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The Problem of Other Motives – The Greatest Existential Risk to Humankind
Ricardo Barretto   Jan 29, 2013   Ethical Technology  

We’re toast.  Among hydrogen bombs, asteroid strikes, supervolcanoes, rogue artificial intelligence, nanotechnological war, grey goo, superviruses, biological weapons, runaway global warming, strangelets, mini-black holes, probabilities will eventually catch up to us and we’ll become extinct. It is an impossible obstacle course.

All that is left to do is to accelerate or decelerate our path toward the inevitable future. According to Nick Bostrom1, the greater risk lies on anthropogenic, or arising from human activity. Thus, if we narrow the field and exclude natural causes for our demise, we’ll find pulsating underneath and giving those risk factors great strength, the greatest existential risk for mankind, what I call the Problem of Other Motives.

Let’s define Other Motives as any optimization process that does not have as an optimization target the welfare of mankind, the biosphere, and better minds. That has no such supergoal that is precisely preserved no matter what happens below it, with markets, financial systems, governments, civil unrest, economic models, or individuals. A lack of an optimization target so clear and unequivocal that there would be no question as to what the next step should be. As you might’ve concluded this is a far cry from society as we know it. Instead, we find it in complete disarray, extremely polarized, neurotic, dysfunctional, paralyzed and stuck in endless debates.

Why is it so important? We live in a special moment in evolutionary history. For the first time intelligence is taking the lead in evolution. We’re starting to manipulate DNA, the code of life. We’ll soon have nanotechnology and be in fully immersed virtual environments. We’ll have brain-to-brain connection. A Global Brain will emerge. There’ll be with new political and economic systems, and Artificial Intelligence is set to surpass human intelligence in both capability and subtlety. In the book “The Intelligent Universe”, James Gardner explains the Selfish Biocosm Hypothesis2 as “the basic idea that life and intelligence are the primary cosmic phenomena and that everything else—the constants of nature, the dimensionality of the universe, the origin of carbon and other elements… are secondary and derivative.” According to the hypothesis, “the emergence of life and intelligence are not meaningless accidents in a hostile, largely lifeless cosmos, but at the heart of the vast machinery of creation, cosmological evolution, and cosmic replication.” If we are to fulfill this evolutionary goal, however, we must examine Other Motives, lest we never get where we want to be heading.

One of the best lectures on Entrepreneurship I heard was given by David S. Rose at the Singularity University3 and at a certain point he notes “the goal of business is to maximize profit”, but what Mr. Rose forgot to mention is that higher up in the decision tree should sit life, humanity, the biosphere, social justice, as an unaltered supergoal of friendliness towards mankind, otherwise economic models and this fixation on economic growth will become the fastest route to extinction. Take Monsanto. Biotechnology sounds like a pretty good idea without the hindsight of Monsanto, a company that will fight vigorously not to have its products labeled, accused of corrupt, unethical and downright evil practices, that in its search for total world food domination has wreaked havoc in rural America, sued or settled in court with more than 844 families, lead dozens of farmers into bankruptcy and now patents Human Breast Milk: the last bastion of any shred of spirituality left in the West; the primordial mythological experience of accord with the Universe, what Lévy-Brühl called participation mystique between the mother and the child; and Adolf Bastian, one of the pioneers of the concept of the 'psychic unity of mankind', would refer to as Elementargedanke. Moreover, it adds confusion to the way we talk and about the future because the general public will generally assign attributes to the technology and the company as one indistinguishable lump: if Monsanto is bad, the corollary is that all biotechnology is bad.

And the most absurd aspect of these attacks is best explained by the Mariachis analogy: Suppose you don’t like Mariachis. As a matter of fact you can’t stand the sound of Mariachis and you’d prefer if they were to exit the planet altogether. But your neighbor insists on having a Mariachi band in their backyard every night. And one night, while having dinner with your guests, who also detest Mariachis, your neighbor decides to sue you for listening to the Mariachis sound waves that traveled across to your yard without paying royalties.

