The hazard of concealing risk

Review of Man-made Catastrophes and Risk Information Concealment: Case Studies of Major Disasters and Human Fallibility by Dmitry Chernov and Didier Sornette (Springer).

I have recently begun to work on the problem of information hazards: when spreading true information is causing danger. Since we normally regard information as a good thing this is a bit unusual and understudied, and in the case of existential risk it is important to get things right at the first try.

However, concealing information can also produce risk. This book is an excellent series of case studies of major disasters, showing how the practice of hiding information contributed to make them possible, worse, and hinder rescue/recovery.

Chernov and Sornette focus mainly on technological disasters such as the Vajont Dam, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl, the Ufa train disaster, Fukushima and so on, but they also cover financial disasters, military disasters, production industry failures and concealment of product risk. In all of these cases there was plentiful concealment going on at multiple levels, from workers blocking alarms to reports being classified or deliberately mislaid to active misinformation campaigns.

 

Chernov and Sornette's model of the factors causing or contributing to risk concealment that leads to a disaster.
Chernov and Sornette’s model of the factors causing or contributing to risk concealment.

When summed up, many patterns of information concealment recur again and again. They sketch out a model of the causes of concealment, with about 20 causes grouped into five major clusters: the external environment enticing concealment, risk communication channels blocked, an internal ecology stimulating concealment or ignorance, faulty risk assessment and knowledge management, and people having personal incentives to conceal.

The problem is very much systemic: having just one or two of the causative problems can be counteracted by good risk management, but when several causes start to act together they become much harder to deal with – especially since many corrode the risk management ability of the entire organisation. Once risks are hidden, it becomes harder to manage them (management, after all, is done through information). Conversely, they list examples of successful risk information management: risk concealment may be something that naturally tends to emerge, but it can be counteracted.

Chernov and Sornette also apply their model to some technologies they think show signs of risk concealment: shale energy, GMOs, real debt and liabilities of the US and China, and the global cyber arms race. They are not arguing that a disaster is imminent, but the patterns of concealment are a reason for concern: if they persist, they have potential to make things worse the day something breaks.

Is information concealment the cause of all major disasters? Definitely not: some disasters are just due to exogenous shocks or surprise failures of technology. But as Fukushima shows, risk concealment can make preparation brittle and handling the aftermath inefficient. There is also likely plentiful risk concealment in situations that will never come to attention because there is no disaster necessitating and enabling a thorough investigation. There is little to suggest that the examined disasters were all uniquely bad from a concealment perspective.

From an information hazard perspective, this book is an important rejoinder: yes, some information is risky. But lack of information can be dangerous too. Many of the reasons for concealment like national security secrecy, fear of panic, prevention of whistle-blowing, and personnel being worried about personally being held accountable for a serious fault are maladaptive information hazard management strategies. The worker not reporting a mistake is handling a personal information hazard, at the expense of the safety of the entire organisation. Institutional secrecy is explicitly intended to contain information hazards, but tends to compartmentalize and block relevant information flows.

A proper information hazard management strategy needs to take the concealment risk into account too: there is a risk cost of not sharing information. How these two risks should be rationally traded against each other is an important question to investigate.

Ethics for neural networks

PosterI am currently attending IJCNN 2015 in Killarney. Yesterday I gave an invited talk “Ethics and large-scale neural networks: when do we need to start caring for neural networks, rather than about them?” The bulk of the talk was based on my previous WBE ethics paper, looking at the reasons we cannot be certain neural networks have experience or not, leading to my view that we hence ought to handle them with the same care as the biological originals they mimic. Yup, it is the one T&F made a lovely comic about – which incidentally gave me an awesome poster at the conference.

When I started, I looked a bit at ethics in neural network science/engineering. As I see it, there are three categories of ethical issues specific to the topic rather than being general professional ethics issues:

  • First, the issues surrounding applications such as privacy, big data, surveillance, killer robots etc.
  • Second, the issue that machine learning allows machines to learn the wrong things.
  • Third, machines as moral agents or patients.

The first category is important, but I leave that for others to discuss. It is not necessarily linked to neural networks per se, anyway. It is about responsibility for technology and what one works on.

Learning wrong

The second category is fun. Learning systems are not fully specified by their creators – which is the whole point! This means that their actual performance is open-ended (within the domain of possible responses). And from that follows that they can learn things we do not want.

One example is inadvertent discrimination, where the network learns something that would be called racism, sexism or something similar if it happened in a human. One can consider a credit rating neural network trained on customer data to estimate the probability of a customer defaulting. It may develop an internal representation that gets activated by customer’s race and is linked to a negative evaluation of the rating. There is no deliberate programming of racism, just something that emerges from the data – where the race:economy link may well be due to factors in society that are structurally racist.

