Europe, Inteligent Processes, Values

Enlightenment Now: A European Call to Arms

In “Enlightenment Now” Steven Pinker shows how the world is better than ever thanks to the values of the Enlightenment, but declinism and misunderstanding are leading us to doubt the foundations of our progress. He calls for people to reclaim the pride and moral conviction once rightfully associated with Enlightenment values to continue progress and challenge the new problems we are facing. Europe has a unique responsibility to answer this call to arms and show that Reason, Humanism, and Science can lead to an alternative way of life which is poverty-free, ecologically-balanced and meaningful while at the same time respecting Human Rights and Democracy.

“Enlightenment Now” is Steven Pinker’s latest and most comprehensive book. It follows in the footsteps of “The Better Angel of our Natures” to continue to demonstrate that the world is getting much better, much faster, whatever our survival-optimized brains think. Then it quickly turns to why this is happening, the values of the Enlightenment: Reason, Humanism, and Science. And how a majority of Enlightenment-friendly citizens is letting this progress slip by turning or permitting more demagogic doctrines to flourish.

Pinker starts by setting out the values of the Enlightenment, Reason, Humanism, and Science. Explaining how these values gradually took over from values easier to implement in our simian brains like Superstition, Deism, and Declinism. It then goes on to demonstrate empirically how these values have brought forth the best period ever in a wide number of dimensions:

  1. Violence is orders of magnitude down whatever measure you take and peace has become the norm
  2. Health has improved dramatically throughout the world, with the country with the shortest lifespan today (Swaziland at ~50 years) matches the one with the longest life expectancy in 1890 (Sweden at ~50 years). Safety from murder or accident has also been improved beyond 10x in most cases. Even Terrorism has improved, even if it is anecdotical in terms of the real risk it represents
  3. Poverty is being reduced at an astounding rate with the extreme poverty reduction millennium development goal being reached 5 years ahead of schedule
  4. Inequality having been reduced substantially at a global level, even if some middle classes in developed countries have lost ground compared to the rich.
  5. Democracy and Human Rights have expanded across the world with increasingly higher standards across the board.
  6. Quality of Life and the Standard of Living has multiplied. With technology allowing a kid in sub-Saharan Africa more access to communication, information, and entertainment than a US president had two decades ago while work hours diminish and leisure increases. Even measures of happiness and psychological well-being have improved, even if they are subjective and difficult to standardize.

At the same time, Pinker recognizes that the majority of us doesn’t seem to recognize this and many tend to think the world is actually in decline. This is related in part to our biological information processing biases, the way the news industry works, and the incentives of populists and pundits. At the same time, there are a number of real problems we are facing as a species which need a solution:

  • Substantial poverty, violence, war and human rights violations in many parts of the world which still need to be improved beyond the incredible progress we have already made.
  • Climate Change and environmental destruction, which we have the technical prowess to tackle but which are a grand-scale “tragedy of the commons” that could endanger our civilization, standard of living and progress.
  • Winner-take-all economic dynamics and automation that are leaving a substantial part of the population in developed countries with limited access to economic opportunity with financial and psychological consequences, unless met with redistribution at a new scale.
  • Limits to the current implementations of democracy which lead to radicalized partisanship and bias, anti-scientism, “post-truth”, populist alternatives and a generalized distrust of institutions and disenchantment with democracy itself.
  • Finally, “existential dangers” are out there, with nuclear annihilation being still a real and present danger and others like AI-replacement of humans potentially lurking in the future.

However, the real threat that Pinker perceives is that declinism and disillusionment have sapped the popular support and faith in the Enlightenment values. An epidemic of lack of meaning, psychological issues and chemical addictions in the developed world are pushing people to embrace more primitive ideologies. Ideologies that have already shown their fatal flaws, but that are attractively simple and comforting for our brains:

  • Populist authoritarianism, which as Donald Trump has shown in the US is a direct consequence of economic disenfranchisement, wild inequality, and democratic manipulation. It could also sap the ability to keep progress going and forestall dangerous developments (e.g. Climate Change)
  • Tribalism, with calls to put race, nation or other supposed “natural groups” in the circle of trust, while keeping “others” out.
  • Religious fundamentalism, especially in the Muslim world. Where strict adherence to scripture is freezing the development of progress of a large part of the world which was at the forefront six centuries ago and now accounts for most wars, terrorism and many human rights violations.
  • Illustrated authoritarianism, embodied in China. In which a technocratic elite decides what is better and implements quickly and without opposition.

In the end, the book concludes with a strong call to arms. We need to reclaim the pride and moral conviction of our enlightenment ancestors to defend and expand Reason, Humanism, and Science as the values that have brought prosperity and happiness to millions. We need to continue to push these values as the way to overcome existing and coming challenges, and defeat and defuse long dead alternatives which are threatening to come back even if they have proven to be disastrous already. Pinker stresses that the “we” that spouses this values is the largest and growing section of the population. However, the more virulent ideologies like authoritarian populism or religious fundamentalists are able to make much more noise as they are excited to concerted action.

I believe this call to action is especially relevant for Europe. The world needs Europe to show that there can be another path beyond authoritarianism, inequality, and fundamentalism. A path based on the European values of democracy, human rights, the welfare state, freedom, and progress. Europe is one of the largest economies and talent pools and the best place to live in the world. However, we are still under the cloud of shame and self-doubt brought by two world wars and the crimes of colonialism. We need to embrace our mission and show the world that technology makes it possible to create a poverty-free, ecologically-balanced and meaningful way of living while enjoying human rights and democracy.

