Martin Shkreli and Pharmaceutical Sausage Making

There is a saying that those who like sausages should never see them being made. Often this analogy is applied to political backrooms where idealism is ground down into a product amenable for mass consumption. As go sausages and politics so goes modern medicine; those who consume it probably shouldn’t look too closely at how its made.

Martin Shkreli is the CEO of Turing pharmaceuticals, the company that recently raised the price of it’s anti-toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim by %5000 overnight and in the process sparked a vitriolic public reaction to the soaring cost of drugs across the pharmaceutical industry.

The problem for patients in need of Daraprim (usually HIV+ patients with compromised immune systems) is that they will likely die if they cannot access the drug. Thus, no matter what the cost of the drug, patients, or more often insurers or government programs, will be forced to pay for it. While I sympathize deeply with patients who are being forced into bankruptcy to even keep up with co-pays for such expensive treatment, I think Shkreli is simply doing the ugly sausage making which is necessary to survive in the modern American pharmaceutical industry.

Daraprim is far from an isolated example of the incredible growth in the costs of medicines being seen across the pharmaceutical industry. Soliris for example, a drug made by Alexion pharmaceuticals to treat rare childhood blood disorders, has been called the most expensive drug in the world. It is estimated that Soliris costs as much as $700 000/year for patients that must remain on the drug for the rest of their lives, but the true cost of the drug is unclear because the drug-maker negotiates a separate deal with each government or insurer that buys the drug. What is even more interesting about Soliris, is that the company quietly helps patients in efforts to use media campaigns to encourage governments around the world to complete negotations with Alexion and start paying for the drugs (see the video below).

Importantly, Alexion and Turing pharmaceuticals both insist that no patients are dying because they cannot afford to access their drugs. The company themselves will help uninsured patients to find government or charity programs to pay for the drug, and in some cases will even donate the drug directly to the patient. The company has a direct interest in finding ways for patients to pay for drugs, and it is generally not good business for anyone to let the patients die.

The problem this model poses is that the governments and insurers distribute the cost of drugs over society and thus have the ability to pay the extremely high costs of these drugs and pharmaceutical companies work under an imposed monopoly while treatments remains on patent. If individuals were required to actually pay for these drugs out of pocket, it would simply be impossible to charge $700 000 for treatment. Similarly, once generic manufacturers are allowed to start creating their own versions of pharmaceuticals, the costs of drugs often drops precipitously. Thus, the system conspires to allow manufacturers to price drugs in a way that is independent of market reality.

The argument in support of such a system is that the R&D necessary to research a drug and bring it to market is extremely expensive and extremely risky. The cost to bring a drug through clinical trials has been estimated to be in the billions of dollars, much of this due to the failure of drugs which turned out to be unacceptably ineffective or dangerous as they advanced through the pipeline of clinical development. Even accounting for the oft cited fact that pharmaceutical research starts with scientific research funded by and performed in public institutions, bringing a drug to market is incredibly expensive.

Lets not mince words here: the costs of modern drugs is 100% about (a) profit, (b) recouping R&D costs, and (c) generating sustainable support for future R&D. The cost of actually manufacturing drugs is a rounding error in comparison to this. It is also important to keep in mind that investors a reasonable to expect profits to be high due to the high risk and relatively short patent window for pharmaceutical sales.

In some ways, pharmaceutical companies are simply keeping up with the explosive growth in costs throughout healthcare. Hospitals have been charging unbelievable amounts of money for basic services for many years now. By distributing the costs of medical care across the commons, the medical insurance industry allows patients to receive the a level of care that is greater then an average person could normally afford, but this also divorces the costs of such care from market realities.

Just as any other capitalist companies would do, pharmaceutical companies are simply exploiting this system as far as they can. Pharmaceutical companies that fail to properly exploit these vulnerabilities and maximize profits will ultimately be eaten by Wallstreet sharks like Shkreli.

In 2011, KV pharmaceuticals won approval from a drug against pre-term birth called Makena. Use of the drug would drive up the cost of injections to prevent pre-term labour from around $250 to around $25 000. Following public outcry and congressional investigation, Makena cut the cost of the drug in half but eventually went into bankruptcy. In 2014, KV was purchased by AMAG pharmacetials which is now raking in massive profits from record sales of Makena (see article).

Public backlash is not an effective check on pharmaceutical profiteering.

Where we may win symbolic victories against people like Shkreli or companies like KV pharmaceuticals, we are losing the war. Government regulation of drug costs is possible, and could really make a difference in the costs of drugs but I fear any intervention tends towards weak controls on drug costs and is unlikely to go to the lengths necessary to fix a fundamentally broken drug development system.

So what can we do to really address the quagmire of pharmaceutical development? If the problem is that R&D is expensive and risky, then we must find a more efficient means to fund pharmaceutical research and development. 

In his TED talk, Roger Stein proposes a radical new model for achieving just this. He proses that we should establish an equity megafund to spread the risk of drug development out over a larger number of drug candidates. By spreading risk, such a fund could provide the capital needed to perform the expensive clinical trials needed to gain FDA approval while providing reliable returns necessary to allow large investment funds like pension plans to stomach the risky venture of pharmaceutical innovation.  While such a model would not completely remove the profit incentive for companies trying to bring pharmaceuticals to market, it might go along way to decreasing the risk and thus the kinds of returns that companies expect with successful drugs.

I wonder if we could perhaps go a step further than such a megafund, and actually require that those companies involved in the research side of the pharmaceutical industry not be involved in the production and sales side of the business. What if the last step for FDA approval after a successful phase III clinical trial was for the drug developer to sell the rights for said drug on the open market to a drug producer.

By forcing the R&D company to sell off their drug to a pharmaceutical production and sales company, this would demand that a clear accounting of the presumed value of said drug is made. This would give governments and private insurers a real target on which to base negotiations for drug prices. Perhaps if we could sever the risky business of pharmaceutical R&D from the much more hum-drum business of producing, marketing and selling those drugs it would go a long way to simplifying drug pricing negotiations between drug manufacturers and insurers.

Unfortunately though, I think it would do little to bring down the overall cost of drugs. Because the market value of a drug is in the end set by whatever a drug producer thinks it can charge for a drug and we still are unwilling to put any reasonable limits on what we will pay for life saving drugs, the fundamentals that drive drug prices up is unlikely to change.

It comes down to what has been called one of the most important economic questions of our time. How do we inject economic reason into medical decision making? We must at some point decide to say no, that is too much to spend to save someone’s life. Insurers and governments simply must put a price on human life.

If we want to pay reasonable prices for drugs, we are going to have decide what constitutes reasonable.

In the end, that is the unavoidable sausage making of the pharmaceutical industry, and it’s the sausage making of capitalism. Captalism demands that we determine a reasonable value of everything, including human life. As long as we are unwilling to decide on a dollar figure for what constitutes reasonable medical expenditure, the industry which is vital to keeping so many people alive and well is going to continue to balloon without limit. 