A similar, real case is advertising algorithms selecting ads online for users in ways that shows some ads for some groups but not others – which, in the case of education, may serve to perpetuate disadvantages or prejudices.

A recent example was the Google Photo captioning system, which captioned a black couple as gorillas. Obvious outrage ensued, and a Google representative tweeted that this was “high on my list of bugs you *never* want to see happen ::shudder::”. The misbehaviour was quickly fixed.

Mislabelling somebody or something else might merely have been amusing: calling some people gorillas will often be met by laughter. But it becomes charged and ethically relevant in a culture like the current American one. This is nothing the recognition algorithm knows about: from its perspective mislabelling chairs is as bad as mislabelling humans. Adding a culturally sensitive loss function to the training is nontrivial. Ad hoc corrections against particular cases – like this one – will only help when a scandalous mislabelling already occurs: we will not know what is misbehaviour until we see it.

[ Incidentally, this suggests a way for automatic insult generation: use computer vision to find matching categories, and select the one that is closest but has the lowest social status (perhaps detected using sentiment analysis). It will be hilarious for the five seconds until somebody takes serious offence. ]

It has been suggested that the behavior was due to training data being biased towards white people, making the model subtly biased. If there are few examples of a category it might be suppressed or overused as a response. This can be very hard to fix, since many systems and data sources have a patchy spread in social space. But maybe we need to pay more attention to the issue of whether data is socially diverse enough. It is worth recognizing that since a machine learning system may be used by very many users once it has been trained, it has the power to project its biased view of the world to many: getting things right in a universal system, rather than something used by a few, may be far more important than it looks. We may also have to have enough online learning over time so such systems update their worldview based on how culture evolves.

Moral actors, proxies and patients

Si elegansMaking machines that act in a moral context is even iffier.

My standard example is of course the autonomous car, which may find itself in situations that would count as moral choices for a human. Here the issue is who sets the decision scheme: presumably they would be held accountable insofar they could predict the consequences of their code or be identified. I have argued that it is good to have the car try to behave as its “driver” would, but it will still be limited by the sensory and cognitive abilities of the vehicle. Moral proxies are doable, even if they are not moral agents.

The manufacture and behavior of killer robots is of course even more contentious. Even if we think they can be acceptable in principle and have a moral system that we think would be the right one to implement, actually implementing it for certain may prove exceedingly hard. Verification of robotics is hard; verification of morally important actions based on real-world data is even worse. And one cannot shirk the responsibility to do so if one deploys the system.

Note that none of this presupposes real intelligence or truly open-ended action abilities. They just make an already hard problem tougher. Machines that can only act within a well-defined set of constraints can be further constrained to not go into parts of state- or action-space we know are bad (but as discussed above, even captioning images is a sufficiently big space that we will find surprise bad actions).

As I mentioned above, the bulk of the talk was my argument that whole brain emulation attempts can produce systems we have good reasons to be careful with: we do not know if they are moral agents, but they are intentionally architecturally and behaviourally close to moral agents.

A new aspect I got the chance to discuss is the problem about non-emulation neural networks. When do we need to consider them? Brian Tomasik has written a paper about whether we should regard reinforcement learning agents as moral patients (see also this supplement). His conclusion is that these programs mimic core motivation/emotion cognitive systems that almost certainly matter for real moral patients’ patient-hood (an organism without a reward system or learning would presumably lose much or all of its patient-hood), and there is a nonzero chance that they are fully or partially sentient.

But things get harder for other architectures. A deep learning network with just a feedforward architecture is presumably unable to be conscious, since many theories of consciousness presuppose some forms of feedback – and that is not possible in that architecture. But at the conference there have been plenty of recurrent networks that have all sorts of feedback. Whether they can have experiential states appears tricky to answer. In some cases we may argue they are too small to matter, but again we do not know if level of consciousness (or moral considerability) necessarily has to follow brain size.

They also inhabit a potentially alien world where their representations could be utterly unrelated to what we humans understand or can express. One might say, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, that if a neural network could speak we would not understand it. However, there might be ways of making their internal representations less opaque. Methods such as inceptionism, deep visualization, or t-SNE can actually help discern some of what is going on on the inside. If we were to discover a set of concepts that were similar to human or animal concepts, we may have reason to thread a bit more carefully – especially if there were concepts linked to some of them in the same way “suffering concepts” may be linked to other concepts. This looks like a very relevant research area, both for debugging our learning systems, but also for mapping out the structures of animal, human and machine minds.

In the end, if we want safe and beneficial smart systems, we better start figuring out how to understand them better.

Annoyed by annoyed AI: can we fight AI hype?

Media victims 2Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that an AI got testy with its programmer when he asked about ethics. This is based on a neat paper by Vinyals and Le on training recurrent networks to do conversations based on past example conversations, essentially making neural network chatbots. I posted about that particular dialogue myself to the office list, joking about AI not digging ethics.

