The world’s problems are political

‘If people today still die from starvation, it’s only for political reasons.’ – Yuval Noah Harari.

I had a revelation yesterday. I was running along the South Downs Way, looking out across the English countryside and thinking about how to make the world a better place. This is pretty standard for me (lol), and since starting a Masters in artificial intelligence (AI) last September I’ve been particularly concerned with how far AI can help, rather than hinder (or just make money for businesses). But yesterday I decided that when it comes to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems, AI is small fry.

The roots of human suffering are not technological, but political. This is a situation that is, I think, peculiar to the 21st Century. In a recent Exponential View podcast, Yuval Harari argued that over the last few decades we have acquired the technological means to limit the three problems that have most affected society for all of human history – famine, plague, and war. No longer are these seen as unavoidable forces of nature, but as catastrophes that need never happen. The issue is that despite this progress, they still do.

Millions are starving in Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and Somalia not because of some technological failing or lack of innovation – enough calories of food are being produced worldwide to feed everyone (see p.4 of this from 2008(!)) – but because of politics. There may be scope for the effective use of, say, drones in humanitarian action, but the fact that humanitarian action is needed in the first place is a question of political inaction and incapacity – primarily with regard to conflict in the Yemeni, South Sudanese and Nigerian cases, and climate change (and its consequences) in Somalia.

With the main technological hurdles overcome, there must exist some ordering of society, some allocation of the resources at our global disposal, such that suffering is minimised, and human potential and wellbeing maximised. In identifying what that ordering might be, AI could help. Running complex simulations of possible futures that incorporate global supply chains, resource consumption requirements, alternative forms of political organisation, and so on, could perhaps point the way.

But politics would always rear its head. The enactment in reality of any apparently ‘fair’ simulation would involve some powerful people losing a lot of money and influence. Those powerful actors would resist change, or at least seek to minimise the extent to which it affects them, just as weaker actors might look to elevate themselves excessively at the expense of the formerly strong (this goes for countries, companies and other organisations as much as for individuals). Even if a ‘just’ ordering of human civilisation was identified, the question would remain of how to make the transition.

A recent Dominic Cummings blog on effective systems management (applied particularly to Whitehall, so relevant in this context) reminded me of that famous James Madison quote from the 51st and most-cited of The Federalist Papers. “If men were angels,” Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary”. Identifying solutions to the world’s problems is one thing, but making people sufficiently angelic to implement those solutions is an entirely different beast. And that beast – a beast that we have yet to fully fathom – is politics.

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