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Posthuman liberalism

November 8, 2019

After the computational complexity theorist Scott Aaronson wrote a New York Times editorial about Google’s claim to have attained ‘quantum supremacy’, someone called Richard Horan asked him:

“Will this achievement yield advances in medical science and human quality of life, or will it threaten us even more than we are threatened presently by our technologies?”

My answer would be that the attainment of quantum supremacy is just one technical milestone in a much broader process – the advance of computation – and that this broader process has done, and will keep doing, both of those things.

In his own answer, Scott names cryptography as a discipline in which quantum supremacy might make a difference for good or bad, depending on whether the cryptographers were working for the good guys or the bad guys – and he listed Trump, Xi, and Putin as, “perhaps”, bad guys. So here is my political analysis.

After Operation Desert Storm and the self-abolition of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became the supreme power in the world, to a degree not seen since its nuclear weapons monopoly of 1945-1949. For a generation, it was not just a superpower, it was the “hyperpower”, as I believe a French foreign minister put it.

It was the apex of a global empire, successor to the British empire. An Internet-based empire of liberal democracy, which in its final phase embraced transnational progressivism as the imperial ideology. But that empire is ending or has ended. China and Russia obviously aspire to be the pillars of an alternative world system; and within America, Trump would cast off the remaining husk of empire entirely, and restore a nationalist and conservative republic.

Scott belongs to the intelligentsia of the empire of global liberalism. Not the political intelligentsia, those explicitly responsible for the upkeep of political narratives; but he endorses that social system, entertains its ideas, and contributes to its intellectual life and also to its power in the world, through his work.

I am among those who have embraced the end of this system. The globalism is trying to abolish nations as such, the liberalism is trying to deny biological reality, and the world is in revolt against both. So from my perspective, Trump, Putin, and Xi do have something in common, they are the strongmen filling the political vacuum left by late liberalism.

However, American liberalism does have a chance at a third empire – the same kind of chance that everyone has in this final historical moment prior to superintelligence, when the value system that will govern the world after singularity has yet to be determined – and even though it is on the defensive right now, surrounded by bad guys wherever it looks (Modi, Erdogan, Netanyahu), it still has immense power, and thus a very good chance of winning the political aspect of the mind race. (Indeed, Scott himself, as a leading light of quantum complexity studies, has a role to play in giving this victory to the liberal or post-liberal bloc.)

But the price of that victory will be, that it must assume a form, in which human beings are no longer in charge. That will be the price of any victory in this race, other than the impossible luddite victory (impossible because it would have to be global to truly win). The human rulers of the world must become posthuman or transhuman (some would say they are already close to that status), or they must yield power to nonhuman intelligences of their own making. And what liberalism could mean in those conditions, remains to be defined or articulated.

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