One way of looking at human creativity is as a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn. The white balls are net positive inventions with few negative consequences, like the discovery of penicillin. The grey balls are positive inventions but with negative consequences, like the discovery of nuclear fission. The black balls are inventions that invariably destroy the civilization that invented them.

To picture what a black ball would look like, it’s helpful to think in counterfactuals. For example, what if we discovered that it were really easy to make nuclear weapons with just some glass, metal and ingredients you could buy at the convenient store? DYI atom bombs would start going off around the world and it would be the end of us all.

Fortunately, making a nuclear bomb isn’t that easy. 

Another example. What if climate change was more imminent and severe than it was? Instead of a 3 degree change in temperature over decades, what if it was a 30 degree change? California and Bangladesh would be quickly subsumed by water and policy makers would have no choice but to take strong action, although it might be too late in that case.

As of today, we haven’t pulled out any black balls. But it’s not because we’re careful with our technology policies — we’re not. We come up with invention after invention, not giving much thought to the future and tending to deal with the repercussions later. We’ve just been lucky that the balls haven’t been black.

One ‘solution’ to prevent an Armageddon ignited by a small group of people or even individual bad actor is to create highly centralized economic and political policies to make sure it doesn’t happen. Such policies, though, would likely create the opposite of a flourishing and progressive society and verge on a Minority-esque world where we’re convicted of crimes we didn’t commit. 

The answer may be a middle path, where we have greater oversight than our current model but don’t surrender our freedoms to an authoritarian government that wants to ‘protect’ us from our own supposed self-destruction. 

This idea is based on Nick Bostrom’s fascinating research paper describing the “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis,” where he explains the worst-case doomsday scenarios and what we can do to achieve stabilization and delay the creation of such technologies.

If you don’t feel like reading the 50 page research paper, you can check out this short audio clip from a conversation with Nick, Pulling a Black Ball from the Urn.


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