Neuroscience, Sandberg, and the Illusion of A Better Society Through Tech

Now and then, I explore my old subscription emails to IEEE to find some nugget I may have missed out on. Recently, I ran across an article on prosthetic limbs, which was fascinating and talked about the progress in neuroscience with regards to enabling the sensation of touch in the mind of the prosthetic wearer. This led me to a couple of other articles. The first was of DARPA (the US governments military research arm) wanting mind-reading technology. The second was a Q&A session with Anders Sandberg in regards to the ethics of “upgrading” your brain. These articles are a testimony to the hope people have in technology solving their problems. However, the truth is, technology will never solve the underlying problem, and for the historically-aware, it would seem only dystopia is on the horizon. To understand why, we have to take into account historical trends, psychology, and legitimate ethics. But I’m not interested in solving the unsolvable. I’m interested in a better response to all this. In this article, I’d like to analyze the aforementioned articles and then provide my own positive response.

The Articles

In the case of DARPA, the government wants to connect its soldiers with robots. Imagine robots that send sensory input back to human controllers thousands of miles away. You could fight a battle remotely. Sounds like a good idea, and they’re willing to spend millions of dollars to do it. But what’s the problem they are trying to solve? For the military, the problem is combat. But the truth is, if you aren’t at war, you don’t need war machines. It’s true that there’s an invisible arms race between nations, and this isn’t likely to go away. However, creating technology will never solve the real problem: the evil of humanity. Keep that point in mind. As long as people are evil, they will go to war and fight with each other. Technology won’t make anything better, and for the most part, only makes it worse. Notably, current military technology now leaves people in fear of people thousands of miles away from their homeland whom they have never seen nor heard.

In the next article, IEEE asked Sandberg a number of questions, to which he gave inaccurate and disagreeable answers almost every time (to be precise, they were not wildly inaccurate). No offense to Mr Sandberg, but all of his answers came from the perspective of a naive, worldly researcher. To understand the problems with his answers, we need to break down his beliefs. Let’s go over his beliefs one by one.

“Technology Is Just Awesome”

Like many researchers with a passion, Sandberg is obsessed with the idea of the future technology, and thus has become “starstruck” in a way. It’s fun to think about and motivates one’s work. Consequently, he believes somehow the technology will become a commodity that is readily available to the populous.

“The Scare of Technology is No Big Deal”

Sandberg believes the new technology isn’t going to create worse problems than it solves. While not explicit in his answers, I can read this between the lines. He’s rather dismissive of very real and scary possibilities (which I’ll get to in a moment).

“We tend to think new technology is scary and problematic, whereas old technology we take for granted—and “old” means it arrived before you were a teenager. But there’s no philosophical reason to treat neurotechnology as fundamentally different from anything else. ” – Sandberg, answering if the tech is “alarming” or just “new”

He claims the primary reason for the fear is simply because the technology (and the required surgery) is “new” and people will get over it in time. Historically, however, perspective generally changes with younger generations because those people aren’t aware of how life was better before (the tech arrived) and because there are always a few bold individuals to try it out.

“Intelligence Makes Us Happier”

Some direct quotes:

“There’s a correlation between being smart and doing better in school and getting better jobs. It’s not always the case, and not every smart person is a happy person. But that’s what we see overall. And people with lower intelligence are much more likely to be victims of a crime.

And people with high intelligence cooperate better. So overall, a society where everybody is a bit smarter would likely be a much better place. And even people who aren’t enhanced would be better off, because they would be surrounded by people who are good at cooperating and being nice.”

“People with good life outcomes tend to be smart”

As an intelligent individual, Mr Sandberg believes (at least moderate) intelligence makes people happier and more cooperative while he is dismissive of side cases. However, anyone familiar with hacking websites knows intelligence is required and empathy, not. Cracking has become so commonplace that most people have no idea just how much it goes on. i.e. There is a large number of intelligent people devoted to simply harming the lives of others digitally.

The truth is, intelligent people are just as wicked as stupid people, but they know how to get away with it, whereas stupid people get caught. Furthermore, laws generally are made for simple crimes, whereas complex crimes exploit loopholes and are performed by more intelligent people. Do we want crime to be harder to fight? – Make everyone smarter!

