209 Comments
Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

Feels almost grubby to click the like button after that but what an excellent read, thank you

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Haha I just liked this. Recursive as hell.

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Interesting piece! I’m co-creator of Zombies, Run! so I’m glad to see it mentioned here - we designed it to be in the best interests of players, which is why it doesn’t feature streaks or leaderboards or other ways to manipulate you into overexercising or playing more than you want to.

That said, I’m more sanguine about gamification than the author. There are indeed many games to choose from, but the ones that are most concerning that those we have little choice but to play, whether they’re from our employers or in our schools and colleges, or built into devices and platforms like the Apple Watch and iOS.

If you’re interested in this subject, I wrote a book critiquing gamification called “You’ve Been Played” - the NYT called it illuminating and persuasive!

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Omg Adrian in the chat. Did not expect my Substack worlds to collide like this! Anybody who sees this comment, do read Adrian's book - it's great!

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This was superb. Thank you.

The one thing I'll add is that even gamified learning is of doubtful use. Duolingo is a case in point. I've known multiple people who worked their way up the leaderboards without improving their ability in the language much at all. Don't get me wrong, I like playing with it too, and I think it can be used smartly as a support for proper learning. But taking a class, memorizing vocab and paradigms, doing grammar exercises... These are still better uses of one's time.

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So interesting. I have a 200 day streak on Duolingo

in German and am at this moment at no. 4 in my bit of the Diamond League but when asked to say something all that comes to mind is the German for “my turtle doesn’t need a bicycle.” So I can see that Duolingo is conditioning me to do a bit every day, without ever testing my actual grasp of the language. In the other hand, I have overcome my lifelong fear of German, whatever that was about.

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I tried it (am learning my fifth language) and didn't last 24 hours because the game-playing felt so infantile. I have found other apps to support my learning which don't treat me like a toddler.

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A YouTuber called Evan Edinger I watch who loves learning languages did a YT video very critical of all the changes to Duolingo which he used before and he said was very good. In his critical video he stated how they had removed all the useful aspects that actually helped you learn and made it into a "game" in which the learning aspect was much diminished.

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May I ask which apps you've found effective?

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My favourite (for Spanish) is Conjugato - it allows you to customise which verbs, tenses, moods etc you need, then bowls them at you. Most efficient.

I also use DeepL as a game, changung the variables in a sentence to see how it changes the translation (although I would never use it, or any other machine, for actual translation, without a thorough knowledge of the language first).

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Memrise is also useful for language learning, especially as a way of creating your own learning systems

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I agree. For me, I can get the correct answer on Duo, but it hasn't given me the confidence or real experience to communicate in a new language. It's helpful for reading a menu, thats about it. Also, my son is turning 5, we have friends whose kids are already reading because they use reading apps. Im choosing to work with my kid this summer with real books, the hard way. Ive been wrestling with it because its more "work" and time, but I think there's something to be gained from the discipline of memorizing and putting in that time and effort the old fashioned way.

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Yes! I didn’t last more than a week on Duolingo. I was so irritated with the game-like features that I quit.

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

BOOM, what a read.

Haven't read anything profound like this in a while. I'm confident I'll reflect on this essay many times. Amazingly demonstrated thanks 🙏🏼

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

First-class essay that, for me, reinforces the notion that humans will always struggle with short-term thinking. Gamification simply maximizes that defect. As you point out, it’s possible to overcome the defect, but between our own inclinations and the array of external factors enticing us in the wrong direction, it’s uphill. Remedies? Yes - you are right about pursuit of the difficult instead of the facile. I would add that to any extent someone is able to do so, plunge yourself into the natural world. Even if for short doses.

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I see it as a struggle of greedy algorithms vs higher-order thinking. If, as a collective, we could agree to stop being greedy, a lot of these problems would go away (in theory)

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The simple forming of a collective in the first place would be a force to be reckoned with. It's kind of interesting that no one has tried this.

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I’m pretty sure that’s what most mystic religion is though, as well as many political organizations and movements. It’s just that they all suffer from the same disadvantage: they lose.