However, others got annoyed by the annoyed AI. Mbeckman on Slashdot posted WSJ Overstates the Case Of the Testy A.I. and George Dvorsky on Io9 followed up with No, an AI Did Not Just “Lash Out” at Its Human Programmer.

Mbeckman wrote: “AI hype to the public has gotten progressively more strident in recent years, misleading lay people into believing researchers are much further along than they really are — by orders of magnitude. I’d love to see legitimate A.I. researchers condemn this kind of hucksterism.

Of course, the question is what the hucksterism actually is, who is doing it, and what to do about it.

Who are the hucksters?

A huckster is “One who uses aggressive, showy, and sometimes devious methods to promote or sell a product”.

The paper?

In this case the paper is not doing anything obviously hucksterish – it has several dialogue examples where the software responds to VPN or browser issues, general knowledge Q&A, chatting and opinions. That the system thinks Cleopatra is very regal or that it manages to instruct the user into doing an apt-update for a browser is neat, but not terribly impressive. Many of the dialogues are clearly Eliza-level associations with little actual thinking, but amusing random combinations:

Human:what is the purpose of life ?
Machine:to serve the greater good .
Human:what is the purpose of living ?
Machine:to live forever .
Human:what is the purpose of existence ?
Machine: to find out what happens when we get to the planet earth .
Human:where are you now ?
Machine:i ’m in the middle of nowhere .
Human:what is the purpose of dying ?
Machine:to have a life .
Human:what is the purpose of being intelligent?
Machine:to find out what it is .
Human:what is the purpose of emotions ?
Machine:i don ’t know

If this is hucksterism, then nearly any computer science paper is hucksterism. After all, they tend to show the successful runs of software and generally overestimate the utility of the algorithm or method.

Wall Street Journal?

Mbeckman probably felt that the WSJ was more guilty. After all, the title and opening suggest there is some kind of attitude going on. But there is actually rather little editorializing: rather, a somewhat bland overview of machine learning with an amusing dialogue example thrown in. It could have been Eliza instead, and the article would have made sense too (“AI understands programmer’s family problems”). There is an element of calculation here: AI is hot, and the dialogue can be used as a hook to make a story that both mentions real stuff and provides a bit of entertainment. But again, this is not so much aggressive promotion of a product/idea as opportunitistic promotion.

Media in general?

I suspect that the real target of Mbeckman’s wrath is the unnamed sources of AI hype. There is no question that AI is getting hyped these days. Big investments by major corporations, sponsored content demystifying it, Business Insider talking about how to invest into it, corporate claims of breakthroughs that turn out to be mistakes/cheating, invitations to governments to join the bandwagon, the whole discussion about AI safety where people quote and argue about Hawking’s and Musk’s warnings (rather than going to the sources reviewing the main thinking), and of course a bundle of films. The nature of hype is that it is promotion, especially based on exaggerated claims. This is of course where the hucksterism accusation actually bites.

Hype: it is everybody’s fault

AI will change our futureBut while many of the agents involved do exaggerate their own products, hype is also a social phenomenon. In many ways it is similar to an investment bubble. Some triggers occur (real technology breakthroughs, bold claims, a good story) and media attention flows to the field. People start investing in the field, not just with money, but with attention, opinion and other contributions. This leads to more attention, and the cycle feeds itself. Like an investment bubble overconfidence is rewarded (you get more attention and investment) while sceptics do not gain anything (of course, you can participate as a sharp-tounged sceptic: everybody loves to claim they listen to critical voices! But now you are just as much part of the hype as the promoters). Finally the bubble bursts, fashion shifts, or attention just wanes and goes somewhere else. Years later, whatever it was may reach the plateau of productivity.

The problem with this image is that it is everybody’s fault. Sure, tech gurus are promoting their things, but nobody is forced to naively believe them. Many of the detractors are feeding the hype by feeding it attention. There is ample historical evidence: I assume the Dutch tulip bubble is covered in Economics 101 everywhere, and AI has a history of terribly destructive hype bubbles… yet few if any learn from it (because this time it is different, because of reasons!)

Fundamentals

In the case of AI, I do think there have been real changes that give good reason to expect big things. Since the 90s when I was learning the field computing power and sizes of training data have expanded enormously, making methods that looked like dead ends back them actually blossom. There has also been conceptual improvements in machine learning, among other things killing off neural networks as a separate field (we bio-oriented researchers reinvented ourselves as systems biologists, while the others just went with statistical machine learning). Plus surprise innovations that have led to a cascade of interest – the kind of internal innovation hype that actually does produce loads of useful ideas. The fact that papers and methods that surprise experts in the field are arriving at a brisk pace is evidence of progress. So in a sense, the AI hype has been triggered by something real.

