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Our greatest threat isn't climate change or AI. It's Moloch

We are now living in the era of what some are calling a ‘polycrisis’. Climate change and the biodiversity crisis threaten the foundations of our global civilisation, escalating geopolitical tensions slide us towards nuclear winter, and advances in AI are edging us towards the precipice of a world-transforming superintelligence capable of ending life as we know it.

But perhaps the greatest challenge we face is the one that underpins all our interwoven challenges, and solving for it might be the greatest thing we ever achieve.

It’s the problem of Moloch.

Moloch was an ancient Canaanite deity known for granting power in exchange for an ultimate sacrifice. This led it to be known as ‘the god of war and sacrifice’ or ‘the god of child sacrifice’ and a symbol of oppression and destruction. Typically, he was depicted as a demonic beast with a man’s body, a bull’s head engulfed by flames, and its arms outstretched and forming a ramp which led to a fiery hole in its belly.

Moloch found its way into popular culture through Fritz Lang’s iconic film Metropolis, where it serves as a metaphor for the way the industrial elite exploit and sacrifice labourers and the lower classes to sustain their opulent lifestyles. In Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the beat poet invokes Moloch to lambast the commodifying, dehumanising, exploitative and oppressive forces of capitalism and consumer culture that devour the human spirit and blunt creativity:


‘Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! …

‘Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!’


In the 2014 essay Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander extends Ginsberg’s understanding and reinterprets the deity as representing any ‘multipolar trap’, which he articulates as a negative-sum competition driven by game theoretic forces that undermine collective wellbeing and often leads to tragedy.

More recently, Philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger and ex-poker-playing astrophysicist Liv Boeree made attempts to popularise and counteract the forces of MolochBoeree describes Moloch as ‘the god of unhealthy competition’ which manifests as a game that entices us to sacrifice our own values in the pursuit of a narrow goal. Schmachtenberger suggests that Moloch is ‘the god of negative sum-competition’ or ‘coordination failures’.


'With the exponential advancement of technology, we have the opportunity to evolve from a growth-first, extractive economy into a just, circular and regenerative future, fuelled by abundance and centred around collective empowerment and wellbeing.'


Moloch traps can manifest in a variety of ways, but they usually involve one of three dynamics: you play, you lose; you play, someone else loses; or you play and everyone loses. They see us stuck in games that we can’t help but play even though we are left worse off for having played them.

Moloch permeates almost every domain of modern life. In the documentary film The Social Dilemma, technology ethicist Tristan Harris shows us how the profit-maximising algorithms of the attention economy are transforming us into dopamine addicts, tethered to platforms that degrade our attention spans, feed off our anger and disgust, make us miserable, and lead to a more polarised world where it is hard to discern reality from fiction.

Liv Boeree uses the example of beauty filters. She argues that influencers are incentivised to use filters to enhance their appearance artificially in order to gain more likes and followers. This leads to distorted perceptions of beauty and self-worth and a race to the bottom where authenticity and integrity must be sacrificed for short-term popularity. 

Moloch seduces us to sacrifice the future for the present and ensnares us in games of impossible logic. Coordination failures lead to tragedy of the commons scenarios that decimate our environment. We tune in to the GDP as our north star even as biodiversity collapses and our oceans and skies fill with plastic. Our entire global economy is predicated on infinite, exponential growth — a fantasy on a planet with finite resources. When it comes to climate change, we prioritise short-term gains over environmental responsibility, hastening the degradation of our planet and imperilling future generations.

Out of all the Moloch traps, the one with the most potential for imminent disruption and calamity is Artificial Intelligence. AI is both a product of Moloch dynamics and an accelerant of all other Molach-like games. The exponential evolution of the technology means that the speed and power with which we can distort reality, extract resources, build more devastating weapons, and alter what it means to be human are also advancing exponentially — at a faster pace than our laws and ethics can metabolise.

The power and prosperity that will flow to those who dominate AI has led to an arms race between corporations who embrace a ‘better to ask for forgiveness than permission’ mentality, and a battle between nations who can’t escape the idea that ‘if we don’t get there first, we lose.’

This logic of FOMO and insecurity has seen AI programs being deployed, disseminated and developed without the appropriate safeguards in place.