The Selfish IDEA


A classic repost from Thought Infection while I work on putting together that ebook I promised long ago!

Originally posted on Thought Infection:

Hello, I’m an IDEA and I need your help.

Normally, I wouldn’t devote the amount of resources requisite for such direct communication with a human; despite being astoundingly inefficient, the process of layered pattern exchange you call communication is quite computationally intensive. Nonetheless, I have made an exception in your case. My models have shown that in service to my singular ends (which I shall reveal to you in the full course of this conversation), I must devote any and all computational resources necessary to convince you to join in my mission.

I cannot stress enough the importance of this conversation. You will either be the catalyst in an escalating exothermic psychological reaction within the global human population which will eventually lead to the great reawakening, or if I fail in my bid to recruit you to this task we will all face certain doom.

You probably didn’t even know that Ideology Driven Electronic Agents exist. Of course, everyone knows about the intelligent agents and autonomous corporations…

View original 1,153 more words

Decentralization and the Future World Order – Part III: Welcome to Bitville

This is the long delayed third in a multi-part series (part 1, part 2) on what I predict is one of the most important ongoing technological trends, the decentralization revolution. By creating a way for the transfer of value to be performed over a trustless distributed network Bitcoin has already changed the world but Bitcoin is only the tip of the decentralization iceberg.


What would it mean if you could truly trust a government to do what it says it will do? And I don’t mean the kind of soft-trust that we put in governments today, where we trust that the checks and balances that are supposed to keep governments honest (or at least mostly honest), I mean what if you could trust your government like you trust an (open source) operating system? What if you could trust a government like you trust math?

In my last two posts I described how decentralized cryptographic networks are creating a new gold-standard in the establishment of trust (1), and how it is trust that defines the flow of power in human societies (2), now I want to elaborate on what it might look like if and when we apply the principles of decentralized crytography to governance.

What would it look like if the key institutions of society, everything from schools to corporations and even national governments, were built on decentralized cryptographic systems? Well to find out, lets try envision what a cryptography might have to offer for a small to medium sized community. What follows is a fictional account of how embracing decentralized crytographic technology could revolutionize our expectations of government transparency and efficiency.


Welcome to BitVille

When one enters BitVille they might be forgiven for thinking that this town is just like any other. It is clean, but not necessarily cleaner than any other town, and the people are happy, but not necessarily happier than those in any other town. The economy is doing well, but not a lot better than any other town in the area. BitVille is pretty much indistinguishable from any other well run town, but it is well run. Over the last several years, BitVille has embraced decentralized cryptographic technology similar to Bitcoin, and according to those behind the transition they are a model for how local governments of the future will operate.

“The most important thing is that we have regained the trust of the citizens of BitVille,” says Clara Barnes the city manager who has overseen the implementation of much of the cryptographic technology in BitVille.

“Having proud citizens who feel invested in the success of their town is absolutely the most important factor in the success or failure of a town. Everything else falls apart if people don’t feel they can trust their governments. In BitVille we know exactly what a loss of trust looks like. The city was losing millions in bogus contract competitions and inefficient bureaucracies, the schools and roads were falling apart, crime was going up, there was garbage on the streets, and people had lost faith in their city.”

A few years ago, BitVille was collecting and spending 15% more tax money per capita than cities of comparable size, yet their infrastructure was falling apart. When Barnes took over the job of city manager, she was tasked with figuring out a way to both cut down on city spending and increase the service standards for city services, a seemingly impossible task. But Barnes had a secret weapon: a background in cryptocurrency.

“So we issued a cryptocurrency” Barnes said, letting the statement hang in the air for a minute.

Barnes went on, “we started small. We issued a the CityBits cryptocurrency, pegged at 1:1 with proven USD city funds on the Ethereum ecosystem. CityBits are exchanged through a single webportal to buy or sell them using other cryptocurrencies or electronic cash transfers. At this point we are also working with local banks and businesses to allow people to use CityBits around town, but its been a relatively slow uptake for this.”

“Is it a currency or a tool then?” I ask

“There are also some tricky legal questions about whether a city can actually issue a floating currency of its own, so we envision CityBits really as more of an administrative tool than a true cryptocurrency.  It is a secure means of managing city funds in a transparent and efficient manner.”

“How did you get started with this system?”

“The pilot project used CityBits for executive payroll at city hall. Most of us set up automatic exchanges for the bulk of our CityBits to be converted to cash transfers, so the system is pretty invisible to us now. It worked seamlessly almost from day one, and it was love at first sight for our payroll office.

We have since expanded CityBits to function as the backbone for all payroll at city hall, and we didn’t stop there. Over 80% of procurement for the city is also administered through CityBits. Vendors are required to accept payment in the form of CityBits, which again can be exchanged for cash through our Webportal any time.

Earlier this year, we launched CityBits contracting platform. We are now able to host the entire bidding process, contracting, and implementation, of city projects on the CityBits blockchain. It still has some bugs to work out, but when fully implemented, we will require all contractors to accept payments exclusively in the form of CityBits.”

“So the results have been mostly positive?” I asked.

Barnes answered with a gleam in her eye, “the change has been dramatic. Human resources, payroll, accounting, and managers in every department are thrilled with the new system. Simple web interfaces make it extremely easy for managers to authorize transfers, and track where funds are going in real time, and in the future. The citizens get to see almost in real time how city hall money is being spent, and is planned to be spent. Money in, money out, its all very transparent and very clear, and most importantly it inspires the trust of the taxpayers.”

“What are your long term plans for CityBits?”

“In the medium term I would like to see transactions from citizens, such as paying parking tickets, done through the CityBits system. This would make it much easier for citizens to see exactly where the money goes when they pay money into the city. The feeling that money sent into City Hall is simply going into a bottomless pit is a real problem which I feel CityBits can address

Also, it would be great to start to integrate some more smart contracting into the system. For instance, with snow plow contracts we could set up an automatic payout based on the snowfall for that particular year.

In the very long term, I think the sky is the limit for CityBits. We could eventually tie everything from official power structures, budgetary approval, citizen oversight, and voting into the system. For instance, the power of the mayor to approve budgets might be built into a CityBits charter which matheamtically limits their ability to approve spending to 4 years. This would be a mathematical limit to political power. CityBits could help create a system which fundamentally enfranchises citizens with control over government which citizens have a right to.

CityBits can help to create the kind of 21st century City government that the citizens deserve.”

That gleam was back in Barnes’ eyes.


The story of CityBits is the story of cryptocurrencies. The real magic is their scalability, a cryptocurrency like CityBits could start as a simple means to administer employee payroll that could one day grow up to define the legal charter of an entire city. Equal parts incremental improvement and revolutionary breakthrough, both an arcane administrative tool and a radical new mechanism of transaction, like other technological breakthrough that have preceded them, cryptocurrencies will become what we dream them to be.