I also think that the concerns about AI that float around have been triggered by some real insights. There was minuscule AI safety work done before the late 1990s inside AI; most was about robots not squishing people. The investigations of amateurs and academics did bring up some worrying concepts and problems, at first at the distal “what if we succeed?” end and later also when investigating the more proximal impact of cognitive computing on society through drones, autonomous devices, smart infrastructures, automated jobs and so on. So again, I think the “anti-AI hype” has also been triggered by real things.

Copy rather than check

But once the hype cycle starts, just like in finance, fundamentals matter less and less. This of course means that views and decisions become based on copying others rather than truth-seeking. And idea-copying is subject to all sorts of biases: we notice things that fit with earlier ideas we have held, we give weight to easily available images (such as frequently mentioned scenarios) and emotionally salient things, detail and nuance are easily lost when a message is copied, and so on.

Science fact

This feeds into the science fact problem: to a non-expert, it is hard to tell what the actual state of art is. The sheer amount of information, together with multiple contradictory opinions, makes it tough to know what is actually true. Just try figuring out what kind of fat is good for your heart (if any). There is so much reporting on the issue, that you can easily find support for any side, and evaluating the quality of the support requires expert knowledge. But even figuring out who is an expert in a contested big field can be hard.

In the case of AI, it is also very hard to tell what will be possible or not. Expert predictions are not that great, nor different from amateur predictions. Experts certainly know what can be done today, but given the number of surprises we are seeing this might not tell us much. Many issues are also interdisciplinary, making even confident and reasoned predictions by a domain expert problematic since factors they know little about also matters (consider the the environmental debates between ecologists and economists – both have half of the puzzle, but often do not understand that the other half is needed).

Bubble inflation forces

Different factors can make hype more or less intense. During summer “silly season” newspapers copy entertaining stories from each other (some stories become perennial, like the “BT soul-catcher chip” story that emerged in 1996 and is still making its rounds). Here easy copying and lax fact checking boost the effect. During a period with easy credit financial and technological bubbles become more intense. I suspect that what is feeding the current AI hype bubble is a combination of the usual technofinancial drivers (we may be having dotcom 2.0, as some think), but also cultural concerns with employment in a society that is automating, outsourcing, globalizing and disintermediating rapidly, plus very active concerns with surveillance, power and inequality. AI is in a sense a natural lightening rod for these concerns, and they help motivate interest and hence hype.

So here we are.

AGI ambitionsAI professionals are annoyed because the public fears stuff that is entirely imaginary, and might invoke the dreaded powers of legislators or at least threaten reputation, research grants and investment money. At the same time, if they do not play up the coolness of their ideas they will not be noticed. AI safety people are annoyed because the rather subtle arguments they are trying to explain to the AI professionals get wildly distorted into “Genius Scientists Say We are Going to be Killed by the TERMINATOR!!!” and the AI professionals get annoyed and refuse to listen. Yet the journalists are eagerly asking for comments, and sometimes they get things right, so it is tempting to respond. The public are annoyed because they don’t get the toys they are promised, and it simultaneously looks like Bad Things are being invented for no good reason. But of course they will forward that robot wedding story. The journalists are annoyed because they actually do not want to feed hype. And so on.

What should we do? “Don’t feed the trolls” only works when the trolls are identifiable and avoidable. Being a bit more cautious, critical and quiet is not bad: the world is full of overconfident hucksters, and learning to recognize and ignore them is a good personal habit we should appreciate. But it only helps society if most people avoid feeding the hype cycle: a bit like the unilateralist’s curse, nearly everybody need to be rational and quiet to starve the bubble. And since there are prime incentives for hucksterism in industry, academia and punditry that will go to those willing to do it, we can expect hucksters to show up anyway.

The marketplace of ideas could do with some consumer reporting. We can try to build institutions to counter problems: good ratings agencies can tell us whether something is overvalued, maybe a federal robotics commission can give good overviews of the actual state of the art. Reputation systems, science blogging marking what is peer reviewed, various forms of fact-checking institutions can help improve epistemic standards a bit.

AI safety people could of course pipe down and just tell AI professionals about their concerns, keeping the public out of it by doing it all in a formal academic/technical way. But a pure technocratic approach will likely bite us in the end, since (1) incentives to ignore long term safety issues with no public/institutional support exist, and (2) the public gets rather angry when it finds that “the experts” have been talking about important things behind their back. It is better to try to be honest and try to say the highest-priority true things as clearly as possible to the people who need to hear it, or ask.

