This is an essay written by John von Neumann in 1955, which I think is fairly described as being about global catastrophic risks from emerging technologies. It discusses a bunch of specific technologies that seemed like a big deal in 1955 — which is interesting in itself as a list of predictions; nuclear power! increased automation! weather control? — but explicitly tries to draw a general lesson.

von Neumann is regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and was involved in the Manhattan project in addition to inventing zillions of other things.

I'm posting here because a) I think the essay is worth reading in its own right, and b) I find it interesting to see what the past's intellectuals thought of issues related transformative technology, and how their perspective differs/is similar to ours. Notably, I disagree with several of the conclusions (e.g. von Neumann seems to think differential technological development is doomed).

On another level, I find the essay, and the fact of it having been written in 1955, somewhat motivating, though not at all in a straightforward way.

Some quotes:

Since most time scales are fixed by human reaction times, habits, and other physiological and psycho logical factors, the effect of the increased speed of technological processes was to enlarge the size of units — political, organizational, economic, and cultural — affected by technological operations. That is, instead of performing the same operations as before in less time, now larger-scale operations were performed in the same time. This important evolution has a natural limit, that of the earth's actual size. The limit is now being reached, or at least closely approached.


...there is in most of these developments a trend toward affecting the earth as a whole, or to be more exact, toward producing effects that can be projected from any one to any other point on the earth. There is an intrinsic conflict with geography — and institutions based thereon — as understood today.


What safeguard remains? Apparently only day-to-day — or perhaps year-to-year — opportunistic measures, a long sequence of small, correct decisions.




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