In a sense, the US did its job in the second part of the twentieth century promoting progress, democracy, and human rights, China has taken hundreds of millions out of poverty in an orderly and efficient way, and now it is up to us in Europe to contribute and show that a better world is possible.

Tech and Business, Values

Technology for People and Planet

We have a unique opportunity to improve billions of lives and the whole planet through the technological revolution. However, myopic profit and power maximizing behavior is creating more problems and existential risks rather than solving the ones already on our plate. We need to put values at the center and use technology at the service of people and planet. In Europe, we have the opportunity to showcase to the world that this is viable.

Technology is changing our world faster than ever, and new trends like AI look poised to transform it even further. At the same time, we seem to have lost sight of the values and ethical underpinnings of the technological transformation. Democracies have been manipulated, personal data sold, employment and wages are at risk, and China, the US, and Rusia seem to be locked in a new Cyber cold war. We need to remember what we value, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, giving to each according to her needs, making our little blue dot sustainable. If not, we have the risk of ending up in some dystopia created by mindless technology.

There has never been a time of such opportunity through technology. Since the industrial revolution, we have gotten used to a breakthrough every handful of decades: the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, electricity… Now, without having finished the implementation phase digital revolution of the 90-2000s we have many different world-changing revolutions in the making. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has demonstrated its capacity to do more and more with less and less human intervention. Distributed Ledger Technologies like Blockchain have unleashed the early stages of a new wave of technological, financial and governance revolution with the likes of Bitcoin. The connection of billions of sensors and actuators is changing the fabric of our world through the IoT. New energy technologies like solar are promising to change our energy equation. Biotechnology is increasingly able to manipulate genes beyond our wildest dreams. Cybersecurity and cyber attacks are locked in a new deadly struggle that takes place in milliseconds. Neurobiology is showing us how the brain works behind the curtains, and creating the tools for incredible enhancement and irresistible manipulation.

Just one of these technological revolutions could have the potential to significantly improve the lives of billions of people around the world, and repair much of the harm we have done to our planet. We have the opportunity to accelerate even further the Millenium Development Goals, reducing hunger, poverty, disease, and war, while giving everyone a common base of education. We can transform energy consumption and tackle Global Warming before it is too late. In essence, we have the opportunity to bring an age of abundance and prosperity for all. We need to start focusing technology on people and the planet, instead of thinking just about profits and power.

Up to now, technology has been mainly viewed as an asset for financial gain or a weapon for hegemonic advantage at the nation-state level, rather than as a tool to help solve our problems. We have digital monopolies that have brought free applications we use broadly, but have monopolized the internet through network effects and aggressive disposal of competitors, manipulated human brains into addiction through careful design, and trafficked with citizen data to achieve previously unheard of valuations. We have an AI and Cyber-attacks race between the US, China and to a lesser extent Russia, with an understanding that “winner-takes-all”. And sadly, we have much less progress than is needed or possible to reduce existing problems.

This attitude has also created three additional threats looming, that might materialize challenging humanity further if we continue down the path of profits and power at all costs:

  • AI-induced job destruction might happen to different degrees. Some claim that this is business as usual, and we will “only” face 5 to 7 decades of declining wages for those who can’t adapt fast enough, like in the first and second industrial revolutions. Others claim that we are like horses seeing the combustion engine come and will be totally or mostly out of jobs, even if it could be a good thing. In both cases, we will have to deal with substantial social disruption and increasing inequality.
  • Techno-authoritarian dictatorships can combine traditional authoritarian methods with technology to create a police state that is almost impossible to overcome. China is already deploying pervasive face and person tracking and an integrated way of measuring a person’s “citizen score” to reward the good and keep close watch of those with less stellar scores. This can be used for good but has the potential to take Stalinist Russia to a whole new level. Combined with autonomous weapon systems it could allow a very narrow group to control a state or even the whole earth with little recourse. AI-induced job destruction is accelerating this by creating authoritarian leanings in the “digital have-nots” and threatening the logic of democracy.
  • General AI could render humans obsolete. While there is a strong debate on the possibility and timing of General AI, some people like Bill Gates or the late Stephen Hawking think it is important enough to warrant attention. How AI is developed and the consequences of the AI Arms Race that China and the US seemed to have embarked in could be earth-shaking. Scenarios considered by thinkers like Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark run the gamut from human annihilation to paradise on earth, including AI-enhanced techno-authoritarian dictatorships.

It will be key to take technology back to values and ethics to manage the current and looming threats in a way that it is positive to humanity. We have seen what unbridled technology brings: user data breaches, manipulated election results, smartphone addiction, seemingly benevolent monopolies, reduced opportunity for most, and increasing inequality. At the same time, technology holds the power to improve the human condition and give incredible opportunities to everyone. Each of us and the organizations we represent need to place people and the planet first, even if that reduces profits and power slightly. Of course, only regulation will ensure a level playing field in which does playing for people and planet don’t get outcompeted by those who are willing to destroy in order to get more.

In Europe, we are in a unique situation. We don’t have the tech giants to “win” the unwinnable race, but we have a respected international position, a strong and large economy and a very developed talent base. We need to be the example for the rest of the world of how technology can be used for the people’s and the planet’s good. We need to put the regulation in place so tech players can bring innovation while respecting the values and rules of the game we cherish and hold true and contributing financially to sustaining a just society. If we manage to do it we might show that there is a viable alternative to unchecked techno-capitalism with masses of dispossessed citizens and techno-authoritarianism through a police state 3.0. This alternative will put people and the planet before other goals, like profit and power, which are really instrumental rather than fundamental.