Sometimes the Other Motives are very explicit such as Russia providing arms to the genocide happening in Syria, despite all the evidence of the psychopathic personality of its leader and the horror and crimes being committed against humanity (supergoal: Syria is our last ally remaining in the region and we want to preserve it); or the former US Presidential candidate who stated clearly “I’m not here to save the planet” (which by the way is the same person who helped shape Monsanto’s business plan)4; and, well, “weapons of mass destruction”. Sometimes Other Motives are so desperate as to be inadvertently humorous, such as the NRA suggestion that the solution to violence is to arm every schoolteacher in America with weapons. What’s the next big idea? All-you-can-eat buffets to combat obesity? It’s all starting to sound like a thirteen year old who gives his grandmother a volleyball as a Birthday gift the week he signs up for the volleyball team at school… because he loves his grandmother.

It affects every aspect of our lives and will affect every future technology. Take the case of politics, where it is most evident. The philosopher John Dewey once said that politics is “the shadow cast on society by big business.” Nowadays, that shadow looms larger than ever, and the chasm between what the public wants and the government does is as wide as probably ever in the annals of U.S. Democracy: 72% support a tax increase for the wealthy; 69% oppose cuts to Medicaid; 79% oppose cuts to Medicare; a vast majority wants deep cuts in defense spending where both political organizations suggest modest increases, and so goes the list where the likely outcome will be the opposite of the public’s best interest.5 All those decisions are ruled by Other Motives. What about Life Extension, a biggie amongst transhumanists? Suppose Monsanto were to provide Life Extension to the members of Congress of its choice thereby perpetuating the master-slave relationship, would that technology be a good idea for mankind? This is what the politics of trickle-down technology looks like: One day, You’ll find yourself driving down a beautiful highway in some exotic country with your retina displays, not only transmitting what you see, but also having your family and relatives feel what you feel in real time via wireless nanos in your brain. Pretty cool, eh? Oh, by the way, the BrainCorp will be monitoring every bit of information going in and out of your brain and using the extra computational power when you’re in your “off mode” that is, sleeping; and reporting every thought, albeit unconscious, to the plutocratic masters. You: “I didn’t read that in the label”. They: “That’s because it was not in the label? You: “Why didn’t the government label it?” They: “Because we own the (@*$ government.”

But here’s where I find the most striking parallel between the problem of Other Motives and the concept of Friendly AI, described as “Capacity versus Actuality” by Eliezer Yudkowski in his paper “Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk”6. It is best exemplified in the “Cheesecake Fallacy”, the fact that we have the capacity to do something, does not mean it’ll become an actuality. Between those two there’s—ay, there’s the rub—a thing called motive. The optimists in Silicon Valley believe that the future will bring a world of abundance and prosperity. I’ll thus beg to differ with the optimists. I don’t believe the world of abundance and prosperity is coming in the future; it is already here. A recent report by Oxfam International states that the profits of the world’s one hundred most wealthy individuals last year would be enough to wipe out poverty four times over. The capability is there; what is lacking is motive. Conversely, what is present are Other Motives. Motives such as I care for myself only and is all too moral and dandy, which finds its institutionalized and extreme pathological version in the Ayn Rand sort of ideology. In the United States alone more than 40 million people are disenfranchised from the intelligent evolutionary process because their minds are busy with other things, survival at the top of the list, fighting off cold, dehydration, hunger, food poisoning and whatever ailment of the day is there to deal with. When the Cold War ended several pundits rushed to announce the start of the age of altruism a world in which democracies, lead by the United States, would uplift mankind and enable policies of justice and prosperity for all. Other Motives quickly jumped in to make sure it didn’t happen, and to assert its priorities.

