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Never Tell Me The Odds
April 28, 2012 5:39 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Nick Bostrom puts the probability of an existential event wiping out humanity in this century at 10-20%.

Each time we make one of these new discoveries we are putting our hand into a big urn of balls and pulling up a new ball---so far we've pulled up white balls and grey balls, but maybe next time we will pull out a black ball, a discovery that spells disaster. At the moment we have no good way of putting the ball back into the urn if we don't like it. Once a discovery has been published there is no way of un-publishing it. (Dr Bostrom, previously on Metafilter.)
posted by COD (74 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is why we need to keep at the space program.
posted by sammyo at 5:45 PM on April 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Well, if we want to stick just to probabilities, then in all probability Boltzmann's brain hypothesis is correct.
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:48 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What truly terrifies me is the existential threat of Schweddy balls.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:49 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even with nuclear weapons there were close calls.

With 20,000 nuclear weapons still in existence, the use of the past tense strikes me as questionable.
posted by Trurl at 5:51 PM on April 28, 2012 [18 favorites]


He clearly has important things to say, but nobody can seriously put a probability on something like this, especially extending over a time period of a hundred years into the future. That's nothing more than raw speculation.
posted by mikeand1 at 5:53 PM on April 28, 2012 [11 favorites]


Never underestimate the willingness of the contemporary incarnation of the Atlantic online to post linkbait.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:54 PM on April 28, 2012 [12 favorites]


If I were a betting man, and if it were possible to structure a useful way to collect said bet in time to actually make use of it. I'd bet on some sociopath figuring out a way to hack all our wetware with some kind of perpetual oxytocin bath to create a worldwide empire of willing slaves that ends with global suicide. But I'm cheery like that.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:57 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


He's a 40 year old man. Based on UK life expectancy, he will be lucky to live to mid-century based on the actuarial tables.
posted by humanfont at 5:59 PM on April 28, 2012


Humanity is lacking in unurned discoveries.
posted by benzenedream at 6:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


With 20,000 nuclear weapons still in existence, the use of the past tense strikes me as questionable.

Nuclear detonation remains a danger, but I think the threat of all-out, apocalyptic nuclear war has passed.

I don't disagree with Bostram's point, but how did he come up with the numbers? 'I think there is a very real, but still fairly slim chance of a terrifying exsistential threat destroying the human race. But that's a bit wordy, I'll just say 10-20%.'? Or is there some kind of hypothetical formula that he used (because I love those).
posted by Garm at 6:00 PM on April 28, 2012


I'm kind of wondering if there's a way to speed up our moral development or improve our empathy. I guess that is an existential change by definition.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


He clearly has important things to say, but nobody can seriously put a probability on something like this, especially extending over a time period of a hundred years into the future. That's nothing more than raw speculation.

Obviously you've never heard of HARI SELDON.
posted by nzero at 6:01 PM on April 28, 2012 [20 favorites]


I read The Stand. Biological warfare is terrifying. Or our antibiotics failing us. That's less of an extinction level event though.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:05 PM on April 28, 2012


.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 6:07 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


We can certainly photoshare our way out of this.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:08 PM on April 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


Our permanent failure to develop the sort of technologies that would fundamentally improve the quality of human life would count as an existential catastrophe.

I think that view is quite misguided.

But it seems to me the risks he lists (nanotech, AI, ability to synthesize disease organisms) are reasonably terrifying very large-scale threats. And he's right that trying to slow "progress" on those things, to hold them back until we have better ways of controlling them, is a very hard thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:10 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just last night, a question about one possible end was posted to AskMeFi. Great story.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:19 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, it's been nice knowing y'all...
posted by fuq at 6:20 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think when Bostrom used the term "doomsday argument", he or the interviewer should have elaborated that they're talking about a particular probabilistic argument by physicist Brandon Carter, the Doomsday argument.
posted by bobo123 at 6:22 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well suppose you have a moral view that counts future people as being worth as much as present people.