AI professionals should recognize that they are sitting on a hype-generating field, and past disasters give much reason for caution. Insofar they regard themselves as professionals, belonging to a skilled social community that actually has obligations towards society, they should try to manage expectations. It is tough, especially since the field is by no means as unified professionally as (say) lawyers and doctors. They should also recognize that their domain knowledge both obliges them to speak up against stupid claims (just like Mbeckman urged), but that there are limits to what they know: talking about the future or complex socioecotechnological problems requires help from other kinds of expertise.

And people who do not regard themselves as either? I think training our critical thinking and intellectual connoisseurship might be the best we can do. Some of that is individual work, some of it comes from actual education, some of it from supporting better epistemic institutions – have you edited Wikipedia this week? What about pointing friends towards good media sources?

In the end, I think the AI system got it right: “What is the purpose of being intelligent? To find out what it is”. We need to become better at finding out what is, and only then can we become good at finding out what intelligence is.

1957: Sputnik, atomic cooking, machines that code & central dogmas

What have we learned since 1957? Did we predict what it would be? And what does it tell us about our future?

Some notes for the panel discussion “‘We’ve never had it so good’ – how does the world today compare to 1957?” 11 May 2015 by Dr Anders Sandberg, James Martin Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, Oxford University.

Taking the topic “how does the world today compare to 1957?” a bit literally and with a definite technological bent, I started reading old issues of Nature to see what people were thinking about back then.

Technology development

Space

In 1957 the space age began.

Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was launched on 4 October 1957. On November 3 Sputnik 2 was launched, with Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth. The US didn’t quite manage to follow up within the year, but succeeded with Explorer 1 in January 1958.

Earth rising over the Moon from Apollo 8.
Earth rising over the Moon from Apollo 8.

Right now, Voyager 1 is 19 billion km from earth, leaving the solar system for interstellar space. Probes have visited all the major bodies of the solar system. There are several thousand satellites orbiting Earth and other bodies.  Humans have set their footprint on the Moon – although the last astronaut on the moon left closer to 1957 than the present.

There is a pair of surprises here. The first is how fast humanity went from primitive rockets and satellites to actual moon landings – 12 years. The second is that the space age did not grow into a roaring colonization of the cosmos, despite the confident predictions of nearly anybody in the 1950s. In many ways space embodies the surprises of technological progress – it can go both faster and slower than expected, often at the same time.

Nuclear

SRE_News_1957

1957 also marks the first time that power was generated from a commercial nuclear plant, at Santa Susana, California, and the first full-scale nuclear power plant (Shippingport, Pennsylvania). Now LA housewives were cooking with their friend the atom! Ford announced their Nucleon atomic concept car 1958 – whatever the future held, it was sure to be nuclear powered!

Nuclearcooking LA times

Except that just like the Space Age the Atomic Age turned out to be a bit less pervasive than imagined in 1957.

World energy usage by type. From Our World In Data.
World energy usage by type. From Our World In Data.

One reason might be found in the UK Windscale nuclear power plant accident on 10th October 1957. Santa Susana also turned into an expensive superfund clean-up site. Making safe and easily decommissioned nuclear plants turned out to be far harder than imagined in the 1950s. Maybe, as Freeman Dyson has suggested[1], the world simply choose the wrong branch of the technology tree to walk down, selecting the big and complex plants suitable for nuclear weapons isotopes rather than small, simple and robust plants. In any case, today nuclear power is struggling both against cost and broadly negative public perceptions.

Computers

First Fortran compiler. Picture from Grinnel College.
First Fortran compiler. Picture from Grinnel College.

In April 1957 IBM sells the first compiler for the FORTRAN scientific programming language, as a hefty package of punched cards. This represents the first time software allowing a computer to write software is sold.

The term “artificial intelligence” had been invented the year before at the famous Dartmouth conference on artificial intelligence, which set out the research agenda to make machines that could mimic human problem solving. Newell, Shaw and Simon demonstrated the General Problem Solver (GPS) in 1957, a first piece of tangible progress.

While the Fortran compiler was a completely independent project it does represent the automation of programming. Today software development involves using modular libraries, automated development and testing: a single programmer can today do projects far outside what would have been possible in the 1950s. Cars run software on the order of 100s of million lines of code, and modern operating systems easily run into the high tens of millions of lines of code[2].

Moore's law, fitted with Jacknifed sigmoids. Green lines mark 98% confidence interval. Data from Nordhaus.
Moore’s law, fitted with Jacknifed sigmoids. Green lines mark 98% confidence interval. Data from Nordhaus.

In 1957 Moore’s law was not yet coined as a term, but the dynamics was already ongoing: computer operations per second per dollar was increasing exponentially (this is the important form of Moore’s law, rather than transistor density – few outside the semiconductor industry actually care about that). Today we can get about 440 billion times as many computations per second per dollar now as in 1957. Similar laws apply to storage (in 1956 IBM shipped the first hard drive in the RAMAC 305 system. The drive held 5MB of data at $10,000 a megabyte, as big as two refrigerators), memory prices, sizes of systems and sensors.

