Serendipities often catch us in the most unexpected of places. On a recent journey to Europe, to celebrate my parents' 40th wedding anniversary, I stumbled upon a treasure in a quaint multilingual bookstore nestled in the heart of Rome. The treasure? A freshly printed book, "The New Leviathans," by Professor John Gray (to be released internationally only on November 7th, 2023).
Whenever I dive into Gray's writings, I am confronted with a wave of introspection, occasionally bordering on melancholy. His perspective serves as a stark counter to the buoyant techno-optimism that pervades our modern narrative. Yet, I am invariably drawn to his philosophical musings, always eager to delve into his intricate tapestry of thoughts. For those unfamiliar with his work, I often recommend starting with "Feline Philosophy," an approachable exploration on what we can learn about life from cats, by this esteemed English historian of Philosophy.
Now, as the pressing question looms - what makes Gray's new book so relevant today?
John Gray's voice, undeniably distinct amongst contemporary thought leaders, offers a nuanced critique of the Enlightenment values that have come to shape the intellectual fabric of modern societies. While he doesn't shy away from applauding the Enlightenment's remarkable feats, Gray sounds an alarm against its occasional overconfidence, its sweeping universalism, and most crucially, its unwavering belief in the linear progression of human society.
Diving into the heart of global politics, Gray posits a somber outlook: the declining stature of the US empire. He argues that this decline, far from being a mere power shuffle, might usher in a dramatic reversal of the present world order. Historically, the equilibrium of global safety and order was maintained by a Hobbesian "Leviathan."
For those less acquainted with Hobbes' philosophical landscape, the "Leviathan" stands as a central figure. In the anarchic state of nature, Hobbes believed humans, driven by unbridled self-interest, would inevitably descend into chaos and conflict. To circumvent this dystopia, individuals willingly cede some of their rights to a formidable central authority, the Leviathan. This entity, often visualized as a colossal sea monster, wields absolute power. Its dominion ensures that societal peace prevails and that contracts and agreements, the bedrock of civilized societies, are respected and upheld.
But as we navigate the tumultuous currents of global geopolitics, Gray draws attention to the unsettling reality. The stability once guaranteed by the Leviathan is wavering. Potent indicators of this shift, Gray suggests, are the overtly aggressive geopolitical moves on the world stage. The audacious invasion of Ukraine and the escalating conflicts between Israel and Palestine serve as harbingers of this changing world order.
And while I sit oceans away in LA, without the tangible presence of Gray's book, its essence resonates more profoundly this week.
As the geopolitical stage oscillates between old orders and emerging powers, another force, often less explicit perhaps but equally formidable, is shaping the course of our future: technology. The tech industry, particularly in America and more specific in the AI sector, seems to be undergoing a renaissance, reinvigorating Enlightenment values and channeling them into innovations that even a few years ago would border on science fiction.
Notably, the epicenter of this technological surge isn't just confined to Silicon Valley startups or cutting-edge labs. Established giants, once considered dormant, are awakening with newfound vigor. A prime example is Microsoft. A company that, until a short while ago, was perceived as a relic of the tech past, is now at the forefront of transformative projects. Their audacious investment in nuclear energy, not merely for traditional applications but to supercharge their pursuits in Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), underscores the seismic shifts underway.
OpenAI, with its pioneering advancements, has not only set benchmarks in the realm of AGI but has also instigated a competitive surge. Tech behemoths, in a race reminiscent of the space race of the 20th century, are vying to achieve milestones in AGI, often shattering expectations in their wake.
I am reminded at this time of Professor Hans Moravec, a visionary who, in the previous century, had dreamt of a world teeming with robots, each feeding vast troves of data into evolving AI systems. While his predictions seemed slightly off-mark—robots didn't quite become the ubiquitous entities he envisioned—the crux of his hypothesis was astonishingly prescient. Moravec did not foreseen the meteoric rise of the internet and its role as a mammoth data source for AGI. Yet, in a twist of fate, entities like Tesla cars have emerged, in many ways filling the void of the robots Moravec had imagined. The strides in computer vision, powered by data from these machines, are testimony to the unfolding of Moravec's world.
This technological era, anchored firmly in Enlightenment values, challenges not just our understanding of progress but also long-held philosophical beliefs. What was once viewed through the lens of anti-Christian or anti-existential philosophy now seems not just plausible but increasingly probable.
However, Gray, with his characteristic sagacity, doesn't dismiss this wave of technological optimism. He acknowledges the tantalizing possibilities on the horizon—be it curing aging or crafting immersive metaverses. But Gray's contention lies elsewhere. As we stand on the cusp of these technological marvels, he urges us to introspect: What will "humanity" truly do with these unprecedented gifts of progress? Can technology, in all its glory, truly usher in an era of unequivocal progress? Or are we, as a species, mistaking technological advancement for genuine, holistic betterment?
