Emerging technologies like bioengineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and geoengineering have great promise for humanity, but they also come with great peril. They could revolutionize everything from pollution control to human health—imagine a bioengineered microbe that converts CO2 into automobile-worthy liquid fuels, or nanotechnologies that target cancer cells.
But they also pose the potential to cause a global catastrophe in which millions or even billions of people die.
I think the idea of pursuing an international treaty and especially a separate international entity as part of the UN to deal with the question of global catastrophic risks is a fantastic one and I am totally on board with such efforts.
I do worry, however, about a number of hurtles to this approach and am curious if you or anyone else you know of knows of a way these hurtles might be overcome.
A good model for establishing shared standards regarding emerging technologies through international treaties might be current treaties that ban the use of landmines and chemical weapons though neither of these are without flaws.
I think the wall we will have to climb when it comes to establishing shared standards on emerging technologies are twofold and amount to differences in culture and what might be called “technological arbitrage” and we can see examples of both all around us.
The effects of culture can be seen in the way something like genetic engineering is being pursued. There is a great deal of suspicion of GMOs in Europe and corresponding laws to regulate their use while the US is a leader in such products and pursues their use in agriculture full-stop. The West with its experience of the horrors of Nazi eugenics seared deeply into its consciousness is very suspicious of the genetic engineering of humans, but if Geoffrey Miller over at The Edge is right, China is highly committed to developing and using such technologies: http://www.edge.org/responses/q2013 (By the way, this issue of the Edge’s annual question is “What are you most worried about?” would be of interest to anyone thinking about the question of global catastrophic risks) China’s embrace of human genetic engineering is also an example of technological arbitrage the second wall between us and shared standards to regulating emerging technologies.
Not to pick on China which is only the most publicly noticeable example of technological arbitrage but you can see this is the current crisis over China’s internet based spying. Emerging countries seem to have a rational incentive to tap into emerging technologies to close the gap between them and technologically tear one countries and may as a consequence be less reticent about potential threats from such technologies. In addition, a lead country such as the United States has a rational interest of keeping its technological edge by investing in emerging technologies despite their dangers. In the end these questions reflect security concerns. Something we see in yet another example of technology being used as a form or arbitrage- the development by relatively weak countries- North Korea, Iran- of nuclear weapons technologies.
Any international treaty or organization that aimed regulating emerging technologies would have to reflect a global effort to resolve underlying power and security dynamics along with cultural barriers that drive and structure them. Given the dangers of emerging technologies to the human future this is something we need to pursue, but the challenges are high and reflect more than just the question of technology.
Thanks for the very thoughtful response. I am Grant Wilson, one of the co-authors, along with Seth Baum.
Glad to hear you are on board with such efforts. Thanks for the tips on the potential model treaties. I have looked at both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, and they have some interesting elements for emerging technologies. I’ll give a good look to the Ottawa Treaty (the landmine ban treaty), which I have not done yet. While these treaties have some good elements, I think that a combination of international law frameworks and existing national laws on emerging technologies could help shape the contents of an emerging technologies treaty. For example, in the United States, the “Coordinated Framework” is a patchwork of regulations applied to bioengineered organisms, and there are certainly some lessons here that can be applied to an international treaty (e.g. permit requirements for any field release of a bioengineered organism).
The roadblocks you mentioned – differences in culture and “technological arbitrage” – will indeed need to be overcome to create an effective emerging technologies treaty. I would add that religious differences may play a role, as well.
I think that one way the cultural and technological arbitrage problems could be assuaged is to begin with international collaborative efforts on emerging technologies, and a new international organization devoted to emerging technologies could help foster cooperation and build trust. Furthermore, while the United States wants to keep its technological edge and other countries may wish to tap emerging technologies to leap ahead, perhaps a scientific and technological cooperative agreement for emerging technologies would help here. Still, as we know with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and nuclear nonproliferation efforts, not even a collaborative international organization, technology sharing, and strict compliance mechanisms is totally effective (e.g. North Korea is still feverishly pursuing nukes). Finally, all countries inevitably want to act in their best interest, so perhaps starting with the low-hanging fruit of the most dangerous technologies—those that could wipe out the planet, for example—could be a good starting point.
Please let me know if you (or anyone else reading this!) have other ideas. I will be working on this issue indefinitely, so I would love to hear more from innovative thinkers. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, we should clarify that this article was written following our crowdfunding campaign ‘Preventing Technological Disaster Through International Treaties’:
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