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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Pros and Cons of 12 Future Technologies

When considering some future technology, we must be careful to consider not just the benefits that may come from the development of the technology, but also the drawbacks and downsides of introducing that technology. To help encourage this type of balanced thinking, let me introduce a concept that I will call the Net Upside. The Net Upside is a number that compares the benefits of a future technology with the potentials and drawbacks of the technology.

We can follow this simple method to compute the Net Upside of a technology.
  1. Rate the benefit of developing the technology, assigning an upside rating between 1 and 0 (1 meaning incredibly useful and beneficial, and 0 meaning absolutely useless).
  2. Rate the drawbacks of developing the technology, assigning a downside rating between 1 and 0 (1 meaning hugely dangerous, and 0 meaning absolutely safe and harmless).
  3. Subtract the second number from the first to get the Net Upside.
I will now make an attempt to compute the Net Upside of 12 future technologies. This will involve assigning numerical ratings that are admittedly somewhat arbitrary.

Pre-Singularity Robots

By “pre-singularity robots” I mean robots which have intelligence below those of humans, and which are not capable of any self-reproduction. Such robots require power from a human power grid, or by being resupplied with power or fuel, through the help of humans. Such robots are very useful for manufacturing and construction, and for helping humans avoid undesirable or tedious labor. So I would say that pre-singularity robots deserve an upside rating of .8. There is little downside except the fact that these types of robots may increase human unemployment. So I give pre-singularity robots a downside rating of .2. The Net Upside for this technology is .6, a fairly high number.

Robot Security Guard

Post-Singularity Robots

By “post-singularity robots” I mean robots which are capable of self-reproduction, which are not dependent on humans for power, and which have intelligence equal to or above that of humans. Such robots may have a strong upside to themselves (assuming they have some kind of self like the human self), but their benefits to human beings are rather unclear. However, such robots may present a huge risk to the continued existence or prosperity of human beings, because post-singularity robots may want to take over the planet for themselves. Accordingly, my estimate is that post-singularity robots should be given an upside rating of .4 and a downside rating of .7. The Net Upside for this technology is a troubling -.3. (Any Net Upside of less than 0 is an indication the technology may have risks exceeding the benefits.)

Expensive Anti-Aging Technology

By expensive anti-aging technology I mean any technology that increases the human lifespan, but can only be afforded by a relatively tiny part of the human population. An example is artificially grown organs meant to be surgically placed in a human through a transplant operation, a procedure that will probably always be very expensive. I assign an upside rating of .1 to this technology, partially because it will only affect a small portion of the human population, those who can afford it. I assign a downside rating of .1 to this technology (again, a low number because of the small number of people affected). Part of the downside might be that if the rich live super-long lives, it would tend to worsen one of the world's worst problems, the fact that wealth is being concentrated more and more in the hands of the few. The Net Upside for this technology is therefore 0.

Inexpensive Anti-Aging Technology

By inexpensive anti-aging technology I mean any technology that increases the human lifespan, and is so cheap that many hundreds of millions of people may use it. An example would be an inexpensive pill that prevents aging. I assign an upside rating of .4 to this technology. But there are very sizable drawbacks to such a technology. If the human lifespan is increased by decades, population growth might skyrocket, leading to an exacerbation of current environmental problems (plus the fact that it may make it much harder for us to feed everyone). So we can assign a downside rating of .2 to this technology. The Net Upside is only .2.

Virtual Reality

By virtual reality I mean some incredibly engrossing entertainment system in which you could put on wraparound goggles, and virtually walk around some vivid computer-generated world. I assign an upside rating of .2 to this technology, fairly low just because virtual reality would mainly be used for fun, and fun isn't as important as some other things. I assign a downside rating of .1 to this technology, to account for the fact that some people will waste too much time fooling around in virtual worlds, to the detriment of our world. The Net Upside for virtual reality is only .1.

3D Printing

3D printing is a technology allowing the manufacture of objects through a layer by layer approach. The 3D printer might be a desktop device, or a much larger device used in a factory. I assign an upside rating of .5 to this technology, because it may allow for the cheaper production of countless items, including possibly even body parts. I assign a downside rating of 0 to this technology, because I cannot think of any drawbacks in using it. The Net Upside is a healthy .5.

