Have you ever wondered what individuals have had the greatest impact on the course of humanity? There are many ways to come at this question. For example, we could consider both positive and negative impacts. We could evaluate contributions to health, science, or art. I think you could make a reasonable case on all these dimensions for the 13th century Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan. A legendary conqueror, his military campaigns caused millions of deaths but also spread technology and culture across a large part of the world.
Genghis Khan's most impactful contribution, as it were, may be his influence on the human genome. His DNA is found in eight percent of men across large regions of Asia, and an estimated 0.5% of the total world population. We humans take bold risks, push boundaries, and constantly explore. Is some of this due to the aggressive nature of our successful martial ancestors?
The figures who have had the greatest negative influence are sadly clustered in the 20th century. You will see frequent mentions of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot, in terms of the devastation they wrought on the world and their own populaces. In sheer numbers, the person responsible for the most deaths (some 45 million) seems to be Chairman Mao.
Mao Zedong's experiment in the Great Leap Forward sought to overhaul China's agrarian economy into an industrialized one. It was an unmitigated disaster, with tens of millions of Chinese perishing from famine and overwork. What's so fascinating about this episode, and distinguishes it from the other mass killings, is that the harm was caused unintentionally. China's leaders had the best of intentions, at least initially.
As the crisis unfolded, Mao and others let their ideology and personal beliefs outweigh the evidence of massive failure heaping up in front of them. Cognitive dissonance, in other words, acts powerfully to blind us to unwanted information. It is easy to take false comfort in our good intentions as the world falls to ruin around us.
Thus, my vote for the greatest historical positive impact on humanity goes to Genghis Khan, and greatest negative impact to Mao Zedong.
Today I will offer two current day figures who have the potential to have massive impacts on humanity going forward, one negative and one positive. I had these thoughts while out on a long run recently. Specifically, I was listening to Lex Fridman's interview with Mark Zuckerberg.
Lex deliberately seeks out diverse perspectives. He does a great job letting the individuals speak without trying to interject his own judgments or beliefs. This makes for a good interview, at least if you want to learn something about what the individual thinks.
I definitely learned some new things about the Metaverse companies (Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, etc.) according to Mark Zuckerberg. The most notable for our purposes today are:
- Using Facebook does not increase polarization. In fact, it decreases polarization.
- Using Instagram does not cause harmful effects in teenage girls. In fact, it makes them feel better.
- Mark believes the meaning of life is about human connection and about creating things. He has dedicated his life to building things that help people connect.
Mark came across as thoughtful and sincere. He also has powerful objective feedback that he's doing something the world finds valuable, because his work has made him one of the world's wealthiest individuals. Taken together, Mark's history, undoubtedly good intentions, and unprecedented power have inadvertently created the conditions for an unmitigated disaster for humanity. Here's how that all adds up.
Almost three billion people use Facebook, giving it a larger reach than any other human invention. Some 1.4 billion use Instagram. Mark is showing clear signs of cognitive dissonance when he claims, entirely sincerely as far as I can tell, that neither product causes problems such as increased polarization or harm to one's self-image. He does not consider these opinions to be wishful thinking. He referred to studies he has seen that show how Facebook and Instagram use lead to overwhelmingly positive outcomes.
Is Mark actively seeking out information that would contradict his deeply held views? If anything, the public attention and relentless criticism he is subjected to appear to have hardened him to opposing views. He described how he has become adept at ignoring critics' views because he knows his intentions are good.
He likened his life's work to what God did in creating existence: deities create, and the meaning of life (for Mark) is to build things that help people connect. Truly, he is doing God's work and has the best of intentions. This is what makes him so incredibly dangerous.
For you see, because Mark Zuckerberg is convinced he is doing good work, he will never stop, no matter what contrary evidence is laid before him. The Terminator is a shaky windup toy compared to Mark. He will continue his implacable march to the vision of interconnected humans no matter what cliffs loom ahead.
"But where is the danger?" you may be wondering. "Facebook and Instagram may have their downsides, but you are making Mark out to be some sort of mass murderer." There are a lot of ways things could go wrong, but consider the role of artificial intelligence in the platforms Meta runs. We all post so much content so often that the vast majority of content moderation is already performed by AI.
The role of AI only becomes more prominent in the Multiverse. No one today can tell us the extent of what is coming and what sort of unintended consequences will result. When potentially billions of people are spending a majority of their time in virtual realities, the potential for an AI miscalculation that has devastating results is certainly not zero. Thus, I predict that the person responsible for the first mass extermination of humans greater than 100 million, and potentially far more, will be Mark Zuckerberg.
It is with this depressing context that I offer up my final candidate for persons who have had (or may in future have) the greatest impact on humanity. I want to end on a positive note, with a person who may help save humanity from the all-or-nothing risks being created by Mark and his colleagues: Elon Musk.
In his own way, Elon Musk is just as polarizing as Mark Zuckerberg. Elon appears to be equally convinced of the importance of what he is doing. A few things distinguish Elon from Mark and most of us: he seems keenly aware of the risks of unintended consequences. He therefore has a risk-mitigation mindset that is entirely out of character with his accomplishment of having become the world's wealthiest person.
Because Elon believes that well-meaning entrepreneurs and scientists (including himself) could nonetheless be wrong, he asks the fundamental question: what should we do if the best case does not come to pass? Not only that, but how should we position ourselves in case really bad things happen?
You could argue that it is Tesla and Elon's contributions to helping solve climate change that make for his greatest positive impact. Considering the multiple risks facing humanity beyond climate change, including nuclear holocaust, and runaway AI, I say Elon's greatest impact will come from making humanity a multi-planetary species.
Establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon and Mars will be the start of a broader expansion. Most importantly, they represent a significant risk mitigation of today's "all our eggs are in one basket" situation.
This weeks' Moral Letter 082 On Studies Of Substance gives reasons why you might want to study artificial intelligence yourself, and it's not just because AI mistakes may cause the end of humankind as we know it.
If all this has you wishing the world were less exciting sometimes, I can only recommend our latest Guest Post, Boring is Good, by Hualong Yang. It was because of Hualong that I first came to understand that people really do see the world differently, not just because of inherent human properties that may differ, but because of the sum of their life experiences. We can learn so much if we are open to the idea that diverse perspectives can not only be equally valid as our own, but valuable to us in solving our own problems.
Moral Letter 081 On Generosity And Gratefulness is a good way to end today's letter. Among other things, we discuss the wisdom inherent in seeing the world as it is, rather than how we wish it to be.
I hope today's discussion gave you an additional perspective on the world as it is (or may be), even though that's not what we sincerely wish it would be.