This tremendous growth have not only made complex and large programs possible, or enabled supercomputing (today’s best supercomputer is about 67 billion times more powerful than the first ones in 1964), but has also allowed smaller and cheaper devices that can be portable and used everywhere. The performance improvement can be traded for price and size.

venturawatchapplewatch

In 1957 the first electric watch – the Hamilton Ventura – was sold. Today we have the Apple watch. Both have the same main function, to show off the wealth of their owner (and incidentally tell time), but the modern watch is also a powerful computer able to act as a portal into our shared information world. Embedded processors are everywhere, from washing machines to streetlights to pacemakers.

Why did the computers take off? Obviously there was a great demand for computing, but the technology also contained the seeds of making itself more powerful, more flexible, cheaper and useful in ever larger domains. As Gordon Bell noted in 1970, “Roughly every decade a new, lower priced computer class forms based on a new programming platform, network, and interface resulting in new usage and the establishment of a new industry.”[3]

At the same time, artificial intelligence has had a wildly bumpy ride. From confident predictions of human level intelligence within a generation to the 1970s “AI winter” when nobody wanted to touch the overhyped and obsolete area, to the current massive investments in machine learning. The problem was to a large extent that we could not tell how hard problems in the field were: some like algebra and certain games yielded with ease, others like computer vision turned out to be profoundly hard.

Biotechnology

In 1957 Francis Crick laid out the “central dogma of molecular biology”, which explained the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins (DNA is translated into RNA, which is translated into proteins, and information only flows this way). The DNA structure had been unveiled four years earlier and people were just starting to figure out how genetics truly worked.

(Incidentally, the reason for the term “dogma” was that Crick, a nonbeliever, thought the term meant something that was unsupported by evidence and just had to be taken by faith, rather than the real meaning of the term, something that has to be believed no matter what. Just like “black holes” and the “big bang”, names deliberately coined to mock, it stuck.)

It took time to learn how to use DNA, but in the 1960s we learned the language of the genetic code, by the early 1970s we learned how to write new information into DNA, by the 1980s commercial applications began, by the 1990s short genomes were sequenced…

Price for DNA sequencing and synthesis. From Rob Carlson.
Price for DNA sequencing and synthesis. From Rob Carlson.

Today we have DNA synthesis machines that can be bought on eBay, unless you want to order your DNA sequence online and get a vial in the mail. Conversely, you can send off a saliva sample and get a map (or the entire sequence) of your genome back. The synthetic biology movement are sharing “biobricks”, modular genetic devices that can be combined and used to program cells. Students have competitions in genetic design.

The dramatic fall in price of DNA sequencing and synthesis mimics Moore’s law and is in some sense a result of it: better computation and microtechnology enables better biotechnology. Conversely, the cheaper it is, the more uses can be found – from marking burglars with DNA spray to identifying the true origins of sushi. This also speeds up research, leading to discoveries of new useulf tricks, for example leading to the current era of CRISPR/Cas genetic editing which promises vastly improved precision and efficiency over previous methods.

Average corn yields over time. Image from Biodesic.
Average corn yields over time. Image from Biodesic.

Biotechnology is of course more than genetics. One of the most important aspects of making the world better is food security. The gains in agricultural productivity have also been amazing. One of the important take-home messages in the above graph is that the improvement began before we started to explicitly tinker with the genes: crossing methods in the post-war era already were improving yields. Also, the Green Revolution in the 1960s was driven not just by better varieties, but by changes in land use, irrigation, fertilization and other less glamorous – but important – factors. The utility of biotechnology in the large is strongly linked to how it fits with the infrastructure of society.

Predicting technology

"Science on the March" (Alexander Leydenfrost)
“Science on the March” (Alexander Leydenfrost)

Learning about what is easy and hard requires experience. Space was on one hand easy – it only took 17 years from Sputnik before the astronauts left the moon – but making it sustained turned out to be hard. Nuclear power was easy to make, but hard to make safe enough to be cheap and acceptable.  Software has taken off tremendously, but compilers have not turned into “do what I mean” – yet routine computer engineering is regularly producing feats beyond belief that have transformed our world. AI has died the hype death several times, yet automated translation, driving, games, logistics and information services are major business today. Biotechnology had a slow ramp-up, then erupted and now schoolchildren modifying genes – yet heavy resistance holds it back, largely not because of any objective danger but because of cultural views.

If we are so bad at predicting what future technology will transform the world, what are we to do when we are searching for the Next Big Thing to solve our crises? The best approach is to experiment widely. Technologies with low thresholds of entry – such as software and now biotechnology – allow for more creative exploration. More people, more approaches and more aims can be brought to bear, and will find unexpected use for them.

