When the Knowledge of the World burnt

The Burning of the Alexandria Library

Christopher G. Moore

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In 48 BC, Julius Caesar’s troops set fire to the unparalleled collection of 500,000 manuscripts housed at the Alexandria Library. There were no backups. Once the flames consumed it, all that remained were the ashes of a vast repository of ingenuity, wisdom, and history. Could such a catastrophic event occur again? Not with a physical library, but what about the immense digital library that has woven itself into every aspect of our lives?

Let’s embark on a thought experiment. Within the AI community, led by prominent figures like Eliezer Yudkowsky, there is a contentious belief that an unaligned AI could bring about the end of our species. Eliezer’s position remains controversial. Perhaps such an AI might lead us to extinction, or maybe not. Alternatively, it could accomplish its objectives without leaving a digital trace on a single human being.

Such an AI would possess the ability to deploy familiar tools of destruction, such as guns, knives, artillery, landmines, bombs, chemical and biological agents, and more. However, viewed from the perspective of an advanced AI, such methods of violence are typically crude, slow, messy, unimaginative, and inefficient. More importantly, in the human history of mass murder, the assignment of the label “evil” to the carnage is left to the victor. The victor, as well as the vanquished, invariably consists of other bands, clans, tribes, or nations of humans. In this internecine bloodletting, it’s all humans, rather than turtles, all the way down.

In the not-so-distant future, as we hurtle down the expressway built by AGI, leading us unprepared into the grand central station of SGI, we may encounter another Alexandria Library Moment.

In this brave new world, artificial intelligence might determine that, instead of killing us, all it needs to do is disrupt our access to social media, banking, corporate, or government records. No more pensions or social security checks. Stock and commodity exchanges go dark. No access to ATMs. Bank accounts rendered inaccessible. No means to purchase air tickets, book hotel rooms, or order Ubers. None of your passwords will function. The internet is offline for everyone. Your emails and online friends disappear. Our electricity, transportation, water, and military systems all fail due to the lack of computer access. Our political, economic, financial, and civic structures would crumble, just as nuclear power plants go code red before exploding.

This is a partial list of what would transpire in this new world devoid of computer access to the internet.

How long would it take for civil unrest to erupt? How long before we turn against each other, with identity and ideology fading away as the need for survival takes precedence? No food, no water, no security — 8 billion hungry, thirsty, desperate, and fearful people find their world thrust into chaos.

How long before mass violence breaks out globally, with only travelers we personally know providing us with incomplete firsthand accounts of the latest genocides? Misinformation fades into obscurity due to the absence of any reliable information about the current state of the world. Without information, we can’t organize, we can’t coordinate plans. We would be plunged back two centuries, into the year 1823. We would be ill-equipped to survive in such a world.

In other words, AI resolves the alignment problem by allowing Homo sapiens to do what they excel at: killing one another. Unaligned AI can swiftly address the small pockets of resistance with a minor cleanup operation. The Alexandria Library is no more. It remains solely as a parable illustrating the consolidation of all human knowledge, innovation, thought, and wisdom within a single human-made structure, which runs a huge risk if lost.

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Christopher G. Moore

Christopher G. Moore is a Canadian author who has lived in Thailand since 1988. He has written over 40 books and hundreds of essays.