Not only that, but Other Motives, allied with public relations, can be brutal against anyone or anything that tries to stand in its way. I can immediately bring to mind at least four people in history who suggested a better optimization process for mankind and were assassinated for it. In our recent history, there was Wikileaks—still going on (the sex-harassment plant so overused in popular entertainment as to be cliché); there was also the 13 criminal charges against Aaron Swartz, in the same society where not a single charge has been made to the architects of a trillion dollars worth of banking fraud that shattered millions of lives and sank the global economy. And it doesn’t stop there. One of the most radical externalities of Other Motives such as “I’m so selfish that I don’t even care for the welfare of my children and grandchildren” is Global Warming. On January 24, 2013, The Independent has revealed the existence of an organization, called the Donors Trust, indirectly supported by American billionaire Charles Koch, whose goal is to undermine climate science while protecting the anonymity of its billionaire donors.7

The list is endless. Among other Other Motives I would cite, just out of the top off my head, Citizens United, the deregulation of the derivatives market, the repeal of Glass-Steagal, gerrymandering, NDAA, Bush Tax-Cuts; the lack of focus on renewable energies, no Corporate taxes, and the nomination of Paul Brown, a man who stated publicly that “embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell” to the House Committee on Science, among others.

So how do we deal with it? If you were a biologist you might be inclined to identify its energy source. Where is its feeding ground? Where does it live? Other Motives like to operate in dark, secret and seemingly impenetrable rooms. But its main source of fuel is rather explicit in the seat of government. It would take some genius not to see it. If one were to curtail its power, the first thing to do would be to radically divest any corporation from the decision making process of any policies set by the government. And stop nominating its former officials for key positions in the government, such as Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto Vice President, as the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods. Another approach suggested by David Brin in his book The Transparent Society8 is to shed light into their habitats by opening the flow of information wider in reciprocal transparency. You watch me as I watch you. That approach is radically different from the current reality. Anyone who’s not been hiding in a cave for the last two years knows that the National Security Agency is building a $2billion dollar Orwellian facility deep in the Utah desert, thus about to become the most potentially intrusive intelligence agency in history. Every e-mail, keystroke, post, phone call you make is likely to be recorded, forever. It is the end of forgetting. The question is who’s watching them? Who’s watching and monitoring the government and the corporate masters whose policies are steered by Other Motives that will affect the lives of millions of people? David Brin’s approach is a solution but it seems lopsided. Unrestricted monitoring should be in direct relation to the range of consequences of its player. Decisions that an individual makes in his household will only affect his wife or his children and have few externalities; whereas decisions made by a governing body will potentially affect hundreds of millions of people. If anything, the fair rate of reciprocity is that we should be watching our elected officials while yet preserving our personal privacy. A third approach is the emergence of a Global Brain, still in its infancy, that would be able to monitor and create a system of checks and balances and search for an optimization process for mankind. That would signify technology as the enabler of a metaphysical realization and the ‘psychic unity of mankind.’ The Emergence of a global Mythology, as Joseph Campbell so hoped and predicted.

We have made tremendous technological advances and new advances are being made every week at an ever increasing pace. But we still have not learned to deal with the problem of Other Motives. To think that everything will sort itself out is not only dangerous, it’s self-indulgent folly. Unless mankind asserts its goal, finds the ideal optimization target and diligently works to eliminate all Other Motives from the agenda, it’ll not fulfill its evolutionary role and will exit the stage sooner than later. Another universal player will emerge here or elsewhere to continue the evolutionary relay path.

As suggested for the approach of Friendly AI, the future must come by design. We don’t need to know all the intermediate steps, all we need to know is where we’re heading. And for those who believe in the rapture of a benevolent A.I. as the panacea for all our ills, beware, the A.I., too, might have Other Motives, of a different kind.

  1. Bostrom, Nick. "Existential Risks." [Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002). (First Version: 2001)] Vol. 9.No. 1 (2002): n. pag. Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios. Journal of Evolution and Technology. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

  2. Gardner, James N. The Intelligent Universe. New Page Books, 2007. Print.

  3. Rose, David S. "Entrepreneurship." YouTube. YouTube, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

  4. Philpott, Tom. "How Mitt Romney Helped Monsanto Take Over the World." Mother Jones. N.p., 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

  5. Chomsky, Noam. "American Decline: Causes and Consequences." American Decline: Causes and Consequences. N.p., 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

  6. Yudkowski, Eliezer. "Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk." Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. N.p., 31 Aug. 2006. Web. <>.

  7. Connor, Steve. "Billionaires Secretly Fund Attacks on Climate Science." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2013.

  8. Brin, David. The Transparent Society. Basic Books, 1999. Print.



What’s the difference between Rational Self interest and downright Self-ishness?

