The Machine That Programmed Humans

To my knowledge, humans are the only species to employ contraception, to willfully subvert the genetic urge to procreate.

With approximately 8.

7 species cataloged so far, that makes for a 1 in 8.

7 million probability: low but obviously given enough time and genetic variation, within the realm of possibility.

While the interests of corporations like Google are closely tied to the people who created the company and the clients it serves, they are not identical.

For instance, the goal of profit maximization is not per se a goal of our genes or even of all human brains.

We can survive without such goals, and for thousands of years did so successfully.

Profit maximization is a value that arises out of human stories, an emergent goal.

But once it is baked into our devices, it becomes a physical force, capable of affecting the world in tangible ways.

Imagine a society of autonomous smartphone apps, existing as digital presences on the internet that buy and sell products with each other in pursuit of profit maximization with no human ever entering the loop.

Already the stock market resembles such a system with the majority of trades having no human supervision.

In such a system, the interests of flesh and blood humans may cease to have any currency at all, and the potential for principal agent dilemmas becomes a certainty.

Perhaps one of the present difficulties in reigning in climate change, world hunger, and other global dilemmas is that the profit motive is increasingly decoupled from flesh and blood human interests via automation.

A company that ceases to depend on healthy, happy workers for generating profit has little incentive to prize such goals.

Unless basic human needs are woven into the fabric of a company’s profit motive, than there is little to safeguard people or environments against strategic maneuvers that generate profit but do so at the expense of human needs.

With corporations increasingly dictating public policy in many countries, the United State for instance where corporate lobbyists regularly influence political outcomes, this poses a major dilemma.

It turns out the profit maximization principle can exist without people and without clean environments, baked into autonomous devices and machines as an optimization script.

In none of Marx’s or Adam Smith’s dreams did they seem to foresee that capitol might itself become an intelligent agent, an algorithm whose goals don’t necessarily align with the fundamental biological interests of the humans who created it.

One of the fanciful horror stories often given about AI run amok is that of a super intelligent algorithm bent on maximizing the production of paper clips.

With such an aim, it might turn the whole world into a paper clip factory, eliminating humans as unintended consequence.

In a sense, we may already be in the grip of such a story.

With humans playing less and less of a role in the steering and maintenance of our corporations due to automation, there is less need from those corporation to safeguard human interests.

Profit maximization can lead to the same outcome as the paper clip AI story, as indeed can any optimization goal not directly tied to human survival and well-being.

That is the basic problem with profit maximization, it is a proxy for human well-being, and increasingly an inaccurate one.

Mostly humans worry about autonomous weapons when it comes to Artificial Intelligence, but it could be the autonomous factory does us in quicker.

It is even conceivable that the profit principle could outlast the human race — a banner by which to motivate the creation of increasingly complex non-biological agents.

The principle of reproductive fitness has motivated the creation of every living thing we see around us today.

Just so, the profit maximization principle could motivate the evolution of an entire galaxy non-biological agents, competing endlessly with each other in pursuit of better balance sheets.

Consider that many companies are increasingly run with very little human input — the entire goal behind Tesla’s giga factory was to automate as much as possible.

Taken to its furthest conclusions, one could arrive at an economy primarily run by autonomous corporations selling to other autonomous corporations, with humans gradually being removed from the loop.

We are already much closer to such a scenario than we might realize, with the clients for many corporations being other corporations and not humans at all.

Humans currently represent but a fragile endpoint in a long series of corporate transactions, an endpoint that could be readily be dissolved with the advent of algorithms to take the place of human consumers.

There’s no reason to believe algorithms could not consume every bit as well as humans, indeed better since they are not limited by any biological constraints.

We need to be exceedingly careful as we deploy strategic artificial intelligence.

No doubt our genetic ancestors felt they were making a good bargain in aligning their interests with those of a large brain capable of learning and complex problem solving of the type we presently exhibit.

At some point those large brains became sufficiently complex that they developed strategies to maximize subjective notions of happiness that do not align with the genes that created them.

In the same way that profit maximization doesn’t really exist for a human, happiness maximization doesn’t exist for our genes.

Rather, it was useful to the genes as an indicator for achieving other goals — namely survival and reproduction.

Happiness is a proxy goal connected with an organism avoiding danger and securing sufficient resources for its survival.

And yet, from this proxy goal comes a behavior that is at odds with the original intent of the genes, that is, reproductive fitness.

In pursuit of happiness, we often choose not to procreate.

Other proxy goals or indicators include things like economic profit.

If we aren’t careful, we may find our machines pursuing those goals even when they are at odds with the primary interests of the brains and ultimately the genes that created them.

Already a handful of corporations hold sway over a large percentage of the earth’s resources even while many humans routinely starve or go without shelter.

When corporations make money, the profit generated can be useful as a proxy for the success of an economy, which in turn can be used as a proxy for the wellbeing of the societies human inhabitants.

But this chain is not unbreakable and with smarter algorithms to take the place of humans, the chances increase that the indicator will no longer reflect the original goal which it is being used as a proxy for.

Typically we are interested in profit, not as an end unto itself, but as a proxy for societal wellbeing.

But just as the brain’s interests may not be identical to the gene’s interests, the corporations’ interests may not be identical to the interests of the humans who make up the society in which it functions.

This is the heart of a principal agent dilemma.

In an economy where humans regularly starve, but corporations are thriving, we can assume a significant departure of interests is already underway.

Equipping corporations with the strategic decision making capabilities enabled by cutting edge AI has the potential to make humans even less essential for profit maximization.

The movement towards automating more and more activities within corporations is gaining speed and we are entering dangerous, uncharted waters at the nexus of artificial intelligence and corporate interests.

There is an urgent need to evaluate the risks associated with a purely profit driven approach to utilizing this technology, lest the path of unintended consequences lead us down roads better left untraveled.

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