HyperNormalTimes

Written by our Director of Equity Advisory, Jeremy McKeown, the HyperNormalTimes provides in-depth and considered long-term commentary on major macroeconomic and market-shaping themes.

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July 23, 2023

Is it OK to be Human?

Man,And,Ai,Robot,Waiting,For,A,Job,Interview:,Ai

Should we die to save the planet or give up and become enslaved by AI?

‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. George Orwell, 1984 (1949).

Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom. Freidrich von Hayek.

There is a group of radical Malthusians called The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT). It proclaims that us ceasing to breed is in the best interest of the biosphere. May we live long and die out. Last year, as the world surpassed the milestone of eight billion people, the New York Times ran a feature on its founder, Les Knight, entitled,  Earth Now Has 8 Billion Humans. This Man Wishes There Were None. VHMET disagrees with China’s one-child policy, as even one child is too many. Albeit, it accepts it will never see the day there are no human beings on the planet, presumably because even should they succeed, they will be dead.

While one might accept Les Knight and his 100 000 followers represent a fringe position among modern-day Malthusian alarmists, as a cultist off-shoot of accepted ESG orthodoxy, it begs the question, is being human OK? As if being a straight, white, male English boomer wasn’t tricky enough, should this be added to what we must be ashamed of?

The profoundly Christian Thomas Malthus, who believed God had ordained a world of scarcity, has cast an enduring shadow of pessimism over the last 150 years of unprecedented human progress. Never mind that Malthus’ predictions of misery, vice, plague, pestilence and starvation didn’t survive contact with reality. Generations of gloomsters and doomsters have perpetuated his fallacies. In today’s world, where the number of clicks trumps veracity in the escalation of ideas and corporate social purpose trumps commercial purpose, we must take stock and check our assumptions.

As Malthus was regurgitating his biblical scaremongering as economic theory, there was a young entrepreneur, politician, and economic thinker called David Ricardo. Unlike his acquaintance, Thomas Malthus, Ricardo was an outsider and practical problem solver, self-taught in the ideas of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. His lasting gift to economic thought was the counter-intuitive theory of relative advantage. An economic concept built upon by others, able to explain the shortcomings of Mercantilism and the staggering benefits of specialisation and free trade that led to the unprecedented development of a world capable of sustaining eight billion inhabitants.

In the alarmist Malthusian tradition, today’s climate activists fail to take account of humanity’s proven ability to adapt. If you doubt this, Google “floods in The Netherlands”. Wikipedia lists 27 incidents between 838 and 1953 and none since. Visitors to Amsterdam (go soon while it is still permitted) learn that this is a country in which 26% of the land mass lies below sea level, yet can reverse the flow of the Rhine, among other amazing things, to protect itself from flood water. And as Fraser Nelson pointed out this weekthe average Spanish summer is a full degree hotter than in the 1980s, but Spain’s heat-related deaths have still fallen. Simply put, progress means adapting and becoming better at protecting ourselves.

Human intelligence stems from the connected minds of free people who can hypothesise, test and then error-correct. This relentlessly powerful process to which we owe our modern-day livelihoods inspires fear among the Malthusian ESG Pretorian Guard desperately trying to protect us from ourselves and the inherent riskiness of life we pursue. The new front this war is now aligning on is the battlefield of artificial intelligence (AI).

Large Language Models (LLMs), such as GPT and Bard, are far from the Artificial General Intelligence of sci-fi movies, capable of taking over the world and destroying humanity. Generative AIs are more akin to a flock of parrots with large memories and an understanding of stochastic probabilities than anything approaching sentience. Helpful but not harmful.

But none of this, of course, stops the Malthusian ESG brigade. Marc Andreessen describes the unholy alliance between the Baptists and the bootleggers in his essay Why AI Will Save the World. The veteran technologist and VC articulates how prohibitionists often make unusual bedfellows with producers. Take the case of social media, where Mark Zuckerberg’s salvation from being accused of undermining the fabric of democracy is now the saviour of the political establishment from the evil clutches of Elon Musk.

If allowed to develop unchecked, AI can collapse the cost of knowledge work, progressing humanity to unknown levels of prosperity. As Andreessen says, we should drive AI into our economy and society as fast and hard as possible to maximise its gains for economic productivity and human potential. 

However, the idea that these amazing digital assistants, incapable of forgetting anything, can destroy human life is ridiculous. But George Orwell understood the controller of language controls the truth. Those bidding to regulate LLMs’ development fully understand Orwell’s point. The stance of the VHMET cultists on this matter is less clear.

Philosopher Alex Epstein argues that pursuing policies that maximise human flourishing is axiomatic. And his view that we should not be subjugated to someone’s view of the planet’s best interests chimes with those of George Carlin. Moves to prevent humanity from advancing with unfettered AI assistance should also be resisted. Assuming that is, it remains OK to be human.

Jeremy

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