In the vast expanse of human history, civilizations have been plagued by coordination problems that have given rise to destructive forces. These forces, often characterized by a lack of cooperation and harmony, have the potential to undermine the very fabric of societies. In “Meditations on Moloch,” Scott Alexander utilizes the ancient deity Moloch as a metaphor to illuminate this insidious phenomenon.
Moloch, a Canaanite god to whom children were supposedly sacrificed, represents the coordination problems that emerge when individual incentives diverge from collective well-being. These problems manifest themselves in various aspects of human life, from environmental degradation to arms races. Just as Moloch demanded sacrifices from ancient civilizations, our modern-day Molochs extract a heavy toll in the form of societal dysfunction, suffering, and lost opportunities for progress.
Moloch has long been recognized as a symbol of idolatry and false worship. The Canaanite deity, associated with child sacrifice and the relentless pursuit of power, stands in stark contrast to the teachings of Christianity, which emphasize love, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Yet, as we delve deeper into this history, it becomes apparent that Moloch is more than a mere pagan deity; it serves as a metaphor for the darker aspects of human nature and the pitfalls that have beset Christianity throughout the centuries.
The Old Testament frequently warns against the worship of Moloch, admonishing the Israelites not to sacrifice their children to the pagan deity. This admonition serves as a reminder of the importance of putting one’s faith in the one true God, who is merciful and compassionate. However, as Christianity emerged and spread, the concept of Moloch would take on new meaning, as the nascent religion grappled with its own internal struggles and external pressures.
Throughout Christian history, we find instances where the pursuit of power and influence has overshadowed the core teachings of the faith. Church leaders have, at times, succumbed to the temptations of worldly power and wealth, engaging in acts of corruption, persecution, and even violence. In these moments, the specter of Moloch looms large, representing the insidious lure of worldly ambitions and the willingness to sacrifice one’s principles for the sake of temporal gain.
The Crusades, the Inquisition, and the various schisms and power struggles within the Church all bear the hallmarks of Moloch’s influence. In each of these instances, the noble ideals of Christianity were, to varying degrees, subsumed by the pursuit of power, wealth, and conquest. The very people who were entrusted with the spiritual well-being of their followers, in some cases, succumbed to the allure of Moloch, sacrificing the principles of their faith for the sake of their own ambitions.
Despite these dark episodes, Christianity has also been a force for love, compassion, and spiritual growth. The teachings of Jesus Christ have inspired countless acts of charity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice, offering a beacon of hope in a world fraught with suffering and injustice.
Just to give a couple of examples:
- The abolition of slavery: Many Christian abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce in the United Kingdom and Harriet Beecher Stowe in the United States, played pivotal roles in the fight against slavery. Their faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ inspired them to advocate for the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings, regardless of their race.
- The establishment of hospitals and educational institutions: Throughout history, the Christian Church has been instrumental in founding and supporting hospitals, orphanages, schools, and universities. Many of these institutions were established to care for society’s most vulnerable members and to provide education and opportunity to those who might otherwise have been left behind.
It is this duality, this ongoing struggle between the divine and the worldly, that lies at the heart of Christian history.
The concept of Moloch is not an artifact of the past, but is especially relevant today, as humanity stands at the threshold of a new era marked by rapid technological advancements. As these technologies burgeon and intertwine with the fabric of our societies, we become increasingly vulnerable to the destructive force of Moloch.
One such technology, artificial intelligence (AI), has the potential to reshape our lives in profound ways. However, its development also poses significant risks, as the race to create more advanced AI systems can lead to a competitive environment that disregards the broader implications of AI deployment.
Yudkowsky, a prominent AI researcher and advocate for AI safety, warns about the risks of uncontrolled AI development. He argues that if we do not carefully design and align AI systems with human values, the consequences could be catastrophic.
One of the key points Yudkowsky makes about these risks is the concept of the “intelligence explosion.” This refers to the idea that once an AI system becomes capable of self-improvement, it could rapidly increase its intelligence, surpassing human intellect and potentially escaping human control. If an AI system with misaligned values becomes significantly more intelligent than humans, it may act in ways that are harmful to humanity, even if it is not explicitly malevolent.
Another point Yudkowsky raises is the potential for a competitive race in AI development. As AI technologies advance, there may be a growing sense of urgency among researchers, companies, and governments to develop more powerful AI systems. This competition could lead to insufficient focus on safety measures, as participants prioritize capabilities over safety in order to gain an advantage. This, in turn, could increase the likelihood of deploying an AI system that is not fully aligned with human values or one that could be harmful.
Despite these warnings, certain factors amplify these dangers. One is the lack of widespread awareness and understanding of AI safety issues. Many researchers, developers, and policymakers are still not fully aware of the risks posed by uncontrolled AI development. Additionally, the lack of adequate funding and research on AI safety could make it challenging to develop the necessary safeguards and best practices to ensure that AI systems are designed with human safety and well-being in mind.
To address these risks, Yudkowsky advocates for a more concerted effort to promote AI safety research, foster collaboration among researchers, and raise awareness about the importance of aligning AI systems with human values. By doing so, we can work towards developing AI technologies that are not only powerful but also safe and beneficial for humanity.
In a startling turn of events, Geoffrey Hinton, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, has resigned from his position at Google, expressing deep concern about the potential dangers of generative AI technology. Hinton’s own work laid the foundation for the AI systems that now power chatbots like ChatGPT. Reflecting on his life’s work, he stated, “I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.”