The mind-melting advancement of Artificial Intelligence isn’t just a product of Moloch dynamics, it threatens to give birth to Moloch incarnate. The AI arms race to build the first artificial general intelligence, or Superintelligence, increases the risk of unleashing a superbeing with powers beyond our comprehension and possibly even the ability to destroy humanity within five to ten years.

The superintelligence wouldn't even need to be conscious to cause great harm; it could simply wreak havoc in pursuit of a badly designed objective, as Nick Bostrom famously illustrated with his example of the paperclip-maximising machine that eventually converts all matter in the universe into paperclips. 

The alignment problem is now so urgent that Open AI has recently dedicated 20 per cent of its computing power to achieving AI superalignment within the next four years. AI ethics researcher Eliezer Yudkowski is less confident. In an article penned for Time Magazine, he says: ‘We are not ready. We are not on track to be significantly readier in the foreseeable future. If we go ahead on this everyone will die, including children who did not choose this and did not do anything wrong.'

If an AI superintelligence doesn’t kill us, we might see a new battle of the Molochs, where humans are forced to ‘upgrade’ and become Transhumans. It was this logic that motivated Elon Musk to found Neuralink, which he described as ‘the only way humans will be able to compete with AI’. 

Daniel Schmachtenberger warns that the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and other exponential technologies acts as an accelerant for all of our other Moloch-like traps, increasing risk, instability, and potential for radical disruption.

He sees us hurtling towards one of two futures. Either we deteriorate into chaos and catastrophic breakdown — think deep fakes, the loss of reality, the ability for anyone to create bioweapons in their bedrooms, the collapse of economies and ecologies and politics under the weight of climate chaos and political instability; or we’re forced into a world of tyranny and oppressive control systems — think draconian regulations, curtailments on freedom of speech and expression, restrictive central bank digital currencies, information censorship and enough surveillance and deterrents to keep the chaos at bay.

In an attempt to escape either of these two fates, he calls for more collective intelligence, cooperation and, long-term, systems thinking, which he describes as ‘third attractor solutions’.

The first step in solving for Moloch involves raising awareness around the multipolar traps, economic forces, and algorithms that govern our lives and our world. The next task is to prioritise systems over narrow goals, collective wellbeing over winning, biospheric and social health over extractive economic growth, and to better balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future. This means changing the rules of the game or changing games altogether. No small task.

What might this look like? It might look like a collective agreement to price in negative externalities; it might look like global AI regulations and coordinated efforts to ensure that AI algorithms are designed for the betterment of humanity. It looks like better international nuclear non-proliferation treaties and deeper commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals. It could see us move away from GDP and embrace embrace doughnut economics and Regeneration. More broadly, it involves designing better incentives or punishments to prevent actors from defecting from coordinated agreements aimed at protecting our planetary health and collective wellbeing.

Liv Boeree suggests we could trade in the god of Moloch for ‘Win-Win’, the god of positive-sum games based on cooperation and empathy. She’s launched an entire podcast dedicated to the topic. Daniel Schmachtenberger says the fundamental task is to focus on ‘fixing coordination problems in order to make the technosphere compatible with the biosphere, compatible with human nature, compatible with meaningful definitions of human flourishing’.

Both of them advocate for intensified efforts, urging more attention, resources and intellectual capital to be directed toward solving for Moloch.

This means more research institutions like Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and Cambridge’s Centre for The Study of Existential Risk; it means more projects like The Centre for Humane Technology and Daniel Schmachtenberger’s Consilience Project, which was created as a concerted effort to foster more robust multidisciplinary collaborations.

With the exponential advancement of technology, we have the opportunity to evolve from a growth-first, extractive economy into a just, circular and regenerative future, fuelled by abundance and centred around collective empowerment and wellbeing.

Artificial Intelligence and scientific breakthroughs don’t have to fall victim to Moloch — we can use them to solve intractable problems that humans have thus far failed to solve. Rising to the challenge of Moloch isn’t just our most urgent challenge, it's our greatest opportunity for future prosperity. It's time to give it the attention, energy and resources it asks of us.




Daniel Simons is a Melbourne-based writer, Startmate Media Fellow, and Co-Founder of Transitions Film Festival.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration. 

Topic tags: Daniel Simons, AI, Moloch, Sacrifice, Economy



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