[ExI] Isn't Bostrom seriously bordering on the reactionary?

Stefano Vaj stefano.vaj at gmail.com
Tue Jun 14 14:27:53 UTC 2011


"Perfection Is Not A Useful Concept"
by Nick Bostrom — 13.06.2011
Nick Bostrom directs the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford
University. He talked with Martin Eiermann about existential risks,
genetic enhancements and the importance of ethical discourses about
technological progress.

The European: I want to start with a quote from your website. You have
said: “When we are headed the wrong way, the last thing we need is
progress.” Can we reason about the wrong way without taking concrete
steps in that direction?

Bostrom: That is a good question. Probably you have to take these
steps. *But they must be small and careful to give us more insight into
where we should be going.*

The European: The idea of practical wisdom. We might need to make
small mistakes to figure out that there is a better way…

Bostrom: If we developed the ability to think more clearly and to
understand the world better–which we have to do if we want to figure
out what is right–then that understanding will also tend to increase
the pace with which we move. And the better we understand
technologies, the closer we will be to developing new technologies.
That practical knowledge is an important part of innovation.

The European: So the primary task is expanding the scope of what we
think is achievable?

Bostrom: I think that is one thing we need to do if we want to reason
about the right approach to technological progress. Let me give you a
concrete example: Let’s assume that we want to think about whether we
should push for synthetic biology. There will be risks and there will
be benefits as well. To make a better decision, we need to really
understand the risks. We might say that there is the potential for
misuse, for a new generation of biological weapons or other kinds of
harmful applications. When we have a detailed understanding of the
risks, we have already taken the first step towards pushing synthetic
biology into a specific direction. *So there is a trade-off: We want to
be able to describe potential risks with detail and precision, but we
also don’t want to go too far into a certain direction to gather that
information because that would make the risks real.*

The European: What risks should a society tolerate, and what risks are
either too high or too complex to live with?

Bostrom: My focus has been on existential risks, which are at the far
end of the severity spectrum. An existential risk is something that
could either cause the extinction of intelligent life or the permanent
destruction of the potential for future desirable development. It
would be an end to the human story. Obviously, it is important to
reduce existential risks as much as possible.

The European: Where might those risks arise from?

Bostrom: They could be risks that arise from nature–like asteroids or
volcanic eruptions–or risks that arise from human activity. *All the
important risks fall into the latter category, they are anthropogenic.*
More specifically, *the biggest ones will arise from future
technological breakthroughs*, such as advanced artificial intelligence
or advanced forms of nanotechnology that could lead to new weapons
systems. There also might be threats from biotechnology or from new
forms of surveillance technology and mind control that might enable a
system of global totalitarian rule. And there will also be risks that
we haven’t yet thought of.

The European: Are the ethical debates about technological change
keeping pace with the development of new technologies? In other words,
are we really thinking about potential risks and unintended
consequences of progress?

Bostrom: The ethical debates about some of these possibilities are
just beginning. I introduced the concept of existential risk only in
2001. Technological progress, on the other hand, has been around for
thousands of years. So we are very much starting from behind, but I
hope we will catch up at a rapid pace. We have to think ethically
about what we are doing as a species.

The European: Apocalyptic thoughts have been around for thousands of
years. Thus far, fortunately, they have always been proven wrong. What
is different about today’s discussions of existential risks?

Bostrom: Historically, the predictions have been groundless. They have
not been based on science or careful analysis of particular
technological prospects. During most of human history, we simply did
not have the ability to destroy the human race, and we probably still
don’t have that ability today. Even at the peak of the Cold War, a
nuclear strike would probably not have resulted in human extinction.
It would have caused massive damage, but it is likely that some groups
would have survived. Past doomsday prophecies have often relied on
religious beliefs.

The European: Why are the anthropogenic risks suddenly increasing?

Bostrom: Our long track record of survival–humans have been around for
about 100,000 years–gives us some assurance that the natural risks
have been rather small.

If they have not ended human history until now, they are unlikely to
have that effect in the near future. *So the risks we should really
worry about come from new developments.* They introduce new factors
with a lot of statistical uncertainty, and we cannot be confident that
their risks are manageable. The potential of human action to do good
and evil is larger than it has ever been before. We know that we can
affect the global system. We can travel around the world in a matter
of hours. We can affect the global climate. World wars have already
happened. We can already foresee that new technologies might be
developed in the coming century that would further expand our power
over nature and over ourselves. We might even be able to change human
nature itself.

The European: People also thought that traveling faster than thirty
miles per hour would lead to mental insanity, or that nuclear
explosions would set the atmosphere on fire, or that we might
accidentally create black holes at particle accelerators.

Bostrom: With trains, there was no discussion of existential risks. In
the case of nuclear weapons, it was different. The atomic bomb was
arguably the first human-made existential risk. And the probability of
a doomsday scenario was considered significant enough that one of the
scientists of the Manhattan Project did a study. They ultimately came
to the conclusion that the atmosphere would not explode, and they were
correct. As the potential for existential risks increases, we must be
careful to examine the possible consequences of technological

The European: You have already mentioned genetic enhancements. When we
think about human potential, we often think about our cognitive
abilities: Our capacity for rational thought is what distinguishes us
from animals. Is that description incomplete?

Bostrom: It is certainly not complete. But our cognitive abilities
might be the most important difference between humans and animals;
they have enabled our language, culture, science and technology, and
complex social organization. A few differences in brain architecture
have led to a situation where one species has increasing control over
all other species on this planet.