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I'm talking about an ideologically null organization that includes everyone. We are told that this is the purpose democracy serves I think, but anyone that falls for that is a sucker.

Your point about spirituality groups and their losing is a good one: case in point, I was planning on attending a 2 day retreat in a few weeks and sent an email with some "unconventional" questions to the organizers: no reply. And this was of the high level Indian Mystic class, the best of the best, the people that preach that inquiry and discernment is what it's all about.

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I’m not convinced any of this works for more than a very short period before people get bored with it, otherwise we’d all be fit, multilingual etc. I find it incredibly annoying and also pretty insulting tbh when I’m interrupted from my work or reading to be congratulated for achieving some built in goal or to have my performance ranked - “you’re doing really well, keep up the good work!” etc, when I complete a certain number or level of tasks. It’s infantilising and actually robs you of any sense of personal satisfaction in the work. People aren’t fools. Even my kids are contemptuous of the ridiculous awards they receive at school. They even gamify attendance now. It’s counter-productive. When turning up is an achievement, the implication is that there’s a lower expectation. So I’m not convinced it has much of an effect except to degrade genuine pride in accomplishment.

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I semi-agree. The research (cited in the essay) suggests that gamification can help motivate many people to do things they dislike. I've certainly found it helps me. And yet, if we try to gamify activities we already enjoy, this can actually backfire and lead to the "overjustification effect", where people begin to view leisure as work. For instance, when school-kids who enjoyed drawing were rewarded for doing so, they began to fixate on obtaining the rewards, causing them to view drawing as work, which killed their enjoyment of it.

https://sites.psu.edu/aspsy/2015/04/19/the-joy-of-reading-and-the-overjustification-effect/

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One thing I can add as a recent graduate from an English university. I was appalled at the way in which they have used similar mechanisms in the university campuses. Everyone gets reminders from the university about their work, about job fairs, etc and that really diminishes the intuitive part of your brain. You dont go to universities only to get a job at the end of it, you go there to learn and have an open-mind. Plus the feedback systems are based on numbers these days and not on ideas or critiques. I was asked to not send in a long critique that I had written on my university modules. Even during the thesis more importance was given on the ones who finished it in time regardless of what they were writing it on (a student wrote one on Kim Kardashian and it got accepted instantly). In the end my dean gave me an answer which I remember to this day. I walked into her cabin and asked her what is the point of me studying all this if you are only interested in students getting a job in the BBC or Guardian and her answer was, "We, as in universities, are here to legitimize you as an artist." Thats how far this gamification model has come in real-time.

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"You don't go to university only to get a job at the end of it". University doesn't qualify you as an artist -the market will decide if you have anything worthwhile to offer as an artist. University has no stake in you aside from pocketing your tuition fees. You will end up with a job at the end of it anyway, but not necessarily one you want, or will find fulfilling and life-long. You are not "special". I see a collision with reality ahead: fund-raising for an NGO? Fries with that? Or perpetual "student"

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The "market" is as flawed, if not more flawed, than "higher" education. Neither of these systems is honing society. Both are stifling competition and contributing to systemic human inequity.

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Yep. Thats how it works!

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Apr 20·edited Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

An issue is we can now make a living off these social traps. Take the example of a post-doctorate researcher making 40k a year. This is what the institutions and government deem someone of his education and value worth. Yet, you and I would both agree his contributions and worth is far greater than what he is paid. Yet his compensation is not reflective of that. The laws that govern how they're compensated are too slow to change, a sign of how slow these systems are in our modern age of constant and rapid change.

Now we have young adults who's only contribution to society is to dance on tik-tok and they make substantially more money than Nobel prize winners in STEM fields. The social traps have become self-sustaining where these games can now provide a living, perpetuating their allure. The short-term gains are so attractive and lucrative, that the long-term consequences of pursuing short-term goals are inconsequential. There's Only Fans creators who make their money and retire early. You play the game for a few years to reap the rewards for a lifetime.

