The Vulnerable World Hypothesis (by Bostrom)

Link post

Nick Bostrom has put up a new working paper to his personal site (for the first time in two years?), called The Vulnerable World Hypothesis.

I don’t think I have time to read it all, but I’d be interested to see people comment with some choice quotes from the paper, and also read people’s opinions on the ideas within it.

To get the basics, below I’ve written down the headings into a table of contents, copied in a few definitions I found when skimming, and also copied over the conclusion (which seemed to me more readable and useful than the abstract).


  • Is there a black ball in the urn of possible inventions?

  • A thought experiment: easy nukes

  • The vulnerable world hypothesis

    • VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

  • Typology of vulnerabilities

    • Type-1 (“easy nukes”)

      • Type-1 vulnerability: There is some technology which is so destructive and so easy to use that, given the semi-anarchic default condition, the actions of actors in the apocalyptic residual make civilizational devastation extremely likely.

    • Type-2a (“safe first strike”)

      • Type-2a vulnerability: There is some level of technology at which powerful actors have the ability to produce civilization-devastating harms and, in the semi-anarchic default condition, face incentives to use that ability.

    • Type-2b (“worse global warming”)

      • Type-2b vulnerability: There is some level of technology at which, in the semi-anarchic default condition, a great many actors face incentives to take some slightly damaging action such that the combined effect of those actions is civilizational devastation.

    • Type-0 (“surprising strangelets”)

      • Type-0 vulnerability: There is some technology that carries a hidden risk such that the default outcome when it is discovered is inadvertent civilizational devastation. 47

  • Achieving stabilization

    • Technological relinquishment

      • Principle of Differential Technological Development. Retard the development of dangerous and harmful technologies, especially ones that raise the level of existential risk; and accelerate the development of beneficial technologies, especially those that reduce the existential risks posed by nature or by other technologies.

    • Preference modification

    • Some specific countermeasures and their limitations

    • Governance gaps

  • Preventive policing

  • Global governance

  • Discussion

  • Conclusion


This paper has introduced a perspective from which we can more easily see how civilization is vulnerable to certain types of possible outcomes of our technological creativity—our drawing a metaphorical black ball from the urn of inventions, which we have the power to extract but not to put back in. We developed a typology of such potential vulnerabilities, and showed how some of them result from destruction becoming too easy, others from pernicious changes in the incentives facing a few powerful state actors or a large number of weak actors.
We also examined a variety of possible responses and their limitations. We traced the root cause of our civilizational exposure to two structural properties of the contemporary world order: on the one hand, the lack of preventive policing capacity to block, with extremely high reliability, individuals or small groups from carrying out actions that are highly illegal; and, on the other hand, the lack of global governance capacity to reliably solve the gravest international coordination problems even when vital national interests by default incentivize states to defect. General stabilization against potential civilizational vulnerabilities—in a world where technological innovation is occurring rapidly along a wide frontier, and in which there are large numbers of actors with a diverse set of human-recognizable motivations—would require that both of these governance gaps be eliminated. Until such a time as this is accomplished, humanity will remain vulnerable to drawing a technological black ball.
Clearly, these reflections prove a pro tanto reason to support strengthening surveillance capabilities and preventive policing systems and for favoring a global governance regime that is capable of decisive action (whether based on unilateral hegemonic strength or powerful multilateral institutions). However, we have not settled whether these things would be desirable all-things-considered, since doing so would require analyzing a number of other strong considerations that lie outside the scope of this paper.
Because our main goal has been to put some signposts up in the macrostrategic landscape, we have focused our discussion at a fairly abstract level, developing concepts that can help us orient ourselves (with respect to long-term outcomes and global desirabilities) somewhat independently of the details of our varying local contexts.
In practice, were one to undertake an effort to stabilize our civilization against potential black balls, one might find it prudent to focus initially on partial solutions and low-hanging fruits. Thus, rather than directly trying to bring about extremely effective preventive policing or strong global governance, one might attempt to patch up particular domains where black balls seem most likely to appear. One could, for example, strengthen oversight of biotechnology-related activities by developing better ways to track key materials and equipment, and to monitor activities within labs. One could also tighten know-your-customer regulations in the biotech supply sector, and expand the use of background checks for personnel working in certain kinds of labs or involved with certain kinds of experiment. One can improve whistleblower systems, and try to raise biosecurity standards globally. One could also pursue differential technological development, for instance by strengthening the biological weapons convention and maintaining the global taboo on biological weapons. Funding bodies and ethical approval committees could be encouraged to take broader view of the potential consequences of particular lines of work, focusing not only on risks to lab workers, test animals, and human research subjects, but also on ways that the hoped-for findings might lower the competence bar for bioterrorists down the road. Work that is predominantly protective (such as disease outbreak monitoring, public health capacity building, improvement of air filtration devices) could be differentially promoted.
Nevertheless, while pursuing such limited objectives, one should bear in mind that the protection they would offer covers only special subsets of scenarios, and might be temporary. If one finds oneself in a position to influence the macroparameters of preventive policing capacity or global governance capacity, one should consider that fundamental changes in those domains may be the only way to achieve a general ability to stabilize our civilization against emerging technological vulnerabilities.