If tech progress might be bad, what should we tell people about it?

byRobert_Wiblin3y16th Feb 201618 comments


I want to draw attention to a tension effective altruists have not dealt with:

  1. Almost all of our written output takes as a strong assumption that economic growth and technological advancement are good things.
  2. Many intellectuals think this is actually unclear.
Why might economic growth or technological advancement be neutral, or even bad? Here are some possibilities:
  • We invent dangerous new technologies sooner, while society remains unwise, immature and unable to use them safely. Or new dangerous technologies advance from possibilities to realities more quickly, giving us less time to evaluate and limit their risks. For more on this see section 9.42, 3.
  • We become richer and this allows for e.g. more destructive conflicts (i.e. poor countries have weaker and less destructive armies).
  • Producing more wealth is currently doing more harm than good (e.g. via climate change, other environmental destruction, spread of factory farming or selfish materialism, etc).
The belief that economic growth is progressing too quickly and is going to destroy the natural resources we rely on is widely held, and these are variants on that theme of unintended consequences.

Why are we so cautious about raising these issues?
  • They violate common sense for most people.
  • The arguments in their favour are hard to explain quickly.
  • Over the last 200 years growth seems to have been a force for good; you look ignorant or deluded to suggest that something that was good in the past will not continue to be good in the future.
  • They involve speculation about the direction of future technologies that most people find unpersuasive and unrigorous.
  • They can have offensive implications, such as the idea that it would be better for people in poverty today to remain poor, and that the things most people do to improve the world aren't working or are even making things worse.
  • Our ability to further raise economic growth or technological advancement is small anyway, because billions of people are already pursuing those goals so we are a tiny fraction of the total.
  • Projects focussed on reducing poverty also: raise average global intelligence, education, income, governance, patience, and so on. These 'quality' effects may well dominate.
  • Other modelling suggests the overall effect is very unclear (e.g. wars seem to occur less frequently when economic growth is strong; faster growth lowers the number of years spent in any particular state of development, lowering so-called 'state risk'; some technologies clearly lower existing risks, e.g. we could now divert an asteroid away from Earth).
These seem like sound reasons not to make the risks of broad human empowerment a central part of our message. Some are also good reasons to think that economic growth is indeed more likely to be good than bad.

But I nonetheless feel uncomfortable sidestepping the issue entirely. 80,000 Hours currently highly recommends technological entrepreneurship as a way to do good directly. Can we do that in a good conscience without drawing people's attention to the ways that their work could make the future worse rather than better?

We should at least pose people the following question to help them improve the quality of the projects they decide to pursue:
  • Imagine that you somehow knew economic growth, or technological advancement, was merely neutral on average. While controversial, some smart people believe this to be true. Would your project nonetheless be one of those that is 'better than average' and therefore a force for good?
  • Some things that have been suggested to look good on the 'differential technological development' test include:
    • making people more cosmopolitan, kind and cautious;
    • improving the ability to coordinate countries and avoid e.g. prisoner's dilemmas;
    • increasing wisdom (especially the ability to foresee and solve future problems and conflicts);
    • predominantly reducing pressing existing risks, such as climate change;
    • predominantly empowering the people with the best values.
If your project passes this test, that's a sign it's robustly good. If your project only looks good if economic growth is overall a force for good, then it's on shakier ground.