(Jan 30, 2023) A recent article in Wired magazine, ChatGPT, Galactica, and the Progress Trap takes aim at artificial intelligence generation tools like ChatGPT and Galactica, concluding “Although the choices of those with privilege have created these systems, for some reason it seems to be the job of the marginalized to “fix” them. In response to ChatGPT’s racist and misogynist output, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman appealed to the community of users to help improve the model.”

I came upon that article after seeing a Twitter account of how a bitcoin devotee had “orange-pilled” or convinced ChatGPT, a question-and-answer online tool to learn that Bitcoin will end central banking and fiat money.

Then I noticed the Wired article after clicking around for information on ChatGPT. Seeing Wired’s discomfort with ChatGPT, I had to try it for myself, being skeptical that modern intelligence is really intelligence (because it pre-empts wisdom) and if so, how can artificial intelligence be an improvement? Naturally my questions were about progress traps, given that Wired had itself mentioned them.

To the basic question What is a progress trap? ChatGPT had a basic answer:

  • A progress trap is a situation in which a society or civilization experiences a temporary improvement in living standards, but ultimately reaches a point where further progress becomes impossible or self-defeating. This can occur due to a variety of factors, such as resource depletion, environmental degradation, or social and economic inequality. Progress traps can also occur as a result of technological advances that create new problems or exacerbate existing ones.

Impressed at not getting nonsense, I probed further, What causes progress traps?

  • Progress traps are a phenomenon in which advancements in technology or societal development lead to negative consequences, such as resource depletion or ecological collapse. They can be caused by a variety of factors, including overconsumption of resources, lack of foresight in decision making, and failure to consider the long-term consequences of actions. Additionally, progress traps can be reinforced by cultural or economic systems that encourage unsustainable practices.

That nailed it, succinctly. I dug deeper – Is there a behavioral cause of progress traps?

  • Yes, there are behavioral causes of progress traps. One major behavioral cause is the tendency for individuals and societies to prioritize short-term gains over long-term sustainability. This can lead to overconsumption of resources, environmental degradation, and other negative consequences. Additionally, a lack of foresight and failure to consider the potential negative consequences of actions can also contribute to progress traps. Behavioral biases such as optimism bias, where people tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, can also play a role in progress traps. Another behavioral cause is the social and cultural norms that encourage or discourage sustainable practices.

Though I have studied this behaviour for more than 30 years I had not considered “Optimism bias”. Intrigued, I humbly submitted Explain how optimism bias contributes to progress traps.

  • Optimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes individuals and groups to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes. It can contribute to progress traps by causing individuals and groups to underestimate the potential negative consequences of their actions, leading them to make decisions that are ultimately unsustainable.
       For example, if a society is heavily dependent on a non-renewable resource, such as fossil fuels, individuals and groups may be more likely to overlook the potential negative consequences of their reliance on this resource, such as environmental degradation and the potential for resource depletion. They may assume that technology will eventually come up with a solution before the resource runs out, or that alternative resources will be found in time. This can lead to a lack of investment in sustainable alternatives, and a delay in transitioning to more sustainable systems, thus creating a progress trap.
       In addition, optimism bias can also make it difficult for individuals and groups to recognize when a resource or system is becoming unsustainable, and to take necessary actions to change course. This can lead to a continuation of unsustainable practices and ultimately a decline in the well-being of the society.

I had to admit at that point that I haven’t and probably couldn’t have said it better. All of this begged the question How can we prevent progress traps?

  • Progress traps are situations in which a society or civilization becomes dependent on a certain technology or way of life, and as a result, is unable to adapt when that technology or way of life becomes obsolete or unsustainable. To prevent progress traps, it is important to maintain a balance between exploiting the benefits of new technologies and investing in alternative options and long-term sustainability. This can include implementing policies and regulations to promote sustainable practices, investing in research and development of sustainable technologies, and promoting a culture of critical thinking and skepticism towards new technologies. Additionally, it is important to be aware of the potential downsides of new technologies and to actively work to mitigate them.

All of these answers were comprehensive, yet concise and to my pleasant surprise, without sour or inappropriate notes. Most interesting is the intrinsic warning against failure to consider the potential negative consequences and recommendation to be aware of the potential downsides of new technologies and to actively work to mitigate them. The temptation to probe endlessly was strong but I resisted that, not wanting to prove my own obsolescence. I decided to test Wired’s opinion: Is ChatGPT an example of a progress trap?

  • No, ChatGPT is not an example of a “progress trap.” The term “progress trap” refers to a situation in which technological or social progress leads to a situation that is worse than the original state, trapping the society in a negative state from which it cannot escape. ChatGPT is a tool created by OpenAI that is meant to enhance human communication and provide information, so it does not fit the definition of a progress trap.

ChatGPT’s answers to my questions have more than a little semblance of wisdom, so it gets a thumbs up based on this Q&A session.

The skeptics at Wired will probably disagree with ChatGPT’s ‘testy’ self-assessment. Whether AI is sentient or not is another discussion, but I notice “ChatGPT is at capacity right now, Get notified when we’re back” – a victim of its own success, or just sulking?

Daniel B. O’Leary, Jan 30, 2023

The book Escaping the Progress Trap is available (Kindle) at Amazon.com and (ePub) at Google Play / Books