By Nir Eyal
Young people often assume that their life expectancies will remain what life expectancy is today—although life expectancy will grow by the time they are old. When all of us imagine our futures, we often neglect to take account of radical technologies which were not foreseeable prior to their invention, just as the internet wasn’t, and instead imagine something closer to present realities. We do not appreciate how different the future could be.
Among other things, the future might be dangerous to humankind in ways that we fail currently to appreciate. We got lucky, and nuclear energy seems hard for individuals to develop at home, but will that last, and will new WMDs be impossible to replicate with 3D printers or other future technologies? Can anyone guarantee that viruses manufactured for scientific research will not be spread by error or terror? Can we guarantee that robots designed for contained military purposes would not go out of control? Or that once artificial intelligence is advanced enough to design other artificial intelligence, humans will remain safe for long? Some of the greatest dangers to our species are unknown, simply because the technologies that create them have not been invented yet—just as many technologies that exist and threaten us today were not invented 100 years ago.
In a multimedia presentation that drew a prolonged applause from a crowd of Harvard undergraduates, Estonian programmer Jaan Tallin wove together three stories: the story of Kazaa and Skype, which he helped start; his personal journey into studying and promoting the study of existential risk; and a “sermon” (as he put it, tongue in cheek) on the ethical responsibilities of technology developers.
Tallin proposed taking active steps in anticipation of our future errors, both to make businesses robust and to keep our species safe in an opaque future: incorporating safety margins, and continually questioning one’s assumptions. He concluded by arguing, provocatively, that indispensable to both goals is having fun.
The talk was organized by the student organization Harvard High Impact Philanthropy (HHIP).