Why Decentralization Is Essential to Human Thriving
31 January 2021
Decentralization of power, whether we characterize that power as technological or otherwise, is essential to increasing the probability of a thriving human (or superhuman) future. There’s a line of reasoning that persuaded me of this conclusion. It consists of three steps.
Before I share the three steps, I should explain some concepts:
Power. Understand “power” in the broadest sense. It’s not good or evil. It’s just raw power, control, authority, influence, ability, or might that intelligence may use for good or evil or whatever.
Intelligence. Intelligence is power to achieve goals across diverse contexts. Intelligence need not be conscious. It need only have a goal and at least some power to achieve that goal. Intelligence comes in diverse kinds and degrees.
Goals. Goals come in at least two kinds. There are final goals and instrumental goals. Instrumental goals are only provisional. They help an intelligence achieve a final goal. To the extent that an instrumental goal no longer facilitates a final goal, an intelligence discards it.
The first step in reasoning toward the importance of decentralization is the Semi-Orthogonality Hypothesis. It observes that intelligence and final goals are semi-orthogonal. In other words, we generally can’t predict a final goal based on intelligence.
The Semi-Orthogonality Hypothesis acknowledges that some goals are too complex for some intelligences, and some goals undermine the existence of intelligences that have them. But the more complex an intelligence becomes, the less we can predict its final goals.
The second step in reasoning toward the importance of decentralization is the Convergence Hypothesis. All intelligences require resources to survive and achieve their goals. Consequently, instrumental goals converge around the acquisition of resources.
If an intelligence can acquire the resources it needs without any help or permission or cooperation from other intelligences, it may or may not do so in ways that harm other intelligences. It’s relatively unpredictable. And it’s, therefore, relatively untrustworthy.
If an intelligence requires help or permission or cooperation from other intelligences to acquire the resources it needs, it incorporates such requirements into its instrumental goals. It’s relatively predictable. And it’s, therefore, relatively trustworthy.
The Decentralization Hypothesis is the third and final step in reasoning toward the importance of decentralization. To maximize the probability of a thriving future, we must minimize the risk of unpredictable intelligences. We do this by cultivating the necessity of cooperation, via decentralization of power. This hypothesis arises from practical consideration of the previous hypotheses.
According to the Semi-Orthogonality Hypothesis, superintelligences are particularly unpredictable. That which is particularly unpredictable is also particularly untrustworthy, risky, and dangerous. Consequently, if we hope that humanity will achieve a superintelligent future, we should prepare to defend ourselves against the dangers of that future.
According to the Convergence Hypothesis, a superintelligence becomes more predictable to the extent that it must acquire resources. And it acquires resources in the most predictable manner to the extent that it must cooperate. The best way to ensure cooperation is to minimize centralization of power. Consequently, humanity should decentralize power in order to mitigate risk inherent in the nature of superintelligence.
Criticisms and Responses
One criticism of this reasoning is that centralized power is fragile. In other words, we may not need to be so concerned about centralized power because it tends to be relatively less robust over time. So decentralized power will tend to win. There may be some truth to this.
However, centralized power can do great damage over short periods of time. And humanity cannot endure arbitrarily large amounts of damage. So, even if centralized power is inherently less robust than decentralized power, it is still a practical necessity that we work to mitigate the risk of centralized power. And the best way to do that is by cultivating decentralization of power.
A second criticism of this reasoning is that decentralized power is not inherently moral. Intelligences with limited power can still act in immoral ways. So decentralization is not enough to ensure a thriving human future on its own. Cultivation of ethics is still important.
This criticism raises a legitimate concern while overlooking the practical relationship between decentralization and ethics. In my estimation, morality is essentially cooperation. And that which cultivates cooperation also cultivates morality. Because decentralization cultivates cooperation, decentralization also cultivates morality.
A third criticism of this reasoning is that decentralization doesn’t always increase cooperation. For example, the elimination of centralized power can lead to tribalism. And tribalism can lead to increases in warfare and other forms of violence. This may be true for some loose understandings of “decentralization.”
However, decentralization is not fragmentation. Tribalism only fragments power. Fragmented power is compatible with centralization of power among some fragments, which then become relatively unpredictable and dangerous. Formal decentralization entails actual decentralization of power throughout a system by design, which need not be initiated by a central power.