Bill Gates is smart in a way that other corporate titans of the 90s and 00s just aren’t. Smart as in intellectual with a broad range of knowledge and information diet, not “smart” as in wears a trendy turtleneck and has a good design and business sense.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Gates takes on Matt Ridley’s books like The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. Gates writes:
Exchange has improved the human condition through the movement not only of goods but also of ideas. Unsurprisingly, given his background in genetics, Mr. Ridley compares this intermingling of ideas with the intermingling of genes in reproduction. In both cases, he sees the process as leading, ultimately, to the selection and development of the best offspring.
The second key idea in the book is, of course, “rational optimism.” As Mr. Ridley shows, there have been constant predictions of a bleak future throughout human history, but they haven’t come true. Our lives have improved dramaticallyâ€”in terms of lifespan, nutrition, literacy, wealth and other measuresâ€”and he believes that the trend will continue. Too often this overwhelming success has been ignored in favor of dire predictions about threats like overpopulation or cancer, and Mr. Ridley deserves credit for confronting this pessimistic outlook.
Yes, this is common — who wants to be the doomsayer? It’s just not popular. Although dire predictions often fail, terrible things still happen completely unpredicted, like Hurricane Katrina, the global financial disaster, the East Asian Tsunami, and the Holocaust. Pretending that because history has been mostly good, we should take a blanket optimistic outlook is just Whig history nonsense. Whig history is the line we were all fed in school, and its main purpose seems to be to tell us that the status quo is great and there is nothing to worry about.
Gates goes on to talk about how Ridley’s two other arguments, that 1) Africa is hurt by foreign aid and will do better without it, and 2) climate change is not as big of a deal as people think, I won’t comment on either of these, because most peoples’ opinions are based on cultural theology rather than critical thinking. What did get me excited, though, was this part:
There are other potential problems in the future that Mr. Ridley could have addressed but did not. Some would put super-intelligent computers on that list. My own list would include large-scale bioterrorism or a pandemic. (Mr. Ridley briefly dismisses the pandemic threat, citing last year’s false alarm over the H1N1 virus.) But bioterrorism and pandemics are the only threats I can foresee that could kill over a billion people. (Natural catastrophes might seem like good candidates for concern, but I’ve been persuaded by Vaclav Smil, in “Global Catastrophes and Trends,” that the odds are very low of a large meteor strike or a massive volcanic eruption at Yellowstone.)
Ridley shouldn’t dismiss the pandemic threat, obviously. You’d think that a deadly natural plague that killed 3% of the world population and infected 27% a century ago would be enough to take it seriously for centuries to come, simply based on Bayesian likelihood estimations, but I guess not. I wonder if the widespread availability of genetic engineering tools for creating new microbes causes Ridley to update his estimation of disaster from the likelihood estimation simply based on history upwards more than a couple percent.
The quoted paragraph is also interesting because it’s the first time I’m aware of that Gates has come out this strongly about the machine threat, and even uses the term “super-intelligent”. I wouldn’t be shocked if Gates has read all of Nick Bostrom’s papers on the superintelligence threat or perhaps has even visited this blog. Who knows? A little unwarranted optimism is cute and harmless when it comes to celebrities visiting one’s blog, but it becomes dangerous and destructive when applied to the course of civilization as a whole.
No optimism. No pessimism. Realism. Optimism and pessimism are inherently irrational because they imply a bias across all possible hypotheses, and the emphasis is on the affect (feeling), not the descriptive content of the hypothesis itself. If anything, pessimism is more rational. See the planning fallacy and rational pessimism. One study on the planning fallacy found that people who were depressed tended to be the most accurate when estimating the completion time of projects.
I find it funny how many people in the transhumanist community, miffed at the attention the Singularity has been getting, seem to wish that transhumanists would just ignore the risk of superintelligent machines, while people like Bill Gates are just starting to write about it in public. This is the time to step forward, not back. The finance giants of Wall Street should know that they can have a personal impact on the risk of superintelligence by donating to non-profits like the Singularity Institute and the Future of Humanity Institute. Peter Thiel certainly realizes this, but most moguls don’t. The people and infrastructure exist to make use of much larger funding levels, and it’s incumbent on philanthropists to step forward.