Do you think fast progress is dangerous? Use the seat belt test. 

What if the seat belt had been invented ten years earlier? If progress in vehicle safety had been faster, thousands of lives would have been saved.

6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:51 PM
New Comment

Some tech, like seatbelts, are almost pure good. Some techs, like nukes are almost pure bad. Some, like cars, we might want to wait until we develop seatbelts and traffic lights for before we use widely. It depends on the technology. 

I think “slow” vs. “fast” is just the wrong way to conceptualize the decision/tradeoff. We should be thinking about how to steer progress and how to sequence it. “Pedal to the metal” or “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” is not safe, but merely slowing down doesn't really help. We should, for example:

  • take whatever time is necessary (but no more than that) to do appropriate, useful safety testing on new technologies
  • invest in inventing safety measures, ideally in the first version of new technologies
  • think about what types of technologies are more likely to “favor offense” vs. “favor defense” and use that to guide our research

None of these are a simple “slow down,” except in the sense that clinical trials “slow down” drug development.

But it's a non sequitur to say “it would have saved lives for seat belts to have been invented earlier, therefore all technology and inventions should progress as fast as possible for maximum safety.” Not all inventions are like seat belts.

Thanks for the reply!

This text is short, so more nuances could be added. But I touch on the things you mention:

I think the general angst over one technology plowing ahead much further than the rest is exaggerated:

"Of course, giving Caligula a nuclear bomb wouldn't be great. But the risk of one technology progressing much faster than the general level of knowledge is low. Innovation depends on earlier innovation. There is a reason the Romans didn't have a Manhattan Project. If we increase the rate of innovation in one area, it will spill over and increase innovation in other areas as well."

David Deutsch also touches on this in a quote:
"The first flight of an airliner should not be carrying passengers. One should not trust the first predator 🐺 that seems friendly. But there is also danger from intangible enemies within, like taboos and pessimism. So one shouldn’t forgo the option to experiment with making use of the wolf. Unbeknownst to the people who first tried that, it would go on to create a new species 🦮 that could be of immense use – including guiding blind humans during the millennia before blindness is cured."

What I try to get across is that fast progress is often described, wrongly, like you do now, "pedal to the metal." 😀 That is often taken as an excuse to argue for slowing down or stopping progress -- and that is more dangerous than trying to speed things up.


I agree that “one technology plowing ahead much further than the rest” is unlikely, but I don't think that's the issue.

To return to your seat belt example: seat belts were invented and widely deployed only after cars had been around for decades. Car technology got way ahead of car safety technology. That's the sort of pattern I think we should reduce in the future.

I like the Deutsch quote and agree.

Yup, I agree. And the best way for that would have been faster progress of safety technology, IMO.

Yes, I think fast progress is dangerous, because human beings are limited in how quickly they can adapt to change.  Fast progress is dangerous because it further empowers violent men's ability to crash the entire system.