Following a newspaper feature by conservative commentator George Will, speculating that Donald Trump might serve in history as the American Republican Party’s “chemotherapy”, an oncologist writing in the online magazine Salon reminded his readers that people with experience of the various treatments available for cancer will recognise that chemotherapy is almost invariably a pretty tough gig.
The idea certainly provides for a thought-provoking metaphor, however, not least as chemo seldom does much good for the cancer’s host, while along the way it ravages the body and soul of the patient every bit as much, and sometimes more so, than it tackles the cancer itself. But perhaps the point of the metaphor is to erect the credible claim that the aftermath of the election, given something like an even modestly clear win for Clinton, will enable the GOP to survive and carry on with the bromide that it was Trump’s noxious temperament that lost it for them: but the policies themselves were sound.
This would be a false premise. Not only are the GOP’s policies, broadly considered, not sound, but they have consolidated their appeal over several decades among a now noticeably declining voter demographic largely comprising of angry and less well-educated white males. But it is not in fact the policies (on either side) that have defined the leit motif of this election as much as the degenerate, juvenile, and poisonous atmosphere that has evolved around any articulation or community discussion of those policies.
Messages have been subverted by the increasing puerility of the mediums, or media, and people have quite simply and very largely been repelled by the whole stinking and thoroughly demeaning process.
In looking beyond the result of the election to its aftermath – potential armed unrest, possible litigation from losing candidates, lingering and truly cancerous rancour eating into the body politic of Washington culture for many years to come – it is useful to stick with the chemotherapy metaphor in examining several key themes that might have attracted the media’s attention over the course of a horribly protracted campaign, but did not. For the fact remains that whatever causes a cancer exists independently of any therapy; the cancer can metastasise; and while the quality of life can become increasingly uncertain as life carries on, the patient is still obliged to “get on with other stuff” as the cancer and/or the treatment progresses.
If today’s news is telling us that “one fifth of cancer patients (in the UK) face workplace discrimination”, what will tomorrow’s news tell us about the future prospects of the American body politic given the enervating drain upon its vitality by two years of a news cycle dominated by one deeply flawed, if not downright tumorous, human being? What is the “other stuff” that the world will have to be getting on with while it deals with the aftermath of the 2016 American election: addressing not only the tumour but the conditions that caused it and the likelihood of any metastasis?
The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) has a page on its website devoted to what it sees as the major risks to humanity, defined as such by their threat to the future of the human species and categorised in four broad groupings. Only one of these categories might with some generosity be seen as having been addressed over the course of the election campaign.
It would still be something of a stretch of the imagination to articulate how Donald Trump established any policy position on “Systemic risks and fragile networks”, which CSER defines as the tensions emerging between growing populations, pressures on resources and supply chains, and the technologies that are arising to address the challenges of a global eco-system increasingly defined by its interconnectedness. Trump would point out the systemic shortcomings of American trade negotiators historically unburdened by his vision and experience. As the candidate who actually possesses knowledge and experience of the nuances in balancing risk and reward in this area, Hillary Clinton at least had her views constantly at the ready whenever the media tired of asking her about her emails.
Heading the CSER list of existential risks and often cited by scientists, futurists and politicians as the greatest risk now afflicting the planet is what CSER terms “Extreme risk and the global environment” – known colloquially as climate change. Whatever the consensus among people who actually know what they are talking about, a significant proportion of the broader American public is disinclined to recognise that this problem even exists. The tools of evidence and critical thinking being largely Greek to this wider population, the American media clearly felt the whole subject to be too recondite to be engaging with the science-deniers in a language they couldn’t understand. Trump certainly couldn’t, and the media largely gave him a pass on this.
Most remarkably, the other two categories of risk on the CSER website were virtual no-go areas for both presidential campaigns and the media whose task it might have been to interrogate them if only they had the slightest inkling of the exponential pace of change that will define humanity’s progress in the coming years of the 45th president’s term of office. At some stretch, consideration of the “Risks from biology: natural and engineered” might be seen to feature in the work of Planned Parenthood and its vital work in the areas of female public health and human reproduction. But here Trump was in thrall to the fruitcake wing of the Republican party and, as this was one of the few areas in which candidate and party were in lockstep agreement, he was happy to blunder into embarrassing policy positions that were consistently and constantly undermined by Clinton’s expertise, her experience, her commitment to the cause and, finally, to simple and understandable gender solidarity.
Given the gap between the candidates on issues of female biology – not to mention the publicity given to Trump’s history of obsession with female sexuality stopping well short of the time that reproduction becomes an issue – this was possibly the area of policy discussion that has left the progressive media nonplussed that this election could ever have been run so close. In any case, the wider issues of existential risk and benefits relating to genetics, synthetic biology, global pandemics, and antibiotic resistance scarcely got a look-in over the course of the election’s somewhat onanistic “news cycle”.