The second false assumption is that intelligence equates to wisdom. Making someone smarter doesn’t mean they will come up with wiser, better ideas. In fact, arrogance has more of a negative effect on wisdom than lack of intelligence does. Intelligence is just the brain power and utility. You can be really smart and still devote all your brain power towards doing something foolish.

Personal history (education, family, experiences) and personality type (I allude to MBTI) have a primary effect on the way people think about the world, and changing that requires reshaping the structure of the brain, not just plugging in a few wires. Psychology will tell you more about the correlation between personality and character than current brain analysis. Neuroscience is examining and meddling with a river to see how it flows. Psychology is seeing what the rivers do overall.

That said, it is easy to mistakenly correlate (as Sandberg does) an analytical mindset with cooperativeness, when by logical induction from psychology, these two things are associated more with the brain wiring than with brain power.

(Technical note: An analytical mindset leads to “intelligence” from a test-score, utilitarian perspective. I’m inclined to think most people – even the so called “super intelligent” – have roughly as much brain power (or “true intelligence”) as everyone else, but it happens to be devoted to specific things. For some people, brain power is devoted more toward emotions; for others, motor skills; etc.)

“Evolution Brought Us Here, But We Can Go Further”

If you believe in the macro evolution of species, you may be inclined to believe – as Mr Sandberg does – that we have progressed to this point by “natural selection”, which has a vague meaning, but to which Sandberg compares with a “master designer” – even though there is no intelligence whatsoever controlling the system (and in real nature, breeding happens based on luck and strength (winning the buck fight), not intelligence). Supposedly, enhancing human intelligence will make us better, so he thinks it’s ok to mess with nature for temporary happiness. I quote:

“It’s true that evolution has optimized our species, so it’s like messing with something that a master engineer has built. But nature optimizes for different things than we care about as modern humans. Nature cares about us having a lot of grandchildren, but a good human life might not involve having any kids at all. So we differ in our value functions from evolution.”

If you love humanity, you’ll note that having no kids means extinction. Of course, the benefit is temporary pleasure during midlife… until you get old and have no one to care for you, like the problem in Germany and Japan (who are importing nurses).

Actually, Mr Sandberg is expressing a subconscious desire of his that is common to people with his personality type. These “modern humans” (more precisely, the average individual of a select few personality types) generally don’t want kids because it’s expensive or troublesome or “inconvenient” (as abortion statistics attest), not because it’s more “evolved”. This “good human life”, in Sandberg’s opinion, doesn’t appear to involve work.

Mr Sandberg is looking for the easy life, the life where problems are solved by technology. This is evident between the lines in his remarks on the tech being an adaptation.

Over generations, evolution will make humans more and more safe in traffic. After a million years of an unchanged culture, we would be better drivers. But we don’t want to wait a million years, so we make better cars. And my brain didn’t evolve to help me look at symbols on a screen. So I can take a drug or use technology to enhance my focus and attention, which will help me survive in this environment.

(Side note: I know plenty of people intelligent enough to drive safely and yet they willingly choose not to in favor of other priorities. I don’t want to imagine how distracted their minds would be if super-intelligent.)

Real Expectations…

Ritalin didn’t help anyone in the long run. How much worse an implant that may become commonplace? Let’s see… Maybe hostiles will hack it and steal intimate information or toy with a person’s emotions. Maybe teachers will have higher expectations on certain students (grounds for abuse). Maybe politicians will force their populations to have it (enjoying the China app, anyone?), causing a dystopia unlike anything 1984 ever foretold. A host of other unforeseen problems will arise. According to Murphy’s Law, “if something can go wrong, it will”. If people can do something stupid with tech, they will. Don’t ever count on outsmarting idiots or preventing the persistent.

Technology can only trade one problem for another. Humans made computers to solve problems, but they need power, so people made powerplants. Powerplants require resources, which pollute the environment in one way or another, require risky harvesting in some cases (costing lives), and eventually become insufficient for our demands. Cars reduce the problem of travel, but enable our destinations (employment, doctor, etc) to be farther away, increase the risk of injury (or death), and burn resources. Medical technology helps people live longer lives… and then gives younger generations the burden of dealing with them. Electronics require special materials (for production) that become pollutants and garbage for poor nations to deal with. Nothing is free.

