Early View Article - The Vulnerable World Hypothesis

The Vulnerable World Hypothesis

Scientific and technological progress might change people's capabilities or incentives in ways that would destabilize civilization. For example, advances in DIY biohacking tools might make it easy for anybody with basic training in biology to kill millions; novel military technologies could trigger arms races in which whoever strikes first has a decisive advantage; or some economically advantageous process may be invented that produces disastrous negative global externalities that are hard to regulate. This paper introduces the concept of a vulnerable world: roughly, one in which there is some level of technological development at which civilization almost certainly gets devastated by default, i.e. unless it has exited the ‘semi‐anarchic default condition’. Several counterfactual historical and speculative future vulnerabilities are analyzed and arranged into a typology. A general ability to stabilize a vulnerable world would require greatly amplified capacities for preventive policing and global governance. The vulnerable world hypothesis thus offers a new perspective from which to evaluate the risk‐benefit balance of developments towards ubiquitous surveillance or a unipolar world order.

Policy Implications

  • Technology policy should not unquestioningly assume that all technological progress is beneficial, or that complete scientific openness is always best, or that the world has the capacity to manage any potential downside of a technology after it is invented.
  • Some areas, such as synthetic biology, could produce a discovery that suddenly democratizes mass destruction, e.g. by empowering individuals to kill hundreds of millions of people using readily available materials. In order for civilization to have a general capacity to deal with “black ball” inventions of this type, it would need a system of ubiquitous real‐time worldwide surveillance. In some scenarios, such a system would need to be in place before the technology is invented.
  • Partial protection against a limited set of possible black balls is obtainable through more targeted interventions. For example, biorisk might be mitigated by means of background checks and monitoring of personnel in some types of biolab, by discouraging DIY biohacking (e.g. through licencing requirements), and by restructuring the biotech sector to limit access to some cutting‐edge instrumentation and information. Rather than allow anybody to buy their own DNA synthesis machine, DNA synthesis could be provided as a service by a small number of closely monitored providers.
  • Another, subtler, type of black ball would be one that strengthens incentives for harmful use—e.g. a military technology that makes wars more destructive while giving a greater advantage to the side that strikes first. Like a squirrel who uses the times of plenty to store up nuts for the winter, we should use times of relative peace to build stronger mechanisms for resolving international disputes.


Image credit: Barbara via Flickr Mark 1.0