Fewer and fewer people want to pursue worthwhile goals because the old systems that upheld them no longer provide individuals with enough to live off of. It's worth even making a distinction and calling them traditional jobs and traditional goals. I don't know how to solve this, maybe we have to create new games for scientists to play, where they can make their contributions but also be compensated fairly. I don't have any good ideas for this. I mean, it's gotten to the point where Lawyers and Doctors are now going to YouTube with videos titled, "Lawyer/Doctor reacts to [Insert TV Show Here]". They make more from doing that than what they spend a decade studying for.

I have no answers, but I guess the guiding principle here is to be wise with what game you choose to play and to have the self-awareness to know which game you are playing. But to also keep in mind how rapidly these games are changing.

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The people who "win" the social media competition, particularly those whose main achievement is just looking sexy and thirst-inducing, might make enough to live on for the rest of their lives, but it seems quite likely that many of them will upscale their lifestyles to match their income based on the expectation that they will continue to enjoy their success indefinitely. After they peak and their popularity and the income it provides start to taper off, they will be tempted to abandon all restraint in the attempt to prolong the ride at all costs.

One is unlikely, I suspect, to look back from the age of 90 and feel great satisfaction remembering what they did to remain relevant on TikTok in their late 20s.

To win is to lose.

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And when their income tapers off, they’ll engage in virtual begging on Go Fund Me.

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This is so true. My brother who is a scientist in Germany finds it extremely difficult to find a job which uphelds his ethics and principles. Most of the jobs require him to work for companies that are not really helping humans benefit but rather reaping off of them.

On the other hand, I have friends who are "social media influencers" who get 250 pounds to post one picture. That's such a grim picture.

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There's exactly one lawyer who does the "Lawyer reacts" videos (which, disclaimer, are a guilty pleasure of mine). Ultimately, although it's a very sweet gig for the few content creators who make it, the market for them is still tiny compared to the one in traditional professions - not really enough to change an individual's incentives. (Yes, kids dream of being various kinds of influencer, but I think they grow out of it when they mature and realise that it's neither as easy nor as fun as they once believed).

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My great nephew had a try at that online gaming,where you get a following watching and commenting on your skills but he gave it up after a month as he found out how wearying it is to have to not only play a game but also keep up an entertaining stream of conversation and engage with your followers etc. As he had a full time proper paid job as well it was too tiring. And being a wise young man he chose the job,a good one. A lot of things LOOK really easy until you try them and learn whats involved. It's worth giving it a try just to find out

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I became a young adult at a pivotal time in the 20th century.(I see now). The early 1970s. A form of strident,vociferous and FAKE feminism dominated the media and thus the public mind or social narrative. The generations before me and even my older sister had the goal in life to leave school,get a job,not a career,a job as you'd only be doing that for five years max,then you met someone (of the oppo sex!),after "courting" about two years you got married,the two of you had already secured your home,put down the down payment on the house then it was home,kids,maybe a little job,a few hours s couple of days a week in the local greengrocers and that was your life and now those ones are happy Grannies. I know them.

In my generation it diverged some chose the above way and some chose the new ways ie career,no kids or not till 30s,etc. Now my generation (that song always springs in my mind) are Granny age,and both ways worked for some and didn't work for some.

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And then they'll be so few qualified around, the games can be made for others' survival. The cost is freedom over much of one's life.

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Out of curiosity: would you happen to be be a supporter of "Democracy"? Do you not think that it is a Good Thing?

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

Super. Human mind has been as much intelligent as gullible. Attachment or entrapment are traits of mind. The more "developed" or "advanced" an animal is, the more it is conditioned for entrapment. People whom we term "enlightened" saw through it and called the whole thing called life is Maya. But, we don't give up the chase, do we?

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We absolutely do not. The chase is too alluring. Maybe the best we can do is try to balance our mindfulness with our primal nature.

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If Maya caught on as a meme, maybe humans could find their way out of the mess they've created, and continue to make worse because The Experts and The Scientists keep making the same mistakes (?) over and over.

