The Evolving Dynamic of Evil and Love

· July 22, 2011

“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.

Author bios

Kim Solez is a physician, technofuturist writer, and pathologist leader, blogging on internetevolution.com and lifeboat.com, and is writing a book on the Singularity with Nikki Olson.

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.

11 Responses

  1. Most thought-provoking piece.

    Coming at it as a psychologist with a powerful interest in Complexity theory, I couldn’t but read the article and think of a connectionist mode, with linkages to cellular automata, traffic flows, and epidemiological modeling.

    It impressed on me with fresh force the fact that the human species lives within an increasingly tightly-coupled matter/energy/information matrix. A network whose interconnectedness is too sparse will spiral in on a point attractor and halt. A network whose interconnectedness is too dense will become brittle and chaotic, and tear itself apart. The ‘Goldilocks’ zone of Edge-Of-Chaos interconnection will permit generative, evolving system dynamics to emerge.

    The democratization of evil you discuss (also referred to as the theory of the “Hyper-empowered Individual”), as well as the threat of world-engulfing mishaps, argue strongly that we may be evolving (or devolving) out of the Goldilocks into the Papa-Bear Zone. We need to loosen up the network a bit, and we need to do it soon.

    There is much we can do to inject some negative, regulatory feedback into the Earth’s metasystem. And we should (though the idea of nano-reshaping of the neural pathways gives me the shivers, regardless of the beneficent intent and voluntary participation in the tech).

    However, it’s never been more clear to me that we need to take serious steps toward becoming a spacefaring, multi-planet species. I know: how analog of me! But it is clear that spatially isolated, independent enclaves of humanity –in sufficiently large numbers to constitute viable genetic pools– are just what the doctor ordered for humanity. In addition to halting the spread of disease, gray goo, or other such plagues at the border of the atmosphere, other, less tangible benefits wold accrue. Notably, the opportunity to have distinctive pools of brain power, evolving in parallel to the ‘prime’ human petri dish, will increase the probability of true novelty in the sociocultural, economic, scientific, and technological realms. Memes will diverge and proliferate more rapidly than genes (though the latter could do with a few ‘Galapgos Islands,’ to be sure!).

    Whether it’s orbital or lagrange “Seasteads” (‘Starsteads?’), asteroid dugouts, or full-on planetary colonies, we need to increase the degrees of freedom in the system…lest the system decrease our freedom by degrees.

  2. Eray Ozkural says:

    Well, evil is mostly what humans do. Remove humans, and most evil will be gone :)

  3. Anonymous says:

    we experience the democratization of evil, where individuals with limited training and resources could bring about large evil events
    Democratization is a misnomer. It would imply that majorities consent to the evil events, whereas individual terrorist actions are defined by their non-consensual nature. The opposite of authoritarian isn’t always democratic.

  4. dirk bruere says:

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is with immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” – C S Lewis

    • KimSolez says:

      Hi Dirk,

      Thanks very much for this excellent quote, suggesting we will encounter or should encounter a major adjustment of the set point of human interactions. One can imagine a situation where nodding or not nodding to someone as they pass, smiling or not smiling, might have big consequences for planets, suns, and galaxies. It is like the feeling of consequence one has meeting a celebrity or world leader, magnified a million fold.

      We suppose that is what it will mean if there is a good outcome to the Singularity, our lives will take on much greater significance, have much more meaning than today. And if things go badly we will become infinitesimally insignificant. Definitely not worth even getting up in the morning. Oh well!

      Thanks for writing! – Kim and Nikki

  5. Kevin says:

    Superbly written and researched article.

    We will indeed see a type of combat between various factions of the Philosopher-Technocratic elite as they gird for control of the planet. How this will play out is unclear, but it has great potential to slow down the progress of humanity from reaching the singularity.

    Michael Anissimov wrote in an article in H+ magazine recently (which I cannot locate in the back issues because they haven’t posted up-to-date copies of the later issues,) about the intense need for security. He was absolutely correct.

    Security is going to be a global problem, with Philosopher-Technocrats ‘inside’ the system trying to protect the institutions under their control (and make no mistake, when they open their eyes, the Phil-Techs will realize they have the real power over these political and economic institutions,) and evolve, there will be Philosopher-Technocrats “outside” of the system trying to tear it down as anarchists.

