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Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence, which I have referred to more than once in this space.

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

As an example of a “black ball technology” Bostrom asks us to imagine a hypothetical alternate history:

On the grey London morning of September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard was reading the newspaper when he came upon a report of an address recently delivered by the distinguished Lord Rutherford, now often considered the father of nuclear physics. In his speech, Rutherford had dismissed the idea of extracting useful energy from nuclear reactions as “moonshine”. This claim so annoyed Szilard that he went out for a walk. During the walk he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction—the basis for both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Later investigations showed that making an atomic weapon requires several kilograms of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which are very difficult and expensive to produce. However, suppose it had turned out otherwise: that there had been some really easy way to unleash the energy of the atom—say, by sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass.

Having asked us to imagine this alternate history Bostrom asks us to further imagine what would have happened to the world had this been the case. I suspect most of us have a hard time imagining anything other chaos and anarchy.

This is the “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) from the title. The hypothesis that somewhere in the urn there is a black ball (and probably more than one). Sure, nuclear weapons ended up being difficult to create, but perhaps engineering new, highly infectious diseases will be as easy as ”sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass”. If there is a black ball in the urn, then the worry is that if we keep drawing from the urn eventually we’ll pull it out, and as I said, the game will be over.

Once you start thinking about this idea, there are some interesting (and frankly frightening) possibilities. One of the things that Bostrom doesn’t go into very much is that the shade of the ball might change after being drawn. To begin with when you do research It’s not always clear what sort of technology you’re going to end up with. For example when Roentgen stumbled on X-rays, that ball may have looked a little greyish, but once their medicinal application became apparent the color of the “X-ray ball” ended up being very white.

One consequence of this, is that in addition to not being able to choose the shade of the ball before we draw, the balls can change color the longer they’re out. You can draw a ball which looks bright white and ends up getting darker and darker the longer the technology is in use. Certainly some people would argue that coal falls into this category. (The gradually darkening of the ball being appropriate in this example.) When people first started burning coal the ball must have seemed pretty white, but now there are at least as many people who think it’s going to destroy the planet (and very few people think it’s great.)

Social media is definitely not as black as coal (pun intended), but I think everyone agrees that it’s getting grayer with every passing year. It’s hard to imagine it will go all the way to black, but once again this illustrates that it’s impossible, if you’re actually drawing balls to not draw ones that are bad because even after you draw them the shade may not be apparent, possibly for decades, or in the case of coal, centuries. Thus even if you think that somehow humanity will coordinate in some amazing and unprecedented way if a true black ball is drawn, we might not know until it’s too late.

As you might imagine this metaphor is not encouraging. The only way humanity avoids drawing a black ball, and thus “losing the game” is if they stop drawing, or if there are no black balls. The first seems possible but very, very, unlikely, though as unlikely as the first one is the idea that there are no black balls seems even more unlikely. I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan, just because the only swans you’ve ever seen are white doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans, but of course this situation is even worse. It’s not as if we have only drawn white balls so far, and can thus plausibly hope that’s all there are. We have already drawn many balls that are very, very grey (thermonuclear weapons anyone?) and many of the balls are getting darker with each passing year.

Interestingly at around the same time as I came across Bostrom’s paper, I also finished reading Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. You could consider this book a companion to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (and Cowen mentions that book approvingly). Whereas Enlightenment Now’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t abandon the ideals of the enlightenment, Cowen’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t take our eyes off the ball of economic growth. As you might imagine the VWH doesn’t fit in very well with either model, but in particular Cowen could be said to be advocating not only that we continue to draw balls from the urn, but that we increase the speed at which we do so.

If we set aside the VWH for a moment, Cowen’s focus on growth, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, makes quite a bit of sense, and it’s worth laying out the case for it. Here’s the books own summary:

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.

Cowen is not claiming that growth makes everyone better at the same rate, or that there aren’t pockets of problems. Rather, his claim is that if you compare the world of today with the world 200 years ago that basically everything is better, even if there are individual years within that span that were worse than the previous year. Over a long enough time horizon all the problems of unequal distribution and outcomes are eventually solved..

Some people would counter that modernity has brought a decrease in contentment and happiness, but Cowen argues that this is just a problem with the way we describe happiness.

To give an example, if you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States. The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.

In other words happiness is relative, but in absolute terms Americans are way better off than Kenyans. And that this is because of economic growth. This is an important point for Cowen to clarify, and beyond that, there are of course all manner of nooks and crannies to his arguments. For example, he makes a big deal of preserving certain rights and values even if they conflict with maximizing growth. He also has interesting things to say about charitable giving and redistribution, but I don’t have the space to cover most of them. There is however one concept of his which I do need to bring up because it’s so central to the rest of the book, his idea of “Wealth Plus”.

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Thus when Cowen talks about maximizing growth, he’s talking about maximizing Wealth Plus. Which means he doesn’t think people should work fourteen-hour days, nor does he think it’s a good idea to destroy the environment. In fact to his credit Cowen advocates for very low time preference, something we share. And, insofar as leisure time, and amenities and traditional wealth contribute to happiness, maximizing Wealth Plus generates happiness as a useful byproduct.

Recently I have become more and more convinced that one of the central tensions in the modern world is the tension between the values of happiness and survival. Now, Cowen goes to great pains to say that he is not trying to maximize a single value:

…I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness.

But then he also explicitly says that he wants to maximize Wealth Plus, and as I just pointed out even if Wealth Plus is not a “single value” there is a lot of overlap between it and happiness. Also you’ll notice that survival is not mentioned in his list of potential values, either. And of course all of this takes us back to Bostrom and the urn.

