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Singularities & Long-Term Thinking

· AI,Brains and minds,Lex Fridman,Long Now Foundation

Next week's post is the one I originally intended to write today, but it occurred to me that it would benefit from a little bit of context. So I'll kick that post into the long grass for next week, and will write something related here.

There have been quite a few singularities through history, since a singularity is really only a change which we can't see beyond - where what actually occurs is not predicted by a simple extrapolation from the moment pre-singularity. 


Every historical development, such as the creation of new travel or communication methods, food production or resource gathering, or the invention of currency or insurance, or the discovery of the periodic table to name just a few, is really a kind of singularity, some unfolding more slowly than others. They are like overlapping waves on a beach - each arriving before the previous wave has departed.

Therefore when futurists refer to 'the Singularity', they really mean just the creation of recursively self-improving Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). The real singularities will be numerous and will be the historical developments caused by the creation of AGI.

One oft-touted consequence of achieving the AGI Singularity is significant life-extension. Now, I very much enjoy the conversations between AI engineer and delightful podcast host, Lex Fridman, and his guests.

Lex likes to ask thinkers on his show whether they agree with him that life is 'beautiful' only because of its finitude.

Now, I totally disagree with Lex on this. Let me explain why. Lex's suggestion seems to presuppose that we are living daily with an awareness of the shortness of life, using Seneca's term. That we see and apprehend the approach of that bullet with our name on it, and that it therefore conditions our experience of existing.

But that's not how we live. We know intellectually that we are finite, but not emotionally. Those are two very different states. We don't embody that finitude as a feeling. Functionally we live as if we are immortal. Just look at how we personally accumulate resources, as if we will be here forever.

I remember waiting in a Toyota garage while my car was serviced. I watched an elderly man, unsteady and barely able to turn his neck, use a walking stick to climb into a Land Cruiser. A salesman fussed around the man with obvious eagerness, keen to bank the commission on this two-tonne missile. Also watching with amazement, another customer whispered to me: "He can barely walk, so I suppose he'll have to drive!"

How common is this utter lack of insight into one's finiteness? It's commonplace!

It's not that we avoid thinking about our decline and demise, but apart from a small fraction of people, it rarely crosses our minds. There's a psychological/medical trope that when people receive a diagnosis and are told they have only a few years to live, after the initial shock they settle back into their routines and normal emotional state. We are machines evolved to execute our repetitive quotidian tasks, whether we're dying or not.

No, Lex is wrong on this. The aspects of life that are beautiful are so because they are beautiful, irrespective of how long you live and can continue to appreciate it.

Another aspect however, is the important of thinking long-term. Our planning horizons are so short - five to ten years - barely longer than an electoral cycle. We might hope to gift a few grubby resources to the next generation - numbers on a bank ledger, currency not actual wealth - but we give little thought to a century from now. And what about ten millennia, or a million years? As we exponentiate up through powers of ten, to ten million years and so on, we the human race can really start to affect the galaxy and beyond. And when it happens that will be a consequence of there existing living people right now.

So how can we learn to think long term?

It's simple.

By living long term...

It seems so obvious, yet why have I never heard anybody else voice this idea?

If an individual will be making decisions and casting votes for centuries then she will probably live more carefully and lightly. She will be less inclined to suck all the marrow out of life as quickly as possible, since she knows that we will suffer the consequences. She will be more careful to look after herself, others and the world. She will involve herself in very long projects that will bear fruit during her life span. She will see through politicians who try to win her support by promising free stuff that can only then be funded by borrowing. Personally I think the personal ego, that obsesses over power, status and fear, will become less relevant and less insistent.

It's the only way, people.

If we were to have actual skin in the game - living for centuries instead of a few decades - wouldn't we have a greater chance of pulling in the same direction? Or at least that rare phenomenon would become more common.

For more on extremely long-term thinking, have a look at the fascinating Long Now Foundation.

The purpose of this post is really to emphasise the importance of extending human longevity. That it would not merely be 'nice' to live longer on a personal basis, but that it might be imperative for our civilisation. Longer lifespans will significantly enhance our likelihood of running our lives, this world, and indeed other worlds, better than we have thus far. And isn't that ultimately why we want AI and AGI...?