Beneficial Precaution: A Proposed Approach to Uncertain Technological Dangers

Edward L. Rubin, Vanderbilt University Law School


As a result of the specialization and cumulation of knowledge in the era of High Modernity, research and development in most technical fields is largely incomprehensible to anyone outside that field. What should policy makers do when technical specialists disagree, and particularly when some predict an oncoming catastrophe and others dismiss the concern? This is the situation with the so-called Singularity, the point at which machines design, build, and operate other machines. Some experts in cybernetics and artificial intelligence argue that this is imminent, while others consign the possibility to science fiction. If the skeptics are right, nothing need be done. But if the Singularity occurs, and we are not prepared for it, then economic inequality will increase exponentially and a large proportion of the workforce will be unemployed and unemployable. The resulting social disruptions seem certain to destroy democracy.

This Article suggests a general strategy for addressing such a situation. It makes use of the history of climate change, a similarly serious challenge about which technical specialists disagreed for about three decades, and argues that policy makers should develop and energetically implement strategies that would at least ameliorate the crisis if it does occur while providing immediate benefits or only minor detriments. In the case of climate change, such strategies would have included renewable energy sources, mass transit, and intelligent buildings. For the possible Singularity, responses with short-term benefits would include comprehensive job retraining (moving currently unemployed workers into service positions), increased funding for the arts and other self-fulfilling pursuits, and restructured education that prepares people for leisure as well as vocations. This Article discusses each of these possibilities as providing immediate benefits and partial preparation in the event that the Singularity occurs.