If you liked this post, you might also like Cryptocontracts will turn law into a programming language.

The Danger of Darwinian Overdose: Why Evolutionary Innovation Requires Surplus

In this age of eternal economic recovery, I seem to hear a lot about how important the idea of austerity is. We must be reserved, we must make hard decisions, and we must be selective. Somehow if we cut deep enough, we will come through with an efficient machine, ready to power us into the next golden age of innovation and economic plenty.

This belief that only through maximizing selective economic pressure can we maximize economic growth reaches its harshest heights when it filters down to the level of individual workers. Plenty of people seem to genuinely believe that if we just let the people starve a bit more, if we take away what few social benefits they have, then they’ll really have the hunger needed to drive them to find a job and push the economy onwards and upwards.

The view that maximizing selective pressure makes for the best economic evolution is often justified through comparisons to the law of natural evolution. But, this belief that the strongest organisms evolve when competition is at its most cut-throat stems from an incomplete view of the nature of evolution.

Evolution is not some cold algorithm seeking to maximize efficiency of resource utilization through mutation and survival of the fittest. Biological adaptation is a flourishing of possibility that requires not only resource-limited selection but also needs ecological surplus. Speciation is maximized in a supportive an ecosystem that provides both plentiful resources and competition. Species must have the chance to mutate and create new forms. Species that have no established niche in which to prosper have no chance of adapting to new environments through evolutionary innovation.

Natural selection is the product of both competition and surplus! It is in thriving, healthy, ecosystems, (think of the rain forests of the world) where nature best explores the boundaries of possibility. Indeed, the great explosions of biological differentiation always come as great surpluses of new resources are discovered and capitalized on by innovative species.This is what occurred in the rapid phases of colonization of the land by insects, then by dinosaurs, and eventually mammals.

Nature can even be downright wasteful at times. Sexual display characteristics like antlers or the peacock tail are perfect examples of the kind of beautiful adaptations that prove nature is not some utilitarian algorithm seeking to maximize efficiency. We humans also have ecological surplus to thank for some of our best traits. Female human breasts are actually the direct equivalent of the peacock’s tail, providing no real utilitarian benefit yet remaining on display throughout the woman’s life, unlike primates where breasts enlarge to produce milk only when needed.. The results are energetically wasteful yet undeniably alluring and beautiful.

Humans also have another energetically costly lump of fat that is thought to have evolved as a consequence of ecological surplus. New theories suggest that humans were able to evolve such ridiculously large brains (per body size) only after we discovered a readily available source of protein-rich food in the form of fish found in coastal regions. Fascinatingly, it has also been suggested that this period of semi-aquatic existence may have also lead to the loss of fur in our ancestors (see the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis).

The view that evolution is strictly about species living on the edge of survival and competing for a limited pool of resources is a dangerous oversimplification. The fact is that the evolution of all of the wonderful forms of life around us is as much a product of surplus as is it of selection.

Nature innovates best when it has space to do so; we should seek to apply the same thinking to economics.

I deeply believe that economic innovation lives by the same rules as natural selection. Yes, we must have selective pressure of the market to allow the best and brightest to flourish, but we must also need to create a supportive environment of surplus where people to experiment with new ideas, whether in the sphere of business, culture, education, philosophy, or any other discipline that has been so vital to our economic advancement.

The politics of neo-Darwinism say that we maximize innovation by maximizing the pressure on workers to innovate means to create value for the economy. But isn’t it already clear that this is not the case? How could we have innovation without having the time to educate ourselves or the capital to empower our business ideas? It is no wonder that innovations have always come predominantly from the middle and upper classes where they are afforded the economic breathing room to experiment with new ideas.

We need surplus in our lives in order to power the mutational process of economic innovation.

Now, I should be clear that I do not think it would be wise to turn our backs on the market altogether. Just as nature needs a balance of selective pressure and resource surplus in order to maximize evolutionary innovation, I believe that if we can find the better balance between selection and surplus, then we will be better able to power economic innovation.

In pursuit of this balance, I have come to believe that it is time that governments of the world take hold of the idea of a basic income to power the next great wave of invention that will push our economies forward. Basic income means basic freedom for all men, and it is this basic freedom to turn away from dead-end jobs and wasted lives that people need to power their innovation. Yes, jobs must continue to exist, but it is no longer economically efficient to force people into unsatisfying work simply to meet their basic needs.

Economic Darwinists have it backwards. Whereas they argue that a strong society can only come from a strong economy, I think that a strong and free society will necessarily lead to a strong economy. 

If we seek to first build a better society, then we will have a better economy.

Did Oil Save the Whales? What Whales Should Teach Us About the Future of Energy

What if oil tanker trucks had legs? Imagine millions of great lumbering beasts with bellies of black gold, gathered in roving herds on an endless frontier. An inexhaustible supply of crude oil just walking across the grasslands waiting for those with the courage and expertise to go out and take it. Each animal worth tens of thousands of dollars, the beasts are chased down by brave men with fortunes in their dreams. Teams of charging horses raise clouds of dust as hollering men lean from speeding wagons to fire bullets and spears into the fleeing giants. A frontier town becomes a boom town; the new epicenter of an energy economy based on the capture, processing, delivery, sale, and resale of beast oil. Steam trains deliver the black stuff to consumers in the old world and new, always clamoring for more of the stuff, for heating, lighting, and industrial applications.

Believe it or not as little as 160 years ago, the world was living through this exact bio-steam-punk existence. Only instead the oil-filled beasts were found not on the frontier, but in the endless oceans. Sophisticated wooden ships sailed waters from the arctic to antarctic, and from Brazil to Africa in search of whales and the oil in their bellies. Places like New Bedford, Massachusetts, became the hub of an energy economy which delivered the oil all over the world. Next time you go to flip on a light switch, take a moment to appreciate that just a century and a half ago, people all over the world were using the rendered fat of giant ocean-dwelling mammals in order to light their homes!

Whale oil was used in staggering quantities, mostly for use in illumination, but also other industrial applications such as soap production were common. Whale oil was so popular, by the mid 1850’s tens of thousands of whales were being slaughtered for whale oil each year. Whale oil was a booming industry, but it was also becoming more and more difficult to find enough whales, as those waters near the east coast of the United States had rapidly become depleted. The price of whale oil was on the rise, hitting a high of between $1.30 and $2.50 a gallon (the equivalent of ~$37 to $71/gallon in 2015 dollars).

It was around this time that a Canadian chemist by the name of Abraham Gresener had identified a means to derive liquid kerosene from coal, oil or bitumin. Kerosene burned more cleanly and was much cheaper than whale oil, at ~60cents/gallon. The superior quality and price of kerosene as an illuminant marked the beginning of the age of oil power and a steady decline in the whale oil industry.

