Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Escalating Consequences of Local Failures and the Possibly Bright Future

As scientific research advances, so has our ability to improve many aspects of the human condition. The past century has seen dramatic increases in life expectancy, food production, standards of living, and literacy rates, along with decreases in violence and per capita deaths from warfare and improvements in areas such as civil rights and technology, among many others. There is still much work to be done, but we have a rapidly expanding set of tools with which to tackle the challenges we face. Unfortunately, these tools also present new dangers. It is commonly stated that technology is neutral. The larger the potential benefits of a given technology are, the larger the corresponding risks of misuse of that technology. A consequence of this is that the dangers of relatively small scale misuses of powerful technologies, whether accidental or intentional, are magnified. Even normally effecive management strategies can be fundamentally vulnerable to certain types of black swan events. If such technologies pose existential risks, the harm done by "minor" faults can be irreparable. If we act wisely, we can continue solving problems on many fronts. There is no "story arch" to the future beyond our own choices, and it must be emphasized that it does not follow from the existance of positive historical trends that existential risks will take care of themselves.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


"One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic."
-Josef Stalin

It is often assumed that in order to be rational, a person must repress their emotions. Although our initial impulses will often lead us to unwise actions, in many situations we are actually unable to feel to a degree that is appropriate to the scale of a circumstance. Our emotions basically arise from a complex mixture of neurotransmitters in our brains, of which there are only a fixed amount available at any time. For example, the death of a loved one can cause deep and lasting pain, but a person's response to hearing of the deaths of ten thousand in a distant country is usually transitive, if they respond at all. We are physically unable to scale up our emotions to that level, to even glimpse what means for ten thousand people to lose their best friends, compared to what we would feel if we lost ours. This limitation also robs us of the ability to appreciate much of the beauty around us. The motions of the planets through the sky once mystified humanity for millenia, and now we have the explanation for this and many other phenomena at our local libraries, if not at our fingertips. Throughout history this property of our minds has been adaptive as people would simply go insane if their emotions could accurately reflect the magnitude of such events. Also, it was often beyond human power to do anything about tragedies like disease and starvation until recent times. Today, we are at the threshold of developing technologies that could alleviate so much of the suffering in the world. We have to rely on our intellects to develop these technologies quickly and safely without motivation appropriate to the scale of what's at stake from our emotions. I can not feel what the fact that 150,000 people die every day really means. It's not my fault that I can't, yet it bothers me anyway.