Prof. Nick Bostrom, The Honest Transhumanist: Mankind Is Underestimating The Risk New Technology Represents For Wiping Out All Life On Earth

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
By Paul Martin

We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction

Ross Andersen
MAR 6 2012

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?

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