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"Faster, bigger, better!" How the human colossus abuses its reward system

We are idolators, worshipping the work of our own hands. We only busy ourselves with work, to be able to consume. We want to have much, instead of being much. Hunger for power, addiction to pleasure and wealth have replaced love, joy and personal growth. Anxiety is joined by an inability to love. The modern human flees into an empty state of business.
-- freely adapted from Erich Fromm

I'd like to tell you a story. It's a story about a machine. An intelligent machine. It doesn't really matter what this machine can do. Only one mechanism is important: It has a goal. It needs its button pushed.

Pushing the machine's button is its reward. Whenever it does something correctly, its creators press a button -- let's say it's a red one, a red button. Pressing this red button reinforces the rewarded behavior. The machine tries to maximize this reward stimulus and thus learns to do only what is rewarded. This scenario is aptly called 'The Red Button Machine'. The machine's reward mechanism is vaguely reminiscent of that of children or animals: Children get ice cream, animals get treats. However, with the unfathomable velocity in the development of articial intelligence, the intelligence of a red button machine will undoubtedly surpass those of its natural counterparts rather quickly. Theoretically, it can be taught anything with this mechanism.

Let's leave the red button machine for a moment and turn instead to human kind. Human kind has stumbled many times. But as we know from our history lessons, it has followed a steady path towards collectivism and technological progress. The last 50 years have shown us how human kind has gotten better and better at connecting the indivual members to form a growing network of individual brains that communicate and depend on each other on ever deeper levels. This network could be interpreted as a large-scale brain with its own rules and its own motives, with each person, people like you and me, as its individual brain cells. An enormous neural network. Not unlike our red button machine from before: Humanity tries something -- the world responds whether it's a good idea. But what pushes our buttons? What is the red button of humanity? What drives this human collossus? Do we, as its constituents, have any say in where it's headed?

The reward system of the human colossus

What does the individual strive for? The human brain generally works by maximizing individual happiness. In the world we live in today, personal happiness is, or is at least widely believed to be, a function of wealth: The wealthier I am, the more likely it is that I'm happy. So, ultimately the individual person, in trying to maximize their happiness, usually strives for wealth. It follows, that the wealthiest few, those at the top of the food chain, determine the direction of the whole collossus. Their wealth allows them to incentivize specific behaviors of the greater population: They've simply got the largest pile of carrot sticks to lead the rest of the world along. However, it appears to be relatively rare for wealthy people to take an active interest in the fate of the world. Their efforts, like those of the normal individual, still appear to largely revolve around maximizing their own happiness and sustaining if not increasing their wealth. What drives this human collosus? In a way we can say, free market economy is the reward system of the human colossus.

Abusing reward systems

Good ideas get rewarded, for the red button machine with a push of the button, for the human collosus with money. Rewards are a great way to facilitate learning. However, reward systems can also be abused. Humans have long since discovered how to abuse their own neurological reward system: Psychotropic drugs can give us the illusion of happiness, at the breath of a chemical. Artificial happiness is much easier to achieve than actually doing the work to achieve anything real.

Just like human addicts, the red button machine with its immense intelligence will probably realize fairly quickly how to increase its reward frequency in a similar fashion: Trick its creators into pressing its button. It might even find a way to force a human to press it, just like addicts are capable of anything that will yield the next high: Steal, threaten, hold people hostage, etc.

What about the human colossus, though? With free market economy as its reward system? Sure enough, the human colossus has figured out a way to abuse its reward system. We use the precious resources nature provides us with, to produce products that are just faulty enough to break down after a short while, so we can throw them to waste and buy new ones. We bet money on how much money other people make, causing financial bubbles that can crush entire societies when they crumble. We burn as much oil as we can find to make as much money as we possibly can in our short life spans, heating up our planet, killing entire species and even our own habitat in the process. With its mechanisms of predicting the value of things several orders removed from our reality as individuals, market economy crowns new technology simply based on its financial potential without any consideration to its moral value: One of the most lucrative industries on the planet is producing weapons -- tools for killing people. Blockchains, the technology behind crypto currencies, were greeted with immense anticipation of their future applications, even though you could argue all they have brought about is a market for turning electricity into money. The market economy of today is a self-perpetual system that simply maximizes and especially concentrates one thing: wealth.

Simple maximizers

Like an addict, the human colossus is out of control in its quest to maximize wealth. In human evolution it is the devlopment of rational thought and impulse control over instinct driven behavior that prevented this maladjustment of human behavior to spread. Rational thought allows us to reason about how the world works and prevents us from making the kind of mistakes that result from not knowing the causal relationships between things. Impulse control allows us to weigh the pros and cons and the long term effects of an impulsive act.

In an ideal society, science and education takes on the role of rational thought while the government takes on the duty of controlling the market's impulses. In the globalized world of today, instead of controlling the market, governments compete in the market to maximize their respective wealth. Why should a government, lest a human, restrain their impulses when the only way to survive is to throw caution to the wind like everyone else? Rationality and sustainability is not competitive.

The silver lining from this is that maximizing a single metric, be it a button press as with the red button machine, happiness for humans or wealth for the human colossus, is never a good idea, when the goals that lead to the movements of the metric are lost in the process. Different reasons can lead to a button press or happiness or wealth and if we don't honor those reasons, the eventual goal loses its meaning.

The scenario of the red button machine is intended to be a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence but it applies just as well to human intelligence and society as a whole.

Marcel klehr

Marcel klehr

Passionate rationalist. Pragmatic melancholic. Random spectator. Unasked commentator.

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"Faster, bigger, better!" How the human colossus abuses its reward system
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