Dr. Jubjub predicts a crisis

Dr. Jub­jub: Sir, I have been run­ning some calcu­la­tions and I’m wor­ried about the way our slithy toves are head­ing.

Prof. Ban­der­snatch: Huh? Why? The toves seem fine to me. Just look at them, gyring and gim­bling in the wabe over there.

Dr. Jub­jub: Yes, but there is a dis­tinct nega­tive trend in my data. The toves are grad­u­ally los­ing their slith­i­ness.

Prof. Ban­der­snatch: Hmm, okay. That does sound se­ri­ous. How long un­til it be­comes a prob­lem?

Dr. Jub­jub: Well, I’d ar­gue that it’s already hav­ing nega­tive effects but I’d say we will reach a real crisis in around 120 years.

Prof. Ban­der­snatch: Phew, okay, you had me wor­ried there for a mo­ment. But it sounds like this is ac­tu­ally a non-prob­lem. We can carry on work­ing on the im­por­tant stuff – tech­nol­ogy will bail us out here in time.

Dr. Jub­jub: Sir! We already have the tech­nol­ogy to fix the toves. The most straight­for­ward way would be to whiffle their tul­gey wood but we could also...

Prof. Ban­der­snatch: What?? Whiffle their tul­gey wood? Do you have any idea what that would cost? And be­sides, peo­ple won’t stand for it – slithy toves with un­whiffled tul­gey wood are a part of our way of life.

Dr. Jub­jub: So, when you say tech­nol­ogy will bail us out you mean you ex­pect a solu­tion that will be cheap, so­cially ac­cept­able and de­vel­oped soon?

Prof. Ban­der­snatch: Of course! Prof. Jab­ber­wock as­sures me the sin­gu­lar­ity will be here around tea-time on Tues­day. That is, if we roll up our sleeves and don’t waste time with triv­ial­ities like your tove is­sue.

Maybe it’s just me but I feel like I run into a lot of con­ver­sa­tions like this around here. On any prob­lem that won’t be­come an ab­solute crisis in the next few decades, some­one will take the Ban­der­snatch view that it will be more eas­ily solved later (with cheaper or more so­cially ac­cept­able tech­nol­ogy) so we shouldn’t work di­rectly on it now. The way out is for­ward—let’s step on the gas and get to the finish line be­fore any an­noy­ing prob­lems catch up with us.

For all I know, Ban­der­snatch is ab­solutely right. But my nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion is to take the Jub­jub view. I think the chances of a ba­si­cally busi­ness-as-usual fu­ture for the next 200 or 300 years are not ep­silon. They may not be very high but they seem like they need to be se­ri­ously taken into ac­count. Prob­lems may prove harder than they look. Ap­par­ently promis­ing tech­nol­ogy may not be­come prac­ti­cal. Maybe we’ll have the ca­pac­ity for AI in 50 years—but need an­other 500 years to make it friendly. I’d pre­fer hu­man­ity to plan in such a way that things will grad­u­ally im­prove rather than grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rate, even in a slow-tech­nol­ogy sce­nario.