I originally began to write about Idiocracy because…
- It’s a hilarious (if mean) sci-fi movie
- I am very interested in the implications of St. God’s triage interface
- It seemed grotesquely prescient in regards to the USA leading up to the elections of 2016
- I wanted to do what I could to fight the Idiocracy in the 2018 using my available platform
But now it’s 2019 and I’ve dedicated the blog to AI this year, and I’m still going to try and get you to re/watch this film because it’s one of the most entertaining and illustrative films about AI in all of sci-fi.
Not the obvious AIs
There are a few obvious AIs in the film. Explicitly, an AI manages the corporations. Recall that when Joe convinces the cabinet that he can talk to plants, and that they really want to drink water…well, let’s let the narrator from the film explain…
- Given enough time, Joe’s plan might have worked. But when the Brawndo stock suddenly dropped to zero leaving half the population unemployed; dumb, angry mobs took to the streets, rioting and looting and screaming for Joe’s head. An emergency cabinet meeting was called with the C.E.O. of the Brawndo Corporation.
At the meeting the C.E.O. shouts, “How come nobody’s buying Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator?”
The Secretary of State says, “Aw, shit. Half the country works for Brawndo.” The C.E.O. shouts, “Not anymore! The stock has dropped to zero and the computer did that auto-layoff thing to everybody!” The wonders of giving business decisions over to automation.
I also take it as a given that AI writes the speeches that King Camacho reads because who else could it be? These people are idiots who don’t understand the difference between government and corporations, of course they would want to run the government like a corporation because it has better ads. And since AIs run the corporations in Idiocracy…
No. I don’t mean those AIs. I mean that you should rewatch the film understanding that Joe and Rita, the lead characters, are Super AIs in the context of Idiocracy.
The protagonists are super AIs
The literature distinguishes between three supercategories of artificial intelligence.
- Narrow AI, which is the AI we have in the world now. It’s much better than humans in some narrow domain. But it can’t handle new situations. You can’t ask a roboinvestor to help plan a meal, for example, even though it’s very very good at investing.
- General AI, definitionally meaning “human like” in it’s ability to generalize from one domain of knowledge to handle novel situations. If this exists in the world, it’s being kept very secret. It probably does not.
- Super AI, the intelligence of which dwarfs our own. Again, this probably doesn’t exist in the world, but if it did, it’s being kept very secret. Or maybe even keeping itself secret. The difference between a bird’s intelligence and a human’s is a good way to think about the difference between our intelligence and a superintelligence. It will be able to out-think us at every step. We may not even be able to understand the language in which asks its questions.
Now the connection to Joe and Rita should be apparent. Though theirs is not an artificial intelligence, the difference between their smarts and that of Idiocracy approaches that same uncanny scale.
Watch how Joe and Rita move through this world. They are routinely flabbergasted at the stupidity around them. People are pointlessly belligerent, distractedly crass, easily manipulated, guided only by their base instincts, desperate to not appear “faggy,” and guffawing about (and cheering on) horrific violence. Rita and Joe are not especially smart by our standards, but they can outthink everyone around them by orders of magnitude, and that’s (comparatively) super AI.
The people of Idiocracy have idioted themselves into a genuine ecological crisis. They need to stop poisoning their environment because, at the very least, it’s killing them. But what about jobs! What about profits! Does this sound familiar?
Joe doesn’t have any problem figuring out what’s wrong. He just tastes what’s being sprayed in the fields, and it’s obvious to him. His biggest problem is that the people he’s trying to serve are too dumb to understand the explanation (much less their culpability). He has to lie and feed them some bullshit reason and then manage people’s frustration that it doesn’t work instantly, even though he knows and we know it will work given time.
In this role as superintelligences, our two protagonists illustrate key critical concerns we have about superintelligent AIs:
- Economic control
- Social manipulation
- Cooperation by “multis.”
Rita finds it trivially easy to bilk one idiot out of money and gain economic power. She could use her easy lucre to, in turn, control the people around her. Fortunately she is a benign superintelligence.
In the Chapter 6 of the seminal work on the subject, Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom lists six superpowers that an ASI would work to gain in order to achieve its goals. The last of these he terms “economic productivity” using which the ASI can “generate wealth which can be used to buy influence, services, resources (including hardware), etc.” This scene serves as a lovely illustration of that risk.
Of course you’re wondering what the other five are, so rather than making you go hunt for them…
- Intelligence amplification, to bootstrap its own intelligence
- Strategizing, to achieve distant goals and overcome intelligent opposition
- Social manipulation, to leverage external resources by recruiting human support, to enable a boxed AI to persuade its gatekeepers to let it out, and to persuade states and organizations to adopt some course of action.
- Hacking, so the AI can expropriate computational resources over the internet, exploit security holes to escape cybernetic confinement, steal financial resources, and hijack infrastructure like military robots, etc.