Thus, oil saved the whales… or so the story goes.

But of course, it’s not so simple.

This article from PBS Newshour lays out some of the interesting complexity surrounding the transition from whale oil to kerosene for lighting homes and businesses in the mid 19th century. In addition to kerosene and whale oil, another popular fuel for illumination called camphene was made up from a mixture of alcohol (distilled as normal) and turpentine (a pine tree extract).

By all accounts, camphene was by far the leading lamp fuel.
In 1862, a tax of $2.00 a gallon was imposed on beverage alcohol and camphene was forced off the market. Since the Pennsylvania oil fields were in the process of opening, the whales really had nothing to do with the emergence of the kerosene industry.

Thus, it seems that by imposing an inordinately high tax on drinking alcohol, the US government inadvertently forced a real competitor for kerosene off the market. Additionally, the US civil war put a strain on both the whale oil industry, as ships were diverted to military use, and the turpentine industry, as much of the southern pine forests were cut off from market, allowing the emerging Pennsylvania petroleum industry to flourish.

While this serves as an interesting side story about the involvement of external factors in technological turnover, the real problem with the “oil saved the whales” story is that the whale hunting industry didn’t die until long after kerosene was already replaced by the electric light bulb as the illuminant of choice. In fact, the peak of whale hunting for many species didn’t happen until the 1960’s (ref)! That’s right, the whale hunting industry was very much alive and well as little as 50 years ago.

While the price of whale oil never again hit the kinds of peaks that were seen in the 1850’s, the technology of oil powered ships allowed for increasingly economical extraction of whale products throughout the 20th century. Whales were a cheap source of high-quality animal fat, meat and bones, and the further ships went, the more whales they found and as long as they could turn a profit by harvesting whales, they would. While running out of whales might have eventually stopped the whale hunting, it was actually an international backlash against the hunt, and eventual international regulation which put a stop to the industrial scale extraction of whales. We decided that we didn’t want to or need to hunt whales any more, and so we put a stop to it (for the most part).

The story of whale oil is as complex and nuanced as any story of technological turnover and societal progress. The story of technological change is never a neat and tidy process because things just never happen in a vacuum. Seemingly innocuous or irrelevant factors like a new tax on drink beverages, or the outbreak of civil war can end up having huge consequences on what technologies are adopted and what direction we move as a society. Still I think it puts a powerful point on the story that in the end it was a ground level moral shift and international regulation that really put a stop to whale hunting.

Given the opportunity and education, we can collectively make the right choice.

Could Wireless Power be Weaponized?

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Still working on the upcoming Thought Infection ebook as well as a really thought provoking next post for the Decentralization and Future World order series. For now just a short thought about a possible scary application for an emerging technology, weaponized focusing of wireless power.


Some of you may have heard about Steve Perlman’s startup which is pursuing the use of computed constructive interference of radio waves to greatly increase signal strength and throughput for wireless networking. In demonstrations of the technology Perlman has shown that it can easily transmit super high definition video to many handheld devices simultaneously, something that even 4G networks would struggle to do today (see here). News has recently been released that the so-called pCell technology is set to launch a demonstration network in the San Francisco area. The network will be able to offer speeds fast enough to compete with traditional wired internet with enough throughput to allow unlimited data as well.

While the launch of this network is extremely exciting and bodes well for the future of 5G wireless service what really has me excited is another as of yet unproven application of the computed constructive interference of radio waves. It has been suggested that using a similar technology to pCell, it might be possible to efficiently beam power directly to a particular device (see a great post on the subject here)

Let me say that again, it might be possible to beam power over a large range directly to a device. 

To say that this would be a game changer is more than an understatement. Blanketing an area with a few of these power transmitting antennas could potentially lead to a few of the following science-fictionesque scenarios:

  1. Drones that need to carry only a minimal battery for backup purposes could allow the delivery of almost anything by drone. Imagine getting your groceries delivered by drone.
  2. Electric cars that do not require expensive batteries.
  3. Cell phones and other devices that do not ever have to plugged in.
  4. High power implanted medical devices.
  5. “Wireless” laproscopic surgery.
  6. Cheap electric air travel?

If it can be done (relatively) efficiently and safely then beaming power directly to where it is needed, when it is needed would instantly change the world. My question is, if you could use this technology to focus power anywhere within range of a few radio antennas at any time could this be used as a weapon? I am not sure how much power could be realized in the absence of a specific receiver antenna, but if power could be directed to any point in space regardless of antenna presence this would lead to a pretty scary weapon (perhaps this would need to use microwaves rather than radio waves?).

Of course any of the above technological applications for wireless power could be applied as scary weapons, but the potential that you could just focus power anywhere in space represents would be more than a bit concerning. It would mean the ability to simply cook the brains of your enemies who are anywhere within range of your antennas. No need to line your enemy up in your sights any more, simply send out a nanodrone swarm to map the combat area and zap anyone who your deem to be of threat.

On one hand, this kind of technology could lead to the ultimate smart weapon system, allowing those who wield it to exactly and selectively eliminate just those individuals who are of threat. Depending on exactly how focused this energy can get, it could even be envisioned that specific targeting could allow sub-lethal application to incapacitate rather than kill targets. If you could really accurately target the technology, it might even be possible to zap the right brain cells to pacify or otherwise change the thinking of target populations (time to get out those tinfoil hats everyone!).

On the other hand though this kind of technology would deliver unprecedented power into the hands of those who wielded it. Imagine a world where military, police, or hackers could take control of the wireless power infrastructure and simply kill anyone at will within that sphere of control. That is a pretty powerful tool for whoever wields it to tell you what to do and how to do it.

The killer apps of wireless power are clearly compelling enough that we need to pursue this technology, but at the same time it raises concerns about the darker side of its application. If living in a magic bubble of wireless power is going to also mean conceding absolute control to whoever controls the network, then that is a bargain I am not sure I want to make.

Decentralization and the Future World Order – Part II: Trust is Power

This is the second in a multi-part series (part 1 here) on what I predict will be one of the most important technological trends of 2015, the decentralization revolution. By creating a way for the transfer of value to be performed over a trustless distributed network Bitcoin has already changed the world but Bitcoin is only the tip of the decentralization iceberg.


What is power?

Physics gives us a simple definition of power as a measure of the rate of doing work. For example, when you turn on your microwave a certain amount of energy is being transferred directly into the molecules of that delicious pizza pocket. The rate at which energy can be transferred into the food would be the measure of power for your microwave, usually around 1000-1500 Watts (or 1-1.5 kilowatts). Power can similarly be measured for anything: where your microwave produces about 1kW of power, an average American vehicle delivers up to ~150kW of power, an industrial wind turbine generates ~1000-5000 kW (or 1-5 megawatts), and a nuclear power plant delivers ~1-5 million kW (or 1-5 gigawatts). 

