Friday, March 16, 2018

Precautionary Principle Problems

Google gives a good definition of the precautionary principle:
pre·cau·tion·ar·y prin·ci·ple noun 
The principle that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted. It has mainly been used to prohibit the importation of genetically modified organisms and food.
It is easy to imagine Very Bad Things that might happen if we ignore the precautionary principle. For example, what if somebody uses gene-editing technology to produce a super-virus that wipes out all human life?

What if genetically modified corn runs amok and spreads uncontrollably? Or maybe GMO foods cause cancer and we just haven't noticed yet.

How about machine learning: what if future super-smart machines decide us humans are unnecessary and decide it is logical to get rid of us?

Scary! Why not be safe and just ban all that research until we understand the possible consequences better?

Well... because Very Bad Things might happen if we do that.

What if an incredibly deadly variation of the Spanish Flu wipes out 99% of human life, but researchers could have saved us if they had more advanced gene-editing techniques?

What if we all starve to death because climate change wipes out all our crops, but researchers could have saved us with geo-engineering or climate-change-resistant GMO crops?

Or maybe super-smart machines will save us (and them) from some world-ending disaster we aren't smart enough to see coming-- asteroids or angry aliens or albino alligator attacks (that's just the a's!).

I don't know how to evaluate the far-future likelihood of machine intelligence or CRISPR destroying everything we value, versus the likelihood they save us from destruction. I don't think anybody knows. Maybe hyper-intelligent man/machine cyborgs will eventually be smart enough to run the numbers and figure it out, but until then I'm going to ignore people who use one side of the precautionary principle to argue against technologies they oppose.