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RECENT POSTS IN THIS TOPIC

James Hoover: on 5/27/14 at 17:38pm UTC, wrote Jeff, Time grows short, so I am revisiting those I have read to assure...

George Gantz: on 5/27/14 at 1:19am UTC, wrote Great points, Jeff. There is room for self-steeering without being...

Michael Allan: on 5/27/14 at 0:51am UTC, wrote You're welcome, Jeff. Thanks in return for the pleasant conversation. I...

Jeff Alstott: on 5/26/14 at 12:42pm UTC, wrote Thank you for commenting here, George, as it alerted me to your excellent...

Jeff Alstott: on 5/26/14 at 11:10am UTC, wrote Thank you for your comments, Ajay! I will look at your essay promptly. ...

Jeff Alstott: on 5/24/14 at 19:26pm UTC, wrote Thank you for your eloquent analysis, Michael! "There is no heaven, so to...

Jayakar Joseph: on 5/24/14 at 5:14am UTC, wrote Dear Alstott, A human is a system and part of the super-system of...

Michael Allan: on 5/22/14 at 23:37pm UTC, wrote Thanks Jeff (definitely still open, I won't shut up till they kick us out)....


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FQXi FORUM
October 23, 2019

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: Humans Must Help Humanity Steer Itself by Jeff Alstott [refresh]
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Author Jeff Alstott wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 15:50 GMT
Essay Abstract

Humanity is a complex, self-steering system of coordinating humans. Coordination allows humans to process information and perform actions collectively, in ways that no individual could. Humanity's performance relies on the efficacy of this coordination, and therefore improving the coordination system can help improve humanity's future. The performance of humanity as a whole is a separate issue from the performance of its subcomponents. We could have great governments, great economies, great philosophies and great physics, but if a threat like global warming destroys us, civilization as a whole will have failed. We must explicitly evaluate and improve global society as a whole. A powerful mechanism for identifying well-functioning systems is competition and selection, but this mechanism will not work for humanity, because we only have one civilization. To compensate, humans must use competition between other, surrogate systems to identify coordination processes that will likely improve civilization. By identifying and implementing superior systems for coordinating action and information processing, humans improve humanity and thus humanity's ability to find further system improvements. In this way, humans recursively improve and create an ever-evolving system of humanity.

Author Bio

Jeff Alstott is finishing PhD research in complex systems at the University of Cambridge and the US National Institutes of Health.

Download Essay PDF File

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James Dunn wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 21:03 GMT
Humanity is already steering itself. What are you introducing that I am missing?

I'm not trying to prejudice voting. I just don't see the utility.

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Michael Allan replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 21:09 GMT
My reading is that Jeff introduces a description of the overall steering problem, plus a solution strategy in competitive optimization. Both seem useful in the context of "how to steer". - Mike

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 22:54 GMT
Hi Jeff,

interesting idea of getting different kinds of surrogate societies to virtually 'compete' and seeing which survives best and what communication systems helped. I like the idea that we should not limit our imagination to the kinds of society that have existed in the past. Personally I think what we need is the capacity for rapid adaptation to whatever challenges arise.A big problem is the unknown. Current civilization may be too slow moving to make the necessary changes for it to survive in time. I suggest looking at the kingdoms of life and gleaning as much information on how to survive in various conditions, which can then be applied as needed. It is good that you are thinking about the kind of communication and systems necessary to steer mankind in a viable course and that you see it as an ongoing process rather than one time, or one solution, fix. Good luck Georgina

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 20:35 GMT
Thank you for your kind words, Georgina. "[A]n ongoing process rather than one time, or one solution, fix" is exactly one of the concepts I was trying to convey. I am glad that this dynamic came across clearly.

I agree that mimicking structures from other systems, such as organisms, will likely prove fruitful. Identifying organizational structures from one complex system and applying them to other systems is a central component of my research. However, it is worth noting that all systems are limited by "the unknown". It is probably impossible to construct a perfectly adaptive society that will thrive in any circumstance. But we can make society ever more able to succeed in an ever widening set of possible future environments.

