Thought Experiment: A Shared Power Simulator

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

– George R.R. Martin

Fiction is a laboratory where experiments can take place. For example, the stakeholders involved in the experiment of a play are the playwright, the actors, and the audience. The playwright uses her imagination to conjure up scenarios that reveal the hidden structure of our belief systems, and put our ethics to the test. In the case of Greek tragedy, for example, a playwright imagined what a woman would do if she were torn between love of her brother and duty to her king. The actors embody the emotional reality that the scenario represents so that they can convey it in a powerful enough way to the audience. The audience also gets to experience the emotions and perspectives of the various characters, generating empathy and inquiry, without having had that experience in their own lives. They get to, in a sense, “try on” that experience to see how it feels, and this informs their thinking, their decisions, and their sensibilities. At its best, it is a tool that expands public consciousness and allows the community to examine different possibilities of ways to organize their lives and their ethics, before committing to them. It is a simulation, that allows you to “try before you buy.”

This is particularly true in the case of certain genres of science fiction, which have provided both sharp critiques of the current order and also offered new possibilities and realities that could be brought into being. There are countless examples of technologies that were conceived of first in fiction, inspiring real-life engineers and inventors to make them a reality, sometimes decades later.

Video games, simulation and game theory have an important role to play in the future. When considering the laboratory of fiction, they represent more deeply immersive and more precise tools that can take our collective experiments to new heights. AR and VR will also have unique roles to play in the development of our future collective thought experiments.

A thought experiment I’ve developed in this area is the creation of a simulation engine that, while it would have some initial structure, also allows some randomness, and can harness both human ingenuity and the strange creativity of AI. Such a general engine would be useful in many fields. But I am interested first and foremost in applying it to the problem of shared power.

Imagine a gridded space where resources are distributed evenly. A thousand people will colonize it. You can specialize in different kinds of skillsets, but the main one is dedicated to statecraft, e.g. developing the organizing principles that will govern the behavior of the 1000 people, in particular their group decision-making processes. There will need to be a programming vocabulary available to creators. The steps necessary to create a democracy, dictatorship, tribal government, communist regime, and so on will all be possibilities. However the mathematical possibilities do not end there. If you are able to unlock certain capabilities, you can get access to varying levels of AI intelligence. You can then set goals and let your AI intelligence come up with a variety of solution sets that can meet the objectives you have set. For example, you could set the goal to achieving a balance of power such that each person in the entire simulation has equal power. Conversely, you could set a goal such that power increases with age, and is moderated by a series of other factors.

Measuring power will be an interesting challenge. Economic and material wealth are only one aspect of power. Things like mindfulness practice, personal work, or commitment to a low-paying yet deeply fulfilling career in a public service sector provide another kind of power – personal power. Studying engineering and science can provide or really enhance – a powerful intellect. However, if everyone in the society studies engineering and science, what happens? Well, that is what the simulation would be there to help us understand. Perhaps society falls apart because there are no kindergarten teachers or arti. Or, perhaps a new kind of society emerges that we’ve never imagined before, where the kindergarten teachers are extremely technical and they update the curriculum in a self-reinforcing cycle, and the society develops a much more efficient way of building houses, utilizing robots and self-powering, self-cleaning equipment that operates through the design, build, maintain and operate phases. Maybe we get to Mars faster this way, and our civilization’s capabilities, resources, and options expand. This brings up another question – how will the simulation allow for growth beyond the original boundaries of its design? How can the society go beyond its current limits? The system must be created in such a way as to avoid a fundamental limit here, incorporating the potential for expansion and randomness in the right way.

There are many big challenges here, one of them being encoding ethics into the system. The mathematical formulas associated with network analysis will be useful in ensuring things like reciprocity, and so on. And there are many other phenomena to consider.

Once you have set the rules of the game, you select one of the 1000 possible avatars and play out their life. But at the end of each cycle, you are reincarnated either randomly, or in the humblest human form (or life form) that you have created. This is a hyperparameter that is set by the creator of the game (in this case, me). Perhaps the capability to “play dungeon master” could be granted to others – eventually I imagine this becoming open source. In any case, this tactic is intended to show the true randomness of birth. There are beautiful elements that can come into play and life lessons that are valuable from any of the possible positions on the board, and these learnings can be incorporated to improve future game rules.

For now, this is simply a thought experiment. Were it to ever be realized, the objective of building something like this would be to intelligently crowdsource, in combination with AI, new forms of governance and rules that expand the pool of options beyond our current thinking. If it could be translated into a popular video game, that would ensure that the ideas within it become widespread, and people have time to get accustomed to new ways of thinking. Another benefit would be that the simulation engine could give us as a society valuable insights into a variety of approaches to shared power, replicated over many cycles – an experiment that would be difficult to perform with our own world. We could see which worlds will survive, which will thrive, and which will destroy themselves. We can peer into the future using this clever laboratory experiment, trying on new possible futures before we commit to them. We can see alternative routes that will make it over the mountain pass we are currently facing, which is gravely needed given that all the routes we are currently pursuing are in danger of being snowed in.