roll out of future augmentation technologies will likely create temporary inequalities and other social stress inciting circumstances we will have difficulty managing. In light of this reality, the authors tend to approach the future with some degree of caution, and agree with Michael Anissimov in arguing that the future is “dark and uncertain” and “imbued with the heavy sense of responsibility we personally have to make things go well.”
But we can be confident there are many positive and counter-balancing forces working against this potential dark future we face. And in opposition to extreme evil and risk, with evolving kindness, compassion and love we move forward.
Nikki Olson is a writer/researcher working on an upcoming book about the Singularity, as well as relevant educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation.
This article was originally posted at IEET.