The following is a video from my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. This video is a thought experiment about artificial intelligence, the choices we make, and how much (or how little) we’ll delegate such choices in the future. Enjoy!
Tag Archives: Thought Experiment
Thought Experiment: What Major Decisions Would You Trust An Artificial Intelligence To Make For You?
What if there was a virtual environment that was so real and so lifelike that it was completely indistinguishable from the real world?
What if you had an opportunity to upload the entire contents of your mind into that environment?
Would you do it? Even if you didn’t have a full measure of control over the environment, would you still venture into this virtual world?
I’m not just asking these questions as another thought experiment, nor am I asking it as an excuse to talk about “The Matrix: Resurrections.” Yes, the prospect of another movie in the mold of “The Matrix” did inspire me to pose these questions, but I also think these questions are worth seriously contemplating.
Back in 1999, the year “The Matrix” first came out, the idea of an entirely simulated world seemed like classic sci-fi tech, the likes of which we’d never see in our lifetimes. That’s understandable. In 1999, the most advanced simulations we knew could only be rendered by a Playstation 2 and those hardly looked realistic.
Since then, computing power and graphics technology has come a long way. These days, graphics in video game consoles are so realistic that it’s nearing Uncanny Valley territory. It won’t be that long before we have computer renderings that are so advanced, so lifelike, and so realistic that our brains can’t tell the difference.
At that point, creating an entirely simulated world is just a matter of computing power, scale, and interface. Since brain/computer interfaces are already being developed, it’s not unreasonable to think that we won’t have a Matrix-like simulation available within the next 40 years. Many people alive today who are under the age of 50 might very well live long enough to see that technology.
Once we have it, we’ll have some important decisions to make. Some of those decisions will be societal. If people suddenly have access to a virtual world where they can be anyone, do anything, and immerse themselves in any conceivable experience, then what does that do to society? What does that do to people, communities, nations, and social structures?
Those are far messier questions to contemplate, which is why I’m not going to belabor them too much at this point. Instead, I want to keep this question within the context of individuals. Everyone’s circumstances and beliefs are different. As a result, that may impact whether you’d take advantage of such an opportunity or what kind of environment you’d seek to create.
Personally, if I ever had an opportunity to upload my mind into a virtual environment on par with the Matrix, I would do it, but the extent and circumstances would vary. I suspect others may feel the same.
If I could create my own personal virtual environment before I uploaded my mind into it, then I would certainly be more willing. I think that’s an important factor. The humans in “The Matrix” didn’t have any measure of control over the environment they were in. I think that would complicate any that anyone would have in such a world.
It would also depend heavily on my physical state in the real world. If this technology became available and I was old, weak, and in poor health, then I would certainly be more inclined to use it. That assumes that any technology involving human enhancement hasn’t progressed significantly and people still age, get sick, and die.
Like it or not, our physical bodies in the real world will break down. If the technology to manage and reverse that isn’t available, then virtual environments might be the only way we can continue to live in any meaningful capacity. I certainly hope that isn’t my only opinion when I get to be that age, but if it is, then that simplifies my decision.
It’s hard to know what sort of options we’ll have. I still believe that technology involving human enhancement and creating virtual worlds will advance in parallel. One would, by default, need the other in order to properly interface with these environments. As such, it would complicate any decision about venturing into virtual environments.
Then, there’s the actual nature of those virtual environments. If we can control what environment we go into, then that opens the door to even more possibilities. Within these worlds, you could be a billionaire playboy, a medieval king, a famous celebrity, or super athlete. From your brain’s perspective, it would feel every bit as real as what you’re feeling right now.
Whether or not our brains would accept it is a different story. I suspect there may be some who, once they enter these worlds, would never want to leave. There may even be some who willingly erase their own memories of the real world so that this new virtual world is their new “reality.” That’s exactly what Cypher desired in “The Matrix” and I suspect others might share that desire.
It really does depend on the person, their situation, and what sort of virtual world they seek to create. We probably won’t know the full impact until we create our first true Matrix-like virtual world. I sincerely hope I live long enough to see that. If you’re reading this, hopefully you get to see it as well. It should give you plenty of time to contemplate these questions and whether you’ll venture into those world.
Picture, for a moment, the following scenario.
