Superintelligence 26: Science and technology strategy

This is part of a weekly reading group on Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence. For more information about the group, and an index of posts so far see the announcement post. For the schedule of future topics, see MIRI’s reading guide.

Welcome. This week we discuss the twenty-sixth section in the reading guide: Science and technology strategy. Sorry for posting late—my car broke.

This post summarizes the section, and offers a few relevant notes, and ideas for further investigation. Some of my own thoughts and questions for discussion are in the comments.

There is no need to proceed in order through this post, or to look at everything. Feel free to jump straight to the discussion. Where applicable and I remember, page numbers indicate the rough part of the chapter that is most related (not necessarily that the chapter is being cited for the specific claim).

Reading: “Science and technology strategy” from Chapter 14


  1. This section will introduce concepts that are useful for thinking about long term issues in science and technology (p228)

  2. Person affecting perspective: one should act in the best interests of everyone who already exists, or who will exist independent of one’s choices (p228)

  3. Impersonal perspective: one should act in the best interests of everyone, including those who may be brought into existence by one’s choices. (p228)

  4. Technological completion conjecture: “If scientific and technological development efforts do not cease, then all important basic capabilities that could be obtained through some possible technology will be obtained.” (p229)

    1. This does not imply that it is futile to try to steer technology. Efforts may cease. It might also matter exactly when things are developed, who develops them, and in what context.

  5. Principle of differential technological development: one should slow the development of dangerous and harmful technologies relative to beneficial technologies (p230)

  6. We have a preferred order for some technologies, e.g. it is better to have superintelligence later relative to social progress, but earlier relative to other existential risks. (p230-233)

  7. If a macrostructural development accelerator is a magic lever which slows the large scale features of history (e.g. technological change, geopolitical dynamics) while leaving the small scale features the same, then we can ask whether pulling the lever would be a good idea (p233). The main way Bostrom concludes that it matters is by affecting how well prepared humanity is for future transitions.

  8. State risk: a risk that persists while you are in a certain situation, such that the amount of risk is a function of the time spent there. e.g. risk from asteroids, while we don’t have technology to redirect them. (p233-4)

  9. Step risk: a risk arising from a transition. Here the amount of risk is mostly not a function of how long the transition takes. e.g. traversing a minefield: this is not especially safer if you run faster. (p234)

  10. Technology coupling: a predictable timing relationship between two technologies, such that hastening of the first technology will hasten the second, either because the second is a precursor or because it is a natural consequence. (p236-8) e.g. brain emulation is plausibly coupled to ‘neuromorphic’ AI, because the understanding required to emulate a brain might allow one to more quickly create an AI on similar principles.

  11. Second guessing: acting as if “by treating others as irrational and playing to their biases and misconceptions it is possible to elicit a response from them that is more competent than if a case had been presented honestly and forthrightly to their rational faculties” (p238-40)

Another view

There is a common view which says we should not act on detailed abstract arguments about the far future like those of this section. Here Holden Karnofsky exemplifies it:

I have often been challenged to explain how one could possibly reconcile (a) caring a great deal about the far future with (b) donating to one of GiveWell’s top charities. My general response is that in the face of sufficient uncertainty about one’s options, and lack of conviction that there are good (in the sense of high expected value) opportunities to make an enormous difference, it is rational to try to make a smaller but robustly positivedifference, whether or not one can trace a specific causal pathway from doing this small amount of good to making a large impact on the far future. A few brief arguments in support of this position:

  • I believe that the track record of “taking robustly strong opportunities to do ‘something good’” is far better than the track record of “taking actions whose value is contingent on high-uncertainty arguments about where the highest utility lies, and/​or arguments about what is likely to happen in the far future.” This is true even when one evaluates track record only in terms of seeming impact on the far future. The developments that seem most positive in retrospect – from large ones like the development of the steam engine to small ones like the many economic contributions that facilitated strong overall growth – seem to have been driven by the former approach, and I’m not aware of many examples in which the latter approach has yielded great benefits.

  • I see some sense in which the world’s overall civilizational ecosystem seems to have done a better job optimizing for the far future than any of the world’s individual minds. It’s often the case that people acting on relatively short-term, tangible considerations (especially when they did so with creativity, integrity, transparency, consensuality, and pursuit of gain via value creation rather than value transfer) have done good in ways they themselves wouldn’t have been able to foresee. If this is correct, it seems to imply that one should be focused on “playing one’s role as well as possible” – on finding opportunities to “beat the broad market” (to do more good than people with similar goals would be able to) rather than pouring one’s resources into the areas that non-robust estimates have indicated as most important to the far future.

