Ground Rules for Discussing Technological Advance: Part 2 of 4


To recap: in this series, I am debunking a few recurring assumptions that I have found in recent readings about the potential benefits of technological advance, namely:

  1. That “a rising tide lifts all boats”

  2. That technological advance is benign because it is “natural”

  3. That the adoption of new technologies is simply an individual choice, and

  4. That ethics has no place in the hard sciences.

In part 1 we talked about, the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Now let’s talk about the second assumption: that technological advance is benign because it is “natural.”

This argument is often used in the genetically modified crop debate; in which some pro-GMO folks state that further investigation into the impacts of GMOs is unnecessary because the advent of GMOs is a natural extension of the genetic modification of crops through artificial selection. Some anti-GMO folks use a similarly surface-level argument when they state that further investigation into the impacts of GMOs is unnecessary because GMOs are a perversion of nature and therefore should not be used. Both of these argument sidestep the most important question — what will the impacts (positive and negative) of the use of GM crops actually be? People on both sides of this debate are basically using the old “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” Jedi-mind-trick to get their way, rather than engaging in meaningful debate.

Obi Wan Kenobi employing Jedi-mind-tricks

Obi Wan Kenobi employing Jedi-mind-tricks

Getting past the “natural” next step argument is important in discussions about improvements in artificial intelligence. Some people argue that future AI improvements will lead to natural step changes in productivity similar to the industrial revolution, in which job prospects changed, rather than disappeared. Murray Shanahan (in The Technological Singularity), alternatively, makes a key point about the unique implications of future AI development:

“In the past, it was possible to argue that new technologies create as many jobs as they threaten… [creating] an ever-increasing proportion of educated, white-collar workers. However, with the advent of sophisticated specialized AI, many more professions will become vulnerable, while improvements in robotics will threaten the remaining manual jobs in manufacturing.”

While the industrial revolution replaced traditional jobs with new jobs, the advent of human level artificial intelligence will lead to complete (or near-complete) obsolescence of human labor. Clearly, this is a unique implication which requires careful investigation.

Kurt Vonnegut takes an eloquent dig at the “natural” next step argument in Player Piano:

“I deny that there is any natural or divine law requiring that machines, efficiency, and organization should forever increase in scope, power, and complexity, in peace as in war. I see the growth of these now, rather, as the result of a dangerous lack of law… Without regard for the wishes of men, any machines or techniques or forms of organization that can economically replace men do replace men. Replacement is not necessarily bad, but to do it without regard for the wishes of men is lawlessness.”

I love this quote — in it, Vonnegut emphasizes that he does not oppose all technological advance on principle, but also that he doesn’t accept all technological advance on principle — instead of holding fast to an ideology, he holds fast to the importance of “the wishes of men.” I couldn’t agree more, Kurt.

This brings me to my second rule for discussing the benefits of technological advance: don’t argue for the beneficence of new technologies by calling them “natural” (or for the maleficence of new technologies by calling them “unnatural”). Instead, investigate the unique implications of new technologies. Check out part 3 of this series for the next assumption attack.