Central to this concern is the prospect of an “intelligence explosion,” a speculative event in which an A.I. gains the ability to improve itself, and in short order exceeds the intellectual potential of the human brain by many orders of magnitude. ... Such a system would effectively be a new kind of life, and Bostrom’s fears, in their simplest form, are evolutionary: that humanity will unexpectedly become outmatched by a smarter competitor. He sometimes notes, as a point of comparison, the trajectories of people and gorillas: both primates, but with one species dominating the planet and the other at the edge of annihilation. ... Bostrom is arguably the leading transhumanist philosopher today, a position achieved by bringing order to ideas that might otherwise never have survived outside the half-crazy Internet ecosystem where they formed. He rarely makes concrete predictions, but, by relying on probability theory, he seeks to tease out insights where insights seem impossible. ... The people who say that artificial intelligence is not a problem tend to work in artificial intelligence.
Athletes and the people who coach them may be unfamiliar with stoicism, but they are stoics. They endure pain or hardship without feeling or complaint. They control what they can control. They talk ad nauseam about controlling only what they can control. They’re on to Cincinnati. They stay in the moment, and take things one game at a time. And by doing that, they are voicing a philosophy—living a philosophy, training under a philosophy—without knowing of or understanding it. ... “Stoicism as a philosophy is really about the mental game,” Holiday said. “It’s not a set of ethics or principles. It’s a collection of spiritual exercises designed to help people through the difficulty of life. To focus on managing emotion; specifically, non-helpful emotion.” ... this was the exact kind of stuff they were exploring—not how to hit better, or pitch better, but how to sleep better and travel better and recover better and think better. That made the connection between the book and the sports world clearer. ... “Stoicism is the distinction between what you can control and what you can’t,” Holiday said.
Is cold fusion truly impossible, or is it just that no respectable scientist can risk their reputation working on it? ... cold fusion (or LENR, for ‘low-energy nuclear reaction’) is the controversial idea that nuclear reactions similar to those in the Sun could, under certain conditions, also occur close to room temperature. ... was popularised in 1989 by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, who claimed to have found evidence that such processes could take place in palladium loaded with deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). A few other physicists, including the late Sergio Focardi at Bologna, claimed similar effects with nickel and ordinary hydrogen. But most were highly skeptical, and the field subsequently gained, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘a reputation as pathological science’. ... We know that huge amounts of energy are locked up in metastable nuclear configurations, trapped like water behind a dam. There’s no known way to get useful access to it at low temperatures. ... There are credible reports that a 1MW version of his device, producing many times the energy that it consumes, has been on trial in an industrial plant in North Carolina for months, with good results so far. And Rossi’s US backer and licensee, Tom Darden – who has a long track record of investment in pollution-reducing industries – has been increasingly willing to speak out in support of the LENR technology field. ... We should certainly be very cautious about such surprising claims, unless and until we amass a great deal of evidence. But this is not a good reason for ignoring such evidence in the first place, or refusing to contemplate the possibility that it might exist.
Plato, of course, was not clairvoyant. His analysis of how democracy can turn into tyranny is a complex one more keyed toward ancient societies than our own (and contains more wrinkles and eddies than I can summarize here). His disdain for democratic life was fueled in no small part by the fact that a democracy had executed his mentor, Socrates. And he would, I think, have been astonished at how American democracy has been able to thrive with unprecedented stability over the last couple of centuries even as it has brought more and more people into its embrace. It remains, in my view, a miracle of constitutional craftsmanship and cultural resilience. There is no place I would rather live. But it is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history. ... Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. ... Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. ... The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics. ... it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.
The rise of the internet and the widespread availability of digital technology has surrounded us with endless sources of distraction: texts, emails and Instagrams from friends, streaming music and videos, ever-changing stock quotes, news and more news. To get our work done, we could try to turn off the digital stream, but that’s difficult to do when we’re plagued by FOMO, the modern fear of missing out. Some people think that our willpower is so weak because our brains have been damaged by digital noise. But blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fuelled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day. ... The first time inattention emerged as a social threat was in 18th-century Europe, during the Enlightenment, just as logic and science were pushing against religion and myth. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1710 entry from Tatler as its first reference to this word, coupling inattention with indolence; both are represented as moral vices of serious public concern. ... the culture of the Enlightenment celebrated attention as the most important mental faculty for the exercise of reason. ... Countering the habit of inattention among children and young people became the central concern of pedagogy in the 18th century. ... Unlike in the 18th century when it was perceived as abnormal, today inattention is often presented as the normal state. The current era is frequently characterised as the Age of Distraction, and inattention is no longer depicted as a condition that afflicts a few. Nowadays, the erosion of humanity’s capacity for attention is portrayed as an existential problem, linked with the allegedly corrosive effects of digitally driven streams of information relentlessly flowing our way. ... Throughout its history, inattention has served as a sublimated focus for apprehensions about moral authority.
It was in an earlier work, 1759’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Smith put his finger on the social and psychological impulses that push people to accumulate objects and gadgets. People, he observed, were stuffing their pockets with “little conveniences,” and then buying coats with more pockets to carry even more. By themselves, tweezer cases, elaborate snuff boxes, and other “baubles” might not have much use. But, Smith pointed out, what mattered was that people looked at them as “means of happiness." It was in people’s imagination that these objects became part of a harmonious system and made the pleasures of wealth “grand and beautiful and noble." ... This moral assessment was a giant step towards a more sophisticated understanding of consumption, for it challenged the dominant negative mindset that went back to the ancients. ... Rather than being passive, the consumer is now celebrated for actively adding value and meaning to media and products. ... there have been many prophecies and headlines that predict “peak stuff” and the end of consumerism. ... Such forecasts sound nice but they fail to stand up to the evidence. After all, a lot of consumption in the past was also driven by experiences, such as the delights of pleasure gardens, bazaars, and amusement parks. In the world economy today, services might be growing faster than goods, but that does not mean the number of containers is declining—far from it.
What Leucippus and Democritus had understood was that the world can be comprehended using reason. They had become convinced that the variety of natural phenomena must be attributable to something simple, and had tried to understand what this something might be. They had conceived of a kind of elementary substance from which everything was made. Anaximenes of Miletus had imagined this substance could compress and rarefy, thus transforming from one to another of the elements from which the world is constituted. It was a first germ of physics, rough and elementary, but in the right direction. An idea was needed, a great idea, a grand vision, to grasp the hidden order of the world. Leucippus and Democritus came up with this idea. ... The idea of Democritus’s system is extremely simple: the entire universe is made up of a boundless space in which innumerable atoms run. Space is without limits; it has neither an above nor a below; it is without a centre or a boundary. Atoms have no qualities at all, apart from their shape. They have no weight, no colour, no taste. ... Atoms are indivisible; they are the elementary grains of reality, which cannot be further subdivided, and everything is made of them. They move freely in space, colliding with one another; they hook on to and push and pull one another. Similar atoms attract one another and join. ... We know of his thought only through the quotations and references made by other ancient authors, and by their summaries of his ideas.