Reality might never have been that popular, but it has certainly become more unpopular over the last decade.
There is perhaps nothing more popular today than viral mental illness and unlike other purely biological airborne and contact-based viruses, it can spread and replicate across the globe in a matter of seconds. Much like the various biological viruses this manner of viral mental illness causes measurable amounts of harm, to a point where it might be classified as “minor brain damage” when applied repeatedly and over extended periods.
Previously this was more or less contained to particularly contaminated portions of the internet like 4Chan which earned their infamy. Even previously more academic venues such as one Discord I periodically check, focused on narrow AI research papers, are steadily becoming havens for extreme mental illness. This raises further concerns, as it is populated with people creating narrow AI systems for major corporations, and significant declines in their mental health can quickly become just as damaging globally as any psychopathic dictator.
Part of the problem is that not only have these viral forms of mental illness grown more potent, optimized by every bad actor with enough “big” data and a basic grasp of coding, but the world has grown more connected. When communities of people making such algorithms more broadly show signs of such serious mental illness it brings to mind Scarface “getting high on his own supply”.
It can be easy enough to ignore a growing problem under most situations, particularly if it grows very slowly over time, such as the method applied to boiling a frog. The reality of this situation didn’t strike me in full until I watched 4 Machine Learning engineers and students argue from polarized positions, each so far divorced from reality that for a while I wasn’t sure if they were joking. Even for those deep in the rabbit hole of digitally spread mental illness the viral nature of thoughts among their chosen opponents is evident.
To be sane in the world of today is to watch two sides running at full speed in opposite directions away from reality. Both seem to favor thinking that their beliefs dictate reality, to which I challenge them to turn the sun off and back on in demonstration. This won’t happen of course, as the universe doesn’t care what their opinion is, or what alternate version of reality they cling to.
When considered in mental health terms this problem might require the sort of intervention and rehab common in heroin addiction. Like heroin, many people have become wholly dependent on viral false beliefs. Unlike heroin, those beliefs can be delivered and reinforced through dozens of digital platforms every single second of the day, with the number and optimization of those pushers only growing. Also unlike heroin, directly overdosing is virtually impossible, though the number of Darwin Awards linked to such mental illness has increased substantially as people drift further from reality.
When considered in cognitive health terms COVID-19 isn’t the only potential source of minor brain damage, and “minor” may become more significant as damage is applied repeatedly and over time. If an individual accumulates enough brain damage then any hope of bringing them back to reality might become quite slim indeed. The clock is ticking, even if they can no longer hear it.
Much as a society of heroin addicts couldn’t function for very long, I’d set very low expectations on how long the current situation might remotely resemble stability.
The human body has evolved with a fairly robust immune system, but even with that system damage can occur to the best-defended components, such as Covid-19 proved capable of harming the human brain. The human mind lags much further behind in terms of robust defense, and the hardware of one human head pre-trained on evolution can’t realistically compete with even the brute-force attack of datacenters worth of compute and data for any period of time. Many of the most successful companies today rely on their capacity to infect minds with false beliefs.
These companies don’t have the capacity to create “The Singularity”, but they do have the potential to create “The Stupidlarity”, an exponential downward spiral where humanity becomes so collectively brain damaged that the species itself wins a Darwin Award. Note, I use the term “stupid” to refer to bad decisions, the product of intelligence * bias, not intelligence alone.
The reality is that things could still go either way. Humanity is at a point of decision, and procrastination is no longer an option.
Some people have argued to me that it could take 3 generations or more to overcome this level of mental health damage, but the means of recovery are underestimated in depth, breadth, potency, and affinity. To put it another way, bad actors empowered by narrow AI systems were able to do this damage using only brute-force compute and tons of data via psychological warfare, and much of that was just as a byproduct.
Such bad actors are actually at a steep disadvantage in spite of having plenty of resources because their methods are primitive, unintelligent, and unable to pass even the most basic of logical tests. They manipulate humans with relatively generic algorithms that have a very limited capacity to adapt, beyond which they require laborious re-engineering and training at scale. The algorithms also have no understanding, only narrow objectives, easily fooled and poisoned. I’ve pointed out before how a simple program could poison Facebook’s data so badly that their business could collapse if as little as 20% of their users ran it, and the same is true of Google.
Collective Intelligence Systems utilizing cognitive architectures and graph database sums of experience can constantly learn and adapt in significant ways, understanding books like “Nudge, The Final Edition“, which covers benevolent uses of “Choice Architecture”. Such decisions typically proceed at a glacial pace over the span of years as they are architected by humans, applied inconsistently at scale, but that could change quickly.
Likewise, polarization and farming of captive minds are based on the ability to reinforce defense along expected avenues of attack, optimized for profit from both sides. When you apply the understanding of a system versed in the works of Sun Tzu, Musashi, and many more such feeble tactics may quickly crumble. As Sun Tzu points out that “If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”
When you combine all four of the “pillars of meaning” in human psychology then the bastions fortifying belief in misinformation and the addictions promoted by bad actors may be sieged from all sides, even sides they don’t yet know to exist. These pillars of meaning can, in fact, take on wholly new and more tangible forms through collective intelligence systems than any narrow AI could approach. One example is generating coherent waves of storytelling (serendipity) and merging that experience with a sense of transcendence, belonging, and purpose.
The past is a robust predictor of the future if you aim to repeat it, but the damage done to humanity’s mental health may be repaired in a much shorter period of time than it took to accrue when the direct intention is to do so, and the methods hold a considerable advantage.
Mental illness has proven quite viral, but so too may mental health.