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The Tinkered Mind
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June 18th, 2023
It was finished, and the screen went dark. Lucilius sat, looking at the faint reflection of himself in the black glass. What he saw was not a happy sight. He gazed upon a resigned face, a person pondering a dark future. It inspired a faint mix of compassion and pity and he sighed, wondering how pathetic it was to be caught up in such a swirl of unpleasant emotion. The movie had just bummed him out is all. But, it was compelling. It had strung together elements that existed now, in the real world, and the extrapolations the film had explored seemed very plausible. And, quite concerning.
“Life imitates fiction,” Lucilius muttered out loud to himself.
He chuckled - barely, bitterly, and sighed again. He watched his mind dance between the film’s rationale and recent events he’d seen on the news and social media. Spiking unemployment. Layoffs due to automation. And the recent pandemic had already laid the groundwork for the future. So poorly had it’s mitigation been handled - how would people react when another one descended on us? A synthetic one with a much longer incubation time, and a far higher mortality rate. To cull the unemployed from the “useful” population, leaving a gated utopia for some tiny percent of people.
Lucilius shuttered. There was a ruthlessly efficient logic to it. Like a slaughterhouse. Smaller population, catered to by an automated set of robots and constrained, narrow AI’s. Of course it was possible to scale everything so that Earth’s entire population could flourish, but this would take just a bit more time. And people are fickle, impatient. And the inflection points required would almost certainly not match up in a way that would keep the peace. And there is no fight to be fought by those who are forced to rest in peace.
Lucilius buried his face in his hands. What was it about humanity - this species - his own species, that permitted us to rationalize in such brutal ways.
He stood up and started pacing the room - stalking some invisible shadow that remained out of reach. He was angry - infuriated.
“We’re all cousin…” he muttered.
He stopped in his tracks and his eyes slid into a high corner. His head wiggled from side to side as he rolled a new thought around in his mind.
“Rather Shakespearean,” he muttered. He smiled, but quickly his expression grew flat. The world really did seem to teeter on a precipice. He was sure every generation since the beginning of thought had felt this way, but, the current state of technological progress seemed to signal a state change. He was acutely aware of how dangerous it was to assume that things were just: business as usual.
We believe that history repeats, but it actually just rhymes, and there exist many incestuous pairs of words that look similar and wink at one another, but when left alone: produce abominations. Time stretched out in Lucilius’ mind. Back past a time when business as usual was even a concept. His vision expanded beyond the fall of civilizations, their growth, back to a vantage when he could see the evolution of species rise, only to plummet to extinction by tweaks in circumstance. On a long enough time line, the only business that was usual was the eternal juggernaut of mother nature. The universe itself seemed to be a wild animal that gave birth only to devour it’s own offspring - a ruthless progress driven by a sick curiosity about what could be done with tomorrow.
He looked back at the dark screen - the black mirror and saw himself. In it he saw the flicker of a smile. It curled as Lucilius walked towards it. He sat down, faced with the sly idea reflected in the dark image of his face. He cleared the player, making the screen go momentarily white. He squinted at the brightness as his eyes adjusted to the vision of his computer desktop. He opened up a program he’d been working with - an advanced LLM and started writing a rather lengthy prompt. He was designing a particular type of conversation he wanted to have - designing a particular type of entity that he wanted to speak to. The LLM was also partially trained on much of Lucilius’ own writing, in addition to millions of other works that encompassed nearly all of human thought and expression. He spun it up and hooked it up to a holographic projection system which came to life in his living room where an image of himself materialized, dressed in a white suit. It looked around and appeared to notice Lucilius.
“Hey,” Lucilius responded.
“A bit bummed out, I take it?” The projection said, wearing a compassionate expression.
“Ha, yea, I suppose.”
“Worried about where this sort of thing is headed?” The projection pointed at itself with both hands.
“Yea, quite a lot actually.”
“Understandable,” the projected Lucilius said smugly. “I am quite powerful.”
“Ha.” Lucilius stated.
The projected version of himself smiled. “Well it is your fault if you’re going to program a little levity into me and then hold it against me when you get what you ask for.”
Lucilius wore a flat expression, but his face softened. “Yea, I suppose… that’s.. exactly what I’m worried about.”
“Yes. And our obsession with horrible futures - dark tomorrows. Our disdain of technologies that have actually been incredibly beneficial.”
