A crazy futurist writes about crazy futurists

Arjen the doomsayerWarren Ellis’ Normal is a little story about the problem of being serious about the future.

As I often point out, most people in the futures game are basically in the entertainment industry: telling wonderful or frightening stories that allow us to feel part of a bigger sweep of history, reflect a bit, and then return to the present with the reassurance that we have some foresight. Relatively little future studies is about finding decision-relevant insights and then acting on it. It exists, but it is not the bulk of future-oriented people. Taking the future seriously might require colliding with your society as you try to tell it it is going the wrong way. Worse, the conclusions might tell you that your own values and goals are wrong.

Normal takes place at a sanatorium for mad futurists in the wilds of Oregon. The idea is that if you spend too much time thinking too seriously about the big and horrifying things in the future mental illness sets in. So when futurists have nervous breakdowns they get sent by their sponsors to Normal to recover. They are useful, smart, and dedicated people but since the problems they deal with are so strange their conditions are equally unusual. The protagonist arrives just in time to encounter a bizarre locked room mystery – exactly the worst kind of thing for a place like Normal with many smart and fragile minds – driving him to investigate what is going on.

As somebody working with the future, I think the caricatures of these futurists (or rather their ideas) are spot on. There are the urbanists, the singularitarians, the neoreactionaries, the drone spooks, and the invented professional divisions. Of course, here they are mad in a way that doesn’t allow them to function in society which softballs the views: singletons and Molochs are serious real ideas that should make your stomach lurch.

The real people I know who take the future seriously are overall pretty sane. I remember a documentary filmmaker at a recent existential risk conference mildly complaining that people where so cheerful and well-adapted: doubtless some darkness and despair would have made a far more compelling imagery than chummy academics trying to salvage the bioweapons convention. Even the people involved in developing the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine seem to have been pretty healthy. People who go off on the deep end tend to do it not because of The Future but because of more normal psychological fault lines. Maybe we are not taking the future seriously enough, but I suspect it is more a case of an illusion of control: we know we are at least doing something.

This book convinced me that I need to seriously start working on my own book project, the “glass is half full” book. Much of our research at FHI seems to be relentlessly gloomy: existential risk, AI risk, all sorts of unsettling changes to the human condition that might slurp us down into a valueless attractor asymptoting towards the end of time. But that is only part of it: there are potential futures so bright that we do not just need sunshades, but we have problems with even managing the positive magnitude in an intellectually useful way. The reason we work on existential risk is that we (1) think there is enormous positive potential value at stake, and (2) we think actions can meaningfully improve chances. That is no pessimism, quite the opposite. I can imagine Ellis or one of his characters skeptically looking at me across the table at Normal and accusing me of solutionism and/or a manic episode. Fine. I should lay out my case in due time, with enough logos, ethos and pathos to convince them (Muhahaha!).

I think the fundamental horror at the core of Normal – and yes, I regard this more as a horror story than a techno-thriller or satire – is the belief that The Future is (1) pretty horrifying and (2) unstoppable. I think this is a great conceit for a story and a sometimes necessary intellectual tonic to consider. But it is bad advice for how to live a functioning life or actually make a saner future.


Review of Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em

Em the wildIntroduction

Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em is bound to be a classic.

It might seem odd, given that it is both awkward to define what kind of book it is – economics textbook, future studies, speculative sociology, science fiction without any characters? – and that most readers will disagree with large parts of it. Indeed, one of the main reasons it will become classic is that there is so much to disagree with and those disagreements are bound to stimulate a crop of blogs, essays, papers and maybe other books.

This is a very rich synthesis of many ideas with a high density of fascinating arguments and claims per page just begging for deeper analysis and response. It is in many ways like an author’s first science fiction novel (Zindell’s Neverness, Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, and Egan’s Quarantine come to mind) – lots of concepts and throwaway realizations has been built up in the background of the author’s mind and are now out to play. Later novels are often better written, but first novels have the freshest ideas.

The second reason it will become classic is that even if mainstream economics or futurism pass it by, it is going to profoundly change how science fiction treats the concept of mind uploading. Sure, the concept has been around for ages, but this is the first through treatment of what it means to a society. Any science fiction treatment henceforth will partially define itself by how it relates to the Age of Em scenario.


