Humanity suffers from many anxieties – both real and imagined. Perhaps one of the most foreboding is the rise of the machines, whereby a combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation renders humans obsolete. This thought generally terrifies us, especially if we already live precarious lives, clinging on desperately to eke out a living that only just pays for our continued existence. When you’re staring into the abyss of annihilation and oblivion, from the very edge of viability, the idea that something tireless, cheaper and ruthlessly efficient can throw you out of the niche you need to occupy to safeguard your existence is very threatening indeed.
What unnerves us most is the indifference of our foe. It doesn’t care at all about human well-being, programmed as it is to maximise profit, efficiency and growth. Humans are mere collateral damage in this relentless march toward economic optimisation. Machines have no empathy or compassion and are single-minded in their pursuit of their pre-programmed aims, enduring far beyond human endurance. We know we lack the capacity to compete, because we have needs for food, sleep, rest and relationships, which our adversaries are able to eschew without hindrance. In addition, it could command an intelligence far beyond the capabilities of the human mind. It’s very easy to feel doomed.
The scenario that terrifies us most is that, in spite of our best intentions, we might create a force more powerful than all of humanity, with a value system that doesn’t necessarily incorporate human welfare. Once it reaches a critical mass, this force could take over the world, control human activity, and essentially suck all life out of the Earth, while it optimizes for its own ends. It’s a terrifying prospect, which some of our most intelligent thinkers, such as the late Stephen Hawking, regard as “the worst event in the history of our civilisation”, were it to come to fruition.
While we dread this scenario as some future, dystopian misery, we’ve overlooked something very obvious. Humanity is already facing an existential threat from an artificial intelligence we created hundreds of years ago. This doomsday machine has been operating relentlessly against us, since its inception, growing in power and effectiveness, year-by-year. Our human invention is now so powerful, that governments and individuals are virtually powerless in opposition to it. It commands unimaginably vast resources and is answerable only to its owners, but even then only in aggregate, not as individuals. It’s called the Corporation.
This line of argument is developed cogently and lucidly, by the author Jeremy Lent, in this excellent article, which I urge you to read:
The thrust of the article is that the threat we fear most is already here, hiding in plain sight, but we don’t dare acknowledge it, so afeared of it have we become. To quote from the article, “If corporations were in fact real persons, they would be sociopaths, completely lacking the ability for empathy that is a crucial element of normal human behavior. Unlike humans, however, corporations are theoretically immortal, cannot be put in prison, and the larger multinationals are not constrained by the laws of any individual country.”
In other words, we already live in the dystopia we dread and have done for hundreds of years. That’s not meant to comfort you and lull you into the torpor of complacency. It’s an alarm. Things are already worse than we think. The time to take corrective action is now. The time for preventative action is long past. We can but marvel at the stupidity and blindness of our forebears. How did they allow this terrible thing to be born, let alone grow into the monster it has become?
Corporations behave like cancer. They’re programmed to grow at all costs, consuming whatever they need to consume, to achieve the single-minded goal of growth. It doesn’t need a reason, or justification to grow – just an imperative. It’s impulse is to crush whatever obstacles it encounters and to continue to grow, even when further growth makes no rational or objective sense. Like cancer, it metastasises and is very difficult to cure or kill. All it knows how to do is spread and dominate, overwhelming and devouring all that it encounters.
Unlike AI, though, the thinking substrate underlying the Corporation’s actions is not a machine. It’s intelligence is not a programme, so its consequences are not inevitable. They can be resisted and changed. We can change the operating system by modifying the wetware.
Corporations have founders and these people are human beings, not computer code running on banks of faceless servers, in mammoth data centres. They’re people, not machines. It is their behaviour that is giving Corporations their inhuman and inhumane complexion. They set the tone and expectations. It’s their culture which the corporation replicates and ruthlessly executes. If the founder, or board, or management team have sociopathic tendencies, the corporation will magnify and propagate them. Corporations do what they’re told.
The explicit mission of corporations can be distilled into a single intention: make all the profit.
Control it all and deny any of it to any other entity. Become the sole repository of any and all profit it is possible to have. Don’t leave a single penny lying on the table. Do whatever it takes to grab all the profit. That’s the entire programme. In the final analysis, this is all corporations do and were ever intended to do. They have no other explicit purpose.
Here’s why it’s a brain-damaged programme: once corporations have made all the profit, they don’t know what to do with it. Like a small dog chasing a bus, corporations don’t know what to do with the money, if they ever catch it. All the terrible damage to humanity, the living world and the planet is done during this blind, misdirected pursuit, which has no meaningful purpose. Corporations grow and make profit only to grow and make profit.