You’re at a prestigious awards ceremony. The nature of the ceremony and the award aren’t important. The only factor that matters is the awards are granted to only a few individuals who have achieved feats that few human beings have achieved. It’s an honor just to be nominated, but an even bigger honor to win.
With that in mind, imagine two different winners for two different feats. The first winner comes up onto the stage, accepts their award, and gives a heartfelt speech that’s something along the lines of this.
“Thank you so much for this incredible honor. It was a long, hard road to get to this point, but I’ve been so blessed with wondrous gifts and amazing support. To them and to the higher power that blessed me, I am eternally grateful!”
Chances are you’ve heard a speech like that before. We hear it all the time with athletes, celebrities, and major public figures. They achieve something spectacular and their first inclination is to say they are blessed. They don’t always thank a god for it, but it’s such a common refrain that most come to expect it. Some even joke about it.
That being said, try to imagine your reaction for the second winner. They come out on stage with the same immense joy as the previous winner. They also give a heartfelt speech of their own, but it goes like this.
“Thank you so much for this incredible honor. It was a long, hard road to get to this point, but I was just really lucky to be born with talent and amazing support. I like to think I’ve made the most of it. This award is just part of it. For that, I am so proud of myself and those who helped me!”
I doubt a celebrity has given an acceptance speech like this before. If they did, chances are it would either be a joke or an elaborate act of trolling, which some celebrities are known to do. For the sake of this little thought experiment, imagine the person was sincere. How would you feel about them? Would be different than the first?
I crafted this scenario as a way of illustrating the difference between being blessed and being lucky. These terms tend to get used interchangeably. In common language, they’re somewhat synonymous. Even though dictionary definitions have some key distinctions, the standard usage of these words carries a particular meaning.
Part of that meaning stems from the general discomfort we feel about the universe being so chaotic and meaningless. We’re wired to seek patterns and surmise order. It doesn’t even matter if the patterns or order is real or an outright trick. When people can make sense of the world, we’re better able to function. It’s a big reason why humans have been able to adapt and survive with such success.
The ideas being lucky and being blessed reflect opposite sentiments of a similar principle. We see luck as a fluke. There’s no meaning behind it. It just happens randomly and without any defined goal.
A kid is randomly born with talent that makes them a great athlete.
A person randomly picks the winning numbers to win a big lottery prize.
A person just happens to be in the right place at the right time to meet the love of their life.
None of these situations are inherently right or wrong. That’s part of what makes it so distressing on some levels. The people who benefit from luck do nothing to deserve or warrant their good fortune. It goes against that innate sense of fairness that most sensible human beings have wired into their brains.
Being blessed, on the other hand, carries a very different connotation. To be blessed implies that some person, deity, or sentient force chose to grant someone such benefits. It’s not random. It’s part of a larger plan. It may not seem like one on the surface. It may even be an outright illusion. That ultimately doesn’t matter. The semblance of a plan is enough.
To be blessed also carried with it a sense of humility. Someone who just says they’re lucky doesn’t come off as moral or gracious. Even if they’re entirely ambivalent about it, they won’t inspire respect or admiration for acknowledging their luck. If they say they’re blessed, though, it changes the context.
A person who is blessed with talent means their achievements have a greater meaning.
A person who is blessed with picking winning lotto numbers means their good fortune is part of some larger plan.
A person who is blessed with meeting the love of their live means their love is somehow pre-ordained by fate.
The difference lies within the meaning. Being blessed conveys influence from a source greater than the person receiving the blessing. To show gratitude to that force is to accept that it’s not just about you. There’s a larger plan and you’re just part of it. That sounds humble, but at the same time, it detracts from the true extent of an achievement.
Luck or no luck, it takes effort and dedication to achieve something of value. Whether it’s an award for world’s largest nose ring or setting a record for most pop tarts consumed in a day, an accomplishment still requires work. Even lottery winners have to go out of their way to pick the numbers, get the ticket, and claim their prize.
To call that process a blessing is to dehumanize the actions involved. It undercuts the countless other factors in play. Some are entirely controllable. A champion of any sport usually has talent, determination, and a willingness to refine their skill. Others are simply beyond their control, from the conditions of an event to just the general randomness of a particular moment.