In the grand tapestry of human evolution, technological advancements have always been seen as a beacon of progress. Yet, Gray, ever the discerning philosopher, prompts us to question our very definition of "progress." In a world teetering on the edge of unprecedented technological marvels, what does it truly mean to progress?
Gray acknowledges the transformative power of technology, from potential remedies for age-old human ailments to the creation of intricate, almost lifelike metaverses. But he also implores us to reflect deeper. With every leap in technological prowess, are we also advancing in our understanding and betterment of human nature? Or are we merely building advanced tools with the same old flawed hands?
Two seemingly divergent groups, the Accelerationists and those who champion Wokeness, both lay claim to the title of "progressive." Yet, their visions of progress differ starkly. Accelerationists, with a quasi-religious fervor, place unwavering faith in the power of rapid technological growth. Their belief is that accelerating tech advancements will inevitably usher in societal betterment. On the other hand, advocates of Wokeness emphasize societal and cultural evolution, seeking progress in the realms of equity, identity, and justice.
Amidst these evolving definitions of progress, Gray spotlights a central challenge of the 21st century: How do we reconcile the promises of technology with the urgent global issues at hand? Climate change, environmental degradation, and socio-economic disparities loom large. Each path of progress brings its set of promises and perils. As we hurtle forward, the challenge is not just to choose a path, but to discern the risks each road might harbor.
One of Gray's most poignant contentions revolves around human nature. His writings resonate with a somber truth: while technology can evolve at breakneck speeds, human nature, with its complexities and contradictions, remains much the same. The question then becomes: As our tools and tech grow smarter, do we?
Yet, my personal journey with Gray's philosophy is not one of complete alignment. While I share his measured pessimism about the unchanging facets of human nature, I find myself diverging when it comes to technology. There's an inherent optimism I harbor for the transformative potential of tech.
But herein lies the conundrum. As our tech-powered optimism scales new heights, we find ourselves in a world where the stabilizing Leviathan, as posited by Hobbes, seems to be receding. This leaves us grappling with a quintessential question: In this brave new world, can emerging technologies like AI and blockchain serve as the anchors, the new Leviathans, that keep our ship steady?
Embarking on this intellectual journey, delving into Gray's profound insights and juxtaposing them against the backdrop of our technologically advancing world, has been enlightening, to say the least. Each page I turned and every perspective I encountered served as a mirror, reflecting back not just the world's realities, but my own beliefs and biases.
One of Gray's most resonant points, to me, lies in his understanding of human nature. Time and again, history has shown us the cyclical nature of human actions, decisions, and even follies. We oscillate between moments of great altruism and periods of deep division, between collective progress and individual regress. While our tools, languages, and civilizations have evolved, the core instincts, desires, and fears that drive humanity seem relatively unchanged. In this, I find myself nodding in agreement with Gray.
However, as I gaze upon the horizon of technological advancements, I can't help but harbor a glimmer of hope. Yes, technology, in and of itself, is not a panacea for all of humanity's ills. But it holds the potential to be a catalyst, a tool that, if wielded wisely, can usher in not just advancements, but genuine progress. Gray's cautionary tales serve as a reminder that technology should be an enabler, not a replacement, for human empathy, wisdom, and judgment.
As we stand at this unique juncture in history, the challenge ahead is monumental. With the traditional Leviathan fading, the onus is on us to envision and shape new paradigms of governance, order, and progress. Here, I find myself contemplating the roles of AI and blockchain. These technologies, with their promise of decentralization, transparency, and accountability, might just offer glimpses of the new Leviathans we seek. They have the potential to reshape societal structures, ensuring not just efficiency, but equity and justice.
Yet, with every stride we take into this brave new world, we must tread with caution. We must remember that technology is a double-edged sword, and its impact is determined not just by its design, but by our intentions. As I reflect on Gray's teachings and the world around me, I'm left with a profound realization: The future is not just about building smarter machines, but about nurturing wiser humans.
In this ever-evolving dance of history, philosophy, and technology, we find ourselves at an inflection point, poised between past lessons and future possibilities. Professor John Gray's insights, deeply rooted in an understanding of historical patterns and human nature, serve as both a guide and a cautionary tale. They implore us to look beyond the glittering facade of progress and question the very essence of our journey.
While the allure of technology and its transformative potential cannot be denied, it is paramount that we do not lose sight of our human core. As we stand on the precipice of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with AI, blockchain, and other advancements redefining the realms of possibility, the true measure of our progress will be determined by the balance we strike—between innovation and introspection, between creation and compassion.
The fading Leviathan, a symbol of the old world order, challenges us to envision new paradigms of governance and societal structure. Can AI and blockchain step into these colossal shoes? Perhaps. But more importantly, can we, as a collective humanity, rise to the occasion, ensuring that our technological strides are matched by ethical, moral, and philosophical growth?
As we move forward, may we do so with a harmonious blend of optimism and caution, ensuring that the future we build is not just technologically advanced, but holistically enriched.