How to Stop Technology | A Lesson From the Middle Kingdom

To those who say it can’t be done…

To those who say it can’t be done…

In How to Stop a Blade Runner Dystopia, I talked about why we’ll eventually have to stop the technological development of artificial intelligence, genetics, and weaponry.

But then people said…

Technology cannot be stopped even if we wanted to.

I subconsciously shared this deterministic belief for some time, which made me depressed, because then nothing matters if we’ll inevitably be replaced by machines (I can be a bit of a drama queen).

But then I realized, technology can be stopped because it has been stopped before.

Let’s go back in time…

During the 15th century, the Ming Dynasty shut itself out from the world.

The empire then remained largely isolated and technologically stagnant until the 19th century.

Why did the Middle Kingdom isolate itself?

Well, power was highly centralized into the emperor’s hands. The Middle Kingdom considered itself the middle of the universe and the emperor considered himself the middle of the middle!

He therefore lacked interest in outside trade because he felt the kingdom already had all the resources and technology it needed to satisfy his wildest imaginations.

And like the emperor, we should ask ourselves… “How much more do we need to be satisfied?”

To reflect on this question, sit on Daddy’s lap, and let me tell you a story about a Chinese farmer and a Western businessman…

The Fisherman and The Businessman

A businessman took a short vacation to a small Chinese coastal village. Unable to sleep he walked the pier.

He saw a fisherman with a small boat and several large tuna, “How long did it take you to catch them?”

“Only a little while,” the Chinese fisherman replied.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”

“I have enough to support my family and give a few to friends,” the Chinese fisherman said as he unloaded them into a basket.

“But …. What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The fisherman looked up and smiled, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a nap with my wife and stroll into the village, where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends.”

The businessman laughed “Sir, I have an MBA and I can help you. You should fish more, and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. In no time you could have several boats with the increased haul. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats! Then instead of selling your catch to the middleman, you could sell directly to the consumers. You could control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal village and move to the city to run your expanding empire.”

The fisherman asked “But, sir, how long will all this take?”

“15- 20 years, 25 tops!”

“But what then?” asked the fisherman.

The businessman laughed and said, “That’s the best part, when the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions!”

“Millions? Then what?” asked the fisherman.

The businessman replied, “Then you could retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a nap with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”

It’s a fun little anecdote, but it can be misleading because it presumes the status quo is an option.

What if the businessman continued by saying, “And if you don’t take this deal then I’ll find a fisherman who will and by this time next year the corporation will own this whole village and we’ll kick you out!”

The fisherman must then choose: adapt or die.

This would make the anecdote more historically accurate.

Because if the Chinese fisherman was a metaphor for “Imperial China” and the businessman was a metaphor for the “The West” then in the end the West conquered the East because the East refused to adapt.

This is also true for today.

If a country or corporation becomes too satisfied with the status quo then it’ll eventually be conquered by the competition.

But what if there was no competition?

If there wasn’t a West then Imperial China would likely exist today! Keep in mind a Chinese person of 1400 A.D. lived a remarkably similar life to a person of 1800 A.D and so it’s conceivable to believe that without the West a Chinese person of 1800 A.D. would live a similar life to a person of 2200 A.D.

And life was better for the average Chinese person when they were stuck in the status quo rather than the succeeding two centuries. With colonization, the Chinese were forced to buy drugs from the British in the Opium Wars and when Mao came to power he killed more people than Hitler and Stalin COMBINED.

In business when there’s no competition (i.e. monopolies)… we see they get comfortable doing things the way they have always been done (i.e. they’re satisfied) so they stop innovating.

In government… if there was no U.S.S.R. then the U.S. wouldn’t have poured billions of dollars into rockets and computing and so my guess is the world today would look remarkably similar to 1960.

Let’s go forward in time…

I believe the pace of change will eventually slow down as global power continues to centralize into fewer and fewer hands.

Eventually, the global elite will come together under the premise, “You know what, artificial intelligence threatens our power. Let’s stop developing it!”

Hopefully, this decision will be made by a coalition of democratic nations because if it doesn’t happen through democratic consensus then it’ll likely happen by dictatorial decree.

Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind, whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world. — Vladimir Putin

Because left unabated the race for better A.I. will eventually lead to someone getting the upper-hand and so, for example, the Chinese could unlock an artificial intelligence so powerful it gives them control over all the global satellites and therefore the globe.

And then they may build a cyber Great Wall around any further technological development in A.I. that could threaten their power, and then who knows, the world could slowly devolve back into something that looks a little like Imperial China.

And as long as there aren’t any alien forces lurking upon the horizon, technology could stay stopped for a long, long time because the only people who could tear down the wall would be the people guarding it.