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Billionaire warlords: Why the future is medieval

The world's next superpower might just resurrect the Middle Ages.

SEAN MCFATE: The United States, especially, has been now accustomed, for 25 years, as being the universal and unitary superpower. That's not going to last forever. I think most people know this, even though some may be in cognitive dissonance over this. The truth is there are rising powers like Russia and China, but there are other rising powers too. One of our problems is that we live in a state-centric view of the universe. International relations, for most of us, is run by states. Nation states are the global, political unit of the international order. And this is what we learn in social studies as kids. But that is actually not the way the world has worked for most of human history. States are actually about 300 or 400 years old. Before there were states, there were empires, and there were tribes, and everything else. The reign of states and only states can wage war legitimately that is coming to a close. We're actually going back to the status quo ante of when global order was a free-for-all of like the Middle Ages of antiquity, to what came before. And one of the things of that free-for-all is that: Who else were superpowers? It wasn't just states. So in the Middle Ages, the papacy was a superpower. Rich aristocracies were superpowers. Are we going back this world again?

So you know we have random billionaires today who have as much power as states. There are 62 people in the planet who own the equivalent of half the world's wealth. 62 people. You can put them all onto a bus. You have multinational corporations. We have the Fortune 500, which are more powerful than most of the states in the world. Of the 190, 194 states in the world, most are fragile or failed. We only think the top 25 states, like the US, Western Europe, Eastern Asia, et cetera. But that's an anomaly. The vast majority of states in the world are more either regimes hiding inside states or just outright dumpster fires. So what we're going to see in the future is those who have wealth and political power, who can also hire their own private armies now, become super powers. The world used to wage a lot of private war in military history. In fact, most of military history is privatized. Mercenaries have always been a major component of war. And what happens when you privatize war is that now military strategies blend with business ones. And this puts us at risk because our four stars who are in charge of our military and our policymakers are not prepared for that type of warfare.

So mercenaries were around for millennia. Mercenaries have been around since forever. And it's anomalous in history that 150 years ago they sort of went away. And why that is is still a mystery. People say, well, after the 30 Years War, or after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, where mercenaries ran amok, both rulers and ruled were tired of them, and rulers and kings started to invest in their own standing armies, which is very expensive. I mean, mercenaries are cheaper than standing armies, just like it's cheaper to rent than to own. And countries started to invest in large national militaries. There are reasons for that, some of it was technological, some of it was political, but they monopolized the market for force. Over the next several hundred years, they pushed out mercenaries. They went underground by 1850. And we saw them pop up around the 1950s and '60s in Africa during wars of decolonization, but they were always in the shadows. Now they're returning, and they're up front, whether it's Blackwater for the United States of America or the Wagner Group for Russia, which is a powerful mercenary corporation, or Executive Outcomes in South Africa in the 1990s. We're seeing mercenaries come out of the shadows. And what can put them back in the shadows? Well, only one thing could do it. If all the nations of the world got together and banded together as they did the 1600s, 1700s, and said, no more mercenaries, which I think world peace is easier. So I don't think that's going to happen. Some people put their faith in international public law. The United Nations, the laws of war. I am not one of them. As much as I would love to see that happen, the truth is that international law around war is already very feeble. And let's not forget that mercenaries can shoot your law enforcement. They can shoot them dead. Force is the only commodity that you cannot regulate, because it can resist law enforcement. And this is what makes it so dangerous. And by the way, who's going to go into Syria and arrest all those mercenaries now? Is it going to be the United Nations, the US Marines? I don't think so. So I don't think law is the answer.

I think the most we can do is we can shape the market to incentivize good behavior and blackball bad behavior. But the market for force, which has been with us through all of human history, had a brief hiatus, but it's returning now, and we're not prepared for it. It is one of the biggest security threats of the 21st century, yet we're still focused on ISIS. In some ways, CEOs and Wall Street have more to say about strategy in a future of private warfare than does the Pentagon. And we're not prepared for this.

So for example, one of the things you've got to think about private warfare as a market for force, with supply and demand. Demand are clients, supply are mercenaries. Mercenaries don't want to work themselves out of business. They want to start and elongate wars for profit. When they're out of work, they become bandits, creating artificial demand for the services. One of the things they do a lot, in the Middle Ages, for example, when mercenaries were rampant, is they would get involved in racketeering and extortion. For example, a small private army of mercenaries, say 5,000 mercenaries, shows up to the city of Siena in Italy. And they'd say, we want 5,000 pounds of whatever. We want 5,000 pieces of gold. I'm sort of making that up. And then the people of Siena would, you know, run around and say, OK, well, we'll give you all our gold just so you don't sack us and take our women and children and kill us all. And the mercenaries would say, thank you, we'll be back next year. Right? And so a world awash in mercenaries is a world with more war. And the resurrection of private force is symbolic and emblematic of durable disorder because they'll keep persistent conflict going. They'll contribute to entropy. And let's not also forget that there are clients who do this, as well. So now you have random billionaires, multinational corporations, the extractive industry will start to use private forces to secure their people, their assets, whatever they want to do, or they can wage war for whatever reason they want, no matter how petty. No matter how petty. And having mercenaries available in the world meeting with money lowers the barriers to conflict. It makes going to war easier, and it makes stopping war harder.

  • Russia? China? No. The rising world superpower is the billionaire class. Our problem, says Sean McFate, is that we're still thinking in nation states.
  • Nation states have only existed for the last 300-400 years. Before that, wealthy groups – tribes, empires, aristocracies, etc – employed mercenaries to wage private wars.
  • As wealth inequality reaches combustion point, we could land back in the status quo ante of the Middle Ages. Who will our overlords be? Any or all of the 26 ultra-rich billionaires who own as much as the world's 3.8 billion poorest. What about Fortune 500, which is more powerful than most of the states in the world? Random billionaires, multinational corporations, and the extractive industry may buy armies and wage war on their own terms.


Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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