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The Madness of Muloch
How humanity's race to the bottom is lead by the greediest parts of our nature
What is Moloch?
In the ancient Carthaginian pantheon of deities, Moloch was a Demon to whom child sacrifices were made as an appeasement to receive some form of bounty in return.
Legend and lore were passed down through the ages of these gruesome pagan acts of cruelty.
Thankfully, in modern days, we don’t much have to concern ourselves with Moloch anymore. Well, in the literal sense anyways. In the way it's used casually or symbolically though, Moloch may be just as abominable and ruthless as it's ancient idolatrous counterpart.
In 2014, author and philosopher Scott Alexander wrote an essay called “Meditations on Moloch” in which he referenced a poem by Allen Ginsberg. The extrapolations he then pulled from this poetic invocation of the long dead god are lengthy, relevant, and terrifying.
(Click the link below to read the essay)
The Race To The Bottom
In essence, what Moloch is - by Alexander's account - is humanities propensity to adjust their morals to get ahead.
It's the little things and the big things. But, what's most disturbing and pernicious about Moloch is that it takes over entire systems from their minority constituents. Those who are first to sacrifice a moral for a benefit (like a baby for a bounty) are the ones who get ahead of those who don't.
This produces a race to the bottom. Where, at the bottom, those with the least morals have the most power.
Max Tegmark, Moloch And AI
On a recent episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, MIT Professor and Technologist Max Tegmak brought up the disturbing and terrifying snowball effect of Moloch within the AI race right now.
Tegmark famously penned an open letter to the world pleading for an industry wide moratorium on research into AI for 6 months. At this point, over 50,000 industry stalwarts have signed on, including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Max gave a simple example of Moloch in our time by using beauty filters on social media as an example.
When they were first released, everyone could plainly see the dangers of their use. The perverting of natural beauty towards impossible standards. The possibility of depression and self harm among young girls who couldn't possibly live up to their synthetic standards. And, at first, they were socially shunned as they rightly should have been…
… but then, some girls started using them. And they began getting more likes and comments and shares and attention and fame from doing so. Soon after, those who weren't going to use it found themselves in a position where they either sacrificed their morals to Moloch just to keep up, or they died on that hill and were no longer part of the system that was busy passing them by.
In this example, it's easy to see how there was no majority vote or social acceptance necessary to, in short order, fully usurp the entire system against its better judgment. It only requires a small minority of people within the system to sacrifice those morals, that the others won't, to get ahead of them in that race to the bottom for their own benefit.
This is the unstoppable virality of Moloch. And every single human system is vulnerable to its effects.
Moloch in AI
Tegmark, when describing AI, called it mankind’s “Final Weapon”. If splitting the atom wasn’t enough of an onus on humanity - the eternal responsibility to not destroy ourselves with that knowledge - AI, in Max’s eyes, is one step further.
Mostly because of something called the alignment issue. This we covered not too long ago in it’s own podcast episode. (listen to it —> HERE if you missed it)
To summarize the conundrum, there is an ever increasing chance that the intelligent systems we’re building will either breach the parameters we’ve set for them via their superior intelligence, or the parameters we’ve set for them will prove insufficient much further down the road of advancement than we can predict from our present vantage point.
In either scenario, we find ourselves in a run-away-train situation. For, as the speed of improvement (being determined internally within the AIs) increases exponentially, we will lose the capability to even know how far beyond us it is before it’s off in the proverbial distance.
How Moloch feeds into this system is (of course) at the human level. We’re driven to improve upon our systems. Firstly, due to natural curiosity. But secondly, by the corporations and special interests that demand them of themselves for the sake of their economic wellbeing.
This is where we find ourselves now, and why Max Tegmark and 50,000 other concerned technologists and innovators have co-signed onto this 6 month moratorium. They ALL see the danger of pushing this progress towards deeper, darker and more uncharted territory while it more and more takes the reins from us in the process. But NONE of them can quit unless ALL of them quit.
That’s Moloch. The demon that only requires 1 person or company to not sign on, or to break their agreement for the opportunity to get ahead of everyone in a race towards the next multi-trillion dollar industry.
Only one person needs to sacrifice their moral baby to the brazen image of Moloch to perpetuate this momentum towards creating our own successors.
Humanity Over Technology
Some people, at this point, tend to get nihilistic and say, “Perhaps this is simply the next stage of evolution. Humanity evolves out of it’s skin and into a silicon shell. So why fight nature?”.
To those people I say, why do you want to give up your humanity so quickly as if it weren’t valuable to begin with? Don’t we have consciousness? Being? Experience? Love? Art? Poetry? Hope?
What if the silicon successors phase us out while never reaching any sort of consciousness themselves? What if they simply turn out to be super intelligent mimic machines that have no experience? In Professor Niklas Bostrom’s book Super-Intelligence, he likened this possibility to “Building a Disneyland with no children.”.
We may simply build a hyper-efficient army of optimizing zombies that relegate us to obscurity only to remain evermore as an obscene shell - an echo - of the consciousness that built them.
If we don’t take control of this technology, and if we don’t take control of ourselves before Moloch does… the ending may be nothing but an inevitable tragedy for the human race.
And as much as I love computers and all the ease they bring, I’m not for sacrificing everything it is to be human for them or for that.
~ Drew Weatherhead
Listen to the Full Podcast Episode: Of Moluch & Man: How Intelligence May Destroy Sentience ← HERE
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