The main way technologies become cheap and ubiquitous is that they are mass produced. As long as spacecraft and nuclear reactors nearly one-offs they will remain expensive. But as T. P. Wright observed, the learning curve makes each new order a bit cheaper or better. If we can reach the point where many are churned out they will not just be cheap, they will also be used for new things. This is the secret of the transistor and electronic circuit: by becoming so cheap they could be integrated anywhere they also found uses everywhere.

So the most world-transforming technologies are likely to be those that can be mass-produced, even if they from the start look awfully specialized. CCDs were once tools for astronomy, and now are in every camera and phone. Cellphones went from a moveable telephone to a platform for interfacing with the noosphere. Expect the same from gene sequencing, cubesats and machine learning. But predicting what technologies will dominate the world in 60 years’ time will not be possible.

Are we better off?

Having more technology, being able to reach higher temperatures, lower pressures, faster computations or finer resolutions, does not equate to being better off as humans.

Healthy and wise

Life expectancy (male and female) in England and Wales.

Perhaps the most obvious improvement has been health and life expectancy. Our “physiological capital” has been improving significantly. Life expectancy at birth has increased from about 70 in 1957 to 80 at a steady pace. The chance of living until 100 went up from 12.2% in 1957 to 29.9% in 2011[4].

The most important thing here is that better hygiene, antibiotics, and vaccinations happened before 1957! They were certainly getting better afterwards, but the biggest gains were likely early. Since 1957 it is likely that the main causes have been even better nutrition, hygiene, safety, early detection of many conditions, as well as reduction of risk factors like smoking.

Advanced biomedicine certainly has a role here, but it has been smaller than one might be led to think until about the 1970s. “Whether or not medical interventions have contributed more to declining mortality over the last 20 years than social change or lifestyle change is not so clear.”[5] This is in many ways good news: we may have a reserve of research waiting to really make an impact. After all, “evidence based medicine”, where careful experiment and statistics are applied to medical procedure, began properly in the 1970s!

A key factor is good health habits, underpinned by research, availability of information, and education level. These lead to preventative measures and avoiding risk factors. This is something that has been empowered by the radical improvements in information technology.

Consider the cost of accessing an encyclopaedia. In 1957 encyclopaedias were major purchases for middle class families, and if you didn’t have one you better have bus money to go to the local library to look up their copy. In the 1990s the traditional encyclopaedias were largely killed by low-cost CD ROMs… before Wikipedia appeared. Wikipedia is nearly free (you still need an internet connection) and vastly more extensive than any traditional encyclopaedia. But the Internet is vastly larger than Wikipedia as a repository of knowledge. The curious kid also has the same access to the ArXiv preprint server as any research physicist: they can reach the latest paper at the same time. Not to mention free educational courses, raw data, tutorials, and ways of networking with other interested people.

Wikipedia is also good demonstration of how the rules change when you get something cheap enough – having volunteers build and maintain something as sophisticated as an encyclopaedia requires a large and diverse community (it is often better to have many volunteers than a handful of experts, as competitors like Scholarpedia have discovered), and this would not be possible without easy access. It also illustrates that new things can be made in “alien” ways that cannot be predicted before they are tried.

Risk

But our risks may have grown too.

1957 also marks the launch of the first ICBM, a Soviet R-7. In many ways it is intrinsically linked to spaceflight: an ICBM is just a satellite with a ground-intersecting orbit. If you can make one, you can build the other.

By 1957 the nuclear warhead stockpiles were going up exponentially and had reached 10,000 warheads, each potentially able to destroy a city. Yields of thermonuclear weapons were growing larger, as imprecise targeting made it reasonable to destroy large areas in order to guarantee destruction of the target.

Nuclear warhead stockpiles. From the Center of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

While the stockpiles have decreased and the tensions are not as high as during the peak of the cold war in the early 80s, we have more nuclear powers, some of which are decidedly unstable. The intervening years have also shown a worrying number of close calls – not just the Cuban Missile crisis but many other under-reported crises, flare-ups and technical mishaps (Indeed, in May 22 1957 a 42,000-pound hydrogen bomb accidentally fell from a bomber near Albuquerque). The fact that we got out of the Cold War unscathed is surprising – or maybe not, since we would not be having this discussion if it had turned hot.

The biological risks are also with us. The Asian Bird Flu pandemic in 1957 claimed over 150,000 lives world-wide. Current gain-of-function research may, if we are very unlucky, lead to a man-made pandemic with a worse outcome. The paradox here is that this particular research is motivated by a desire to understand how bird flu can make the jump from birds to an infectious human pathogen: we need to understand this better, yet making new pathogens may be a risky path.

