No pauses, only progress

Progress only happens as fast as we allow it to, if the Industrial Revolution had been paused or hadn’t happened more than 200 years ago, you likely wouldn’t be reading this right now, and things would look relatively the same. Alternatively, if the Industrial Revolution had happened 2000 years ago in Ancient Rome, the pace of progress and acceleration means that we would have basically no idea what things would look like today, chances are we would be on another planet/planets.

Why didn’t the Industrial Revolution happen 2000 years ago? Because many sought to prevent or block progress. Innovations such as the printing press were banned or regulated such as in France in 1535 when all printing was banned under threat of hanging. The Roman Emperor Tiberius executed a man who had invented supposedly unbreakable glass because he feared it would devalue gold and silver. Julius Caesar banned chariots from the centre of Rome during set hours, he was what Sadiq Khan is to cars now. Caesar would have supported the ULEZ. An entrenched aristocracy cemented its own power and wealth through stifling change, whether that is in Ancient Rome or the Middle Ages. It was only really through competition, war and expansion that the Industrial Revolution took place. The old order was failing and a new order was ready to rise up and (attempt to) replace it.

Whilst the Industrial Revolution and subsequent progress started in Britain, the United States is perhaps the best example of just how far a society can push towards the future. Unlike Britain, America does not suffer from the same entrenched aristocracy that Britain does, hoarding the wealth and passing it down enforcing nepotism and blocking change to the current order.

The progress that was enjoyed during the Industrial Revolution that made citizens significantly richer and improved their lives pottered along until it sort of plateaued around the mid-1900s after the Second World War. There was a brief burst during the Space Race but that soon collapsed too. Nowhere is this stagnation more evident than in Britain, which was a weak shell of its former empire after fighting two world wars. More than a million Britons perished during the wars, and Britain had lost what were potentially its greatest men. Instead of inventing, exploring and producing at home, they were sent to die in a foreign land. Britain was effectively bankrupt and its economy in ruin, yet there was no revolution or reckoning, the British ruling class who were responsible clung on and have done since, managing the decline. There were brief respites such as Britain building the world’s first full-scale commercial nuclear power station in 1956, but Britain had lost most of its spirit for innovation and progress.

This stagnation has been written about many times before, but it is important to recognise why it happened. There are a multitude of reasons, but a big one is that government has made it too difficult to create. This is why there are too many apps to keep count of that will deliver food to your door, but not many ‘hard technology’ companies, that is companies that build difficult physical products instead of software. The steam engine is an example of hard technology, English inventor and Engineer Thomas Savery invented the first commercially used steam-powered device in 1698. An example of a hard technology company today is Helion Energy which is attempting to build the world’s first fusion power plant. Another is SpaceX. These types of companies require enormous amounts of capital and often land, they are not the types of companies you can just code in your bedroom, but they also need the freedom to invent, create and likely fail at times too. This is when government becomes a problem, in their quest to ‘do something’ governments can stifle and prevent progress by regulating industries that politicians don’t understand and hadn’t even heard of before they read their briefing.

This is what is happening with Artificial Intelligence. If you read the news you will have seen many stories from varying groups of people about a potential AI pause or regulation. This is mostly focused on an American/China context as their companies are now leading the way with this technology. But Britain did have a premier AI company of its own founded in 2010, five years before OpenAI, DeepMind is arguably the single most important AI lab in the world. It was British-owned up until 2014 when it was bought by Google for $500 million. The British government allowed this purchase to go through yet are currently blocking Microsoft’s takeover of a video games publisher (we are not led by serious people). OpenAI is now worth around $29 billion. How much would DeepMind be worth if it hadn’t been bought out by an American company? But it isn’t just about cost now, it is about the future of civilisation. Britain by allowing this purchase, has of its own fault, pushed itself between the two superpowers, America and China. As America and China are the only real players in AI, once AI permeates through the global economy along with increasing automation and robotics, whichever country comes out on top will effectively control other nations, making them dependent. Currently, the country to come out on top will not be Britain. Britain will in fact become a consumer state beholden to the AI of a foreign country, friend or foe.