Most tellingly, Artificial Intelligence hasn’t featured very much at all in this election. This is especially alarming given the final summary sentence on the CSER website section that addresses this particular area of risk: “With the level of power, autonomy, and generality of AI expected to increase in coming years and decades, forward planning and research to avoid unexpected catastrophic consequences is essential.” The silence has been deafening.
For all the speculation about what so-called Super Artificial Intelligence may mean some decades hence at the point of the “Singularity” — the thought-experimented point where machine/computer intelligence matches and then exponentially speeds past the capabilities of human intelligence — the real story now, in 2016, is almost as startling as it is inspiring.
In this year when “human” intelligence is grappling feverishly with a presidential choice between one candidate who has been careless with her email and another who is a self-professed sex pest and the most dangerous sort of conman (simultaneously large on attitude but bereft of a clue), this year alone has seen considerable advances in the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence, both for worse and for better.
The downsides include the possible misuse of private and commercial data, the increasing potential for fraud, and the threat of AI-directed/autonomous weapons systems. The upsides include faster and more efficient medical research, advances in virtual and augmented reality, safer cities through self-driving vehicles and infinitely more detailed intelligence-gathering on the workings of biology, chemistry, physics, and cosmology. In short, the wider universe is opening before our wondering eyes.
What is worrying amidst this quickening pace of AI technology is that the sort of circumspection we see articulated in media articles like this recent piece in TechCrunch is, first of all, not being reflected in wider public discussions incited by the American election. Second, there is no evidence that more frequent calls for ethical reflection on the challenges of AI might see progress in the ethical sphere keeping pace with developments in the AI science. This prompts at least three pretty obvious questions.
On the longer time horizon, as we contemplate a possible Singularity, what do we imagine that an emerging and self-conscious SuperAI might make of its human progenitor? If we have filled the intervening decades with steadfast ignoring of our existential threats, ever complacent about the real and enduring achievements of human imagination, and yet determined to elect our future leaders according to the bottom-feeding precedents suppurating forth from this week’s debasement of democracy, could any intelligence – human or “artificial” – be surprised if the post-Singularity machine should decide that man and monkey might share a cage?
In the medium-term, we might galvanise an appropriate response to the above paragraph by imagining what progress we might make over the next four years, given what has happened just over the course of 2016. Will the wise heads of 2020 be looking at that year’s American election in prospect and wondering how much more deliberation will be inspired by the questions so woefully ignored this year?
Specifically, will humanity have come to grips with the technological and ethical issues associated with the increasing pace of AI development, and craft their appreciation of that year’s slate of candidates on the basis of more intelligent policy positions on support for technology, for education in the sciences and in the absolute necessity for our species to evolve beyond its biases and primal fears in the application of critical thinking and greater circumspection as we prise open a deeper understanding of our relationship with the cosmos we look set to join?
Which brings us to the short-term question: if we are to attain the promontories of wisdom implicit in addressing those challenges of the medium term, what do we have to start doing next week, next month, and throughout 2017? If we are to overcome the toxic and cancerous experiences of 2016, what are the fundamentals among “the other stuff” that we will need to address? What must we do to ensure that 2020 finds us clear-sighted and focused on the distant Singularity as a point of possibly quantum enhancement of human potential, rather than a humiliating relegation to the monkey cage?
By no means a comprehensive wish-list, or even sufficient in themselves for guaranteeing the progress of our species to that quantum gate, these twin areas of focus are proposed as at least being necessary areas for reflection given the impact of their collective absence over these last unnecessarily anxious and ghastly 18 months.
First, keep it real: celebrate intelligence. We must not surrender to the pornography of simulation. Cyberspace has echoed with the cries of commentators decrying the ascendance of reality television over the dynamics of real life. The CBS CEO who admitted that the Trump campaign may not be good for America, but is “damn good for CBS” might prompt a useful debate on what the media are for. And he would not say it if people were not watching him, so another debate is necessary on how to encourage people to keep up with scientific progress as much as they keep up with the Kardashians. We need more public respect for science and for the primacy of evidence; and less indulgence of bias and political determinations driven by faith.
And as a sub-text to the promotion of intelligence, the organisers of presidential campaigns might reflect upon their role as custodians of the democratic process when they consider how best, and for how long, the 2020 campaign might proceed. Is an adversarial and protracted bear-baiting marathon an optimal way of revealing the candidates’ strengths and educating the public, or is it okay that it’s deemed to be damn good for the boss of CBS?
Finally, the American Republican Party is in need of a re-boot. To finish where we set out with a thought for what might be good for what ails it if trumped up chemotherapy should fail: are they clear on their voter demographic’s direction of travel for the next four years, given what’s going on in the world? This same question applies to any government that would profit from enduring xenophobia or from exploiting atavistic bias and resolute ignorance. There is only so much to be gained by gerrymandering and pandering to inchoate fears, and no credit at all in impugning any authority to which the cynical seeks election.
And there is absolutely no glory in taking countries back, or “making them great again”. Humanity reaches out, it moves forward, and looks up.