If we spend all our time and resources "eliminating poverty or curing malaria" but the human race suddenly ends we've still managed to spare all those future people from poverty and malaria. Win-Win.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 6:24 PM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


I might accept that there's a 10% chance of a "really catastrophic" event, but one that kills everyone seems pretty unlikely. It's likely that someone would be immune to whatever super-virus, or that someone would make it to a bunker in time, or whatever.
posted by aubilenon at 6:27 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I put the probability of my personal extinction (and everyone else's, for that matter) at 100%. Given those odds, it doesn't really matter how or when, or who else goes with me.
posted by briank at 6:28 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


BrotherCaine: If I were a betting man, and if it were possible to structure a useful way to collect said bet in time to actually make use of it. I'd bet on some sociopath figuring out a way to hack all our wetware with some kind of perpetual oxytocin bath to create a worldwide empire of willing slaves that ends with global suicide. But I'm cheery like that.

That seems like an outside bet. I'll take something safer: 'The depletion of natural resources and the declining habitability of the Earth cause massive poverty and unrest, even in current first-world nations. This destabilizes the governments of the superpowers and results in apocalyptic war.'

I'd also like outside odds on 'Global warming enters a runaway feedback loop and transforms the Earth into a second Venus'.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:34 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


This interviewer the Atlantic has got is really great. He's the same one who did the recent Krauss interview and the Maudlin interview. He asks good questions.

And yes, this. Ross Andersen. Looking him up it seems the Atlantic and the Los Angeles Review of Books are his two main outlets right now, and I can't find info on his background (specifically, the pressing question, was he a philosophy major?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:37 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Given those odds, it doesn't really matter how or when, or who else goes with me.

I find the answer to "why does it matter?" in Carl Sagan's Cosmos:
We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:37 PM on April 28, 2012 [23 favorites]


My money's on a situation like The Stand. Someone will make a deadly super virus, it'll get out and there goes 90% of the human population. Could be released by a terrorist group or genetically modified crop or the cure for disease X that has a nasty blowback once out in the wild.

I'm hoping for alien invasion though. A few years of slavery will do us good, make us humble. Then we can rebel, gain all their nifty technology and expand our genes across the galaxy.

I got dibs on quadrant 23 in the southern sector and 4 troop carriers.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:38 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


One could imagine certain scenarios where there might be a permanent global totalitarian dystopia. Once again that's related to the possibility of the development of technologies that could make it a lot easier for oppressive regimes to weed out dissidents or to perform surveillance on their populations, so that you could have a permanently stable tyranny, rather than the ones we have seen throughout history, which have eventually been overthrown.


^^am I the only one who finds this a ridiculous thing to say. unless the internet becomes illegal I don't see how a permanent global totalitarian dystopia will ever happen. Someone told me recently that they thought the internet is the truest form of democracy that we have.
posted by costanza at 6:47 PM on April 28, 2012


The prospect that scares me the most is that the tools of genetic engineering are becoming cheaper, faster, and much more common. It won't be long before a dedicated hobbiest will be able to do it.

Or a terrorist intent on creating a worldwide plague. A lab in the Netherlands has been experimenting with Bird Flu and has created a strain which could become a plague. How long before some bearded swarthy guy in a cave in Afghanistan does the same thing -- and releases it?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:48 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Discoveries don't kill people. Applications kill people.
posted by JHarris at 6:49 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I put the probability of my personal extinction (and everyone else's, for that matter) at 100%. Given those odds, it doesn't really matter how or when, or who else goes with me.

In my opinion, this ^^^ is how philosophers are supposed to think. It is a waste of creative thought to begin speculating on the end of our species, because we will not be around to experience it anyway. I feel like this article was published for sensation's sake only.
posted by costanza at 6:56 PM on April 28, 2012


Discoveries don't kill people. Applications kill people.

False. Just ask Marie Curie.
posted by ymgve at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is a waste of creative thought to begin speculating on the end of our species, because we will not be around to experience it anyway.

That's moral peek-a-boo. The suffering of others matters, even if you're not there to see it.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


It is a waste of creative thought to begin speculating on the end of our species, because we will not be around to experience it anyway.

