Novel applications and unexpected societal impacts: predictability horizons
The personal computer, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have had extensive impacts on the environment within which businesses, governments, and individuals operate. We might expect the arrival of important new computing applications that can currently be foreseen only in rough outline or not at all. Autonomous aerial vehicles have already entered active military duty, and the descendants of these first-generation military robotic systems are poised to revolutionize warfare. Mobile telephony is spreading like wildfire across the African continent bringing connectivity to subsistence farmers. Social networking sites and Twitter recently served to coordinate protest movements in Iran. Inexpensive and ubiquitous sensors will enable, according to some, an “Internet of things” in which all kinds of ordinary physical objects will be connected to the Internet and constantly in communication with one another, raising many issues related to privacy, vulnerability to hacking, opportunities for new types of scientific data gathering and collaborative information filtering.
The Programme will investigate general epistemic and ethical issues that arise from the prospect of technological innovation, particularly the possibility of discontinuous technological breakthroughs or of novel, unanticipated applications. There seems to be predictability horizons that limit the extent to which we can see ahead more than one or two technology generations. If the rate of change increases, the effective predictability horizon constricts. We would then face profound uncertainty about what the world would be like even in a relatively short time in the future. The Programme will investigate basic questions of the predictability of technological change and the knowability of latent systemic risks that might accumulate as a result of gradual and seemingly innocuous change.
The Programme will also look at the challenges of wise policy formulation under conditions of unpredictable, rapid, and potentially disruptive technological change. For instance, it has been argued (e.g., James Lenman) that insurmountable epistemic challenges defeat consequentialist ethics. Others (e.g., Tyler Cowen, Joanna Burch-Brown) have recently attempted to answer this objection by appealing to various results in statistics. Nevertheless, major unsolved problems remain, for instance in relation to the likely existence of as-yet undiscovered “crucial considerations” (e.g., Nick Bostrom) and meta-level uncertainty (e.g., Toby Ord, Anders Sandberg, Rafaela Hillerbrand). These theoretical issues are implicit in all attempts to take into account long-term consequences in public policy choice (such as in the context of global climate change policy). These issues need to be brought to the fore and addressed explicitly. This work will require familiarity with relevant parts of probability theory, philosophy of science, and complex systems theory.