Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It

Published on 10 October 2014

Managing existential risk from emerging technologies

Historically, the risks that have arisen from emerging technologies have been small when compared with their benefits. The potential exceptions are unprecedented risks that could threaten large parts of the globe, or even our very survival.

Technology has significantly improved lives in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Over the past 150 years, we have become much more prosperous. During this time, the UK average income rose by more than a factor of seven in real terms, much of this driven by improving technology. This increased prosperity has taken millions of people out of absolute poverty and has given everyone many more freedoms in their lives. The past 150 years also saw historically unprecedented improvements in health, with life expectancy in the United Kingdom steadily increasing by two to three years each decade. From a starting point of about 40 years, it has doubled to 80 years.

These improvements are not entirely due to technological advances, of course, but a large fraction of them are. We have seen the cost of goods fall dramatically due to mass production, domestic time freed up via labour saving machines at home, and people connected by automobiles, railroads, airplanes, telephones, television, and the Internet. Health has improved through widespread improvements in sanitation, vaccines, antibiotics, blood transfusions, pharmaceuticals, and surgical techniques.

These benefits significantly outweigh many kinds of risks that emerging technologies bring, such as those that could threaten workers in industry, local communities, consumers, or the environment. After all, the dramatic improvements in prosperity and health already include all the economic and health costs of accidents and inadvertent consequences during technological development and deployment, and the balance is still overwhelmingly positive.

This is not to say that governance does or should ignore mundane risks from new technologies in the future. Good governance may have substantially decreased the risks that we faced over the previous two centuries, and if through careful policy choices we can reduce future risks without much negative impact on these emerging technologies, then we certainly should do so.

However, we may not yet have seen the effects of the most important risks from technological innovation. Over the next few decades, certain technological advances may pose significant and unprecedented global risks. Advances in the biosciences and biotechnology may make it possible to create bioweapons more dangerous than any disease humanity has faced so far; geoengineering technologies could give individual countries the ability to unilaterally alter the global climate; rapid advances in artificial intelligence could give a single country a decisive strategic advantage. These scenarios are extreme, but they are recognized as potential low-probability high impact events by relevant experts. To safely navigate these risks, and harness the potentially great benefits of these new technologies, we must continue to develop our understanding of them and ensure that the institutions responsible for monitoring them and developing policy responses are fit for purpose.

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