Monkeys with Microscopes: Growing Artificial Intelligence Tribes and Divides

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In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court sentenced Carrie Buck to ‘sterilization’.

Carrie was born into poverty in Virginia in the early 1900’s.

She was sent to the Virginia State Colony for ‘sterilization’ after she was raped and impregnated.

The facility was designed for individuals considered “epileptic” or “feebleminded”.

If ‘sterilized’ sounds grim, that’s because it was grim.

Surgical procedures to remove, cut, or block your reproductive parts.

Dr. Priddy, superintendent of the Virginia facility, along with eight of the nine judges in the court case were zealous supporters of the ‘eugenics’ movement.

They believed anyone considered to be “feebleminded” or mentally deficient should be forcibly sterilized to prevent them from reproducing and passing on those perceived deficiencies.

In the decades following Carrie’s case, tens of thousands of people would be forcibly sterilized in the United States.

What is your initial reaction toward the eugenics movement?


It wasn’t just Superintendent Priddy and the judges who supported eugenics.

Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell were vocal advocates.

Universities including Harvard and Stanford taught eugenics courses.

There was even an American Eugenics Society, founded in 1926, with members including prominent and well-respected doctors, lawyers, and scientists.

Had you been born in the US, in Germany, or in the UK, there’s a good chance you too would have supported the eugenics movement.

As it would turn out, many of the assumptions and scientific reasonings behind the eugenics movement were flawed.

As the 1900s progressed, so did our understanding of the complexities of genetics and intelligence.

Unfortunately, this realization came too late.

The eugenics movement was co-opted by history’s favorite villain, Adolf Hitler, and his merry Nazis.

Supercharged by the Nazi regime, eugenics was stretched to the most horrific extremes.

Following the fall of the Nazis and the revelation of the atrocities committed in the name of eugenics, most supporters swung a full 360. 

‘Eugenics’ was now a dangerous, unethical, and inhumane practice.

Allow us to step down from the moral high horse for a minute and explore some uncomfortable ideas.

Widespread discrimination, forced sterilization, and ultimately, the systematic murder of millions of people during a Holocaust-type event, is, psychopathic.

To be avoided at all costs, most will agree.

On the other hand, objectively and carefully investigating a set of beliefs and practices that could ‘potentially’ improve the genetic quality of the human population, reduce overall long-term suffering and increase the likelihood of species survival, is not.

Mounting the moral high horse and denouncing Eugenics might have made you feel like a hero.

But like most controversial issues, objective analysis goes out the window when tribal thinking enters the room regardless of the participating teams.   

Confirmation Bias and Tribalism

We humans have a very peculiar (bug?) feature.

An innate tendency to form tribes or groups around shared beliefs, ideas, or stories.

Even when those beliefs are hypothetical, illusionary, abstract, or.. straight-up horse shit.

Our identity becomes intertwined with those beliefs; we seek out and favour information that confirms those beliefs to strengthen our position as a group, or as an individual within that group.

Anyone who challenges those beliefs, regardless of how good the opposing evidence, can fuck right off.

Paradoxically, this exact problem may be the reason we’ve made it this far.

From Yuval’s ‘Sapiens’.

“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.”

Yuval – Sapiens

The eugenics movement brought together individuals who shared a belief in the idea that human traits and characteristics were primarily determined by genetics and that society could be improved by controlling reproduction to promote “desirable” traits and eliminate “undesirable” ones.

The pro-eugenics tribe sought out, and showcased, scientific evidence and theories that supported those beliefs, while ignoring or dismissing evidence that challenged them.

We have this to thank (at least in part) for the atrocities of the holocaust and the rise of the Nazi regime. 

A fact conveniently overlooked in most history books.

The point here isn’t to promote or denounce eugenics.

It’s to highlight that humans, as a collective, are feeble-minded monkeys with god-like technologies.

When new ideas and new technologies push us into unknown territory, tribalism and cognitive bias rear their ugly heads, and our ability to have objective and radically honest conversation disappears.

The work of the late and great Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Amos Tversky, dating back to the ’70s, challenged the popular assumption that humans are rational, ‘good-decision-making’ machines.

Here’s a quote from the start of Kahneman and Tversky’s Judgement Under Certainty paper.

“What determines such beliefs? …. people rely on a limited number of heuristic principles (strategies derived from experience to speed up the process of finding an answer) which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations. In general, these heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors.” 

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

In other words, humans are emotional monkeys who use mental shortcuts (influenced by past experience and biases) to more easily make decisions, often leading to major errors in judgement. 

Through a number of subjective flaws, we humans end up in loops of tribal thinking, overconfidence, and the neglect of important considerations, especially in complex areas of uncertainty.

Tribalism and Technology 

What would the world look like today had we taken an open-minded and objective approach to understanding eugenics?

Could we have come to an earlier realization that the risks and ethical concerns of mass-eugenic programs far outweighed the benefits? Could we have focused that attention toward research into more careful and ethical Gene therapies or a better understanding of genetic expression? 

What if we’d applied the same open-minded approach to Nuclear science?

Could we have avoided the nuclear arms race? Could we have directed those resources toward better understanding the fusion of hydrogen atoms and be living in a world of limitless clean energy instead of pointing bombs at each other?

The United States and Russia each have over 1,600 deployed nuclear weapons that could be launched within minutes, part of the 12,500 total nuclear weapons among 9 nuclear-armed nations. 

In a recent conversation with Lex Fridman, Annie Jacobsen reveals the terrifying reality of nuclear conflict. 

We (the human species) are one miscalculation away from nuclear war, which would kill billions through the initial blasts, radiation poisoning, and ensuing nuclear winter.

One story from the podcast.