To assume these factors as part of some over-arching plan is to assume there’s a governing force that consciously cares about these random happenings. Whether that force is a deity or some idea of conscious fate, people will consciously devalue their own worth to believe they’re part of something greater. It might not be real, but that’s beside the point.
It helps us wrap our brains around incredible achievements and improbable events. It shows in how people can resent those who are just deemed lucky. Again, just look at lottery winners. Those who have enjoyed that rare level of luck can attest that they are generally looked down upon by those who gained their fortune in other ways.
This isn’t to imply that the whole concept of being blessed is inherently wrong. There may actually be a higher governing power behind certain peoples’ fortunes, be it an all-powerful deity or the shape-shifting lizard men of the Illuminati. There’s no evidence of it now, but as believers and conspiracy theorists will often point out, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.
That said, I believe the dehumanizing aspect of blessings over luck does more harm than good in the long run. Humility is an admirable trait, but there are better ways to encourage it that don’t involve assigning some arbitrary meaning to random events. In addition, saying someone or something is blessed has some indirect implications that are even less desirable than a random universe.
If one person is blessed, then that implies other people were deemed undeserving.
If one moment is blessed, then those that came before it are nothing more than prelude, no matter how much they meant to those involved.
If a people or society are blessed, then that basically declares that everyone else is somehow beneath them and that mentality rarely brings out the best in people.
Human beings are capable of remarkable feats. Many of those feats don’t require a higher power or some conscious force. They simply require an opportunity and a willingness to strive for something greater. Granted, opportunities can be random and there’s only so much anyone can do to control the luck they get. However, I submit that gives it even more meaning in the grand scheme of things.
The following is a video from my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s a brief exploration of the power of boredom. It’s something I’ve touched on a number of times and will likely do so again. While writing about boredom has helped me appreciate its impact, I feel like this video helps get the point across even more. Keep it in mind the next time the power goes out. Enjoy!
The older I get, the more I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that things weren’t as hopeless as they seemed. I would’ve loved to grab my 15-year-old self by the shoulder, looked him right in the eyes, and told him that I had many wonderful experiences ahead of me. I would’ve maybe told him some winning lotto number as well, but that’s beside the point.
Most people who survived adolescents and found ways to thrive in the adult world appreciate the perspective of hindsight. It can be sobering for some, but bittersweet for others. When we’re young, ignorant, and inexperienced, everything just seems more overwhelming. We struggle to make sense of it all. You really can’t hope to understand anything without time, experience, and perspective.
I suspect most people have entertained the idea of sending messages to their younger self at some point in their lives. Even if it’s just to tell them who will win the Super Bowl this year, there’s a lot of wisdom we’d love to impart. Movies like “Groundhog Day” and “Happy Death Day” demonstrate the power of having such hindsight. However, those movies only go so far.
It’s one thing to relive a single day with all your memories intact. An entire lifetime is on a much larger scale with far greater implications. It makes for an interesting thought experiment. Now, after a certain X-Men comic told a remarkable story with this, I’d like to pose it as a formal question.
What would you do if you could live your entire life over again with the same memories, knowledge, and experiences you have now?
It’s a question that is likely to inspire many different answers. Everyone’s life, circumstances, and experiences are different. Some people wouldn’t want to change much. They like how their lives turned out. Others would make significant changes, both for their lives and for others.
Since a scenario like this has so many implications, here are a few specifics to consider before answering this question. I’m going to try and answer it for myself, but I think it’s worth establishing a context, if only to avoid the kind of time travel paradoxes that make the timelines in “Back to the Future” so confusing.
With that in mind, here are the rules for this little experiment:
- When you’re reborn, you have all the memories you have up to this point in your life
- You’re aware that you were reborn and don’t suffer significant shock from being in a younger body
- You keep the fact that you have the knowledge of your future self secret
- You assume consciousness in your younger self at around five-years-old, which is when most children start to form lasting memories
- You can only be reborn and re-live your life once
- Your ability to recall your memories is consistent with your ability to recall general memories at this very moment
- You have no hint of knowing how different decisions affect the future course of events for yourself and the world as a whole
- The course of events still unfold as you remember them and don’t change unless you directly influence them
With those rules in mind, take a moment to contemplate how you would live your life the second go-around. What would you do initially? How would you change the course of your childhood? How would that change the course of your teenage years? What points in your life would you make radically different decisions?
