AI, Psychedelics, and the Future of Humanity
May you live in Interesting Times.
In 1966, US Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited South Africa, where he delivered the Day of Affirmation Address, a stirring example of classic Kennedy rhetoric that would become one of his most famous speeches.
In it, Kennedy invoked a cryptic Chinese saying that captured the turbulence of the incipient world order:
“There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May he live in interesting times.'
They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.
And everyone here will ultimately be judged, will ultimately judge himself, on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.
Like it or not we live in interesting times.”
The comparisons between our current age and that of the time when Kennedy delivered this address are too numerous to count, and dear reader, like it or not, we live in interesting times.
Unless you’re just emerging from the Amazon after a two-week Ayahuasca retreat, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the recent drama that unfolded at OpenAI.
I’ll spare you the recap, which you can read about nearly everywhere else on the internet, except, ironically, ChatGPT:
But the most important takeaway from this episode—the heart of the heart of the matter—is the debate about AI progress and safety.
While the specifics remain unknown—what did he see???—the implication is that researchers at OpenAI recently made a major breakthrough in creating artificial general intelligence (AGI).
In response, CEO Sam Altman was abruptly fired by the board of the OpenAI non-profit, the organization that controls the for-profit arm and a group that has the responsibility of upholding the mission “to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.”
The board apparently saw such a development as a threat to humanity, so they fired Altman, who, in their purview, was too driven by the commercial opportunity to safely and responsibly steward such power technology.
Thus, the board’s decision to fire Altman should be viewed in light of this mission of benefiting—or, rather, protecting—all of humanity.
Of course, after a few days, Altman was reinstated as CEO, and as one commenter put it: “They came at the king, and missed, and made him the Emperor.”
You could say that this was the first of many AI Holy Wars, and it was won by the AI optimists.
The Psychedelic Field Is “AI Lite”
Of course, this is not an AI publication; we are concerned with psychedelics and the rollout of these substances in the scientific, political, and cultural landscapes that are increasingly open to them.
But it doesn't take much to notice the similarities between these fields that portend radical departures from the status quo in their own ways.
Psychedelics and artificial intelligence are unique among frontier technologies and mirror each other in many ways—AI is to society and the economy what psychedelics are to the individual and community—and the destabilizing effect of each can either lead to emergent outcomes of two categories:
Valence: positive or negative
Intention: intended or unintended
The kerfuffle and subsequent discourse about the OpenAI drama are remarkably similar to those we see in the land of psychedelia—though at a massively larger scale—with competing perspectives along several themes and axes, such as:
centralization vs. decentralization;
proprietary vs. open-source;
government regulation and personal autonomy; and
public benefit vs. profit maximization.
I believe it is useful to think about psychedelics—like AI—as a class of General Purpose Technology, albeit a class that was not created or engineered but abundantly available in nature.
That the government outlawed these substances—and they are now making their way through regulatory routes and seeping into the culture—makes them like a new technology, the adoption of which is only increasing.
Such technologies have broad-based applications and the potential to impact the economy and society drastically.
Examples of General Purpose Technologies throughout history include farming, the steam engine, electricity, the internal combustion engine, computers, and the internet. Each of these technologies transformed industries and societies in profound ways, leading to new economic structures and ways of living.
On the one hand, such technologies open new vistas for creation, problem-solving, and innovation.
On the other hand, such economic and social transformations are not without their drawbacks.
Consider the advent of social media, which created untold economic opportunities, information sharing, and community building, while at the same time has clearly proven to be a disaster for mental illness (especially among young people) and political polarization, and provides governments with a means of censorship and surveillance.
While it could be argued that all of the technological revolutions throughout history have made fundamental changes to how we live, communicate, and experience the world, the introduction of AI—and AGI especially—will be the most dramatic.
The hypotheticals are like a Rorschach test for each individual—is the future better or worse with abundant artificial intelligence?
The prospect of psychedelics—in medicine and society—is a similar Rorschach test.
What is so fascinating and vexing for conventional psychiatry and psychology—and the culture broadly—is that the relief from subjective suffering that comes from psychedelic use may also be accompanied by changes in metaphysical belief structure.
If we extend the metaphor between the effects of AI on society and psychedelic experiences on the individual, it is clear that psychedelic experiences do not simply ameliorate (or exacerbate when it goes wrong) symptoms, but that they have the potential to radically alter the fundamental experience of what it means—and feels like—to be a human.
Consider this excerpt from Christopher Bache, a professor at Youngstown University and philosopher of religion, when asked about the most important insight from years of purposeful, intentional, and supported psychedelic use:
“This is a hard question to answer. The most important?
That the universe is the manifest body of a Divine Being of unimaginable intelligence, compassion, clarity, and power, that we are all aspects of this Being, never separated from it for a moment, that we are growing ever-more aware of this connection, that physical reality emerges out of Light and returns to Light continuously, that Light is our essential nature and our destiny, that all life moves as One, that reincarnation is true, that there is a deep logic and significance to the circumstances of our lives, that everything we do contributes to the evolution of the whole, that our awareness continues in an ocean of time and a sea of bliss when we die, that we are loved beyond measure and that humanity is driving towards an evolutionary breakthrough that will change us and life on this planet at the deepest level. Take your pick.”
To most, these are the ramblings of a madman.
But my bet is that won’t always be the case, and this perspective will blossom through subjective experiences enabled by psychedelics and scientific inquiry enabled by AI.
Whenever a new General Purpose Technology that has broad-based applications and the potential to drastically impact the economy and society emerges, we see the same thing.
Coalitions form to oppose and advance, to seize control or to emancipate, to inspire or stoke fear, and we see a narrative tug of war.
And so, both psychedelics and AI are examples of narrative battlefields of an ideological battle that have the potential to radically alter the future of humanity.
As the late Robert F. Kennedy said, “They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
And whether we like it or not, we are living in the most interesting of interesting times.