Are you saying that the end of our species doesn't matter because no one will be there to experience it? So if I could push a button and immediately wipe out everyone, you'd be indifferent to whether or not I pushed it?

Or are you saying that the end of our species doesn't matter because we (painquale and costanza) won't be there to experience it? So the preferences of future generations don't matter and we might as well eat up as much of the ozone layer as we please?
posted by painquale at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


painquale: "? I don't understand what you're getting at. Are you hinting at some reason to not take him seriously? Bostrom is a very good philosopher."

Well for starters he isn't a terribly informed biologist,
"Bostrom: Well, I can mention a few. In the nearer term I think various developments in biotechnology and synthetic biology are quite disconcerting. We are gaining the ability to create designer pathogens and there are these blueprints of various disease organisms that are in the public domain---you can download the gene sequence for smallpox or the 1918 flu virus from the Internet. So far the ordinary person will only have a digital representation of it on their computer screen, but we're also developing better and better DNA synthesis machines, which are machines that can take one of these digital blueprints as an input, and then print out the actual RNA string or DNA string. Soon they will become powerful enough that they can actually print out these kinds of viruses. So already there you have a kind of predictable risk, and then once you can start modifying these organisms in certain kinds of ways, there is a whole additional frontier of danger that you can foresee."
Every one of our attempts to design a pathogen using molecular techniques has failed dramatically, and for very good and pretty indelible reasons. The human immune system is fucking amazing, just jaw droppingly gorgeous if your can stomach memorizing all the acronyms necessary to learn about it, and we're never going to beat it. At least not in the fantastically delicate way necessary to sustain a proper epidemic and not any time soon. Our bodies are built to withstand so much more creative recombination than human ingenuity could possibly devise. Besides, the kinds of entities that might try already have access to techniques for naturally evolving REALLY FUCKING SCARY SHIT that have been around for more than a century.

Also, we are fantastically unlikely to ever be wiped out by a pathogen of any kind. When species are wiped out by pathogens, and we've engineered that before, it tends to be more because the effect of the pathogen prevents some vital function of the organism's lifecycle than because of 100% transmission and mortality. This isn't to say that epidemic pathogens aren't something we shouldn't be collectively pants shittingly worried about, because they are. When the next catastrophic flu pandemic hits, it has the potential to be the greatest disaster humankind has ever experienced, dwarfing all the great wars of the 20th century by an order of magnitude in a single flu season. There are pathogens in primates, currently being perilously consumed as bushmeat for lack of any better option, that make HIV look like chicken pox. Small pox is supposed to only exist in two repositories, in Atlanta and Moscow respectively, but it is presumably still out there in carefully packed vials stuffed in carefully almost forgotten freezers somewhere that the wrong person might find or remember. Antibiotic resistance is poised to change the face of medicine, bringing epidemic bacterial disease back into play and making hospitals and nursing homes near obsolete if we don't find effective solutions in time.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:09 PM on April 28, 2012 [13 favorites]


^^am I the only one who finds this a ridiculous thing to say. unless the internet becomes illegal I don't see how a permanent global totalitarian dystopia will ever happen. Someone told me recently that they thought the internet is the truest form of democracy that we have.

China monitors and controls the internet pretty successfully. That's 1/6 of the world. Not perfectly, obviously, but well enough. If there were no outside servers to route through, I bet they would be even more successful, and that's what would happen if the whole world were under one censorship regime.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:11 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


> How long before some bearded swarthy guy in a cave in Afghanistan does the same thing -- and releases it?

My money's on some bullied suburban genius with a garage biohacking setup and a deep, deep love of Norwegian black metal.
posted by codswallop at 7:12 PM on April 28, 2012 [11 favorites]


Or a terrorist intent on creating a worldwide plague.

Perish the thought that terrorists have very specific political motivations, which wouldn't be served by destroying the human race.

Now a doomsday cult I could see releasing a worldwide plague.
posted by bobo123 at 7:14 PM on April 28, 2012


How long before some bearded swarthy guy in a cave in Afghanistan does the same thing -- and releases it?