For me, personally, there are many general aspects of my life that I would change, even from a young age. I would take a very different approach to how I went about everything from school to friends to my little league baseball career. Life experiences has shown me how flawed my mentality was during that time. I focused so much on outcomes over the process that it caused more frustration than growth.
I also developed a very negative outlook for much of my youth and during my teen years. In my defense, I had terrible social skills and some irrational anxieties that only became absurd with the benefit of hindsight. Armed with the experience I have now, I would’ve been a lot more hopeful and optimistic in approaching school, friends, and challenges. I think that would’ve helped me achieve more and learn more.
In terms of specifics, I freely admit that I would use my knowledge of the future for personal gain, albeit to a limited extent. I can’t remember specific lotto numbers for specific dates, but I can remember which teams won the Super Bowl and the World Series. I also remember which companies made the most gains in the stock market. As such, I would invest whatever I could in Apple, Netflix, Amazon, and Google.
That would’ve made paying off my student loan debt a lot easier. It also would’ve spared me some very unpleasant experiences I had when it came to finding decent housing, both in college and after I graduated. Not having to worry about money would definitely have helped with a lot of things. I could use it to take additional classes, invest in my writing career, and avoid some major missteps, of which I’ve made plenty.
I imagine a lot of people would take advantage of that knowledge. Now, there are some arguments that making those kinds of investments and bets often end up changing the outcome, resulting in a time paradox of sorts. That might be the case if you randomly invested a billion dollars in Apple at a time when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, but I imagine it would take a lot to significantly change something like that.
This brings me to the most sensitive aspects of this thought experiment and one I’m sure more than a few people have already imagined. Having the benefits of hindsight means you can fix the mistakes you made in your youth, both in terms of decision and attitudes. What about decisions that might affect the entire course of history?
It’s one thing to profit from a bump in stock prices. It’s quite another to change a key moment in history. It’s the inescapable implications behind the butterfly effect. However, even movies like “Back to the Future” show that you can only affect the course of history to a limited extent. Even in the worst scenario, Marty McFly only messed up Hill Valley in “Back to the Future II.” He didn’t cause a nuclear holocaust.
If you only have your memories of the future and no other abilities beyond that, you’re still going to have trouble changing certain events. A lot of people would probably try to prevent the events of September 11th, 2001, but how would you even go about that? Would calling someone at the FBI or warning the airports be enough? Would going there and trying to stop it directly be effective?
At best, you’ll only delay it. At worst, you might get yourself killed. The same goes for any event. Say you wanted to change the outcome of the 2000 US Presidential Election or, depending on your affiliation, the 2016 Election. These events have many moving parts. There’s only so much you can do to influence them. Even if you shout the warnings from the highest rooftop, you’ll probably won’t be taken seriously.
There’s also the distinct possibility that changing these events will lead to something much worse. That’s what happened in the Stephen King novel, “11.22.63.” In the story, Jake Epping stopped the Kennedy Assassination, but that indirectly led to a nuclear war. There was even an episode of “Family Guy” that explored this concept.
It’s a difficult decision that I’m sure most would wrestle with. Personally, I would make an effort to avert something as terrible as the September 11th, 2001 attacks. I don’t know how I would go about it, but I certainly would try. I would probably do the same for things like the Columbine massacre or other school shootings, if only to save the lives that wouldn’t otherwise be saved.
As for other events, it’s hard to say and even harder to know the implications. If someone has a specific method they would use, please share them in the comments. I think they’re worth discussing.
These are just some of the issues you would face if you had a chance to relive your life all over again. Hindsight offers many benefits and perspectives, but it also comes with risks. You might be able to avoid the mistakes you know about, but you also might end up making others you didn’t anticipation and those could be far worse.
It’s still an interesting though to consider. As we get older, our perspective on the past and present changes considerably. We can never know how we would’ve acted with some added foresight. I like to think that I, along with most people, would’ve used it to become better.
The following is a video for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It explores another thought experiment, something I’ve done plenty of times before. This one just happens to involve money. Given the recent events with the stock market, I think the time is right to contemplate money and how it guides our lives. Enjoy!