Thanks for your insightful comments!

Jeff

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Denis Frith wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 00:44 GMT
Humanity can steer itself only if it takes into account that the technological systems of civilization are irreversibly consuming limited natural resources, producing immutable material waste and devastating the environment. Humanity can only make sound decisions about steering the future if they take into account that what technological systems are doing is an unsustainable process.

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John C Hodge wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 05:28 GMT
JA

You have several good points. I especially like you comments about competition.

Humanity is one species, but I think it is made of several civilizations – Christian, Hindu, muslem, American, Russian, etc. My entry considerers each odf these as what I think you are calling a sub-civilization.

Hodge

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 20:19 GMT
Thank you! I am glad that others here are also thinking about the dynamics of competition on similar scales, and how those dynamics may repeatedly shape society's structure.

Jeff

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John C Hodge wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 18:06 GMT
I would like to list your essay as a reference for my essay in a comment. The suggested text is “The following essays may be viewed as added references in the introduction of this essay: …”.

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 20:05 GMT
I am glad that you think it will be useful for your readers! Please go ahead and reference this essay.

Thanks,

Jeff

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Joe Fisher wrote on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 14:11 GMT
Dear Mr. Alstott,

I thought that your essay was very well written. I only have one minor quibble about it that I do hope you do not mind me mentioning.

At one time, each country had its own native people. These native peoples lived in peace and prosperity for centuries. Alas, eventually, every country was invaded by lying, thieving, murderous white male conquerors. The lying, thieving, murderous white male conquerors now seem to spend all of their time attempting to invade and conquer each other.

Regards,

Joe Fisher

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Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 13:25 GMT
Hello Jeff, May I offer a short, but sincere critique of your essay? I would ask you to return the favour. Here's my policy on that. - Mike

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 11:21 GMT
Yes, Mike. That would be lovely! Thanks for having such a well-articulated policy page.

As it's been awhile, please let me know if your offer is still open.

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Michael Allan replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 23:37 GMT
Thanks Jeff (definitely still open, I won't shut up till they kick us out). You confidently show us around the steering problem, then introduce the solution strategy of competitive optimization; likely the most dependable one in the toolkit (I agree). I found no faults in your essay. Your dispassioned view of the status quo (a societal system that steers its own course) was a welcome counterbalance to my own anxious discomfort at being trapped in that system. You didn't suggest that I should relax and enjoy the ride, for instance, so I was willing to follow you.

I think you neatly put your finger on the core problem of modernity. Optimization by competition requires a goal or "target action" against which the efforts of the competitors are "compared" (p. 3). Now this goal (I would emphasize) might be taken as the destination for steering the future, except (you caution) it's one that looks to be unreachable. "The perfect solution would be a societal system that is mathematically proven to persist and perform in all environments. Unfortunately, such a solution is likely impossible... We humans may never guarantee a perfect future for humanity, but we can give it ever increasing odds of a good future through continuous effort." (p. 4) Never can we achieve the assurance of perpetual existence. There is no heaven, so to speak; only a limbo of "continuous effort" and a hell of final extinction. Isn't this the core problem of modernity? - Mike

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 24, 2014 @ 19:26 GMT
Thank you for your eloquent analysis, Michael!

"There is no heaven, so to speak; only a limbo of 'continuous effort' and a hell of final extinction. Isn't this the core problem of modernity?"

It certainly isn't the most pleasant feature of reality! If things were otherwise, we would have a lot less work to do, and probably fewer essay contests. But if this is the shape of reality (as I assert it is), then we must acknowledge that fact and deal with it as best we can.

You suggest this is a problem of "modernity". What do you mean when you say "modernity" in this context?