How long before some US military veteran decides he wants revenge?

he human immune system is fucking amazing, just jaw droppingly gorgeous if your can stomach memorizing all the acronyms necessary to learn about it, and we're never going to beat it.

Really? That isn't a sarcastic question, I thought humans were delicate creatures, susceptible to a huge number of bacteria, virii etc.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


False. Just ask Marie Curie.

Touché!
posted by JHarris at 7:17 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


unless the internet becomes illegal I don't see how a permanent global totalitarian dystopia will ever happen.

Because everybody would sign a petition against it?

The Internet just makes it really easy to let everybody know where the rally will be, so they can all get the hell beaten out of them by the police in the same spot.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:24 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


My money's on some bullied suburban genius with a garage biohacking setup and a deep, deep love of Norwegian black metal.

This was roughly the plot of the adventure module that transitioned the Shadowrun tabletop RPG from 3rd to 4th edition.
posted by radwolf76 at 7:44 PM on April 28, 2012


"One could imagine certain scenarios where there might be a permanent global totalitarian dystopia. Once again that's related to the possibility of the development of technologies that could make it a lot easier for oppressive regimes to weed out dissidents or to perform surveillance on their populations, so that you could have a permanently stable tyranny, rather than the ones we have seen throughout history, which have eventually been overthrown."


^^am I the only one who finds this a ridiculous thing to say.


I find it ridiculous for a different reason. Simply, because everything ends. And what's the difference between a tyranny that lasts a year and a tyranny that lasts 100 years to a person that dies under either tyranny?
posted by The Hamms Bear at 7:46 PM on April 28, 2012


I predict we won't all die.

The convenient thing for me is that if I'm wrong, no one will know.

In any event, the idea of someone cooking up a disease that kills everyone is still really far-fetched. Things like Ebola never go very far, because they kill people so fast and so obviously that it never gets a chance to spread.

Evolution actually works against viruses being super lethal. If a virus mutates into a version that doesn't harm it's hosts, it will spread more easily. So that version will become the dominant form.

The really serious flu epidemics of the past happened because of war injured being confined to hospitals and so on. You had huge numbers of people who were incapacitated and sick and all in the same rooms together. That provided a breeding ground where disease could spread even if it incapacitated people further.

That type of scenario is unlikely to repeat itself.

Really, in order to create a superbug, you would need to actually do experimentation on large populations of people and check to make sure it doesn't lose it's potency, and spreads well, and so on. That kind of experimentation would be pretty obvious It's not something you could just do in a lab.

Now, self-replicating nanobots on the other hand. If you could get those to work that might be more dangerous - maybe powered by quantum computers with quantum gates made out of a few molecules each. But there isn't really any reason to think we'll advance that far even in 100 years. with ordinary biology, I think our abilities, and thus the risk is way overstated.
posted by delmoi at 7:48 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every one of our attempts to design a pathogen using molecular techniques has failed dramatically, and for very good and pretty indelible reasons.

Blasdelb's right that it would be really hard to synthesize a superflu. However, Bostrom is right that as the cost of the technology comes down it's eventually going to be in reach for low-budget doomsday cults and deranged loners. They won't need to engineer a plague. Here's an Analysis of the complete genome of smallpox variola major virus strain Bangladesh-1975. Airborne, highly contagious, and a horrible way to die. (don't look it up on wikipedia unless you want to see pictures of horribly scarred children) We stopped vaccinating for it after it was wiped out. It would be easy to disseminate worldwide by the 12 Monkeys method; infect yourself, then fly from one international airport to another, licking handrails. The WHO wouldn't catch everything; even if we could get a crash vaccination program going fast enough to prevent it from going epidemic in North America and Europe it would almost certainly go endemic here and there in poorer countries. Any idea what kind of effort and heroism it took the Order of the Bifurcated Needle to wipe it out last time? It took decades, because they knew that if it wasn't cleaned out of Afghanistan and the Sudan then it would have come back.

