If you are reading these words, know: you are possibly living in the most influential and decisive time for humanity of all time.
And the importance of this period had already been announced, believe me, before the coronavirus pandemic and the entire political crisis that is seen in various corners of the world.
Who says that are some philosophers and researchers who have been united around the idea that we live in the period of the “hinge of history”.
The term comes from the book On what matters (About what matters, in free translation) by the British philosopher Derek Parfit.
“Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the past two centuries, the world has never changed so quickly. It may be that soon we will have greater powers to transform not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors”, wrote the thinker, in 2011 .
“We live in the ‘hinge’ moment in history.”
Added to this idea, last year, a publication by the Scottish philosopher Will MacAskill, from Oxford University, defending the so-called effective altruism, a movement with the purpose of applying reason and evidence for the common good.
Its publication in a forum generated more than 100 comments from other experts, not to mention podcasts and other articles reflecting it.
As Kelsey Piper, editor at Vox, wrote, the debate about this turning point in history is more than an abstract philosophical discussion: it is about identifying what our society should prioritize to guarantee the future of our species in the long term.
To understand why, let’s start by examining the arguments that support the idea that our moment is so crucial.
Are we the most influential in history?
In recent years, support has grown for the idea that we live in a period of high and unusual risk of self-annihilation.
As British astronomer Martin Rees said: “Our Earth has existed for 45 million years, but this century is special. It is the first time that a species, ours, has the future of the planet in its hands.”
For the first time, we have in our hands actions that can irreversibly destroy the biosphere, or also technologies whose misuse can cause a catastrophic setback to civilization, adds Rees, co-founder of the University of Cambridge Center for the Study of Existential Risks.
These destructive powers are beyond our wisdom, according to the Australian philosopher Toby Ord, also from Oxford.
Ord wrote a book called The Precipice as an allegory of where we are: one step away from disaster.
For him, the chances of the world ending this century are very high. In his opinion, what makes our time particularly decisive is that we create threats that our ancestors never had to face, such as nuclear and biological wars. And furthermore, we are not doing enough to contain these threats.
The United Nations Biological Weapons Convention, a global commitment to curb the development of biological weapons like a super coronavirus, has a smaller budget than a regular McDonald’s snack bar.
The idea that we are at a dangerous tipping point also gives ammunition to the second argument of those who support the hinge hypothesis.
According to several renowned researchers, there is a possibility that in the 21st century, artificial intelligence will soon become superintelligence. What’s more, how we handle this transition can determine the entire future of civilization.
By itself, an all-powerful intelligence can mark the destiny of humanity based on the goals and needs it has.
Thus, the future of civilization could be shaped by the first to control artificial intelligence. And that can make a single force seek the good of all, or that power be used in a repressive way.
There is no unanimity on the long-term effects of artificial intelligence (AI).
But even among those who consider the chances of a catastrophic scenario with AI to be small, many recognize the enormous potential of its influence could make the coming decades more important than any other in human history.
For this reason, many researchers and organizations have dedicated themselves to studying the ethics and security involved in artificial intelligence.
Luke Kemp, a professor at the University of Cambridge, points out that climate change caused by human action and environmental degradation in this century could have significant implications for the future.
“The most fundamental transformation so far in human history has been the arrival of the Holocene, which enabled the agricultural revolution.”
Kemp points out that human societies seem to have adapted to live in a surprisingly limited subset of climates available on Earth – with average annual temperatures around 13 ° C.
“This is the century when we are going to do a dangerous and unprecedented geological experiment and maybe push ourselves out of the climate niche or, on the contrary, move away from the abyss.”
It could also be argued that the relatively young age of civilization makes us particularly influential.
We have only about 10,000 years of human history, and it can be said that the first generations have the capacity to mobilize changes and values that will persist in future generations.
We can think of today’s civilization as a child who will carry scars and traits for the rest of his life.
But our relative youth could also be used to argue the opposite, which leads to an obvious question: Didn’t the first humans live in the most influential age?
After all, a few mistakes in the Paleocene or the end of the agricultural revolution were enough and our civilization would never have existed.