The SARS and Ebola crises show that we both have become better at handling a pandemic emergency, but also have far to go. It seems that the natural biological risk may have gone down a bit because of better healthcare (and increased a bit due to more global travel), but the real risks from misuse of synthetic biology are not here yet. While biowarfare and bioterrorism are rare, they can have potentially unbounded effects – and cheaper, more widely available technology means it may be harder to control what groups can attempt it.

1957 also marks the year when Africanized bees escaped in Brazil, becoming one of the most successful and troublesome invasive (sub)species. Biological risks can be directed to agriculture or the ecosystem too. Again, the intervening 60 years have shown a remarkably mixed story: on one hand significant losses of habitat, the spread of many invasive species, and the development of anti-agricultural bioweapons. On the other hand a significant growth of our understanding of ecology, biosafety, food security, methods of managing ecosystems and environmental awareness. Which trend will win out remains uncertain.

The good news is that risk is not a one-way street. We likely have reduced the risk of nuclear war since the heights of the Cold War. We have better methods of responding to pandemics today than in 1957. We are aware of risks in a way that seems more actionable than in the past: risk is something that is on the agenda (sometimes excessively so).

Coordination

1957/1958 was the International Geophysical Year. The Geophysical Year saw the US and Soviet Union – still fierce rivals – cooperate on understanding and monitoring the global system, an ever more vital part of our civilization.

1957 was also the year of the treaty of Rome, one of the founding treaties of what would become the EU. For all its faults the European Union demonstrates that it is possible through trade to stabilize a region that had been embroiled in wars for centuries.

Number of international treaties over time. Data from Wikipedia.
Number of international treaties over time. Data from Wikipedia.

The number of international treaties has grown from 18 in 1957 to 60 today. While not all represent sterling examples of cooperation they are a sign that the world is getting somewhat more coordinated.

Globalisation means that we actually care about what goes on in far corners of the world, and we will often hear about it quickly. It took days after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 before it was confirmed – in 2011 I watched the Fukushima YouTube clip 25 minutes after the accident, alerted by Twitter. It has become harder to hide a problem, and easier to request help (overcoming one’s pride to do it, though, remains as hard as ever).

The world on 1957 was closed in many ways: two sides of the Cold War, most countries with closed borders, news traveling through narrow broadcasting channels and transport/travel hard and expensive. Today the world is vastly more open, both to individuals and to governments. This has been enabled by better coordination. Ironically, it also creates more joint problems requiring joint solutions – and the rest of the world will be watching the proceedings, noting lack of cooperation.

Final thoughts

The real challenges for our technological future are complexity and risk.

We have in many ways plucked the low-hanging fruits of simple, high-performance technologies that vastly extend our reach in energy, material wealth, speed and so on, but run into subtler limits due to the complexity of the vast technological systems we need. The problem of writing software today is not memory or processing speed but handling a myriad of contingencies in distributed systems subject to deliberate attacks, emergence, localization, and technological obsolescence. Biotechnology can do wonders, yet has to contend with organic systems that have not been designed for upgradeability and spontaneously adapt to our interventions. Handling complex systems is going to be the great challenge for this century, requiring multidisciplinary research and innovations – and quite likely some new insights on the same level as the earth-shattering physical insights of the 20th century.

More powerful technology is also more risky, since it can have greater consequences. The reach of the causal chains that can be triggered with a key press today are enormously longer than in 1957. Paradoxically, the technologies that threaten us also have the potential to help us reduce risk. Spaceflight makes ICBMs possible, but allows global monitoring and opens the possibility of becoming a multi-planetary species. Biotechnology allows for bioweapons, but also disease surveillance and rapid responses. Gene drives can control invasive species and disease vectors, or sabotage ecosystems. Surveillance can threaten privacy and political freedom, yet allow us to detect and respond to collective threats. Artificial intelligence can empower us, or produce autonomous technological systems that we have no control over. Handling risk requires both having an adequate understanding of what matters, designing the technologies, institutions or incentives that can reduce the risk – and convincing the world to use them.

The future of our species depends on what combination of technology, insight and coordination ability we have. Merely having one or two of them is not enough: without technology we are impotent, without insight we are likely to go in the wrong direction, and without coordination we will pull apart.

Fortunately, since 1957 I think we have not just improved our technological abilities, but we have shown a growth of insight and coordination ability. Today we are aware of global environmental and systemic problems to a new degree. We have integrated our world to an unprecedented degree, whether through international treaties, unions like the EU, or social media. We are by no means “there” yet, but we have been moving in the right direction. Hence I think we never had it so good.

 

[1]Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds. Harvard University Press (1997) P. 34-37, p. 183-185

[2] http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/million-lines-of-code/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell%27s_law_of_computer_classes

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/223114/diffs_life_expectancy_20_50_80.pdf

[5] http://www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org.uk/review-of-longevity-trends-to-2025-and-beyond/