What matters now is choice

What matters now is choice

What matters now is choice

You are committed to lifelong learning, aren’t you? You may think that is a matter of keeping up with the Techies, understanding Blockchain, having the newest Apps, perhaps even buying the latest hardware to make your mobile phone a bigger, faster computer. I have news for you! What matters now is more than that. It is understanding the implications of the Google Search Engine and Artificial Intelligence. Everyone is entitled to play with their toys some of the time. Today, you are asked to think about what is happening to the human race – now and in the future.

Some time ago we recommended that you read two fascinating and highly relevant books: Sapiens and Homo Deus. Both are by Yuval Noah Harari. The first, Sapiens, is a Brief History of Humankind. If you don’t know where you have come from you will have difficulty predicting where you are going to. And the old answer ‘We’ll all be dead in a hundred years’ no longer applies. We probably won’t. The second is a look at the future. You can see it as scary. I see it as possibility.

Harari has written an article for The Atlantic Magazine which I think should be read by everyone who wants to make a contribution to the world’s future and the development of humankind. You probably know some of the implications of control by AI. The completeness with which it may change our ability to choose is awesome. For centuries, forces outside us, like parents, religion and advertising, have struggled to control us. We have significantly, successfully resisted.

Much of the world’s population has a fair measure of choice about how it lives, what it spends its money on, where it travels, how many children it has. Have you noticed what has been happening to that freedom in the last few years? Not – for the most part – laws or oppressive rulers but commercial dominance by technology and a few giant businesses. Big data rules, it really does.

There is nothing new about the power of data. Rothschild made his fortune by getting carrier pigeons to fly stock market information across the English Channel faster than mail delivery. It was timely knowledge. Today, data flashes around the world all the time. It is telling commercial, political, social, medical, and educational interests about your preferences. It is already moulding those preferences. It was probably used to influence elections in the United States. It is working on selling me a new mobile phone even though I don’t really need one. It is all pervasive.

Coercion is usually thought of as physical or moral brutality. There is some of that in the world too. Most of us don’t suffer from too much of it. We’ve had threats about God and belief and there are many who still experience these. Mostly faiths have modified away from terror towards acceptance. Meanwhile the ability to delve into our minds is getting greater by the day. But persuasion is different. Is it eating away our decision-making abilities?

Manipulation by advertising was well known. I was part of it for the first 16 years of my career. Of course it was manipulative but quite mildly so and mostly (though not all) transparent. ‘Guinness is good for you’ was a claim that isn’t allowed today with our superior knowledge. It increased Guinness sales. But you still had a choice, whether to have a glass of Guinness or not. More subtle and mind-invading techniques developed over the years but mostly they were obvious.

Data is different. Superficial data has always been available – address, email, phone. But the details of your preferences, whereabouts, personal and work relationships, sources of income, spending habits, private behavior and travel have all become the property of everyone else. This is partly because social media gave people a chance to identify themselves – for the first time. Partly because of the information we willingly submit in the interest of an extended warranty or contract.

Now our choices are far more manipulable and this is only the beginning. Fake news is already changing the way people behave, mostly not for the better, it seems. Soon we shall be steered in our choosing by the data we have donated and what can be extrapolated from it. Beyond that lies the substitution of our brain by advanced AI, cleverer than us at most things, immortal because replaceable. A long way off? So were personal computers in 1990. So was mobile video communications twenty years ago. So was big data until we digitalised.

Who shall design what our minds will become? At present, the techies have it as their No 1 priority with military pressure to keep ahead of potential enemies. The programmable drone bullet is almost with us. The implications of that make plastic guns in the grocery store look benign. But it is the mind manipulation that is the call for action from each of us. If we do not determine our future as a species we shall be ousted by a technological miracle that is without morals or ethics.

That is why Terrific Mentors International and others are clubbing together to offer a prize of US$100,000 for the best specification of the next humanoid species. It will make us think very hard about what we value. It will give all those who contribute a chance to express the needs of our great grandchildren and the choices we want them to have. It is a critical call.

A sunset is a beautiful thing.

It is up to us to turn it into a promise of tomorrow.

Good morning
John Bittleston