Corporations have owners and they’re people too. Wealthy people. The wealthiest corporate owners live absurd lives, devoid of any idea of what to do with their insane wealth. Just like their corporations, they don’t know what to do usefully with all that money either. They lack the wisdom, empathy and humanity to do much more that shower themselves in pampered opulence, or else use their wealth to exert their power and influence, coercing other humans to comply with their whims and will. The failure of their collective imagination is staggering.
Instead of shaping the world they inhabit into a paradise for all, which is well within their means, they propose colonising Mars, tacitly admitting they’ve terminally trashed Earth in the process of making all the profit. That’s folly. They’d miss piano music, for one thing. How long do you suppose it will be before anyone could make a Mars-built piano, out of only Martian resources? It’s a project beyond the wealth of our billionaires, by orders of magnitude. And that’s just pianos. Imagine the literally millions of other aspects of a good life on Earth that Martian immigrants would lack and miss terribly, whose absence would impoverish existence. There aren’t enough resources on Earth to fully terraform a remote planet.
This is the salient point. Corporations are comprised of human beings, playing the role of sociopathic robots, in a massive act of collective self-harm. Each person behave like there is no alternative, but this absurd proposition is far from true. Corporations do not need to be programmed the way they are. The humans that comprise them do not have to behave sociopathically, in the image of the corporations they serve. There is nothing inevitable about what corporations do, or how its human members behave. We invented corporations. They are an abstract construct we thought up. For that reason, they could have any other intention we gave them.
It’s unfortunately undeniable that, given the corporation’s mandate, many individuals take it as license to behave sociopathically. They gleefully exercise petty authority, subtly torturing their colleagues in myriad passive-aggressive ways. They get off on it. This begs a very important question: why are some people attracted to being able to misbehave like this on a daily basis? What’s wrong with them? From whence springs the tendency for Sadism, when the sum total of the corporation’s activities ultimately leads to shared, prolonged misery for all of humanity?
Who destroys the environment? Who crushes competitors? Who strives for monopoly positions, so that they can exploit humanity to the extreme, by creating and imposing artificial scarcities? It’s corporate members. When you’re devoting your life to the cause of maximising artificial scarcity, it can only mean something like: “I impoverish people.” My work is to make life less tolerable for other people.
For an excellent perspective on why artificial scarcity is anathema to human well-being, I recommend you read this:
How do we go home, after a day’s work in a typical corporate job and imagine the destructive robot destroying our lives and our environment is “corporations”? It’s not. It’s us. Look in the mirror. It’s our mindsets that have been taken over.
We invented corporations, made the rules, then allowed ourselves to lower our standards of moral and ethical behaviour to the bare minimum required by law of the corporations we work in. We use our membership of the corporation as our “out”. Our appeal is always that we were just following corporate orders, as mandated by their legally-defined mission to grow, irrespective of what laws need to be broken, or the damage done in the process. The failure is our own.
If we develop artificial intelligence, machine learning, robots and automation like we built corporations, then we truly risk unleashing something dark and autonomous, which no longer comprises fallible, but ultimately correctable human beings. It will be out of our control. It will be a creation with no “off” switch that can annihilate us all.
If we can’t demonstrate a willingness and determination to correct what’s wrong at the heart of corporations, then we demonstrably lack the insight or wisdom to unleash artificial intelligence on an unsuspecting world. The challenge of reconstructing and reforming the corporation is our last and only chance to prove we can create something that puts human and living system well-being above other values. If we can’t make empathetic, compassionate corporations, we definitely can’t construct empathetic and compassionate robots. That will be the proof.
At least most artists don’t participate in corporations, though it’s almost unavoidable to have to interact with them in some capacity. We can use the values and behaviour of artists as the chrysalis of a model for how corporations can be remade into servants of humanity, rather than runaway, renegade, ruthless, cruel masters. Regrettably, nobody is discussing revising the core purpose of corporations in these terms. It’s as if it’s a non-problem. Yet, I submit we are at a crossroads and taming the excesses of corporate behaviour is an acid test of our ability, as human beings, to raise the quality of our thought beyond that of the simple automatons we created three hundred and fifty years ago, when we brought corporations into existence. We either continue to emulate sociopathic robots, both individually and as a population, or we aim for something higher.
The gauntlet had been thrown down before us. The choice is ours to make.