We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction
Unthinkable as it may be, humanity, every last person, could someday be wiped from the face of the Earth. We have learned to worry about asteroids and supervolcanoes, but the more-likely scenario, according to Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, is that we humans will destroy ourselves.
Bostrom, who directs Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, has argued over the course of several papers that human extinction risks are poorly understood and, worse still, severely underestimated by society. Some of these existential risks are fairly well known, especially the natural ones. But others are obscure or even exotic. Most worrying to Bostrom is the subset of existential risks that arise from human technology, a subset that he expects to grow in number and potency over the next century.
Despite his concerns about the risks posed to humans by technological progress, Bostrom is no luddite. In fact, he is a longtime advocate of transhumanism—the effort to improve the human condition, and even human nature itself, through technological means. In the long run he sees technology as a bridge, a bridge we humans must cross with great care, in order to reach new and better modes of being. In his work, Bostrom uses the tools of philosophy and mathematics, in particular probability theory, to try and determine how we as a species might achieve this safe passage. What follows is my conversation with Bostrom about some of the most interesting and worrying existential risks that humanity might encounter in the decades and centuries to come, and about what we can do to make sure we outlast them.
Some have argued that we ought to be directing our resources toward humanity’s existing problems, rather than future existential risks, because many of the latter are highly improbable. You have responded by suggesting that existential risk mitigation may in fact be a dominant moral priority over the alleviation of present suffering. Can you explain why?
Bostrom: Well suppose you have a moral view that counts future people as being worth as much as present people. You might say that fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether someone exists at the current time or at some future time, just as many people think that from a fundamental moral point of view, it doesn’t matter where somebody is spatially—somebody isn’t automatically worth less because you move them to the moon or to Africa or something. A human life is a human life. If you have that moral point of view that future generations matter in proportion to their population numbers, then you get this very stark implication that existential risk mitigation has a much higher utility than pretty much anything else that you could do. There are so many people that could come into existence in the future if humanity survives this critical period of time—we might live for billions of years, our descendants might colonize billions of solar systems, and there could be billions and billions times more people than exist currently. Therefore, even a very small reduction in the probability of realizing this enormous good will tend to outweigh even immense benefits like eliminating poverty or curing malaria, which would be tremendous under ordinary standards.