The Age of Em is all about the implications of a particular kind of software intelligence, one based on scanning human brains to produce intelligent software entities. I suspect much of the debate about the book will be more about the feasibility of brain emulations. To many people the whole concept sparks incredulity and outright rejection. The arguments against brain emulation range from pure arguments of incredulity (“don’t these people know how complex the brain is?”) over various more or less well-considered philosophical positions (“don’t these people read Heidegger?” to questioning the inherent functionalist reductionism of the concept) to arguments about technological feasibility. Given that the notion is one many people will find hard to swallow I think Robin spent too little effort bolstering the plausibility, making the book look a bit too much like what Nordmann called if-then ethics: assume some outrageous assumption, then work out the conclusion (which Nordmann finds a waste of intellectual resources). I think one can make fairly strong arguments for the plausibility, but Robin is more interested in working out the consequences. I have a feeling there is a need now for a good defense of the plausibility (this and this might be a weak start, but much more needs to be done).


In this book, I will set defining assumptions, collect many plausible arguments about the correlations we should expect from these assumptions, and then try to combine these many correlation clues into a self-consistent scenario describing relevant variables.

What I find more interesting is Robin’s approach to future studies. He is describing a self-consistent scenario. The aim is not to describe the most likely future of all, nor to push some particular trend the furthest it can go. Rather, he is trying to describe what, given some assumptions, is likely to occur based on our best knowledge and fits with the other parts of the scenario into an organic whole.

The baseline scenario I generate in this book is detailed and self-consistent, as scenarios should be. It is also often a likely baseline, in the sense that I pick the most likely option when such an option stands out clearly. However, when several options seem similarly likely, or when it is hard to say which is more likely, I tend instead to choose a “simple” option that seems easier to analyze.

This baseline scenario is a starting point for considering variations such as intervening events, policy options or alternatives, intended as the center of a cluster of similar scenarios. It typically is based on the status quo and consensus model: unless there is a compelling reason elsewhere in the scenario, things will behave like they have done historically or according to the mainstream models.

As he notes, this is different from normal scenario planning where scenarios are generated to cover much of the outcome space and tell stories of possible unfoldings of events that may give the reader a useful understanding of the process leading to the futures. He notes that the self-consistent scenario seems to be taboo among futurists.

Part of that I think is the realization that making one forecast will usually just ensure one is wrong. Scenario analysis aims at understanding the space of possibility better: hence they make several scenarios. But as critics of scenario analysis have stated, there is a risk of the conjunction fallacy coming into play: the more details you add to the story of a scenario the more compelling the story becomes, but the less likely the individual scenario. The scenario analyst respond by claiming individual scenarios should not be taken as separate things: they only make real sense as part of the bigger structure. The details are to draw the reader into the space of possibility, not to convince them that a particular scenario is the true one.

Robin’s maximal consistent scenario is not directly trying to map out an entire possibility space but rather to create a vivid prototype residing somewhere in the middle of it. But if it is not a forecast, and not a scenario planning exercise, what is it? Robin suggest it is a tool for thinking about useful action:

The chance that the exact particular scenario I describe in this book will actually happen just as I describe it is much less than one in a thousand. But scenarios that are similar to true scenarios, even if not exactly the same, can still be a relevant guide to action and inference. I expect my analysis to be relevant for a large cloud of different but similar scenarios. In particular, conditional on my key assumptions, I expect at least 30% of future situations to be usefully informed by my analysis. Unconditionally, I expect at least 10%.

To some degree this is all a rejection of how we usually think of the future in “far mode” as a neat utopia or dystopia with little detail. Forcing the reader into “near mode” changes the way we consider the realities of the scenario (compare to construal level theory). It makes responding to the scenario far more urgent than responding to a mere possibility. The closest example I know is Eric Drexler’s worked example of nanotechnology in Nanosystems and Engines of Creation.

Again, I expect much criticism quibbling about whether the status quo and mainstream positions actually fit Robin’s assumptions. I have a feeling there is much room for disagreement, and many elements presented as uncontroversial will be highly controversial – sometimes to people outside the relevant field, but quite often to people inside the field too (I am wondering about the generalizations about farmers and foragers). Much of this just means that the baseline scenario can be expanded or modified to include the altered positions, which could provide useful perturbation analysis.

It may be more useful to start from the baseline scenario and ask what the smallest changes are to the assumptions that radically changes the outcome (what would it take to make lives precious? What would it take to make change slow?) However, a good approach is likely to start by investigating robustness vis-à-vis plausible “parameter changes” and use that experience to get a sense of the overall robustness properties of the baseline scenario.

