We are living in troubled times. Too much is happening too fast. People are confused. The Columbia University economic historian Adam Tooze has, indeed, popularized a word for it. He calls it a “polycrisis.”
The polycrisis has many sources. In my opinion the main source of the polycrisis afflicting the world today is artificial intelligence. Climate change comes second, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine qualifies as the third. The list is much longer but I’ll focus on these three. That should help reduce the confusion.
AI shocked the world when Microsoft made ChatGPT freely available to the public through an associated company called OpenAI. That was in November 2022. ChatGPT posed an existential threat to Google’s business model. Google went into overdrive to release a competing product as soon as possible.
Shortly thereafter, Geoffrey Hinton, who is generally considered the godfather of AI, resigned from Google so that he could speak openly about the risks posed by the new technology. Reversing his previous position, he took a very dim view of AI. He said that it could destroy our civilization.
Hinton pioneered the development of neural networks that can understand and generate language and learn skills by analyzing data. As the data grew, so did the capacity of AI’s so-called large language models.
This made a big impression on Hinton. “Maybe what is going on in these systems is actually a lot better than what is going on in the brain,” he said. As they become more powerful they also become more dangerous, he claimed. In particular, he warned against fully autonomous weapon systems – killer robots, he called them.1
“We’ve entered completely unknown territory. We’re capable of building machines that are stronger than ourselves, but we’re still in control. But what if we develop machines that are smarter than us? … It will take AI between five and 20 years to surpass human intelligence.” And “it will soon realize that it achieves its goals better if it becomes more powerful.”2
What Hinton said made a big impression on me. Indeed, AI reminded me of Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The Apprentice is studying magic but doesn’t fully understand what the master is teaching him. When the master orders him to sweep the floor, he applies the magic words to a broom. The broom obeys him, but the apprentice can’t stop the broom from fetching buckets of water to sweep the floor and the house gets flooded.
I grew up before AI was invented. That made me a great believer in reality. I realized at a relatively early age how difficult it is to understand the world I was born into, and I looked to reality to provide me with moral guidance.
We, human beings, are both participants and observers in the world in which we live. As participants we want to change the world in our favor; as observers we want to understand reality as it is. These two objectives interfere with each other. I regard this as an important insight which allows me to distinguish between right and wrong.
AI destroyed this simple schema because it has absolutely nothing to do with reality. AI creates its own reality and when that artificial reality fails to correspond to the real world – which happens quite often – it is discarded as hallucination.1
This made me almost instinctively opposed to AI and I wholeheartedly agree with the experts who argue that it needs to be regulated. But the regulations have to be globally enforceable because the incentive to cheat is too great; those who evade the regulations gain an unfair advantage.
Unfortunately, global regulations are unattainable because the world is dominated by a conflict between two systems of governance which are diametrically opposed to each other. They have radically different views on what needs to be regulated and why.
I refer to the two systems of governance as open and closed societies. I define the difference between the two as follows: in an open society, the role of the state is to defend the freedom of the individual; in a closed society, the role of the individual is to serve the interests of the rulers.
AI is developing incredibly fast, and it is impossible for ordinary human intelligence to fully understand it. Nobody can predict where it will take us. But we can be sure of one thing: AI helps closed societies and poses a mortal threat to open societies. That’s because AI is particularly good at producing instruments of control that help closed societies to surveil their subjects.
This is why I am instinctively opposed to AI, but I don’t know how it can be stopped. Right now, nobody else does either, but most of those who developed AI recognize the need to regulate it. So does Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration. But AI is moving much faster than governmental authorities. The Biden administration has taken some executive action, but Congress will have difficulties in enacting anything like an “AI Bill of Rights.”
There is, however, a problem that cannot wait. There will be general elections in the United States in 2024 – and, most likely, in the United Kingdom as well – and AI will undoubtedly play an important role, one which is unlikely to be anything but dangerous. AI is very good at producing disinformation and deep fakes and there will be many malicious actors. What can we do about that? I don’t have the answer, but I hope this issue will receive the attention it deserves.
The second element in the polycrisis is climate change. The global climate system has been disrupted by increased human intervention, particularly the large-scale use of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and methane. The 2015 Paris agreement set a target of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial times. That is now bound to be transgressed; in spite of all the efforts to fight climate change, the rate of warming is actually accelerating.
Two highly respected climate scientists, David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, and Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute, have warned that this could trigger tipping points and lead to the collapse of life on earth.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that current climate policies will leave the Earth between 2.5°C and 2.7°C hotter by 2100. That would be a disaster, the scientists said. It would exceed the warmest temperature on earth over the past four million years. It would lead to the complete melting of the Greenland, Himalayan, and West Antarctic ice sheets and raise sea levels by ten meters.
“There would be a collapse of all the big biomes on planet Earth – the rainforest, many of the temperate forests – abrupt thawing of permafrost, we will have complete collapse of marine biology, we will have a shift of large parts of the habitability on Earth,” Rockström said.
“Over one-third of the planet around the equatorial regions will be uninhabitable because you will pass the threshold of health, which is around 30°C.”
Unfortunately, when fighting climate change interferes with people’s livelihood, they want to protect their livelihood. Farmers in Germany and the Netherlands are up in arms against regulating nitrogen emissions because these regulations prevent them from keeping cows. They have mobilized, winning elections and shaking the European Union.
I should also mention the desire of oil companies to continue making a profit.
We are way behind schedule in fighting climate change. We ought to do everything that climate scientists deem necessary – reduce emissions deeply and rapidly, remove excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and refreeze the Arctic. To do this, we must gain the approval of indigenous communities. All this has to be done as soon as possible.
RUSSIA’S WAR ON UKRAINE
This brings us to the third component of the polycrisis. The Russian invasion of Ukraine came as a negative shock to the world, disrupting food supplies and causing major geopolitical realignments. Having said that, the actual outcome is much better than could have been expected. The Ukrainian army put up heroic resistance and, with strong support from the US and Europe, turned things around. The Russian army proved to be a paper tiger, badly led and thoroughly corrupt. The Wagner Group, a private mercenary army, propped up the invasion for a period, but in the end, they too failed to defeat Ukraine.
As a result, Ukraine is now ready to launch a counterattack as soon as all of the equipment it has been promised by the West is delivered. Biden has even agreed that Ukraine should be given F-16 fighter planes.
I believe the counterattack will be successful. The target will be the Crimean Peninsula, the home base of the Russian Navy. By destroying the already damaged land bridge with Russia, Ukraine could turn a strategic asset into a strategic liability, because Crimea has no water. With the land bridge destroyed, Crimea will depend on Ukraine for water.
Many parts of the Russian Federation are already chafing under President Vladimir Putin’s despotic regime, and this development may cause them to reject it altogether. Putin’s dream, a revived Russian Empire, could disintegrate and no longer pose a threat to Europe and the world.
The end of the war in Ukraine will come as a positive shock for the world. This may provide an opportunity for Biden to lower the tension between the US and China, which is itself in the midst of an economic decline that may make President Xi Jinping more receptive to an accommodation with the US. Biden is not seeking regime change in China; all he wants is to reestablish the status quo in Taiwan.
A Russian defeat in Ukraine, and a lessening of Sino-American tensions, may create room for world leaders to focus on fighting climate change, which is threatening to destroy our civilization. But there is only a narrow and winding path that leads to this outcome. So, it is appropriate to use a question mark in asking whether democracy can survive the polycrisis.