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:
- Drugs to treat medical conditions can have side-effects that are worse than the original sickness – an example being thalidomide, which caused horrific birth defects
- Widespread use of antibiotic drugs can stimulate the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to these drugs, threatening the spread of an untreatable infection
- Chemicals intended to control insects that carry diseases can damage other parts of the environment – an example being the insecticide DDT
- Chemicals added into industrial processes to boost performance or increase strength can have unexpected detrimental effects on the health of people in the vicinity – examples being lead (added to petrol) and asbestos (used in buildings)
- CFC chemicals used in refrigeration and in aerosols migrated high into the stratosphere, where they destabilised ozone molecules, allowing larger quantities of harmful UV radiation from the sun to reach the earth’s surface, increasing incidents of skin cancer
- A hydroelectric dam can generate significant quantities of electricity, but if the dam wall breaks, enormous damage can result to the people and habitat in the path of the water that rushes out; similar concerns apply to nuclear power stations with inadequate safety measures
- Innovative financial assets, such as Credit Default Swaps, Collateralised Debt Obligations, and other so-called credit derivatives, that can enable more investment in particular areas, can also destabilise financial markets, earning themselves the description “financial weapons of mass destruction”
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.
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.
These pages provide further perspective on the topic of technology risks and benefits: