Vulnerable World Hypothesis

Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom’s “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) explores the idea that technological development could expose vulnerabilities, making it extraordinarily easy for individuals or small groups to cause widespread harm. The hypothesis presents various scenarios, categorized into different “balls” from a hypothetical “urn of invention“, symbolizing different types of technological developments:

  • White Balls: Represent safe, beneficial inventions (or technological discoveries)
  • Pale Grey Balls: Denote potentially beneficial inventions that pose manageable risks
  • Black Balls: Represent technologies that contain existential risks

Bostrom suggests that as humanity pulls more balls from the urn of invention, we might one day pull a black ball (see below), discovering a technology that poses catastrophic risks to human civilization. The Vulnerable World Hypothesis underscores the need for robust global governance and preemptive safeguard mechanisms to manage potential risks associated with future technological developments, to prevent malicious use, and to mitigate unintended negative consequences.

In order for civilization to have a general capacity to deal with “black ball” inventions of this type, it would need a system of ubiquitous real-time worldwide surveillance. In some scenarios, such a system would need to be in place before the technology is invented.

Nick Bostrom

Black Ball: In Nick Bostrom’s VWH, the idea of a “black ball” represents a technological discovery that poses existential threats to humanity. In order to manage and mitigate the risks of such dangerous technologies, Bostrom suggests that a system of ubiquitous real-time worldwide surveillance might be necessary.
This would involve continuously monitoring individuals and groups to ensure that the hazardous technology is not being developed or utilized in harmful ways. The concept entails a certain loss of privacy and raises ethical concerns, but in the theoretical framework of the VWH, it is posed as a potentially necessary measure to prevent the catastrophic misuse of perilous technologies. The proposal brings forward a complex dilemma: deciding between maintaining individual privacy and ensuring collective security in a world where immensely destructive power could be accessed by malevolent actors or accidentally unleashed. This hypothesis stimulates thought and discussion about how society should balance the ethical considerations surrounding technological advancement, security, safety, privacy and freedom.

FHI Post:
EA Forum:
Meetup discussion:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *