The Technium

Wishful Worries

What we think will happen is more important then ever.

But pictures of the future are just fiction, that don’t exist. Yet, never before in the history of our species have we devoted so much of our time, energy and attention to things that we agree don’t exist. In the past societies might have devoted large portions of their resources to fund sacrifices to gods they believed to exist (but did not). That belief they were real was important. Today we expend resources on visions we would like to exist, but have to admit don’t.

For example, big-budget Hollywood science fiction films are all about things that don’t exist. Thanos, Darth Vader, Klingons — none of these exist. Huge space ships and warp speed and “beam me up” don’t exist either. But it is not just fiction. Almost any detailed picture of the future, by definition, is giving a lot of attention to something that does not exist. Advertisements of new products often depict versions that don’t exist in order to sell the meager version that does. I’m thinking of the AT&T TV commercials in the early 1990s showcasing the digitial online world that they wanted to make. The refrain after each new wishful product was introduced was to claim it was a near inevitability. They announced that today you can’t achieve these desires, but soon “You Will.”

Every start-up company is spending their resources on a vision that does not exist yet. Sometimes that vision is deliberately set decades hence, or sometimes they hope it is only a few years away. The more ambitious the vision is — that is the farther it is away from what is real now — the more likely it will be seen as hype. Hype is wishful thinking with the intent to make it happen.

We don’t think of the desirable futures described in Star Trek as hype because the creators are not necessarily trying to make them real. They want to make everything plausible, but not actual.

A certain amount of hype is needed to bring into reality anything complex that does not currently exist. You need a bit of hype to bring a product to market, so it can be used widely. You have to imagine it in great detail, and get others to see it, and then gets others to understand its value, which may be hard when it is new. To do this requires some degree of hype. Most founders deeply believe in something that does not exist at the moment, and they want to believe in it in order to make it real.

Inappropriate levels of hype arise when there is only hype, when the wishful thinking goes way beyond what is actually made, or can be made. There is a fine line between appropriate hype and inappropriate hype because often what is possible can only be realized in retrospect.

One significant consequence of hype is that this wishful picture is often the picture that critics of new technology have. When we naturally begin to think about the downsides of new things, we tend to imagine them as realer, more developed than they are. In other words we tend to worry about things that don’t exist (yet). In fact most of the popular technologies that people are worried about, are versions of things that may not exist for decades, if ever. These negative visions are as unreal as the positive hype visions. Some call these critiques of technology “wishful worries.” They are worried about something that the inventors wish would be. But ultimately the critics are spending attention and resources on things that don’t exist.

There are many examples of this, past and current. Entire academic departments are devoted to studying the ethical implications of genetic engineering of humans, such as making clones. But the evidence so far is that no human clones exist to study. Human clones are a wishful worry. Designer babies are a wishful worry.

Just as there are appropriate levels of hype, there are appropriate levels of wishful worry — basically hype with an inverse charge. We absolutely need to imagine not just what benefits might come with new things, but what harms might come. Where wishful worry becomes problematic is when we act on those wishful worries, to begin writing laws, or setting policies, when we have no evidence of actual harm.

Right now there is a lot of wishful worry about AI. Critics are worried about AIs that don’t exist right now and may not exist for a long time. While I think it is inevitable they will exist in the future, the problem with them not existing right now is that we have no evidence to base our response on.

As of 2022, no car drives itself. No driver has lost their job because of AI. In fact no one anywhere has been fired because of AI. Right now robots cannot flip hamburgers. They can’t clean your toilet. As of today we have no data on what life is like with working robots. We can make up stories (and do) but they are only fiction.

However, fictions about the future are good and important. The role and influence of science fiction – both utopias and dystopias — has been immeasurable in shaping modern life. We know for sure that science fiction never gets it exactly right. It is an unreliable prediction machine. So we should not decide on policies based on fiction. We need to run our lives based on evidence of how inventions are actually used.

It remains a remarkable fact that at no time in history have we thought about things so long before they happen. AI and genetic engineering will be the most rehearsed arrivals in the history of our species. We will have been thinking about them, arguing about them, debating them at least a century before they finally appear.

We need to keep in mind that we are rehearsing has been shaped by storytellers, hype, and wishful worries. The reality will be very different and will tell a different story.


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