I recently read one of the latest releases from the Lifeboat Foundation titled, Prospects for Human Survival by Willard Wells. As a member of the Lifeboat Foundation Advisory Board, I was asked to review the book. While I’m not one for doom and gloom, alas I always hold out hope for humanity, I found Prospects to be an interesting read.
This is a very casually and yet carefully written treatise based on a formula that the author, Willard Wells, has been working on for some time. A Ph. D. in Physics from Caltech with a minor in math makes Wells quite qualified in his research into an equation that can predict the half-life the human species. For those of you who enjoy math, the time spent describing the logic behind his equation is very thorough. In addition, the appendices are filled with proofs and other research to back up his thesis, which is essentially that the our technological civilization has a half-life of only 20 – 50 years, unless we implement appropriate interventions.
The major reason Wells believes this to be a possibility is the invention of AI, which he claims has a destruction potential so great that this alone may spell our doom. He assumes in this book that AI will basically ruin us unless we begin to create a kind AI, one that’s programmed to love and serve humanity. Interestingly, he calls this the Nanny AI. I’ve seen this argument before, that the only way to stop a bad AI is a good AI. However, while I understand that AI has the power to destroy us, I also don’t think truly independent thinking machines are as much of a danger as we think. First, the technology to reproduce Artificial Consciousness or Sentience hasn’t even been invented yet. And it’s not even considered possible by most computer scientists. To base our future survival rate on something that may remain in the realm of science fiction is unrealistic. At a minimum, the value it’s given in Wells’ equation is at best exaggerated.
However this book isn’t only about the threat of AI. Wells does a great job covering many other scenarios, from the gray goo nanobot takeover to nuclear war/winter. He includes global warming and biological warfare as well. He’s created a fairly complete list and has taken the time to give some conspiracy theories some thought. While many of the hazards he lists may also seem like science fiction, the exercise of thinking about them is important. At a minimum, a science fiction writer could use this book to get some great story lines, which is something Wells encourages!
And to me, that’s one of the most interesting parts of this book, the author’s encouragement that we continue to use storytelling as a way to both awaken us to the dangers technology brings to our race, as well as the solutions. Wells rightly suggests that storytelling has a purpose in our learning as a species and allows us to delve deeper into scenarios in a way that mere mathematical formulas and data crunching can’t do for us. When we tell a story, we look at the danger from the perspective of many characters, and the plotline can reveal not only solutions, but touchpoints or places where decisions must be made, or else our chance to save ourselves will pass us by. To me, Wells is brilliant to encourage such exploration in storytelling, but then again, I’m a science fiction writer for that reason—I want to look at technology from all angles and see where might be headed.
Lastly, Wells spends a decent amount of time discussing Wall Street and their technology, specifically stock traders and their quants, Wall Street’s name for their computer finance geeks. Rarely do I see this aspect of our technology mentioned in a list of dangers to humanity, but it is one of the most nefarious aspects of our society right now. Quants are designing AI that will, “know as much as possible about human nature so they can exploit human biases in their evaluation of stocks.” Wells points out that this is a powerful AI already and unfortunately resides in the realm of Wall Street, a place where lawmakers are indifferent to risks or enacting legislation. Take the 2008 economic meltdown, caused by our “too big to fail” banks. It was a disaster and those responsible were barely held accountable. Instead they were rewarded with a HUGE bailout. Quants have already created a computerized money making scheme—high frequency trading (HFT), which allows traders to exchange millions of shares on a time scale of milliseconds that no normal investor can possibly track. As Wells puts it, “It is a parasitic activity that destabilizes the system without performing any useful service to anyone. By acting on price fluctuations milliseconds before anyone else, they essentially levy a tax on everyone else.”
Why include this in our list of hazards for the human race? One, the HFT technology can completely destroy our economy which can lead to widespread disease, hunger and social meltdown. Second, our Congress doesn’t care. Spread Networks, a telecom provider recently built a high-speed fiber-optic cable between Chicago and New York, shaving 3 milliseconds off the communication time between the two cities. Who wanted this? High-frequency traders, and they were willing to pay $300M to create it, most likely knowing that Congress has no plans to shut down or legislate HFT at all. Over time, as quants develop more and more sophisticated software, without any oversight, one can only imagine where it will lead. Combined with the accumulation of immense wealth in the hands of a few, Wells is right to point this vulnerability out, because of all the threats humanity faces, economic meltdown at the hands of an AI designed to exploit us in order to make money is probably the most likely disaster that will strike us. In fact, it's almost guaranteed unless some sort of regulation on the part of our government takes place.
Overall Willard Wells has written a very readable book for those who think about the end times and want suggestions on how to prepare. His writing style is both casual and chatty, as well as mathematically rigorous. If you’re wondering what your best next steps are in the face of potential technological devastation, then I think you’ll find Prospects for Human Survival a worthwhile read.
The book can be purchased at http://amzn.to/1P4ibiE