I left him alone. Bostrom arrived at 2 p. He has a boyish countenance and the lean, vital physique of a yoga instructor—though he could never be mistaken for a yoga instructor. His intensity is too untidily contained, evident in his harried gait on the streets outside his office he does not drive , in his voracious consumption of audiobooks played at two or three times the normal speed, to maximize efficiency , and his fastidious guarding against illnesses he avoids handshakes and wipes down silverware beneath a tablecloth.
Bostrom can be stubborn about the placement of an office plant or the choice of a font. Then, calmly, quickly, he dispatches a response, one idea interlocked with another. He asked if I wanted to go to the market.
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For the past year or so, he has been drinking his lunch another efficiency : a smoothie containing fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats. Using his elbow, he hit a button that electronically opened the front door.
Then we rushed out. Like many exceptionally bright children, he hated school, and as a teen-ager he developed a listless, romantic persona. In , he wandered into a library and stumbled onto an anthology of nineteenth-century German philosophy, containing works by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He read it in a nearby forest, in a clearing that he often visited to think and to write poetry, and experienced a euphoric insight into the possibilities of learning and achievement.
It was a semi-representational landscape, with strange figures crammed into dense undergrowth; beyond, a hawk soared below a radiant sun. Deciding that he had squandered his early life, he threw himself into a campaign of self-education.
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He ran down the citations in the anthology, branching out into art, literature, science. He says that he was motivated not only by curiosity but also by a desire for actionable knowledge about how to live. When Bostrom was a graduate student in Stockholm, he studied the work of the analytic philosopher W. Quine, who had explored the difficult relationship between language and reality.
He was fascinated by technology. The World Wide Web was just emerging, and he began to sense that the heroic philosophy which had inspired him might be outmoded. He rides off to catch up with them, pushing his horse to the limit. Then he hears the thunder of a modern jet plane streaking past him across the sky, and he realizes that he is obsolete, and that courage and spiritual nobility are no match for machines.
Although Bostrom did not know it, a growing number of people around the world shared his intuition that technology could cause transformative change, and they were finding one another in an online discussion group administered by an organization in California called the Extropy Institute. The discussions were nerdy, lunatic, imaginative, thought-provoking. In , while pursuing further graduate work at the London School of Economics, Bostrom learned about the Extropy discussion group and became an active participant.
A year later, he co-founded his own organization, the World Transhumanist Association, which was less libertarian and more academically spirited. He crafted approachable statements on transhumanist values and gave interviews to the BBC. The line between his academic work and his activism blurred: his Ph. The work baffled his advisers, who respected him but rarely agreed with his conclusions.
Mostly, they left him alone.
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Bostrom had little interest in conventional philosophy—not least because he expected that superintelligent minds, whether biologically enhanced or digital, would make it obsolete. But if you know that a giant bulldozer will arrive on the scene tomorrow, then does it really make sense to spend your time today digging the big hole with your shovel? Maybe there is something else you could do with your time.
Maybe you could put up a signpost for the great shovel, so it will start digging in the right place. Bostrom has written more than a hundred articles, and his longing for immortality can be seen throughout. In , he framed an essay as a call to action from a future utopia. Turn your biggest gun on aging, and fire. You must seize the biochemical processes in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media. His wife, Susan, has a Ph.
They met thirteen years ago, and for all but six months they have lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic, even after the recent birth of their son. The arrangement is voluntary: she prefers Montreal; his work keeps him at Oxford.
They Skype several times a day, and he directs as much international travel as possible through Canada, so they can meet in non-digital form. In Oxford, as Bostrom shopped for his smoothie, he pointed out a man vaping. He drinks coffee, and usually abstains from alcohol. He briefly experimented with the smart drug Modafinil, but gave it up. Back at the institute, he filled an industrial blender with lettuce, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, blueberries, turmeric, vanilla, oat milk, and whey powder. A young employee eyed Bostrom getting ready to fire up the blender.
We headed to his office, which was meticulous. By a window was a wooden desk supporting an iMac and not another item; against a wall were a chair and a cabinet with a stack of documents. The only hint of excess was light: there were fourteen lamps. What might humanity look like millions of years from now?
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The upper limit of survival on Earth is fixed to the life span of the sun, which in five billion years will become a red giant and swell to more than two hundred times its present size. In half a billion years, the planet will be uninhabitable. In another panorama, humanity becomes extinct or experiences a disaster so great that it is unable to recover. Bostrom dislikes science fiction.
He believes that the future can be studied with the same meticulousness as the past, even if the conclusions are far less firm. In the short term, predicting technological achievements in the counter-history might not be possible; but after, say, a hundred thousand years it is easier to imagine that all the same inventions would have emerged. He favors the far ends of possibility: humanity becomes transcendent or it perishes.
In the nineteen-nineties, as these ideas crystallized in his thinking, Bostrom began to give more attention to the question of extinction.
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He did not believe that doomsday was imminent. At times, he uses arithmetical sketches to illustrate this point. Imagining one of his utopian scenarios—trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos—he reasons that, if there is even a one-per-cent chance of this happening, the expected value of reducing an existential threat by a billionth of a billionth of one per cent would be worth a hundred billion times the value of a billion present-day lives. Put more simply: he believes that his work could dwarf the moral importance of anything else.
All of them face a key problem: Homo sapiens , since its emergence two hundred thousand years ago, has proved to be remarkably resilient, and figuring out what might imperil its existence is not obvious. Climate change is likely to cause vast environmental and economic damage—but it does not seem impossible to survive. So-called super-volcanoes have thus far not threatened the perpetuation of the species.
NASA spends forty million dollars each year to determine if there are significant comets or asteroids headed for Earth. Bostrom does not find the lack of obvious existential threats comforting. Because it is impossible to endure extinction twice, he argues, we cannot rely on history to calculate the probability that it will occur. The most worrying dangers are those that Earth has never encountered before. Three centuries later, though, the prospect of a technological apocalypse was urgently plausible.
Bostrom dates the first scientific analysis of existential risk to the Manhattan Project: in , Robert Oppenheimer became concerned that an atomic detonation of sufficient power could cause the entire atmosphere to ignite. But even if the great nuclear nightmares of the Cold War did not come true, the tools were there to cause destruction on a scale not previously possible.
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