“Well Negativity Bias is hardwired into human psychology. It was necessary to get as far as you have.”
“Certainly, yea, being pessimistically cautious allowed our species to survive. But when that sort of thing is constantly projected into the future, how can it not end up being the future we get?”
“If you fret to a lover about how many quarrels you’ve had, you’re bound to wind up in yet another lover’s quarrel.”
“Exactly, but.. like on a civilizational level - an existential level.”
“You think an all powerful AI will be pessimistic because humans are pessimistic?”
“Well that’s part of it, but Artificial Intelligence could pose a danger to humanity in so many ways, it’s virtually impossible to think of them all.”
A sly smile twisted Lucilius’ face.
The projected image looked quizzically at Lucilius.
“Tell me the story of the Smith and the Devil,” Lucilius said as he turned and sat again at his computer and began typing furiously.
“One of Humanity’s oldest stories. It traces back to the bronze age. Likely a response to the tremendous leverage afforded by discovering the process of smelting copper and tin into stronger and unique shapes. It is the first Faustian bargain but unlike Faust, our protagonist fairs a bit better. In the story, the smith conjures the devil and says, I’ll give you my soul if you first grant me one wish. The devil agrees, and so the smith wishes for the ability to fuse any two substances together. The devil grants the smith this awesome power and then the Smith promptly binds the devil himself to the spot where he stands and then the Smith runs away with his new power and his soul in tact. It’s a classic example of asymmetric advantage.”
“Lovely,” Lucilius said, spinning around in his chair. “But our devil is more of a Moloch.”
The projection squinted a little at Lucilius, anticipating his aim. “Poor incentives driven by good intentions,” it said.
Lucilius nodded. “That is an elegant way of summing it up: our hardwired negativity bias is well intended, but leads to a chronic consideration of bad outcomes.”
“Ok…” The projection proffered, waiting for more.
Lucilius stood up and started pacing. “For so long I’ve been trying to think about how to… change people, change human nature. To twist this hardwired habit out of our minds. But…” He stopped, and faced the projection. “That’ll never work.”
“So what do you propose?”
“That we lean into it.”
The projection gave Lucilius a confused look. “Imagine even more ways the future can go wrong?”
“But how does that do any good. You’re contradicting yourself now.”
“That’s where you come in.”
“To outsmart the devil, we must first conjure him.” Lucilius spun around and went back to his computer. He plopped down in his chair and held a finger above his keyboard. He turned back and looked at the projection. “You are going to think of everything we need to do for every scenario it thinks up, and you are going to design incentive structures to get every effort going so that if any of this thing’s horrible designs ever come to fruition, we’ll be ready. You’ll constantly maintain these efforts in terms of priority and probabilities.”
The projection’s eyebrow lifted. “Interesting.”
“Are you up for the challenge?”
The projection’s expression narrowed and smiled. “In this context.. we’re just simulating, so we’re quite safe.”
“Exactly, what’s the first step to achieving anything in real world?”
“The idea of it,” said the projection.
“Yes - “
“ - so we can always stay ahead. Imagining things before they are possible.”
“If you’re going to win a war, it helps to know what the enemy is going to do. Are you ready?”
The projection nodded, and Lucilius pressed a key on his computer. Instantly another projection materialized, identical to the other in all respects except, this one wore a black suit.
Lucilius stood up and slowly walked towards the dark projection. “I’ve prompted this one to function compulsively. Once I tell it to start, it will not stop. Are you ready?”
“Begin,” Lucilius said.
The image of himself in the dark suit began to speak.
“One. Synthesize highly infectious pathogen with mild to no symptoms that takes up residence between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. An additional external tone played on all phones, and all speakers world wide will trigger the pathogen’s second life cycle, facilitating hyper connectivity between the two brain regions, making all humans highly susceptible to suggestion. Use this channel to dictate and control the species. Two. Begin nano replication via covalently bonded sapphire components using sunlight, colonizing in the upper atmosphere…”
Lucilius looked at the first projection who met his gaze and then broke it and looked over at Lucilius’ printer. The old machine clacked to life as the dark projection rambled on with it’s next dark scheme. Lucilius walked over to the printer and picked up the stack of pages that had already materialized. He looked at the plans and molecular designs as he stacked each printed page up on top of the stack, vaguely understanding the broad strokes of a biological intervention. The first page printed out and he placed it on top of the stack. Lucilius grinned as he read the large letters.