However, MacAskill says that while many moments in history have been crucial, it does not necessarily mean that they have been influential.
Hunter-gatherers, for example, were not in a position to participate in a turning point because they lacked the knowledge to know that they could change the future or the resources to take a different course.
Being influential, in MacAskill’s definition, involves awareness and the possibility of going one way or the other.
Why does it matter
The definition of influence leads us to the reasons why MacAskill and others are so interested in this study of our times.
Finding answers will indicate the amount of resources and time that civilization must devote to short-term versus long-term problems.
Making a personal comparison, if you believe that tomorrow will be the most influential day of your life – for example, the date of a very important exam or your wedding – then you will put a lot of time and effort into it right away.
But if you think the most influential day of your life is decades away, or you don’t know what day it will be, you will focus on other priorities first.
Where to invest
MacAskill is one of the founders of effective altruism and has spent his career looking for ways to achieve the greater good in the long run.
If this philosophy presupposes that we are now at an inflection point, we need to spend a lot of time and resources to urgently reduce long-term existential risks.
If, on the contrary, people believe that the hinge moment happened centuries ago, then they will engage in other immediate problems, such as investing money in their descendants.
Some may question the long-term benefits of investing money, since several social collapses in history have destroyed savings and funds. Others will probably suggest that the money should be invested in eradicating today’s major problems, such as poverty.
The primary purpose of effective altruists is to determine the true tipping point in history in order to maximize the well-being of the species and ensure future flowering.
The simplest argument against the hinge moment hypothesis is a matter of probability.
If we manage to survive this century and reach the average life span of a mammal, we are talking about a humanity that will last for about a million years. A period when we could potentially expand to other stars and settle on other planets.
In addition, there are still, in theory, a large number of people who will be born in the future. Even if we look only 50,000 years ahead, the scale of future generations can be enormous.
Given the astronomical number of people who are yet to exist, says MacAskill, it would be surprising if our small fraction of today’s population were just the most influential.
It is likely that these people of the future, with luck, will also be more morally and scientifically enlightened than we are. Thus, they could do even more to influence the future in ways we have yet to conceive.
Those who believe that we are living in a hinge moment could also be developing incomplete and flawed reasoning.
Perhaps cognitive aspects are making visible and contemporary events seem more important than they really are.
Living in the 1980s, for example, one would think that the greatest risk to humanity would be nanotechnology.
In addition, there is the possibility of confirmation bias. In other words, if you really think that existential risks deserve more attention, you are likely to unconsciously develop the arguments that support that conclusion.
For these and other reasons, MacAskill thinks that we are probably not living in the most influential time.
There may be convincing arguments for thinking that we are living in an especially complicated time compared to other periods, but given the potentially long future that awaits our civilization, that time is probably yet to come.
Advantages if the hinge moment does not exist
While it may seem disappointing to conclude that we are not the most important people of all time, it can actually be positive.
If you believe that there is a “time of danger”, then the next century will be especially risky to live in, possibly requiring significant sacrifices to ensure the survival of our species. And as Kemp points out, history teaches that when there is a lot of fear that a future utopia is at stake, unpleasant things are done in her name.
“States have a long history of draconian measures to respond to perceived threats, and the greater the threats, the more severe the use of this emergency power,” says Kemp.
For example, some researchers looking for ways to prevent disastrous scenarios from artificial intelligence believe that we may need an omnipresent global surveillance system that monitors every person alive at all times.
But if life at a decisive moment requires sacrifices, that does not mean that a time that does not have this characteristic can be lived with total neglect.
In this century, we can inflict significant damage to ourselves, and not necessarily catastrophic or species annihilators.
In the past century, we have discovered countless ways to leave evil inheritances for our descendants, from carbon in the atmosphere to plastic in the ocean and nuclear waste underground.
So while we don’t know whether our time will be the most influential or not, we can say with more certainty that we have an increasing power to shape the lives and well-being of the billions of people who will live tomorrow, for better or for worse.
It will be up to historians of the future to judge how well we use this influence.
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