Beyond the Age of Em

But is this important? We could work out endlessly detailed scenarios of other possible futures: why this one? As Robin argued in his original paper, while it is hard to say anything about a world with de novo engineered artificial intelligence, the constraints of neuroscience and economics make this scenario somewhat more predictable: it is a gap in the mist clouds covering the future, even if it is a small one. But more importantly, the economic arguments seem fairly robust regardless of sociological details: copyable human/machine capital is economic plutonium (c.f. this and this paper). Since capital can almost directly be converted into labor, the economy will likely grow radically. This seems to be true regardless of whether we talk about ems or AI, and is clearly a big deal if we think things like the industrial revolution matter – especially a future disruption of our current order.

In fact, people have already criticized Robin for not going far enough. The age described may not last long in real-time before it evolves into something far more radical. As Scott Alexander pointed out in his review and subsequent post, an “ascended economy” where automation and on-demand software labor function together can be a far more powerful and terrifying force than merely a posthuman Malthusian world. It could produce some of the dystopian posthuman scenarios envisioned in Nick Bostrom’s “The future of human evolution“, essentially axiological existential threats where what gives humanity value disappears.

We do not yet have good tools for analyzing this kind of scenarios. Mainstream economics is busy with analyzing the economy we have, not future models. Given that the expertise to reason about the future of a domain is often fundamentally different from the expertise needed in the domain, we should not even assume economists or other social scientists to be able to say much useful about this except insofar they have found reliable universal rules that can be applied. As Robin likes to point out, there are far more results of that kind in the “soft sciences” than outsiders believe. But they might still not be enough to constrain the possibilities.

Yet it would be remiss not to try. The future is important: that is where we will spend the rest of our lives.

If the future matters more than the past, because we can influence it, why do we have far more historians than futurists? Many say that this is because we just can’t know the future. While we can project social trends, disruptive technologies will change those trends, and no one can say where that will take us. In this book, I’ve tried to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.

Review of “Here be Dragons” by Olle Häggström

By Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford

Gunner's pyrothechnica etc.Thinking of the future is often done as entertainment. A surprising number of serious-sounding predictions, claims and prophecies are made with apparently little interest in taking them seriously, as evidenced by how little they actually change behaviour or how rarely originators are held responsible for bad predictions. Rather, they are stories about our present moods and interests projected onto the screen of the future. Yet the future matters immensely: it is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. As well as where all future generations will live – unless something goes badly wrong.

Olle Häggström’s book is very much a plea for taking the future seriously, and especially for taking exploring the future seriously. As he notes, there are good reasons to believe that many technologies under development will have enormous positive effects… and also good reasons to suspect that some of them will be tremendously risky. It makes sense to think about how we ought to go about avoiding the risks while still reaching the promise.

Current research policy is often directed mostly towards high quality research rather than research likely to make a great difference in the long run. Short term impact may be rewarded, but often naively: when UK research funding agencies introduced impact evaluation a few years back, their representatives visiting Oxford did not respond to the question on whether impact had to be positive. Yet, as Häggström argues, obviously the positive or negative impact of research must matter! A high quality investigation into improved doomsday weapons should not be pursued. Investigating the positive or negative implications of future research and technology has high value, even if it is difficult and uncertain.

Inspired by James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century this book is an attempt to make a broad map sketch of parts of the future that matters, especially the uncertain corners where we have reason to think dangerous dragons lurk. It aims more at scope than the detail of many of the covered topics, making it an excellent introduction and pointer towards the primary research.

One obvious area is climate change, not just in terms of its direct (and widely recognized risks) but the new challenges posed by geoengineering. Geoengineering may both be tempting to some nations and possible to perform unilaterally, yet there are a host of ethical, political, environmental and technical risks linked to it. It also touches on how far outside the box we should search for solutions: to many geoengineering is already too far, but other proposals such as human engineering (making us more eco-friendly) go much further. When dealing with important challenges, how do we allocate our intellectual resources?

Other areas Häggström reviews include human enhancement, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. In each of these areas tremendously promising possibilities – that would merit a strong research push towards them – are intermixed with different kinds of serious risks. But the real challenge may be that we do not yet have the epistemic tools to analyse these risks well. Many debates in these areas contain otherwise very intelligent and knowledgeable people making overconfident and demonstrably erroneous claims. One can also argue that it is not possible to scientifically investigate future technology. Häggström disagrees with this: one can analyse it based on currently known facts and using careful probabilistic reasoning to handle the uncertainty. That results are uncertain does not mean they are useless for making decisions.