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This was definitely worth waiting 4 months for. Thank you once more, Gurwinder, for a beautifully written essay that feels like it emerged exactly when it needed to.

My gripe is not with this set of ideas, but that, accepting its propositions, I can’t see where to go next. What exactly is “meaningful in the long term”? Love? What is love, then? If I should do things just because I like to do them, then how do I even know what those things are, assuming myself to be a victim of a life of games? What exactly is something that would bring “lasting contentment”, and how can I find other examples? Does such a thing even exist???

It’s just a bunch more questions. But maybe that’s how you know you’re nearing the truth.

Thanks again. If we are made to wait another four months, I will be content in the meantime.

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Thanks ivadim. I think "lasting contentment" is ultimately whatever your 90 year old self would be happy to have done. If you're not sure what that might be, experiment and collect new experiences until you have an idea.

As for this article taking so long, I wrote it while struggling through some health issues. I'm feeling better now though, so I'll be publishing more frequently from now on!

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

Fascinating questions - I think somehow personal humility is involved in lasting contentment, if humility is defined as the acceptance that you are no better or worse than anyone else. No amount of success makes you more worthy than any other human being. It might be a way to circumvent the competitive scorekeeping nature of these quantifiable games.

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I’m sorry to hear that. I send you love and good wishes 🙏❤️ Glad to have you back.

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I believe true contentment lies in a transcendent, eternal perspective. Knowing that our ultimate meaning and purpose is not anchored in what’s fleeting, temporal, and subject to change. That we are part of something bigger and it’s not just “all about me.”That I am loved by a personal Mind, who created me and cares for me. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13

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My translation is: your contentment originates in fantasies? I see no evidence of creator(s). Especially a "him."

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You believe that consciousness came from unconsciousness. That the immaterial came from physical matter. That life came from nonlife, order from chaos, something from nothing. That good and evil exist outside of objective moral standards. Or as Glen Scrivener put it, “Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Materialists believe in the virgin birth of the cosmos. Choose your miracle.” You’ve picked your miracle, I’ve picked mine.

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This should be #1 in the list: wonder, ask questions.

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

Excellent essay. I make many lists, long-term, monthly, daily - and I see now that it is a way to gamify my personal goals. I get a spark from completing a task. I think it's overall a good thing, but your article reminds me that the important thing is not to check things off, but to enjoy the fruits of my labor and to continually reassess if my listed goals are nurturing my overall fulfillment, happiness, health, dreams, and juiciness of life.

I got rid of my Fitbit last year and found I enjoyed my walks much more, felt more well rested, and stopped over-exercising myself to the point of actual harm. I felt nothing but relief at letting it go.

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

This is the second essay of yours I have read and have thoroughly enjoyed them both. You are an exceptional writer and educator. Thank you.

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Apr 20·edited Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

What a great article. I developed an aversion to games, starting in childhood, and I've never cottoned to them. As a kid, I would somehow always clean up at Monopoly. I don't know why that happened, but my sister remembers it the same way. There is very little skill at Monopoly, but I did learn to buy the low rent properties early, whenever I had a chance, which some kids didn't do. But even though there was a burst of pleasure at winning, it made my siblings hate me. It didn't build connections, which is what I (middle child) most wanted with both of them. Never had any attraction to video or online games. I like the app on my phone that tells me how many miles I have walked, but that's it. You didn't get into it, but there's also the harmful psychological "game people play," as the book title from the 70s put it. Avoiding honesty and vulnerability in interpersonal relations requires complex gamesmanship. Again--you can "win" in the short term with pretense and passive-aggressive behavior and the like to control situations, but in the long-term relationships suffer. I think there are some good insights from that frame (though I never read the book). I appreciate you sharing positive ways to play games. A game like Scrabble is still zero-sum ultimately, but it's intellectually challenging and includes many small triumphs that are deeply fulfilling. As long as the players are well-matched, it can fit into the "good games" category.

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I think that if learning is considered a "win", Scrabble would be positive-sum. I've learned so many words from games of Scrabble that I "lost"!