Mind you, I'm not sure that anything other than major power nuclear war could actually push humanity to extinction. (in part because our best stocked, deepest shelters, like NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain, are also military targets) I suppose I'd give a 10km+ diameter asteroid an outside chance of doing the job. Beyond that, well, humans are harder to exterminate than rats. Disease? Nah. A deliberate smallpox outbreak is the worst case scenario, and that would only kill a hundred million of us, plus/minus an order of magnitude. Global warming? It's slow, slow enough that we could almost certainly get tens of thousands of humans off-planet before earth became uninhabitable.

Even assuming actual extinction is off the table, if there is a 10% chance of a gigadeath event taking place within my lifetime I think we should do what we can to reduce the odds.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:57 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


And what's the difference between a tyranny that lasts a year and a tyranny that lasts 100 years to a person that dies under either tyranny?

It makes a difference to that person if he cares about other people not dying under a tyranny.
posted by painquale at 7:58 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The human immune system is fucking amazing, just jaw droppingly gorgeous if your can stomach memorizing all the acronyms necessary to learn about it
This is absolutely true. But the same could be said about, say, the human circulatory system and musculature, which even stands out among the animal kingdom in criteria like marathon stamina. But all our physiology is the product of incremental evolution of a number of tightly interconnected systems, and as a consequence of the ensuing limitations, when I wanted to travel 300 miles today I took a car instead of running. Internal combustion engines aren't great, they've only had an eyeblink to evolve, but because of non-incremental development (engineers can make a bunch of changes at once without worrying about the viability of intermediate forms) and differing design criteria (evolution selected us to run faster than our prey and predators, not to travel hundreds of miles to visit an uncle), designed technology here blows away its biological competitors.

We don't yet know what a mature designed disease will look like. We have yet to see the virus or bacterium equivalent of a jet or a tank.

We do know that some analogous developmental differences will apply. Design criteria, for instance: evolution doesn't select pathogens to be particularly lethal (it often does the exact opposite, since sicker and deader hosts are less likely to spread their germs). Bioweapons engineers will probably disagree.
posted by roystgnr at 7:59 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


The human immune system is fucking amazing, just jaw droppingly gorgeous if your can stomach memorizing all the acronyms necessary to learn about it, and we're never going to beat it.

I'm not as confident. If you look at the history of pathogens introduced into naive populations, the earliest strains of the pathogen are the deadliest. It takes much longer to evolve a mild contagious disease than it does to jump species and wreak havok.

An early example would be syphilis, which was known as the "Great Pox" when Columbus or one of his contemporaries brought it back from the New World (Small Pox was considered benign by comparison). Over the years the strains became milder until tertiary syphilis was the major worry, not that your face would fall off within six months.

I believe HIV without drug treatment would have likely done the same thing, given a few hundred years it would have attenuated to be another genome parasite and not a disease.

I think the FPP article is hyperbole though. Even if you killed 99.99% of humans living today, that would still be more humans than were alive in 500 B.C.
posted by benzenedream at 8:02 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Discoveries don't kill people. Applications kill people. Exception.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:05 PM on April 28, 2012


It makes a difference to that person if he cares about other people not dying under a tyranny.

But that person is dead and has no idea if the tyranny ever ended, for him it effectively goes on until the end of time.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:18 PM on April 28, 2012


Brandon Blatcher: " Really? That isn't a sarcastic question, I thought humans were delicate creatures, susceptible to a huge number of bacteria, virii etc."

We are incredibly delicate, to pathogens designed by evolution specifically to use us as disposable hosts. However, taking down a non-immunosuppressed human with an amount of pathogen that can be reasonably transmitted by another infected human requires some pretty fantastically creative and specialized workarounds. In order to spread, a pathogen must use its host to create and spread enough progeny to infect more people, this involves a lot more than defeating the immune system, which can be done by strategies like co-opting it, outrunning it, hiding from it, directly assaulting it, making molecular shields against it, or burning all of the bridges from it to the infected site. The pathogen also needs a way to get into the host and work, keep the host alive for long enough, and get out of the host in high enough numbers.