Back to AI regulation, governments and international blocs across the world are now interested in AI. America this week called up the CEO of OpenAI Sam Altman to testify in Congress about the need to regulate AI. In a shameful but strategically brilliant act, Altman spent his testimony calling for AI regulation and an AI agency to give out licences to AI companies. This is a major incumbent company pulling the ladder up behind it meaning their competition will effectively be cut off. Individuals and smaller competitors have, according to a recently leaked Google memo, been ‘eating our lunch’ in the context of AI progress, not for much longer if Altman and the government get their way. Major tech companies must not be allowed to use government regulation to effectively establish a monopoly on AI. That is not freedom and potentially stall progress as the big companies become complacent with little competition.

Some wish to go even further than regulation and have a pause on AI development, with people such as Elon Musk signing a letter for AI research to be paused. These people are no different to the backward aliens who wanted to stop the printing press, or those who wanted to stop the Industrial Revolution. Not to mention how any pause would only mean competitors such as China would speed further ahead. Another suggestion has been a Manhattan Project for AI safety. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Manhattan Project however, in case you aren’t familiar the Manhattan Project was the American programme that produced the world’s first nuclear weapons. Why was that project successful, it had one clear physical goal, and it was in a race against time to be first, if they weren’t Germany could potentially beat them and reverse the course of the war. Replace nuclear weapons with AI and replace Germany with China and you have a similar situation, except you are not determining the outcome of one war, you are determining the outcome of civilisation. China will not subscribe to an American-led AI safety project, why would they? This is their opportunity to pull ahead. Back in 1945, whichever country developed the nuclear bomb was set to win the war, in 2023, whichever country rapidly develops AI is set to win everything.

No country has a monopoly over AI and certainly not over how safe it is, the only way to ensure safety is to progress and deal with any issues as we go along. Regulation will only harm progress and do we really believe that ancient politicians who don’t even understand the basics will regulate AI well? I don’t think so.

China is actively regulating AI but less so due to AI safety and concerns it will kill us all, but more so they can ensure it doesn’t undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the country and to ensure content reflects the ‘core value of socialism’.

The EU is over-regulating as usual, Italy banned ChatGPT for a time and the EU bloc is in the middle of passing the EU AI Act which bans certain types of AI deemed ‘unacceptable risk’. Given that they have no real AI companies of their own, all this means is that they will be left behind.

Britain is in a unique position, I mentioned earlier about DeepMind but now that we have left the EU, we do not have to abide by their laws. But things aren’t looking very positive for Britain’s prospects either. Britain recently announced £100 million for an AI safety task force, and Rishi Sunak this week said that AI has to be introduced ‘safely and securely with guard rails in place’. This all is effectively irrelevant, Britain can’t lead on AI never mind AI safety if we don’t have companies leading the field based here, we have no monopoly. And even though we have left the EU, we are not taking advantage of it and are likely to hamstring any technology companies with the Online Safety Bill and GDPR. If the British political class keep on going with their trigger-happy regulation, then Britain deserves to lose.

But, there is another way. Britain does not have to be left behind in the AI race. The first thing we need to do is force a return of DeepMind into British ownership, that will require billions of pounds but it is worth it. The second is that Britain can use other countries’ regulations to its advantage, if America decides to regulate AI or even pause it, Britain then becomes the natural place for technology companies to set up as it will be a relatively regulation-free state. The EU are already digging their own grave but Britain can and should come out on top. We cannot afford to be in between two superpowers, there is nothing stopping Britain from being competitive and owning this field, we have the intelligence, we have the wealth (for now) and we have the national spirit that birthed an empire.

Britain can then make claim to the Industrial Revolution and the AI/AGI Revolution.

There will be no pauses, only progress.

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