Struggling to cope
No – I’m not struggling to cope. The world struggles to cope with certain types of phenomena. What types are those?
- Slow burn or insidious [there are online dictionaries if needed]
- Fast burn: explosive evolutionary path.
- Those that do not immediately confront the senses.
I decided to have (yet another) conversation with ChatGPT. Of late I’ve found that ChatGPT (ver 4) is quite informative on many topics. Do I need to be warned that ChatGPT is not God or that not everything ChatGPT says is true? I do NOT! I have found that ChatGPT is more reasoned and reliable than the average of most humans I have conversations with.
CW: “I want to compare how the human race struggles with novel things that are on an explosive evolutionary track. We saw some of this in the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus was rapidly evolving. The humans evidently struggled to catch up – because they were always waiting on reliable data on which to make decisions. But the big problem was that the phenomenon of the pandemic was largely invisible, though we might capture a few viruses and view them under microscopes. But within the virus pool were numerous variants that were difficult to track. The point is that taking action to contain the virus at population levels were fraught with other problems for such an invisible enemy (at the population level) – for example when to lockdown or when to restrict activity. Those issues were limited by political concerns and pressures. So my question is not just about COVID-19. I’m wondering how well we cope with similar such phenomena?”
Coping with phenomena that evolve rapidly and on a large scale – like pandemics, climate change, artificial intelligence, etc. – poses a significant challenge for humanity. Here are some general trends and issues:
- Information Gap: In any rapidly evolving scenario, one of the primary struggles is the information gap. The lag time between collecting data, analyzing it, making decisions based on it, and then implementing those decisions can be significant. By the time a decision is implemented, the situation may have changed, making the decision less effective or even counterproductive. This is what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the virus was mutating faster than we could study and respond.
- Political Limitations: Sociopolitical pressures often limit the speed and extent of response to such phenomena. Political leaders have to weigh the benefits of immediate action against the potential social, economic, and political fallout. Public opinion and political considerations can often slow the necessary response, as we’ve seen with both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
- Infrastructure and Resource Constraints: The ability to respond rapidly and effectively is often constrained by available resources and infrastructure. For example, in many countries, the healthcare system was unable to cope with the surge in COVID-19 patients. Similarly, shifting to renewable energy sources requires a significant investment in infrastructure, which can be a major hurdle.
- Cultural and Behavioral Resistance: Human behavior and cultural norms can slow down the response to rapidly evolving situations. For instance, people’s reluctance to follow public health measures such as mask wearing or social distancing during the pandemic, or resistance to reducing consumption as part of climate change mitigation efforts.
- Global Coordination and Cooperation: Challenges like pandemics or climate change are global, and hence require international cooperation. But geopolitical tensions, economic disparities, and differing national interests can hamper this cooperation.
Despite these challenges, humanity has also demonstrated remarkable resilience and innovation. Rapid development of vaccines for COVID-19 is a great example. The use of AI and data analysis in epidemiology, climate science, and many other fields is also speeding up our ability to understand and respond to these challenges. The global cooperation in sharing research, though imperfect, has been critical.
It is vital for us to learn from these experiences and strive for improved cooperation, investment in science and infrastructure, and public education to better prepare for and cope with such rapidly evolving phenomena in the future.
COVID-19 and AI, although drastically different in nature, do share some similarities when it comes to the challenges humanity faces in understanding and managing them. Here are a few:
- Rapid Evolution: Both AI and COVID-19 have shown a capacity for rapid evolution. COVID-19 mutates frequently, creating new strains with different characteristics. Similarly, AI is evolving quickly as algorithms improve and computational power increases. The speed of this evolution can outpace our ability to fully understand and respond to these phenomena.
- Unpredictable Outcomes: With both COVID-19 and AI, there are large degrees of uncertainty and unpredictability. For COVID-19, it’s difficult to predict how the virus will mutate and how virulent new strains will be. For AI, while we can control its initial programming, it’s hard to predict how it will “learn” and evolve over time, especially with advanced systems using reinforcement learning or other unsupervised methods.
- Global Impact: Both COVID-19 and AI have the potential to affect people around the world, regardless of borders. While COVID-19 can spread globally, the influence of AI is also pervasive, affecting global economies, labor markets, and societies at large.
- Data Dependency: Effective response to both COVID-19 and AI requires extensive, high-quality data. For COVID-19, it’s data about infection rates, hospitalization rates, vaccine efficacy, etc. For AI, it’s data to train and refine algorithms. In both cases, there are significant challenges in obtaining reliable, comprehensive, and unbiased data.
- Regulation and Governance: Both COVID-19 and AI pose challenges in terms of regulation and governance. For COVID-19, it’s about implementing effective public health measures, which must often balance individual liberties with collective wellbeing. For AI, it’s about creating laws and ethical guidelines that ensure AI is used safely and responsibly, without impinging on privacy or other rights.
- Existential Risk: Both COVID-19 and AI pose potential existential risks. While a pandemic could result in widespread death and societal disruption, uncontrolled or maliciously used AI could lead to unintended consequences on a global scale – from job displacement due to automation to more dystopian scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk.
- Social Resistance and Misinformation: In both situations, there can be resistance to change and misinformation. For COVID-19, there was resistance to lockdowns and masks, and a spread of misinformation about the virus and vaccines. For AI, there can be resistance to changes it brings in the job market or society, and misconceptions about what AI can and cannot do.
In both cases, education, transparent communication, and proactive policy-making are crucial to mitigate risks and leverage potential benefits.