The adaptive pressures on pathogens is immense and they necessarily evolve very fast. They also tend to have very small genomes as they can replicate faster, while the pathogen relies on its host for otherwise essential metabolic functions. In viruses, genes are known to get so condensed that they overlap with each other so as to be read in different frames, by way of analogy that is like the last fifth of Hamlet being written in such a way as it reads as the first third of Moby Dick when you ROT13 it. People can't write like that, but nature can. It the molecular mechanisms are not so complex that we can't understand them, but it is more than just our clumsy tools stopping us from constructing a super-pathogen from different biobricks, or whatever the fuck synthetic biologists are calling gene cassettes these days, with our own ingenuity.

We have real problems to worry about from known pathogens we have no control over like the flu, to emerging zoonotic pathogens we have no defenses against, to old pathogens that are returning as the defenses we could once rely on stop working. We don't need to spend time wringing our hands over shit that won't happen.

Building an deadly strain of an epidemic disease would be no easier or harder than it would have been 100 years ago, and the old methods would have a very hard time doing anything significant anyhow.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:22 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you saying that the end of our species doesn't matter because no one will be there to experience it? So if I could push a button and immediately wipe out everyone, you'd be indifferent to whether or not I pushed it?

Or are you saying that the end of our species doesn't matter because we (painquale and costanza) won't be there to experience it? So the preferences of future generations don't matter and we might as well eat up as much of the ozone layer as we please?



I think what I was trying to say is that to argue that we are now a doomed species is antithetical to the purpose of philosophy. Philosophy should seek to help us make the lives we have-- be lived as fully as possible.
posted by costanza at 8:30 PM on April 28, 2012


roystgnr: " We don't yet know what a mature designed disease will look like. We have yet to see the virus or bacterium equivalent of a jet or a tank."

Oh no, we've got those.

If we wanted to we could
-make an area uninhabitable by vertebrate life until the end or time or it is soaked in formaldehyde,
-flood the lungs everyone down wind of a sprayer or under a crop duster with their own fluid,
-or eat their brains,
-poison an entire city with a few liters,
-incapacitate an army,
-obliterate the crops or
-of a continent
posted by Blasdelb at 8:37 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


We've already pulled a black-ball in biology, its just a matter of putting the science into practice in an evil way. No one can un-learn the 50 years of advances in molecular biology.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:39 PM on April 28, 2012


But that person is dead and has no idea if the tyranny ever ended, for him it effectively goes on until the end of time.

Sure, after I die I won't know whether people are free from tyranny. But that is compatible with saying that it matters to me that people who are born after I die are free from tyranny. Does it not matter to you whether or not your friends and family who will outlive you continue to have happy lives?

I think the argument you are trying to muster needs the false premise:

For any person x, person x does not care that: (there is freedom from tyranny after person x dies).

But you are creating an invalid argument by confusing this with the uncontentious premise:

For any person x, after person x dies, person x does not care that: (there is freedom from tyranny).

I think what I was trying to say is that to argue that we are now a doomed species is antithetical to the purpose of philosophy. Philosophy should seek to help us make the lives we have-- be lived as fully as possible.

Well, I disagree with what you think the purpose of philosophy is, but Bostrom and others who study existential risk do think their studies have some sort of practical import. By figuring out what threats there are to humanity, we can redirect resources in order to minimize those threats. In other words, Bostrom makes normative claims about how we should behave in order to act morally, and acting morally is presumably part of what makes a person live fully.
posted by painquale at 8:57 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Slackermagee: "We've already pulled a black-ball in biology, its just a matter of putting the science into practice in an evil way. No one can un-learn the 50 years of advances in molecular biology."

The only dual use biological research of any real concern currently is more than 40 years old.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:06 PM on April 28, 2012


"...unless the internet becomes illegal I don't see how a permanent global totalitarian dystopia will ever happen. Someone told me recently that they thought the internet is the truest form of democracy that we have."