In 1979, Bill Perry (director of research and engineering at the Pentagon) received a late-night call informing him that the Soviet Union had launched a nuclear attack on the United States. He was moments away from notifying the president to initiate a counterattack when he learned that the alert was a false alarm caused by someone accidentally loading a training tape into the early warning system.

A moment from full-scale nuclear armageddon. 

Since this event, things have really not changed all that much. 

By some miracle, we haven’t nuked the human species from the face of the planet.

How did we end up in this situation? 

A small number of senile, angry old men, can flick a switch and wipe out most of the humans on spaceship Earth, dragging us back to the stone ages through nuclear hell?

Tribalism, nationalism, and cognitive biases have prevented us from engaging in truly open-minded global conversation about almost every important technology, and every important thing in the history of our fragile species.

Nuclear, conflict, energy, genetics, climate, money, surveillance, drugs, pandemics.

Let’s call this list ‘The list of important shit that we should be having more open-minded, careful conversation about’.

The biggest media establishments, Universities, Government, and elected officials (the institutions you’d hope would co-ordinate open-minded dialogue) are instead busy fuelling the tribalism by manipulating information and converting fear into votes and profit.

So we turn to self-funded podcast hosts, Reddit Forums, and toxic Twitter tantrums, in an attempt to disentangle the complexities of the world, and form unwavering opinions about hypothetical situations.

Emerging Artificial Intelligence Tribes and Divides  

This brings us to Artificial Intelligence.

AI has quickly risen to the top of our ‘list of important shit that we should be having more open-minded, careful conversation about’.

The scale of impact and change we will experience through advancements in Artificial Intelligence is mind-boggling.

There will be unimaginably good and unimaginably bad consequences.

A quote from Max Tegmark.

“I’m almost certain that it will be either the best or worst thing that happens to the human species”.

To make things even more exciting/terrifying (pick your adjective), Artificial Intelligence is in the process of magnifying every single OTHER item on our previously discussed list.

It will hurtle us toward clean and abundant Nuclear energy while increasing the capabilities and potentiality of nuclear war.

It will help us create more effective medicines and treatments, and at the same time, increase the chances of mass-produced bioweapons and engineered diseases.

It will help reshape economic systems and structures, while leaving millions unemployed and without meaning.

The uncertainties of Artificial Intelligence have sent our god-enabled monkey species into a new frenzy of tribalism.

At one end of the spectrum, we have those who believe we should be accelerating at all costs, toward the creation of a super-intelligent, AGI.

A silicon God.

This AGI will solve every problem known to humankind. We will seamlessly merge with machine and project our consciousness out into to the vast and unexplored cosmos, and onto the next phase of life and existence.

Here you’ll find the AI Enthusiast camps, the ‘Techno-Optimists’, the ‘E-Accers’, the ‘Transhumanists’. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we have those who believe Artificial Intelligence is inherently doomed and will inevitably push humanity into extinction with disastrous unintended consequences.

Here you’ll find the ‘Doomers’ and ‘Existentialists’.

And somewhere in the middle, you’ll find the more ‘Pragmatic Technologists’, who are optimistic about the technology, but also cautious about the potential risks.

It’s important to note that all flavours of belief exist all along the spectrum.

We know from Mr Keineman that humans are very likely to project subjectivity and past experience onto their beliefs about the potential benefits and risks of Artificial Intelligence, which will almost certainly lead to major errors in judgement.

Sometimes it helps to slip on the shoes of the leading voices of the AI tribes to better understand the influencing biases.

Imagine yourself as a genius engineer/entrepreneur with a PhD in quantum physics, building a decentralized AI startup. Your self-worth derived from anarchic Twitter posts aggravating some of the most prominent AI voices in the world.

Or a bright-eyed billionaire tech investor with your reputation hanging on the success and progress of the companies, founders and technologies you’ve invested in.

How about a recently graduated AI researcher who has landed a seven-figure, first-job salary. Celebrity status surrounds your new role. Allegiance to your company, its founders and its vision to create a better world is intoxicating.

Or the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company with tens of thousands of employees, greedy shareholders, board members, corrupt state institutions, regulators, and politicians breathing down your neck?

Are you going to have an objective view of the possible risks and benefits of this technology?

Probably not.

A healthy diversity of opinion and perspective is important.

It helps us calibrate.

To find a more objective ground truth through open discourse.

But when opinions become unwavering overconfidence shared by groups, and those groups become tribal, things get ugly. 

We lose our ability to view the situation objectively.

If we were to distil the core issue, it would go something like this – when you push humans into the unknown and the uncomfortable, things get weird.

The truth is, we really don’t have answers to any of the deep questions.

We don’t know how we came to be or what we’re doing here. We don’t know what intelligence is or how it works. We don’t know what consciousness is. We don’t even know what happens when we die.

We’re creating a technology that is catapulting us into the unknown. 

It’s going to start unravelling and intermingling with some of these deep unknowns and mysteries.

And it’s going to get uncomfortable.

If the goal is to better prepare for the future and make well-informed decisions, we need a big shift. 

We should be spending far less time in the echo chamber. 

And far more time having open-minded conversation about the things on which we do agree – which starts with how much we truly don’t know about the universe, about intelligence and about the nature of existence.

We should be continually calibrating, accepting where we’ve gone wrong, and adjusting beliefs, opinions, and actions based on new information.

The Orwellian scenario where a multi-billion dollar company builds the most powerful technology in the history of the human species, before being co-opted by corrupt and malicious actors is a real possibility.

So is the possibility that we birth a new form of intelligence with goals and objectives so radically different from our own, that we all get turned into paperclips.

Conversely, the possibility that a Super-Intelligent entity will collaborate with the human species to prolong our time on earth and help solve every major existential risk we face is also a real possibility.

At this point, all the cards are on the table.