    I suspect these anarchist groups to have the upper hand, because while the ‘insiders’ are using the ‘inside’ to protect their institutions from those fighting to get in, shut down, or destroy, the ‘insiders’ are going to have the double duty of watching those they are allowing in as trusted ‘insiders,’ who may in fact be outsiders.

    If humanity does not act quickly to achieve the Singularity as soon as it can, the anarchists may just postpone, or even end, our chance of ever reaching the Singularity.

    - Kevin George Haskell

    • KimSolez says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for the nice compliments. We are putting together a University course on the Singularity and the Future of Medicine to commence this September. It is hard to know how much darkness to put in and how much optimism.

      There have been two interesting surprises so far as we prepare the course. We suggested in focus group discussions that less than half of the course should be about existential risk and scary stuff. But the students said “No, don’t held back, it is good for us to know all the potential negative possibilities.”

      The first lecture is about the anthrax dissemination in the mails in the US in 2001. The books from that period have very sensational titles (e.g. The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed by Marilyn W. Thompson) and yet in retrospect experts who were advising the government at the time tell us those books give quite an accurate picture of what occurred. The incident is still not over ten years later as you probably know from the New York Times article last week.

      You may sense we are both quite optimistic by nature, but it is clear from these incidents that much is gained by being well grounded on the dark side as well.

      All the best. – Kim and Nikki

      • Kevin George Haskell says:

        You are welcome, Kim and Nikki.

        One thing I missed and did want to ask, regarded this comment:

        “…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.”

        You also mentioned that we could do this via brain-machine augmentation. Are you proposing that certain groups of people who are connected to machines with their brains, pre-Singularity, send out these nanobot swarms globally to change the structure of most human being’s brain-structures (for those not hooked up to machines,) an alter their behavior without their knowledge or approval?

        I am not saying I am against this in light of the need to maintain global order, but this does bring up some ethical issues, does it not? Ethical issues proposed in books such as “A Brave New World,” only with nanobots instead of pharmacology, comes to mind. And if this could be done, wouldn’t complete free-will be obliterated as all humans have their brains completely ‘designed’ without their choice?

        In other words, doesn’t taking away a person’s freedom to think and act via forced brain redesign, constitute a form of ‘evil’ all of it’s own?

        I am not making any judgement calls on this, because human evolution does hang in the balance. But there is a clear ethical dilemma.

        -Kevin George Haskell

        • KimSolez says:

          Hi Kevin,

          Sorry we overlooked this comment. It seemed obvious to us from the overall positive tone of our piece that we were not talking about involuntary nanobot treatment of the masses but rather a voluntary step which individuals could take. The easiest means of delivery is by injection into the circulatory system. We were not contemplating something that would be in the air we breathe and which could be administered secretly to people without their knowledge. That would be an evil scheme that is completely foreign to us; we would never contemplate such a thing.

          The whole issue of machine brain interfaces is fascinating and very complex. The images of such interfaces are beautiful or frightening depending on your vantage point, http://www.gizmag.com/brain-cap/19391/ but the design at the moment suggests an enormous lack of precision, acceptable perhaps if you are dealing only with signals coming from the brain, but with signals entering the brain it is hard to see how one might not need millions of connection points to simulate something like the resolution of human vision. It is not clear at the moment how we are going to engineer that at all, and especially in a way that avoids damaging the brain.

          All the best. – Kim and Nikki

    • Ian says:

      Why is anarchism such a bad thing? In what way does it threaten to “postpone, or even end, our chance of ever reaching the Singularity”?

      ~Ian

      • Kevin George Haskell says:

        Ian, anarchy threatens societal existence. As Nikki and Kim point out, a very few people could bring everything crumbling down. How can manufacturers produce anything for Transhumanism if we don’t have a highly developed and functioning society?

        Anarchy destroys and separates people, and that cannot be allowed in a world that is attempting to reduce differences between people, and not cause endless rifts and division. Anarchy cannot support an advanced, unified system such as major, technology producing societies.

        -Kevin George Haskell

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