I think it's more a matter of biology. As our understanding of the human body and mind grows, so does our capability to control people. Right now it's just science fiction, but if we figure out how to do it, some hypothetical future dictatorship could literally program people with socially acceptable thoughts and desires. That kind of society might be more like an insect colony than a standard human civilization, and could very well be an endpoint for progress.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:11 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eschatology never goes out of style.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:19 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, it's been nice knowing y'all...
posted by fuq


If you know more than five of us, shouldn't that be all y'all?
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:13 PM on April 28, 2012


Sir Martin Rees puts the probability of an existential event at 50%. So Bostrom's estimate is, or should be, reassuring.
posted by verstegan at 12:19 AM on April 29, 2012


The simulation argument addresses whether we are in fact living in a simulation as opposed to some basement level physical reality. It tries to show that at least one of three propositions is true, but it doesn't tell us which one. Those three are:
1) Almost all civilizations like ours go extinct before reaching technological maturity.

2) Almost all technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating ancestor simulations: computer simulations detailed enough that the simulated minds within them would be conscious.

3) We're almost certainly living in a computer simulation.


Or else

4) Minds inside a computer simulation are not conscious, regardless of how detailed the simulation is.

If 4 is true then 1, 2 and 3 can all be false.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 2:12 AM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dont, worry, It will all be over soon!
posted by lalochezia at 6:24 AM on April 29, 2012


Even if 10% of the earth's population survived our theoretical extinction event, wouldn't human civilization essentially be thrown back to the dark ages? The power plants would quit working because we don't know how to operate them, or can't get at the raw materials needed. Diseases would kill us because we don't know how to fight them anymore, or don't know how to make the medicine, or can't obtain the raw materials for medicines. And even if we can get by these issues, would our species ever recover? We've all but used up the easily accessible natural resources. Humans 2.0 might find it far more difficult to advance civilization that Humans 1.0 did.
posted by COD at 6:32 AM on April 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a close relative involved in US government-run, highly secret research on biological warfare. Apparently not long ago there was a break-in at the installation where she works and a number of laptops were stolen. The University whose buildings were broken into has responded by making sure the news of the theft has been kept secret and has done nothing to increase security. The nature of this research is unimaginably horrifying.

It amazes me that humans continue to exist, but I have faith that sooner or later our very natures will be our undoing. It's the one thing I do have faith in.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:49 AM on April 29, 2012


Nuclear detonation remains a danger, but I think the threat of all-out, apocalyptic nuclear war has passed.

I wouldn't say that. Russia still has warheads targeted at us and we've still got warheads targeted at them. Certainly enough to cause the atomic apocalypse we all feared during the Cold War. And the Middle East still remains as the potential flashpoint of that.
posted by azpenguin at 9:14 AM on April 29, 2012


And even if we can get by these issues, would our species ever recover? We've all but used up the easily accessible natural resources. Humans 2.0 might find it far more difficult to advance civilization that Humans 1.0 did.

It would be pretty rough for a while, maybe generations, until there were enough humans living close to each other again to serve as the nucleus of a new civilization. And certain parts of the world like Western Europe and Russia might be radioactive to varying degrees. The damage to Earth's ecosystems would probably depend upon the details of the disaster, where it started and how it spread, whether it was fast or slow, and so on. On the other hand, a total cessation of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions would take care of global warming, and a the lack of hunting and habitat destruction would give animals a chance to reclaim the Earth, providing more game for the survivors.

As for technology, Humans 2.0 might have some advantages. (Vernor Vinge was talking about this in an interview that was posted to the blue a few months back.) For one thing, the ruins and junk left over from Humans 1.0 would provide a fairly convenient source of refined and processed materials, and if they could figure out how to burn tires and plastic bags they'd probably have enough energy for years. Plastic might be the oil of the new civilization.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:11 PM on April 29, 2012


Blasdelb's right that it would be really hard to synthesize a superflu. However, Bostrom is right that as the cost of the technology comes down it's eventually going to be in reach for low-budget doomsday cults and deranged loners. They won't need to engineer a plague. Here's an Analysis of the complete genome of smallpox variola major virus strain Bangladesh-1975.
Yeah, but Smallpox never wiped out all humans. It kills about 1% of the people it infects.

