Australians no longer see the future in a positive light. But that can change – and it starts with technology | Peter Lewis

We regularly call on our elected officials to look beyond the three-year electoral cycle and to govern with the interests of our children and perhaps even our future grandchildren in mind.

But what does long-term thinking actually entail?

Moral philosopher William MacAskill argues that while science is our guide, true long-term thinking is more about horizons of millions of years.

Of course, first we have to avoid the extinction events that typically occur every 700,000 or so years for mammalian species. But short of climate collapse and nuclear annihilation (admittedly significant ifs), there’s no reason not to think that humanity is still in the very early stages of our journey.

These kinds of timelines are mind-blowing propositions that, when unpacked, require even deeper obligations than the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Like a time machine, everything that happens will count forever.

“Do the very long-term consequences of our actions fade over time, like ripples on a pond? MacAskill asks in What We Owe the Future. “No. On the contrary, every year, like clumsy gods, we radically change the course of history.

Following MacAskill’s reasoning, we asked participants in this week’s Guardian Essential poll to think about whether future time horizons would be positive or negative for humanity (although we limited our frame to a relatively conservative decade).

Thinking about the future, do you think life will be better or worse for humanity in 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years and 10,000 years.

A few things stand out here. First, we are more negative on the short term (next decade) than on the long term. Unsurprisingly, the further we look, the less certainty we have. But what strikes me most is that the consensus is that the future is on the whole more bad than good: the modernist cliché of a bright Jetsons future has faded into something much darker. .

How do you project a happier and more prosperous long-term future? For MacAskill, the key is to avoid what he describes as a “value lock” by maintaining a diversity of cultures, political systems, and potential alternative trajectories for civilization.

It posits that the climate challenge is solvable in one form or another; even if there were to be extreme and catastrophic events, there is a good chance that humanity will continue – even in greatly reduced numbers.

Of more concern is how quickly we are developing artificial general intelligence, the inflection point where machines become self-managing and spiral out of human control, choosing their own paths of innovation and change and locking them in for the long term.

Go too fast towards AGI without the proper long-term thinking and our course as a species is effectively set, with our biometric identities controlled by systems that will develop their own logic based on themselves, without intervention human.

I read MacAskill’s book in the context of the Optus data breach and the publication of model law on facial recognition technology, developed by a team led by Professor UTS and former Commissioner for Human Rights the man Ed Santow.

For one thing, the personal information of up to 10 million Australians, including information that could be used to ‘prove’ identity, appears to have been compromised in a hack that, on the face of it, seems trivial in its lack of sophistication.

After years of inertia, regulators and lawmakers are invoking privacy reform as Australians not only wonder what they are agreeing to when they click consent boxes, but, more presciently, why. they are asked to hand over so many things to so many different organizations.

On the other hand, Australian academics have proposed a world-class framework to limit the kinds of decisions that can be made based on the interpretation of our faces, giving regulators the power to look under the hood of AI and understand how automated systems work. designed.

These laws are difficult to obtain because governments and corporations have built valuable narratives around the extraction and monetization of personal information. Our identities have become a resource to be extracted, refined and then stored for future use yet to be imagined.

The Optus breach opened Overton’s window where we could not only update our privacy laws, largely untouched for 40 years, but also slow long-term inroads into our personal footprints.

A separate question in this week’s report shows public support for a fundamental tightening of these laws.

Whether or not you were personally affected by the Optus data breach, how concerned are you that scammers could steal and use your personal information to dump it.

These figures suggest that the Albanian government is now in a position to fend off vested interests in the media, politics and businesses that will seek to maintain exclusions from these rules.

More fundamentally, the Optus breach shifted the focus from the needs of those who collect our data to the rest of us, who are the unwitting conscripts in this race to capture and control our very essence.

While the knee-jerk response will be to increase penalties for data mismanagement and further bolster cybersecurity industry resources, there is now a golden opportunity for more transformative reform.

This could involve devising ways of taking control of our identity and providing one-time access for others to verify, either through a secure government identification system or online personal data protocols, what the father of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, now advocates.

These opportunities for transformative reform are currently on the desk of our mild-mannered Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, who, like Michael J Fox, can trigger a chain of events that could slow the seemingly inextricable march of artificial intelligence.

Building friction points in the data acquisition economy, giving individuals the right to control how their identity is extracted and exploited, building guardrails and enforcing red lines; they are safeguards for our diversity and, ultimately, for our humanity.

Like clumsy gods, the decisions we make today will shape the future happiness not just of the next generation but, if MacAskill is right, of those millennia to come.

  • Peter Lewis is Executive Director of Essential, a progressive strategic communications and research firm. He will discuss the findings of the Guardian’s latest key report live at 1pm today with Guardian political editor Katharine Murphy and Australian Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett. Free registration here

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