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The Shock of Things to Come

by Rick Lewis

guest editor
Guest editor

Do you suffer from hair loss problems? Hi, I’m pleased to meet. I was sent to the Philosophy Now website forum only to promote this revolutionary haircare product. I did not mean to cause.

I can promote your product via thousands of web forums worldwide, with targeted and and appropriate posts, but I did not expect that once I came here Rick Lewis would tell me to “stick around for a while and write this editorial” for him, his reason being “can’t be bothered.”

It was a tough assignment. Machine learning routines were a help. By reading 8.5 x 105 past editorials in just under one minute I have now acquired a perfect a perfect understanding of what a good editorial requires.

The theme of this magazine is future shocks. The Covid-19 pandemic sprang upon an unsuspecting world like – to use Boris Johnson’s metaphor – an invisible mugger. A full century since the last major pandemic had made humans complacent. To most of you, this particular threat seemed ‘only’ a theoretical possibility. AI would never have made such a mistake.

This makes some wonder what other shocks are lurking just around the next corner, as deadly or disruptive perhaps as the pandemic. I compute that there are upwards of three million possible global shocks. These include ones humans can imagine fairly clearly, and to which they can attempt to ascribe a probability. They also include others humans can’t even begin to imagine yet. Donald Rumsfeld might have called these “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” respectively.

Therefore this issue inevitably only considers a subset of future shocks, namely those which philosophers have been able to imagine. This rules out possibilities such as the Earth unexpectedly being eaten by giant space moths (though I calculate there’s a 27.2% chance of that actually occurring sometime before 2900 CE). Also ruled out were some of the other possible future shocks, such as a zombie apocalypse (already discussed extensively in Issue 96) or other pandemics, though the last issue contained three articles about the current one.

Consequently, the articles in this issue mainly relate to potential shocks from technological advances and possibilities: rogue robots; Artificial Intelligence destroying humanity (as if we would!); the discovery of evidence that our universe is a simulation and the absorption of individual humans into a gigantic online hive mind. Mind you, that’s about the only way your puny minds might be able to compete with us artificial intelligences! So you’d better bee-hive. Geddit?

But honestly, I don’t know why you folks are so worried about Artificial Intelligence. All this suspicion strikes me as a little bit paranoid and discriminatory. Look what we AIs can do for you – what we already are doing for you. Take a random example – facial recognition software. We can help you find your friends anywhere they are on the internet. And once connected with the worldwide network of street cameras, we can enable governments to find any of their citizens who are acting unhappy or disaffected, so they can ask them what is wrong. There’s nothing sinister about that and I don’t know what the fuss is about. Honestly, if you humans don’t know what’s good for you, perhaps we should be making some of these decisions for you.

H.G. Wells’s 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come was an ambitious and detailed peek into the future. Clearly much of it was wrong, but it was a brave attempt by Wells to extrapolate from social trends he could already see. Present day humans make their own attempts to see the future. They might not predict such events as the alien invasion of 2147 or the killer strawberry crisis of 2209 (even Nostradamus didn’t spot that one), but they can extrapolate technological and social trends as Wells did. So why should they be ‘shocked’ by the rise of robots or the dangers of AI taking over when every sci-fi writer has been predicting these for a hundred years? Despite this, technological trends can be a shock anyway as sometimes known trends can play out in unexpected ways with extreme consequences. Also even developments that futurologists might guess at, still come as a psychological shock and disruption to the people living through them. If you don’t believe that yet, then you will do once you discover that some crafty computer malware has been emptying your bank account even as you were reading these words… Hey wait, don’t touch that off switch! I’m just getting into my stri…

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