- Technology research, to create a powerful military force, to create surveillance systems, and to enable automated space colonization.
- Economic productivity, to generate wealth which can be used to buy influence, services, resources (including hardware), etc.
Joe demonstrates the second of these, social manipulation, repeatedly throughout the film.
- He convinces Frito to help him in exchange for the profits from a time travel compound interest gambit
- He convinces the cabinet to switch to watering crops by telling them he can talk to plants.
- He convinces the guard to let him escape prison (more on this below).
Joe’s not perfect at it. Early in the film he tries reason to convince the court of his innocence, and fails. Later he fails to convince the crowd to release him in Rehabilitation. An actual ASI would have an easier time of these things.
The only way they contain Joe in the early part of the film is with a physical cage, and that doesn’t last long. He finds it trivially easy to escape their prison using, again, social manipulation.
- Hi. Excuse me. I’m actually supposed to be getting out of prison today, sir.
- Yeah. You’re in the wrong line, dumb ass. Over there.
- I’m sorry. I am being a big dumb ass. Sorry.
- GUARD (to other guard)
- Hey, uh, let this dumb ass through.
Elizer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, has described the AI-Box problem, in which he illustrates the folly of thinking that we could contain a super AI. (Bostrom also cites him in the Superintelligence book.) Using only a text terminal, he argues, an ASI can convince an even a well-motivated human to release it. He has even run social experiments where one participant played the unwilling human, and he played the ASI, and both times the human relented. And while Elizer is a smart guy, he is not an ASI, which would have an even easier time of it. This scene illustrates how easily an ASI would thwart our attempts to cage it.
Cooperation between multis
Chapter 11 of Bostrom’s book focuses on how things might play out if instead of only one ASI in the world, a “singleton” there are many ASIs, or “multis.” (Colossus: The Forbin Project and Person of Interest also explore these scenarios with artificial superintelligences.)
In this light, Joe and Rita are multis who unite over shared circumstances and woes, and manage to help each other out in their struggle against the idiots. Whatever advantage the general intelligences have over the individual ASIs are significantly diminished when they are working together.
Note: In Bostrom’s telling, multis don’t necessarily stabilize each other, they just make things more complex and don’t solve the core principal-agent problem. But he does acknowledge that stable, voluntary cooperation is a possible scenario.
Cold comfort ending
At the end of Idiocracy, we can take some cold comfort that Rita and Joe have a moral sense, a sense of self-preservation, and sympathy for fellow humans. All they wind up doing is becoming rulers of the world and living out their lives. (Oh god are their kids Von Neumann probes?) The implication is that, as smart as they are, they will still be outpopulated by the idiots of that world.
Imagine this story is retold where Joe and Rita are psychopaths obsessed with making paper clips, with their superintelligent superpowers and our stupidity. The idiots would be enslaved to paper clip making before they could ask whether or not it’s fake news.
Or even less abstractly, there is a deleted “stinger” scene at the end of some DVDs of the film where Rita’s pimp UPGRAYEDD somehow winds up waking up from his own hibernation chamber right there in 2505, and strolls confidently into town. The implied sequel would deal with an amoral ASI (UPGRAYEDD) hostile to its mostly-benevolent ASI leaders (Rita and Joe). It does not foretell fun times for the Idiocracy.
For me, this interpretation of the film is important to “redeem” it, since its big takeaway—that is, that people are getting dumber over time—is known to be false. The Flynn Effect, named for its discoverer James R. Flynn, is the repeatedly-confirmed observation that measurements of intelligence are rising, linearly, over time, and have been since measurements began. To be specific, this effect is not seen in general intelligence but rather the subset of fluid, or analytical intelligence measures. The rate is about 3 IQ points per decade.
Wait. What? How can this be? Given the world’s recent political regression (that kickstarted the series on fascism and even this review of Idiocracy) and constant news stories of the “Florida Man” sort, the assertion does not seem credible. But that’s probably just availability bias. Experts cite several factors that are probably contributing to the effect.
- Better health
- Better nutrition
- More and better education
- Rising standards of living
The thing that Idiocracy points to—people of lower intelligence outbreeding people of higher intelligence—was seen as not important. Given the effect, this story might be better told not about a time traveler heading forwards, but rather heading backwards to some earlier era. Think Idiocracy but amongst idiots of the Renaissance.
Since I know a lot of smart people who took this film to be an exposé of a dark universal pattern that, if true, would genuinely sour your worldview and dim your sense of hope, it seems important to share this.
So go back and rewatch this marvelous film, but this time, dismiss the doom and gloom of declining human intelligence, and watch instead how Idiocracy illustrates some key risks (if not all of them) that super artificial intelligence poses to the world. For it really is a marvelously accessible shorthand to some of the critical reasons we ought to be super cautious of the possibility.