Self-Driving Cars

Google has been working for years on self-driving cars, cars that are driven by computers rather than people. I assign an upside rating of .2 to this technology, mainly because if adopted it would presumably reduce the number of people who die from auto accidents. I assign a downside rating of .1 to this technology, to account for the drawback that lots of people with jobs as drivers would lose their jobs if this technology became very popular. The Net Upside for self-driving cars is a marginal .1.

Nuclear Fusion Reactors

Nuclear fusion is a technology under development that may one day allow the production of almost limitless amounts of energy, by harnessing the same type of nuclear reactions used by the sun. If nuclear fusion is ever developed, it will be a huge boon to mankind, allowing us to create huge amounts of energy from ordinary seawater. So I assign an upside rating of 1 to this technology. Assuming that the technical claims of fusion proponents are correct, and that nuclear fusion would be as clean and safe as experts say it would be, I assign a downside rating of 0 to this technology. The Net Upside for nuclear fusion reactors is a 1, which is the maximum rating.

Asteroid Mining

Asteroid mining is a technology that may one day allow us to extract metals and minerals from asteroids, chunks of space rock that orbit in various places in the solar system. Given the real prospects of metal shortages in the coming decades, I will assign an upside rating of .6 to this technology. The downside with asteroid mining is related to the fact that asteroids that strike our planet have the potential to wipe out all human life. So the proliferation of a technology for mining asteroids would create the terrible possibility that a malevolent power might develop a technology for a doomsday device that would guide an asteroid toward Earth for the sake of destroying it (a risk that was pointed out by Carl Sagan). Because this possibility is fairly remote, I will assign asteroid mining a downside rating of only .3. The Net Upside for asteroid mining is .3.

An Asteroid Mining Mishap


If you believe Eric Drexler about nanotechnology, then we will be able to use it to achieve precise atomic manufacturing, something which would have earth-shaking results for manufacturing (and might create gigantic risks along the lines of 'gray goo' involving nanotechnology run amok). But I suspect that this is hype. Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley thinks that Drexler is way off the mark, that it won't be possible to ever use nanotechnology for precise atomic manufacturing, and that there is no risk of nanotechnology running amok along the lines of the 'gray goo' scenario. Assuming that he's right, I give nanotechnology a relatively small upside rating of only .3, and a relatively small downside rating of only .1 (we have to assume a small risk because things may go wrong if we introduce nano-particles into the human body). This gives a Net Upside of only .2 for nanotechnology.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is the technology for manipulating the genes of organisms to change their characteristics. Genetic engineering offers the possibility of increasing crop yields, assuming people are willing to eat genetically modified food. Genetic engineering also offers the possibility of curing some human diseases and extending the human lifespan. So I assign an upside rating of .8 to genetic engineering However, there is a terrifying possibility that genetic engineering will one day be used to develop super-germs that might wipe out a huge portion of the human race. So I assign a downside rating of .4 to this techn.ology. The Net Upside for genetic engineering is a moderate .4.

Super-advanced Supercomputers

By super-advanced supercomputers I mean massive machines capable of processing data and crunching numbers with proficiency and speed vastly greater than anything available today. Think of something a thousand times better than the Watson machine that won against the top human Jeopardy competitors. I assign such a technology an upside rating of .5, because it could be used to help solve a huge number of human problems. I see no downside in such a machine. There would be no risk of it taking over our planet or nation, because we could just pull the plug any time we wanted. So I assume a downside rating of 0. The Net Upside for super-advanced supercomputers is .5.


Let me summarize the Net Upsides of these different technologies as I have estimated them. I'll list the technologies in descending order of their Net Upsides.

Nuclear Fusion 1
Pre-Singularity Robots .6
3D Printing .5
Super-advanced Supercomputers .5
Genetic Engineering .4
Asteroid Mining .3
Inexpensive Anti-Aging Technology .2
Nanotechnology .2
Self-Driving Cars .1
Virtual Reality .1
Expensive Anti-Aging Technology 0
Post-Singularity Robots -.3

The only item in this list that stands out as a net negative is the technology of post-singularity robots. The development of self-reproducing, super-intelligent, self-powered robots might seem good from the standpoint of some alien intelligence monitoring the technical progress of planet Earth, but the development of such a technology would seem to be a net negative from the standpoint of what is best for mankind. We are unlikely to benefit from building our successors.