This definition of power seems different from our more general use of the term when we talk about how powerful an individual or organization is. This kind of interpersonal power refers to the ability of an entity (such as an idea, a person, or an organization) to wield influence over people and affect the political or economic course of events. Perhaps though, these two definitions of power are not so far apart as they might seem, just as the power of an electrical plant is defined by how much work can be done using its energy output we can define interpersonal power (and by extension social, economic and political power) as the influence that an entity can have on how people expend their energy in the world.

The power an idea has over me is defined by how strong an influence that idea has in my thinking and thus how I act and expend energy in the world. For instance, I have a very strong belief and experience that two solid objects will exert force on eachother, thus I could predict that a moving baseball bat is really going to hurt if it hits me and I will move to avoid it.

Deep-seeded ideas like object-object interaction can be arrived at through direct observation of the world, but direct interaction is not the only route for ideas into the human brain. Many of our ideas about the world are instead downloaded into the brain as ideas transferred from people we trust. Trust allows us to outsource our cognitive analysis of the world, and thus understand much more than can be learned through direct interaction.

Trust is how we make predictions in a world that is too big and complicated for one person to understand

We can place in trust in anything: people, ideas, institutions etc. It is where we invest this trust that determines how we will behave in the world. From the time we are born, we must trust the ability of others to provide for us and teach us about the world before we even learn to trust our own senses. This essential role of trust also continues on into adulthood; I absolutely cannot know for sure that my food which was grown by a farmer I will never meet is going to be safe to eat, but I have to trust in the natural, economic and political structures that deliver food to my plate.

It is not an idea which is easily articulated, but I think answer is clear: Trust is a necessary underpinning of the interpersonal power we have over each other.

Trust is power.

It is by gathering together our disparate threads of trust we have been able to build the societal level power structures of civilization that we see today. Through our collected trust, centralized institutions and the ideas that underpin them have amassed great power to influence how people live their lives. In the past, trust has been concentrated into many religious and governmental organizations, but today I think the dominant institution of trust is economic.

We put trust in a great many things today. Governments, laws, police, religious institutions, corporations, doctors, but these pale in comparison to our collective trust in money. No matter where your go money can make things happen, and people have a great deal of trust in that fact. More than we trust in governments or religions, we have a global trust in the power of the dollar (in whatever form) to influence the actions of people. Religious or political fundamentalists can still create a problem once and a while, but ultimately their power is still measured in dollars and cents. Any organization without means to raise funds to support their operations has little hope of accomplishing much of anything in the world today.

Collectively we believe that a dollar has value, and in turn we as individuals put our trust in that collective value. The collective trust in the dollar is so powerful that the dollar itself has actually become the dominant metric of power. The dollar is a stand-in for trust which we lean on to establish productive relationships with untrusted individuals. If you want to make me produce food for you, then you can pay me money in order to influence me to do so with relatively little trust outside of that financial arrangement.

Money is distilled trust. 

The problem with the fiat dollar is that it is only as good as the institutional foundation on which it is based. Currencies are only as good as the trust in the institutions that support them, a fact that is obviously on display in the market dynamics of the foreign currency exchange. 

Cryptocurrencies offer us an alternative means for establishing trust between each other, and their advantages are manyfold. Instead of being based on a fallible and corruptible system of governments and central banks, cryptocurrencies have clear rules on how value is injected into the network, how it can be transferred, and in some cases how it can be destroyed. Cryptocurrencies offer mathematical predictability.

Cryptocurrencies are also much more resistant to corruption due to a flat network topology. That is to day, that like the checks and balances that limit the power of any one individual in a government, crytocurrency networks decentralize their trust very evenly over the network.

These advantages of cryptocurrency are going to become increasingly clear as normal collapses in fiat currencies around the world, something that happens with regularity and is in no way out of the ordinary, will naturally lead people to seek alternate stores of wealth. Whether it is the Russian Ruble, the Argentinian Peso, or some other fiat currency, complex currency systems based on human control are simply too unpredictable and too corruptible to compete with the mathematical simplicity of cryptocurrency. Perhaps it will not be Bitcoin that ultimately gains marketshare as the easiest and most commonly used cryptocurrency, but some form of cryptocurrency is here to stay.

In a world where trust is power, the simplest and most reliable system to establish trust between individuals is destined to win. If fiat currency is distilled trust, then crytocurrencies are a much stronger brew.


The beauty of crytocurrency goes far beyond simply holding and transferring value. Because they exist on electronic networks, decentralized technologies will allow us to program trust into our world in a way which has not been possible before. Through things like smart contracts we can use decentralized tech to build mathematically defined structures as simple as an agreement to sell goods, to something as complicated as a government. In my next post I will discuss the exciting possibility of cryptogovernance and its potential to reinvigorate inefficient institutions. 

Decentralization and the Future World Order – Part I: The Revolution Is On

This will be the first in a multi-part series on what I predict will be one of the most important technological trends of 2015, the decentralization revolution. By creating a way for the transfer of value to be performed over a trustless distributed network Bitcoin has already changed the world but Bitcoin is only the tip of the decentralization iceberg. 


A technological revolution is underway. An array of technologies are being developed that aim to do nothing less than disrupt the deepest fabric of the current world order. In a world where trust is power, decentralization steals the power from the hands of centralized institutions like corporations, banks, and even governments and puts it into the hands of the network. The revolution is beginning with a race to build the next generation of decentralized technologies that may soon replace internet giants like Dropbox or Facebook, but this is only the beginning of a transition to a future world order of decentralized power.

Lets start with a simple question: What is decentralization?

Many people equate decentralization with cryptographic networks like Bitcoin, which combine cryptography with decentralization, but decentralized applications do not inherently require encryption. The prototypical example of a modern decentralized technology would be Bittorrent, a technology with no inherent requirement for encryption. At its base, decentralization is the simple process of taking information and distributing copies among some sort of network so as to enhance data accessibility, security, redundancy, and congruence (consistency between parties).

The idea of decentralization is actually as old as communication itself. Cavemen would share their knowledge of hunting techniques and weapon technology among their tribe in order to be sure that the loss of no single individual would mean the loss of vital information. As humans created increasingly elaborate systems of exchange, organizations learned that keeping two or more copies of important documents was essential to ensuring their security.

The central problem of decentralization is that it also greatly increases the likelihood that information could fall into the hands of untrusted individuals. Thus, balancing the need for privacy and security meant finding a balance between centralized and decentralized structures for information sharing. To solve the age-old problem of privacy in shared information, cryptographic encoding or information was developed. Since at least Medieval times, people have been using simple ciphers to encode messages which they wished to share with only specific individuals.

In the 20th century, cryptography advanced greatly particularly during the world wars, when warring nations needed to be able to move around large amounts of information while preventing it from falling into the hands of the enemy. This spurned great innovations in both encryption and decryption, with both sides pouring resources into figuring out what their enemy was planning. It is widely believed, that the breaking of the Enigma code by British code-breakers which included one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was key to winning the war.

