All Hope Is (Not) Lost

cartoon of a droid

In a classic 3-act story structure, there’s a turning point at the end of the second act called “All Hope Is Lost”.

If world history was a story with us as characters, the All Hope Is Lost moment would be now.

At least that’s what I was thinking when I watched a video from the Stockholm Impact Week where Daniel Schmachtenberger explains the Metacrisis.

If our story is going to have a happy ending, the protagonist (that’s us) is going to have to do something difficult and heroic. Fortunately, I think there’s at least a chance that we’ll have help from an unlikely source. And no, I don’t mean Han Solo.

Daniel Schmachtenberger is one of the most brilliant thinkers I’ve ever listened to. He’d also be my first pick to invite to a big party, if I wanted all the guests to feel a sense of existential dread and impending doom. (Don’t worry. I’ve stopped doing that kind of thing. Mostly.)

Daniel Schmachtenberger makes a convincing argument that we are at the “End of History”, to use his exact words. But he’s not a doomer.

In Schmachtenberger’s view, the current metacrisis isn’t just one single issue, like climate change or political instability. It’s a combination of many critical problems, all feeding into each other. This includes environmental collapse and mass extinction, economic inequality, technological risks, cultural conflicts, and more. The idea is that these issues are not just standalone problems but are deeply intertwined and affect each other in complex ways.

I’ll paraphase what I learned from his talk in a way that he would probably find annoyingly oversimplified:

Imagine you’re playing a game, and it becomes obvious to you that the only possible outcome is that absolutely everyone loses. (“Loses” in this context means “dies”.) That would give you a pretty strong incentive to change the rules, and play a different game instead.

The problem with any game is that the people who are “winning” don’t usually want to change the rules. That’s why the USA still uses what is provably one of the very worst systems of voting. The people who “won” don’t want to change the rules, but they’re the only ones who can.

(See voting methods, and ranked choice voting in the US.)

Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

That’s the main problem with convincing enough people of an impending crisis to do something about it – you can’t change the rules of the game without the most powerful people in the world doing everything they can to stop you, since they’re the ones who are “winning”.

That’s why big oil is spending millions to stall climate bills. The U.S. federal and state governments pour around $20.5 billion in subsidies into the oil and gas industry, despite the fact that the industry is already one of the most profitable in the world and has made record-breaking profits in recent years. So if you’re a U.S. taxpayer, you’re paying for the oil and gas industry to lobby against your own interests.

Just this week, The Cop28 president said there is ‘no science’ behind demands for phase-out of fossil fuels.

Upton Sinclair would not be surprised.

If you’re also concerned about human health or our mass extinction event the pesticide industry is spending millions to stop a ban on chlorpyrifos (which damages children’s brains).

Pick any industry, and you’ll find that the people who are “winning” are doing everything they can to keep the rules of the game the same, despite harm to the environment, to people, and to the future.

To get back to our story…

Here we are at the end of the second act of “Humanity’s Big Adventure”. That giant Death Star is closing in, but Skywalker is nowhere in sight.

What do we do?

Schmachtenberger’s answer is that we have to change the rules of the game, but people with enormous power and wealth are doing everything they can to prevent that.

Is there any help in sight? Any glimmer of hope?

I think there is, although perhaps a faint one.

I was reading an article in the New Yorker by Charles Duhigg: The Inside Story of Microsoft’s Partnership with OpenAI

Here’s a quote from that article:

Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, sees herself as both an optimist and a realist. “Sometimes people misunderstand optimism for, like, careless idealism,” she says. “But it has to be really well considered and thought out, with lots of guardrails in place—otherwise, you’re taking massive risks.”

In fact, most of the people working 14 hour days at OpenAI and Anthropic and other places seem to me to be optimists, and I believe most are driven by more than a desire for personal wealth.

I’m also guessing that Ms. Murati knows something I don’t that gives her a reason to be optimistic.

As DeepMind showed with AlphaFold, AI can be used to solve problems that were previously thought to be unsolvable.

That gives me, at least, hope that it can help us solve even bigger problems. The metacrisis is the biggest problem we’ve ever faced, and it also seems to be unsolvable.

I don’t think that Artificial Intelligence by itself will solve all our metacrisis problems. DeepMind isn’t going to roll out AlphaMetaCrisis and save the world. Or at least, they’re not going to do it by themselves.

R2D2 didn’t blow up the Death Star by himself, either.

Of course, and Schmachtenberger is quick to point this out, AI can be used for evil as well as good, so we may be in a race against time to build systems to detect and thwart evil. (Note to self: see if the domain is available.)

What Schmachtenberger urges us to do (to mix my movie metaphors) is to take the red pill.

He ends his talk with a call to action.

Recognize that if life was not actually beautiful, meaningful, and sacred to you, you would give no shits at all that it’s being destroyed. Don’t act out of anger, depression, and fear. Act out of that sense of the sacred and that you are in service to a life that is beautiful. To a life with a capital L – a world that is beautiful. You’re at a time when there is a higher possible consequence of your action than there has ever been for humans and there is an obligation in that and there is a meaningfulness in that that you don’t want to waste.

To change the rules of the game we have to have the courage to act.

AI can probably help with this, if we choose to use it. That may not sound like much, but it’s a start, and a deliberate step in the right direction.

I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we have AI fact-checking bots built into our phones and browsers, and ways to detect and block bots and trolls. We’ll have AI to help us find the best ways to help with the causes we care about, and to help us organize and communicate with each other.

For now, some of the main ways to use AI to help work on the metacrisis are to:

  1. Decide to take control over your own attention, rather than use social media and other platforms that are designed to maximize advertising profits. (I’m not saying you should never use social media, but you should be aware of the tradeoffs.) You can use AI in conjunction with web search to find things you want to pay attention to, and use them to make a list of keywords and topics to search for, and then use the search feature in social media rather than the feed that is controlled by an algorithm that is absolutely not designed to maximize your happiness or well-being. (Of course, funny cat videos are good for your well-being, so you should watch those.)
  2. Use AI to help you write letters to your elected representatives.
  3. Use AI to help find groups of people who are working on the metacrisis, and to help you find ways to help.

We don’t need to dedicate our lives to working on the metacrisis, but doing what we can is better than doing nothing.

The first thing you should do (not involving AI) is to watch Schmachtenberger’s talk, and the other talks on YouTube’s Norrsken Foundation channel from the Stockholm Impact/Week (especially Nate Hagen’s talk on energy and the metacrisis).

The reason why All Hope Is Lost comes at the end of the second act and not at the end of the story is that there’s still a chance for a happy ending. It’s up to the protagonist.

That’s you.

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