The Digest #170

Published on October 23, 2023

The Precautionary Principle

Marc Andreessen recently published The Techno-Optimist Manifesto, a lengthy defense of the benefits that technology has provided to humanity. The vast majority of his arguments are difficult to disagree with. Despite the tendency of technology to cause short-term displacements in the economy, in the long run society is far richer than we would be in an era of technological stasis. 

Technology is a very broad term encompassing all types of human progress, some of which is mundane while others represent revolutionary change. The majority of technological progress, even in cases with short-term economic displacement, does not represent irreversible systemic threats. However, certain types of technological change can potentially involve threats to the overall system. 

The idea of taking precautions when it comes to technology that could involve irreversible systemic threats seems prudent, so I was surprised to read this very strong statement about the precautionary principle:

“Our enemy is the Precautionary Principle, which would have prevented virtually all progress since man first harnessed fire. The Precautionary Principle was invented to prevent the large-scale deployment of civilian nuclear power, perhaps the most catastrophic mistake in Western society in my lifetime. The Precautionary Principle continues to inflict enormous unnecessary suffering on our world today. It is deeply immoral, and we must jettison it with extreme prejudice.”

This statement is not a tweet but part of a very long essay and it seems fair to assume that if the author wanted to provide more nuance, he could have done so. Instead, we have a blanket statement about the precautionary principle that not only criticizes the concept but calls it “deeply immoral.”

It is true that the precautionary principle can be misused to block progress. This is particularly apparent when entrenched interests seek to block a technology that represents an economic threat. However, labeling such blocking maneuvers as an application of the precautionary principle seems to be a misreading of what Nassim Taleb and others have advocated. The following excerpt from the abstract of a 2014 paper on the precautionary principle as applied to GMOs illustrates the distinction:

“The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. Under these conditions, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing an action, not those opposing it. PP is intended to deal with uncertainty and risk in cases where the absence of evidence and the incompleteness of scientific knowledge carries profound implications and in the presence of risks of ‘black swans’, unforeseen and unforeseeable events of extreme consequence.” [Emphasis Added]

In other words, the precautionary principle, properly understood, is not about blocking “virtually all progress since man first harnessed fire” as Mr. Andreessen asserts. Instead, the principle is about exercising great caution only in the subset of technological changes that conceivably involve serious negative systemic effects.

Of course, today’s great controversy is about artificial intelligence. Mr. Andreessen’s manifesto calls AI “our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone” and he clearly is opposed to efforts that would slow progress in this area. However, other technologists, notably including Elon Musk, have recommended far greater caution. 

As we observe this ongoing debate, I think that we should carefully examine the economic motives of those on both sides of the AI debate. More often than not, the fiercest advocates of regulation are those who would lose economically in the absence of regulation. This is called regulatory capture and large companies have used this protectionist tactic very successfully in the past. 

Just as we should not fall into the trap of allowing clearly biased economic actors to justify self-serving regulations based on the precautionary principle, we should not dismiss the principle itself and we certainly should not consider it immoral. In cases of potentially severe and irreversible technological change, society must be careful.

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Conference Call Transcripts

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The Digest #170