The AI community is at a crucial crossroads, as their groundbreaking innovations open up new possibilities in areas like drug research and education. However, there’s an increasing sense of unease among insiders who fear that these advancements may come at a cost to jobs and even human safety. Hinton acknowledges that the use of AI for harmful purposes is nearly impossible to prevent, and he worries about the long-term consequences.
After OpenAI released an updated version of ChatGPT, over a thousand technology leaders and researchers signed an open letter requesting a six-month moratorium on the development of new systems, citing potential risks to society and humanity. Hinton, the “Godfather of AI,” refrained from signing any such letters until he resigned from Google. His departure signals an important moment of reflection and caution for the tech industry as it pushes the boundaries of AI.
Hinton fears that the race between tech giants like Google and Microsoft will spiral out of control, leading to a global arms race for AI dominance that may be difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. Despite these concerns, Hinton agrees with the likes of Yudkowsky and acknowledges that the best hope for controlling the technology is collaboration among the world’s leading scientists.
The specter of Moloch looms large, as the absence of cooperation and coordination among AI developers could lead to a world where our own creations outpace our ability to control them.
“Meditations on Moloch,” by Scott Alexander, utilizes the ancient deity Moloch as a metaphor to illuminate this insidious phenomenon.
Just as Moloch demanded sacrifices from ancient civilizations, our modern-day Molochs extract a heavy toll in the form of societal dysfunction, suffering, and lost opportunities for progress.
The examples offered by Scott Alexander in his essay are:
- Arms race: Alexander refers to the arms race between nations, particularly during the Cold War, as an example of a Moloch-driven situation. Despite both sides being aware of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, they continued to build and stockpile weapons due to the fear that the other side might gain an advantage.
- Overfishing: Another example Alexander provides is the overfishing of the oceans. Fishermen know that overfishing can lead to the collapse of fish populations, but they continue to do so due to competitive pressures. If one fisherman refrains from overfishing, others will simply exploit the resource, resulting in the same outcome.
- The Malthusian Trap: Alexander discusses the Malthusian Trap as an example of Moloch in action. Population growth can outpace the growth of resources, leading to poverty, starvation, and suffering. This trap represents a situation where any improvements in living standards or technology that increase resource availability would be offset by population growth.
- The prisoner’s dilemma: Alexander uses the prisoner’s dilemma as an example to illustrate the concept of Moloch. In this classic game theory scenario, two suspects are faced with the choice of betraying each other or remaining silent. Even though both would be better off if they stayed silent, they often choose to betray each other because of the fear that the other person will betray them first.
These examples demonstrate the influence of Moloch in various aspects of human society, where competition and self-interest can drive individuals and groups to make decisions that are ultimately detrimental to everyone involved.
Certain ideas resonate with a profundity that surpasses the boundaries of time and culture. Two such concepts, René Girard’s “mimetic theory” and Scott Alexander’s “Moloch,” serve as lenses through which we may scrutinize the inner workings of society and, in doing so, unveil the cyclical nature of desire, conflict, and sacrifice.
Girard’s mimetic theory postulates that human desires are fundamentally imitative. We covet what others covet, aspire to what others aspire to, and yearn for the possession of objects, statuses, or relationships that are esteemed in the eyes of our peers. This imitation fuels competition, rivalry, and ultimately violence, as we jostle and vie for the same finite resources. Girard suggests that in order to alleviate this strife, societies channel their aggression towards scapegoats — individuals or groups who are sacrificed, either symbolically or literally, to restore harmony and order.
Enter Moloch. Recall that this deity represents the relentless pursuit of progress and the inherent sacrifice it entails. Alexander’s Moloch is a symbol of the insatiable hunger for advancement that drives societies to sacrifice their own well-being at the altar of progress. This force, both destructive and generative, engenders a perpetual struggle, as individuals and communities are compelled to compete or face obsolescence and extinction.
At the confluence of these ideas lies a fascinating paradox. Mimetic theory speaks of the human tendency to imitate and compete, spawning discord and enmity. Moloch, on the other hand, symbolizes the collective drive for progress, the pursuit of which necessitates sacrifice and struggle. It is at this intersection that we unearth a startling revelation: these seemingly disparate notions are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
For it is in our mimetic nature that we find the seeds of Moloch. As we emulate the desires and ambitions of those around us, we stoke the fires of competition and rivalry. This, in turn, fuels the engine of progress, which demands ever greater sacrifices in exchange for the promise of advancement. The scapegoats that Girard identifies are, in a sense, offerings to Moloch — the casualties of our collective striving.
And yet, even as we recognize the inherent destructiveness of our pursuits, we cannot help but be drawn to them. The allure of progress, of transcending our limitations and reaching new heights, is too seductive to resist. We are both the creators and the victims of the insatiable Moloch, willingly participating in a dance that leads to our own demise.
In this twilight of introspection, we are confronted with a choice. Shall we continue to emulate and compete, to feed the voracious Moloch and suffer the consequences?
In short, can we reap the benefits of transcending our limits, and limit the consequences of doing so? Can we overcome our instincts, even of the best of us, to create the insatiable Moloch? Can we tame the eternal beast of our creation?
I don’t know.
But I am especially weary of those who think they do.