Measuring flourishing

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:

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.

Recent Posts

RAFT 2035 – a new initiative for a new decade

The need for a better politics is more pressing than ever.

Since its formation, Transpolitica has run a number of different projects aimed at building momentum behind a technoprogressive vision for a better politics. For a new decade, it’s time to take a different approach, to build on previous initiatives.

The planned new vehicle has the name “RAFT 2035”.

RAFT is an acronym:

  • Roadmap (‘R’) – not just a lofty aspiration, but specific steps and interim targets
  • towards Abundance (‘A’) for all – beyond a world of scarcity and conflict
  • enabling Flourishing (‘F’) as never before – with life containing not just possessions, but enriched experiences, creativity, and meaning
  • via Transcendence (‘T’) – since we won’t be able to make progress by staying as we are.

RAFT is also a metaphor. Here’s a copy of the explanation:

When turbulent waters are bearing down fast, it’s very helpful to have a sturdy raft at hand.

The fifteen years from 2020 to 2035 could be the most turbulent of human history. Revolutions are gathering pace in four overlapping fields of technology: nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech, or NBIC for short. In combination, these NBIC revolutions offer enormous new possibilities – enormous opportunities and enormous risks:…

Rapid technological change tends to provoke a turbulent social reaction. Old certainties fade. New winners arrive on the scene, flaunting their power, and upturning previous networks of relationships. Within the general public, a sense of alienation and disruption mingles with a sense of profound possibility. Fear and hope jostle each other. Whilst some social metrics indicate major progress, others indicate major setbacks. The claim “You’ve never had it so good” coexists with the counterclaim “It’s going to be worse than ever”. To add to the bewilderment, there seems to be lots of evidence confirming both views.

The greater the pace of change, the more intense the dislocation. Due to the increased scale, speed, and global nature of the ongoing NBIC revolutions, the disruptions that followed in the wake of previous industrial revolutions – seismic though they were – are likely to be dwarfed in comparison to what lies ahead.

Turbulent times require a space for shelter and reflection, clear navigational vision despite the mists of uncertainty, and a powerful engine for us to pursue our own direction, rather than just being carried along by forces outside our control. In short, turbulent times require a powerful “raft” – a roadmap to a future in which the extraordinary powers latent in NBIC technologies are used to raise humanity to new levels of flourishing, rather than driving us over some dreadful precipice.

The words just quoted come from the opening page of a short book that is envisioned to be published in January 2020. The chapters of this book are reworked versions of the scripts used in the recent “Technoprogressive roadmap” series of videos.

Over the next couple of weeks, all the chapters of this proposed book will be made available for review and comment:

  • As pages on the Transpolitica website, starting here
  • As shared Google documents, starting here, where comments and suggestions are welcome.

RAFT Cover 21

All being well, RAFT 2035 will also become a conference, held sometime around the middle of 2020.

You may note that, in that way that RAFT 2035 is presented to the world,

  • The word “transhumanist” has moved into the background – since that word tends to provoke many hostile reactions
  • The word “technoprogressive” also takes a backseat – since, again, that word has negative connotations in at least some circles.

If you like the basic idea of what’s being proposed, here’s how you can help:

  • Read some of the content that is already available, and provide comments
    • If you notice something that seems mistaken, or difficult to understand
    • If you think there is a gap that should be addressed
    • If you think there’s a better way to express something.

Thanks in anticipation!

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