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That's some powerful writing, sir. I wasn't sure how you would connect the dots, but it all makes sense now.

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Apr 20Liked by Gurwinder

That was truly a very good article...I recognise at least one of my daughters (age 26) in the social media reference.... She has nearly 5k followers on Instagram and what a shallow existence she has! It wasn't by design, she was captivated... Her ego got her 💥. And a number of friends who are Strava junkies... Even in their late 50s/60s.

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Choosing gamification ruins both the customer experience and many lesser startups. Well said! Loved the writing and appreciate the research and hard work that went into this piece!

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I got kicked off of Facebook a few years ago. I'm shadow-banned on YouTube. Over 2,000 people "follow" me on Twitter, but my Tweets average 42 impressions.

It feels like I've been designated to lose the social media status competition. That hurts because I was earning something approaching a living as a podcaster in the mid twenty-teens before I got kicked off of Facebook, but now having been cast out, throttled on the other major platforms and denied an addicting dose of those particular surrogate reward tokens, it seems like I've dodged a bullet. AND being stymied on those other platforms has led me to Substack!

Elsewhere, you mentioned Kaczynski. I read his manifesto when it was first published, but I didn't think much of it at the time. Bill Joy's famous Wired magazine essay, The Future Doesn't Need Us, prompted me to revisit Industrial Society and It's Future around the turn of the century. I read the entire book for my podcast listening audience, and a few years ago I turned one of those podcast episodes into YouTube video. Earlier this year, YouTube revoked my upload privileges and demonetized my channel because it decided that this years-old video constituted advocacy for a violent criminal organization. It's irritating, but again, possibly a blessing in disguise, particularly now that Substack is rolling out tools to support the sort of vlogging I've been doing on YouTube.

I was surprised to read in your post that Kaczynski wrote about the Fermi Paradox. I just happened to have a copy of Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How within arm's reach. I pulled it off the shelf, looked up Fermi Paradox in the index, turned to that section and saw that I'd highlighted multiple passages there when I read the book. Too many jolts of simulated success from electronic parasites have degraded my cognitive capacity.

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I'm enjoying Substack quite a bit. It's early days for me, but this is the closest I've come to finding an online space in the 21st Century that matched the excitement and sense of discovery that I found on USENET and listserv discussion groups in the 90s, before the cultural hegemony of the present crystalized.

I arrived on Substack just as it was facing an organized attack against its commitment to free expression when mainstream outlets tried to paint it as a hotbed of Nazism. I was disappointed that the team didn't call out the complaints as the smokescreen they were for the inevitable attempt to incorporate Substack into the progressive blob. I wish they'd taken a more principled stand for the right to hold and express unpopular and even offensive beliefs. The fact that they caved and banned accounts is worrying. Now that the tiny cohort of actual Nazis and white nationalists have been eliminated, less extreme characters and positions will now be marked as the new extremists in need of purging.

I'd hate to find Substack just in time to watch it fall to the all-consuming swarm.

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I think the tension you identified is overblown. The danger of squelching the few sanctuaries of counter-consensus is far more important than avoiding the potential "harm" of offending the sensibilities of the easily offended.

Key to fending off the cultural blob is to keep all advertising off the platform. Notes was a move in the wrong direction, in my opinion. Writing and reading an essay, even if it is just a few hundred words long, presents a large enough hurdle in terms of effort and sustained concentration to avoid most of what has ruined Twitter. Low effort posting leads to performativity. I'd prefer a high effort platform.

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"Do you envision any specific features or policies that could further enhance this model of a high-effort, ad-free platform?"

Unfortunately, the dangers are most easily identified in the rear-view mirror. The blob will set AI to the task of overwhelming or subverting Substack's resistance. AI can explore design space in a systematic way that human cognition cannot replicate or anticipate. When it does, it will find novel and counterintuitive strategies that cannot be anticipated.

The obvious answer, "Set a thief to catch a thief," or "Task AI with defending against AI," puts the most impactful aspects of the struggle outside of human agency, possibly outside of human understanding.

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