Thinking long-term, vast and slow

John Fowler "Long Way Down"
John Fowler “Long Way Down”

This spring Richard Fisher at BBC Future has commissioned a series of essays about long-termism: Deep Civilisation. I really like this effort (and not just because I get the last word):

“Deep history” is fascinating because it gives us a feeling of the vastness of our roots – not just the last few millennia, but a connection to our forgotten stone-age ancestors, their hominin ancestors, the biosphere evolving over hundreds of millions and billions of years, the planet, and the universe. We are standing on top of a massive sedimentary cliff of past, stretching down to an origin unimaginably deep below.

Yet the sky above, the future, is even more vast and deep. Looking down the 1,857 m into Grand Canyon is vertiginous. Yet above us the troposphere stretches more than five times further up, followed by an even vaster stratosphere and mesosphere, in turn dwarfed by the thermosphere… and beyond the exosphere fades into the endlessness of deep space. The deep future is in many ways far more disturbing since it is moving and indefinite.

That also means there is a fair bit of freedom in shaping it. It is not very easy to shape. But if we want to be more than just some fossils buried inside the rocks we better do it.

Existential risk in Gothenburg

This fall I have been chairing a programme at the Gothenburg Centre for Advanced Studies on existential risk, thanks to Olle Häggström. Visiting researchers come and participate in seminars and discussions on existential risk, ranging from the very theoretical (how do future people count?) to the very applied (should we put existential risk on the school curriculum? How?). I gave a Petrov Day talk about how to calculate risks of nuclear war and how observer selection might mess this up, beside seminars on everything from the Fermi paradox to differential technology development. In short, I have been very busy.

To open the programme we had a workshop on existential risk September 7-8 2017. Now we have the videos up of our talks:

I think so far a few key realisations and themes have in my opinion been

(1) the pronatalist/maximiser assumptions underlying some of the motivations for existential risk reduction were challenged; there is an interesting issue of how “modest futures” rather than “grand futures” play a role and non-maximising goals imply existential risk reduction.

(2) the importance of figuring out how “suffering risks”, potential states of astronomical amounts of suffering, relate to existential risks. Allocating effort between them rationally touches on some profound problems.

(3) The under-determination problem of inferring human values from observed behaviour (a talk by Stuart) resonated with the under-determination of AI goals in Olle’s critique of the convergent instrumental goal thesis and other discussions. Basically, complex agent-like systems might be harder to succinctly describe than we often think.

(4) Stability of complex adaptive systems – brains, economies, trajectories of human history, AI. Why are some systems so resilient in a reliable way, and can we copy it?

(5) The importance of estimating force projection abilities in space and as the limits of physics are approached. I am starting to suspect there is a deep physics answer to the question of attacker advantage, and a trade-off between information and energy in attacks.

We will produce an edited journal issue with papers inspired by our programme, stay tuned. Avancez!