The European: When we talk about enhancements, we implicitly talk
about the idea of perfection: We want to minimize the negative and
maximize the positive aspects of human existence, to move closer to an
optimal state. But who would define what constitutes such a state?

Bostrom: I don’t think that perfection is a useful concept. There is
not necessarily one best form of human existence; perfection might be
different for different people. But the difficulty or impossibility of
defining a perfect state should not make us blind to the fact that
there are better and worse ways of living. It’s common sense that we
prefer to be healthy rather than sick, for example. We also think that
we ought to support our childrens’ development, intellectually and
physically. We use education to expand our cognitive abilities. We try
to stay fit and eat healthy to expand our lifespan. We reduce lead in
tap water because doing so increases intelligence. That toolkit will
be drastically expanded by technology. I don’t think that there is a
fundamental moral difference between these old and new ways of

The European: You have called these traits–healthy, happy lives,
understanding good social relations–"intrinsically valuable". They are
at the core of the ethical justification for transhumanism and genetic
enhancements. How can we ensure that technological progress does not
lead to enhancements of traits that are either not desired, or that
are only conditionally valuable?

Bostrom: We have to distinguish between positional and non-positional
goods. In economics, a positional good benefits you only because
others lack it. Height may be an advantage in men, but if everybody
were three inches taller, nobody would be better off. Attractiveness
may be another example of a positional good. A gain for one person
implies a relative loss for others. I would contrast that with a trait
like health. Your life is better when you are healthy, even if others
are also healthy. Cognitive enhancements are a complex topic, but they
have aspects that are intrinsically valuable. It is good if we can
understand the world better. Arguments against positional goods are no
arguments against enhancements as such.

The European: There’s the slippery slope argument: Once we decide to
pursue human enhancements with a certain determination, we have less
control over the limits of these enhancements. How do you guard
against unintended consequences?

Bostrom: Yes, unintended consequences are likely to occur.

*Right now, there is a lot of research into cosmetics. That’s a
positional good at best, yet we devote a huge amount of time and money
to it. There is no moral reason why we should enhance our skin.* On the
other hand, enhancements that could increase our cognitive capacities
are not really pursued. Partially, that has to do with our regulatory
framework, which is built on the idea that medicine is all about
disease. If you want to develop new drugs, you have to show that they
are safe and effectively treat a disease. So when you want to find
ways to enhance our brain activity, you perversely have to show that
we are currently sick and need treatment. You cannot say, “I simply
want to make this better than before”. We need to remove that stigma.

The European: Michael Sandel writes that there is something valuable
about accepting biological chance: We should remain humble and accept
the traits we have been given instead of trying to engage in
hyper-parenting, genetic enhancements and the like.
Bostrom: The idea of appreciating gifts makes a lot of sense if there
is someone who is giving you these gifts and might otherwise be
offended. But if we are talking about a natural condition like cancer
or malaria, I think have every reason to reject these “gifts”.

The European: The consequence might be that everyone feels entitled to
an ever-increasing standard of capacities.
Bostrom: I don’t think it’s bad if more people feel entitled to a good
life. We should probably encourage that.

The European: Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism “the greatest
threat to mankind”. What explains that cultural pessimism?
Bostrom: *When we create the technologies to fundamentally change human
nature, there are great dangers associated with that. It is not clear
that our wisdom is really up to the task. *That’s part of the
explanation. There is also a certain double standard: We accept
inventions and innovations of the past, but we tend to be more
critical towards new developments. If we look at the history of
medicine, we see that many inventions were condemned and disparaged by
bioconservatives. Heart transplants were once considered immoral–how
could you open the chest cavity of one person and transplant the heart
into the body of another person? Similarly, when anesthesia during
childbirth came into use, bioconservatives lamented that it ran
against nature. A woman, they said, was meant to feel pain when giving
birth. It’s the same story with in-vitro fertilization, when people
worried about the psychological effects of someone knowing that they
came from a test tube. When we introduce new biomedical ways of
manipulating our bodies, there is often an initial, gut-level
repugnance. Usually, that repugnance dissipates once people become
familiar with new technologies.

The European: But how do we distinguish progress from good progress?

Bostrom: We need to figure out what concerns are based on irrational
bias and which ones are not, while weighing those concerns against
potential benefits. *Then we have to consider practicalities and what
is politically feasible*, and to prioritize.

The European: What possibilities for human enhancement do you see as
especially promising and as least problematic, so that we should
actually take concrete steps into their direction?

Bostrom: I think it would be great, for example, if we could develop a
least some mild cognitive enhancements that give us a bit more mental
energy or combat diseases like Alzheimer’s. *In general, though, the
difficulties of enhancing the capacities of a healthy human being may
have been underestimated. Humans are very complex evolved systems. If
we begin to tinker with that and don’t know what we are doing, we are
likely to mess up and cause side effects that might only become
evident much later.*

The European: And what effect might that have on the probability of
existential risk?

Bostrom: *The wrong kinds of enhancements constitute a kind of
existential threat*. In relation to cognitive enhancements, I believe
that their net effect on existential risk would be positive. They
might increase the speed of technological innovation, but they would
also enhance our capacity to think about potential consequences of
that innovation. With cognitive enhancements, the gains are likely to
outweigh the downsides. If one didn’t have that optimism, one would
have to be consequential and also argue that we should not care about
lead in our water. We don’t have a reason to assume that the current
distribution of cognitive abilities is at an optimal level.

Stefano Vaj
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/attachments/20110614/437cd1a8/attachment.html>

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list