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Ross Cevenst wrote on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 11:41 GMT
Hi Jeff,

I really like your clear, unambiguous style of writing. You explain the concepts that you are using precisely and your reasoning progresses in a very logical manner. I feel what you are saying is probably quite straight forward - we only get one shot at human civilisation, so we must find a recipe for success by looking for things that work well (survive) in historical civilisations, in simulated civilisations, and in nature. Certainly your writing is excellent and I am left basically unable to disagree! The only small objection I would raise is this - civilisations can survive not only by performing well in their own right, but also by inhibiting the success of others (eg. parasitic, or destroying rivals). Survival seems to be in insufficient test alone (the Goths sacked Rome, yet the Romans seemed to be more advanced by most measures), unless it turns out there is a hostile external threat to Earth.

In any case your write excellently I would like to see you become more ambitious, for example by attempting the investigation that you have suggested and drawing some conclusions as to what kind of civilisations seem to be ideal!

Thanks for a very nicely written essay! I hope you have a chance to read mine at some point!

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 15:01 GMT
Thank you for your kind words, Ross!

I absolutely agree that competition can yield unintended results when the competitors can affect each other. In that case, as you say, a winning strategy can be to make other competitors lose, as opposed to make yourself win. I actually noted this possibility in an early version of the essay, but took it out.

For some investigations, the problem is not so relevant to our present task. For example, if we simulate surrogate societies to identify "fit" organizational structures for humanity, then those simulated societies will not be interacting with each other. Thus, the surrogate societies will only succeed or fail on their ability to to more "honestly" win the competition.

Yet there is another area where the issue you raise could indeed be a problem: sub-civilizations. We can try to find good structures/strategies for humanity by studying countries and smaller subdivisions of civilization. However, we must be sure that whatever "good" structures we find do not only perform well because they push others down, or have other sub-civilizations on which to feed. If we implement such strategies on a global civilization level, they likely won't work, as there are no other global civilizations on which to rely!

It is because of issues like this that I argue we must investigate the functioning of global civilization as a whole, and not solely rely on sub-civilizations. I do hope to take up your challenge and perform these investigations. Thank you for the vote of confidence!

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Robin Hanson wrote on May. 3, 2014 @ 16:08 GMT
So let me get this straight. Your suggestion for how to steer humanity is that some people should look at the institutions for coordination and competition that we've had in the past, today, and in simulations, with an eye toward developing better institutions?

Um, aren't you aware that there are entire fields of social science research already devoted to understanding institutions and suggesting improvements? Relative to those existing fields, what exactly is your additional contribution here?

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 11:35 GMT
Hi Robin,

Thanks for the inquiry! As you may recall, you and I discussed these very issues at my birthday party. I appreciated you bringing up then the activities of the traditional fields of economics/history/political science/etc., because it led me to further consider them and advance my thinking. Accordingly, these fields are addressed in the essay, under the section heading...

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 15:03 GMT
As an example of one way in which sub-civilization dynamics could look different from civilization-scale dynamics, consider Ross Cevenst's comment above and my response.

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James Lee Hoover wrote on May. 6, 2014 @ 03:08 GMT
Jeff,

We are all in the business of improving our capability to steer not just a future but a viable future. Coordination / working together actually is the only way but we all recognize the stranglehold that the corporate power structure has on our global society. Certainly identifying superior systems of coordinating action, information and people and implementing them is the way. I have ideas that utilize the best tools and identify approaches that history has taught us.

Jim

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James Lee Hoover replied on May. 27, 2014 @ 17:38 GMT
Jeff,

Time grows short, so I am revisiting those I have read to assure I've given a rating. I find that I rated yours on 5/12. I would like to hear your comments on mine.

Best regards,

Jim

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Ajay Bhatla wrote on May. 9, 2014 @ 05:54 GMT
Jeff,

Good essay, made me think. Thank you.

It seems to me that in your "humanity is an enormous, self-steering system" the individual plays no real part except in coordinating and being-coordinated. Is this because the "right" future for a society is different from the "right" future for individuals?

I think society exists for the benefit of individuals rather than the other way around. My essay, promoting the role of individuals is here. I would very much like to read your opinion of it.