That's the problem with this "Everyone will die!" stuff. A global smallpox epidemic would be bad for sure. But it wouldn't eradicate the human race.
posted by delmoi at 4:10 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


4) Minds inside a computer simulation are not conscious, regardless of how detailed the simulation is.

If 4 is true then 1, 2 and 3 can all be false.


Only if you additionally assume that a fake-conscious mind would be able to tell it was fake conscious
posted by delmoi at 4:13 PM on April 29, 2012


The simulation we live in is actually an emergent property of the hive mind of blue green algea. It isn't really a simulation, it's just like a wind chime making a song.
posted by humanfont at 5:01 PM on April 29, 2012


Is it this Dr. Nick?
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:08 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most of the technologies created by humans have either the potential to create sickness, death, and destruction or have already been used to do so. Ain't nothing controversial about that.

In the nineteenth century, simple hand tools were used for logging and agriculture on the coastal plain where I live. That led to reduced rainfall and increasing heat on the adjacent inland scarp and plateau. In turn, the forests of that scarp and plateau became increasing susceptible a long slow death from drought, fire, and disease. A little bit later (and up to the present), they too were logged. A bit inland from the forest lies our wheat and sheep country. There, land clearing for agriculture, steadily decreasing transpiration off the plain and out of the forest, and consequent drought has caused a massive drop in rainfall, large scale tree deaths amongst the remnant woodland that wasn't cleared, and dryland salinity on an almost unimaginable scale. The end result (and it's not far off) will be a breadbasket filled with nothing but salt.

Now.. these days we have climate change, a colossal variety of machinery clearing the plain to put up new roads and housing developments, logging with waratah heads that can process thirty hardwood trees an hour, 27 meter long log trucks, strip mining within the forest area, combine harvesters, bulk handling, fertilizer herbicide and pesticide dependence (etc) out in the wheat belt, and so on, and on, and on.

And we'll see the end of at least half a dozen (and likely many more) fauna species over the next decade or so as a result of that. Eventually we'll see this region become uninhabitable for humans trying to live off food grown in soil and watered by rain. But that stuff really is just the end game - we didn't need climate change, the current over development on the coastal plain, the industrial logging of our forests or similarly industrial agriculture to fuck ourselves. We won't need to refer to those things to explain to our kids how it came about.

Because the basic and critical damage to my corner of the world was done with hand tool technology that was invented long before the written word, and perfected the moment someone came up with steel.

Axes, saws and plows.
posted by Ahab at 8:15 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Only if you additionally assume that a fake-conscious mind would be able to tell it was fake conscious

No, I think it's the other way around. You only have to assume that a conscious mind would be able to tell it was conscious, which is practically a tautology. For example, since I am aware that I am conscious, I can conclude that either simulated consciousness is possible or I am not in a simulation. Or both. But not neither.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:54 PM on April 29, 2012


Because the basic and critical damage to my corner of the world was done with hand tool technology that was invented long before the written word, and perfected the moment someone came up with steel.

Nice point. The hyperventilating techno-eschatologists never focus on the brutal reality of erosion and running out of potash.
posted by benzenedream at 1:06 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scientists from Malthus on have been warning us that civilization as we know it is doomed. Before that, religious leaders warned us that we were doomed. Somehow, we're still here. Just as a dandelion will find a way to grow in the cracks of cement, we'll find a way to stay around. Life is stubborn that way. It may not always be fun, or look like things do now, but I wouldn't give up on civilization or humanity yet.
posted by davismbagpiper at 12:37 PM on April 30, 2012


Somehow, we're still here.

Of course, otherwise you wouldn't be capable of any utterance at all. We're here until we're not, but you're not making a very good argument. Dinosaurs are not growing in sidewalk cracks as far as I know.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:37 PM on April 30, 2012


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