Unaligned artificial intelligence, nuclear wars, man-made pandemics, climate change, other technologies we don’t realize and still may be invented.
One night in 1933, the world’s pre-eminent expert on atomic science, Ernest Rutherford, declared the idea of harnessing atomic energy to be “moonshine.” And the very next morning Leo Szilard discovered the idea of the chain reaction. In 1939, Enrico Fermi told Szilard the chain reaction was but a “remote possibility,” and four years later Fermi was personally overseeing the world’s first nuclear reactor. The staggering list of eminent scientists who thought heavier-than-air flight to be impossible or else decades away is so well rehearsed as to be cliché. But fewer know that even Wilbur Wright himself predicted it was at least fifty years away—just two years before he invented it.
Rutherford’s comments were made on September 11, 1933 (Kaempffert, 1933). His prediction was in fact partly self-defeating, as its confident pessimism grated on Szilard, inspiring him to search for a way to achieve what was said to be impossible (Szilard & Feld, 1972, p. 529). There is some debate over the exact timing of Szilard’s discovery and exactly how much of the puzzle he had solved (Wellerstein, 2014). Rutherford remained skeptical of atomic power until his death in 1937. There is a fascinating possibility that he was not wrong, but deliberately obscuring what he saw as a potential weapon of mass destruction (Jenkin, 2011). But the point would still stand that the confident public assertions of the leading authorities were not to be trusted. This conversation with Fermi was in 1939, just after nuclear fission in uranium had been discovered. Fermi was asked to clarify the “remote possibility” and ventured “ten percent.” Isidor Rabi, who was also present, replied, “Ten percent is not a remote possibility if it means that we may die of it. If I have pneumonia and the doctor tells me that there is a remote possibility that I might die, and it’s ten percent, I get excited about it” (Rhodes, 1986, p. 280). Wilbur Wright explained to the Aéro-club de France in 1908: “Scarcely ten years ago, all hope of flying had almost been abandoned; even the most convinced had become doubtful, and I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville that men would not fly for 50 years. Two years later, we ourselves were making flight” (Holmes, 2008, p. 91).
Of course, there is no shortage of examples of scientists and technologists declaring a new technology to be just around the corner, when in fact it would only arrive decades later; or not at all; or in a markedly different form to the one anticipated. The point is not that technology usually comes earlier than predicted, but that it can easily do so; that we need to be cautious in ruling things out or assuming we have ample time.
– Via Toby Ord, Precipice