It would appear that regardless of whether Wealth Plus is shorthand for happiness or not, it explicitly calls for us to draw out new balls at an ever faster rate, particularly given Cowen’s assertion that “technological progress [is] a major factor behind U.S. economic growth.”

All of this leaves us with a few possibilities:

1- We stop drawing balls. This would certainly allow us to avoid any black balls, but it’s hard to imagine how we would continue to experience any economic growth let alone the level of growth that Cowen is advocating. Also I can’t imagine any world where the policies necessary to make this happen would be implemented, even assuming they could be enforced.

2- We keep drawing balls, but we implement draconian measures to prevent black balls from truly “ending the game”. This is the suggestion Bostrom puts forth in the paper, and in fact it forms part of his definition:

VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

He then goes on to define “semi-anarchic default condition” as a world characterized by three features:

a) Limited capacity for preventive policing.

b) Limited capacity for global governance.

c) Diverse motivations.

I obviously don’t have the space to go into these three features, but his recommendations end up being quite extreme (think 1984’s Big Brother only worse). They may perhaps be more feasible than stopping technological development all together, but not by much. Making this possibility only slightly more probable than possibility number one.

3- We keep drawing balls, but there are no black balls in the urn. There is no technology that will irrevocably end humanity. For example, I mentioned thermonuclear weapons above, but perhaps their actual effect was to make war so unthinkable that it never happens again (meaning they were actually a white ball.) Or maybe even if there is a nuclear war perhaps over a long enough time horizon it would end up being just be a bump in the road, not any kind of hard stop. I think this is the option most people hope for, though I doubt there is much conscious choice involved. I have some thoughts on how to evaluate the probability of this option, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I suspect it’s lower than most people think.

Thus far none of these possibilities seems especially promising, and none seem to play very well with Cowen’s growth-will-fix-everything model, but perhaps that’s exactly the point perhaps that’s the fourth possibility:

4- Growth will fix everything even the existence of a black ball. Back under possibility number two Bostrom claims that the VWH is only a worry as long as we are in a semi-anarchic state. In an analogous fashion perhaps VWH is also only a worry if you haven’t experienced enough growth or if your rate of growth is too slow. Perhaps the best example of this: many VWH possibilities go away once we have self-sustaining populations on two planets. And it’s also possible that most black balls have a white ball which negates them, we just need to develop it. Returning one more time to nuclear weapons, some have made the argument that once submarine launched nukes were available they provided a guaranteed second strike capability. This made nuclear weapons functionally unusable because the initial aggressor couldn’t guarantee they would escape without retaliation. It could then be argued that nuclear weapons were only a “black ball” during the period between their invention and the invention of submarine launched missiles.]

Perhaps we need to add another shade of ball to the game. A pure white ball, which, when drawn, permanently wins the game once and for all. Perhaps something like creating an omnipotent AI which would fulfill all three of Bostrom’s criteria for moving us out of a semi-anarchic state.

What this means is that even though Cowen’s plan has us drawing balls out of the urn as fast as possible, it might actually be the safest plan, because it leads to the shortest time between a black ball and the white ball which counters it. And if there is a pure white ball we draw it as soon as possible as well. Perhaps this plan will work. Maybe there is a potential future where we can have our cake and eat it to. That focusing on economic growth/happiness is also the best way to ensure our survival as well.

That seems too good to be true, but how can we know? Is there any method which would allow us to evaluate the probability that there are no black balls or that if we just grow fast enough we can counter all the black balls with “defensive” technology, or that pure white balls exist?

Well one thing that would certainly help is if we could point to the example of someone else who had done it. And here we return to our old friend Fermi’s Paradox. Which once again, instead of giving us hope for the future, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Could VWH be just one more explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and further an explanation which puts the Great Filter ahead of us rather than behind us? That black balls exist and that all civilizations eventually draw one, and that’s why we’re alone in the universe?

Long time readers of the blog will know that my preferred explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that aliens are out there, but they’re so advanced that we just call them “God”. It’s not my intent to revisit that argument here, but it does give us one final possibility:

5- Someone is in charge of the game. If we return to considering possibility number three, the idea that there are no black balls just by chance, that somehow the universe is randomly set up such that there is definitely very destructive technology, but it’s always just this side of being too destructive. This seems suspiciously convenient, also unlikely, particularly when you toss in Fermi’s Paradox. But if you consider my explanation for the paradox, or even religion more generally, there is the possibility that someone is running the game, and it’s designed such that at least some people will eventually “win”. Obviously this takes us into the realm of theology, but that objection aside, I think you’ll agree that it’s clearly the most hopeful of all the possibilities. Of course, there are many people who can’t put this objection aside, which would mean our best hope is possibility four.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, my very first post talked about being in a race between a beneficial singularity and technological catastrophe. Possibility number four brings us back to the same spot, a race of drawing balls as quickly as possible and hoping we either draw a pure white ball, or that each black ball we draw is quickly negated by a white ball. The only hint we have as to whether this plan will succeed is Fermi’s Paradox, and if it has any predictive power at all we have to assume that this is a race we’re probably going to lose.

Next week I will return to Fermi’s Paradox. I’m continually amazed by how many subjects eventually end up being touched by it, and even though I’ve spent plenty of time talking about it already, we’re going to be talking about it again. I just finished another book on the subject which has revealed even more nooks and crannies to explore.


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