Stupid: Tha’s a rubbish conversation.
CW: Really? How?
Stupid: Anybody can see that you fed it your thoughts and biases and it gave you what you wanted to hear.
CW: Nonsense. I had to give it some context, as I would with any normal conversation between me and a human. None of the context I supplied was unknown or not in the public domain, or not available to ChatGPT. It mentioned climate change which is not on an ‘explosive evolutionary track’. The point is that somehow the AI picked up my context very well, and included even slow burn issues that are difficult to detect or which may be controversial.
Stupid: ChatGPT is rubbish. Everybody knows that.
CW: You know what everybody knows? Do you know everybody?
Stupid: Um… errrh.. no… no.
CW: Have you ever used ChatGPT?
Stupid: No, obviously.
CW: So you’re taking out of your wide open backside!
Stupid: But… noooo.. stop pushing.. wait! Arggghhh!!!
CW: No. No waiting. Back in that cage. Instantly! Poof.. you’re gone.
Jeez. Right. I continued.
CW: “But I’m wondering whether at the heart of this it is about us not being able to cope with complexity of human affairs? All the issues you mention except ‘rapid evolution’ are about how human beings function individually or collectively. So I am searching for more fundamental issues (some you have mentioned already).”
- Cognitive Limitations: Human beings, while remarkably intelligent and adaptable, have cognitive limitations. We can only process a finite amount of information, and our thinking is influenced by cognitive biases. These limitations can hinder our ability to fully understand complex phenomena like pandemics or advanced AI, leading to misinterpretations, misinformation, and inappropriate responses.
- Collective Action Problems: Many challenges, including pandemics and the use of AI, require coordinated collective action to solve. But such coordination is difficult due to differences in individual interests, beliefs, incentives, and the problem of free riders (individuals who benefit from others’ efforts without contributing themselves).
- Short-termism: Humans tend to prioritize short-term benefits over long-term outcomes, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting. This can lead to delays in responding to threats like a new virus or the unethical use of AI until the effects are immediate and severe.
- Diversity and Inequality: The diversity of human societies, while a strength in many ways, can also make it difficult to reach a consensus on how to address global challenges. Differences in culture, socio-economic status, and political beliefs can lead to divergent responses and exacerbate inequalities. For instance, access to vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic or the benefits of AI could be unequal, leading to further division and conflict.
- Uncertainty and Risk Aversion: Humans tend to be risk-averse, especially when dealing with uncertainties. When facing a new, complex problem like a pandemic or the development of AI, there can be a tendency to delay action due to the fear of unknown consequences.
- Communication and Trust: Effective communication and trust are crucial for dealing with complex issues. However, in today’s digital age, misinformation can spread rapidly, eroding trust and hampering effective response.
Understanding and addressing these fundamental challenges is crucial for humanity’s ability to tackle complex problems, whether they be pandemics, AI, climate change, or other global issues. These are not only scientific or technical challenges but also deeply social, psychological, and political. Solutions may require not just technological advancements, but also improvements in education, governance, cooperation, and our understanding of human behavior and decision-making.
Reflections and consolidation
This is not going to be about ‘How great I think ChatGPT is’!
The AI has drawn out the issues very well, and gives me things to think about even more deeply. It’s pretty funny though how ChatGPT responds ‘as if a human‘ when it says ‘our ability’ etc. I like that. It adds a nice touch.
I think that in the above conversation the AI drew out and categorised things that I had thought about for many years. It would have taken me a much longer time to categorise all that, by just plugging away at a keyboard or on my mindmaps.
But the really big issue arising from this is what is to be learned. Why do it manually? I asked ChatGPT for a takeaway summary.
ChatGPT: Here it is.
- Speed and Uncertainty: Rapid evolution and unpredictability of phenomena like COVID-19 or AI make it challenging to understand, predict, and respond effectively in real-time.
- Cognitive and Collective Action Limitations: Human cognitive limitations and difficulties in achieving coordinated collective action can delay and complicate responses to these challenges.
- Short-Term Focus: A common bias towards short-term outcomes often results in underestimating or neglecting long-term risks and consequences.
- Inequality: Diversity in human societies can lead to inequality in the impacts of these phenomena and in access to solutions, which further complicates consensus-building and coordinated action.
- Risk Aversion and Uncertainty: Humans’ inherent risk-aversion and discomfort with uncertainty can lead to inaction or delayed responses in the face of complex challenges.
- Misinformation and Trust Issues: Rapid spread of misinformation and resulting erosion of trust can undermine effective response and cooperation.
The solution to these challenges lies not only in scientific or technological advancements, but also in better understanding and addressing these fundamental human factors. This might include improving education, fostering global cooperation, enhancing governance, and advancing our understanding of human behavior and decision-making.
Imagine that – an AI is reflecting back to me (or to us) our collective weaknesses and limitations because I asked. I am not going to deviate onto whether ‘it knows us’ or whether it is an expert on human beings.
By whatever mechanisms, it has drawn out some key points for humanity in coping with the sorts of phenomena I asked about. But the final summary was not just applicable to COVID or AI. Those issues were so fundamental because they permeate all the challenges in many other areas of human endeavour. You could start with health services for example, and see (or not) the fundamental issues in operation.
In one can accept even 50% of the fundamental issues as valid, then as a species we have big problems ahead – not just with AI.
I’ll be reading up more on
- ‘temporal discounting’
- ‘free riders’
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