  • The process of trying to accomplish tangible good can lead to a great deal of learning and unexpected positive developments, more so (in my view) than the process of putting resources into a low-feedback endeavor based on one’s current best-guess theory. In my conversation with Luke and Eliezer, the two of them hypothesized that the greatest positive benefit of supporting GiveWell’s top charities may have been to raise the profile, influence, and learning abilities of GiveWell. If this were true, I don’t believe it would be an inexplicable stroke of luck for donors to top charities; rather, it would be the sort of development (facilitating feedback loops that lead to learning, organizational development, growing influence, etc.) that is often associated with “doing something well” as opposed to “doing the most worthwhile thing poorly.”

  • I see multiple reasons to believe that contributing to general human empowerment mitigates global catastrophic risks. I laid some of these out in a blog post and discussed them further in my conversation with Luke and Eliezer.


1. Technological completion timelines game
The technological completion conjecture says that all the basic technological capabilities will eventually be developed. But when is ‘eventually’, usually? Do things get developed basically as soon as developing them is not prohibitively expensive, or is thinking of the thing often a bottleneck? This is relevant to how much we can hope to influence the timing of technological developments.

Here is a fun game: How many things can you find that could have been profitably developed much earlier than they were?

Some starting suggestions, which I haven’t looked into:

Wheeled luggage: invented in the 1970s, though humanity had had both wheels and luggage for a while.

Hot air balloons: flying paper lanterns using the same principle were apparently used before 200AD, while a manned balloon wasn’t used until 1783.

Penicillin: mould was apparently traditionally used for antibacterial properties in several cultures, but lots of things are traditionally used for lots of things. By the 1870s many scientists had noted that specific moulds inhibited bacterial growth.

Wheels: Early toys from the Americas appear to have had wheels (here and pictured is one from 1-900AD; Wikipedia claims such toys were around as early as 1500BC). However wheels were apparently not used for more substantial transport in the Americas until much later.

Image: “Remojadas Wheeled Figurine”

There are also cases where humanity has forgotten important insights, and then rediscovered them again much later, which suggests strongly that they could have been developed earlier.

2. How does economic growth affect AI risk?

Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that economic growth increases risk. I argue that he has the sign wrong. Others argue that probably lots of other factors matter more anyway. Luke Muehlhauser expects that cognitive enhancement is bad, largely based on Eliezer’s aforementioned claim. He also points out that smarter people are different from more rational people. Paul Christiano outlines his own evaluation of economic growth in general, on humanity’s long run welfare. He also discusses the value of continued technological, economic and social progress more comprehensibly here.

3. The person affecting perspective

Some interesting critiques: the non-identity problem, taking additional people to be neutral makes other good or bad things neutral too, if you try to be consistent in natural ways.

In-depth investigations

If you are particularly interested in these topics, and want to do further research, these are a few plausible directions, some inspired by Luke Muehlhauser’s list, which contains many suggestions related to parts of Superintelligence. These projects could be attempted at various levels of depth.

  1. Is macro-structural acceleration good or bad on net for AI safety?

  2. Choose a particular anticipated technology. Is it’s development good or bad for AI safety on net?

  3. What is the overall current level of “state risk” from existential threats?

  4. What are the major existential-threat “step risks” ahead of us, besides those from superintelligence?

  5. What are some additional “technology couplings,” in addition to those named in Superintelligence, ch. 14?

  6. What are further preferred orderings for technologies not mentioned in this section?

If you are interested in anything like this, you might want to mention it in the comments, and see whether other people have useful thoughts.

How to proceed

This has been a collection of notes on the chapter. The most important part of the reading group though is discussion, which is in the comments section. I pose some questions for you there, and I invite you to add your own. Please remember that this group contains a variety of levels of expertise: if a line of discussion seems too basic or too incomprehensible, look around for one that suits you better!

Next week, we will talk about the desirability of hardware progress, and progress toward brain emulation. To prepare, read “Pathways and enablers” from Chapter 14. The discussion will go live at 6pm Pacific time next Monday 16th March. Sign up to be notified here.