Risks and benefits

Fast-changing technologies: risks and benefits

Technologies have provided many huge benefits to humanity:

  • Better health, via better medical treatments, better hygiene, and better nutrition
  • More knowledge created and shared
  • Greater availability of labour-saving devices
  • Ability to travel more widely and have richer experiences.

However, it’s also the case that technologies are prone to have side-effects that are unforeseen and unwelcome:

How can the balance of risks and benefits be moved away from risks and toward greater benefits?

Technology risk factors

Other things being equal, a piece of technology is liable to cause more damage:

  • If it is deployed at larger scale – for example, a larger hydroelectric dam may cause greater damage, if the dam wall breaks, than a smaller dam
  • If it is deployed more widely – a chemical used throughout the world may have more drastic side-effects than a chemical used in just one location
  • If it embodies more power – for example, high voltage electricity lines that are blown out of their intended routing may result in a more powerful discharge than low voltage lines
  • If their method of operation is obscure and poorly understood – increasing the chance that they will operate in unexpected ways in slightly changed circumstances
  • If the people or systems overseeing these technologies pay less attention, or lack adequate training or incentives to perform their tasks well
  • If the people or systems overseeing these technologies cover up or downplay evidence of problems with the technology, and prosecute or ridicule people who want to highlight such evidence.

The above conditions can be called “technology risk factors”.

Unfortunately, several of these risk factors are likely to be increased when a new technology shows a lot of promise, and its backers wish to take fuller advantage of it. In such a case, the backers would prefer:

  • To deploy the technology at larger scale, and more widely, so that it can reach more people
  • To run the technology at higher power, so that it is more likely to achieve striking results
  • To minimise attention to any evidence of apparent behaviour that could cause the technology to be withdrawn.

Other risk factors will increase if the technology is complex and fast-changing:

  • Its operating principles are less likely to be understood
  • The people overseeing the technology are less likely to be adequately trained in all aspects of its operation.

There’s an additional set of complications when technology is changing quickly:

  • An assessment of risks associated with the technology could become invalidated, due to the greater capabilities acquired in a subsequent version of the technology
  • If the first group to develop that technology could gain a significant advantage, commercially or geopolitically, there will be incentives to cut corners with the implementation of safety measures, in a rush to obtain “first mover advantage”
  • Fast-changing technology can alter, not only the primary solution being developed, but also the environment in which that solution operates.

Prioritising benefits?

One approach to the risks posed by technology is to place a higher priority on the benefits that the technology can deliver:

  • Rather than slowing down the development and deployment of technology, from fear of damage arising, the priority would be to accelerate that development and deployment, in order to realise the benefits more quickly
  • Any unexpected and unwelcome side-effects can be addressed as and when they arise
  • Responses to these side-effects will in any case be a valuable part of learning; any apparent “technology failures” can assist in faster acquisition of knowledge (about what works and what doesn’t work).

That approach might be seen as especially attractive if the potential benefits from the new technology have huge scale:

  • Large numbers of lives could be saved, by innovative new treatments for cancer, dementia, etc
  • New nuclear power plants could generate enormous quantities of green energy, allowing faster reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases
  • Geoengineering interventions in the stratosphere – or by changing the composition of the oceans – could reverse the dangerous trend towards excessively high global temperatures
  • AI algorithms with greater general intelligence could propose profound novel solutions to longstanding issues of healthcare, global warming, and the management of the financial and economic markets.

The problem, nevertheless, is that any technology with greater potential to deliver profound benefits has, at the same time, greater potential for disastrous unexpected side-effects.

By itself, that’s not a reason to try to slow down the development and deployment of new technology. However, it is a reason to ramp up parallel efforts to anticipate and manage any such side-effects.

Such efforts are guided by the principles outlined in these pages.

What about ethics?

The development and deployment of technologies is sometimes addressed from the viewpoint of ethics. Thus it is common to hear advocacy for “the ethical use of technology”, or, more simply, for “AI ethics”.

This framing sometimes causes problems. Ethicists are sometimes perceived as people who mainly say “no”, as in “thou shalt not xxx” and “thou shalt not yyy”.

Moreover, the common ethical injunctions to ensure “fair” or “equitable” access to technologies are subject to controversy, since there are divergent views on what counts as “fair” and “equitable”.

The Singularity Principles take as their starting point, not any appeal to ethics, but a more basic set of considerations:

  • Decreasing the probability of severe harm
  • Increasing the probability of profound benefit

Nevertheless, the principles endorse one of the fundamental insights of ethics:

  • Just because we believe we could develop some technology, and even if we have some desires to develop that technology, that’s not a sufficient reason for us actually to go ahead and develop it and deploy it.

More briefly: could does not imply should.

The underlying reasons to avoid developing or deploying some technology, despite appeals in favour, are if the technology

  • Would be likely to increase the probability of severe harm, or
  • Would be likely to decrease the probability of profound benefit.

Calculating these consequences in advance is often hard. That’s where the recommendations of the Singularity Principles come to the fore. They highlight a number of guidelines of the form, “It’s generally good to do xxx” or “It’s generally bad to do yyy”. The general rationale for these recommendations is that, once again, observing them is likely

  • To decrease the probability of severe harm
  • To increase the probability of profound benefit

The transhumanist stance

One more quick note on the subject of ethics. Answers to the question “what should we do” generally presuppose a view about which kinds of state of being are more virtuous.

One group of ethical views tends to regard the lives of people in the long-distant past as somehow the most virtuous. These people – founders and leading figures of religions – are said to provide role models for us to seek to emulate.

Another group of ethical views tends to look to elements of the present day, or the recent past, as models that the lifestyles of all people should attain.

The Singularity Principles make neither of these assumptions. Instead, it is an example of what can be called “the transhumanist stance” – the view that people in the future (including the near future) can attain levels of wellbeing, consciousness, and virtue, far in excess of what has been attained at any previous period in history.

What will enable that uplift is wise application of the possibilities provided by new technology:

  • Technologies for significantly improved health
  • Technologies for significantly improved intelligence
  • Technologies for significantly improved collaboration
  • Technologies for significantly improved sustainable living
  • Technologies for significantly improved mental wellbeing.

In short, the transhumanist stance is that it is possible, and desirable, to significantly improve all aspects of human life, by the wise application of science and technology, as guided by clear thinking.

According to this stance, each of the two potential misapplications of technology would represent a deep failure on the part of humanity:

  • Failing to prevent severe harm
  • Failing to attain profound benefit.

Further reading

These pages provide further perspective on the topic of technology risks and benefits:

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!

  1. A reliability index for politicians? 2 Replies
  2. Technoprogressive Roadmap conf call Leave a reply
  3. Transpolitica and the TPUK Leave a reply
  4. There’s more to democracy than voting Leave a reply
  5. Superdemocracy: issues and opportunities Leave a reply
  6. New complete book awaiting reader reviews Leave a reply
  7. Q4 update: Progress towards “Sustainable superabundance” Leave a reply
  8. Q3 sprint: launch the Abundance Manifesto Leave a reply
  9. Q2 sprint: Political responses to technological unemployment Leave a reply