No sane Mexican would want to live in the US. Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla

Perfection Is Not A Useful Concept

Nick Bostrom directs the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He talked with Martin Eiermann about existential risks, genetic enhancements and the importance of ethical discourses about technological progress.

The European: I want to start with a quote from your website. You have said: “When we are headed the wrong way, the last thing we need is progress.” Can we reason about the wrong way without taking concrete steps in that direction?
Bostrom: That is a good question. Probably you have to take these steps. But they must be small and careful to give us more insight into where we should be going.

The European: The idea of practical wisdom. We might need to make small mistakes to figure out that there is a better way…
Bostrom: If we developed the ability to think more clearly and to understand the world better–which we have to do if we want to figure out what is right–then that understanding will also tend to increase the pace with which we move. And the better we understand technologies, the closer we will be to developing new technologies. That practical knowledge is an important part of innovation.

The European: So the primary task is expanding the scope of what we think is achievable?
Bostrom: I think that is one thing we need to do if we want to reason about the right approach to technological progress. Let me give you a concrete example: Let’s assume that we want to think about whether we should push for synthetic biology. There will be risks and there will be benefits as well. To make a better decision, we need to really understand the risks. We might say that there is the potential for misuse, for a new generation of biological weapons or other kinds of harmful applications. When we have a detailed understanding of the risks, we have already taken the first step towards pushing synthetic biology into a specific direction. So there is a trade-off: We want to be able to describe potential risks with detail and precision, but we also don’t want to go too far into a certain direction to gather that information because that would make the risks real.

The European: What risks should a society tolerate, and what risks are either too high or too complex to live with?
Bostrom: My focus has been on existential risks, which are at the far end of the severity spectrum. An existential risk is something that could either cause the extinction of intelligent life or the permanent destruction of the potential for future desirable development. It would be an end to the human story. Obviously, it is important to reduce existential risks as much as possible.

The European: Where might those risks arise from?
Bostrom: They could be risks that arise from nature–like asteroids or volcanic eruptions–or risks that arise from human activity. All the important risks fall into the latter category, they are anthropogenic. More specifically, the biggest ones will arise from future technological breakthroughs, such as advanced artificial intelligence or advanced forms of nanotechnology that could lead to new weapons systems. There also might be threats from biotechnology or from new forms of surveillance technology and mind control that might enable a system of global totalitarian rule. And there will also be risks that we haven’t yet thought of.

The European: Are the ethical debates about technological change keeping pace with the development of new technologies? In other words, are we really thinking about potential risks and unintended consequences of progress?
Bostrom: The ethical debates about some of these possibilities are just beginning. I introduced the concept of existential risk only in 2001. Technological progress, on the other hand, has been around for thousands of years. So we are very much starting from behind, but I hope we will catch up at a rapid pace. We have to think ethically about what we are doing as a species.

The European: Apocalyptic thoughts have been around for thousands of years. Thus far, fortunately, they have always been proven wrong. What is different about today’s discussions of existential risks?
Bostrom: Historically, the predictions have been groundless. They have not been based on science or careful analysis of particular technological prospects. During most of human history, we simply did not have the ability to destroy the human race, and we probably still don’t have that ability today. Even at the peak of the Cold War, a nuclear strike would probably not have resulted in human extinction. It would have caused massive damage, but it is likely that some groups would have survived. Past doomsday prophecies have often relied on religious beliefs.

The European: Why are the anthropogenic risks suddenly increasing?
Bostrom: Our long track record of survival–humans have been around for about 100,000 years–gives us some assurance that the natural risks have been rather small. If they have not ended human history until now, they are unlikely to have that effect in the near future. So the risks we should really worry about come from new developments. They introduce new factors with a lot of statistical uncertainty, and we cannot be confident that their risks are manageable. The potential of human action to do good and evil is larger than it has ever been before. We know that we can affect the global system. We can travel around the world in a matter of hours. We can affect the global climate. World wars have already happened. We can already foresee that new technologies might be developed in the coming century that would further expand our power over nature and over ourselves. We might even be able to change human nature itself.

The European: People also thought that traveling faster than thirty miles per hour would lead to mental insanity, or that nuclear explosions would set the atmosphere on fire, or that we might accidentally create black holes at particle accelerators.
Bostrom: With trains, there was no discussion of existential risks. In the case of nuclear weapons, it was different. The atomic bomb was arguably the first human-made existential risk. And the probability of a doomsday scenario was considered significant enough that one of the scientists of the Manhattan Project did a study. They ultimately came to the conclusion that the atmosphere would not explode, and they were correct. As the potential for existential risks increases, we must be careful to examine the possible consequences of technological innovation.

The European: You have already mentioned genetic enhancements. When we think about human potential, we often think about our cognitive abilities: Our capacity for rational thought is what distinguishes us from animals. Is that description incomplete?
Bostrom: It is certainly not complete. But our cognitive abilities might be the most important difference between humans and animals; they have enabled our language, culture, science and technology, and complex social organization. A few differences in brain architecture have led to a situation where one species has increasing control over all other species on this planet.

