Monday, May 15, 2006

If Bacteria Used the Precautionary Principle

A sidebar on page 159 of my book Technology Challenged considers the thought experiment suggested by this blog’s title…
Give a little DNA. Get a little DNA. Bacteria are pretty easygoing about evolution—none of that formal male-female sexual reproduction. As a result of their sharing snippets of genetic instructions, plus a bit of random mutation, bacteria have explored and adapted to almost every environment on this planet, from deep inside rocks to steam fissures on the bottom of the ocean to the human intestine. But what if bacteria were not so cavalier about trying out new forms? What if they had the intelligence and consciousness to employ the Precautionary Principle to their evolution?

If there were just one evolutionary creation that bacteria could have prevented it would surely be cyanobacteria (more commonly known as blue-green algae, even though it’s not an algae). More than 2.2 billion years ago, a mutation allowed cyanobacteria to get the hydrogen atoms they consumed from water, while other bacteria continued to get their hydrogen from sugars, airborne hydrogen, or hydrogen sulfide. With water immensely abundant, cyanobacteria multiplied almost without bounds, and produced a lot of waste. Because they consume H2O and use hydrogen, their waste is oxygen.

From less than one billionth of one percent of the atmosphere, oxygen skyrocketed to its current level of 20%. All life on earth had evolved to that point with virtually no free oxygen, so this change was a global disaster. Volcanoes and asteroid impacts were mild in comparison. Even humans, whose lineage evolved in an oxygen-rich environment, suffer from oxidation, and may take anti-oxidant supplements (e.g. vitamins C, E, and beta carotene) to counter oxygen’s tendency to react with and change a variety of compounds.

Bacteria were—and are—not in a position to employ the Precautionary Principle, but humans are. What might we learn from the cyanobacteria episode? One lesson is that something that can both replicate itself and consume an untapped food or energy source will change the world. We may eventually be able to create our own “cyano-technologies” that brilliantly exploit some previously untapped resource, much as the runaway nanotechnology does in Michael Crichton’s fictional novel Prey.

With technology changing at an accelerating pace and with surprising behaviors emerging from new complexity, we may well create a variety of technologies with the potential to change the world. If we would like to survive—and not have to hide under a rock, side by side with the bacteria still waiting for oxygen to go away—then this is a fine time to become familiar with the Precautionary Principle…and start evaluating our technology ecologically.

Since I wrote that, I’ve encountered people thinking deeply about risk. At the Singularity Summit at Stanford, Nick Bostrom addressed existential risks and Max More discussed the Proactionary Principle. More is responding to what he sees as weaknesses in the Precautionary Principle, namely that it stifles innovation. Two days earlier, evaluating risk came up at SRI.

At an SRI presentation I made 2006 May 11, I was asked what the ICE-9 curriculum teaches about making decisions with unavoidable uncertainty. ICE-9 teaches students about the difficulty of predicting the behavior of complex systems, though for middle school students we do not talk about the impossibility of predicting certain technological behavior (we save epistemology for older students). In ICE-9’s Lesson 4 How does it work students play with Conway’s Game of Life to see how simple rules (applied recursively in a system that fosters emergent behavior) can have surprising results. In Lesson 8 What are its costs & benefits students explore three dimensions of technology’s impact (see diagram). This illustrates that benefits may be anticipated and accrue to those directly involved in adopting a new technology, while costs may be unanticipated and affect, indirectly, people unaware that a new technology was being adopted.

Who benefits and who suffers is a key issue in assessing risk. A common objection to the precautionary principle is that FDA precaution keeps terminally ill patients from trying unproven drugs. It strikes me as reasonable to allow a sick person to make an informed choice about taking a drug. But if the anticipated benefits go to the potential customer of a technology while any unanticipated costs are born by unsuspecting bystanders, then a different threshold of certainty and greater scrutiny should be required. If the beneficiaries of a technology are performing the assessment, results should be independently validated.

Certainly there is much more to say on this, specifically at levels appropriate to middle school, high school and college students, the ages for which KnowledgeContext offers curricula. Though I asked my SRI audience members what concepts and strategies they would recommend to young people, our limited time together made this question nearly rhetorical. It is important to educate society for such challenges, so I open the discussion in this blog, asking those at the SRI meeting and my other readers to comment on the evaluation of technological risk:
  1. What concepts would apply to a wide range of technology, including that not yet invented?

  2. What concepts could young people grasp?

  3. What activities would illustrate these concepts, giving students both an intellectual and visceral understanding?
Thank you for contributing your ideas (click the comment link below).


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