Lately I have been ruminating over a new concept called 'Moloch'. I first stumbled upon it in this Max Tegmark interview where he describes the current AI race to the bottom as being caused by Moloch. So what is Moloch?
Moloch is the name of a god associated with child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. In interpreting a poem named "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, Scott Alexander developed the concept of Moloch in this quite long, but excellent, blog post.
In our society, we can identify many scenarios involving competition between multiple actors where the outcome is worse for everyone. To mention a few:
1. Prisoner's dilemma
2. Tragedy of the commons
3. The Malthusian trap
4. Switch from hunter-gatherers to agriculture
7. Arms races
8. Instagram beauty filters
.. and many many more.
To illustrate consider going to the cinema. A jerk in the second row decides he cannot see well enough, so he stands up. Now the people behind him can't see anything, so they also stand, and soon most of the cinema is standing up. They all see about as good as they did before, but now they have to stand throughout the entire movie. Everybody is worse off.
Well who made that first guy stand up? Moloch did.
Moloch is the demon pulling the strings behind these negative sum games.
Almost everything wrong with our society comes from some version of the game above, i.e. Moloch!
So how do we fight this demon god of lose-lose game theory? In the example above, the Cinema owner could have stopped the movie and demanded everyone sit down. If you have ultimate power and a god's-eye-view of the problem, it is easy to defeat Moloch. We have that in our governments which role is to stop Moloch in its tracks.
Since I started thinking about this, I see Moloch everywhere. I find it helpful to think of him as a Demon, since it absolves us from blame, which I find to be a huge distraction. The people in the cinema, save for the jerk, did not want to stand up, but they had no other meaningful choice. It was Moloch's fault all along.
I think if we focus our efforts and direct our governments towards understanding these negative sum games, identifying them and stopping them, then maybe humanity can have the utopian future we all want for it.
Moloch is introduced as the answer to a question – C. S. Lewis’ question in Hierarchy Of Philosophers – what does it? Earth could be fair, and all men glad and wise. Instead we have prisons, smokestacks, asylums. What sphinx of cement and aluminum breaks open their skulls and eats up their imagination?
And Ginsberg answers: Moloch does it.
There’s a passage in the Principia Discordia where Malaclypse complains to the Goddess about the evils of human society. “Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war.”
The Goddess answers: “What is the matter with that, if it’s what you want to do?”