(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 22, 2016.)
Our two previous posts showed how prospect theory in behavioral economics explains why so many gambled on Trump, and why the artificial intelligence and decision theory expert Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that this was a mistake. In a post written the day before the election, Yudkowsky expanded on both themes, providing a simple explanation of how many of the gamblers reasoned:
Life (in Alabama, let’s say) used to be good. Then it got worse. So something is going wrong. Something must be making life in Alabama worse than it used to be a couple of decades earlier. Some malevolent force is pushing life in Alabama away from its natural default state of goodness.
Then it would be wise to do something, anything, differently. Like whacking your malfunctioning microwave with your hand, in hopes that you shake loose whatever component is in a rare state of malfunctioning, and the microwave goes back to its default state of working correctly.
On this perspective, most possibilities … are pretty good … So if life … seems bad, there must be some unusual factor that’s forcing things to go poorly … In which case there’s a lot to be said for overturning the table and doing *anything* except more of what you’re currently doing … The most important thing you need in a President is that they not be part of the same malevolent structure that has repeatedly punched you in the nose.
Then there’s the other perspective:
Most countries in the world aren’t as nice as the United States is right now. Venezuela used to be an up-and-coming country with one of the fastest-growing economies in South America. And then they elected an impulsive populist leader who made a few decisions he probably didn’t think were that bad at the time, and now Venezuela is on the verge of being a failed state.
The good things are fragile. It takes hard work to preserve them, and even people who try to do that sometimes fail … History shows the kind of global prominence the US currently has, can fade very very quickly if a country makes a few wrong moves.
Even “relative” prosperity can fade very very quickly … Most ways of reaching into your microwave that’s been seeming a bit elderly, and randomly switching up the circuits a bit, will very very rapidly cause your microwave to work worse. A lot worse.
The point is that the modern world is a very dangerous place. Forget to tell allies you’ll defend them, and wars start. Mistakenly tell Saddam Hussein you don’t care about Kuwait, and he will believe you and invade there. As Yudkowsky puts it: “Being President means standing on a shaky platform over a pit of radioactive lava, on which platform also happens to rest the United States and often the rest of the world.”
If your choice is between two qualified candidates then by all means choose the one you think is better for you—assuming both candidates understand serious politics! But if one of them doesn’t, then it is madness to choose the madman. In other words, your current situation in the USA may not be great, but it is probably better than the catastrophically bad outcomes that might result from putting people in important positions who don’t understand the seriousness of politics.
Pumping up the entropy doesn’t shatter a fragile malevolent thingy and let us go back to the normal good days. It obliterates the careful moves that barely manage to achieve the meh results you see around you, and dumps us into the boiling lava underneath. That’s what happened to Venezuela …
In short, things can quickly get much worse.
And that’s really and actually true, despite your sense that things like that aren’t *allowed* to happen, they can’t *really* happen, not *here*. Not to *you*. Not in *real life* as opposed to the 1930s. That’s all only in history class, which is part of the same fictional continuum that includes movies and television.
You can read endless phrasings of those very words, from people in various countries that went downhill, about how they thought it couldn’t happen to them. “That couldn’t *really* happen here, could it?” is a common refrain, historically speaking, from just before very bad things happen to countries …
Of course some smart people still don’t think Trump and the Republicans could do that much damage, and maybe it will turn out ok. But don’t expect that existing political structures will restrain him. Sure Obama had limited power, but he played by the rules.
The lesson of history is that populist strongmen … can happen here, they can happen anywhere, it happens all the time, not to aliens but to populations of human beings pretty much exactly like the population of human beings surrounding you …
… Lesson one of history: Populist strongmen *fire* the senior bureaucrats who don’t obey them and replace them with loyalists. And that works. The strongman does successfully consolidate power and he is obeyed henceforth, even by people who theoretically shouldn’t obey him, even when it is theoretically against the law.
Lesson two, you’d be *amazed* at how fast senior bureaucrats capitulate to populist strongmen. I was amazed at how fast the existing Republican party structure rolled over for someone who’d cheerfully slit their throats, back when Trump was running for President with, God help them, the support of the Republican leadership … the history books repeat over and over … the story of the surprisingly fast capitulation of government bureaucrats and key social figures to the strongman …
Still many people, especially white males, don’t think it can get that bad. (Non-whites and non-males better understand how bad it can get.) Surely somebody will stop it. Somebody will stop Trump from getting the nomination. Some military officers will stop the use of nuclear weapons. But even if they did, Trump could force another to carry out his orders. Here’s the lessons Yudkowsky takes from Trump not being stopped thus far:
1) Goodness is fragile; 2) What you have can be taken away. Surprisingly quickly, if not quite overnight; 3)The nebulous people and forces that are supposed to stop bad things from happening, won’t. It *can* happen here.
And, perhaps most importantly, Yudkowsky compares the situation to what he knows best, artificial intelligence:
AIs with random utility functions will not turn out pretty much all right. Even AIs that somebody tried to make go right, but screwed up in any of a dozen ways, will not turn out pretty much all right …
Your sense that this current world is true and enduring and steady, that it has existed forever in the past and will always exist in the future, that modern humans have existed forever and will always exist and that developments like Artificial General Intelligence are part of the continuum of movies and fairytales, is only slightly less blind than thinking that the 1940s were too far in the past to be real.
There’s no nebulous group of competent, well-intended AI scientists who will make sure that everything goes reassuringly well … things are allowed to not turn out all-right. … It can enter into your immediate reality instead of being safely on television or in history books or somebody else’s Facebook wall.
Yudkowsky concludes with some of the most chilling words I’ve ever read:
You could wake up on November 9th, 2016 to find that the United States as you knew it has ended …
It’s *allowed*. Learn from that now, before Wednesday, while you can still ponder that awful uncertainty. No nebulous surely-someone prevented Donald Trump from gaining the Republican nomination, no nebulous surely-someone stopped half the country from voting for him, and if November 8th goes poorly, no nebulous surely-someone will prevent all the other things that Donald Trump goes on to do.
And none of that will matter, on some later day when you don’t wake up at all. Because there were no nebulous forces that swooped in and saved the day. Because the reassuringly powerful and competent and benevolent people who are supposed to make sure that things aren’t allowed to get that bad, do not actually exist. This world of ours isn’t so strong, just like the United States proved weaker than you expected. What you see is all there is—maybe a little less.