Humans are inventing new technologies at a breakneck pace, adding to the thousands of previous innovations that have created vast wealth and greatly expanded the possibilities for human well-being. But technology has also created the climate emergency, the H-bomb, and a world so filled with plastic that you are probably breathing plastic microparticles as you read this, with unknown consequences for your health.
As technologies become more powerful, the question then becomes how to get the most benefits with the least harm. In recent decades, this question has taken on new urgency. Until 1945, humans didn’t really have the capacity to eradicate ourselves from the planet or to end civilization. Now — with nuclear weapons and more — we do.
Trial-and-error learning is not an option for technologies with massive destructive power. We don’t know what the effects of nuclear war might be — and we can’t run the “nuclear winter” experiment to find out if clouds of dust will blot out the sun, shut down agriculture and starve all of humanity to death. Trial and error won’t do. We have to prevent the experiment.
The answer is a human invention called “technology assessment.” Between 1972 and 1995, Congress supported its own in-house think tank called the Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA. The Republican-dominated Congress defunded OTA in 1995, thus causing it to lose much of its capacity to foresee and forestall environmental and social harm that could be avoided or mitigated by sensible government policies and actions. During its brief existence, OTA produced 750 high-quality reports on a wide range of problems that Congress was trying to understand and resolve, such as job loss from automation, the benefits and costs of mammograms, the feasibility and cost of the Strategic Defense Initiative to shoot down incoming nuclear-armed missiles, and the accuracy and reliability of lie-detector tests.
Now Congressmen Mark Takano (D-California) and Sean Casten (D-Illinois) have proposed legislation to restore OTA, co-sponsored by 50 Democrats and one Republican. On September 24, the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress approved a recommendation to add policy staff to “a restored Office of Technology Assessment.” Congress is facing calls to regulate many complex technologies, such as genetically-engineered foods and drugs, cosmetics containing substances not found in nature, plastic microparticles now found everywhere on Earth, new technologies to expand the use of fossil fuels (e.g., fracking, carbon dioxide sequestration below ground), and proposals to send mirrors into space to divert sunlight and cool the Earth, among many other proposals.
The enabling legislation that created OTA in 1972 was never repealed; Republicans in 1995 simply defunded OTA. OTA was never expensive; at its peak, it had about 140 employees and an annual budget just under $35 million (in 2019 dollars, less than 1 percent of the $3.9 billion it costs to run Congress for a year). Today, faced with the rapid proliferation of technologies more powerful and more dangerous than any previously known, restoring OTA would seem like a wise investment.
Forms of Technology That a New OTA Could Evaluate
If Congress succeeds in reviving the OTA, it would likely take on the task of evaluating technologies and possible regulations for new technologies such as drones, social media, lethal self-directed military weapons, and ways to minimize damage from wildfires.
In addition, it could take on cutting-edge technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence (AI), which present new possibilities but also new and unimaginable risks.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter measuring less than 100 nanometers (one hundred billionths of a meter) in size, far smaller than the eye can see. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide. Nanotechnology builds new things by assembling them atom by atom, molecule by molecule. For better or worse, many consumer products now contain nano-size particles. In his 1986 book on the glowing promise of nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler saw the future in nano-scale robots, which he labeled “assemblers.” These “nanobots” would be able to assemble individual atoms under software control, allowing the efficient creation of anything and everything. A nano-manufacturing household appliance would allow everyone to grab software off the internet to guide the creation of anything they wanted or needed. We’re not there yet, but a lot of people are working on it, and many are wondering what the dangers might be.
Synthetic biology is the manipulation of DNA molecules to create new forms of life that have never existed on Earth before. These new life forms would be designed and constructed in laboratories for specific purposes: to create fuel oil, for example, or to manufacture a drug to cure a particular disease. In 2010, a U.S. Presidential Bioethics Commission recommended against government regulation of synthetic biology, opting instead for self-regulation by the practitioners of the technology.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the creation of machines that can approach or exceed the human capacity to think. The holy grail is “artificial general intelligence” (AGI) — a machine that has the same mental (and perhaps emotional) abilities as a human.
Hundreds of billions of invested dollars are being poured into a feverish effort to produce the first AGI. Among AGI researchers, there is widespread concern that controlling an AGI is an unsolved problem, and that failure to control such a machine could spell disaster for humanity if the machine were given a poorly specified goal. Among AI researchers, this is known as the “paperclip problem.” An AI given the goal of maximizing the production of paperclips might create havoc pursuing that narrow goal.
Synthetic biology, nanotechnology and AI are now being combined to assemble new life-forms under software control. What could possibly go wrong?
Government involvement in technology assessment through a body such as a revived OTA is crucial because government is the only entity that can impartially assess and control new technologies.
Each new technology creates a new set of problems, and each new problem in turn requires one or more solutions, each of which is likely to create additional problems. As this trend continues, society becomes more complex. Increasing complexity in turn requires more complicated rules to define acceptable behavior. This, in turn, requires government to grow larger. For example, now that school lecturers are using laser pointers to highlight their PowerPoint slides, anyone can buy a laser pointer and aim it at an airplane or helicopter flying overhead, just for fun. This has been shown to disorient pilots and crew, creating danger for everyone aboard, so government has been forced to make it illegal to shine your laser pointer at airplanes, and these rules have to be enforced, which creates new requirements and duties for government. Thus, government grows larger.
The market is not going to solve the lasers-pointed-at-airplanes problem. Wall Street is not going to fix the climate emergency or control the proliferation of nuclear weapons or require that plastics be made biodegradable so they do not accumulate in the environment. Corporate managers may personally desire to be “socially responsible,” but so long as they answer to shareholders expecting a hefty return on investment, they will pursue technologies that increase their profits, regardless of their ill effects on workers, community and the natural world.
It is impossible to imagine a Republican-dominated Congress reviving the OTA. Even though OTA was overseen by a board that is, by law, half Republican and half Democrat, Republicans have long complained that OTA reports are biased against the rapid introduction of new technologies, which many believe are essential for growing the economy to avoid recession or depression. A Congress controlled by Democrats would surely be more sympathetic to funding an agency that could offer it unbiased science and technology advice. However, technology corporations may not find it in their interests to have Congress well-informed about the pros and cons of various regulatory possibilities, so restoring OTA would almost certainly require a coordinated citizen campaign to make it happen.