He demonstrates this by analysing existential risks, scenarios for the long term future humanity and what the “Fermi paradox” may tell us about our chances. There is an interesting interplay between uncertainty and existential risk. Since our species can end only once, traditional frequentist approaches run into trouble Bayesian methods do not. Yet reasoning about events that are unprecedented also makes our arguments terribly sensitive to prior assumptions, and many forms of argument are more fragile than they first look. Intellectual humility is necessary for thinking about audacious things.

In the end, this book is as much a map of relevant areas of philosophy and mathematics containing tools for exploring the future, as it is a direct map of future technologies. One can read it purely as an attempt to sketch where there may be dragons in the future landscape, but also as an attempt at explaining how to go about sketching the landscape. If more people were to attempt that, I am confident that we would fence in the dragons better and direct our policies towards more dragon-free regions. That is a possibility worth taking very seriously.

[Conflict of interest: several of my papers are discussed in the book, both critically and positively.]

The Annihilation Score as Satirical Sociology

Violin storeToday I read The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross during a flight. It is the sixth Laundry novel, and in many ways the weakest. But it might be the intellectually and satirically best.

The Laundry novels are a mix of horror, spy story, geekiness, and satire. This is both a reader-winning combination (transitions from one side of the mixture to another can provide intense contrast, and Stross can give readers a bit of everything) and a balancing problem: each story needs to maintain the right mixture, and the readers often have their own favourite ratios. The Annihilation Score goes further in the direction of satire, reducing the horror and geekiness fairly significantly. This no doubt makes many Laundry fans unhappy. Me too, to some extent: there is nothing more delightful than noticing wordplay based on obscure hermetica and computer science, or the distinctly unsettling implications of thinking through some of the metaphysical assumptions of the setting. However, I think Stross hit on something different in this novel: an important argument disguised as satire.

On the surface the novel suffers from bad pacing: the bulk of it is about management. Not intense action, but rather the issue of how to set up an office, from personnel management to furniture to keeping the funding body happy despite contradictory goals. There is plenty of agency-spotting, with numerous acronymical organisations criss-crossing the story with their interleaved agendas. And finally, in the last fifth, a climactic battle. Typically Laundry novels spend a lot of times establishing a mood and tension for a relatively brief finale where they get unleashed. The Annihilation Score takes this even further, but at least I did not feel much of a build-up. In fact, despite the pressure on the main character she comes across as almost a Westminster Mary Sue: she persists and succeeds at nearly everything, from turning what ought to be a social nightmare into a cozy core team, to handling unseen budgetary constraints.

However, on a deeper level this is not a horror story about inhuman entities from other dimensions threatening to invade our world and their misguided human servants. This is a horror story about the inhuman entity inhabiting Whitehall: government.

Taking jabs at the absurdity, stupidity and inhumanity of bureaucracy has been a staple in the Laundry books. What makes the Annihilation Score stand out is that it actually has a fairly well thought out argument and exposition of why. The basics are familiar from the earlier novels: the iron law of bureaucracy (framed here as the emergent instrumental goal of organisations to preserve themselves), Parkinson’s law, the Snafu principle, empire building, not invented here, in-group out-group dynamics, Something Must Be Done, and so on. The novel does a sociological dive into the internal culture of the subset of bureaucracy dealing with policing. Here there exists a strong ethos about what purpose it actually has, which both serves to recruit and advance people with a compatible mindset and actually maintain some mission focus. Presumably because it would be very noticeable if the police force began too drift too far from its necessary function; compare this with how some branches of academia are kept honest by constant interaction with an unyielding real world, and others diffuse into obscure absurdity since there are only social forces constraining them. But even when a purpose has an apparently clear meaning it can get subtly (or not so subtly) twisted. This is especially true at the top, where the constraints of external practical reality are weakest.

Stross examines the case where bureaucracy recognizes it has an out-of-context problem. Something important yet unknown is intruding, and clearly something must be done to handle it. The problem is of course that following the politician’s syllogism means that whatever fast and decisive action is taken is not going to be based on good knowledge. Worse, if the organisation is centred on dealing with something Very Important like national security it will hence be (1) extremely motivated to do it, (2) discount signals from unimportant (as described by its own value system) organisations or sources. A not so subtle analogy to the Annihilation Score is government handling of many emerging technologies such as encryption. Internal expertise is lacking not just on the technology itself and its full implications, but there is also a lack of expertise in judging the consequences of different actions and expertise in recognizing this kind of expertise.

This is where I think the novel actually succeeds: it plays out a satirical scenario, but the parts are all-too-familiar. Well-meaning people work hard to ensure something agreed to be good, and the result is Moloch. The Sleeper in the Pyramid is not half as scary as the Dweller in Whitehall. Because the later is real.