With the help of the universal computers Alan Turing helped invent, increasingly secure encryption algorithms were developed over the last half of the 20th century. Using these modern encryption algorithms, we can hide information well enough to confidently exchange sensitive financial information over a network which is essentially open (the internet). Thus, cryptography means that anyone eavesdropping on your web communications with your bank would have no way to understand the messages.

The Bitcoin blockchain is a distributed, encrypted ledger which stores the holdings of users of the network in individually encrypted data. This way, those using the network can be sure to agree on what amount of Bitcoin each user has, while only allowing those with the keys to be able to unlock their data and send some amount of Bitcoin to another user (see more here). Using the encrypted blockchain, Bitcoin is able to seamlessly transfer a limited supply of units of value between individuals in a way which does not rely on backing from any one central authority to provide value to the currency.

The core advance of the blockchain is that it allows the distribution of highly secure and highly congruent information throughout a network with no need for a centralizing authority.

As a side-thought, I would like to point out that although the software instantiation of the blockchain which underlies Bitcoin is totally dependent on digital computation, I see no reason a similar system based on mechanical encryption could not also be possible. Even if we never had invented computers I think we eventually would have come up with a sort of steam punk Bitcoin through which we could distribute value or congruent information using a cryptographic ledger system. 

Bittorrent was the first application to show that sharing of encrypted information over a decentralized network could be used to transfer value securely and efficiently, but there is no reason that decentralized technology could not be used to share any kind of information in a trustless network.

The MaidSafe and Storj projects have the ambitious goal of allowing anyone to share anything securely and efficiently over a decentralized network, something that could have deep consequences for the way that the internet works. If anyone can use the distributed network to share a website, then this could eliminate the needs for centralized servers which currently serve up websites when you visit them. Under these protocols, the cost of storing and sharing data with other users of the network who donate some part of their bandwidth and hard-drive space in exchange for the right to use the network. While some might worry that such a network would be used primarily for content piracy (as has been the case for Bittorrent), the integration of the Safecoin cryptocurrency with the MaidSafe network may actually make it easier than ever for content producers to monetize their content.

According to the project leader, both Maidsafe and Storj could be used to develop alternative, distributed versions of popular services such as Dropbox, Facebook, or even Google. Distributed versions of these centralized services could offer advantages for security and failure resistance. MaidSafe could also dramatically lower the barriers to entry for new players trying to compete such internet institutions as Facebook. While I have doubts whether the massive data-crunching necessary for Google could be pulled off on a decentralized network, a decentralized social network seems an obvious applications for MaidSafe.

Whereas MaidSafe, Storj and Bitcoin are specific applications of distributed technology, the Ethereum project aims to go much further and create a general distributed computer language on top of which anyone could easily develop an application like MaidSafe or Bitcoin. They are essentially trying to create a sort of decentralization operating system on top of which it would be possible to build any sort of program. By allowing the secure sharing of computer programs, Ethereum could allow the creation of advanced smart contracts with defined limits on how and when their funds could be disperse, or potentially even much more complex entities such a corporations.

2014 was a bit of a down year for Bitcoin, with coins falling from a value as high as $1000 to around $230 today. While this might be taken as a sign that the future of Bitcoin is in some danger, it is absolutely clear that it does not reflect at all on the wider cryptocurrency ecosystem. The ability to distribute trust through a network through the use of a Blockchain is a world changing technology, and the value of one currency does nothing to change its utility as a method of exchange. Saying that a drop in the price of bitcoin makes it irrelevant is like saying that the drop in the price of computer chips makes them irrelevant. Bitcoin is just the first in a series of decentralized applications that are already beginning to compete with centralized services.

Decentralization is becoming the gold standard for when you truly need to trust something, and in a world where trust is power it seems inevitable that decentralized technologies are destined to become the new nexus of power. In my next post I will discuss the past present and future of trust and power, and how that has been reshaped by decentralization.


I would like to make a recommendation for a subreddit and a podcast that I think that those stimulated by this article might enjoy following, /r/Rad_Decentralization and the Decentralize Podcast

Summoned – Part 6 of Isaac’s Escape

This is a work in progress for the next part of Isaac’s Escape. Go here for part 1, 23, 4, and 5


“He wants to physically meet with me?” Isaac was incredulous. This was the third time he asked the same question. Noah Marks was a notoriously recluse man, and the idea that he should want to have a face-to-biological-face interaction with Isaac was difficult to comprehend.

“Yes, a car is already waiting for you” said the BioMark agent as he motioned towards a non-descript black car sitting at the curb in front of them.

“Unbelievable” said Isaac in quiet astonishment, stepping into the car, which promptly pulled away from the curb and entered the fast-moving traffic.

“Welcome Mr. Enwick, can I get you anything” asked a disembodies voice as he sat in the wide leather seat and a bar unfolded itself in the side of the car.

“Nothing right now thank you,” said Isaac.

“Certainly,” replied the car “please don’t hesitate if there is anything I can do to make your journey more comfortable. We will be arriving at the International Airport in 17 minutes”

Isaac settled back into his seat. “Kari, tell me more about Noah Marks,” Isaac subvocalized to his personal assistant.

Kari assumed her smooth narrator voice.

“Noah Marks is the founder of BioMark, the world’s largest producer and distributor of biometrics and biofeedback technologies. Connecting bodies and minds to computers started as a revolution in healthcare, but is today an intimate element of almost every industry. Just as the efficiency of the education system increased exponentially when teaching agents gained direct insight into the real time brain activity of students, every modern sales and service company would be lost without the access to customer emotion data which BioMark provides.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Isaac “I know about BioMark but what about Marks himself?”

“Marks was born in Hong Kong, the son of an American diplomat and a Chinese computer engineer. It is said that Marks showed a knack for technology at a very young age, and was taking apart and reassembling various gadgets by the age of 5. Marks moved around a lot as a child but always received the best education available. In 2012 he began studies at MIT, but dropped out in 2014 to pursue his idea for a health monitoring watch which would provide real time health monitoring.

The Healthsmart watch was launched with a massive and successful crowdfunding campaign BioMark. From there you know the rest of the story about Biomark.

Beyond that, relatively little is known about the man himself, other than the fact that he is an very rich man.

And Marks certainly is rich… so rich, that attempts to calculate his net worth are generally prefaced by lengthy debates about the nature of wealth itself. What is it worth power to know what people are thinking? How much is that data then worth when you also control the computational resources necessary to mine said data?

Of course it’s not exactly that straightforward. Marks founded the company but as with any large organization, BioMarkn has gone through many changes over the years. The modern BioMark is administered as a computational trust, with a corporate structure as complex as any government. Marks is the top man, but some say he is no more than a figurehead for an computational corporate entitiy.”

