Measuring human flourishing
A number of the Singularity Principles feature assessments of the potential impacts on human flourishing of projects to develop or deploy new technology. These include:
- Question desirability
- Clarify externalities
- Involve multiple perspectives
- Analyse the whole system.
These principles emphasise that human flourishing isn’t always the same thing as financial (or economic) flourishing. There should be a lot more to assessing the desirability of a project than calculations of profit margins, efficiency, time-to-market, the accumulation of intellectual property, and the inconveniencing or disabling of competitors.
But beyond such economic and financial assessments, what other factors should be considered? And with what relative priority?
Importantly, the Singularity Principles carry no implication that agreement needs to be reached on a single all-encompassing measurement of human flourishing. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. Different technology projects can be evaluated via appeal to different aspects of overall human flourishing. For example, consideration could be given to the potential impact – positive or negative – of a new product on physical health, emotional resilience, human creativity, social cohesion and collaboration, diversity, autonomy, privacy, longer-term sustainability, or the wellbeing of animals.
The fact that a project has some conflicting assessments, according to different criteria, is no reason, by itself, to require the cancellation or redesign of that project. However, what would be wrong is to attempt to hide or ridicule some of these assessments. Instead, as per the principles of “Clarify risks to users” and “Clarify trade-offs”, these conflicting assessments should be part of the open communication about the project. So let’s now think more carefully about trade-offs.
Some example trade-offs
Consider a new use of technology, that allows better automation of a task in manufacturing. As a result, the goods being manufactured can be sold at a lower price point. However, some employees will lose their jobs, since their work tasks can now be performed by robots.
Loss of paid jobs, in this kind of situation, is no reason by itself to resist the project to develop and deploy that new piece of technology. However, the likelihood of such an occurrence needs to be emphasised in advance, allowing public discussion of possible consequences. These could include re-skilling personnel, and/or the payment of a “basic income” to people who have lost their employment.
Now consider a second example. In this case, a new infectious disease is spreading quickly, causing lots of deaths. Let’s call it Cov-24, by loose analogy to Covid-19. Imagine, also, that two methods could be introduced to restrict the deadliness of this disease:
- Strict controls on freedom of movement: people can only mix with others if they wear tight-fitting face-masks
- A vaccination which, alas, has the unfortunate side-effect that around one person in a thousand who receives the vaccine suffers from sudden heart failure some time in the next few days.
In this second example, general attitudes toward the technological intervention of the vaccine are likely to be considerably more antagonistic than in the earlier example of a technological intervention that increases automation in factories. What underlies this difference of attitude, between the two examples, is the understanding that:
- Humans can still flourish, having lives full of meaning and value, even if they lack paid employment
- Humans can not continue to flourish, if they suffer a fatal heart failure as the side effect of taking a vaccine.
A third example: suppose that a political regime is in near despair because of constant criticism and agitation from citizens. The regime observes that the protests are impeding their task of effective governance. Strikes are crippling the economy. To address what it perceives to be a crisis, the regime introduces some carefully calibrated chemicals into the water supply. Result: the population becomes much more docile; they no longer express loud dissatisfaction with government policies. In the absence of strikes, the economy booms.
In this case, two different notions of human flourishing have become opposed:
- Having a stable economy, that produces lots of goods for consumption
- Having independence of thought and freedom of speech.
How are such trade-offs and tensions to be evaluated? Which possible uses of technology should the application of the Singularity Principles seek to block, and which should it seek to particularly encourage?
The choice between two alternatives may appear straightforward in some cases. But in other cases, conflicting instincts can run deep in each of two directions.
Let’s look at one possible framework that could help resolve these conflicting assessments: an updated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Updating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Historically, societies often referred to venerable sets of religious codes to guide them in decisions over potential trade-offs between different aspects of human flourishing. These codes were supplemented by reference to legal precedents – past cases that appeared to feature an issue broadly similar to the one presently under debate.
The problems with such references to religious codes and legal precedents are that:
- New technologies raise possibilities – both opportunities and threats – that are significantly different from those experienced in the past
- Different precedents can be cited, that would lead to opposing conclusions.
That’s no reason to turn our backs on studies of previous sets of guidelines. A great deal of collective wisdom is embodied in these guidelines. However, it is a reason to work hard at bringing these guidelines up-to-date.
The set of recommendations which has probably attracted the most sustained thought, regarding the foundations for human flourishing, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
I anticipate, therefore, that discussion of the application of the Singularity Principles in different cases will take place in parallel with a project to revise and update the UDHR. That project should take into account:
- The many criticisms and alternative formulations of the UDHR that have been raised
- The possibilities for elevated human flourishing via transhumanist states of being – possibilities that do not feature in the current UDHR text.
Constructing an Index of Human and Social Flourishing
One more strand of parallel activity needs to be accelerated. That’s the replacement of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with something that might be called the IHSF – the index of human and social flourishing.
GDP measures the total financial value of goods and services exchanged in the economy. In contrast, the IHSF should increase as the requirements for a good quality of life reduce in cost; it should fall when more citizens feel they are being “left behind” against their will, or when other catastrophic “landmines” risk being detonated.
As an indication of the problems with GDP, note that GDP rises when there is deforestation or overfishing.
To the extent that reporting on the GDP remains prominent in news broadcasts and in political discussion, it will be no surprise if less attention is paid to the broader foundations of human flourishing. That’s a tendency we need to counter. A fuller understanding of all-round human flourishing needs to become one of the centrepieces of public discussion.
For examples of the kinds of information that could usefully be aggregated into the IHSF, refer to the UK National Wellbeing Index, as produced by the UK’s Office of National Statistics.
An example of an area that will likely generate significant discussion, with competing views that will need to be taken into consideration as the IHSF is constructed, is the set of costs and benefits of various protections granted to intellectual property, namely copyrights and patents. These protections each have arguments in their favour, but the entire set of intellectual property rules has consequences that can hinder human flourishing:
- Drugs that are exceptionally expensive
- More focus on obtaining and defending patents than on actually aiding human flourishing
- The development of new solutions being hindered because of a spaghetti of complex licensing terms.
Similar considerations apply to various ranking systems that emphasise numbers of publications. League tables like these can distort the functioning of academia.
This whole discussion may throw up some big surprises. For example, consider the possibility that we might choose to welcome certain kinds of pervasive surveillance. That point arises in the next chapter.