On November 4th, 2018, after more than six years holed up inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and eight under arbitrary detention, Julian Assange gave what would turn out to be his last video conference before all communications were cut. Six months later, he was dragged out of the embassy by British police and incarcerated in the next circle of his personal hell: Belmarsh prison, where he remains in solitary confinement, in harsh conditions and deteriorating physical and mental health.
Demonised, abandoned, and deprived of everything he needs, including access to his own legal documents and even paper or writing implements, there is no doubt that he is being persecuted to death. In court appearances, whether in person or by phone, it is clear that they are slowly killing him.
His last interview reminds us of what he once was — of the sophistication of his mind, as well as his courage, grounded idealism and rare sanity. His responses to questions sent in by a panel of journalists are measured, articulate, supremely informed of course — and hugely important. He defined the purpose of Wikileaks as being to “understand mankind and help us to produce a better — or realistically, less worse — human civilisation”.
While Assange is best known — and vilely punished — for his unforgivable exposures of hideous warcrimes and Sadistic pedophilia in government, again and again throughout the hour-long question and answer session he comes back to the same issue.
“Algorithmic processing of knowledge is moving into artificial intelligence,” says Assange. “And while AI is just another kind of algorithm, I think the scale-changes that have occurred in the last seven years are significant enough to classify it as a qualitative change. And that qualitative change means a very serious threat to the stability of human civilisation — not that civilisation should be too stable — and the ability of human beings to organise their fate in an intelligent manner.”
Attempting to explain the degree of threat posed by AI, he notes that the most realistic answer to the Fermi paradox is not that life is not abundant throughout the universe or that advanced civilisation rarely evolves, but that when it does, there is something about it that means that it does not last long. And the answer to that, in his opinion, must be the “light-speed competition that occurs when you wire up the world to itself.”
And that, it is clear, is the point we have reached in our own evolution. Nation states, he explains, have not actually been around for very long. Borders arise out of geographic conflict — two-dimensional spacial competition — and create spaces within which there can be peace, or at least greater co-operation.
“But the internet has no two-dimensional spacial nature. So instead what you see with the conflicts that occur through internet-based organisations — and states are increasingly moving onto the internet — is a kind of inter-digitisation of conflict. That is, there’s no border, and it’s 220 milliseconds from New York to Nairobi. So why would there ever be peace in such a scenario?”
In the ‘anarchic international space’ of a digitally connected world, cryptography is an attempt to create borders. “But the size of the attack-surface for any decent-sized organisation, and the number of people and different types of hardware and software it has to pull inside itself, means that that’s very very hard to establish. And things are moving so fast that I don’t think it’s really possible for organisations to come up with borders that are predictable enough and stable enough to eliminate conflict. Therefore there will be more conflict.”
At the same time, something else happens. “That classical model which people in academia have called surveillance capitalism, namely that you acquire capital through surveillance — the capital is the data — and then you sell it to advertisers basically — that’s changed now. It’s really a very interesting and important and severe economic change, which is to take the surveillance capitalism model and transform it into a model that doesn’t yet have a name but we could call it the AI model, which is to use bait and switch techniques that Google and others have done to provide some enticing services to get hold of data, and then, using a vast reservoir, train artificial intelligences of different kinds, and thereby replacing not just intermediating sectors — most things you do on the internet are in some sense more efficient intermediation — but to actually take over the transport sector or to create whole new sectors. Even just the transport sector alone is worth trillions of dollars more than the advertising intermediation sector. And to be a player in that game, you have to have the vast reservoirs of data.”
NEXT: THE SADNESS OF ELON MUSK