I don’t want to spend alot of time on this section, so moving on…

The “Natural” Perspective

If you simply step back and glance at the whole of the world from a physicalist’s or naturalist’s perspective – as Mr Sandberg evidently has – then it would appear the great human machine continues to function in a kind of progressive, predictable model. Neurotechnology would simply be one gear that fits in alongside any other bit of technology. From an abstract perspective, there’s no difference between it and, say, electronics, and therefore, it shouldn’t add any long term, observable negative effects any more than are balanced out by all the other mumbo jumbo of human activity. It’s an overly simplistic and optimistic view (a.k.a. naive) and kind of a cop-out from trying to account all variables, but it’s not entirely unfounded (based on trends). The reality is, the earth and humanity do not appear to be heading towards complete decay because there is too much to mess up first. Only when it’s too late do people finally realize mistakes affecting an entire nation.

There is, of course, a reason for this. People are blinded for a number of reasons, but the primary one of all is simply “wishful thinking”. We have a desire for the moment, and we want to see it fulfilled regardless of the cost in the future, which doesn’t particularly concern most people. After all, why give weight to the intangible?

Some people have taken note of the current and future problems and voice their objections, but commercialism tends to prevail on the basis of its practicality and convenience.

A Better Response

In contemplating on all this, it is easy for me to become pessimistic, but that’s not the best response. Truly, if the world were all we had hope in, then we’d be doomed because the unsolvable, underlying problem of society is that generally, humans are selfish. Being optimistic, even if 9 out of 10 people were “good” on a daily basis, that 1 out of 10 could make life miserable for everyone else. In fact, most people you run into in life aren’t interested in making your life miserable, but most of them would be more than willing to choose your suffering over theirs. They are deceived by Satan into thinking that their life would be so much better if they passed the problem to someone else or put it off until later (which eventually becomes the former).

To make matters worse, people blindly continue to create technology for economic purposes or pure interest, even though some of this technology will be one day used against other people or have negative impacts on society. And still more people will embrace technology as a kind of god, believing it will fix social problems, which in turn will lead to abuses, ethical dilemmas, and a host of new problems to deal with, “grey areas” to write laws for, and black deals to trade in secret.

In a stroke of irony, the Christian response is to not worry about the world’s problems, believing that God is in control. The first part – “not worry about the world’s problems” – is counter-intuitive. If we’re surrounded by the world, why shouldn’t we worry? Being at ease can’t be done without the second part – “believing that God is in control” – and yet, people try it all the time.

I used to be anxious over the world’s problems. Everywhere I look, people are doing things that are going to bring human life closer and closer to a dystopia, and the blindness in foresight of humanity makes it inevitable. This could be a cause of great fear, especially since it isn’t possible for a single individual to shield themselves from all these problems let alone save everyone else from them. We will eventually find ourselves in a world with new, foreseen and unforeseen problems.

And yet, God is in control. If God is an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent god, then none of this has escaped His attention nor is beyond His control. If God is super loving – and He is – then I need not worry about the collapse of the world into chaos. Instead of fearing the oncoming problems, I can face them knowing that God never allows anything to happen to someone without it opening the possibility of a greater good to arise from it (which is the general response to why God allows evil in the first place). Time and again, God has protected those who place their trust in Him from countless problems. Even though we face trials that promote character growth, we don’t have to fear them the same way non-believers ought to fear the oncoming dystopia. And to Christians, the problems of the future world will be nothing more than areas of opportunity for God’s people to mend wounds.

Believing that God is in control requires believing in God, and that implies accepting the real presence of God. That’s hard to do, but there’s a genuine peace that comes with it. The shield of God is sufficient, unlike man-made armor, money, or power. No need to even worry about people hacking your brain; God can protect your brain from being read. (So no, I won’t be wearing an aluminum hat any time soon… except maybe for fun.)

When you truly believe in God taking care of you, the mythical “easy life” starts to lose its appeal. I’d like kids. I want responsibility! I want exercise! I want a challenge! Get out of the way, do-everything-bot! I want to live! If the world is going to improve, it has to come through people making the decision to do good, not technology advancing to the point of magic.

There are certain a number of problems technology solves and things it helps us do, and some problems are worth exchanging for others, but it would be foolish to put our hope in technology keeping us safe or bringing about a perfect society, much less integrating with it cost-free. It has never proven it might, and you’ll be waiting a very long time before it does.

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