- Ajay

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 26, 2014 @ 11:10 GMT
Thank you for your comments, Ajay! I will look at your essay promptly.

"Is this because the 'right' future for a society is different from the 'right' future for individuals?

I think society exists for the benefit of individuals rather than the other way around."

There are differences between physics and ethics; what is happening and what we would like to happen. We can talk about how the system of humanity is behaving and we can still value individuals' happiness (or not!). I myself value the happiness of individuals, but one does not need to agree with that value in order to consider my analysis of how humanity behaves. As long as one has a sufficiently complex goal for humanity's behavior, then methods like those discussed in this essay will likely be necessary for reaching that goal. For example, your own goal: it is nontrivial to design a society that persistently and robustly benefits individual humans. But using the methods I discuss, we can repeatedly find and implement designs for society that accomplish that goal better and better.

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Aaron M. Feeney wrote on May. 11, 2014 @ 01:54 GMT
Also, if you do decide to read my paper, please read my conversations with Michael Allan, Tommy Anderberg, and Robert de Neufville on my page as well. A great deal of clarification is available in those stimulating conversations.

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George Gantz wrote on May. 15, 2014 @ 22:28 GMT
Hi Jeff - Nice essay, and I appreciate the focus on human civilization as an entity in itself, being steered by the complex "self-steering" networks and institutions we have created. I hope you get a chance to read my essay The Tip of the Spear as we touch on many of the same themes. I'm not sure that "self-steering" is the most accurate way of describing what happens when self-organizing behaviors emerge in a complex system. I think it is more accurate to say that it is an evolutionary process where small changes compete against each other - and the ones that are most efficient survive and propagate.

Regards - George

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Author Jeff Alstott replied on May. 26, 2014 @ 12:42 GMT
Thank you for commenting here, George, as it alerted me to your excellent essay. I have made my comments on your essay on your entry page.

"I'm not sure that "self-steering" is the most accurate way of describing what happens when self-organizing behaviors emerge in a complex system. I think it is more accurate to say that it is an evolutionary process where small changes compete against each other - and the ones that are most efficient survive and propagate."

It depends on the system in question! Competition is a very powerful force, and many, many effective systems use it. But it is not necessary; I gave the example of an authoritarian business, which does not use any competition internally. You are correct that a more effective business will likely have internal competition of ideas (e.g. a waiter in the restaurant could have an idea, and that idea be so good that it overturns the owner's idea).

You say could also say that the authoritarian business is not a "complex system", or is not "self-organizing". I am happy to grant that, though the meaning is imprecise. My day job is in research fields that are very concerned about defining such terms as "self-organizing", and as I understand it not clear, unambiguous, rigorous definition of the term has yet been reached. "Self-steering" is, of course, no better. You could read my essay with "self-organizing" replacing "self-steering" and that would be fine by me. The important point is that humanity is organizing/steering itself, and we individual humans can take certain actions to to improve that process. I have outlined some actions in this essay, and I feel that your essay also points out an important action we can take.

Thanks for your comment!

Jeff

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George Gantz replied on May. 27, 2014 @ 01:19 GMT
Great points, Jeff. There is room for self-steeering without being complex, and self-organizing systems that do not actually steer themselves. It reminds me of the categories of behavior that show up in cellular automata. Rudy Rucker (borrowing perhaps from Wolfram) notes that CAs can have simple or complex emergent behaviors depending on rules and starting conditions. The simple behaviors can be to null or oscillating structures, the complex in repeating or non-repeating (what he calls gnarly) structures. If the simplest of study toys for complexity can vary so much, then clearly real word institutions can as well.

Cheers - George

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Jayakar Johnson Joseph wrote on May. 24, 2014 @ 05:14 GMT
Dear Alstott,

A human is a system and part of the super-system of Universe, whereas Humanity is not; and thus Humanity cannot steer by itself. But we may able to steer against the holarchical flow of time while we are within Humanity.

With best wishes,

Jayakar

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