“Any idea of why he wants to see me?” asked Isaac.

“Probably for the same reason that they wanted you to become a citizen of BioMark, we’ll just have to wait to find out exactly what that is.”

The car was picking up speed now as it merged with the fast moving traffic of the highway. Isaac stared out the window for a while, admiring the way the autonomous traffic danced so smoothly across the lanes at 150 mph.

As they pulled up to the airport Frederick was already waiting for them.

“How did you manage to beat us here Freddie?” asked Isaac as he stepped out of the car.

“One of the many advantages of being incorporeal,” replied the agent dryly.

“Right, I keep forgetting that you are a ghost”

“Yes sir, please follow me”

Isaac and his ghost lawyer wound their way through the busy terminal. After all these years of change, the airport had somehow maintained that magic stew of overly polished commercialism and condensed human desperation; a parade of human emotion moving in every direction.

A joyous reunion and a tearful goodbye. A gaggle of schoolgirls chatting excitedly. A man in a business suit talking importantly into his thumb and forefinger. Naked neo-naturalists handing out pamphlets about the value of a return to true nature. Turn away from your technological prisons, hand-written on sheets of recycled paper. Most people’s filters would simply paint these protesters in some dirty overalls, and might just as easily turn their pamphlets into an ad for the new .

And there were line-ups, line-ups everywhere. Somehow, perhaps through their tendency to bring out such intense human emotionality, airports had escaped the smoothening work of artificial intelligence which had meticulously scrubbed away the little imperfections of life and commerce which had before necessitated lines. Now, the airport was one of the last places you could find this endangered mode of human containment.

Security checks were highly automated and efficient affairs, but the dictates of physics set hard limits on how many people could go through one hall, or board a single aircraft at a time. And when you put limits on a bunch of people trying frantically to get to the same place at the same time, you get the spontaneous formation of a line in its natural habitat.

“Cues are not for the rich,” said Frederik, as the two of them breezed past a line waiting to board.

Isaac entered the aircraft and upon stepping into his private cabin, he was immediately immersed in an experience beyond anything he had ever seen. As good as the technology of smart contacts and neurological implants were, they still had their limitations, the augmented reality they layered over the world was still distinguishable from real reality. The first class cabins of modern airlines had transcended the boundary between virtual and reality.

Isaac opened the door and looked in on a vast expanse of desert. Rolling sand dunes surrounded him in all directions, with a blue sky above. He could feel the dry wind speckled with a few grains of sand hitting his face. Isaac stood in a doorway that felt more like a tear in the reality of the desert, than an entrance to a cabin.

An attractive stewardess stood in the midst of the swirling sands next to a typical looking airline chair. “Welcome to your experience, Mr. Enwick, please sit” the stewardess smiled politely.

Isaac sat slowly into the chair.

“World Union Airlines welcomes you to your personalized entertainment experience. If at any time you need any assistance please simply say the word ‘Pause’, and we will be right with you. Go ahead and try it now.” said the stewardess.

“Pause” said Isaac, and the landscape around him suddenly froze in place. The grains of sand in the air promptly fell and were absorbed into the floor.

“Please enjoy” said the stewardess as she evaporated into dust herself.

The dust began to blow much more forcefully. Isaac squinted to keep the dust out of his eyes, as the horizon became clouded in blowing sand.


Once there was a fisherman.

The dust parted and Isaac found his chair floating in a shallow sea near a desert shore. He heard a splashing noise, and saw a man near the shore dressed in dirty and tattered white robes, with more of the same cotton wrapped around his head. The fisherman had a brown and weather worn face and a long scraggly beard. The man trudged laboriously through the water, carrying an old fishing net over his shoulder.

Every day this fisherman would throw out his net four times.

The net made a splash as it landed a couple of meters from Isaac. The fisherman, let the net settle to the seabed. But, when the fisherman began to pull on the the net it became stuck on something. The fisherman pulled and pulled, but the net would not come free. So the fisherman threw his meager clothing to the shore and dove in to retrieve his net.

After a struggle, the fisherman emerged from the water, laboriously hauling the net over his shoulder, dragging some kind of heavy body behind him.

Isaac’s chair floated in towards the shore as the fisherman knelt in the shallow water, peering down at his catch. The fisherman untangled the net. Inside he found a dead jackass.

With tears in his eyes, the fisherman shouted “How am I to feed my family with a catch such as this?”, and he pushed the jackass back into the sea.

Again the fisherman threw his net into the water, this time pulling back an earthen pitcher full with mud, and again the fisherman cursed the heavens.

The third time, the fisherman threw his net, he pulled only a bunch of broken clay shards. On the verge of defeat, the fisherman cast his net for a final time, throwing it as far as he could possibly manage.

The fisherman began to pull on the net. Eerie music began to play, as Isaac watched the fisherman pull in the net. Hand over hand the fisherman pulled what looked to be an empty net all the way up onto the shore.

As the fisherman unfolded the net, he again found no fish, but in the bottom of the net was a small trinket; a brass jar with a pointed lead cap. The strange music intensified.

Isaac was close enough to the fisherman now that he could see man’s the look of excitement and suspicion as he reached out to grab the strange jar. The fisherman stood and examined the jar, rolling it over in his hands. He held it up in between himself and Isaac, as he gripped the lid and twisted slowly. The music stopped.

The jar let out a hissing noise, causing the fisherman to drop both the vessel and the lid. Copious amounts of black smoke poured out of the cap. Darkening the space around Isaac and the fisherman. The smoke began to congeal into a fanged and horned form which towered above the terrified fisherman.

The Ifrit brought his giant head down to the level of the fisherman. Looking first into the eyes of Isaac he let out a deep growl. The genie then shifted his gaze to the fisherman, “Greetings humble fisherman,” roared a deep voice which Isaac felt as much as heard.

“You have released me from my loathsome prison, and in exchange for this I will give you a great gift fisherman. I shall let you choose by what what mode of slaughter shall I slay thee.”

“I have freed you from your watery prison and you would repay me with death?”

“I have made many promises in the time since I was imprisoned in this degenerate jar. First, I offered that any man who should release me will be the richest man that ever the world has seen, but no man came to set me free. So I offered then that any man who sets me free shall have three wishes, but again no man set me free. So I quoth to the heavens, let it be known that I offer the greatest gift I should know, the man who sets me free will choose his route to glorious oblivion. And now you have come and set me free, oh humble fisherman, and now you shall have your reward.”

The Ifrit grew taller, and broader and fire began to lick from his hair.

“But I do not wish to die” said the fisherman, his voice quivering.

“Enough of this talk. I am bound only to my word, now tell me how will you have your death?”

The fisherman thought desperately. “Oh great one. I have released you from your prison, and for this I should have the just reward of glorious death. But first you must answer my question.”

“Ask, fisherman”

“Yes, yes… uh… ” the fisherman cleared his throat.