Who really benefits when Selfish “Other motives” are obstructive towards mitigating risks?

How do we overcome “tragedy of the commons”?

Is it impossible for Humans to contemplate the wider Global perspective?

How do you overcome apathy?

More questions later..

Romney also said Obama won by doling out gifts:

What is that supposed to mean? Obama gave Norelco razors to ghetto denizens?

@Cygnus: 1) The former recognizes all benefit more longterm when the pie is grown collectively, the latter doesn’t care about this and prefers higher short term gain at the expense of others. Think Ford vs. Koch.
2) The selfish actor, in the short term.
3) Government.
4) No, you’re doing it right now.
5) Will.

@Intomorrow: The Obama phone of course!

Notice Romney made the remark about ‘gifts’ after he lost the election; saying—when it is safe to say—Obama won the election but he won it because the 47 percenters got freebies only Romney’s people deserve.
That is the entire entitlements debate in a nutshell: virtually everyone thinks their people deserve what they get.

The notion that Obama was trying to win office based on the promise of giving out “free stuff” to “takers” was a common theme running all through the election, well before he won.

I enjoyed this very much.  Can anyone suggest reading on the Global Brain?  I’m not familiar with it (but perhaps it’s familiar with me!  Hahahaaaaaa).

Global Brain defined:

Check the bottom of the page for the references.

Also:  The Global Brain FAQ

CygnusX1 - interesting questions. These are some of the questions that should be debated and thought deeply, but always having in mind a supergoal. I called the answer to those questions “intermediate steps”. Those steps may not be in a direct, straight path towards the ultimate goal, but should move in that general direction.
In the case of “The Tragedy of the Commons” there are so many categories. Think energy. Solar energy is a resource that will not be depleted for a few billion years. We just need to capture a infinitesimal fraction every day to power the entire planet. Think food, what about the 30% of worldwide food production that goes to waste every single day. What about eating a fish meal in Chile and getting to know the fish you’re eating came from Australia, where people are fishing just a mile away in your hometown? Because it makes ‘economic sense’? Because you’ll save a buck? No one is measuring the carbon footprint and negative externalities of that when they look at a menu. What about technologies that promise to eradicate the need for food? What if we become autotrophs? Or have technologies that enable just that? Take population. Great strides have happened. My grandparents had 8,9 children per couple! My parents generation had 4,5 average. My generation is having 2,3 max. But there are still people, specially in underdeveloped nations and from the lower class having 8,9,10 children. Then you have to fight old ideas of the Church who refuses to give contraceptives believing it will lead to a life of moral decay. That argument may sound reasonable, but upon closer inspection it is not the use of a contraceptive or not that determines values. If a house is on fire, you don’t sit and think about “let us build fireproof material for the benefit of mankind”—you throw water at it! Solve the problem, course correction later.

@ rtbarretto..

Thanks! Your points are important also, especially this..

“What about eating a fish meal in Chile and getting to know the fish you’re eating came from Australia, where people are fishing just a mile away in your hometown? Because it makes ‘economic sense’? Because you’ll save a buck? No one is measuring the carbon footprint and negative externalities of that when they look at a menu. What about technologies that promise to eradicate the need for food?”

I guess this is the downside to globalisation of markets, yet efficient use of transportation and logistics and “local awareness” may go a long ways to mitigating effects of climate change and towards energy efficiency, IF we Humans could just think towards being a little less Self-ish?

So why don’t governments and markets act upon these inefficiencies? Could the use of Oil and fossil fuels and profiteering have anything to do with this?

I am totally in agreement with you regarding Solar energy. We just need to find ways to effectively “transmit” the Solar energy abundant in space, to the planet surface without warming it? Microwaves and others forms of transduction of energy have been suggested.

Regarding problems associated with increased global population and well being. Not sure if you have seen this, but this is one of my favourites highlighted at IEET

Visualizing Global Population Growth Hans Rosling

” The world’s population will grow to 9 billion over the next 50 years and only by raising the living standards of the poorest can we check population growth. “

I couldn’t agree more with Hans Rosling. Thanks.

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