27. Future Shock: Cognitive biases connected with futuristic horizons

          If we transported a human being from 1850 to today, they would be bewildered—shocked—by our level of technology. Flying machines, Green Revolution, nuclear reactors, the Internet... these were not really foreseen by the people of that era. Over the last fifty years, things have changed so fast than futurist Alvin Toffler used the term “future shock” to describe common reactions to it6. Certain futuristic risks, like risks from biotechnology, nanotechnology, and Artificial Intelligence, may seem so shocking that many people have trouble taking them seriously. There has only been a gap of 13 years between the first full sequencing of the human genome and the synthesis of the first organisms with entirely artificial chromosomes. Many people are still digesting the implications. In his "Future Shock Levels" article, Eliezer Yudkowsky outlined five general levels of future shock7:

Shock Level 0: technology used in everyday life which everyone is familiar with, or which is so widely discussed that nearly everyone is aware of it. (Catastrophe levels: nuclear war, exhaustion of resources.)

Shock Level 1: the frontiers of modern technology: virtual reality, living to a hundred, etc. (Catastrophe levels: powerful biological warfare and the application of military robotics.)

Shock Level 2: medical immortality, interplanetary exploration, major genetic engineering. Star Trek, only moreso. Quite a few futurists anticipate we'll reach this technology level close to the end of the 21st century. (Catastrophe levels: deviation of asteroids towards the Earth, superviruses that change the behavior of people, creation of advanced artificial bacteria or nanobots immune to the body's defenses.)

Shock Level 3: nanotechnology, human-level AI, minor intelligence enhancement. Not necessarily technologically more difficult than Shock Level 2, but more shocking to think about. Difficult to predict the arrival of. (Catastrophe levels: grey goo, intelligence-enhanced people taking over the planet and wiping out humanity.)

Shock Level 4: advanced Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity (creation of greater-than-human intelligence). (Catastrophe levels:superhuman AI converting the entire planet into “computronium”.)

          Future shock levels are based on the idea that people define the horizon of the possible based on what they are psychologically comfortable with, rather than objectively analyzing the technological difficulty of various propositions. For instance, we have already enhanced intelligence in mice, and we know that such tech could theoretically be applied to humans, and we could anticipate major shifts in the balance of power because GDP is known to correlate highly with the IQ of the smartest fraction in a society8, but many people would have difficulty coming to grips with such a scenario because it seems so fantastic unless one is familiar with all the points in the argument. In general, people seem to have an aversion to considering the effects of major intelligence enhancement. Nuclear war might be easier to understand than Artificial Intelligence, but it seems like the risk of human extinction in the long term rests more heavily on the latter than the former.