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AI will save the world, and nothing will change.
Lake Superior, circa 2010.
I get in these fuuuck-it-could-be-so-much-better states whenever people talk about systemic quality of life issues. Salaries not being enough to handle cost-of-living, food deserts, jobs displaced offshore, jobs lost to automation. Loneliness.
I’m under no illusion that utopia is an attainable (or definable) thing, for we humans. This isn’t about that. But the idea that we can simplify and live better, pushing out the edges of creation and creativity, the idea that doingso is a critical part of life, this idea has me firmly in its grasp.
Most of my world-modeling starts with a tiny village of twelve people and this one abuela figure who knows everybody completely and knows who to set up with whom. It’s twelve people because you can imagine being the abuela, being able to hold in your head who everybody is and what they’re about — you can even have pretty functional intuitions around what the dynamic would be between any subset of folks in the group, whether you’re picking two or three or eight of them.
This is not a Santa Claus scenario — there’s no call to be on your best behavior because the abuela knows when you’ve been sleeping. This is all practicality: the abuela, in this scenario, would notice if someone was going hungry by the days and weeks, and could make sure that some food heads in that direction from a household with excess. The abuela knows who would work together best on patching the kitchen roof, because she’s watched everyone grew up, helped everyone grow up. She knows that you hate thunderstorms at night, and if you want company, she’d let your cousin know.
And if we take the sketch of this twelve-plus-abuela village and blow it up to cover the entire earth, the role of the abuela figure becomes, unavoidably, artificial intelligence.
We’re wired for a collection of physical senses — sight, hearing, taste, pain, things that give us direct feedback on the physical world around us, or within us. This is great, and we’re very good at responding to those senses, potatoes and stubbed toes alike. We’re also very good at ignoring those senses when the information from them is not useful, which is why your skin hasn’t been yelling about your shirt texture since you woke up.
The current difficulty is this, crudely: if the internet is an organ, then internet access is now a sense in its own right, and it is really poorly tuned.
The evidence for this is pretty clear. There’s more news than you can handle, and that’s even if you’re ignoring countries that aren’t yours. And the news you do take in is probably not news that’s ultimately useful to you or your immediate environment: local elections are chronically under-attended in the US.
We don’t make well-informed decisions, because the volume of information is impossible to humanly process. The internet gives us access to this unending flood, but the tools for making sense of it all can’t match what the abuela can tell you about her village.
AI, at its best, makes sense of the flood. Our physical senses are incredibly accurate — you see what exists, for the sight is direct evidence of the reality, modulo the occasional illusion. “Making sense of the flood” requires that we receive equally direct evidence — the trick is that meaningful feedback on the daily turning of an entire world is not as direct, nor as predictable, as bouncing light.
But all of that is fine.
We have always been solving this problem, from the moment you opened your eyes after birth. You have always been scanning the world, trying to find patterns in it, finding words that let you communicate your needs and receive those of others.
The advent of AI is just humanity figuring that out at greater-than-human scale, so that we can live at human scale.
Having the abuela means that we don’t have to constantly monitor and understand the political (or physical?) currents. Having the abuela means that you can trust that your needs will be met in a way that’s good for the village. Having the abuela means you can stop trying to grapple with an infinity of information that you can’t possibly handle yourself, and get back to dealing with your world and your people, with your senses and yourpassions and skills.
We live in a globally-connected world, but we’re still built for the local, still built for touch and sight and immediacy; by developing AI, a super-awareness to handle the flood that we could not handle otherwise, we are getting ourselves back.
And when AI saves the world, we with our new tools will move on to the next problem, and we will keep on solving, keep on rebalancing. This is not different, the scales have tipped at an unusual scale (wordplay!) but they will adjust, and then they will tip again. AI will save the world, and nothing will change.
P.S. This is not about utopia, like I said. To be alive is to struggle, and that will always be the case, for we’re finite machines ourselves. But, we each have struggles that we would choose for ourselves, and happily: whether it’s climbing a mountain or building a road or making music or tending a garden, everyone has purposes that suit them. The way I see it, AI can help us solve the problem of problems that aren’t ours. More on that later.