Pandora's Box

The myth of Pandora’s box, where opening a forbidden container unleashed the world’s evils but also hope, parallels scientific discovery. Each breakthrough, like CRISPR’s medical potential, brings unforeseen challenges, as seen with its controversial use in gene editing. Technologies intended for good, like the internet or drones, can be subverted for harm. Regulation alone can’t contain such knowledge; instead, we must design incentives to align technology use with societal goals, preparing us to handle the inevitable consequences of human curiosity.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

When Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity, Zeus, the king of the Gods, swore to punish humanity for the Titan’s actions. He ordered Hephaestus, the God of craftsmanship, to create a beautiful woman named Pandora and got each of the Gods to bestow upon her various gifts—intelligence, beauty, charm and the like. He sent her to live among humans, but before sending her down to Earth, gave her a mysterious box with strict instructions never to open it.

Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, was entranced by Pandora. But as enamoured as he was of her beauty and enchanting personality, he was even more curious about the contents of the box that she carried around everywhere. This curiosity eventually transmitted itself to Pandora, who, unable to resist the temptation to peek inside, eventually opened the box. To her horror, a swarm of malevolent forces flew out of the box, spreading misery, disease and all the evils of the world that we have had to contend with to this day. Pandora tried desperately to close the box as soon as she realized what she had unwittingly unleashed upon the world, but it was too late.

In some versions of the myth, one item was left trapped in the box when Pandora slammed the lid shut. So unnerved was she by what she had already let loose that she was scared to open the box again, until she realized that what remained trapped in the box was hope—the one thing that would enable humanity to endure all it now had to deal with. The moment she realized that, Pandora opened the box and released hope from the confines of its container, which is why humanity is capable of withstanding all the hardships thrown at it.

Pandora and Science

I’ve always seen this story as a metaphor for what we have to go through each time we make a new scientific discovery. Whenever we manage to get a better understanding of how the world works, we unlock new solutions to existing challenges. But inasmuch as these new technologies offer us ways to address existing problems, they throw up a slew of unimagined challenges that we have no prior experience of handling.

Take genetic engineering, for example. The discovery of CRISPR gave us brand new ways of treating incurable diseases, offering a new ray of hope for children whose lives were otherwise going to be cut short simply because their bodies were unable to produce the proteins they needed in order to live a normal life. But then, in 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui used this very technology to remove the CCR5 gene from a human embryo, thereby making it resistant to AIDS. In doing so, he genetically modified the human germ-line by editing heritable characteristics without being deterred by the unintended consequences that could ensue. This crossed a line that, until then, was believed to be inviolable.

Similar incidents have played themselves out time and again throughout the course of mankind’s scientific advancement. Technologies once believed to be beneficial get used in ways their creators never intended, resulting in all manner of harms none could have foreseen.

The Internet and AI

The internet was supposed to be a benevolent technology infrastructure that would democratize our access to knowledge. Today, it is a cesspool of misinformation, extortion and cyberbullying where nothing that is said can be believed. Drones were once believed to be harmless toys only fit for shooting wedding footage from an unusual angle but have in recent times been used as weapons of war, carrying explosive payloads out into the battlefield, with destructive potential far in excess of what it costs to make them. When augmented with facial recognition technologies, they transform themselves into formidable weapons of modern combat.

Artificial intelligence—which has long held the promise of revolutionizing industries, advancing medical research and generally simplifying life—has begun to threaten job displacement, privacy dangers and biased decisions now that it has become commercially available. As much as we delight in all that generative AI has to offer, we have begun to harbour serious concerns about the risk of general artificial intelligence.

Technologies developed with good intent are easily subverted for evil in ways that we would never in our wildest dreams have imagined they would be. But once that happens, no matter how hard we try, it becomes impossible to turn back the clock. Once allowed to escape, the contents of Pandora’s Box can never be put back in.

Regulating it Back Into the Box

This is why regulations that impose a ‘ban’ on new technologies are almost always ineffective. As much as we might believe there is deterrent value in imposing prohibitions through legal sanction, experience has shown us that knowledge, once released into the wild, is impossible to constrain.

What we need to do instead is design the incentives around the use of these technologies so that we can endure the consequences that will inevitably follow. If those who use them can be gently coerced to act in a manner that aligns with our societal objectives, it should be possible to ensure that these technologies are made to conform to our policy objectives instead of being misused.

No matter what we do, human curiosity will inevitably unleash forces beyond our ability to control. If there is nothing we can do to prevent that, instead of placing constraints on curiosity, we’d be far better off equipping ourselves to better endure its consequences.