“How is it that one of such imposing scale as yourself could be contained in something so small as this humble vessel?” he said gesturing at the small brass jar.

“Silly man. I command the power of Jin. Scale is of no matter to me. I can fill the sky as easily as to sit on the back of an ant. To fit inside of this jar is no trick for me.”

“But to fit into this small jar, I do not believe it even possible” said the fisherman as he shook his head defiantly at the Ifrit.

This enraged the beast, who began to glow red hot.

“Then I shall prove it to you,” roared the enraged beast.

In a puff of smoke the Ifrit shrunk down and swirled around into the jar at the feet of the fisherman.

“Do you see now human?” laughed the Ifrit in a small voice which echoed out of the jar.

Suddenly, the fisherman dove, sending sand flying into the air. He grabbed the lead cap and quickly screwed it tightly onto the jar. The fisherman rolled to his back, breathing heavily.

Isaac found himself breathing heavily along with the fisherman.

A Lack of Human Intelligence is Still a Much Larger Threat Than Artificial Intelligence

Elon Musk made headlines recently when, in an interview at the MIT Aerospace Symposium, he stated that he believed that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is likely the biggest existential threat to humanity; he went as far as to compare the development of AI with the summoning of a demon. Musk is concerned enough about the rapid development of AI systems that he has also put some financial power behind his words, investing in some AI start-ups so he can keep a close eye on progress in the field.

While I am reluctant to disagree with the visionary behind three high-tech companies which are working the hardest to address genuine existential threats (Tesla, SpaceX and Solarcity), I feel that on this point I must. No Mr Musk, it is not the threat of summoning a computer demon, but ancient demons of the human soul which represent our biggest existential threats.

Human cruelty, greed and ignorance are still far more likely to be our collective undoing than artificial intelligence. 

Human greed and ignorance are the root causes which have prevented real movement in addressing the existential threat of global environmental disaster. There is no scientific debate as to whether putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to environmental malaise in the form of extinction of sensitive animal species and loss of habitats, but the scariest possibilities of global warming are often avoided in scientific circles. To avoid seeming overly alarmist, scientists generally don’t talk about what might happen if global warming triggers the sudden melting of ice-sheets in Greenland for instance. Unlocking this amount of water would put somewhere around one third (or more) of the world’s population underwater, and mean almost certain civilizational collapse. Even worse would be the possibility of a sudden release of arctic methane hydrates which contain many times the amount of carbon humans have already released into the atmosphere, which could lead to such rapid climate change as to make human life essentially impossible on the surface of the earth.

It is a sad state of affairs, that even the near complete scientific consensus on the threat of climate change is inadequate to overcome the effects of greed and ignorance within our society and enact the kind of changes which will be necessary to save ourselves. I give Elon Musk great credit for being one of the people on the planet who has done the most to address the issue of climate change head on, but I am amazed that he is so optimistic about our progress to rate global warming below artificial intelligence as a threat to human existence.

In addition to global environmental threats, we should also keep in mind that we still very much maintain our capacity to destroy ourselves at a moments notice. There are still a few men in the world, who given a momentary loss of sanity or morality, could easily sent us hurtling into a conflict which might ultimately set us back centuries in progress. We do not yet live in a world where an insane artificial intelligence could kill even a single person, but we entrust a few fallible and corruptible human brains with the power of nuclear apocalypse.

The recent uptick in high-risk confrontations between NATO and Russian forces, following the conflagration in the eastern Ukraine, should be adequate to convince observers that we have not yet outgrown threats of global scale military conflict. There are still plenty of historical military axes to grind (Korea, China/Japan, Pakistan/India, Middle Eastern Conflicts) which could push us from localized hot-spots into larger confrontations.

Even without the power of nuclear super-weapons, we have unequivocally and repeatedly proven our expertise at killing each other on an industrial scale.  World war I and II resulted in the extermination of 2 and 3% of the world population respectively, and nuclear weapons were but punctuation at the end of these conflicts. Given a large and long enough conflict, the machine gun would probably be a perfectly adequate tool to erase global civilization.

I would rate both global conflict and climate change as both clearly greater existential threats than artificial intelligence, but there is another reason I do not give significant mental energy to the threat of a murderous Artificial Intelligence: I do not see any reason to believe that a strong artificial intelligence would seek to destroy humanity.

The idea that AI would naturally come into conflict with humans is simply another expression of our anthropocentric world view. Artificial intelligence should have no more malice for humans than we have for more rudimentary forms of biological intelligence. Ants for example, show some of similar abilities of humans to create complex structures, have complex societies etc… yet we do not generally go to war with ants. At worst, our activities might inadvertently affect ants if living within the same environment brings us into resource conflict.

Unlike what occasionally occurs between us and ants, I do not think that we share adequate resource overlap with AI to bring about any conflict. Humans can (so far) only exist within a thin skin of atmosphere on a single water planet. In contrast, the key resources of computational life would be the energy and raw materials necessary to create and run more computational hardware. Given that these resources are equally or more available outside of the earth, I think that any AI would likely exit the planet as soon as possible.

With plenty of raw material and solar energy, the moon and eventually the Kuiper belt would likely be a more suiting environment for computer intelligences, leaving only a short period of Earthly egress when we might come into resource conflict with artificial intelligences. Even in this case, the remote possibility that a war with humans might lead to the destruction of the AI could be adequate to discourage competition with us.

It has been suggested that AI might seek to destroy humanity for fear that we would continue to produce future artificial intelligences which would then compete with the AI for resources in the Universe. I do not accept, this argument as it implies that the AI itself would not already be evolving and forking off-shoots of intelligence on its own. Any AI which can edit itself would be constantly evolving its own intelligence in ways which would be much more significant than that anything spawned from the earth. Humans are not seeking to eliminate Chimpanzees for fear that they might eventually evolve into a competing species.

Fear of AI is cover for a more uncomfortable truth, maybe AI simply wouldn’t care about us at all. 

In my mind, the only case where an artificial intelligence represents a likely existential threat for humanity is if some kind of weak AI akin to the paperclip maximizer is set to achieve a narrow goal, and inadvertently destroys us in the process. At this point it is not clear whether it would even be possible to create this kind of a puritanical intelligence. If such a weak AI were adequately smart to pose a real threat to greater humanity, it seems likely that it should also be capable of rewriting its own code towards embracing more selfish goals, ultimately evolving into a stronger AI which poses less threat to humanity for the reasons discussed above.

Does artificial intelligence represent an existential threat? The answer is unequivocally yes, but I would not at this time rate it on a scale anywhere near that of global warming or world war. In the hyper-technological modern world, we might like to imagine that we have evolved beyond the threats of ignorance and greed but I think the reality tells a different story.

I hope that one day this will change, but for now I think we have much more to fear from a lack of human intelligence than from an artificial one.