[LINK] Well-written article on the Future of Humanity Institute and Existential Risk

by ESRogs 3 min read2nd Mar 20131 comment


This introduction to the concept of existential risk is perhaps the best such article I've read targeted at a general audience.  It manages to cover a lot of ground in a way that felt engaging to me and that I think would carry along many readers who are intellectually curious but may not yet have had exposure to all of the related prerequisite ideas.


Omens: When we peer into the fog of the deep future what do we see – human extinction or a future among the stars?

Sometimes, when you dig into the Earth, past its surface and into the crustal layers, omens appear. In 1676, Oxford professor Robert Plot was putting the final touches on his masterwork, The Natural History of Oxfordshire, when he received a strange gift from a friend. The gift was a fossil, a chipped-off section of bone dug from a local quarry of limestone. Plot recognised it as a femur at once, but he was puzzled by its extraordinary size. The fossil was only a fragment, the knobby end of the original thigh bone, but it weighed more than 20 lbs (nine kilos). It was so massive that Plot thought it belonged to a giant human, a victim of the Biblical flood. He was wrong, of course, but he had the conceptual contours nailed. The bone did come from a species lost to time; a species vanished by a prehistoric catastrophe. Only it wasn’t a giant. It was a Megalosaurus, a feathered carnivore from the Middle Jurassic.

Plot’s fossil was the first dinosaur bone to appear in the scientific literature, but many have followed it, out of the rocky depths and onto museum pedestals, where today they stand erect, symbols of a radical and haunting notion: a set of wildly different creatures once ruled this Earth, until something mysterious ripped them clean out of existence.


There are good reasons for any species to think darkly of its own extinction. Ninety-nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth have gone extinct, including more than five tool-using hominids.


Bostrom isn’t too concerned about extinction risks from nature. Not even cosmic risks worry him much, which is surprising, because our starry universe is a dangerous place.

[discussion of threats of supernovae, asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, nuclear weapons, bioterrorism ...]

These risks are easy to imagine. We can make them out on the horizon, because they stem from foreseeable extensions of current technology. [...] Bostrom’s basic intellectual project is to reach into the epistemological fog of the future, to feel around for potential threats. It’s a project that is going to be with us for a long time, until — if — we reach technological maturity, by inventing and surviving all existentially dangerous technologies.

There is one such technology that Bostrom has been thinking about a lot lately. Early last year, he began assembling notes for a new book, a survey of near-term existential risks. After a few months of writing, he noticed one chapter had grown large enough to become its own book. ‘I had a chunk of the manuscript in early draft form, and it had this chapter on risks arising from research into artificial intelligence,’ he told me. ‘As time went on, that chapter grew, so I lifted it over into a different document and began there instead.’

[very good introduction to the threat of superintelligent AI, touching on the alienness of potential AI goals, the complexity of specifying human value, the dangers of even Oracle AI, and techniques for keeping an AI in a box, with the key quotes including, "To understand why an AI might be dangerous, you have to avoid anthropomorphising it." and, "The problem is you are building a very powerful, very intelligent system that is your enemy, and you are putting it in a cage." ...]

One night, over dinner, Bostrom and I discussed the Curiosity Rover, the robot geologist that NASA recently sent to Mars to search for signs that the red planet once harbored life. The Curiosity Rover is one of the most advanced robots ever built by humans. It functions a bit like the Terminator. It uses a state of the art artificial intelligence program to scan the Martian desert for rocks that suit its scientific goals. After selecting a suitable target, the rover vaporises it with a laser, in order to determine its chemical makeup. Bostrom told me he hopes that Curiosity fails in its mission, but not for the reason you might think.

It turns out that Earth’s crust is not our only source of omens about the future. There are others to consider, including a cosmic omen, a riddle written into the lifeless stars that illuminate our skies. But to glimpse this omen, you first have to grasp the full scope of human potential, the enormity of the spatiotemporal canvas our species has to work with. You have to understand what Henry David Thoreau meant when he wrote, in Walden (1854), ‘These may be but the spring months in the life of the race.’ You have to step into deep time and look hard at the horizon, where you can glimpse human futures that extend for trillions of years.

[introduction to the idea of the Great Filter, and also that fighting existential risk is about saving all future humans and not just those alive at the time of any particular potential catastrophe ...]

As Bostrom and I strolled among the skeletons at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, we looked backward across another abyss of time. We were getting ready to leave for lunch, when we finally came upon the Megalosaurus, standing stiffly behind display glass. It was a partial skeleton, made of shattered bone fragments, like the chipped femur that found its way into Robert Plot’s hands not far from here. As we leaned in to inspect the ancient animal’s remnants, I asked Bostrom about his approach to philosophy. How did he end up studying a subject as morbid and peculiar as human extinction?

He told me that when he was younger, he was more interested in the traditional philosophical questions. He wanted to develop a basic understanding of the world and its fundamentals. He wanted to know the nature of being, the intricacies of logic, and the secrets of the good life.

‘But then there was this transition, where it gradually dawned on me that not all philosophical questions are equally urgent,’ he said. ‘Some of them have been with us for thousands of years. It’s unlikely that we are going to make serious progress on them in the next ten. That realisation refocused me on research that can make a difference right now. It helped me to understand that philosophy has a time limit.’

H/T - gwern