The Precautionary Principle and Innovation

“First, there are issues of scale: small-scale explorations by lead users are relatively harmless until they are scaled up to become the dependence of mass consumers. Innovations may grow so popular that their production and consumption affect the stability of ecosystems and democracies, such as plastic waste choking our oceans, or Facebook becoming an increasing threat to the stability of democracies around the world.

Second, there are end-of-product-life considerations that are not properly taken into account, such as dismantling a nuclear energy facility or the recycling of electronic waste. 

Third, the harm from innovation may come not from regular use, but from unanticipated consequences, as shown in the Chernobyl disaster.

Fourth, innovation may be undertaken to deceive consumers and regulators about the nature of a product. The classic example from recent history would be Volkswagen’s intentional programming of its diesel engines to give misleading measurements of NOx emissions during regulatory testing. We might also mention here the case of complex financial market innovations designed to trick unsophisticated investors. 

A fifth dimension relates to the social injustice whereby those who gain from an innovation differ from those who lose. A recent Oxfam report estimates that the richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution of the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of emissions growth. 

Taking into account the downsides of technological innovation as well as the advantages leads us to think about the tradeoffs involved. The ‘precautionary principle’ suggests that regulators should not wait until an absolute scientific or societal consensus is achieved before taking regulatory action against dubious products and processes.”

-Alex Coad, “Innovation is harming us in ways we have yet to understand.” Pando. October 5, 2020.

Why Does DARPA Work?

DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego. Why does this matter? When you are surrounded by smart, opinionated people the easy option is to either 100% accept what they’re saying because it’s eloquent and well-thought through or reject it outright because it sounds crazy or goes against your priors. Thinking for yourself allows you to avoid these traps. PMs need to be curious because building a complete picture of a discipline requires genuine curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking. A large ego would lead to a program manager imposing their will on every piece of the program, killing curiosity and the benefits of top down problems and bottom up solutions.”

Ben Reinhardt, “Why does DARPA Work?benjaminreinhardt.com. June 18, 2020.

The Difference Between Possible and Practical

“The difference between the possible and the practical can only be discovered by trying things out. Therefore, even though the physics suggests that a thing will work, if it has not even been demonstrated in the lab you can consider that thing to be a long way off. If it has been demonstrated in prototypes only, then it is still distant. If versions have been deployed at scale, and most of the necessary refinements are of an evolutionary character, then perhaps it may become available fairly soon. Even then, if no one wants to use the thing, it will languish in the warehouse, no matter how much enthusiasm there is among the technologists who developed it.”

—Rodney Brooks. “The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success.” IEEE Spectrum. October 25, 2018.