The European: When we talk about enhancements, we implicitly talk about the idea of perfection: We want to minimize the negative and maximize the positive aspects of human existence, to move closer to an optimal state. But who would define what constitutes such a state?
Bostrom: I don’t think that perfection is a useful concept. There is not necessarily one best form of human existence; perfection might be different for different people. But the difficulty or impossibility of defining a perfect state should not make us blind to the fact that there are better and worse ways of living. It’s common sense that we prefer to be healthy rather than sick, for example. We also think that we ought to support our childrens’ development, intellectually and physically. We use education to expand our cognitive abilities. We try to stay fit and eat healthy to expand our lifespan. We reduce lead in tap water because doing so increases intelligence. That toolkit will be drastically expanded by technology. I don’t think that there is a fundamental moral difference between these old and new ways of enhancement.

The European: You have called these traits–healthy, happy lives, understanding good social relations–"intrinsically valuable". They are at the core of the ethical justification for transhumanism and genetic enhancements. How can we ensure that technological progress does not lead to enhancements of traits that are either not desired, or that are only conditionally valuable?
Bostrom: We have to distinguish between positional and non-positional goods. In economics, a positional good benefits you only because others lack it. Height may be an advantage in men, but if everybody were three inches taller, nobody would be better off. Attractiveness may be another example of a positional good. A gain for one person implies a relative loss for others. I would contrast that with a trait like health. Your life is better when you are healthy, even if others are also healthy. Cognitive enhancements are a complex topic, but they have aspects that are intrinsically valuable. It is good if we can understand the world better. Arguments against positional goods are no arguments against enhancements as such.

The European: There’s the slippery slope argument: Once we decide to pursue human enhancements with a certain determination, we have less control over the limits of these enhancements. How do you guard against unintended consequences?
Bostrom: Yes, unintended consequences are likely to occur. Right now, there is a lot of research into cosmetics. That’s a positional good at best, yet we devote a huge amount of time and money to it. There is no moral reason why we should enhance our skin. On the other hand, enhancements that could increase our cognitive capacities are not really pursued. Partially, that has to do with our regulatory framework, which is built on the idea that medicine is all about disease. If you want to develop new drugs, you have to show that they are safe and effectively treat a disease. So when you want to find ways to enhance our brain activity, you perversely have to show that we are currently sick and need treatment. You cannot say, “I simply want to make this better than before”. We need to remove that stigma.

The European: Michael Sandel writes that there is something valuable about accepting biological chance: We should remain humble and accept the traits we have been given instead of trying to engage in hyper-parenting, genetic enhancements and the like.
Bostrom: The idea of appreciating gifts makes a lot of sense if there is someone who is giving you these gifts and might otherwise be offended. But if we are talking about a natural condition like cancer or malaria, I think have every reason to reject these “gifts”.

The European: The consequence might be that everyone feels entitled to an ever-increasing standard of capacities.
Bostrom: I don’t think it’s bad if more people feel entitled to a good life. We should probably encourage that.

The European: Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism “the greatest threat to mankind”. What explains that cultural pessimism?
Bostrom: When we create the technologies to fundamentally change human nature, there are great dangers associated with that. It is not clear that our wisdom is really up to the task. That’s part of the explanation. There is also a certain double standard: We accept inventions and innovations of the past, but we tend to be more critical towards new developments. If we look at the history of medicine, we see that many inventions were condemned and disparaged by bioconservatives. Heart transplants were once considered immoral–how could you open the chest cavity of one person and transplant the heart into the body of another person? Similarly, when anesthesia during childbirth came into use, bioconservatives lamented that it ran against nature. A woman, they said, was meant to feel pain when giving birth. It’s the same story with in-vitro fertilization, when people worried about the psychological effects of someone knowing that they came from a test tube. When we introduce new biomedical ways of manipulating our bodies, there is often an initial, gut-level repugnance. Usually, that repugnance dissipates once people become familiar with new technologies.

The European: But how do we distinguish progress from good progress?
Bostrom: We need to figure out what concerns are based on irrational bias and which ones are not, while weighing those concerns against potential benefits. Then we have to consider practicalities and what is politically feasible, and to prioritize.

The European: What possibilities for human enhancement do you see as especially promising and as least problematic, so that we should actually take concrete steps into their direction?
Bostrom: I think it would be great, for example, if we could develop a least some mild cognitive enhancements that give us a bit more mental energy or combat diseases like Alzheimer’s. In general, though, the difficulties of enhancing the capacities of a healthy human being may have been underestimated. Humans are very complex evolved systems. If we begin to tinker with that and don’t know what we are doing, we are likely to mess up and cause side effects that might only become evident much later.

The European: And what effect might that have on the probability of existential risk?
Bostrom: The wrong kinds of enhancements constitute a kind of existential threat. In relation to cognitive enhancements, I believe that their net effect on existential risk would be positive. They might increase the speed of technological innovation, but they would also enhance our capacity to think about potential consequences of that innovation. With cognitive enhancements, the gains are likely to outweigh the downsides. If one didn’t have that optimism, one would have to be consequential and also argue that we should not care about lead in our water. We don’t have a reason to assume that the current distribution of cognitive abilities is at an optimal level.

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