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.

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